Archives for category: Light Music

gypsyIt is fascinating to trace the connections the light music bandleaders and composers who flourished just after the war and into the 1960s had with the pop music world that eventually superseded them. Ralph Elman’s name is not well known today, as he made no LP recordings with his 14 piece orchestra Ralph Elman and his Bohemian Players – they were mostly a broadcast band. (There is, however, a complete transcription of a live Music While You Work broadcast made in 1963 available here).

Born in 1907 in London, he had links with the world of classical music as well, being the nephew of the Russian violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) and was a virtuoso violinist himself. He called his players “bohemians” presumably because of his love of gypsy music, and his most famous composition is a violin showpiece called “The Gypsy Fiddler”. As well as leading his own band Elman was also the leader of the Ron Goodwin Orchestra. He also played violin for Burt Bacharach and for Barry Gray (composer of the soundtracks for Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet).

It’s the Ron Goodwin connection that links Elman with the Beatles. George Martin began producing Goodwin’s instrumental LPs in 1953, and when Goodwin resumed recording for EMI in 1966 for the well-known Studio 2 stereo series, Martin was again the producer. 1967’s Gypsy Fire LP included Elman’s “Gypsy Fiddler” with the composer as soloist. It seems to have prompted Martin to use Elman as a session player on two Beatles tracks: “Within You Without You” (recorded in March/April 1967 for Sgt. Pepper) and “I Am the Walrus” (recorded in September 1967 for Magical Mystery Tour).

However, Elman’s biggest influence on the pop music world wasn’t through the Beatles. It was his setting up of the Tin Pan Alley Studios (TPA Studios for short) at Denmark Street in 1954 that had the most lasting impact. One of the first independent recording studios in the UK, TPA was where many of the early rock and rollers, including the Rolling Stones, made their early demos – though most then crossed Denmark Street to the Regent Sound Studio to record their actual hits. TPA was re-opened in 2013 as the Denmark Street Studios by producer Guy Katsav.

Ralph Elman retired in the early 1970s and went to live in Spain, where he died in January 1983 at the age of 76, apparently while listening to a recording of Ravel’s gypsy-influenced violin piece Tzigane, as played by Jascha Heifitz – a piece (and a performance) that clearly influenced “Gypsy Fiddler”.


testcardThe test card is a fading memory now that television is broadcast 24 hours a day. But on the occasional days that I was allowed sick time off from school (typically with very minor illnesses – and what a wonderful sense of freedom those days held) I remember that the afternoons were typically empty of any TV content but the test card – and the light orchestral music that accompanied it. Similar music was used to fill the gaps in between schools programming in the mornings, and as the start-up theme music for various independent television broadcasting companies around at the time. This was “production music”, recorded specially for the purpose and not available anywhere else. It was recognizably light music, but often with a more contemporary feel than classic light music on the radio. I remember in particular the optimistic, somewhat angular marches that seemed to me to exude “progress”.

An example is Gordon Langford’s March from The Colour Suite (of which only one other movement out of a projected five was actually composed). Langford (born 1930) made his name as a versatile BBC arranger in the 1960s, but he has also been a regular composer of band, orchestral and film music as well. This March is one of at least three pieces Langford composed for production use, the others being Royal Daffodil and Hebridean Hoedown. All three were originally recorded by the Stuttgart Studio Orchestra, made up of German session musicians.

The March starts with a fanfare, then moves into the forward-thrusting main theme, which is repeated four times with increasingly layered orchestration. There’s a bridge passage and two more repeats of the theme before a longer, more diverse bridge section leads back to a triumphant final statement of the theme and a short coda. It’s really the skillful building up of the orchestration and the parallel harmonic shadowing of the distinctive main melodic line that brings the piece to life.

LeonYoung20039In our last post we heard that clarinetist Acker Bilk was on the trad-jazz side of the “jazz wars”, pitched against the “modernist” Johnny Dankworth and the bebop set of Charlie Parker enthusiasts. But Bilk’s finest moment, Stranger on the Shore, which hit the top of the charts in the UK and the US in 1961, has little to do with trad jazz. Stranger, which was used as a BBC television theme tune and became the best-selling instrumental in chart history, is in fact a classic example of light music. The man who shaped it that way is now mostly forgotten. He was Leon Young (1916-91).

Young had a Salvation Army background and later trained as a military bandsman during the second world war, coming out of the war as an all-round musician and arranger. He found a job as a staff arranger at the London publisher’s Francis Day & Hunter, working above their large music shop on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street. Young was the arranger behind the Frank Chacksfield Orchestra (though Chacksfield took most of the credit), most famously the theme used for Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight for which Young composed the counter-melody. He also wrote arrangements for Petula Clark, Max Bygraves, and later for Roger Whittaker’s 1969 hit Durham Town.

Persuaded to form an orchestra purely for session work, Young put together the Leon Young String Chorale, and through this was contracted to provide string accompaniments for Acker Bilk. Stranger on the Shore, originally titled Jenny after Bilk’s daughter, was, according to Young’s son, handed to him by Acker as “a single line on a scrap of paper”. From this he crafted the arrangement, including the characteristic harmonic shifts at the very end.

Although credited on the record, Young felt his contribution had not been fully acknowledged, and litigation followed, eventually settled out of court. Young continued to arrange for BBC orchestras into the 1970s, and also worked with Sidney Thompson’s dance orchestra. But he became disillusioned with the pop world and the quality of material he was required to work on – one of his later projects was the orchestration of the sickly children’s choir novelty song Grandma, We Love You. After retirement in 1981 he returned to his early enthusiasm with band music. He died on a cold winter’s night, on his way home after hearing a Salvation Army concert at the Royal Festival Hall, on platform C of Waterloo East Station in January 1991.

Update 1 Those who admire Bilk’s playing but not the light music treatment should turn to the astonishing arrangements (including Stranger on the Shore) made by Stan Tracey for the Blue Acker album of 1968. They are a reminder that, beyond the light entertainment activities that brought him his fame, Bilk has real jazz credentials.

Update 2 Duncan Heining, in the excellent Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, argues that the issues behind the “jazz war” riots were more to do with class issues than musical differences.

Update 3 Acker Bilk sadly died, aged 85, on November 2nd 2014. His last concert was in August 2013.

havanaI’m currently a third of the way through (and enjoying) the biography Malcolm Williamson: A Mischievous Muse by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Williamson was born in 1931 and died in 2003. So far, it’s covered his early years in Sydney and his early (and very drunkard) time in London up until his marriage in 1960, which seemed to reform him almost instantly. There followed a very productive period of composition – I’ve reached 1966. The biggest impact in those years came from the opera Our Man in Havana, premiered on 2 July 1963 at Sadler’s Wells. A rare foray for opera into contemporary literature, Havana was generally well received. However, there were only five initial performances, followed by three more in 1964 and a live BBC broadcast on June 30 1964. As Sadler’s Wells typically relied on non-specialist audiences, it couldn’t afford a long run.

Its neglect since, including the lack of any recording, is hard to understand. There have been two London revivals, the first at the Cochrane Theatre in 1987 and the second at the Greenwich Theatre in 2004 – though both were college performances. Most of the initial reviews praised the boldness and skill by which Williamson fused various elements together – popular and serious, comedy and tragedy – and handled the contemporary themes. Although approaching the musical in terms of its directness of communication, the two hour work is undeniably an opera. As in many of his other compositions, Williamson incorporated seemingly incompatible musical styles in the same piece – Cuban habanera and European dances with serial influences from Berg and neo-classicism from Stravinsky. Inevitably, it occasionally also brings Bernstein to mind.

The Cuban dance elements come out in the scenes set in Havana’s “Wonder Bar” and are reflected in the freely adapted orchestral suite Williamson extracted – now pretty much the only accessible material from the opera. The musical contrasts are in evidence even within the suite. Particularly suave, and by far the lightest movement, is the Serenade, which famously provoked a conga line in the audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1976. It evokes the kind of music used in many an espionage thriller during the 1960s, and many judged it would have been more effective than the actual music used in the film of Graham Greene’s novel, which had come out five years earlier. Greene himself approved of the opera. And Malcolm Williamson went on to write another opera based on a contemporary novel – The Violins of Saint-Jacques based on the book by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

salsaThere’s a long tradition of light orchestral music in Germany – German orchestras contributed much of the best test transmission music for the BBC television “test card” during the 1960s and 1970s – so it’s perhaps not surprising to find a collaboration between German and Cuban musicians such as this one. The Klazz Brothers are pianist Tobias Forster and bass player Kilian Forster, German musicians who became enthusiastic about Cuban music while on a trip to Havana. They then set about making some orchestral arrangements of classical music in Cuban style, releasing Classics Meets Cuba in 2002 – initially just in Germany, but then more broadly two years later. A sequel, Symphonic Salsa, followed in 2006, featuring the brothers alongside some Cuban studio musicians called Cuba Percussion and the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Roger Epple.

Sounds cheesy? It is (and that’s part of the appeal) except that the arrangements (by Tobias Forster and Sverre Indris Joner) are intricate and beautifully judged. I’m less interested when they occasionally play it straight, just adding a light Latin beat to the classical melody. But in most cases they assimilate the various elements in a much more creative way. Cuban Sugar – which I heard at the weekend accompanying a dance piece at the National Youth Ballet performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre – deconstructs Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker. It begins with a staggered version of the pizzicato accompaniment from the original. Then the zither comes in, establishing the Latin cross rhythms. And then, on piano rather than celeste, comes the main theme, slithering down the scale in lazy triplets against the rest of the band. Salsa is all about the coming together of cross rhythms, and these arrangements exploit that to the full, while adding the combination of seemingly incongruous styles to the mix as well. Other orchestras are now taking up the arrangements – see this excellent YouTube live performance by Norway’s Hovedøen Social Club, which seems to me to be pretty much as good as the original.


