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EXCLUSIVE

Dear Fellow Hi-Lo Forum Members: It gives me great pleasure to share with you an interview I conducted with Gene Puerling back in March of 2003. Gene was one of several individuals I spoke to in putting together an academic paper on a subject near and dear to my heart: The Divergence of Jazz and Popular Music in the 1950s. For some background, I had originally e-mailed Gene back in 2002 after hearing my first Hi-Los recording. I wanted to tell him how much his music meant to me. I was pleasantly surprised when about six weeks later I received an e-mail back from him thanking me for my kind words. Just before the Christmas of 2002, I had decided to write the paper I mentioned in the opening paragraph above. In doing my due diligence, I communicated with some folks that were involved in the music biz during the mid-50s, including Clare Fischer, arranger Buddy Bregman, and a family friend who knew several musicians who had toiled in the Los Angeles studios during that time. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I decided to send Gene an e-mail asking if hed be willing to answer some questions I hadsome were Hi-Lo related and some were general in natureabout that same time period of pop music. I sent him a list of about a dozen questions, if I remember correctly. I told him that I would of course understand if he were too busy, but that if he could just type out some quick answers to my inquiries it I would be most appreciative. Two months later I got an e-mail from him saying that instead of answering my questions via e-mail why didnt I just call (he included his phone number) and schedule a phone interview with him? I couldnt think of a reason why not!! And so, here it is. I truly hope youll enjoy this conversation. Although many of you already know quite a lot about the group perhaps there will be a few things that are new to you. I wanted to ask Gene questions all day but I tried to be sensitive about taking too much of his time. He was very easy to talk tovery soft-spoken, humble, and articulate. He is a very private man, and while

2 very proud of the work the Hi-Los produced, like many artists Ive spoken to, his affection for spending time waxing nostalgia is very limited. This interview is only available on this site and will not be reproduced anywhere elsein whole, or in part. Many thanks to Bobby Jenkins for making room for this piece on his incredible Hi-Los web site. Enjoy. Jim Bridges (Bean)
Copyright 2003-2004 Jim Bridges Available exclusively from http://www.thehi-los.com

3 Saturday afternoon, March 1, 2003 Jim Bridges interviewing noted vocal arranger/singer Gene Pearling (The Hi-Los; Singers Unlimited) JB: I want to thank you once again, Gene, for the opportunity to speak to you about your life in music, especially as it pertains to the years with the Hi-Los. GP: Not at all. JB: By the way, as an aside, do you recall if the Hi-Los ever played in the Boston area? GP: Yes, sure! What was that club in Boston? Was it Birdland? Nommmwhat was it? JB: Was it Storyville? GP: Yesyesthat was it. JB: I wanted to preface my first question with an observation. Growing up I was fortunate to belong to a family where music was always around. My father wasnt a musician but he was close to many musicians and he had a large and varied record collection. He loved singers, like Billy Eckstein, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn. I dont think he was big on vocal groups per se but he did own something by the Mel-Tones and maybe one recording by the Four Freshmen. Ive read previous interviews with you in which you stated that you listened quite a lot to both. GP: Oh, definitely. Yes. JB: When one listens to those two groups, then switches over to the Hi-Los, there is a clear delineation of styles. You can hear the influences of both on you, yet the Hi-Los sound is incredibly singular. If the Mel-Tones and Freshmen represented the introduction of color to the world of vocal groups, the Hi-Los certainly represented Technicolor. So, it got me wondering, besides those influences, what else do you think helped shape your musical sensibilities? GP: Wellof course I listened to those groups, and you do gain something from all those experiences as you grow up. I had a lot of their records at homefrom the Pipers to the Freshmen. I dont really know, Jim. Im a self-taught musician. I never studied. I guess I just had

