15. Early 60s String Fills

Basics, Pop, Tunes, voicing

Technology increases the speed with which things change. The product life cycle for a clock radio fifty years ago might have been counted in years or even decades. Today however, for a new device for displaying time and playing AM-FM radio to get any shelf space, it might be required to have wireless, connect to the internet, and to be controlled by a smartphone. Because these ancillary technologies change a few times each year, this radio would be required to keep up to have any hope of gaining sales.

Similarly, at one time in the arts, a fashionable style could remain relevant for years or even decades. In the twentieth century all of this changed dramatically. A fair amount of popular art forms today have life cycles counted in weeks.

Many of those familiar with classical music could probably listen to an orchestral work and determine a vague period in which it was written. For example, if you’d never heard the last two or three Mozart symphonies, but were otherwise familiar with orchestral music – an unlikely scenario, but bear with me – you might guess that Mozart’s 39th, 40th or 41st symphony was written in the late eighteenth century. You might further refine the date and propose 1780 or 1790. In fact, they were all composed in the late 1780s. Similarly, someone familiar with pop music of the twentieth century, might hear a band from the 1920s and easily differentiate it from music of the 1940s. Think of the stride piano style of Fats Waller from the 1920s and compare it to the boogie-woogie of the 1930s (and beyond) of Tommy Dorsey or The Andrews Sisters.

With the advent of the age of rock and roll, things became even more compressed. Musicians, of course, still paid tribute and copied concepts from their contemporaries as well as those who came before.  There was a time, just before the British Invasion that began with the Beatles in 1964, where many singles had similar sounds. A great deal of pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s was comprised of “girl groups,” much of their material was produced in the Brill Building in New York City.

It was fashionable to produce songs that were in the A-A-B-A form with the A-B-A or B-A repeated. Often on the repeat, an instrumental solo might be substituted for the B section. The solo was frequently a guitar or a tenor sax.

Another staple of many of the recordings produced by these groups was a background string section. It could support the melody. It could fill out harmonies. It could add a new rhythm. And, it might act as a voice of its own.

Recording studios were heavily sound deadened. This would allow the sound engineers to add reverb and other effects after the recording was made. But, studios that wanted to record strings often had a section made of hard wood floors and possibly walls to give the strings the brighter sound required to overlay the string parts onto the many other tracks that would make up the final monaural product.

Although this blog is focused on orchestral music, this post will review a tiny slice of music from 1961, give or take a few years. I’ll present pop music of the time and play some examples of what the creative composers, arrangers, and orchestrators did with songs released at the time, focusing mainly on string writing.

Countermelody vs. Fill

Last week’s post looked at “countermelodies.” This week we’ll call these snippets for what they really are. We won’t even dignify these examples with the term “countermelody.” This week’s examples are primarily “fills.” These are short passages that were written to fill in the gaps in a melody. Sometimes they work to supplement the main tune. Other times they are designed to complement it or to flesh it out. This works well with melodies that have a repetitive rhythmic element. The song Who Can I Turn To? from the show “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd” is a perfect example of a song with a repetitive rhythmic pattern.

One of the giants of this era was the prolific producer Phil Spector. He was known for producing dozens of hits as well as successful “girl groups.” This is partly attributed to the technique he developed which was dubbed the “wall of sound.” It consisted of a rich tapestry in an arrangement using a broad spectrum of instruments and sounds available, all to be put on a 45 RPM disc. They were only monaural, but the sounds reproduced well on AM and automobile radios. Even with the limited aural range, Spector was able to layer on so much in his arrangements in such a unique manner that he was a driving and innovative force in pop music for  years.

Simple But Effective String Writing

The first example we’ll listen to is from The Paris Sisters, a song entitled I Love How You Love Me released in 1961 (Example 1). It was produced by Phil Spector. This passage is the repeat of the A section and it’s where the strings are first heard. (The strings are in octaves, but I’ve simply written it in a relatively comfortable range. Keep in mind that strings were often recorded two or three times and then mixed to get a fuller, richer sound.)

The strings sneak in and sustain for four beats first an F, then a G, then a B-flat, and then a C. This is followed by a falling pattern, a small portamento between intervals of seconds on the offbeats of the 6/8 rhythm. After this, the string patterns “speed up” by playing the tones of the G minor chord on dotted quarter notes. This is then followed by dotted half-notes of the roots of the chords: E-flat, then F, and ultimately (from a voice leading viewpoint, resolving) to a D, the third of the B-flat chord at the end of the phrase. I advise that you listen to the pure simplicity of the string writing. It’s not complex or even anything new or unique. However, it perfectly complements the voices and the simple rhythmic and harmonic arrangement.

Example 1. I Love How You Love Me
Recorded by The Paris Sisters (1961), Sony
Written by Barry Mann, Larry Kolber

Lows …

Before continuing with an upbeat song by another girl group, let’s stay in the mellow, easy listening mood with A Summer Song recorded by Chad and Jeremy, released in 1964. This is another example of a group of string fills that assists the tune with its utter simplicity (Example 2). The fill itself is just 5 notes. The first time it’s played in the upper octaves (although I haven’t shown them all). When it’s repeated it’s the exact same snippet down an octave. On the final repeat it’s down another octave in the low strings. Again, not complex, in fact, quite simplistic, yet it shows how economic and effective simple string writing can be.

