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Noteworthy Recordings

One Hundred and One String Groups


Ah, what would space age pop be without string groups? The huge piles of forgettable and monotonous orchestral easy listening music form a vast backdrop against which the finest works of space age pop stand out in bold contrast. This is what people mean by "elevator music." But there was a time when no self-respecting label could hold its place in the record bins without at least some token offering in the image of that omniverous idol, the 101 Strings. Here is but a tiny sampling:

The Castaway Strings

Following the lead of Capitol's success with the Hollyridge Strings, Vee Jay Records pulled in Pete King and George Williams, veterans of many Jackie Gleason sessions, to knock out such memorable albums as The Castaway Strings Play the Bobby Vinton Songbook. Hey, it was a paycheck.

The Clebanoff Strings

Mercury hired concertmaster Herman Clebanoff as its entry in the strings market. Clebanoff covered all the bases during his tour of duty: light classical, standards, waltzes, and pop hits. He moved to Hollywood and began to mingle with a better class of arranger, leaning heavily on the talents of Wayne Robinson and Caesar Giovannini.

The Fantabulous Strings

MGM also tried to imitate the Hollyridge Strings with a few Fantabulous Strings albums in the mid-1960s, produced by the versatile Sonny Lester.

The Fantastic Strings of Felix Slatkin

Slatkin was the conductor of the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra, and he recorded several albums for Liberty leading the "Fantastic Strings" at the height of the "Stereo Action" period. Like many studio musicians, he was also virtuoso performer in his own right. He recorded as a classical violinist, and he and his wife, cellist Eleanor Aller--also a studio regular for whom John Williams wrote a prominent part in the score of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"--founded a legendary American classical group, the Hollywood String Quartet. Slatkin and Aller's son Felix is now musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Fantastic Strings albums are all recorded in outstanding fidelity and clarity, and tend to feature a little more liberal use of percussion than most. But the only album worth keeping a look-out for is Fantastic Percussion, which includes arrangements by Bob Thompson.

The Hollyridge Strings

Capitol's entree in the lush strings category, arranged and conducted by Stu Phillips, and specializing in covers of rock-n-roll hits by Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and others.

The Knightsbridge Strings

England's answer to 101 Strings. Actually, this name was used for releases on both the U.K. label Top Rank and Bob Moore's Nashville-based Monument. I suspect the Monument albums were just U.S. reissues of the Top Ranks.

The Living Strings

RCA's strings group. The Living Strings was more of a commercial creation than a musical entity. RCA producer Ethel Gabriel worked on the Melachrino Strings' "Moods in Music" series and developed The Living Strings as a package for RCA's budget label, Camden. The Living Strings were an unbilled European symphony--the Oslo Symphony at first, later the BBC and London symphonies--and the albums are all centered around a theme: the sea, the West, Broadway, night music. In England, Johnny Douglas was the primary arranger and conductor for the series, but Hill Bowen, Bob Sharples, and Geraldo made frequent contributions. Gabriel also tapped Mexican arrangers D'Artega and Rafael Armengol for albums such as The Living Strings Go South of the Border. Even Esquivel contributed one, In a Mellow Mood, although it was actually a 3 year-old recording RCA originally intended to release under his own name as You and the Night and the Music. The Living Strings were second only to the 101 Strings in their prolificness, and their numbers became a mainstay of easy-listening radio and commercial venues. Soon, Gabriel spawned "Living" ventures into other genres: Living Voices (usually the Anita Kerr Singers), Living Guitars (Al Caiola), Living Brass (Ray Martin), Living Marimbas (Leo Addeo), Living Jazz (Phil Bodner), Living Trio (Dick Hyman and Al Caiola), Living Percussion Phil Kraus) and Living Organ albums.

The Londonderry Strings

Warner Brothers' house strings group. Arranged and produced by Ernie Freeman and Rene Hall.

The Lush Strings

Bait and switch. If there's a string orchestra here, it's hiding behind a mediocre sax-heavy big band. Recorded at least 8 LPs on Custom in the mid-late 1960s. I suspect these are repackagings of older stock recordings.

