Friday, November 7, 2014

Arbors -- "The Letter" (1968)

Listen, mister, can't you see
I gotta get back
To my baby once more

The last 2 or 3 lines featured the Arbors' astonishing 1969 cover of "The Letter," which had been a #1 hit for Alex Chilton and the Box Tops in 1967.

I vaguely remember hearing the Arbors' version of "The Letter" on top-40 radio stations when I was a 16-year-old high-school junior.  But I vaguely remember hundreds of such songs.

I somehow rediscovered "The Letter" last year – don't ask me about the circumstances of that rediscovery, because I don't remember.  What I do remember is how bowled over I was when I heard it.

Joe Scott, who arranged "The Letter"
This week is a very special week for 2 or 3 lines.  It marks the fifth anniversary of everyone's favorite little wildly successful music blog.  So we're featuring a very special record – one of the most special pop records ever recorded.

In the previous 2 or 3 lines, I described how I tracked down Joe Scott, the arranger of "The Letter" – and the man most responsible for the utterly astonishing middle section of the record.

Joe Scott started taking piano lessons when he was nine.  Later, he attended the Newark Arts High School, a public high school for the visual and performing arts whose alumni include a number of world-famous singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and composers.

Newark Arts High School
He then got a degree in music theory and composition at the Manhattan School of Music, playing jazz piano in New York City nightclubs to pay for his schooling. 

By 1965, Joe was working in the famous Brill Building, writing arrangements for record producers like Phil Ramone and Bob Gaudio.  The breadth of his assignments was remarkable.  One day he might write some horn parts to help sweeten a Moby Grape album or Supersession.  The next day he’d do arrangements for Phyllis Diller (who released an album that included “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I, “Bei Mir, Bist Du Schon,” and a cover of the Stones' “Satisfaction”).  

Joe also wrote and arranged the music for TV commercials for major corporations like American Airlines, Pepsi, and Texaco – he did the arrangements for nine different “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star” TV spots for Texaco:

And he released two albums under the name “Joe Scott and his Orchestra” that featured arrangements of pop and rock songs for a symphonic orchestra.

Without further adieu, here's what Joe Scott had to say about "The Letter" when I interviewed him on the telephone recently:

2 or 3 lines:  How were you chosen to do the arranging for the Arbors’ cover of “The Letter”?  That was 1968, I believe.

Joe Scott:  I was hired by Roy Cicala and his wife, Lori Burton, who produced “The Letter.”  Roy was a great recording engineer, and Lori was a very successful songwriter and a great singer.  

[NOTE: Roy Cicala, who died earlier this year, engineered or produced albums by the Amboy Dukes, the Cowsills, Frank Sinatra, Alice Cooper, and many others, but was best known for his work with John Lennon.  Lori Burton, who released a solo album titled Breakout in 1967, wrote songs that were recorded by Lulu, Patti LaBelle, the Young Rascals, and Shania Twain.]

Roy Cicala with John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Joe Scott:  Roy and Lori wanted a new and unique arrangement, and they knew I had good skills from my schooling, so they thought I could do it.  The Arbors didn’t have an album deal at the time – the single of “The Letter” was done on spec, and the album came later.

2 or 3 lines:  Joe, I took piano lessons for a long time, and I took a couple of music theory and composition classes in college, but I’m really just an amateur compared to a professional like you.  A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed you my analysis of “The Letter” – did it make any sense at all?

Joe Scott:  I got that and I said to myself, “What, is this guy kidding me?”  It was so complicated, I couldn’t even follow it.  [Laughter.]  I’m looking at this thing and saying, “Is that what I did?”  I didn’t even remember “The Letter” very well.

Lori Burton
2 or 3 lines:  Have you listened to it recently?

Joe Scott: Oh sure -- I went to YouTube after I got your e-mail.

2 or 3 lines:  Well, I think the whole thing – especially the arrangement -- is just remarkable.  How do you feel about it?

Joe Scott: I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.  But it's important to remember that great records take more than one person.  The talents of Roy and Lori and the great sound of the Arbors were vital to the outcome.

2 or 3 lines:  So I’m not crazy to think it was a great record?

Joe Scott:  Not at all! [Laughter.]

2 or 3 lines: “The Letter” opens with a four-measure guitar introduction – it reminded me a little of Jose Felicano, or maybe the guitar on “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Session guitarist Ralph Casale
Joe Scott:  There were two guitars on that -- an acoustic guitar plays first, and then an electric guitar answers.  Jay Berliner did the acoustic.  Ralph Casale played the answer on the electric. 

2 or 3 lines:  The arrangement of the next minute or so of the record -- the first verse, then the second verse, and then the chorus – is fairly straightforward.  But the middle section of “The Letter” – the part that begins at about 01:20 and ends 90 seconds later, at 2:50 -- is anything but straightforward.  

