Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Recording Nat King Cole

KING COLE CUTS A BISCUIT: three dozen men grind out a session of song
By: Bernard Asbell
November 1956

The man with the graying crew cut and mustache closed his solemnly. He imagined the music. In his mind, he regulated its flow. First a little faster, then slower and then he set it right there. Just right. With a mental knob, he lifted its volume and brought in the velvet intimacy of the voice of Nat King Cole.

There, that’s just right. That was just the way he wanted it.

“OK, let’s go,” the man shouted, opening his eyes. “This is costing money.”

Lee Gillette, A&R director of Capitol records, had just switched personalities, a maneuver he must perform frequently. A moment ago, he had been the sensitive, aesthetic creator, mentally translating a series of ink blobs into sound; now he was the whip-cracking organizer with the tough task of making a bunch of men, wires and hardware turn these head-sounds into romantic, tranquil, audible music.

OBJECTIVE: 180 seconds of intimate rapport between Nat King Cole and one nameless record fan. (No, not millions. You never aim a record at millions. Just at one.)
PLACE: Universal Recording Studios on Ontario Street of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where more hit records are put to wax in a year than anywhere else in the country.
TIME: 5:00 P.M., early in the day for a recording session, but the only sensible time for an artist playing a night club schedule at the Chez Paree. (Now, a theatre schedule, that’s different. The session might take place at 11:00 P.M. after the last show and run until, say, 3:00 in the morning.)

“Let’s go,” Gillette commanded again and close to three dozen men responded, each caught up in the anxiety crackling through the atmosphere, in the cause of producing those 180 seconds of gentle romance. Gillette, in a darkened control room, looked through the double glass window which ran the length of it, down into a gleaming studio where 28 of these three dozen men formed an orchestra. It was a most peculiar arrangement. Unlike the formal display of an orchestra on the sequined stage of a ballroom, they sat in a disarray of postures on folding chairs. They wore, instead of the silken repetitiveness of dance band uniforms, a jarring mixture of sport shirts and sleeveless sweaters. The deployment of men around the room, while strange, was systematic, heedful that this was not a ballroom but a recording studio where sound is god and sight is put out of mind.

Just below the control room window, right under Gillette’s nose, sat the blasting power of the band – the brasses and reeds – clustered in a U-shape which opened on the center of the room. To his left sat the strings, in the rows. The second and third rows were raised off the floor and a structure resembling a small-size bandshell fanned behind them. It was designed to bounce sound forward where thin-skinned mikes leaned in to gather up the fragile offerings. A harp presided over the rear left corner of the room, plinked by a spectacled man with a hard-working face. The rhythm section was disposed opposite the control room. A forbidding folding screen not only blocked its view of the strings and harp but effectively separated their sounds, the better to be manipulated and balanced by the dials of the sound engineer. A tympanist, a drummer, then a bassist were backed against a rear wall, facing a guitarist whose back was to the control room. Then, over to the right, the massive grand piano.

In the middle of the floor, commanding this apparent chaos, was a wavy-haired, round-faced young man, Nelson Riddle, who had flown out from Hollywood early the day before. The sides of his head were pressed together by a pair of earphones, which brought to him in an ordered relationship all the disconnected sounds from the various sections strewn around the room. And over these instrumental sounds, his headset superimposed another – the voice of the man to whom he paid least attention of all. The owner of the voice occupied a little bandshell of his own, to the right of the control room. He swayed a paper cup of coffee perilously while his pained face emoted into an overhead mike. This was Nat King Cole.

He was trim and mobile like an athlete, taller and darker than his pictures suggest. A short-sleeved sport shirt emphasized the boyish zest with which he handled the song.

“OK, let’s tape what we got,” Gillette called through his mike in the control room. “Take it straight through from the top. We’re going to roll this one.”

Riddle, in the middle of the floor, kept instructing the guitar man how a certain musical doo-dad in the introduction should sound. Then he raised his hands and repeated, “OK, from the top. They’re going to roll it.”

Gillette pressed his mike button and announced, “Number 13990, Take One.”

Riddle surveyed the sections, then looked down at his score. His hands came down, graceful but definite. From the left side of the control room, up near the ceiling, music gushed out, so close-up it seemed you could hear it breathe, so amplified, as to bring out all its minute details for examination.

