by Harry Currie
I didn’t discover the announcement of the death of Gene Puerling on March 25, 2008, until recently. In many ways this was typical of Gene, always seeming a bit in the background of the two most innovative vocal groups which have ever existed, but both of which he created, arranged for and sang in. Those groups were the HiLo’s and the Singers Unlimited.
Every field, no matter what the subject area, has a pinnacle, and there is always someone at that pinnacle whom everyone recognizes as the master. There is no doubt that everyone in the modern vocal group/choral world acknowledged Gene Puerling to be the master of modern vocal arranging, and he may well be for a very long time.
Gene was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1929. He had little formal musical training – precisely two piano lessons if reports are correct. From that point on he taught himself and relied on an incredible musical instinct. This may well have been the reason for his success – he was never tied down by rules or conventions. If he could imagine it, he figured out how to write it.
Fascinated by vocal groups, Gene organized embryonic quartets in his school years. He was impressed by the innovations of Mel Tormé’s Mel Tones and later the Four Freshmen, but he wanted to go beyond this. Moving to L.A. in 1950, he found work singing in vocal groups with the orchestras of Les Baxter and Gordon Jenkins, and met future HiLo Clark Burroughs. Clark took a gig singing with the Encores of the Billy May band, where he met another future HiLo, Bob Morse. Calling his old friend and fellow singer Bob Strassen from Milwaukee, Gene had the voices he needed, and once they all heard his first arrangements the guys were hooked.
While it’s generally accepted that the Singers Unlimited gave Gene the full spectrum for his arrangements, in my mind the HiLo’s are even more remarkable than the latter group. The 4-voiced SU were a recording group, and Gene would write anything from four parts to sixteen and more for them. Bonnie Herman, Don Shelton, Gene and Len Dressler would multitrack whatever Gene wrote to perfection – and it is perfection. The HiLo’s, on the other had, performed live as well as producing 13 LPs, and everything they recorded they could sing live – with one exception. One of my favourite HiLo’s tracks is Gene’s breathtaking arrangement of Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Yesterdays.” So full of chromaticism and daring intervals, yet so beautiful and poignant, I once asked Bob Morse if they would sing it in concert for me as a special request. Bob replied that they’d never done it live and probably never would. “How did you ever record it?” I asked. Bob smiled. “About a bar at a time,” he said.
It astounds me still today when I hear the vocal agility of these four singers. But it wasn’t just what Gene wrote for the voices to do. Music is about the creation and release of tension. To put this simply, you do this with discords and concords. Gene had the ability to prolong tension by shifting the changes so skillfully that each variation of a chord, perhaps just one note moving at a time, sometimes more than one, over the duration of the chord, built the tension, causing you to actually hold your breath until the chord resolved and the tension was released.
Gene was the master of shifting harmonies, unheard of progressions, tonal subtlety, impossible chromatics, unusual voicings, daring intervals, unorthodox cadences, rhythmic adaptations to fit the words and oft-times startling phrases. He used a type of onomatopoeia to make not only the words mirror a sound, but also the voices and notes to do the same thing. In “Autumn in New York” from their “All Over the Place” LP, for example, the word “steel” was as hard as a bridge girder, “pain” was so discordant it hurt, and “sigh” did just that.
The HiLo’s weren’t jazz singers. They could sing swing and ballads with the best of them, but jazz singers are like Ella and Mel Tormé – they scat. Where the Four Freshmen stuck to the swing tunes and ballads and did jazz in their instrumental solos, the HiLo’s, as the aforementioned LP stated, were all over the place. Historic folk songs, a cappella, whimsy, Broadway, swing, ballads, a jazz album with the Marty Paich Dektette – every style of good popular music you can imagine. It’s a miracle that Gene stumbled on three other singers who, with him as the fourth, could do it all, and with a blend so perfect the voices could have been cloned. “Any vocal group that didn’t listen to the Hi-Lo’s was remiss,” said jazz singer Jon Hendricks of the legendary vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, in an interview for Gene’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Gene broadened the harmonies, like Bird did with bebop,” said Hendricks, comparing him to pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker. “The sound of the Hi-Lo’s was choral, even though there were only four of them. The way the chords were spread out, they sounded like a choir.”
