Monday, July 24, 2006
The Hi-Lo's I Presume
What you see with your eyes closed is what counts.
---Lame Deer, Lakota sage
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.
What do you want to get enlightened for? You may not like it.
Once upon a time four guys decided to start a singing group, just for the fun of it, as any four folks have done since time began. Creation likes to sing and harmony is one of those things humans stumbled on. It's a gift from God. This story starts in Milwaukee where 2 fellows found themselves singing in the same choir and became buddies. It was the 1940s. Bob Strasen went off to Japan with the Army and led a male chorus there, but Gene Puerling got a job as a disc jockey back home and formed a couple singing groups on the side. In 1951 he moved to Los Angeles, as did lots of musicians from all over the place. There was work there: TV now, as well as movies and record companies. He needed to share an apartment with somebody, and along came Clark Burroughs, a guy with a sky-high voice, impeccable intonation, and a knack for hilarity that got him a few acting jobs too. Clark was from LA, was schooled and even had sung with the Roger Wagner Chorale. Now he was in a sort of novelty quartet called the Encores that sang on Billy May records. Billy was from Pittsburgh, had been in the bands of and arranged the jazz tunes for Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet, but now had been doing children's records at Capitol and only lately had been convinced to start a dance band and take it on the road. In the Encores was Bob Morse from Pasadena, who came from a wildly musical family, with brothers who played and arranged for Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards. Morse sang baritone in the Bob Eberle crooner style and could solo well. In 1952 Clark and Puerling, who'd been working in a record store, got the idea to start their own group with Bob Morse. Gene would sing bass and he called Milwaukee, since Strasen was back, and talked him into coming to LA to sing tenor. Clark would handle all the notes above that, which was not yet a sound you'd hear out of a man who wasn't in the Ink Spots. Vocal quartets everywhere have a tradition of choosing catchy silly names for themselves and our guys were no different. These were The Hi-Lo's.
They took any work there was for a group that could sing anything with staggering accuracy. Puerling's arrangements were a challenge for singer and listener alike, always switching parts around so you---and maybe they---weren't sure who was singing melody. They were like a group of musical acrobats, which might have been interesting in itself, but the ideas and harmonies were so close and delicious they soon got heard around LA. The West Coast was a place of adventure and new things at the time. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck were winning audience with the young, and jazz was in the air. Their first break came when Jerry Fielding heard them. Jerry had met Billy May when they both arranged for Alvino Rey's band after the War, and now was working TV directing bands on Groucho Marx and The Life of Riley. He also was in on the organization of a new small record label called Trend that offered The Hi-Lo's a first session immediately. On April 10, 1953, backed by a huge screaming orchestra under Fielding, they recorded a 45 RPM extended play album of 4 songs: They Didn't Believe Me, Georgia On My Mind, Peg O' My Heart, and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Trend made sure it got to DJs all over the country. The same month Sinatra recorded his first sides with Nelson Riddle.
I was 13, living in Jamestown, New York, and listening every day after school to a disc jockey out of Niagara Falls named Joe Rico. Joe loved vocalists and Stan Kenton, who had gotten a theme song written for him and recorded by the band---over the years at least 3 times I think. This was AM radio and Niagara Falls was just far enough away that I had to run extra antenna wire around the ceiling of my room to bring the station in. (My mother began to worry about my strange devotion to this terrible music.) Almost at once Joe began to play The Hi-Lo's, mixed in with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sides and any jazz from the West Coast. He was also the kind of DJ who'd decide on a favorite out of an album and play it every day. We wanted to hear more from The Hi-Lo's. Where were they? Trend was in trouble already, having concentrated heroically on the DJs but not distribution. The quartet was picked up in late 1954 by another small label called Starlite, and now came their first full album, The Hi-Lo's Under Glass. Fielding was following Billy May into financial disaster by taking a band on the road himself, so the arranger this time was Frank Comstock who was doing most of the charts for Les Brown and His Band Of Renown, a band that STILL may be for hire even today. Comstock would stay with them another 15 years. They made 4 albums for Starlite, which got air play and much admiration through the music industry, but I couldn't find them downtown nor were they on the juke box. They weren't played at the sock hop either, although other small labels were but the music was very different. I began to find myself no longer in the mainstream.
The Hi-Lo's started showing up on TV. There were variety shows and the group had some great routines. They liked to do Rockin' Chair, changing tempos a couple times and very swinging. This wasn't Satchmo and Teagarden swishin' flies 'round their heads. Steve Allen had them on so much they almost were regulars, like Steve & Edie and Andy Williams. They were on Nat Cole's show. Then they were hired for a 39 week run with Rosemary Clooney. It was 1957 now, and since Rosie recorded for Columbia, so should "her group." The resulting 3 albums, with Comstock arranging, hit the charts. These records I could get---and take to parties. But my friends were not sold...especially the girls. This group was keyed awful high, and although the slow ones danced well---when they weren't changing tempos---this wasn't rock n' roll. If I was sitting around with a bunch of guys, we could dig their albums---and even try to sing along, although it really was impossible, not like the Four Freshmen. And they sang novelty numbers that weren't always cool. My Time Is Your Time? Well, the fact was this group, for better or worse, was not into selling popularity. They sang timeless.
