Ol’ Man River
(Words Oscar Hammerstein II, music Jerome Kern)
Analysed by Robert Walton

Why does the song Ol’ Man River sound so ancient? It’s much more than just Hammerstein’s brilliant lyrics, although they obviously help. The simple answer is because of the primitive pentatonic scale (black notes of the piano) which occurs in most of the early music cultures, e.g. in China around 2000 BC. It’s sometimes called the Scottish scale because the bagpipes have a similar tuning - C, D, E, G and A. (Like my ringing chimes). It’s the main chorus of Ol’ Man River that is purely pentatonic using the 5 note scale. Hence the prehistoric atmosphere it creates. It couldn’t be a better setting for such a magnificent tune. Note the built-in syncopation on the word “River” and every third note of each bar in the chorus.

So from China, let’s follow a possible musical journey. First to Africa for the rhythm, America for syncopation, developed by Stephen Foster, a touch of jazz and finally to Jerome Kern who couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate format. If you speed up Kern’s melody, it could be one of the first of the extended “fanfares” before 20th Century Fox got in on the act! But there’s also an extra special tenderness in the main tune at bar 5. In the key of C on the word “JUST keeps rollin’” (Dm9, 11) the effect is overwhelming if you freeze “just”. Play, sing, hum, whistle or just listen to this grand tune. It’s a most all-encompassing experience.

The bridge starts “You and me we sweat and strain”. Like all bridges it begins as the perfect contrast, but when it rejoins the main melody it slips back in, just like from a verse. So in fact there are two verses.

But who first sang this comparatively simple 32 bar popular song? Jules Bledsoe introduced it in the 1927 musical “Showboat” and also the first film version in 1929. However the best-known singer of it was Paul Robeson in the second film version of 1936. The popular third film version of “Showboat” was in 1951 featuring William Warfield. In the film “Till the Clouds Roll By”, Frank Sinatra gave the song an entirely new feeling and freedom, getting away from the predictable basso profondo performances.

My favourite version of Ol’ Man River has got to be the most versatile artist of them all, Gordon MacRae, a legitimate baritone/crooner who sings a very gimmick-less arrangement with the Carmen Dragon Orchestra. (NZ Maori baritone Inia Te Wiata made a fine job of it too). And only recently I came across an outstanding traditional version of the song, sung, but “not crooned” by Dick Haymes. Big bands considered it too sluggish, hence their tendency to play it presto like Ted Heath, when it’s asking to be a medium swing.

Ol’ Man River is unquestionably one of the most moving songs ever written - a colossus in its category! A natural waterway even today carries the vital ingredients of life itself - work, play, family, culture, faith and love. The Mississippi River brilliantly describes the backdrop of the long-suffering African-Americans. Bringing the River Jordan into the mix was a clever move. In answer to Tennyson’s “The Brook” (“Men may come, men may go but I go on forever”), Hammerstein came up with “he just keeps rollin’ along”. Quoting from St. Augustine’s Confessions being “tired of life and afraid of dying” is a clear sign that life was a struggle. In spite of all this, it’s a universal message of hope and optimism.

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Luna Park
(Eric Siday)
Analysed by Robert Walton

When I first visited Sydney, Australia, the most memorable thing I saw was Luna Park across the harbour behind the famous bridge. In fact it was the first amusement park I’d ever seen. You couldn’t miss its flashing lights and vertically predominant position like Paris’s Eiffel Tower filling the sky and giving the city its character, years before the opera house. Composer Eric Siday had moved to New York in 1939 so it would have been the famous one at Coney Island which inspired his composition.

Siday was a violinist and composer who during the 1920s and 30s occasionally doubled on alto saxophone in British dance bands including that of Ambrose and Ray Noble. Little did musicians and music lovers anticipate the coming of Chappell’s Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra in the 1940s. Once it became established the name itself conjured up the finest combination of its kind in the world with players borrowed from the capital’s symphony orchestras. The high standard of tunes, arrangements and names like Robert Farnon, Sidney Torch, Wally Stott (who became Angela Morley), Clive Richardson and Charles Williams told you in no uncertain terms that Light music had reached its Golden Era. No light orchestra has ever come anywhere near its high standard. It must surely have been the pinnacle of such excellence. We would never hear its like again.

Announcing this “down under” pleasure ground, swirling strings quickly show what they’re capable of, rising up and heading for the heights, only to dive down slightly after reaching the top. After a deliberate pause, the busy first chorus gives the arco strings a real chance to display their wares and portray the activities in such a park - the Big Dipper, dodgems, the Ghost Train, and the Big Wheel. This is pure Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra which clearly marks its time and place. And then escaping the repetitive nature of the notes, the strings are given a little freedom with a chorus of longer notes, plenty of syncopation and less tension. But busy is still the operative word!

