David Blumberg

Jan 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow

AN ARRANGER'S LIFE AND WORK

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David Blumberg started out as a trumpet player, spent some time on the road with Larry Elgart's band and then returned to L.A., his hometown, to begin a career in the recording industry. In his early days, he wrote memorable arrangements for soul greats such as the 5th Dimension, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Junior Walker. Projects completed during the past couple of years include arranging strings for a new Stevie Wonder song, “Passionate Raindrops,” penning four arrangements for Ray Charles' Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company and a bunch more for American Idol. In between these accomplishments lies a road that stretches for 40 years and a journey that has put Blumberg in the company of some of the greatest names in popular music.

Blumberg has a ton of stories to tell about Stevie Wonder, Charles, Quincy Jones, the Jackson 5 and many others. “I still remember the first time I met Stevie,” he says. “Mickey Stevenson, the executive vice president of Motown, brought him over to my North Hollywood house. We played croquet, and Stevie used my Revox 4-track reel-to-reel machine to overdub a commercial. I've known Stevie for 40 years; he's a musician on the level of Mozart, as far as I'm concerned. At Ray Charles' funeral, Narada Michael Walden told Stevie I was ‘the great string arranger,’ which I thought was cute, given the fact that we'd never worked together before. I had done some arranging for Stevie back in the '70s, and one tune I worked on turned into ‘Innervisions.’

“In the old days, you'd just write out an arrangement and hope it worked, but the technology of today has changed everything. I was given a two-mix of ‘Passionate Raindrops,’ which I brought into Logic. From there, I wrote a string arrangement using Sibelius and played it into Logic using the ESX24 sampler. Everybody but Stevie seemed to have heard the completed demo before we went into the studio to track. Oh, well — he's a hard guy to get on the telephone! No matter, the date went smoothly, and Stevie was quite pleased with the results.”

Blumberg recently upgraded the project studio he operates out of his Brentwood home. “More and more producers want to hear full-blown sample demos these days, both in the record business and in films, which I've branched into as a composer,” says Blumberg. Currently running Logic 7 and Pro Tools on a dual G4, Blumberg says he is about ready to switch over to a dual 2.3GHz G5; he also runs GigaStudio 3 on a PC. “Back in the 1950s, Aaron Copland wrote a book called The Path to the New Music, in which he predicted that the composer of the next century would also have to be an engineer and producer. He was right!”

Among the tools that Blumberg relies on heavily is the East West Quantum Leap orchestral sample library, and he says he is also a big fan of Spectrasonics. “I own Stylus RMX, Atmosphere and Trilogy, and they are all fantastic. I also own the Lounge Lizard electric piano software application, and it's wonderful. I'm a big fan of soft synths and sampled instruments. In fact, one of the reasons that I'm moving over to the G5 is that I own Ivory, the piano that Ilio distributes, and it's too massive to run on my G4!”

Blumberg's services have been in demand since the late '60s, when he did some arranging work for Jones' acclaimed album Body Heat. “Quincy is a very gifted musician,” Blumberg offers. “The funny thing about working with Q, though, is that he never seems to be at the session! He's got about nine careers going and is very skilled at putting together teams. I arranged the title track from Body Heat, plus ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven’ and ‘Everything Must Change.’”

Blumberg's career has had many high points — the arrangement of Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” is certainly one of his best known — and his recollections of the artists and producers with whom he has worked tumble out freely. “Working with Marvin Gaye was interesting in many ways,” he notes, “but the most remarkable thing of all was how softly he sang. He learned that if you sing softly, you have greater control than if you belt it out. He understood microphone singing, and his engineer was constantly riding the mic. Marvin's vocals always sounded plenty loud in the studio. Maxwell is the only other artist I know who sings that way, and Marvin is one of his idols.

David Blumberg (right) at work with Quincy Jones

“Working with Brian and Eddie Holland was also a great thrill. It didn't matter if the song they were working on became a hit or not. These were legendary producers, and just seeing how they worked and having the opportunity to work with them was fabulous. Working with Quincy was also an honor. Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons was a fabulous producer, and Lamont Dozier is a gem.”

Working with Charles on the legendary singer's final album also provided some indelible memories. “Ray changed things around all the time and that could make things difficult,” Blumberg says. “He'd have us over to his studio, play a song on the piano and then I'd write out a string or horn arrangement. The next day, when the players showed up, Ray might have a criticism and would play the song again with different chords! Of course, the parts wouldn't work with them, so we'd have to convince him that he'd played differently the previous day!

“I wanted to record strings for ‘You Don't Know Me,’ which Ray sang with Diana Krall, in Studio A or B over at Capitol Records. Those rooms sound great, but Ray insisted that we track at his place. Engineer Mark Fleming was brought in to track the strings, and I was amazed at his ability to get a great sound in that low-ceilinged room. After we completed the session, Ray called me up and basically said, ‘Son, you're going about it all wrong. Here's the way we're going to do it.’

“So for the first time in my career, I had to record all of the string sections seperately to minimize leakage. I guess Ray wanted the most control over the mix that he could get. I chalked it up as an idiosyncrasy of the legendary prophet of music.”

In recent years, Blumberg has brought his skills to the young singers on American Idol, a move that ititially caused him some trepidation — he wondered about the caliber of talent that would be appearing on the show. But Blumberg says he has been impressed by many of the singers who have appeared during the past several years. “Of course, you've got to accept the fact that artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young would never make it on the show, which demands that singers have the ability to perform in a variety of styles,” he says. “Vonzell [Solomon, from last year's program], for example, is a terrific singer. But how can you avoid comparisons with Aretha [Franklin] when you sing ‘Chain of Fools,’ and who could possibly top the queen? Still, some great singers have worked their way up the ranks.

“Things move quickly on the show, so I stayed with Logic 6 while working on it. Logic 7 is great, but the bugs hadn't been worked out of it when I was doing the last round of arrangements. The way that show works is that the artist works with a pianist and they create a one-minute version of the song he or she will perform that week. Ricky Minor hired me and five other arrangers, and if you're assigned a song, you go to Ricky's iMac site and download the sheet music, the piano/vocal sketch and an MP3 of the original version of the song, the one that was a hit.

“I download these files and import them into Logic. From there, I find the tempo that works with the track and beat-map it so that everything lines up. They send me blank score pages from Finale, and I write the score into them the old-fashioned way and then fax the parts over to the producer.”

When he's not writing and arranging music, Blumberg is passionately teaching the Equal Interval System (EIS) composition method of Lyle (Spud) Murphy, the great jazz arranger for the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and many others. Like other accolytes I've spoken with, Blumberg is a devout follower of Murphy, now in his late 90s. Information about Murphy and the EIS can be found at www.equalinterval.com. “The thing to grasp about this course is that it's over 1,200 pages of musical tools that Spud lays on the student, lesson by lesson,” Blumberg says. “The Website has MP3 examples from many of Spud's students, and a downloadable brochure. After all this time, I still feel that Spud is like a modern-day Bach — he's the king of line writing!”

But even Spud doesn't have credits to match Blumberg's.






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