By Brian Wise | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
In a 1969 Newsweek article, several prominent orchestral violinists revealed how they were so busy moonlighting in their off-hours, recording string parts for pop albums, TV shows, and ad jingles, that they were “serenading themselves into rarified tax brackets.” The article focused on concertmasters for orchestras in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit who used their earnings from studio sessions to purchase Stradivari and Guarneri violins along with sports cars, natty suits, and home swimming pools.
“People say it isn’t dignified,” said the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s “swinging concertmaster” Gordon Staples, “but I say, any time you can make an honest dollar, it’s respectable.”
That flush era may be a distant memory, but the string players’ craftsmanship lives on in classic albums that include John Lennon’s Imagine, recorded in 1971, which includes the contributions of New York Philharmonic musicians on four songs. Similarly, “Philadelphia Soul” hits such as the O’Jay’s “Love Train” and Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” featured that city’s conservatory-trained string players—often billed as members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
And Motown Records routinely recruited strings from the Detroit Symphony to “sweeten” songs by the Supremes, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, among other stars. However anonymous their efforts, the string players helped shape the sound and image of popular music, while establishing a blueprint for orchestral arrangements that is followed to this day.
John Lennon’s Flux Fiddlers
After recording the vocals and rhythm tracks at his home studio in Berkshire, England, Lennon, along with producer Phil Spector, traveled to New York to record the string parts for Imagine, his second solo album. The former Beatle had turned to Torrie Zito, a versatile, New York–based arranger who made a name working for the likes of Perry Como and Tony Bennett. To ensure the availability of top-flight musicians, the sessions were scheduled for July 4 and 5, 1971, the holiday doubling their pay rate.
Lennon called his troupe the Flux Fiddlers, after the Fluxus art group, of which Yoko Ono was a member. The 40-odd musicians included Aaron Rosand, the noted violin soloist; David Nadien, the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster from 1966 to 1970; Julius Schachter, a former concertmaster with the NBC Symphony; and Theodore Israel, a freelance violist who had toured the Soviet Union with the New York Philharmonic.
Lennon touted the Philharmonic credits in interviews, a badge of honor for the solo artist. “Contractors would often say, ‘I’ve got guys from the Philharmonic on this session,’” notes John Beal, one of three bassists who played on the session. Now a member of the American Symphony Orchestra, Beal remembers the 1970s as a golden era of session work, when string players would quit orchestra jobs to draw higher incomes on studio gigs. “You’d have longevity in studio work by playing in string sections,” Beal says. “I started out playing electric bass in rhythm sections and they sort of use you up after a couple of years. They go on to the next guy because styles change. But if you played orchestrally, you’re always in demand.”
Beal admits that the string parts on Imagine were “subliminal,” especially when compared to the audacious, ornate orchestrations of later Beatles records. But Lennon had clear ideas for his songs, which Zito, his arranger, ran with. “On ‘Imagine’ and on ‘Jealous Guy’ it’s very straight,” Lennon once explained, “and sort of funky on ‘It’s So Hard’ in the solo in the last verse. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ has also got the violins. Everyone calls them ‘Eastern’—they’re just violins playing guitar parts!”
Imagine in 2012 was voted 80th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The original inner album sleeve credits “John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers).”
The Detroit Symphony’s Soulful History
String arrangements came to R&B and soul music in the late 1950s, most notably with the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” and continued through the disco era. The aesthetic came into its own around 1964, when Motown producers began adding strings to “sweeten” the textures of their songs. To an integrationist Black middle class, strings signaled “high” Western culture, says Andrew Flory, author of I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B. “It had this air of elegance and sophistication and instrumental variety,” he says. “It adds a sense of grandeur and class. And you could make cool sounds with strings.”
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra strings, joined by house band the Funk Brothers, were prominent on countless Motown hits. Recording sessions were often scheduled late at night, after the DSO’s concerts had finished downtown. Anywhere from 12 to 28 musicians, still in concert dress, traveled up Woodward Avenue to Motown’s cramped Studio A, known as the “Snake Pit,” or the larger Studio B, dubbed “Golden World.” Gordon Staples, the late concertmaster, led the section, which included his wife, now-retired DSO violinist Beatriz Budinsky.
“Gordon had a very friendly and outgoing personality and he could relate equally well to people in the popular field or in classical music,” Budinsky says in a video call along with her son, Gregory Staples, who is now a violinist in the orchestra. “He also had a very good ear. When some of the arrangements were a little bit ad hoc and in a strange key that was not suitable to the easiest string playing, he had the ability to adapt them very quickly.”
