I Still Hear Music
Read G. Burgan
Fred Waring died on July 19, 1984. But he has not been forgotten. And his
influence extends even to those who have never heard of him.
One example is contained in a recent clipping sent me from the Star Gazette
of Elmira, New York detailing how 115 former musicians and singers for Fred
Waring's Pennsylvanians met in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to rekindle
their memories. They came from 28 states. Ninety one year old Leonard
Kranendonk, who had been a featured bass soloist from 1938 to 1981 traveled
1,000 miles from Florida. One thousand people crowded the East Stroudsburg
High School to hear the performers sing many of the Waring arrangements. I
wish I had been there.
Waring was a radio pioneer. WWJ of Detroit carried some of his very first
broadcasts. During the early years of radio, Waring's Pennsylvanians were
heard for fifteen minutes five days a week under the sponsorship of
Chesterfield Cigarettes beginning in 1939 and extending to 1944. His show
originated from the Vanderbilt Theatre in New York and he treated his studio
audience to a one hour show at the conclusion of every broadcast. For five
consecutive years his program was named the "Best Quarter Hour Program" by
newspaper radio editors in the United States and Canada. During the '30's
and 40's Waring's Pennsylvanians were a staple on network radio including
CBS and NBC, and his sponsors included the Ford Motor Company, Chesterfield
Cigarettes and General Electric.
Fred was born in rural Pennsylvania on June 9, 1900. A teenage birthday
present forever shaped his life: A banjo. With his brother Tom at the piano,
and boyhood friends Poley McClintock on the drums and Fred Buck on another
banjo, he formed a group called the Banjazzatra. While a freshman
engineering student at Penn State in the early 1920's, the Banjazzatra, now
called the Collegians, booked a prestigious engagement at the University of
Michigan. Even though they were only a back-up band, the crowd went wild.
Soon the Collegians were booked for a month solid. Waring dropped out of
Penn State, changed the name of his group to the Pennsylvanians, and earned
an international reputation.
For several decades, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were a household
word. What made him so popular? Why was he different from all of the other
popular musicians of the 20's, 30's and 40's? For one thing, quality. Waring
was a perfectionist. The Waring blend was perfection musically personified.
When he first decided to try a radio broadcast, he rented a sound studio for
several days and cut about 200 transcriptions. He was determined to present
the best possible sound to the radio audience. All of this was for a single
broadcast emanating out of Cleveland, Ohio. But the Herculean effort was a
success. Old Gold Cigarettes sponsored his first series of radio programs
beginning in 1933 on the CBS radio network on Wednesday nights. Then the
Ford Motor Company picked up his sponsorship in 1934 and by 1935 he was
heard on both CBS and the Blue Network. By the time Waring was a national
success in 1933, small radio stations all over the country began producing
their own Fred Waring programs using phonograph records of his group. To
stop them, Waring didn't make another record for ten years!
Later he had a daily half hour morning program on NBC sponsored by Johnson's
Wax that was probably the highest priced daytime program of its time,
costing $18,000 for the orchestra alone. This program was twice awarded the
honor of "Best Daytime Show".
In 1949 Waring made the transition to television. Many successful radio
personalities floundered when they attempted to bring their shows to TV. Not
Fred Waring. Following the same methodical approach to details that made him
a success in radio, Waring hired a young Bob Banner to be his TV producer.
Banner, who produced the Gary Moore Show, understood the differences between
radio and TV.
Radio required little more than the Pennsylvanians singing interspersed with
Waring's engaging comments. TV required full-blown skits akin to mini-broadway
productions. Elaborate sets, lavish customs, plenty of action, creative
camera work and frequent guest stars including Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn
and Celeste Holm insured a large audience for this weekly Sunday evening
program. Surviving kinescopes of his TV programs show a remarkably
innovative and sophisticated program for its time. After five years, Waring
quit his weekly TV program, opting for occasional specials.
Waring was quick to recognize new talent and many professional musicians and
singers were first showcased on Waring's programs. They included choral
director Robert Shaw, guitarist Les Paul and movie stars Rosemary and
Priscilla Lane. Waring's Lumpy Branahan, whose Little Orley stories
entertained young and old alike, went on to become Mr. Greenjeans on Mr.