After another obvious pause we arrive at the official bridge and a tune with some nice decorations, several mini climaxes followed by some fun orchestration and a sudden pizzicato ending.

We immediately return to the opening and the strings are again hard at work with the lively atmosphere that highlights Luna Park. A woodwind flourish briefly cuts in, but we’re soon back to the busyness with a really neat ending.

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Frank DeVol
A tribute by Robert Walton

It’s amazing the number of people in the entertainment business who have a “De” before their surname. There’s Buddy DeFranco, Gloria DeHaven, Reginald DeKoven, Eddie DeLange, Vaughn DeLeath, Milton DeLugg, Gene DePaul, Peter DeRose, Buddy DeSylva and our star arranger for this article, Frank DeVol.

Frank Devol’s main claim to fame was his 1948 orchestral introduction to Nature Boy for Nat “King” Cole. This now legendary Delian dissonance marked a very important moment in popular music history. It was the time the musical baton was symbolically passed on to “arranger-in-waiting” for the stars, Nelson Riddle, anticipating all those beautiful singles Cole recorded. And later this led to Frank Sinatra finally joining forces with Riddle. In fact it was during Axel Stordahl’s reign as Sinatra’s orchestrator that DeVol came up with that revolutionary chart for Cole. Frank DeVol was also brilliant at writing instrumentals.....with a difference. These jazz-based arrangements never do quite what you think. Listen to his “Portraits” album on Jasmine (JASCD 538) and you’ll see what I mean. His string writing has always been special and top priority.

But this versatile musician was also known as Frank Denny De Vol a performer specializing in deadpan characters. He starred in the 1961 film “Parent Trap”. This was highly unusual because arrangers aren’t normally known for their ability to act. They tend to concentrate on the creative process. The last thing they want to do is show off. For them things come alive later in the studio when the players emerge from the woodwork!

Occasionally he sang. Remember the duet with Margaret Whiting in I Said My Pajamas (And Put On My Prayers) which charted in 1950? Other vocalists he arranged and conducted for were The Four Lads, Jo Stafford, Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé, Dinah Shore, Jack Smith, Gordon MacRae, Doris Day, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, Jimmy Wakely and Ella Fitzgerald. After DeVol’s wife died in 1989 he married Jimmy Dorsey singer Helen O’Connell. Talking of big bands, DeVol arranged and played lead alto sax for Horace Heidt and arranged for Alvino Rey.

On the film front Frank scored more than 50 movies including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Pillow Talk”, ‘Hush Sweet Charlotte”, “Cat Ballou”, Flight of the Phoenix”, “Send Me No Flowers”, “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” and “Frisco Kid”.

It all started when the young Frank DeVol played violin in his father’s orchestra. Little did he know then that this modest beginning on a bowed 4 string instrument would lead him to becoming one of the world’s great arrangers.

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All Through The Night (TRAD)
Analysed by Robert Walton

If you have diligently followed Robert Farnon’s “journey into melody” career, you will know that one of his favourite composers was Hungarian Béla Bartok. Here’s a very interesting quote from him.

“Folk melodies are a real model of the highest artistic perfection. To my mind, on a small scale, they are masterpieces, just as much as in the world of larger forms, a fugue by Bach or a Mozart sonata”.

That comment could also have been referring to those famous Farnon miniatures of the 1940s and 50s, many of which I covered in the Farnon Society’s magazine JIM. I used to introduce them as “Thoughts, in depth analysis and a reassessment of the music of the gentle giant of the miniature”.

Just a hint of a folksong assignment and Farnon would have his pencil sharpened ready to apply notes to manuscript at the earliest opportunity. Being an arranger, it was perhaps inevitable that this source of music would appeal to him. The traditional Welsh tune All Through The Night (“Ar Hyd Y Nos”) is one I would thoroughly recommend, so stay with me as we look at two things - the tune and the orchestration. Like many of Farnon’s pieces he gave the world the definitive version.

Simplicity is the key word here because there can’t be many melodies in music which deserve that description. The opening violin strains of this haunting piece almost move listeners to a state of inertia. And that’s just the tune. As soon as it’s dressed up in Robert Farnon’s fancy finery, there really is no word that adequately describes the magic it creates. The contrasting orchestral phrase hits you for six, in a subdued, soft hued sort of way. The soloist returns to end the chorus. After a slight crescendo, the full orchestra comes up a gear or two to repeat one of Wales’s most beautiful melodies with some gorgeous undertunes. We have now been transported into Farnon’s symphonic world. Then things slow right down for an important key change. But it’s a return to the violin for a glorious finish.

