BEHIND THE VOICE—The Unsung Art of The Arranger

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to

        Unaccompanied singing, whether it be Gregorian chant, barbershop quartet or 1950s stoop-based a capella, is all very well but most of us prefer our pop song vocalists to have an instrumental bed beneath them. Suitable accompaniment is an unappreciated job. It may be largely technical but when it is suffused with heart and thought then it is an art. Where would Frank Sinatra’s “Young At Heart” or Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” be without the magic carpet ride of those romantic strings? Common-or-garden manufactured pop songs in their original sheet music form, they’d be grounded in a smoky nightclub atmosphere not soaring us, via our record turntable, into the heavens.

       There’s no need for firework flash when it’s done well—no craving for attention, like a teen in his souped-up auto blasting rap with windows down and no concern for others. Much as one may admire prodigious technique I don’t believe a 100mph run of Art Tatum arpeggios would help a singer interpret a song. There’s always been an in-built conflict between jazzers and songsters. However, this tension, even competition, sometimes leads to excitement.


       In the beginning was the word—and it was Thomas Edison, father of the phonograph, reciting a nursery rhyme, the first novelty number.  Pretty soon, by the early 1900s, there was a solid market in disc and cylinder for vocals, the sharper and more strident the better so that a deep groove was cut and buyers could thus hear clearly such favorites of the unsubtle recording horn as chirpy Billy Murray, and diction-clean Ada Jones, accompanied by brass-bound military bands. The arrangements (“stocks”) came free from New York’s Tin Pan Alley publishers, with plenty of unison and lots of melody. No saxophones as yet but a banjo part could be had for the asking. The music industry was satisfied with the crude blatting and bleating of acoustic recording because words and music were clearly enunciated and every note intact, verse after verse. No interpretation, little personality (unless it was Al Jolson), much shouting and declaration fighting the massed trumpets, trombones and horn–friendly piccolos.   Phonograph records were seen as just another way to sell the meat of the business: sheet music.

       But at the start of the 1920s, record sales took off to the tune of millions, challenging Tin Pan Alley and only to be brought to heel in the dire 1930s by the free medium of radio. In the so-called “Jazz Age” it was the foxtrotty dance band, a new phenomenon, that created this disc market. Everybody, fed up with the privations of war, wanted to dance to fast, tight and peppy music. Skilled organization man and bandleader Paul Whiteman led the field as the main provider. Just behind and panting were a legion of ex-raggers ready to offer hot dance goods in strict time --waltzes were few and special. Now, instead of the dull standard Alley stocks, band members were encouraged to write individual arrangements thus giving their band its own special sound. Ferde Grofe, Whiteman’s pianist had learned to arrange in the dying days of ragtime whilst working in the West Coast hotels with society bandleader Art Hickman who sported the novel effects of two saxophones in harmony. Once he started work with Whiteman he divided the band into sections, setting the brass against the reeds, a sort of early jazz “call & response”.

The public loved these jumpy, almost mathematical outfits, all neat and tidy and bow-tied. The songwriters quickly realized they’d better leave melody space for the arrangers to display their skills with clever fills by the now- segregated brass and horns. Hence songs with few notes and lots of room for show-off licks as in “Linger A While” and “ Rose Of The Rio Grande” (Harry Warren’s first hit, written with Whiteman’s ace reed man Ross Gorman, who later gave us the famous glissando clarinet trick that begins  “Rhapsody In Blue”).


       Unless they were vaudeville or Broadway stars the record singers of the 1920s were rationed to one vocal refrain placed in the chart after the first chorus and verse had established the band be it Yacht Club, Hotel or Kentucky Serenaders. Often the musicians were drawn from the same New York pool with the vocal refrain taken by one of the band boys. Billy Murray and the old brigade, with their new softer radiophonic voices, were around for the asking. The standard dance band singer tended to have a high voice in the old Irish balladeer style and to roll the rrrrs , a sort of bel canto on the cheap. Only the personality singer had the pleasure of careful accompaniment, a tender violin or cello, or perhaps an ad hoc arrangement whipped up in the studio by jazz wizards like Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Benny Goodman or Jimmy Dorsey. Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw enjoyed such benefits.