Roger's Neighborhood. Over the years many Miss America's traveled with the
Pennsylvanians. His soloists were singularly talented. Gordon Goodman's
soaring tenor voice was a featured Waring attraction for twenty two years.
Jane Wilson's melodic soprano voice enchanted radio and TV listeners for
Waring was an innovator. In a 1931 stage production he equipped every member
of his chorus with a megaphone, creating a non electrical amplifier. In the
1960's, he championed the Cordovox accordion, featuring accordionist Betty
Ann McCall. At that time the Cordovox included two unwieldy suitcase size
units filled with vacuum tubes plus the twenty four pound accordion,
interconnected with a cable several inches in diameter. He even invented the
Amazingly, this college dropout was even an educator. Waring's real forte
was choral music. He took the popular music of several generations and
turned it into lush choral arrangements that seemed to surround you and take
you out of yourself. He surrounded himself with extraordinary arrangers,
including Roy Ringwald, Hawley Ades, Harry Simeone and Livingston Gearhart.
His Shawnee Press arrangements have been used by high school, college and
church choral groups for at least five decades.
Beginning in 1945, Waring established an annual summer music workshop at
Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The Waring Music Workshop developed into a
hotel-size dormitory, dining room, rehearsal and lecture halls and even
included state-of-the art recording facilities. Each year more than 10,000
choral conductors, teachers and others attended the workshops to learn the
Waring technique. One of Fred's concerns was that people be able to
understand the words of the songs. To that end, he created a technique he
called, "Tone Syllable." In his method of enunciation, the group sang every
component sound in every word in a carefully defined unison. Choral
directors around the world adopted his approach to choral music.
Waring educated through his music, too. He delighted in interspersing
classical music in his concerts and records. Almost always in a way that
would entertain while still maintaining the dignity of the original piece.
But he could have fun with a serious selection. And he was not above
creating words for classical numbers that never had any. Waring once stated,
"I always felt that the static presentation of 'long hair' material could be
enhanced with lyrics." Liebestraum and The Nutcracker Suite were two of the
most successful classical pieces to which Waring added his own words. Rigid
musicologists may have cringed at some Waring arrangements, but tens of
thousands of Americans had their first exposure to serious music through his
Fred Waring was proud to be an American and took every opportunity to prove
it. Irving Berlin's Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor based on the Emma Lazarus'
poem on the Statue of Liberty was a frequent number in Waring programs,
concerts and records. He produced at least three long play albums dedicated
to American themes. Roy Ringwald's The Song of America may well be the
pinnacle of those albums. A musical saga, it chronicles America's history
from the landing of the Pilgrim's to the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was
released on both the Decca and Capitol labels. His last patriotic album,
America I Hear You Singing, was a combined effort with Frank Sinatra and
Bing Crosby. Waring himself wrote several patriotic songs, including Where
In The World But In America, Army Hymn and The Flying Marines.
Waring always loved an audience. Year after year he took his Pennsylvanians
on grueling tours of America's heartland, often covering 150 cities. During
the radio years, his program originated from towns and cities all across
America. I first heard him in concert in Salt Lake City on January 26, 1963.
He was at his peak. These were his mature years. He was tall, erect, grey
haired and just slightly pudgy. His voice was both authoritative and
engaging. His humor was pleasant, sometimes wittingly sarcastic. Precisely
at 8:30 the lights dimmed.
Then after a slight
pause, he instructed the person in charge of the spotlights to turn one on
those who were still filing into their seats in the now dark auditorium. "We
made it all the way from New York on time. Couldn't you make it from your
home a few blocks away?" he teasingly asked the now embarrassed latecomers.
"Does anyone here know this baldheaded man?" he asked when the spotlight
singled out another hapless person. "He's apparently lost his way."
Then the spotlight was extinguished and the first strains of "I Hear Music"
softly wafted through the auditorium. It was a night of magical music that I
will forever remember. As always, the evening ended with the equally soft
Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians no longer tour the country and his program has
been off the air waves for more than forty years. But the quality and
excellence of his life and music continue to shape American music through
the teachers and conductors who studied at his workshops and listened to his
music on radio and records.
I still hear music. And the music I hear is that of Fred Waring and his
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