The fluttering emotional component to many soul stirring hits – the cinematic effect capable of driving the most hardened to tears within the space of a few measures, is the result of careful manipulation of a few of the most fragile and temperamental instruments ever to anoint the world with sound. A few pieces of carved wood, repurposed gut, and tightly wound hair working in concert provide the somber, sobering, weeping, climactic, and beautiful moments to all kinds of songs. Overlooked for their lack of obligatory stank, as electric bass and guitar became popular music’s go-to strings, violin, viola, cello, upright bass, and harp later became the wind in the sails of soul tracks that could no longer live on rot-gut rhythm alone.
The elegance strings add to popular music is arguably validation of the sonic importance of a record, at least in soul music. One of the most important unspoken rules is that the presence of strings can usually be counted on as an indicator of a serious vocal talent. Especially as budgets shrank and beat machines became the default, it was less likely that a record label would even think of calling in the musicians for someone who did not make a career habit of bringing the house down. Most artists are compelled to leave it all on the stage, because that track is going to demand the same intensity that permeates a room when the beat drops; the strings rising and falling like the heaving chest of an overspent athlete. It is likely quite difficult to rationalize mediocrity in performance with the complement of a full orchestra behind you. At least if it falls apart, chances are the failure was not the musicians’ fault. While virtuosos and prodigies have crossed stages for centuries to the tune of much more composed ovations than those found in the realm of rhythm and blues, it was not until strings crossed into rock and soul that American music really seemed to have much use for the string arrangement outside of your average conservatory recital hall.
Strings arrangements likely found their niche in popular music somewhere between the heydays of rat pack balladeers singing around the cigarettes tucked between their lips and the arrival of disco as a party prerequisite some years later. Strings sweep into clubs packed until the walls have begun to perspire and make the banality of backing it up somehow a little more chic. They are as essential to suspense films as they are to the illustration of romance and the expression of profound sadness; the simultaneously haunting and healing string melody of the theme from Schindler’s List etched forever into the minds of anyone who ever viewed the feature-length ode to Holocaust survivors. Just as any diligent student of a string instrument will likely move with relative speed from Suzuki method to second-chair, the instrument itself evolved quickly to cross genres and engender a universal importance to the human ear that provides immunity to the few cultural barriers left in music and an uncanny ability to feed the soul.
Bassist, Richard Evans gained notoriety as a producer and arranger for Cadet Records during the 1960s and 70s. Working primarily within the confines of soul and jazz, Evans spent time working with artists like Sun-Ra, Marlena Shaw, Dorothy Ashby, Ramsey Lewis, Jack McDuff, Richard Holmes, and Kenny Burrell. Evans is widely held in high regard as a musical genius on top of his associations. As though that sort of resume were not enough, Evans truly made his name and reputation with a venture called the Soulful Strings. Between the years of 1966 and 1971, Evans worked with several musicians from the Cadet Records house band to record six LP’s. The members of the band included Charles Stepney, Bobby Christian, Billy Wooten, Phil Upchurch, Lennie Druss, and Cleveland Eaton. The Soulful Strings series could easily come off as an affair fit for the dollar bin of the average record store, where most introductory instrumental series make time with orchestral renditions of show tunes, military band recordings, and rhythm tutorials. The untrained eye is a terrible asset in the presence of such well-camouflaged and highly coveted gems. Upon closer inspection, a compilation heavily populated with covers of other popular songs becomes a boon for sample seekers and shedding musicians looking to fatten their string technique with the kinds of funk and soul clinics Evans provides. From the Soulful Strings’ “Coming Home Baby” to Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto” and Burning Spear’s “Northern Soul”, Evans’ arranging ability made it okay for otherwise docile and brooding strings to assume the attitude previously reserved only for the hulking funk of bass and rhythm guitar. In doing so, Evans cleared space for public perception to evolve, musical tastes to refine, and a bunch of rising arrangers and musicians to quietly borrow his sensibilities for the stomping thump of Blaxploitation movie scores.
