The Most Heard, Least Known Composers In America
Category Archives: Stories
November 11, 2015Posted by on
Yesterday, the music world lost a true music legend.
Allen Toussaint was responsible for shaping the sound of an era and crafting early funk and R&B via his recording studio, Sea-Saint Studios, and Sea-Saint house band, The Meters. Songs like “Working In A Cole Mine” (Lee Dorsey), “Mother In Law” (Ernie K. Doe), and “Cissy Strut” (The Meters) had his fingerprints all over them; either as a writer or producer. His discography reads like a who’s who of music legends.
I can still remember as a student in New Orleans, watching “The Last Waltz” on VHS and seeing the end credits roll by; Allen Toussaint is credited as the arranger. Which means he wrote the charts and is the reason everyone else sounds so tight along with The Band. Just listen to that version of “Ophelia” and you’ll understand. That horn section was hot!
Now I have to be honest. Once upon a time, I did spend 3 days with Allen Toussaint. But they weren’t consecutive days. And he didn’t know my name. Or even recognize me on our 2nd, or even our 3rd day together [sigh]. But if you’ve been raised on music, you can appreciate those moments; even if you know its one-sided.
Allen Toussaint Day 1 – WWOZ Piano Night 2004:
I was a fresh-faced 22-year-old student at Tulane, who had essentially stopped going to class two years before; pushing road cases at The House of Blues and pretending to be a sound engineer everywhere else. This would have been about 18 months before Hurricane Katrina.
WWOZ’s Piano Night happens on the Monday between Jazz Fest weekends. It’s a fundraiser and an absolute blast. And somehow I weaseled my way in as the engineer for the solo stage that night and actually got paid for it.
I don’t remember much of that night (those days are still a bit fuzzy) but I do remember 3 things:
- I was so busy making a mess of the patch on the main stage during initial sound checks, someone else hung all the speakers for the solo stage
- The PA we put in was woefully inadequate for the amount of people who would surround the stage to see Allen Toussaint play solo
- I mixed Allen Toussaint that night
And even though everyone that night kept telling me to “turn it up” despite only having 3 speakers all hung off of one vertical pole, everyone standing 15 deep around a tiny stage, #3 is all that’s important.
Allen Toussaint Day 2 – Cambridge Folk Festival 2008:
I was still a fresh-faced 26-year-old Texas/Louisiana transplant, whose post-Katrina travels had landed me in Cambridge, England (for the weekend; I was living in London at the time).
I had graduated from pretending to be a sound engineer in New Orleans, to working for reputable Sound Companies in London. Who immediately recognized I was still pretending. So I hung and stacked PA, pushed road cases, and patched the main stage (which, by this time, I could do without making a mess of it).
Now, The Cambridge Folk Festival, while small in overall attendance, is revered in many circles. And given my love of mandolins, banjos, ukulele’s, and guitars – which I all play to different degrees of acceptability – it’s right up my alley. That and they have a great beer tent and take home pint glasses.
One of the headliners that year was none other than Allen Toussaint. So, after unsuccessfully trying to convince the other crew of his legendary status, I donned my “Bless You Boys” New Orleans Saints T-Shirt I had acquired through Stephen Arnold Music years before (SAM had composed their promo theme in the late 80s, so you can imagine the state of the t-shirt) and went about my rock n roll day (at a Folk Festival). Knowing a living legend was going to be on my stage, and wanting nothing more than a picture with him.
I remember a bit more from that night (although those days are also a bit fuzzy), including these 3 things:
- Even in my mid-20’s, I was still too nervous to approach Mr Toussaint to get a picture
- I still have a recording of that show, graciously given to me by the awesome Radio 4 Outside Broadcasts fellas
- Allen Toussaint’s bass player pointed out my “Bless You Boys” t-shirt
Obviously #3 is the most important here and we will skip over #1.
Allen Toussaint Day 3 – The Barbican 2009
Still a fresh-faced, but self-proclaimed “Road Dog” 27-year-old (I had been on 3 rock n roll tours, and thought that was pretty awesome), I had graduated to actual Sound Engineer status. My gig that night was at The Barbican in London where we were supplying the stage monitors/mixing desks/line system and monitor engineer (me – I had made the big time!). As is often the case when picking up side jobs as a freelancer, I hadn’t bothered to check out the gig beyond load-in times. So imagine my surprise when I saw Allen Toussaint on the bill with The Blind Boys of Alabama.
I remember quite a bit from that night (although those days are also still fuzzy…it was only one year later after all!), including these 4 things:
- The Blind Boys of Alabama’s drummer is not only sight impaired, but also most likely deaf given the level of high hat I had to crank through his monitors.
- It’s really strange to randomly run into someone who gave a talk at your Tulane music business class 7 years earlier – especially when you’re mixing monitors on a random stage in London and you recognize their voice after they tell you to turn up the high hat in the Blind Boys of Alabama’s drummer’s wedge (it was literally deafeningly loud at that point; I walked over to check and it nearly took my head off).
- I had in-depth discussions with Allen Toussaint about the quality of the concert grand Steinway piano supplied by The Barbican, and how to best replicate it in his monitor
- I got a picture with Allen Toussaint!! Courtesy of his Production Manager, Reginald (I never actually got a copy of it…)
So rest in peace Allen Toussaint. You will forever be revered in New Orleans, throughout the world (whether or not they realize your far-reaching influences), and of course by me. Who spent 3 unforgettable days with you
Editors Note: Scott Aiges and Clarence “Reginald” Toussiant – both featured above – tour manage(d) Blind Boys of Alabama and Allen Toussaint respectively.
Right-Handed Lefties and Left-Handed Righties…My obsession with Hendrix and upside down Stratocasters
November 4, 2015Posted by on
As many of you know, Jimi Hendrix was left-handed, but played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster – turned upside down! I’ve always been fascinated with not only the sound of Hendrix on that right-handed upside-down Strat, but with the way it looked as well. There’s something about the whammy bar on top and the tuners on the bottom. I was really intrigued, so number of years ago I bought a righty Strat, turned it upside-down and restrung it. This was definitely the closest I’d ever come to sounding like Hendrix! I even had a friend “distress” it to make it look like it was 50+ years old, and went so far as to put cigarette burns on the headstock. (see me with my Strat below)
Well, I never actually knew what made his distinctive sound so unique. Then I ran across this article in Popular Mechanics magazine about how flipping and restringing a standard right-handed Fender Stratocaster fundamentally changes the string tension and microphone location. That’s what produced Hendrix’s signature mix of bright highs and delicate lows.
Here are the highlights:
- The rear pickup on the traditional Stratocaster is intentionally slanted – capturing the higher strings near their base – where they have a more piercing tone. On Hendrix’s guitar, it catches the higher strings farther up, so instead of shrieking, they sing.
- Guitar pickups are mini-microphones, with a pole magnet aligned below each string. And the distance between the magnet and the string varies for each string. But by reversing the orientation of the traditional Stratocaster, Hendrix changed which strings were closest to their magnets, and consequently, most prominent in the mix. Pretty crazy stuff.
- Conversely, Hendrix’s low strings were comparatively tighter, which made them sound less booming and twangy.
- On a traditional Strat, the highest strings (E, B) are the longest. When turned upside-down, they become the shortest, so they don’t have to be pulled as tightly to be in tune. For Hendrix, that made them easier to bend, like on “All Along the Watchtower.”
- Fender’s headstock design makes every string a different length, so restringing the guitar upside-down changed which strings were longest. This altered the subtle overtones produced by vibrations on the unplayed part of the string above the top of the neck, near the tuning keys.
What’s really amazing is that I doubt Hendrix ever thought about any of this. He just had a tough time finding a decent left-handed guitar, especially back in the day. So Instead, he snagged a cool Strat , flipped it over, restrung it, and ta-da! The rest is history.
August 24, 2015Posted by on
It’s that time of year, and International Strange Music Day is once again upon us — can you believe it’s already been a year?? Okay, okay … none of us have actually ever heard of this holiday, but when it came across the calendar, I just had to have a little fun with it.
So what actually qualifies as “strange music”? Well that, of course, depends on your definition of “normal”, but I’m going to attempt to share five songs that I think everyone can agree reside firmly in the realm of “unusual”.
5) I’ll start out with something odd, but not too odd. This is a piece of music that, in itself, isn’t all that unusual. What makes it strange, though, is that it’s being played on an accordion … at blistering speed. I honestly didn’t know an accordion could be played like this. His name is Alexander Hrustevich if you’d like to see more.
4) Next we have Genesis. Not the “Invisible Touch hit machine” Genesis fronted by Phil Collins. No, I’m talking the weird, early, costumed Peter Gabriel with a negative mohawk Genesis! In their early years, they recorded some of the oddest music ever to achieve commercial success. One of my favorites is “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” … literally a song about a harmful, invasive species of plant.
3) At number three is a band that, at least from what I’ve heard of their catalog, pretty much defines “frenetic”. These guys are incredibly talented, but for me, anyway, they often teeter on the edge of listenability. Taken in short, controlled bursts, though, they’re actually quite entertaining. I give you The Mars Volta!
2) You know that “edge of listenability” I just mentioned? Yeah, these next guys passed that about five exits back! Even their diehard fans admit The pAper chAse aren’t for everyone. They turn in inspired performances of really well written and thought-out songs, but they’re … well … just weird! Case in point, this is one of their most accessible songs.
1) The Residents. Just … The Residents.
Honorable Mention: Pink Floyd’s “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict”. Released in 1969 on the Ummagumma album, this … song? … is an exceedingly bizarre collection of tape loops recorded by the various band members, played back at high speed, and assembled into five of the strangest minutes ever to grace lacquer. Believe it or not, the title is not only an accurate description of the piece, but it’s not the weirdest aspect of the track.
May 19, 2015Posted by on
In the world of music – be it blues, rock, pop or even country – there are few names as revered as B.B. King. He was a pioneer of popularizing a sound that had been brewing along the banks of the Mississippi for generations.