[NOTE:  I’ve embedded “The Letter” just below, and I suggest you listen to it as you read the description of the middle section of the record that follows.]  

2 or 3 lines:  The middle section of “The Letter” starts off pretty quietly at 1:20, with eight measures of strings, accompanied by guitar.  At the end of those eight measures (1:38), the strings subtly modulate into a new key, and sustain a held note for four more measures.  Then all hell breaks loose.  Out of nowhere, the Arbors come in (at 1:48) with the chorus – gorgeous harmony over the sustained note in the strings.

Joe Scott:  That's called a pedal tone.  It's a device used in classical music.  The beauty of a pedal tone is that it does not change even when the harmony changes.

2 or 3 lines:  At 2:08, the Arbors repeat the chorus, and things really start to get interesting – the tempo retards dramatically as the volume increases, and the tension begins to build.  At 2:32, they get to the last word in the chorus – ‘‘more” – and the singers and the strings land on a fortissimo dominant seventh and hold it until the listener’s need to have it resolve back to the tonic is almost unbearable.  But you never resolve that dominant seventh – instead, you just slide into the four-measure guitar intro once more and then the Arbors sing the last verse.

Joe Scott:  You know the record better than I do!  [Laughter.]

Joe Scott at the piano
2 or 3 lines: Joe, I’ve never heard anything like that middle section – where in the world did that all come from?

Joe Scott:  It’s going to be hard for me to tell you exactly what I was thinking.  What I do want to tell you is this: whatever we do in life, in our vocation, we are influenced by different forms of education and experiences.  What I can tell you is that being a composition major – a classical  composition major at Manhattan School of Music -- that  is where that comes from.   That’s totally classical.  When you are a music composition major, you do about 25% writing your own music and 75% analyzing the music of other composers.  So the idea of bridging the two keys with the high pedal note would have been a classical thing. That’s where that comes from.

2 or 3 lines:  And the same applies to the vocals – when the Arbors come in with the chorus at 1:48?

Joe Scott:  Yes, where they come out blasting – what I call the “fanfare” -- that’s classical, that’s not rock at all.  That’s totally classical.  

2 or 3 lines:  I’ve never heard “fanfare” applied to vocal music, but that’s the perfect word for it – it’s almost like a trumpet fanfare.

Joe Scott:  When you hear the fanfare by the Arbors, that’s a new take.  That starts brand new.  We give them the pitch and they came in – they overdubbed it.  That’s how that was done.  The record was recorded in three different sessions – sections that Roy Cicala and our engineer had to put together.  Now, my guess is that in that instrumental section, we were going to do an instrumental solo.  Maybe we did one, I don’t know – but I do know that Roy and Lori were listening to it and said, “We’re not going to put any solo here, just let the rhythm section play.”  I’m sure that was their idea.  Otherwise there probably would have been a guitar solo or something in there.

2 or 3 lines: And that would have been something a little more conventional for an instrumental break, you’re saying.

Joe:  That’s right.  But instead we just let the rhythm run.  And we have to go back to the musicians now.  When you’re arranging this kind of music, as opposed to Frank Sinatra . . . you hire those players in the rhythm section, you know their style.  You know what they’re capable of.  You pretty much know what the feel is going to be with the Arbors, you know what you’re looking for, so you hire the people who you believe can play in that style.  

2 or 3 lines:  How much of the instrumental arrangement do you write out note for note?

Joe Scott:  The arranger – once he writes the introduction – really just writes the chords.  And then you tell [session guitarists like Hugh] McCracken or [Jay] Berliner or whoever it is, “This is what I need to feel.  Can you cop something for me?”  And they work with the bass player and drummer and give you something, and you say, “No – not quite that,” and finally they came up with that accompaniment, which was so critical on this record.  For me, it was those guys.  That’s who pretty much made the record.  Unless the arranger is also the guitar player, that is something he cannot take credit for.  I mean, those guys are so important in establishing the feel.  They just listen to each other.  I don’t tell the drummer to use this cymbal or use that cymbal – I mean, I would say, “Can you do something different, can you do something like .  .  .”  whatever.  But these guys create that feel.  That’s how it’s done.

2 or 3 lines:  So a record like this -- it’s truly a collaboration involving all kinds of people.

Joe:  Exactly -- as I said before.  Big time, big time.  

2 or 3 lines:  The way everything connects together –

Joe:  – You call that a happening, Gary.  If that was a Monday, we could have gone into the studio on a Wednesday and that wouldn’t have happened.  It’s spontaneous.  You have to be very fortunate.  And many times we never get what we wanted -- there was nothing special about it.  But the final product here was special.  And that wouldn’t have happened without the Arbors, without Roy and Lori, without the guitar players, and so on and so forth.

We'll learn more about Joe Scott and the surprising turn his life took shortly after "The Letter" was released in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Once again, here's the Arbors' cover of "The Letter":

Click below to buy the album "The Letter" was part of from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment