Count Basie and the Alan Copeland Singers (and a lot about Freddie Green)

June 1, 2019 by  

Count Basie with the Alan Copeland Singers:
Basie swingin’ Voices singin’

Now here’s a strange one. Imagine the whitest vocal group you could think of, doing an album with the very un-white Count Basie (1904-1984), Freddie Green, and a few more well-known sidemen. The album, recorded in 1966, was called Basie Swingin’ Voices Singin’, on the ABC-Paramount label.

Whatever possessed Basie to do an album like this for any reason other than money? The Alan Copeland Singers performance was, if you can imagine it, even whiter than something done by their contemporaries, the Ray Conniff Singers, or even, dare I say, the Anita Kerr Singers? But the amazing thing about this album is that it mostly worked.

Alan Copeland (1926- ) was originally a member of the popular vocal group, the Modernaires, from the late 1940s through the mid 1950s. He was a songwriter and arranger, writing charts for luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Copeland recorded several albums (it hasn’t been written whether his singers were a “pick-up” group, or whether he had tight cadre of singers that he used for radio, TV, film, and recording sessions), with titles like A Bubble Called You, and Cool Country, where, similar to the Basie outing, he took tunes from different genres and reinterpreted them for an easy listening audience.

Frankly, I really wanted to dislike this record, but I will have to admit the singers were fully in-tune, on-key, and they even swung a little, especially on tunes like Oh Lady Be Good, and the incongruous chestnuts, Down By the Old Mill Stream and Candy. Who’d a thunk it? Basie and his rhythm section were spot-on, doing what they did best, building the tunes in the perfect, danceable tempos for which Basie was so well-known. To illustrate, Count Basie was once asked to explain his music, and he simply said, “just tap your feet.” With a Basie rhythm section in control, one can hardly keep from uncontrollably tapping their feet to those perfect rhythmic backgrounds, led by Basie’s secret weapon, guitarist Freddie Green.

Freddie (1911-1987) was simply the most inventive jazz rhythm guitarist of all time. His blues-tinged chordal excursions were miniature masterpieces in their ability to keep the group together in a four-to-the-bar beat. While many rhythm guitarists stick to the charts, which are not necessarily optimized for a rhythm guitar player, Freddie transcended those charts with his inventive and downright interesting chord substitutions, ensuring that he rarely played the same chord more than twice. At rapid tempos, Freddie displayed a masterful invention: the one note chord. Suffice it to say that changing three- and four-note chords when the tempo is running at 400+ beats per minute (to illustrate, listen to “The Midgets” on the Verve album, Basie in London) is really, really hard, even with Freddie’s iron hands. What he figured out was that at those fast tempos, he could get away with fingering the one note that is most audible in a chord, while only partially pressing down on some of the remaining notes in the chord. As his pick did serious battle with his overworked strings, you could hear the single-note “chord” clearly, while you could also feel, way in the background, the remaining notes of the chord. It really worked. More details on this can be found on Michael Petterson’s great website freddiegreen.org.

When Freddie first started with the Basie Band around 1937, it was a smaller group, about 12 pieces, making it possible to play the standard three- and four-note chords most prevalent with big band rhythm guitar players, on his Epiphone Emperor or Stromberg Master 400 instruments. In the early 1950s, after the Basie Band was reconstituted as the “New Testament” (also known as the “Atomic” band, the title of a late 1950s Basie album) band, additional brass instruments were added to the mix, for a total of 16 pieces, which dictated that Freddie had to figure out a way to play even louder, so he could be heard while the band was in full atomic mode. By the mid-1950s, Freddie mostly played a heavily patina-ed blonde Gretsch Eldorado model. To achieve high volume without amplification, he set up his string action (height above the fingerboard) to seemingly impossible levels (at least impossible for mere mortals). At the 12th fret, his sixth string sat at something like 10 millimeters above the fingerboard. This required nearly superhuman strength in order to play a guitar set up like this for several hours at a club date or concert. He was known to carry around a small rubber ball which he continually squeezed, to maintain the strength in his fingers to pull (drag) the heavy gauge strings down to the fretboard.

Before the Gretsch, he played one of several Stromberg Master 300- and the 19-inch wide Master 400-model guitars, felt to be the loudest big-band rhythm guitars of them all, but when the two Stromberg founders (father and son) passed away within months of each other in 1955, understandably, Freddie was afraid to take his precious Strombergs on the road anymore, so he entered into a promotional agreement with the Fred Gretsch Guitar Co. of Brooklyn, NY, to play their largest acoustic archtop guitar, the 18-inch wide model 6040 “Eldorado.” He owned at least two of them, one with a sunburst finish, and one with a natural (blonde) finish. In later years, he was most often seen with the blonde Eldorado, which he played until his death in 1987 at the age of 75, after playing in the Basie band for 50 years.

I found my copy of this LP in a used LP bin many years ago, while I was looking for another Basie album that also included some choral vocals. This wasn’t it, nor was it one of the two albums Basie recorded with the bebop vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, but as I stated before, Basie Swingin’ Voices Singin’ truly had its own charms, and it can be surprisingly listenable, even foot-tappable, if not just a wee bit antiseptic.