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Interview: Ralph Carmichael (Part 1)

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Ralph Carmichael has arranged for Ella Fitzgerald, Bing  Crosby, Stan Kenton, Jack Jones, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Al Martino, Roger Williams and Sue Raney. But he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Nat King Cole between 1960 and the singer's death in 1965. In fact, each holiday season you hear Carmichael's stereo arrangement of Cole's The Christmas Song.

In Part 1 of my three-part conversation with Ralph, 83, on Cole, the arranger talks about growing up in three different cities and landing a job with Capitol:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Ralph Carmichael: In Quincy, Ill. My dad was a poor preacher, but we never went hungry. I remember eating some sparse meals though. For example, in the spring, my mom sent me out to pick dandelion greens. She'd make a pot of them with some ham thrown in for flavor. We lived on the banks of the Mississippi. Along the banks were factories that made paper. When it would rain, the paper gave off an acrid smell. Everyone held their nose.

JW: When did you start playing an instrument?
RC: My dad started me on violin just before I was four years old. I took lessons with Georgia Morey, who ran a local school of music. She'd come to our house to give me my lessons.

JW: How long did you study violin?
RC: Until I was 20 years old. My dad thought I was going to be a concert violinist. But I was too curious about the chords I had heard in songs on the radio growing up. When I was about 12 years old, my dad had me take piano lessons as well. I liked listening to the different chord voicings I tired on the keyboard. I'm grateful my dad encouraged my curiosity.

JW: Did you remain in Illinois?
RC: No. When I was 6 years old, my father took another pastorate in Fargo, ND. I froze to death for 6 years there. Fortunately I found a violin teacher who was teaching at the local college. Then when I was 12 we moved to San Jose, Calif. I was so happy. My father had me audition for the San Jose Civic Symphony and I won a seat in the violin section.

JW: Do you have brothers and sisters?
RC: I have a younger sister, Ruthadele. In fact I just talked to her. She's four years younger than I am. As I would outgrow various instruments, she would follow behind me and take what I had outgrown.

JW: How many other instruments did you study?
RC: I played trumpet in the highs school band. By that time, I was listening to Harry James. I would mow neighbors' lawns for change and buy his 78-rpm records. My favorite was Ciribiribin. I'd listen to the chords the band was playing and pick them out on the piano. Then I'd show them to my dad.

JW: What did he think?
RC: At first he said they were wrong notes. Eventually, though, he understood that they were hot notes. To my father's credit, he never put me down.

JW: Sounds like you spent a lot of time listening to the radio.
RC: I did. I even had my own radio. Late at night, the hotels featured bands and I'd listen into the wee hours. In high school, I taught myself to arrange. I was just curious. My prize possession before I left for college was a pad of score paper. I had bought it at a local music store.

JW: What were you arranging?
RC: Simple things but I'd include phrasings I'd hear on the radio. I flunked music theory because I was always writing things that were against the rules. I'd say, “But I heard that on a Stan Kenton record." The answer was always, “You can't do that."

JW: Where did you go to college?
RC: Southern California Bible College in Pasadena. In college, I started a male vocal quartet, a brass trumpet trio and then a group with six trumpets and six trombones. I also began experimenting with five voices—two gals and three guys—to imitate pop groups like the Pied Pipers.

JW: When did you first meet Nat King Cole?
RC: Nat was tapped by NBC to fill in for Dinah Shore on her radio show in the early 1950s, which aired several days a week. He was her summer replacement. A vocal contractor named Jimmy Joyce called me to sing backup with Nat. There were three guys and three gals. We stood around a mike, and Nelson Riddle conducted. I was singing baritone.

JW: Did you meet him that day?
RC: No, not formally. After the show was over, I snuck around to see him, but Nat had an entourage with him of five or six guys in flashy clothes and polished shoes. I fell in with them about 10 feet back so I could keep looking at Nat. We walked down a long corridor to the parking lot.

JW: How did you wind up at Capitol Records?
RC: I was working for a company that was recording sacred records. This guy liked what I was doing instrumentally so he asked me to arrange for a 48-member orchestra. It was called Rhapsody in Sacred Music. We recorded it at Capitol's Studio A.

JW: How did you make the leap from sacred music to pop?
RC: The mixer on the sacred date was Val Valentine. He liked what he heard, made a copy of the tape and got it to Lee Gillette, Nat King Cole's a&r man at Capitol. It wasn't long before I received a call from Lee asking if I'd be interested in doing an album with Nat.

JW: What did you say?
RC: “Wait until I sit down" [laughs]. Nat was getting ready to do a Christmas album. But first he had to finish an album with Nelson Riddle called Wild is Love. It's one of Nat's more unusual albums. He narrates a story in between singing numbers. Lee called and said they needed a short overture and backgrounds for the narrations. Nelson wasn't available. That's the first recording I did with Nat.

JW: How did that 1960 album work from an arranger's standpoint?
RC: I only heard Nat's narration. Then with my stopwatch, I timed out what he was saying and wrote the backgrounds. I had to know the keys going into the next song to write transitions. I did the backgrounds and the overture for Wild Is Love.

JW: How did you record Touch of Your Lips in 1960?
RC: Nat let me know that he liked my string writing. He liked the clusters I put together using four parts for violins, two parts for violas and two parts for cellos. We recorded that album in Studio B at Capitol. On one of the tunes, they dimmed the lights and played back the tracks. It was so beautiful that a couple of ladies in the orchestra were crying. The tenderness and emotion were extraordinary. Nat had turned me loose and let me do my eight-part writing.

JW: In 1961, you wrote the arrangement to the definitive version of Cole's Christmas Song.
RC: Yes, that's right. A year earlier I had arranged a holiday album for Nat called The Magic of Christmas. We didn't record The Christmas Song on there, and they only let me use nine strings. The following year, Capitol had me arrange The Nat King Cole Story.

JW: What was the thinking behind that album?
RC: The concept was for me to rearrange 36 of his earlier mono hits in stereo. I arranged The Christmas Song for this album. By then I had talked Lee Gillette into letting me use 20 strings. That version is the one you hear all the time during the holidays. In 1963, they added it to The Magic of Christmas and renamed the album, The Christmas Song.

JW: Whose arrangement did you build on?
RC: Nelson Riddle's. I simply built it out for stereo with a more magnificent string section. A day before we recorded, I got a phone call from Felix Slatkin, one of the violinists. Eleanor, his wife, was in the cello section. Felix said, “Hey kid, do we really need to play all these wrong notes? A four-part violin arrangement? Three was good enough for David Rose? Why not three parts?" [laughs]

JW: The extra strings gives that recording its rich nostalgic feel.
RC: I know. They couldn't find Nelson's original score so I had to do a take down. I listened to Nelson's 1952 recording and copied it. There was nothing I could do to make it more beautiful than what Nelson had already done. I just added twice as many musicians. Instead of it having a stringy sound, it now had a glow.

JW: You've always liked using quite a crowd on recordings.
RC: Yes, I liked the big sound. Lee Gillette used to tease me. The night before a session I'd wake him up on the phone begging to use more and more musicians

Tomorrow, Ralph Carmichael on working with Nat Cole in the studio, Cole's album with George Shearing and a showdown in Las Vegas.

A special thanks to Dick LaPalm.

JazzWax clip: Here's Raph Carmichael's gorgeous 1960 arrangement of The Touch of Your Lips for Nat Cole...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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