4 an ear for itif I may say that very unhumbly (both laugh). And, as I started writing and everything, I began to put together particular songs for particular groups. In the case of the HiLos there was a man by the name of Bill Thompson who did a couple of arrangements for us to begin with. Our initial recordings were for Trend Records with Jerry Fieldings Orchestra in 1953. We did four sidestwo arrangements by Bill and two of mine. Early on I had decided that I really wanted to form my own sound that wouldnt ape the Four Freshmen. So, when I went out to Los Angeles from Milwaukee I just started that type of thinking right then. I met Clark Burroughs almost immediately and he was a very good high tenorsang with Roger Wagners chorale, which was a big, big chorale organization around Los Angeles for many years. And, then of course he sang with many other groups. But he set the tone because of his range. The other singers in the group were sort of secondary to that sound on top. However, the most important thing is to have a good blend, and feeling for singing together, you know!?! No matter how good people want to sound together they often dont have an intuitive ear for the harmonies or how to blend their voices. Those are the things the Hi-Los worked on a lot. JB: I had some communication with Clare Fischer (former Hi-Lo accompanist and well-known pianist/composer/arranger) and he said that when he first heard the group there was an intensity in the voices that made the Hi-Los unique. What struck me about the group was the spread voicings that you used as well as the contrary motion that was very different from the parallel or block chording the Freshmen and other groups used. GP: Yes. Well, I listened to Robert Farnon for many years. You know, the fellow from England? JB: Yes, sure. GP: I learned a lot about bass lines from just listening to himand, interior lines. I took a lot of those ideas, and absorbed them with a vocal sound. So, many times wed record our four voices, like with Frank Comstock, and the bass would play arco on the bottom and wed have five parts. When you have that spread, that thickness, then you can do a lot of things. JB: I was going to ask you about Robert Farnon.

5 GP: Very big influence on me. JB: Two Cigarettes After Dark. GP: Oh, Ive got everything of his (laughs). I just talked to him last week. JB: Gene, you mentioned the importance of Clarks voice in the group. In pouring over the groups recordings Ive also noticed Bob Morses voice. His singing, especially when matched with Clarks in the upper range was a wonderful sound. He had quite a wide range himself, didnt he? GP: Indeed! And, he was a very good soloist. I think he had a beautiful voicewe all thought he did. Before the Hi-Los, Bob and Clark were in a group called the Encores, which was Randy Van Hornes group with Billy Mays Orchestra. They had a lot of intensity the way they sang and did a lot of good stuff that Randy and others wrote. So Bob was used to the high notes and could really sing them. JB: When the Hi-Los formed, in 1953 if Im correct GP: No, that would be 1951. JB: Reallythat early. I stand corrected. Ive read about the group living in a small apartment together; working odd jobs while rehearsing. Looking back, what would you say was a turning point for the group? Your first big break, if you will. GP: Well for months we just worked on our arrangementsthree hours a day, five days a week until we got them down. I dont remember how many arrangementsprobably fifteen or twenty, maybe a little bit more. But, we really got to know those before we sang for anyone. Then we started to sing for anybody. I worked for Music City at the time in Los Angeles, the record shop. That was right at Hollywood and Vine and everyone in the business came there to shop and I made sure I met them although I was just a clerk. Billy May, Nelson Riddle, and blahblahblah. The list goes on. That was a very active time and great for me because I loved that whole period.

6 So I met all these people, and more. We then sang for Jerry Fielding, who had his own orchestra in that period and he also was beginning to do some writing for film. Jerry just loved our group and was recording for a small company called Trend, Albert Marxs company. He did a session with us, first with just four things as I said earlier. Then we got a contract from them and did some more stuffnot very much though, as I recall. We did some background things like for Herb Jeffries, the guy who did Flamingo. The recordings on Trend though were the real thing and it got us air-time right away. It was a particularly good time for that sort of thing because rock hadnt come in yet and we werent competing with anything, except for maybe the Freshmen. So things took off from the standpoint of radio exposure almost right away. JB: Speaking of exposure, when were you on the Rosemary Clooney show? GP: You know what? Im very bad at chronological things (laughter). We did thirty-six shows and it was probably around 1954/55* or somewhere in there. *(Authors note: It was actually late 1955 into 1956.) JB: A friend of mine is crazy about 1950s television shows and he has a tape of two Clooney shows with the Hi-Los. One has Hoagy Carmichael as the guest star and the other has Johnny Mercer. GP: (chuckles) Right. JB: Besides the wonderful vocals it struck me that all four of the Hi-Los seemed very