       The singers who accompanied themselves were better off and when electric recording arrived in 1925 they could nurse the mike like it was their first baby. Intimacy, even a soothing bedroom manner, became possible: Whispering Jack Smith, Little Jack Little and Gene Austin, all odd creatures with singular personalities and simple but effective piano styles that oozed splendidly through the shellac, were the early crooners who paved the way for Bing Crosby & Co. in the 1930s.


        When the concrete cloak of the Big Band enveloped popular music, making for a formulaic, almost military sound akin to the regimentation that was seizing up Germany, it turned out to be a great training ground for the arranger. At the end of the 1930s, with bands so elephantine---- tier after tier of brass and reeds tooting and swaying in synch to the bash-bash of a crazed drummer in too large a kitchen and a bassist determined to demonstrate how many notes he could squeeze into every bar--- the world needed calm and clean arrangers to bring order to what could have been chaos. Such saviors were nurtured under the careful baton or waving hand of name leaders, organization men who resembled Wall Street bankers. Much was learned in how to voice the new fat juicy chords with their flatted fifths and raised ninths; in how to write riffs that constantly crushed into blue thirds or changed keys suddenly and brutally but not so as to bore the over-excited kids as they swung their partner over their shoulder and possibly into the drink.

Apart from Broadway this was not a good time for decent well-measured popular songs as the storm clouds gathered in Europe and the kids gathered round the band stand to root for their sax or trumpet hero like he was a ball player; or else ogle the chick singer as she chirped her way through her one chorus in the latest rhythm novelty about three little fishes and a seafood mama, a cement mixer that chattered “putty-putty” and music that went round and round insanely and eventually came out here. But where?

       Luckily there were musicians in this big band morass like Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Axel Stordahl and Gordon Jenkins who were learning to craft a frame of beauty and support which would provide a lovely garden scene for the vocalists who, after the war and the collapse of the Big Bands would come to dominate pop music with all their glory. And about time too!  (Although I can hear disgruntled jazzmen, dying to be given just one more hot chorus, gnashing their teeth)

       Ensconced and circumspect in juggernaut swing bands the   neophyte arrangers managed to squeeze a little nuance, sweetness, and light into the dark and hunnish industrial grind of the blues-riff dance format.


       In England pianist/conductor and all-round old-style British gentleman Ray Noble had become an example to be admired at home and abroad for his sympathetic surroundings to Al Bowlly’s single chorus “vocal refrains.” Noble had the advantage of being in charge of the HMV dance recording division and was thus able to augment his studio sessions with violins, cellos and whatever else non-dance band sounds he liked. These studio bands, of course, were never to appear at public venues—too expensive--but they consisted on record of the cream of London’s hotel and night club bands sweetened with strings and such, skillfully arranged for vocal framing by Ray Noble.

        Across the water American bandleaders studied, and were envious of, what the well-mannered and cool British gent was up to. Noble also wrote hit songs (“Goodnight Sweetheart”, “The Nearness Of You”) proving he knew what the well-crafted song was all about. It was inevitable, then, that he would get the call to come where the big bucks lay and so he did, appearing as a “silly ass” on the Charlie McCarthy radio show and, ironically, writing, “Cherokee”, which was to become the anthem of the be--bop brigade, those befuddled jazz insurgents with flatted fifth feathers in their hats, deaf to proper melody or ordered arrangement who, by their sheer obtuseness contributed muchly to the demise of jazz as a popular form (which it had been in the 1920s and early 30s).

       Fortunately, before the be-bop chaos, arranger Gordon Jenkins was adding lovely string sections to calm down the brass in recordings by bandleader/songwriter Isham (“It Had To be You”, “Swinging Down The Lane”) Jones while, a little later, trumpeter Axel Stordahl became the main arranger with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, and was there when Frank Sinatra joined the organization in 1940. The kid was soon enjoying his early success as the No.#1 swooner-crooner of American pop.