Dorothy Ashby – “Soul Vibrations” (Arranged by Richard Evans)
The Soulful Strings “Burning Spear” (Composed and Arranged by Richard Evans)
Philly’s best kept secret, Larry Gold is the mastermind behind the sonic complexity of scores of songs that happened to have strings in the composition over the last 30 years. From The O’Jays to Rick Ross, Larry Gold operates from his beehive of a base camp, simply called The Studio in downtown Philadelphia. The halls of his recording house may be second only to those of Sigma Sound studios as the most hallowed in Philadelphia’s musical history; Gold’s launch pad as an original member of Sigma’s heat seeking house band, MFSB. While Gold’s fingerprints are plastered on tons of albums, few of them are his own releases. Seeming to prefer the havens of relative anonymity and humility, Larry Gold released a solo compilation called Larry Gold Presents Don Cello and Friends on BBE in 2003, but seems contented to leave the burden of high visibility to his more recognizable friends. Larry Gold is special because of unbearably brilliant arrangements, but his importance truly lies in the fact that he bridges the generational and genre gaps of popular American music with one foot planted squarely in the foundations of the Philly sound and the other in the trenches with the musicians rising and redefining it; his omnipresence as a fixture in the production world has ensured a unique strain of immortality for the sound of Philadelphia that may have eluded even the signature sounds of labels like Stax and Motown outside of the realm of sampling – his string arrangements filling the sails of hit after hit, even as artists come and go, his work remains a constant comfort to those in need of a little soul.
The O’Jays – “Back Stabbers” (Arranged by Larry Gold)
The Roots ft. Erykah Badu – “You Got Me” (Arranged by Larry Gold)
Even more encouraging is the second wind that pop and soul music has provided string musicians as internationally acclaimed orchestras struggle to collect charitable donations and fill seats. As potential employers of classically trained musicians face the faltering relevance that leads to obsolescence in lean economic times, the music that has afforded Larry Gold a world class facility to accompany his world class talent is suddenly a light in an uncertain musical landscape, beckoning violinists and the like to the safer confines of session work on major label recordings and the potential for placement on the kinds of projects that could land chamber musicians close to the top of rap, pop, and r&b sales charts. Larry Gold in many ways is the walking talking one-man sound of Philadelphia, and yet it is highly probable that very few people outside the city limits and industry circles have ever known.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is a musician well versed in finer points of several string instruments, including violin and viola, who has taken the novelty of classical music infiltrating hip-hop with the arrival of musicians like Miri Ben-Ari and Nuttin’ But Stringz, into a realm of much more serious musicianship and industry-wide demand. Ferguson’s work as a composer and arranger has surpassed the label of violinist – undoubtedly a comfort to lay musicians, but definitely a bit simplistic for Ferguson at this point in his evolution as a musical mastermind – his public ascent beginning with the release of A Suite for Ma Dukes with Carlos Nino and his subsequent participation in the Timeless Project with Los Angeles based production house, Mochilla, following the death of hip-hop producer and legend, J Dilla; both projects were massive undertakings launched in effort to pay tribute to the life and works of Detroit producer, James “J Dilla” Yancey. Since then, Ferguson has moved from producer and arranger of several notable projects to musical director for major performances and acts across the country.
Suite For Ma Dukes
Bilal – Some Day We’ll All Be Free (Donny Hathaway Cover)
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson came of age as a classically trained musician in a time period that likely deposited him directly into major movements in music, including the rise of hip-hop and the presence of string arrangements in popular music coming from artists like Evans, Gold, and other violinists. The torch, therefore, was essentially his for the taking, and he has since found himself working with collaborators like Karriem Riggins, De La Soul, Mos Def, Dwele, Bilal, and others. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has applied soulful techniques to classical arranging methods and married that ability with an affinity for hip-hop that allows him to be more than just someone who can wow a standing crowd with a few bars of a Mobb Deep beat. He is, instead, an aesthetic extension of the musicians before him and an educator for peers across the industry who may never have had the chance to work with someone who could chart their classics for full pit performance. As he has grown, so has his penchant for original composition and collaborative work with experimental artists; something that has allowed him to assume a role of importance to his generational peers that may have made him the first to compose and arrange specifically for hip-hop; exposing the genre to audiences who would never otherwise have listened, demonstrating how much bigger than hip-hop Dilla’s ideas truly were and proving once again that classical strings are indeed one of the great unifiers in music.
Words by Karas Lamb