The Manhattan Strings

Tower, an odd budget label associated with Capitol, hired Bob Summers, hot of the heels of his Baroque-flavored instrumental rock hit, The 18th Century Concept: In a 20th Century Bag, to arrange the Monkees' songbook for orchestra. Magic didn't strike twice, though--the result can't hold a candle to Nashville piano man Floyd Cramer's Monkees album ("Plink, plink, we're the plink-plinks").

The 101 Strings

The daddy of 'em all. Recording engineer and entrepeneur Dick L. Miller figured out that he could capitalize on the popularity of strings-laden "mood music" albums while at the same time avoiding the expense of a big name conductor like Mantovani or George Melachrino by hiring cheap European orchestras to play as "The 101 Strings." Miller's hunch proved correct, as the 101 Strings have outlived all their competitors, producing over 200 albums, many of which are now in print in CD format. Although the majority are standard easy-listening fare, there are a few 101 Strings albums that experiment with instrumentation, arrangements, and even technology. "Backbeat Symphony" is an attempt to sell the classics to the rock-n-roll audience by pumping them up with a rock drum beat. "Guitars Galore" features a combo of 6 guitarists, and "Strings After Dark" is actually a very brassy album. "Astro Sounds from Beyond the Year 2000" is the most famous experiment, disposing of strings entirely in favor of very spacy electronic effects. One way to tell if a 101 Strings album is worth listening to is to check the song list: if you see at least a couple of numbers you suspect are originals, it's probably worth the $0.75 the thrift store will charge you. With the exception of "Astro Sounds," though, few 101 albums are worth any more than that.

The 101 Strings started on Miller's Somerset label in 1957. Robert Lowden was the first arranger, followed by Joseph Kuhn and Monte Kelly. All three men wrote original numbers for various 101 Strings albums, as well as for many of Somerset's "clone" groups. In most cases, their arrangements were shipped to Europe and recorded by some symphony orchestra ready to work for peanuts (compared to union scales in L.A. or New York). Miller sold the 101 Strings license and library to Al Sherman's Alshire International label in 1964. Alshire followed much the same philosophy as Somerset: if you see a trend, follow it! Both labels created groups for the purpose of releasing knock-off albums designed to lure unaware shoppers into buying a Somerset/Alshire product instead of the name brand. Hence the existence of "clone" groups like the "Zero-Zero-Seven Band" (after the John Barry Seven),"The Village Men" (after the folk group, the Village Stompers), "Fats and the Chessmen" (Fats Domino), "Los Norte Americanos" (The Tijuana Brass), "The California Poppy-Pickers" (The Sandpipers/The Mamas and Papas), "The Sons of the Purple Sage" (The Sons of the Pioneers).

As time went on, Alshire ventured beyond their house stable of arrangers and brought in such names as Les Baxter, Don Costa, and Nelson Riddle to arrange and conduct. Not that that made a big difference in the end, though--most of these are just as forgettable as any of the other one thousand and one 101 Strings albums.

The San Sebastian Strings

The San Sebastian Strings, arranged by Anita Kerr during her Hollywood years, backed the pop poet Rod McKuen on three "environmental" albums that represent some kind of pinnacle of insipidness: The Sea, The Sky, and The Earth. You can find them for a buck or less in virtually every thrift store in America. Then, after listening, you can place them in The Recycling Bin.

The Soulful Strings

Cadet, the soul label of the legendary Chess Records in Chicago, hired Richard Evans, a talented and underappreciated arranger who worked with jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, among others, to create a series of orchestral albums of current pop hits.

The Stradivari Strings

The house string group for Spinorama Records, a label whose packaging and recording standards are about as low as you'll ever find. There are no details of what orchestra this was, who conducted it, or who wrote the arrangements. Spinorama uses classic bait-and-switch packaging, often pairing cuts by a then-big name like Peter Nero with cuts by a no-name like Mike di Napoli. It would be interesting to learn more about the musicians behind Spinorama's recordings, but in general, think twice before paying more than $1 for a Spinorama LP.

The Sunset Strings

Sunset was Liberty's budget/reissue label, and they released at least a half-dozen Sunset Strings albums, mostly grab-bags of current hits tossed together with old saws and songs never heard before or since.


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