comfortable doing comedy skits, duets, even the odd dance step or two. Was this something the group did regularly or was this the first time doing this kind of thing? GP: We had some experience along these lines before doing single shots, like on Steve Allens show and a few others. It gives you the experience and savvy to work in that medium. But Rosemary Clooney just made it so simple for us and we were so happy to be on the set every day. It was a very lovely alliance between everyone thereNelson Riddle, the Hi-Los and Rosie. They gave us pretty much carte blanche as to what we wanted to do. There were little, short arrangements of course, but it was fun.

7 JB: In retrospect, what do you think was special about the make-up of the groupsome things that made it stand apart? GP: Well, as I said before, Clark Burroughs had that very high voice, marvelous pitch, good feeling as a soloist, and could really lead a group. That was one of the main factors. Bob Morse, as we said, was a lovely soloist. These people had vocal group savvy. We loved vocal groups all of us for years and years. So we knew what the medium was and how to do this. I had Bob Strasen join us shortly after he got out of the service. Bob was a good singer back in high school with me and sang in barbershop quartets and that sort of thing, so it was fine. JB: How was it in the group from a personality standpoint? How did you handle conflict when it came up? GP: Never happened! JB: Never? GP: No, not really. We might have had a difference of opinion on how to do something occasionally but actually, we blended very well together as people. No, no problems. JB: And, if I may, it sounded like that when you sang. The very first Hi-Los recording I heard was The Columbia Years. Listening to that CD I found myself thinking, God, these guys love to sing and they love to sing together. It comes out in the music. GP: Well thats the truth. I still listen to some of the things myself. I have an I-Pod and, because were going on a cruise, Ive loaded it with everything I enjoy. Ive been listening to some of the early stuff of the Hi-Los, so Ill have some of that on there and of course Singers Unlimited. I still enjoy hearing those things and sometimes wonder how we did it. JB: If I can fast-forward the time-line a little, it is now the late 1950s and Bob Strasen has left the Hi-Los. You four had been together for some time at this stage and been through a lot. How did his leaving affect the group? GP: It wasnt easy. Bob was beginning to have some problems with his voice so it was sort of mutual. So we just auditioned and Don Shelton, who was at UCLA at the time and free, came to

8 a rehearsal. Well Don had just a huge tenor voice and Bob moved down to third part, which was great for him and a lot easier on him. I continued to do the bass. You know, Im not actually a very legitimate bass but.we had a very interesting habit of using a certain microphone for us. Its called an RCA 44B. Theyre the big fat ones you see in the old moviesan old ribbon mike. The closer you got into them, and backed up, it had that proximity effect. I could move in as a bass, or pseudo-bass, and get a really fat sound. So the engineers with whom we worked would nurture this sound with the 44B and thats what we used for most of our recording years. In later years a lot of engineers wanted to try the newer mikes. We had to succumb once in a while but always tried to use that 44B. JB: In analyzing some Hi-Lo arrangements your role in singing the bass, in my opinion, is very impressive. The leaps you make, all while staying in tune, is very unique. GP: Thanks. Thats what we hope for. Many people who listen to the group say many times we sound like we sing as an instrumental groupmore band-like than vocal. JB: Getting back to Don Shelton, do you remember what you had him do when he auditioned? Was it something special or did he just comes in and sings parts? GP: No, nothing special. I think we did Youve Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby. But, he didnt miss a beat because hes a fine musician and can read dirt off the paper. JB: What was it like for the group when your tenure at Columbia ended and you moved over to Reprise? GP: We had a good run at Columbia we did seven or eight albumsbut we didnt sell very well. Our sessions were expensive because many times we used full orchestras. So it was one of those things that can happen with any record company at any time. Unless youre really popular its going to cost the company quite a bit more-- when you use these big sessions--to record you and give you publicity. The Reprise deal probably came about through our manager. Lets seewe did a couple of things for them. JB: Hi-Los Happen to Folk and Happen to Bossa Nova.