Example 2. A Summer Song
Recorded by Chad & Jeremy (1964), Varese Sarabande
Written by Chad Stuart, Clive Metcalfe, Keith Noble

It’s also a relatively rare example of how an arranger of the time might use the lower strings to carry a melody. As you’ll hear from most of the other examples, in order to make the strings carry over the wall of sound, high string writing was much more common.

… and Highs

In fact, speaking of high string writing, This next brief example (Example 3) is from another song produced by Phil Spector. It’s from 1963, sung by a girl group called The Crystals entitled Then He Kissed Me.

Example 3. Then He Kissed Me
Recorded by The Crystals (1963), Sony
Written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry

This is the B section of the song. Note that the violins hit a high E, two octaves above the top space in the treble staff (also known as E7 or 4 Line E) and two octaves above the open E string of the violin. Although the string writing of the time tended to be high, rarely did the strings get up that high. The few bars of strings here play a very rudimentary pattern, always in the chord except for the one passing tone in the first measure. Nevertheless, the pattern effectively adds to the building climax of the passage to return to the A section at the end of the second sustained B whole notes.

Producing Hits

These examples were generally produced in a short period of time, in some instances, just a few days. Music of the time, just as pop music of today, was not trying to be music for a lifetime, instead, its immediate goal was to be a pop music hit. The string and other arrangements were designed to support what was necessary for the song, its beat, and its expectations.

Because the strings were used on an ad hoc basis by the arrangers, they were rarely if ever arranged as an orchestra. Sometimes the ensemble would consist of violins, violas and cellos. Other times, just violins. It was a function of the budget, the availability of strings, studio time, etc. I’ve heard stories about the string players occasionally having even arranged their own parts based on the lead sheet and a discussion with the songwriter and/or producer. (This might be an apocryphal tale, but probably not.)

In the next example (Example 4) we hear the beginning of the A section of Then He Kissed Me on the repeat in the song. But rather than being sung, the upper strings are playing a fill based on the chords of the song. As you can see the eighth-note, eighth-note, quarter-note pattern is played twice, both times in between thirds of the chord with a passing tone. This is followed by sustained thirds on the dominant (B major) and then the root (E major) with a quick appoggiatura on the downbeat, echoed in the next measure.

Example 4. Then He Kissed Me
Recorded by The Crystals (1963), Sony
Written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry

Something blue

Before we go any further I wanted to play another example of an arrangement of a song that we listened to briefly in the last post. It was written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson for an Eddie Cantor musical in 1928 entitled Whoopee! In this arrangement (Example 5) we move away completely from any strings. This is a recording made in the late 1950s by Ella Fitzgerald. In this arrangement by Frank De Vol, Ella’s got a big band backing her up with some nice bluesy harmonies. I’ve just written down the top saxophone line. Unlike the example from my last post (See Example 7 in my post from February 25, 2014), which featured a very slight string part, mostly reminiscent of the melody’s outline, here De Vol has written some fun and easy-going licks that play in the background while Ms. Fitzgerald takes care of the tune in her inimitable fashion.

Example 5. Makin’ Whoopee
Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald (1959), Verve
Written by Gus Kahn, Walter Donaldson. Arranged by Frank De Vol

Makin’ Whoopee has been recorded over the years by a wide range of artists. Woody Allen even used a song and dance arrangement of it in his film Everyone Says I Love You from 1996.

Something fancy

For a final example of background fills, let’s return to the music produced in the Brill Building with a song written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, first recorded by The Shirelles and released in 1960. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow has also been recorded by many other artists, even Ms. King herself recorded it and included it on her own album “Tapestries” released in 1971.

Example 6. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Recorded by The Shirelles (1960), Varèse Sarabande
Written by Gerry Goffin, Carole King

The first passage (Example 6), from the A section, has the strings “filling the gaps” between vocal parts. Compared to some of the earlier examples, however, this is busier and more energetic. We also hear the fills including more of and sounding more like a string section. Even with the background vocals on the sha-la-las first, then sustaining background lines, and finally harmonizing the lead vocal, the strings support and enhance the overall “commitment” of the piece.

This final excerpt (Example 7) is predominantly from the “instrumental” portion of the recording. The string arranger has used several items of interest. First and notably, in the measures with all eighth notes he splits the parts so that the downbeat notes are played pizzicato by one group and the melody of all eighth notes is played arco. Another minor, but functional, tool employed by the arranger is the cellos playing even eighths on the first half of each measure and two quarter notes on the second half.

Example 7. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Recorded by The Shirelles (1960), Varèse Sarabande
Written by Gerry Goffin, Carole King

Just as the beginning of the sectional started with an introductory run, the arranger concludes with one moving down an octave from G to G to set up the cellos to play their V7 arpeggio just before the voice reenters. For a final flourish the string have a “turn-around” on a C and then an A minor arpeggio leading to the final cadence of the A section.

These pieces of background lines and fills all worked toward the same purpose: To make the songs successful. Clearly these brief passages were not intended in any way to be tiny concertos or even orchestral music. Pop music was a growth industry and these creative talents were engaged in successfully adding to the output.

Next week

We didn’t just stray away from orchestral literature in this post. I made a concerted move to show some interesting use of strings and other instruments in the world of pop music from America before the Beatles arrived and changed things forever.

In my next post I plan to return to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Please let me know if you have questions or suggestions.


3 thoughts on “15. Early 60s String Fills

  1. I’m immpressed. A little too involved for me. By the way, did you know that Carole King and I were friends in junior and senior high? She was really something!

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