“It Never Entered My Mind” (1971) Oscar Peterson and The Singers Unlimited

“It Never Entered My Mind”

Composed by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyric); vocal arrangement by Gene Puerling.

Recorded by the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Singers Unlimited in July of 1971 for MPS in Villingen, Germany.

The Oscar Peterson Trio: Oscar Peterson, piano; George Mraz, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. The Singers Unlimited: Bonnie Herman, lead voice; Gene Puerling, baritone voice: Don Shelton, tenor voice and Len Dresslar, bass voice.

The story: Pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was a technically gifted musician whose command at the keyboard was equaled by few and exceeded by no one. Peterson was a performer of remarkable consistency whose extraordinary technique sometimes led him into creative culs-de-sac.  But more often, as he shows in this recording, his playing was both spectacular and musically satisfying.

Peterson was born in Montreal, Quebec to immigrants from the West Indies. His father, Daniel Peterson, worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific railway. Peterson grew up in the predominantly black Little Burgundy neighborhood of Montreal, where he first encountered jazz. At  age five, Peterson began honing his skills on trumpet and piano, but a bout of tuberculosis when he was seven prevented him from playing the trumpet again, so he directed all his attention to the piano. His father, an amateur trumpeter and pianist, was one of his first music teachers, and his sister Daisy taught him classical piano. As a child, Peterson was passionate about practicing scales and classical etudes. That, and his life-long practice regimens, resulted in his vast piano technique.

As a child, Peterson studied with Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky, a student of Istvan Thoman, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt, so his early training was predominantly based on classical piano. But he was captivated by jazz and boogie-woogie piano, and also fascinated by ragtime. He was billed “the Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie” before he reached his teens.

At the age of nine Peterson played piano with a degree of control and facility that impressed professional musicians. For many years he practiced four to six hours daily. Only in his later years did he decrease his practice to one or two hours per day. In 1940, at age fourteen, he won the Canadian national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). After that, he dropped out of the High School of Montreal, where he played in a band with budding jazz trumpet virtuoso Maynard Ferguson. He then became a professional pianist, starring on a weekly radio show and playing at hotels and music halls. In his teens he was a member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra. From 1945 to 1949 he worked in a trio and recorded for Victor Records. He gravitated toward boogie-woogie and swing with a particular fondness for jazz pianists Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole. By the time he was in his 20s, Peterson had developed a reputation as a technically brilliant and melodically inventive pianist.

In a cab on the way to the Montreal airport, jazz impresario Norman Granz heard a radio program featuring Peterson broadcasting from a local club. He was so impressed that he told the driver to take him to the club where that pianist was playing so he could meet him. Soon, Granz was Peterson’s manager.

In 1949 Norman Granz introduced Peterson in New York City at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. Granz remained Peterson’s manager for most of his career. This was more than a managerial relationship however. Peterson praised Granz for strongly advocating  for him and other black jazz musicians in the segregationist American south of the 1950s and 1960s. In the documentary video Music in the Key of Oscar, Peterson tells how Granz stood up to a gun-toting southern policeman who wanted to stop the trio from using “whites-only” taxis.

In 1952, Peterson formed the first Oscar Peterson Trio (emulating the King Cole Trio), which initially included Barney Kessel (eventually replaced by Herb Ellis) on guitar, and Ray Brown on bass. The trio remained together from 1953 to 1958, often touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic package shows. In 1958, when Ellis left the group, Peterson replaced him with a drummer, Ed Thigpen. This iteration of the Oscar Peterson Trio performed together until 1965, when both Brown and Thigpen departed. By 1971, the Oscar Peterson Trio had bass virtuoso George Mraz and drummer Louis Hayes supporting Peterson’s piano.

The Singers Unlimited was a four-part harmony jazz vocal group formed in 1971 by Gene Puerling (1929-2008). Puerling who was a baritone also wrote the vocal arrangements used by The Singers Unlimited. Don Shelton was a tenor and had worked with Puerling previously when he (Puerling) was the leader and creative force behind an earlier singing group, the all male Hi-Lo’s, which performed through the late 1950s into the 1960s. Len Dresslar, a bass, joined the Singers Unlimited in 1971 after working successfully in TV and radio commercials, as did the lead voice of the Singers Unlimited, Bonnie Herman. The initial idea was for the group to perform in an updated way as the Pied Pipers vocal group of the 1940s had, with three harmonized male voices blending with a lead female voice. (The lead female voice in the Pied Pipers initially was the great Jo Stafford.) The group was formed to record commercials in the USA. However, on the recommendation of Oscar Peterson (a very generous gesture), who was signed to the German record MPS label in 1971, they were also signed by MPS. The Singers Unlimited recorded two albums in 1971, the first “A Cappella,” and the second, “In Tune,” with Peterson’s then-current trio.

Puerling took advantage of cutting-edge multitracking techniques of German studio engineer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer to create his advanced harmonic concepts and the group’s signature sound. In the overdubbing process, baritone Puerling and tenor Shelton would often add two additional middle parts, after which all parts were “doubled” and “tripled.” This layering of extra tracks created the fuller, richer sound of the group’s recordings, and is now a common recording practice.

The group produced 15 albums, of which arguably the most well-known is their Christmas album (which was actually recorded before the group’s association with MPS.) All of the 14 albums they recorded for MPS (between the years 1971-1982) are collected in the 7-CD box set entitled Magic Voices.

The group would record their songs by having Bonnie Herman (shown at left) record a simplified version of the melody, after which, Len, Gene, and Don would fill in the remaining parts. Once this process had been completed, Bonnie’s original melodic line would be replaced with a new one, in which she could add melodic or harmonic embellishments, which added further color to the group’s sound.

Bass singer Len Dresslar (1924–2005) was known as the voice of the Jolly Green Giant (“Ho, Ho, Ho!”) for over 40 years, as well as the voice behind countless other jingles recorded in Chicago. He had also been the President of the Chicago branch of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) for several years in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Bonnie Herman (born in 1945), was the singer of the original “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There” commercial jingle, which ran for many years. She is the daughter of bandleader Lawrence Welk’s original Champagne Lady, Lois Best, and Jules Herman, brother of big band legend Woody Herman, who was a trumpet player in the Welk orchestra.

The music: Rodgers and Hart composed this song of great sadness and beauty in 1940 for the Broadway show Higher and Higher. The show was something of a misfire for that brilliant songwriting team, running for only 84 performances, and producing only one notable song, “It Never Entered My Mind.” But that song is a beaut and a standard of cognoscenti of great American Popular Song.

This performance starts on the tune’s bridge with Oscar Peterson’s out of tempo unaccompanied piano, and then goes into the chorus. The Singers Unlimited enter at the beginning of the song’s main theme, and they are also unaccompanied. The layers of sound were created by mixing together two different but complementary recorded passages of group singing. The reverb at the end of this sequence is effective, undoubtedly because its judicious use only once in this recording. After this, the Peterson Trio appears, with OP himself playing simply and melodically, being supported by the voices oo-ing and ah-ing much like a saxophone or trombone section would in a big band performance.

The next phase is surely a highlight: the solo voice of Bonnie Herman. She was a superb singer with lovely voice quality, excellent pitch and gentle swing. The minimal way Ms. Herman uses vibrato is a marvelously tasteful example of that often abused musical device. Her interpretation of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, both musically and emotionally, accompanied at first by the Peterson Trio, and then by the other voices, layered again, is perfection.

This is timeless, late-night music.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Note:

The summary of Oscar Peterson’s career is based on the Wikipedia post for him, and the information about the Singers Unlimited is drawn from the Wikipedia post for them.

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