In 1954 I decided to arrange All Through The Night for our school choir competition. I wrote it in 4 part harmony and my theory was if it was performed basically straight, we had a good chance of winning. In spite of a note perfect and expressive performance, imagine my surprise and disappointment when we were pipped at the post by a choir singing the German hit of the same year The Happy Wanderer (“Val-de-Ri, Val-de-Ra”) originally sung by the Obenkirchen Children’s Choir. We may have lost, but All Through The Night will still remain one of the great traditional tunes of all time.

Our Head of Music had never heard of Robert Farnon, but after listening to his arrangement of Londonderry Air was hooked. One of our pupils, Weston Williamson had certainly heard of him. In fact he played his own piano arrangement by ear of Yes We Have No Bananas note for note with all the right harmonies! No mean feat!

THE SONGS OF BRITAIN Robert Farnon Orchestra CDLK 4174

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A Wonderful Guy
(Richard Rodgers)
Analysed by Robert Walton

Every industry has its “backroom boys” who know its business inside out, but very often don’t get the credit they deserve. In music, some orchestrators and composers have remained relatively unknown, never getting their name in lights. Warren Barker (1923-2006) born in Oakland, California is good example. Like Nelson Riddle, Barker studied composition under Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco.

As a child, Barker played piano and trumpet all which helped him in his career in movies, radio and television in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Some of the big film companies he was associated with included 20th Century Fox, Columbia and MGM. One of his most memorable arranging jobs was for Oscar-winning “Hello Dolly”. In 1970 Barker was honoured for “My World And Welcome To It” based on James Thurber’s life.

But for the moment let’s concentrate on this classic tune from “South Pacific”. It’s the happiest, joyous and most imaginative instrumental version I’ve ever heard. The song with its constant three beats in a bar does full justice to this intoxicating waltz. In fact there’s quite a lot of Riddle in the score. Like many 2021 television ads, pizzicato strings open the arrangement. From the pool of Rodger’s melodic masterpieces A Wonderful Guy is reborn. Woodwind and normal strings keep up the cheerfulness with lower strings providing a bit of drama at the end of the second phrase.

Middle section time now on the words “I’m as trite and gay as a daisy in May, a cliché coming true” when the violins really come to life as they divide into two strands enhancing the tune. If you think they’re groovy enough, prepare yourself for the next time we hit the bridge! Before that some deliberately “wrong” chords herald a slow down in anticipation of the most moving moment in the whole piece.

Then getting every ounce out of the melody, 16 bars of cutting edge strings immerse themselves as never before in this glorious tune. Somewhere Schoenberg is shadowing. The power of music is amazing. By this time you should be totally involved.

It’s not generally known that Rodgers born in NY City was of German origin, his father a doctor, and the family name was Rogazinsky.

Guild GLCD 5153

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Reginald Pursglove (1902 -1982)
By Robert Walton

When violinists come up for discussion, we tend to think of great classical soloists like Benedetti, Bell, Chang, Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Perlman and Vengerov. These top players in a class of their own have made their names in the glare of publicity playing the world’s most famous concertos.

But what about the thousands of fiddlers who occupy symphony orchestras and recording sessions who remain comparatively unknown? In many ways it was these musicians who were the lifeblood of the business. Without them, the industry would have collapsed. Lots of these players filled the need for specialization in which the instrument covered a much wider range of music. This is true today as it was then.

In the dance band world, strings became an integral part of their sound. Even just one violin proved effective in the hands of the right person. In the UK in the 1920s and 30s one of the most in demand soloists was Reginald Pursglove whose violin nestled comfortably in many of the bands which included Carroll Gibbons, Ray Starita and Ray Noble. Reg produced a vibrato so beautiful that it literally took your breath away. In addition he was a brilliant sight reader and a superb technician. Whenever there is a documentary or programme on television covering the years before World War 2, keep a sharp eye out for the leading band of the era, the great Bert Ambrose Orchestra. You might well spot Reginald Pursglove on the left adding his sound to the proceedings. But don’t hang about. You have to be quick!

When I came to Britain in the 1960s, Pursglove’s own group the Albany Strings played several of my tunes on the BBC Light Programme. Years later in the 1970s when I was conducting the London Pops Orchestra at Pye Studios, Reginald happened to be in the string section. What a reunion that was! Incidentally sitting next to him was Jack Rothstein.

Well, after my connections with Reg, it’s time to actually hear what he sounded like. 1944 was the year he recorded Raymond Scott’s In An 18th Century Drawing Room with his own orchestra. He certainly had a distinctive style.

As a young man he studied at the Guildhall School of Music after which he went straight into the music hall and brass band work. The brass work proved good preparation for the dance bands. With all that experience over the years he became one of the busiest session men in town.

Catch him on Google or Guild GLCD 5128 and you’ll see what I mean!

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.