Musical Authors: Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery (1)
Edmund Crispin, whose real name was Bruce Montgomery, was one of the later representatives of what might be considered the “golden age” school of English detective novelists. He wrote a series of crime novels featuring his amateur sleuth, Professor Gervase Fen, which began appearing in the mid-1940s, starting with The Case of The Guilded Fly. Nine volumes appeared between 1944 and 1953. But then there followed a long gap until 1977 when the final Crispin novel, Glimpses of the Moon, was published. Why the silence?

The clues are to be found within the novels themselves. It’s evident from all of them that the author has an interest in music. But two in particular, Frequent Hearses and Swan Song, have a musical backdrop. Swan Song (1947) explores the world of opera during rehearsals for a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, while Frequent Hearses is set in a film studio, and includes among the characters Napier, a composer of film music. By 1950, when Frequent Hearses was published, Montgomery was busy elsewhere, also establishing himself as a composer of film music. The best known of these are his scores for the four Doctor in the House series of comedy films, and the first six Carry On films.

“In his concert works,” writes Crispin, “Napier was a somewhat acrid modernist, but like most such composers he unbuttoned, becoming romantic and sentimental when he was writing for films.” In letters to his friend, the composer Geoffrey Bush, Montgomery often complains that writing film scores in order to make money is too hard, taking up all of his time and distracting him from more serious composition. “I’m mortally sick of comedies,” he wrote at one point. He eventually composed the scores for nearly forty films, including documentaries and thrillers. The Carry-On Suite – arranged by David Whittle from the scores of Carry On Sergeant (1958), Carry on Teacher (1959) and Carry On Nurse (1959), provides a representative example, dominated by the main theme, a comedy March. Unfortunately, alcoholism made Montgomery unreliable and he was replaced as the resident composer for Carry On films by Eric Rogers, though the main theme continued to be used.

oceanCertain types of music borrow heavily from the past. Chill-out music, for instance, often revolves around a distinctive sample, and some of those samples are used again and again on different tracks. It’s instructive sometimes to go back to the original. Ocean Beach (Cinematic Cybophonia Remix) is a chill-out classic from 2001, featuring highly distinctive tuned percussion and a beautiful “Hollywood-style” string section playing a theme dripping with glissando. It all sounds incredibly post-modern and is full of intriguing detail. This is the work of a Swiss DJ and producer called Eros Minichiello, who remixed an earlier (and much grittier) soul/acid jazz groove version by the Black Mighty Orchestra. This one is much cruder. It sets up the basic groove – complete with a flute reminiscent of the Theme from Shaft – and just pastes the same string sample on top of the groove, dispensing altogether with the tuned percussion. The Cybophonia Remix takes flute, drums and guitar from that version, but clearly goes back to the original source for the tuned percussion and strings.

So where do they come from? The source track turns out to be “Lujon”, a somewhat legendary instrumental from Henry Mancini’s 1961 album Mr Lucky Goes Latin. The entire first minute is used for the remix sample. Let’s take a closer look at the two most distinctive elements separately. First the tuned percussion, which in fact is responsible for the name of the piece. The lujon is the name of an instrument first commissioned by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and built by a musician called Bill Loughborough (who was a friend of Harry Partch). The name “lujon” was a play on the name John Lewis. It had six metal tongs suspended inside a resonating box. The lujon was played for Mancini by Shelly Manne, and subsequently also used by film composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Some may also remember it from the soundtrack of the 1960s TV series Daktari, where it was also played by Shelly Manne.

The melodic bass line played on the lujon acts as counterpoint to the second distinctive element, the string section. I can’t do better than to quote from Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music by John Caps (2012). He describes “Lujon” as “an atmospheric nocturne with [a] hammock-swing melody and a sighing major-key release…the seductive melody wafts in from the strings with…a tropical ambiance”. Caps quotes Mancini himself on the details of the scoring: “…strictly a Ravel take-off…it’s just eight parts, starting four parts in the violins and then the four parts doubled an octave lower in the violas and the cellos. It’s a very sensuous sound that Ravel made famous. But he was my influence there.”