        Skinny, hollow-cheeked and with bow-tie popping from his bobbing Adam’s apple, the Italian-American (and proud of it, too) balladeer stopped the hyper-active bobbysoxers in their tracks, had them fainting as he clutched the mike for dear life.

        “The Voice”, presaging in his murmurs a calmer, perhaps suburban life to come once the war was over, encouraged male detractors to jeer that this scarecrow resembled a ”fugitive from a blood transfusion.“ But those in the know-- the music press and fellow musicians-- appreciated the new boy as a fine artist with great lungs. Metronome, a discerning trade paper, voted him “Best Singer of 1942.”

       He knew it full well himself. The year before he’d told songwriter Sammy Kahn, “I’m going to be the world’s greatest singer”. Cahn told him bluntly that he already was. And went on to introduce him to great and neglected classic numbers from the past, from before Swing and screaming girls, far cries from “Mairzy Doats” and the rest of the nonsense later force-fed him as the star of radio’s  “Your Hit Parade.” 

       In the recording studio things were different.

 In 1942 Sinatra left the Dorsey band to make it on his own and on his own terms.  He was the boss and he chose his sidemen and arrangers. He already knew the importance of the right arrangement, the magic cushion that lifted him into romantic realms, albeit with the singer still idiomatic, still conversational, still of the People. With this move away from the safety of the big band Sinatra was leading what was to be the age of the solo singer.

       He took Stordahl with him for his contract with Columbia Records, encouraging him to gift-wrap The Voice in swirling strings and carefully chosen woodwinds—never overcoming the vocal but enhancing it, making it almost ethereal.     Stordahl, thoroughly versed in European classical music especially impressionist composers such as Ravel, was, by all accounts, a delightful man, calm and collected and with no temperament—unlike his mood-swinging perfectionist employer. But the two made beautiful music.

       And continued to work together, for a while, into the frustrating Fifties, as arrant outsiders from hinterland places such as Nashville plonked hits on the charts (“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”—with an arrangement centering on the slapping of thighs to strummed and electric guitars).


       These rude incursions into New York rule had begun in 1947 with the amazing success of Nashville-based society bandleader Francis Craig’s “Near You” with its boogie-woogie piano and sudden brass and sax bits. Next year western group The Sons of The Pioneers, from Hollywood, rode into town with “Cool Water”. Then came singing cowboy screen star Jimmy Wakely with “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart”), a pleasant enough simple story to campfire accompaniment—even as Frank Sinatra had been made to join the exotic gravy train with his version of the weird and Hebraic “Nature Boy” written by early hippie eden ahbez (stet), a bearded, robed and sandaled mystic currently residing in a Los Angeles park.

       All manner of outsiders from hillbillies and even Dixie cats (“Twelfth Street Rag” by Pee Wee Hunt and His Band, written—good God!—in 1916) were lurking, ready to be absorbed into the pop mainstream by a public that demanded a stretching out and away from the strictures of pop, the 32 bar prison of the Broadway-based song.

       In  1949 a big band led by deep-voiced crooner Vaughn Monroe had a surprise monster hit with a genuine neo-folk song. “Riders In The Sky”, subtitled “A Cowboy Legend”.  The creator, Stan Jones, a Stetsonned park ranger in Death Valley, had originally placed his epic tale with left-leaning folk-singer Burl Ives.  Quick as a fox RCA Victor corralled the touring Monroe band into a Chicago hotel for a fast “cover”, a more commercial version subsequently promoted as having “authentic western effects” which were actually just use of the bathroom as an echo chamber and a fade-out at the end as the doomed cowboys ride away on their never-ending chase after the devil’s herd.

