King's Singers stories
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I do have some libellous ones, but you're
Meanwhile, are you sitting comfortably?
Early recording sessions (1971-)
I knew at Cambridge in 1966 that several members of King's College Choir were performing close harmony arrangements with double bass, though I never accompanied them because two of the singers, Al Hume and Simon Carrington, were bass players themselves. After Cambridge when they morphed into The King's Singers, the group began booking me as a session player around 1971. My first job for them was at Decca’s West Hampstead studios (subsequently Lillian Baylis House, a rehearsal space for English National Opera) to record Joe Horovitz' and Michael Flanders’ Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo. After this they signed an exclusive contract with EMI and I played on their inaugural recording for that company, The King’s Singers (known from its cover picture as ‘the chessmen LP’).
In 1974 The King's Singers invited me to the Edinburgh Festival where they were performing a programme of contemporary classical music. The programme included the original, shorter version of Berio's Cries of London, commissioned by The King's Singers, which in its expanded 8-voice version I often performed in later years with Electric Phoenix. But in 1974 my career as a professional singer was in the future. Now I was booked as a double bass player to accompany The King's Singers in Peter Dickinson's Winter Words, a cycle of settings of the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. I was full of resentment, on two fronts: first, The King's Singers had just recorded Winter Words for EMI using another double bass player, Rodney Slatford – why not me? They even said I played it better! And second, if they were going to commission a piece with double bass, was I not the obvious composer to write it? Actually Peter Dickinson's piece is very fine, and well-written for the instrument: so my resentment was compounded by guilt, as well as respect.
Noël Coward arrangements (1975)
This was the first time the King’s Singers asked me for a whole suite of arrangements. In 1975 I was a hot young jazz musician, so my enormous admiration for Noël Coward did not prevent me from ‘correcting’ many instances of what I considered his crude harmonies in these songs. Let me be plain: I consider it perfectly acceptable to substitute sophisticated harmonies for simple ones, which I did here many times – this is standard practice with good arrangers; but on many other occasions I thought Coward had, through lack of training in harmony, ‘got it wrong’ or ‘made a schoolboy error’, which I ‘put right’. Five years later I did the same in my Hoagy Carmichael set. Today I would not presume to ‘correct’ these classic songwriters in so invasive a manner: they may have been relatively less knowledgeable than I in academic harmony but they intended what they wrote. In doing these ‘corrections’ I was as bad as those Victorian editors of the Baroque masters, as bad as Rimsky 'improving' Mussorgsky.
The King's Singers Swing (1976)
Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing is one of my best arrangements for the King’s Singers. I suggested it to them when they told me their next album was to be of songs from the swing era (I also suggested the ‘zoot suits’ in which they are photographed on the cover). I very much admired – I still do – John Lewis’s arrangement of this song for the Modern Jazz Quartet, from their live Scandinavian recordings in 1960: it is a sort of compendium of the different ways you can swing (without backing, with backing, 2 in a bar, walking 4 in a bar etc). My arrangement goes one step further and questions the validity of the very title, demonstrating both swing and the lack of it in all conceivable forms.
Tempus Fugit (1978)
These are the strangest arrangements I was ever asked to do for the King’s Singers. EMI had the crazy idea of making a heavy rock album with the group after a version of Strawberry Fields Forever arranged with enormous drums by Godfrey Salmon had been considered hit material, and the Singers’ then producer, Nick Ingman, was given the unenviable task of coming up with a whole album of similar material. I did my best, and there’s some imaginative stuff by me here, but the KS were absolutely not up to the required vocal style. And of course the result pleased nobody: rock aficionados were not turned on, while The King’s Singers’ own fans thought it a betrayal of the middle-of-the-road style they loved the group for.