9 GP: Yeah. The one with Billy May (Folk) was a sheer delight. Bob and Clark knew him from their days in the Encores and he wrote just beautifully for us. The Bossa Nova thing was produced by a fellow named Chuck Sagle who was with Reprise. I wasnt, at least from an arranging standpoint, thrilled with that album. I dont think we had the essence of the Boss Nova. We were too complicated to make it do what its supposed to do for that medium. Thats just my opinion, though we had some nice things in there. JB: Youve worked with some great orchestral arrangers over the years: Riddle; Fielding;

Comstock; Paich; and May. Is there anyone you wanted to work with but didnt get the chance? GP: Well, Ill tell you. All the companies that we were with, including MPSparticularly

MPSlet me choose what I wanted to do. All the arrangements I wanted to do, whatever genre, and the orchestras. We would just call them and said, Wed like to work with you. What do you think? It just worked out with every one of the arrangers. Interestingly enough, each arranger was really different enough to make a difference in the sound. You know, our sound is of course rather consistent. So I always thought that by getting a band with its own identity you can really get a different background going and weave your things together vocally and instrumentally. That was the best thing we could go for. Turning to Singers Unlimited for a minute, Len Dresslar brought me a cassette of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. I said we (S.U.) just have to do a record with this guy. So I told the record company and they sent me to Toronto where he lives. Later, when he visited me out here he got off the plane in a big fur coat and said, Lets have a couple of martinis. We did and were just great friends. We sat at my piano doing the arrangements and it didnt take any time at all. We just laid em out and I never had to worry about anything. When the voices werent going the band was. Working with Farnon was, of course, great. We (S.U.) did two recordings with him. All of Singers Unlimited were done in Germany in the Black Forest and two Hi-Lo albums also were done there. We used Clare Fischer a lot, Roger Kellaway, and also Les Cooper on the Singers things--all of them bringing something different to the mix. JB: When youre arranging, do you hear the parts in your head, then go to the piano for confirmation? Or, do you hear partial harmonies then go flesh things out later on? GP: I think its a combination of things. Im not a pianist so I hunt and peck for chords and things. I think I have a pretty good sense of what I want and what isnt particularly scintillating.

10 So I stay at it until I get a certain form going and maybe do an intro. Sometimes I get thoughts and ideas from working on the intro because I can weave some of that stuff in from the melody. Then, I just start pecking awaychordchordchord. JB: Well thats phenomenal to me. Especially the intros and finales you created for many of your arrangements. Again, what you do with the voices is entirely singularvery special stuff. GP: Well thank you..yeah. I just love to do it. Both groups (Hi-Los and Singers Unlimited), by the way Jim, were marvelous at just chewing up everything I wrote--and they werent easy, you know. They would just come to the sessions, especially the Singers because they were in the studios all day with commercials and everything, they would just read it right away. Of course, with the Singers there were sometimes more than just four parts. There could be six, eight, or more. I used to send them arrangements ahead of time because wed meet in Germany. I didnt find out until later in the Singers Unlimited careerwell I said to them, Didnt it work well when I sent you the arrangements and we rehearsed on the grass in front the little hotel in the Black Forest? Don Shelton and Bonnie looked at each other, then at me and said, We never looked at them at all! JB: They just read em through. GP: Absolutely (laughs). They just read it em through. JB: In 1978, or thereabouts, The Hi-Los got back together to record the first of two MPS albums that you spoke of earlier. GP: Actually, we really got back together because of Jimmy Lyons who was the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival. We had done some of those concerts for him back in the earlier years and he wanted us to get together again for what I think was the 25th Monterey. And, so we did it. JB: What was that like after being apart for nearly fifteen years? After all, The Singers, at that stage, had been very successful and were still recording. How did you feel about the Hi-Los reuniting?