        Now here’s where a new kind of arranger comes in: Charles Grean, a Victor staffer, came up with a rudimentary but highly effective arrangement using two acoustic guitars and a few muted trumpets and trombones in an eerie echo. He could have employed the entire big band as in the old days—but wisely didn’t. He knew the writing was on the wall. The folk: be they cowboys, hillbillies or perhaps jump rhythm bluesmen were waiting at the gate of the mighty music business with an antsy audience waiting to purchase. The dominance of Tin Pan Ally and Broadway was threatened, if not coming to a slow end. “Riders In The Sky” went to Number One and stayed there for ages, just as had “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Near You”.

In 1950 The Weavers, a folk group with left-wing tendencies, crashed to the top of the hit parade with a version of a Victorian moral ballad called “Goodnight Irene”. Had they recorded with just their own quotidian guitar and banjo the number would never have made it. But Gordon Jenkins, now at Decca and a firm fan of traditional jazz and folk music, enveloped the folkies with velvet strings plus a touch of contemporary chord extensions. The result was delectable, and a pleasant way into folk music.

       And where was The Voice in all this change and seeming decay?


        He was struggling at Columbia under a new head of the pop singles dept: Mitch Miller, who, though thoroughly grounded in classical music—he’d graduated from the Eastman School of Music and then had played under the respective batons of George Gershwin, Leopold Stokowski and even, ironically, Frank Sinatra. In his time he’d worked with Charlie Parker so he knew his sharpened ninths, flatted fifths and all the rest of the bag of be-bop tricks.  You’d think, then, he’d be sympathetic to the crooner’s mission towards refining and improving the Great American Song.

       But no!

        In his previous job as A&R head of Mercury Records the pointy-bearded classicist had a mission to make hit singles, using everything at hand even if it included the kitchen sink and sounds outside of Manhattan. And this he did by having husky Frankie Laine crack his whip on the “Mule Train” and Johnnie Ray race into meltdown during “Cry”, an emotional ballad written by a black night watchman in Pittsburgh.

       When he reached Columbia Miller persuaded Rosemary Clooney, who’d rather have been singing jazz, to record an Armenian folk tune now titled “Come On –A My House” due to lyrics by William Saroyan, the noted playwright and novelist. The jazzy harpsichord helped clinch the hit sound. That was what it was all about in this new age of multi-tracking on tape and splicing and cavernous echo chambers and fade-outs.  Gimmickry, some critics called it—a cheap way to grab the attention of Joe and Jane Public.

       But now Miller was in charge, was grand wizard of pop, was the usurper of the power wielded once by bandleaders and later by star crooners.

He was, in fact, the first record producer.

       And so it came swiftly to pass that Miller and Sinatra clashed. The crooner had loathed “Goodnight Irene” and wasn’t too keen on the wave of folksy stuff flooding the venues he loved: a smoky night club with dim booths and curvy ladies and dawn failing to break through the smoke and fresh air waiting forlornly outside, anxious to come in to combat the smell of Jack Daniels and he, the entertainer, leaning on the bar, shot glass in hand, cigarette dangling, hat at the back of his head, singing live to a piano: The compleat Saloon Singer.

        A saloon singer, that’s what he wanted to be. To be close to his precious musicians. (None of that new techno garbage.) To stand in the studio dead center surrounded by the musicians he respected; players ready to whip it out together as one man.

       But here was this Mitch Miller thrusting on him a bland thing called “My Heart Cries For You”. Specially arranged for tonight’s session. Now please do it. “I’m not going to do any of this crap!” said the crooner—and marched out.

       He’d missed the bus (Guy Mitchell caught it and sold a million)—but only for a few years. A new company, Capitol Records, and a sympathetic arranger, Nelson Riddle, were, in the mid-Fifties, to turn the tables on the “crap”. And all the while rock & roll, the greatest horror of all to a dapper gent in sharp suit, was banging on the door in blue jeans and getting let in.

        The arranger’s days were not over yet. Not if Sinatra had any say in it. And he did..

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to