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Listen to "Overseas Operator"

The Hash Brown Sounds, by Hash Brown and his Ignunt Strings
Philips Records PHS 600-018, 1962

Continuing on the theme of albums repaired with big pieces of tape, we have this novelty from Harry Lookofsky, the house arrangers at Philips Records during Quincy Jones' tenure as musical director, studio whiz Phil Ramone, and the usual cast of New York session aces.

Lookofsky had a pretty remarkable career, despite the fact that he's largely unknown today. Raised in St. Louis, he studied the violin and came up through the ranks of concert orchestras in that town and then spent much of the early 1930s as a member of Isham Jones' and Vincent Lopez' touring bands. He settled in New York City, where he played with the NBC Radio orchestra until World War Two interrupted his plans. Returning to New York, he rejoined NBC until its maestro, Arturo Toscannini retired. Then he joined ABC, where he stayed for most of the next two decades, until ABC disbanded the ensemble.

He picked up quite a bit of work on the side as a session player during this time, most notably on the (depending on your view) (in)famous Charlie Parker with Strings album. Lookofsky was a big jazz fan, and around this time, he began experimenting with jazz playing techniques. This ultimately led to a deal with Atlantic Records for what might well be the most striking jazz violin album ever recorded: Stringsville. Performed by a small ensemble, with arrangements by Bob Brookmeyer and Hank Jones, and featuring Lookofsky's prodigious technique (inspired by the pionering jazz violinist Joe Venuti), Stringsville was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. Fortunately, as the saying goes, Lookofsky hadn't quit his day job.

Lookofsky struck up a friendship with Quincy Jones after Jones returned from a stint in Paris. Together, they would take in sets at the Blue Note and other great jazz clubs. So when Philips needed Jones to turn out a rock 'n' roll-flavored instrumental album, Jones decided to offer the job to Lookofsky.

Recorded at Ramone's legendary A&R Studios in Manhattan, The Hash Brown Sound was an odd assortment of originals and arrangements by Lookofsky and a number of the musicians Jones had on retainer, including Bobby Scott, Pat Williams, and Klaus Ogermann [sic.].

"Overseas Operator" is an Ogermann number, credited to Inga Otto, the silent partner in his Munich music publishing company, Glamorous Music. It's a nice strolling tune that incorporates the use of what's referred to as an oscillator on the liner notes, but what is more likely a telephone bandpass filter Ramone probably scrounged or built himself. It gives the singer [sic.] that "shouting down a pipe" effect that used to be part of any long-distance phone call in the days before digital networks. The three female backup singers sound as if they were standing in the hall outside the studio, which I assume is also intentional.

The lyrics barely qualify as such, and in providing the track for consideration, I'm certainly not trying to make any special claims for it. It's a fun cut that shows the kind of quality those amazing musicians of the New York studio scene at its height could turn out even from the most forgettable throw-aways.

I also like the track because I'm in the networking business for a living, and this a little reminder of the glory days of analog. When making an overseas call was a big event, somewhere between going to confession and having a coming-out ball. You didn't just pick up the phone and dial. You had to have a faceless woman sitting in front of a plugboard make the connection for you. You had to make an appointment with the called party (the singer's is "at a quarter to nine"), and you probably had to shout to be heard over the transmission noise.

Now we have hoardes of loudmouthed jerks on cell phones to make that noise for us.

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