In late 1950s, when the Hi-Lo’s were performing at Birdland in New York, Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross would sit up front, soak up the sound and try to figure out who was singing lead. “Because the blend was so marvelous, we couldn’t find the lead half the time,” Hendricks recalled with a laugh.
My own early years revolved around vocal quartets. In high school I organized the Harmonaires, part barber-shop and part straight. In university it was the Mount Allison Male Quartet, pretty fair group. Then as a student at the British Army’s Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, four of us started singing my university material. Duncan Beat was lead, Tony Kershaw (Anthony’s father), was 2nd voice, I was 3rd, and Don Pryce was 4th – all four of us serving as military musicians, three of them in the British Army and I in the Canadian.
Then I heard the Four Freshmen, who knocked me out, next the HiLo’s, who absolutely floored me. I copied down some Freshmen and HiLo’s charts and we learned them. Soon we were singing on concerts at Kneller Hall, and were often sent out by the director, Lt. Col. David McBain, to represent the school at civic functions. A BBC producer heard us, and for two years we were featured on BBC Radio in London and the ATV Network from Birmingham. I was writing the vocal charts, sort of a cross between the Freshmen and the HiLo’s.
One day I heard that the HiLo’s were in Britain, so I drove to Southend-on-Sea to hear them, brazenly going backstage between shows to meet them. I told Gene about our group, The Concords, and he invited me to bring the guys the following night. Next day we went out between shows, Gene asked us to sing something, so we sang Gene’s own HiLo’s arrangement of Through the Years. Gene couldn’t believe it – he’d never heard anyone else sing his arrangements. He ran around collecting everyone from the band and the other HiLo’s, and insisted we sing it again. “It’s us, but it’s not us!” he exclaimed.
After that run, Gene suggested that the four HiLo’s and the four Concords should sing it together. We did. (Shades of the Singers Unlimited?) Then, stating that he’d always wondered what would happen if one of the HiLo’s dropped out and they had to replace a voice, and would it change the sound of the group, Gene asked me if I’d sing with the three HiLo’s in Bob Strassen’s 3rd voice slot. Nervous as hell, I did, and was properly thrilled when Gene announced that the sound was identical, it was still the HiLo’s.
We chummed around mainly with Bob Morse for the next few days, and several of us went to present-day author Jackie Collins’ 21st birthday party. As her dad was the influential agent Joe Collins and her sister the soon-to-be-famous actress Joan Collins, it was quite a party.
In 1969 I was back in Canada as the Associate Director of Music of an army band in Calgary, Alberta, vacationing in Los Angeles that summer. Having lunch with Bob Morse he told me about Bob Strassen leaving the group and their hurried search for a replacement. “We didn’t know where you were,” he said, “so we managed to get Don Shelton. But since his voice is higher than mine he had to go in on second and I had to relearn all the arrangements on third voice. We had 10 days before we opened in Las Vegas. That was quite a panic.”
We met once more in 1962. Having resigned from the army I was back in Britain and, among other musical gigs, singing with the Fraser Hayes Four of BBC fame. After one HiLo’s concert a few of us had a late supper, and four of us ended up under a lamppost in Soho – one HiLo, two Fraser Hayes Four, and one from the Polka Dots, another of the great English groups. We sang our hearts out.
Gene Puerling was the best. He influenced every credible vocal group that has followed the HiLo’s and Singers Unlimited, and arranged for several, though nothing could equal the scope and dexterity of his own superb ensembles. The esteem in which he was held by all musicians is exemplified by this quote from Gene Lees, the Canadian music critic, biographer, lyricist, sometime musician and former journalist.
“One day I was sitting at the piano, working out the chord changes of (the song) Emily. A harmonic sequence at the end was giving me trouble, so I called Johnny Mandel on the reasonable assumption that, since he wrote the tune, he should know the changes. He gave them to me, then asked, ‘Have you heard the Singers Unlimited do it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Good’, Johnny said, ‘Now throw out my changes and use Gene Puerling’s.’”
The recordings of both the HiLo’s and the Singers Unlimited are now on CD. Get some, and be entertained, amazed and thrilled at the artistry of Gene’s writing and the performances. It will never get better than this.