King John’s Christmas (1985)
When I was a small child my father used to read A.A.Milne to my mother and me. At first I had to have the jokes explained (one glory of the stories is that they contain a great deal of adult humour) but I soon knew their implications by heart and duly guffawed in all the right places. I wonder if my dad knew of Milne’s fascism, and if he had, whether it would have deterred him from exposing me to these little masterpieces – would his socialism have overcome his artistic sensibilities (Wagner lovers discuss)? He read us all the stories plus some of the less cutesy poems. King John's Christmas was one of my favourites. In later years I myself (also ignoring the fascism) was considered quite a dab hand at reading Milne aloud, both to children – my own and others’ – and grownups. When the King’s Singers were looking for material for their Kids’ Stuff LP I suggested this setting in addition to my three arrangements (I Know an Old Woman, Yellow Submarine and School Dinners).
Ob La Di, Ob La Da (1971)
In 1971, to my great delight, the King’s Singers (at last! – as I saw it) commissioned an arrangement from me: the first of 102 compositions and arrangements I did for them between this time and the year 2000. Inspired, I threw the kitchen sink at the piece. Because of this it was very hard to sing – so hard that the Singers at first must have thought it unperformable (or perhaps they didn’t think it funny). Anyway they kept it on ice for a long time, and when they did do it I noticed a few alterations.
In 1972 (I think – again my diaries are lost) Amelia Friedman, artistic director of The Nash Ensemble, organised an enormous jamboree at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. The Nash Ensemble were there, naturally, and The King's Singers, and, amazingly, Eartha Kitt. I was booked on double bass because I could play both The Soldier's Tale with The Nash and Eartha Kitt's more jazzy bass parts: the percussionist Tristan Fry was engaged for the same reason. Kitt sang Kurt Weill among other things, as I remember; I can't recall what The King's Singers performed – on this occasion I wasn't involved with their part of the concert and hardly saw them.
Now the track moves into overdrive with a really hard-swinging feel and prominent brass stabs. We cut to the middle eight for the final chorus with the return of the lyric, and then the coup de grace is delivered. Not even rock’n’roll is excluded from our list of 'non-swinging' masterpieces: here are the intro to Sgt Pepper and the riff from Sunshine of Your Love by Cream. The buildup to the ‘scream’ ending and cutoff is interrupted briefly (on the last ‘doo-wa’s’) by an unaccompanied ukulele.
Gilbert & Sullivan arrangements (1978/1993)
Although I wrote these in 1978 they were not recorded until 1993 when we put them on the Here's A Howdy-Do CD. But in fact one arrangement, The Ghosts' High Noon, was never done at all until it was recorded for Here's A Howdy-Do. I attended an early performance of the suite and The Ghosts' High Noon was simply absent. The Singers at that time must have thought it, like they had thought Ob La Di, unperformably difficult. But dear Bob Chilcott (by 1993 the Singers' musical director) was not so easily daunted, and to my delight this song took its proud place with the rest on the CD. It's certainly difficult, but it's just as certainly brilliant, one of my best. Wild Ray Snurck makes his second appearance here, playing a deathly cathedral organ.
Get Happy (The King's Singers with George Shearing, 1991)
My first introduction to modern jazz, aged 12, consisted of playing double bass in a trio doing transcriptions (by the pianist, my schoolfriend John Pickard, now sadly passed away) of George Shearing arrangements. For me now, decades later, to arrange music for the great man himself was an enormous honour. See the booklet notes for this CD (written by me) for several exchanges between us. Being blind, Shearing had to be taught the parts of my charts by ear: to my surprise he did not already know Thelonious Monk’s Bolivar Blues.
Deconstructing Johann (2000)
At the Millenium The King's Singers got in touch again for the first time since Bob Chilcott had left the group. I had noticed a silence, of course, but was content that the new young Singers (good arrangers among them) wished to forge their own style now. But to be asked – the G.O.M. – to supply a piece for a special occasion was a great pleasure. The occasion was the 250th anniversary of the death of Bach, which was celebrated with an enormous open-air shindig in Frankfurt, hosted by Bobby McFerrin. The King's Singers were to be guests of honour, and they commissioned a special Bach medley from me. They got more than a medley! ( – though they certainly got that too.) Happily the concert was video'd, so you can buy the dvd of the Singers hamming it up brilliantly in front of a highly enthusiastic but mildly bemused German-speaking audience.