Hamell’s Song A Day Blog #3: “Arrange, Polish, & Repeat”

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I have a very worn copy of the heart of “Rock and Soul: The Greatest Singles Ever Made” by Dave Marsh. This is a truly wonderful book for those of us that love Rock and Roll, songwriting, recording, lists and debates. It’s also a cool way to utilize your music collection. Over the past ten years or so I’ll take a song, listen to it a minimum of seven times and make notes in the margins about distinctive instrumentation, construction, lyrics and arrangements. I’m up to about 500 and it seems every time I’m about to make a record I’ll focus on a different tactic. Currently, it’s vocal performance. For years prior it was arrangements and production (i.e.: What makes that little song that we play in our bedroom on acoustic kick out and reach the hearts and ears of the non-musician?)

I had the privilege of meeting and playing with Les Paul once. My dear friend Jackie “the Jokeman” Martling introduced me to him when Les was playing every Monday night at Iridium in NYC. It was cool to play with him onstage but even cooler to shoot the breeze with him in a little booth for a couple of hours after the show. I know and hang with some pretty sharp people but here was a level of intellect that was pretty awe inspiring. I felt like I was tripping. Really. A very humble, gentle and unassuming man, he was dropping names and quotes like: “I introduced my good friend Bing Crosby to my other good friend Frank Sinatra”, or “…my other friend Orson Welles never liked those guys.” Holy shit.

Les told me that Paul McCartney had told him that when he and John Lennon auditioned for their first gig they had to go back and learn more Les Paul songs. This was how nimble the guy was: He told me President Eisenhower was a fan and invited him to play at the White House. Vice President Richard Nixon personally called and requested him. I, being the wise guy I am, couldn’t resist saying, “Richard Nixon? You should have told him to go fuck himself.” Without missing a beat Les countered, “Well, he did!” He even told me he was 11 years old when he got the idea for the electric guitar which is a whole other story for another time.

So what does this have to do with songwriting? I started questioning Les about his big hit, “How High The Moon”. How many guitars and vocals, how he got the idea for over-dubbing etc. He told me that he went to Capitol records and told them how was going to have a number 1 hit with “How High the Moon.” They laughed at him. It had already been a hit just three years earlier. He left the room saying, “Just wait and see.” He and Mary Ford were on the road all the time. He told Mary that they were going to work on that song until they could end with it every night. He worked on the arrangement endlessly making it more polished and exciting with each draft. He actually told me, “I wanted it to be so good and seamless it could be our big closer in Madison Wisconsin on a Monday night!” You ever been to Madison on a Monday night? Can you get them on their feet? Yeesh. Then he used unprecedented and historical methods to record it, threw it on the Capitol record executives desk and three months later it went to #1.

POINT BEING: It all started with the song and the arrangement.

Who puts the strings on “Ode to Billy Joe”? Who suggests the recorder solo in “Wild Thing”?

Have fun with your arrangement and good luck with your hit. –Hamell


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  1. Holy cow!
    Thanks a million.
    When are you coming down to Sirius to play name that tune or whatever the hell we’re going to do?

    That night at the Cactus was the greatest time in Austin for me, Wayne’s klutzy guitar and all. I guess now that UT managed to mess up a good (great) thing, it always will be.

    C’mon over some Sunday. I want to meet Detroit!

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