As a very young man in the mid-‘90s, I was lucky enough to see B.B. King at the (then) recently rejuvenated, and now defunct, Bronco Bowl, in Dallas, TX.
It was a special night and I will never forget the silk suits, fedoras, and walking canes that were the chosen outfits of that evening. As an 11 year-old boy it was eye-opening – not for the venue and patrons, but for the man on stage. Little did I realize that few performances later in my life would rival what I saw that night.
Fast forward 15 years and I witnessed what, still to this day, stands as the most unique sound check I would ever experience. I was a young road dog – a glorified roadie – living in London and hanging concert PA’s for a family-run sound company called Canegreen; based just steps from White Hart Lane in Tottenham.
Our first show in our UK “tour” of five shows was at Manchester’s MEN Arena and having hung the stage left PA (16 Meyer Milo‘s on the main hang, 10 box side hang) I settled in stage left for what I thought would be an awesome sound check – watching a living legend play with his backing band without an audience.
It did not disappoint, but not for the reasons I had anticipated.
Keep in mind that this was the first of four or five arena shows and we were supplying every piece of equipment barring backline, including front of house and monitor engineers. So naturally you’d expect the band to come out and sound check, right?
But rather than seeing B.B. King make his way on stage with his band, out came his band leader James “Boogaloo” Bolden. I can only try to recount in writing what happened next (Editor’s note: This may have in fact been the drummer or bass player instead of Boogaloo as James was a killer trumpet player.):
Boogaloo: “Ok, we ready for sound check?”
Us: “Sure, the band coming out?”
Boogaloo: “Nah, I got this”
[MD moves to far stage right position, horn section]
Boogaloo: “Ok, ya’ll ready”
Us: “Uh, yea, ok… you want a trumpet?”
Boogaloo: “Naw…. [shouting in the microphone, NOT playing a trumpet] Bap bap bap bap bap!!! I’m a trumpet!”
[Silence from the sound crew]
Boogaloo: “Bah bap bap bap bap!!!! I’m a trumpet!”
Boogaloo: “Hey turn this up a bit…. Bap bah bap bap bap!!… hey, perfect!”
[moves to sax position]
Boogaloo: “Bee bee bee bee beep!! Be bee bee bee beeeeeeep!! I’m a sax!!”
You get the idea…
So we set the stage levels per the bandleader’s musical direction. Needless to say, when the band came out and we un-muted everything, a wall of feedback greeted the crowd and sound crew; and the first song was spent dialing in the band.
It was the most fun and laid-back set of shows I ever was a part of, and it sounded fantastic. The backing band – and B.B. King – had been performing and touring for decades. They mixed themselves, as the best musicians and performers do.
Luckily, I had a chance to meet B.B. King in person. He was gracious and I couldn’t help mentioning to him my father’s signed “Lucille” ES-355
Want to see B.B. King? Unfortunately he passed last week at the ripe old age of 89. But you can see Steve Arnold’s signed B.B. King Gibson ES-355 “Lucille” at both Promax NY and LA this June, where we’ll proudly have it on display. It’s our own small tribute to a man who transformed music – and the art of the sound check.
The King is Dead – Long Live B.B. King.
April 22, 2015Posted by on
What a long strange trip it’s been.
As you can guess from my last name, I’ve been around Stephen Arnold Music for quite a long time. I’ve often mused that it was quite an eye-opening discovery, around age 8 or 9, to find out that EVERYONE didn’t have a recording studio.
While the business has changed from its humble origins as Stephen Arnold Productions, one thing has remained the same: We’re proud to be an independent and customer service is our lifeblood.
So what exactly does that mean? Aren’t there lots of composers and music houses out there?
Sure, there are many fine composers out there, and many successful music houses. But to have staff including sales, marketing, admin, not to mention our creative team and all the musicians and talent that we count on daily – working alongside full-time employees numbering 15+, Stephen Arnold Music today is a different animal completely.
We’re proud to service over 300 television stations along with some of the largest networks on the planet. Our music helped launch CNN Headline News (now HLN) and recently rebranded CCTV China’s 5 international channels — the largest television network in the world by viewership.
Aside from the detailed creative and production that takes place daily in our studios, there is a heaving database of administration – from contracts to sales to copyrights to registrations to making sure payroll goes out; it’s no small task to keep Stephen Arnold Music humming on a daily basis.
Ask around and you’ll discover what sets us apart: our dedication to customer service, understanding the science AND art of sonic branding, and always putting our clients first (even if adding that saxophone is a bad idea!). Our passion is to make our clients look and sound great; to brand stations, networks, TV shows, and media in a way that’s memorable, innovative and engaging.
Want to know what it means to be #indie? Pick up the phone and give us a call – ask for anyone in the company, from President Stephen Arnold to VP Creative Services Chad Cook all the way down to the mail room and you’ll be put right through. It’s always been that way at Stephen Arnold Music.
Happy Hour is Friday 4pm sharp – stop by, see us and we’ll show you around.
Editor’s Note: For more information on what is means to be #indie, check out Newscast Studios article: http://www.newscaststudio.com/2015/04/16/stephen-arnold-relishes-in-independence/