In 1958, my high school graduating year, they released perhaps their masterpiece. A stupid title, The Hi-Lo's And All That Jazz, but the arranger was Marty Paich with a collection of the finest musicians still in LA. Paich liked to use Miles' Birth of the Cool instrumentation, so he had French horn and tuba, with 2 trumpets, valve trombone, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, and a rhythm section of Clare Fischer, Joe Mondragon, and the master, Mel Lewis, on drums. The trumpet solos were handled by Jack Sheldon, Herb Geller on alto, Bill Perkins on tenor, and Bud Shank playing baritone. There were 4 pieces on the album that had no words at all, but ensemble singing by The Hi-Lo's that seems even today practically impossible to perform. However, to the jazz listener the lines are so full of hooks that you can't get them out of your head---even if it's hard to name which tune is which. Here's one of those mysterious albums that is so great it probably won't sell at all. Isn't it strange? Why do some great albums sell a lot and some not any? What constitutes that phenomenon? This was it. it couldn't get any better. The essence was realized...and Bob Strasen quietly left the group.
Now the story turns to struggle, and it's not pretty. I'll spare you details. It's not as difficult as it was for Rosemary Clooney. And it doesn't shift gears into other pursuits, as it did for Doris Day and Tony Bennett. Columbia demanded hit material from its artists. You know it's funny, we think of the 1950s as very straitlaced and buttoned-down, and the 1960s as wide open and ready for anything. But musically the 1950s were very experimental and groups like The Hi-Lo's could try whatever they liked. Now musicians were having to form their own labels to do what they wanted. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys, who readily credit The Hi-Lo's for showing them the way, started up their own studios. The Hi-Lo's stuck with Columbia for another couple of years, but the records became painful. Strasen's replacement, Don Shelton, was not a bad singer and could do the parts...but the arrangements were aimed at something simpler now. Sometimes they sounded like they were imitating the Freshmen, targeting an audience that would cuddle up with the music. It didn't work, and the singles were atrocious. They even tried Mitch Miller singalong---honkytonk piano and all. It was over in 1964.
Let it be said The Hi-Lo's maintained a freshness and good humor through it all. There were no nervous breakdowns or drugs that I ever heard about. The men remained professional and simply found other work as they could. Burroughs never had any trouble...and you'd still see him on TV or notice his name in the best vocal groups and choruses. Nobody could cut him or do what he could do. Gene Puerling settled for a life of arranging, running a recording group called Singers Unlimited for a while. Those records are collectors items for anyone interested in choral singing. American choruses through this period had not been spectacular. We sing hymns over here. There were the Voices of Walter Schuman, Norman Luboff, the Ray Charles Singers (not THAT Ray Charles) and probably a couple other mood music choirs I'm forgetting. Ray Conniff probably did for Columbia what they were asking The Hi-Lo's to do. But our ability to sing classical music was unheralded, even with Roger Wagner.
A quiet revolution was beginning to happen though. From underneath and within, music education in the 1970s and 1980s was bringing forth choral directors and singers. People that were driven out of the recording industry found themselves teaching classes in small town schools. Some started choirs and bands after hours and maybe recorded something locally. Dale Warland started a choir up north and even commissioned compositions, a choir so good it almost was able to survive up to even this period of our cultural life. Americans learned to sing with the best in the world. No one needed to make excuses about what a young and inexperienced country we were...as far as art was concerned. And if any of the new choirs wanted an arrangement of one of those great American ballads from the 1930s, the directors remembered the name Gene Puerling and called him up. A choir named Chanticleer formed a few years back, I think in the Southwest somewhere. It's a male choir that sings chants and very old music, stuff from Mexico nobody's heard before and things like that, and essentially they specialize in the same vocal range as The Hi-Lo's did. They made an album called Lost In The Stars, of romantic American songs, and if you have it you'll see Puerling arranged some. I guess if we don't have a lot of gold records, we still can talk about influence.
The Hi-Lo's reformed briefly...a couple of times. Once was to record an album for Pausa in 1979 called The Hi-Lo's! Back Again! Here the huge and wailing band is that of Canadian Rob McConnell---which is another story of someone brilliant and wonderful who tried so hard. About half the record is material you may remember from earlier days, but the other half is new, including an arrangment of When Sunny Gets Blue that brings me to my knees every time. They got together once more in the early 1980s I think with the McConnell band to do one of the festivals in California. Everytime I've heard them they sound perfect. They weren't really ahead of their time. Time won't ever catch up. Bing Crosby said, "These guys are so good they even whisper in harmony." The Hi-Lo's celebrated and carried forward a tradition in American popular music, really transferring it as a group into jazz for the first time. Others were coming along with the same ideas, but nobody did it with such precision and artistry. They set new benchmarks that people who know about them still are striving for. CD reissues of The Hi-Lo's are not easy to find, and if you go to a site like All Music Guide you won't see them well or adequately reviewed. www.thehi-los.com/ has a tremendous amount of information (that might have been good if I'd read before I wrote this) plus downloads and a juke box so you can hear them. I also learn unfortunately that both Morse and Strasen have passed away. Maybe this little essay of gratitude and admiration will get you to listen...and better yet start to sing.