The strings were typically the last (and often costliest) parts to roll off the Motown assembly line, and bore the stamps of staff arrangers like David Van De Pitte and Paul Riser. Among Riser’s celebrated arrangements was “My Girl,” the 1965 Temptations hit, in which the strings offer a sweeping, fanciful countermelody. More elaborate was the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” the 1972 ballad about parental abandonment, wherein Riser layers shivering tremolos and cinematic touches.
“Most people can sing the string melody in ‘My Girl,’” notes Flory. “It’s a super-strong melody. ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ is much more about instrumental textures and psychedelia, and the strings are much more cartoonish. Every sound in that track is carefully crafted.”
In 1970, the Detroit Symphony strings made an album of their own, Strung Out, credited to Gordon Staples and the String Thing. In songs by Riser and other Motown songsmiths, the strings dart and weave over stinging brass and Funk Brothers’ grooves. Selections were later used in the Blaxploitation film Mean Johnny Barrows, before the album was reissued in 2009 by Reel Music.
Though Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, the DSO has given pops concerts in recent years with the label’s stars including Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson. Budinsky turns nostalgic when recalling her brief encounters with Marvin Gaye, whom she remembers as “a fascinating, handsome, and personable guy,” and a young Michael Jackson, who demonstrated a few twirling dance moves. “Somehow those are the unforgettable moments that I cherish.”
Crafting the Sound of Philadelphia
A further chapter in the history of soulful string arrangements began at Philadelphia International Records (PIR), established in 1971 by the visionary songwriter-producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The first post-Civil Rights Movement soul label, it featured Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Billy Paul, and McFadden & Whitehead plying a sumptuous yet gritty brand of “Philly Soul.” Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra were said to cross Broad Street to record with African American arrangers like Thom Bell and Bobby Martin. Yet some details remain fuzzy.
“Gamble always liked to say there were a lot of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians on the recordings,” says Larry Gold, a PIR session cellist who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music. “There were some Curtis musicians. Sometimes there might have been a Philly Orchestra dude playing.” But the extent of the orchestra’s involvement is debated, and PIR’s publishing company did not respond to inquiries on the topic.
Gold was a teenager when he was spotted by Don Renaldo, a tough-looking violinist and contractor for Philadelphia soul labels including Cameo and Parkway. Soon, Gold was playing on PIR sessions alongside such fellow “street kids” as violinists Rudolph “Rudy” Malizia and Charles Apollonia, violist Angelo Petrella, and cellist Romeo DiStefano. “They thought I was a hotshot,” Gold says. “But those were the beginnings of the MFSB [Mother, Father, Sister, Brother] string section. Then it got better and better because the arrangers got better.”
Like Motown’s psychedelic phase, PIR singles from the early ’70s were expansive, with lush, unspooling string lines on hits like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers,” and the Dramatics’ “Me and Mrs. Jones.” (Several reissues are expected in this 50th-anniversary year, including four eight-CD box sets on the United Souls label.)
Gold, who went on to arrange for Sesame Street and for pop megastars like Bruno Mars, remembers PIR as an outlet for string players who didn’t fit in with the classical-music world. “I wasn’t going to play in the [Philadelphia] Orchestra,” he says. “I liked reefer too much. They wouldn’t want me. Even though I was a world-class cellist, it was a difficult fit. I fit right in with Gamble and Huff.”
Orchestral Moonlighting Evolves
As symphony orchestras have expanded to year-round seasons, moonlighting has tapered off. But pockets of activity remain. String players from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO) fill out the ranks of two of that city’s studio outfits: the Nashville String Machine and Nashville Music Scoring. Bruce Christensen, a Nashville Symphony violist who plays in both groups, estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of his NSO colleagues do session work for country artists, video games, and films. A typical session may cover 12 songs over five hours.
Christensen believes that producers are drawn to Nashville for its congenial atmosphere. “There are not a lot of personnel issues in the studio,” he says. “And we are really fast. People will book three days for a video game and they will invariably have to cancel at least the last session they booked. They save money.”
Elsewhere, members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are among the busiest session players on the West Coast. Members of groups like Wild Up and Salastina Los Angeles have also worked for Hollywood studios. But technology has reshaped the studio scene since the glory days of Motown, the Beatles, and PIR.
Beal, the bassist from Imagine, says that even before the pandemic, session work in New York was slowing in the face of sampling and digitization. “It’s more electronics today,” he says. “There’s a lot of tracking and overdubbing going on.There’s less of a live feeling to it.” But Nashville’s Christensen sees an upside to technology, as when a composer in L.A. can monitor a Nashville session and give feedback over a video link. “A lot of what we are doing these days is us recording here and the composer monitoring from L.A.,” he says. “We don’t even see the client.”