GP:

11 Honestly, I cant really remember the feelings much. We all wanted to make sure it

sounded ok. So they came up to my home and we went out to the deck hereit overlooks the mountains and its very pretty. We had some martinis and said, Alright! Lets do eight bars of You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby, or something like that. Well, it sounded just great. There wasnt anything lost at allit was just phenomenal. Except, we were just that much older so the voices actually were much more mellow. Clark still had his shtick going up on the high thing so it was just great and a lot of fun. So, the first MPS album came later but our appearance at Monterey that year (1978) was the first thing. JB: Following this, the group actually got together, periodically, for another dozen years or so is that right? GP: Yes. But we didnt work as much, naturally, as we did the first part of our career. Things were thinning out and of course rock was really in, which was the reason, initially, we split the group up back in the 60s. Back then Don Shelton wanted to leave the group, go to Chicago, do commercials and sing with a group called The Js with Jamie. I tried a few replacements out but nothing very much worked. So we just sort of let it go. However, the HiLos did perform periodically from the late 1970s until 1992. Then, four years later, we were asked to get together for a benefit concert in 1996. That was our last appearance. JB: Where was that Gene? GP: Palm Springs, California. Actually, it was a benefit for the Betty Ford Clinic (chuckle) but it was the last one. JB: What about Gene Puerling today? What are you busy withbesides getting ready to go on your cruise? GP: Well, I do contracting stuff. Ive done a lot through the years for the Manhattan Transfer and others, like The Real Group and Chanticleer. Im also commissioned by college groups like Gold Company at Western Michigan, and thats a fine group. When you get a group that can really make your arrangements sound good its a lot of fun. I do things for individual colleges and outside groups too. JB: Do you still keep in touch with Don and Clark?

12 GP: Oh, of course. Not to see in person much, but Don is coming on the cruise with us so itll be nice. JB: Great! Where are you off to, if I might ask? GP: Were going from San Francisco up the coast to Alaska for twelve days. But thats not until the summer. JB: That sounds wonderful. I also wanted to, belatedly, offer you congratulations on your award and luncheon last fall in Los Angeles. GP: Yeah, it was just great. ASMAC (American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers) its marvelous and nice, nice people. And of course there are so many friends in that group, arrangers in Los Angeles and everything. I hadnt seen Frank Comstock, for example, in quite some time. It was wonderful. JB: Gene, I want to wish you a great trip to Alaska. Be glad youre not in Boston as weve still got a couple feet of snow and very cold weather outside. GP: Thanks. Yes, I would just as soon see your weather only on television. JB: Thanks for all the wonderful music. Its been a real privilege to speak to you Gene. GP: Its been my pleasure, Jim.

13 (Authors Note) The other Los: As some of you may know, Don Shelton has stayed busy since the Hi-Los ceased to be active. He does periodic studio work as both a vocalist and as an instrumentalistprimarily with Gordon Goodwins Big Phat Band, and Clare Fischers Clarinet Choir. Im told that he also occasionally does workshops and seminars for Selmer musical instruments. Hell be celebrating his 70th birthday this summer, and according to Johnny Mann (Johnny Mann Singers) after nearly fifty years of living in L.A. Don has recently moved to Palm Springs. Clark Burroughs, as most of you know, did some vocal arrangements for other groups in the 1960s, most notably the Association. He has basically been off the radar screen since that time. However, in 1996 he played a key role in producing a Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) tribute recording, which featured Clarks group, Larc. Reportedly he has been trying to secure some funding to produce a new Larc recording. Bob Morse retired to Phoenix, Arizona after the Hi-Los ceased being active in 1992. He passed away there in 2001 at the age of 78. Bob was the oldest Hi-Lo, born in 1923 despite the fact that many bios (not this site) have him being born in 1927. According to Clare Fischer, as far as he knows, original baritone Bob Strasen never sang again professionally after he and the Hi-Los parted company in 1959. Clare thinks that Strasen got involved in the insurance business in both Los Angeles and in Canada. I should add that Clare didnt offer an opinion why Strasen left the group other than saying that he didnt believe Bob was having throat problems at the time.