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Interview: Ralph Carmichael (Part 2)

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Ralph Carmichael likes to arrange strings in clusters. This technique allows him to take the largest possible group of violins, violas and cellos and, by bunching them into groups and voicing them as mini ensembles, he ensures richness and clarity without clutter and sweetness. For Ralph, the goal always is to create a luminous frame for singers and not let the arrangement become cute or shmaltzy.

In Part 2 of my three-part conversation with Ralph on his close relationship with Nat King Cole, the arranger talks about the singer's album with George Shearing and Cole's fondness for spirituals:

JazzWax: How did Nat King Cole work in the studio?
Ralph Carmichael: He always dressed casually, in slacks and an open shirt. He would arrive a little late to give me time to run down the charts with the orchestra. This way, if there were any clams [bad notes], we'd work them out without Nat having to stand around while we corrected them. Nat arriving late soon became a custom. When I'd see his image in the control booth, I knew we were ready to go. Sometimes he would stand with me as we ran down the last chart and he'd hum along.

JW: How was he set up in the studio?
RC: Generally there was a baffle around him, but he wasn't totally enclosed. Maybe two-thirds of the mike would be surrounded. Nat usually did one take and that's it.

JW: Did Nat like strings?
RC: He loved them. Many people think Nat was coerced into recording with strings. Not so. He loved the way his voice sounded with them behind him, the more the merrier.

JW: Did Nat ever tell you how much he enjoyed your arrangements?
RC: Nat had a way of communicating his love for your work that surpassed anything he could put into words. It was a twinkle in his eyes. You could tell when he was digging it. It was a very special look.

JW: What was it like working with Cole and George Shearing on their 1961 album together?
RC: Nat and George had the greatest of respect for each other. George was, of course, a fabulous pianist, and his sense of swing was marvelous. He loved Nat's concept for the album.

JW: Who came up with the songs choices?
RC: They had been selected by the time we got together to meet on the keys, tempos and feel of each song. I suspect all three of them—Nat, George and producer Lee Gillette—figured out the songs. The problem we faced, though, was that Nat and George couldn't agree on how we'd treat each song.

JW: How so?
RC: When we had our first meeting at Capitol—Nat, Lee, George and me—I had my score paper with me. After an hour and a half, I had 10 pages of notes written on the page.

JW: How many songs did that cover?
RC: One [laughs]

JW: What happened next?
RC: After George and Net left, I spoke to Lee. I said, “This is nuts. They keep changing their minds about who is going to start the song, where a key change will occur, and so on." I told lee, “I have a better idea."

JW: What happened?
RC: At our next meeting a few days later, there was a mike set up for Nat and one for George. I could throw my two cents in by talking into Nat's mike. Val Valentine was in the booth recording everything that was being said. I didn't have to write anything down.

JW: What did you do?
RC: When the meeting was finished, they ran me a copy of the tape. I just listened to the last three minutes of each conversation to capture the approach they wanted.

JW: Did Cole arrive late on each of the four recording sessions?
RC: He came in 15 minutes late for the first one.This bugged George, since he was there on time. So on the second date, Nat got there about 15 minutes late but George came 30 minutes late. On the third date, Nate came 40 minutes late. It got to be hilarious. They finally agreed to knock it off and both arrived at the same time for the fourth session. 

JW: Since Shearing was blind, how did he know how the studio was set up?
RC: His assistant would tell him. When George arrived, he'd come into Studio A at Capitol and walk right over to the piano and plop himself down on the bench without bumping into a thing. He knew exactly the distance and clearing for his walk.

JW: Did Shearing say anything to you about your arrangements?
RC: On the second or third tune we recoded, I ran down the song and we all looked over at George to see if he approved. George didn't say a word. He scooted  back from the piano and headed directly toward me. I said to myself, “Oh boy, now what?" He found me and put one hand on my shoulder and whispered, “You're a son of a bitch." That was the highest compliment. I knew I had hit the mark if George loved it that much. We had 30 strings on that date. I had been pushing for a larger and larger string section, and they gave me whatever I wanted. George, being an arranger himself, understood what I was aiming for and what I was doing with the arrangement to get us there.

JW: Did you do Cole's road shows as well?
RC: Yes. For one of them, Nat wanted a medley of a half dozen spirituals. I wrote them for him with a choir㬈 voices. He loved it. For these songs, he'd come out on stage like a Sunday morning preacher, and the kids in the choir were all in robes. It was one of his favorite segments of the show.

JW: Nat enjoyed those?
RC: Loved them. After he came off the road, he went into the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and asked me to fly in from Los Angeles to do a rehearsal. One of the tunes, the finale, was a group of spirituals. We ran it down in rehearsal and it went well. The kids did a great job.

JW: Spirituals in Las Vegas must have been a shocker.
RC: Between rehearsals and opening night, we were all having a bite to eat in the lounge in a quiet private area. Jack Entratter [pictured], the hotel's president, was running the dinner. We had all ordered and were eating, so it was real quiet.

JW: Who broke the silence?
RC: Jack. He said to Nat, “I have to talk to you about that religion thing. We have to cut it. It has to go." Nat looked up at him from his food with a surprised expression. Jack added, “Nat, it's taking place in my bar."

JW: What happened next?
RC: Nat put his knife and fork down quietly, pushed his chair back, stood up and started to place his napkin down. He said, “Then you'll have to get yourself another boy singer" and started to walk away.

JW: What did Entratter do?
RC: Jack said, “Nat, no, no. I was just kidding. Keep it in, keep it in."

JazzWax tracks: Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays (1961) offers a fascinating look at Ralph Carmichael's string style. For example, listen to Pick Yourself Up. Or I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good. Or Serenata. Listen carefully how Ralph works in the strings and where he has them lay back. The goal was to enhance but not get under the feet of the already tender Shearing Quintet. Fabulous. This album is available at iTunes or here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Pick Yourself Up. Dig where Ralph writes in the strings. They don't come in until the seventh measure and then drift in stealthily, almost like a mist. Or listen to the Shearing Quintet's solo. The strings don't come in until after the first chorus, and then they pop in and out delicately, more like a waiter in a scene than a seated guest...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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