It sounded terrible. The tempo dragged. A cluster of horns barged in, the gangling sounds in harmony but somehow unparallel. The harp plinked, too loud to be angelic. The bass sounds, rockbed foundation of the beat, were soft and squashy. The bass man and pianist, sure enough, were plodding rhythmically at their instruments, but Gillette’s ears searched for their sound and it was hardly there. Over this bedlam came the suede-surface sounds of a familiar recording voice. Cole, master of the intimate song, was still developing his intimacy with this one – a procedure it never pays to rush. He sounded preoccupied with its details, as with a business problem.

Gillette, unshaken, kept eying the clusters of musicians sprawled before him. He tossed cryptic observations at a chubby man with thick blonde hair seated beside him who ceaselessly fingered a panel of knobs and watched dial needles respond to the sounds. This was Bill Putnam, owner of Universal Studios and sound engineer on about one-fifth of all the nation’s hit records. That’s a remarkable statistic to ascribe to a man so removed from the entertainment centers of New York and Hollywood. But his geographical location really helps explain his success. In each of the coastal capitals, the major record companies have their own studios, so recording is sliced up into little portions among them. Putnam, on the other hand, waxes almost all the output of Mercury, a major firm quartered in Chicago; of Dot, a soaring platter in Tennessee and numerous small companies which irregularly and unpredictably break out with hits. On top of his robust trade, he adds sessions for Capitol (this session for Cole was one) and for Decca, when their artists must meet recording commitments while they’re playing the Midwest where these companies have no studios. And it’s the same for Coral, Cadence, M-G-M and most of the other substantial-sized labels, adding up to a whopping hunk of music. (Last year, Putnam escaped the pressure of the music business for a few days in Florida. Stopping a roadside hash house there, he checked a juke box to see what was happening in the trade. Of 40 records, he had recorded 28.)

The moment the orchestra stopped, Gillette and Putnam were out of their chairs, heading for the studio. Gillette huddled with Riddle. Meanwhile, Putnam nudged the wind instruments’ mike slightly closer to the clarinets. At the rhythm section he moved this mike three inches that way that mike about a foot this way. Then Gillette called, “Let’s try it again.” Putnam followed Gillette back into the control room and squatted before the dials.

Gillette announced, “Number 13990, Take Two.” Their ears became alerted for sound again. What they heard was Riddle’s muffled, off-mike voice: “Listen trombones, four bars before H, change A-flat to G.” Then Nat’s voice, close and boomy: “Nelse, can we try that end again” Riddle: “OK, two bars before H.”

Then Gillette reminded them: “We’re still rolling for Take Two. Want me to cut?”
“Never mind, then, let’s go from top,” said Nat. Riddle continued dictating changes in the score. Gillette asked Riddle if he could tone down the clarinets before the release. Riddle looked at the score and instructed: “OK, kill that clarinet figure three bars before E. It’s unnecessary.”

By this time, Putnam was down in the studio again. He unscrewed the mike crouching next to the tympani and switched it with the one hovering over the harp. Even a mike has a personality of it own. Sometimes a particular model contributes materially to the reputation of a star. For example, when Eddy Howard is cutting, Putnam always sets up a Western Electric 369 mike in the vocalist’s spot. It has what Putnam calls a “rise of sound.” It gives body to a singer like Howard who “has a lot of breath but not much sound.”

Then Gillette and Putnam moved to their stations again in the control room. The speaker kept putting out the subdued bubbling and babbling of activity in the studio. Suddenly the control fairly shook with a violent clink! clong! cloink! clong! All the plumbing in the building, it seemed, had exploded in their ears. Cole roared with laughter watching the violent start of the men in the control booth. There he stood, hands cupped, jiggling a pair of coins so close to his extra-hot mike they sounded like bouncing boilers. Gillette swore but smiled. Then he announced: “Number 13990, Take Three.”

Riddle’s eyebrows went up with his arms, as his face took on a look of sleepy calm and the strings and reeds began the opening bar

Gillette quickly looked at Putnam, who nodded.

“Cut,” Gillette called. The attack was bad.
“Number 13990, Take Four.” The strings began with confidence and sway, together this time. The intro built and Cole moved into the mike to begin his first words when Gillette called:
“Man, you didn’t pick up that click, did you?” Cole asked.
“Yeah, what was it?” Gillette inquired.
“My chewing gum. Sorry, man.”
“I’m picking up a squeak. Anybody hear it out there?”

“My voice is changing,” retorted Cole. The musicians laughed. Everybody looked at his instrument and around the floor rather aimlessly, as though an unidentified squeak might be near. The last row of the string section, which included three members of the celebrated Fine Arts String Quartet, burst into a jeering laugh. The squeak was coming from the chair of Irving Ilmer, the quartet’s violinist. Ilmer sheepishly got up and moved his chair to the corner of the room where he picked up a substitute.

“Number 13990, Take Five.”

As the music rolled out, Gillette watched the score closely but maintained an all-around awareness, like a pilot coming in for a landing. Every few notes his pointing finger plunged toward a corner of the studio and he pronounced the name of the instrument picking up a cue. “Trombones.” “Piano.” “Fiddles.”

With each command, Putnam gave a dial a clockwise twist, to open a mike a little wider for the solo sound. His hands shifted gracefully, as in a dance, among six dials. With the springy bounce of a motorcyclist, he leaned forward in his seat and rocked. His face had the calm of one in full command, but perspiration oozed out over his eyes. Riddle, conducting the musicians, switched his eye from the score to the control room every measure to pick up messages on the face of Gillette.

Cole was becoming more intent, too, in dealing with his lyric and he sang:
“When the sun above is p-shining…” and at the fluff, his face squeezed up and he squealed “Ay! Ay!”
Gillette motioned to Cole and Riddle to keep going. He was timing the song. Cole’s feeling for the lyric began to slip away and plodded through the rest of it mechanically.

At the end, Gillette announced, “Time is 3:06. That’s pretty good. Let’s hold the tempo about there. Did you feel good with that tempo, Nelson?” Riddle nodded. Nat asked for a playback of the beginning to hear the balance. He bounded off the stage and into the control room.

As though by signal, the orchestra disbanded. A few pulled out sandwiches. A union representative distributed withholding tax forms which the musicians began to fill out. “Let’s take five,” a trumpeter wisecracked, “so Frankie can count up his dependents.” The musician named Frankie muttered something in retort, but no one heard it.

In the control room, the voice of Nat King Cole poured out of the big speaker while its owner gazed deeply into the floor, listening. The performance was still ragged. At a tricky change of key, Cole’s face tensed expectantly and his brow subtly lifted. When his voice hit the note clean, his face relaxed again.

When the playback ended, the men were in their chairs. Gillette was at his mike. “Drums, listen. Don’t rub the brushes across the drums. It comes over like record scratch.” The drummer nodded.

“All right,” Gillette called out. Then to show that this time he was really out to make a record: “Stand by.” After a pause: “Number 13990, Take Six.”

As the music started, Gillette and Putnam glanced at each other doubtfully, but they let it go. Again, Gillette commanded tensely to Putnam, “Trombones.” “Fiddles.” But it was clear from both men that this was another run-through, not the serious making of a record. Meanwhile, Cole was becoming more sure of the lyric. He was starting to mean the words.

When it was over Gillette asked Putnam, “Did we lose the band when Nat came in?” Putnam agreed they had.

“Let’s try one more,” Gillette announced. “Let’s watch the tempo, Nelson; we’re starting to slow down to 3:15 now. Trumpets, under ‘You will walk with me some day’ don’t worry about getting too much blast. Give it a good shot. Nelson, after the word ‘childhood’ on the reeds give me a ‘bop’ instead of a ‘doit’. OK, let’s get right into it. Number 13990, Take Seven.

The band played the intro and Nat began to sing, to one person now. He was starting to whisper and the orchestra was beginning to flow. Now Gillette was starting to perspire. In his commands to Putnam, his hands no longer pointed but his eyes did. His ears seemed to be growing larger on his head. Billows of music filled the room. Jay Trompeter and Bill O’Connor, local disc jockeys, had slipped into the room quietly. Every few minutes, one of them leaned forward to get a better view of the extreme right of the studio and Nat Cole, who now was swaying a fresh paper cup of coffee as he started to live his lyric.

The feeling of a hit song was taking shape.

As the music swayed into the final eight bars, Cole rested his coffee cup on his music stand, gesticulated his lyric with a sweep of his hand, then reached down to raise the music stand slightly, all within the flowing beat. With a hollow clatter, the music stand collapsed in his hands. Again, Gillette circled with his finger to indicated “Keep going.” He was still checking the timing.

“OK, no playback,” Gillette announced. He felt a momentum building up, as essential to a successful record as the song itself. He surveyed the studio quickly. “Are all the wrong notes fixed?” he asked. The musicians were looking less relaxed. Riddle nodded.

“Get it right this time and I’ll buy everybody a drink,” Gillette volunteered.
“That’s on the tape, Lee,” chortled Nat and everybody laughed out loud.
“OK,” said Gillette, “let’s make a record one time. Number 13990, Take Eight.”

The music began and the voice began to sing and everybody could tell this was the take that the world would hear on a Nat King Cole record. It glided and flowed, had the sincerity and bite, the spontaneity of a song that came off without any work at all. This was the aim of the expensive hour, of the anxiety and perspiration from the three dozen men: a song that seemed to take no work at all, a relaxed and private rendezvous between Nat King Cole and one listener – not millions, but one. Lee Gillette knew it was there as the waves of sound from the big wall speaker filled the room and he floated with them.

“Hold your places,” Gillette called, the moment the last bar died away. “Let’s get another one while we got it. Number 13990, Take Nine.”

Nat fluffed a word on his opening. Gillette just nodded and waved to Riddle to throw it away. The music stopped and Gillette said, “Number 13990, Take Ten.” Now the men had become expert at making it come off easy and again Nat King Cole was singing alone in an intimate and darkened room.

When it was over, Cole, enthusiastic and boyish now, darted into the control room, lit a cigarette in his long this holder, placed a foot on a chair and hunched forward to listen. When Take Ten was over, he said, “Let’s hear the other one.” Putnam threw a switch which back-wound the tape at startling speed. In seconds he was back the beginning of Take Eight and played that.

“The intro is cleaner on Ten,” Gillette said, “and the fiddles come off better. Nat’s got more presence in Eight though.”
“Nat popped a ‘p’ in one spot on Eight, I think near the end.”
“Yeah, I caught that,” said Gillette.
“I can work those tapes together,” Putnam said. On a worksheet before him, under EDITING INSTRUCTIONS, he wrote: Take 10, intro and instru chorus. Take 8, Nat, but watch for p-pop. Pick up from 10.
“Whyn’t we make one more in a hurry?” Nat asked.
“We have what we want now,” Gillette explained, “and we still have three more tunes to cut.” Then smiling, he added, “You want to sing for your own excitement at these prices?”

Nat’s eye roved the studio. Twenty-eight men at $41.25 each for a three-hour session, the cost of the studio, technicians and who knows what else. The singer pays these, on the theory that he’s hired to produce the musical product. That is, the record company advances the money, then reimburses itself before paying the singer any royalties. Sometimes recording expenses pile up to more than the royalties a singer earns. If this unhappy state continues until the end of the artist’s contract period, so that the singer is actually in debt to his employer, the company usually tears up the ledger sheet, absorbing the loss itself.

“Yeah,” Nat laughed and agreed. “Let’s go to the nex.”

A few minutes later the orchestra was running through the introductory verse of a song. Nat sang it through. Just as it reached the point of resolving into a chorus, the music stopped. Gillette called for another run-through and the same portion was replayed.

“That sounds pretty good,” Gillette said. “Let’s try one.” Jay Trompeter the disc jockey, who thought Gillette was kidding asked, “But where’s the song?”
“That comes tomorrow,” Gillette answered.

Trompeter looked at him blankly. “This intro,” Gillette explained, “has a lot of strings, but the chorus is all brass. Tomorrow Nat’s cutting an album with a lot of brass [THE PIANO STYLE OF NKC]. So we do the intro while we have the strings and do the rest tomorrow. Then we’ll splice the tapes together. Never know the difference. Do it all the time. OK, everybody, 13991, Take One…”

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