I have to say I was shocked to discover the extent of the borrowing in Ocean Beach (Remix). The reason is that the two core elements sampled sound so modern, even in the context of the 1961 original. But in the end my surprise doesn’t lessen my admiration for the remix, which adds new elements to great effect – such as the flute from Shaft, the rhythm guitar and drums from Black Mighty Orchestra (especially in the middle section), and above all, in the new sense of space and scale it brings to that beautiful string theme, which is really too big for the two minutes 37 seconds of the original piece. The final string section cadence (that “sighing major-key release” mentioned above) is particularly wonderful at the end, where it is repeated six or seven times during the fade-out. I think Mancini, a common target for sampling, would have approved – though he might have wanted a credit on the record label.

compose music For years I’ve been intrigued by Cedric King Palmer (1913-1999), who I knew of only as the author of Teach Yourself to Compose Music (1947, second edition 1973). This seems like an impossible subject for the famous Hodder & Stoughton series to have tackled, and in truth my readings of the book didn’t turn me into a composer. But the book is one of the clearest and most concise expositions of the basics of traditional harmony, counterpoint, melody and rhythm that I’ve seen – and much easier to read than the typical music theory text book (like the Walter Piston series). I still recommend it to friends who are curious to learn more about how music works, and sometimes buy second hand copies to give them. I always wondered though, about Palmer’s own career as a composer. He’s pretty modest, and uses only one example of his own music in the book – “Love Song and Sunset” from the orchestral suite Down a Country Lane.

During the 1970s it seemed impossible to get hold of any examples, printed or recorded, even though some 600 recordings were made between the 1940s and 1960s. But now, on YouTube, it’s easier to find. Palmer was a jobbing musician and band leader who mostly wrote production and mood music for commercial purposes, some of it still used today. It’s even possible to see Palmer conducting his own orchestra on a video called “Rhythm of the Road”, a 1930s advertisement produced for the Ford Motor Company. Hackney Carriage is a classic example, recorded on the now hard to get Music for TV Dinners CD (Scamp, 1997), evoking the era of horse-drawn taxis trotting down the road – you may have head it many times as background to a nostalgic scene in various documentaries or adverts, but even If you haven’t, it sounds instantly familiar. It’s good to find out that King Palmer had impeccable credentials himself as a composer.

skellernThis instrumental track originated as a hand bell piece used in a documentary I’ve been unable to trace. It then appeared in a re-arranged version on Skellern’s 1980 album Still Magic and as the B-side to the single “Raining in My Heart” – a perfect B-side, I’d say. I’ve always admired Skellen’s quirky songwriting, and owned the 1975 album Hard Times, which had mostly original material on it, though I was less interested in his subsequent arrangements of standards.

“Cold Feet” is a beautifully assured and cheerfully relaxed piece of light music, inspired (I think) and in the spirit of the well-known vibraphone instrumental “Left Bank Two”. The melody is similarly constructed from arpeggios where each note has space to resonate even as the melody progresses, and the chord sequence is similarly jazzy. It features prominent parts for saxophone and piano accordion, which gives it something of a French feel. The accordion player is Jack Emblow (born 1930), best known for his work with the Cliff Adams Singers on the saccharine BBC radio show Sing Something Simple (which I admit, I always loathed). However, Emblow was a very active session musician and played with everyone from British trad jazzer George Chisholm through to the Beatles (where he is somewhere in the mix of “All You Need is Love”), and who went on to play for Camel, Elton John, Marc Almond and many others. Still Magic is hard to get hold of nowadays, but “Cold Feet” can be heard here.

NovolThis piece, for vibraphone and a small jazz ensemble, became widely known when it was used as incidental music for the BBC children’s show Vision On in the 1960s. (It was used for the Gallery section, where paintings sent in by viewers were shown on screen).  It somehow epitomizes the kind of library music and background music the BBC used extensively during the 1950s to the 1970s, for instance between Schools programmes or as a background for the Test Card, which was broadcast for many hours in the days before television became a 24 hour service. These pieces were produced especially by music publishers such as De Wolfe and sold as library or production music with special royalty concessions.

Left Bank Two was apparently a throwaway piece put together by vibe player Wayne Hill and some session musicians from the Netherlands (directed by the Dutch composer, arranger and studio manager Frans Mijts) because they had a few minutes left-over time at the very end of a session for De Wolfe. I’ve always been fascinated by the fluency and length of the melody and the effortless modulations that still somehow manage to return to the home key by the end.  (The guitarist gets a little lost towards the end though, presumably due to lack of any time to rehearse). Wayne Hill wrote a number of other themes, including the theme tune for the ATV television show The Power Game (1965-9),  the startup music for Ulster television called The Antrim Road, and some film soundtracks, but I can find out very little else about him.

On the B-Side of the 1970s 7 inch single reissue is a slightly longer (20 seconds) version of the same recording, let to finish rather than fade out. This was originally issued in 1964 on a De Wolfe 10 inch single, under the title “Left Bank One”. Intriguing after all these years to hear the music actually finish.