HomeBlogsstephensaxon's blogDon Shelton Interview, Part I

stephensaxon's picture

I’ve been hinting in past columns about an interview with Don Shelton, and this month I’m finally making good on the promise.  Don has had an amazing career as a singer and woodwinds player in Chicago and California.  He was a member of the Hi-Lo’s, a member of The J’s With Jamie, and probably most famously, Don was one of The Singers Unlimited.  

As an instrumentalist, Don is a phenomenal saxophonist (specializing on alto and soprano), clarinetist, and flute player.  Whether he’s playing an instrument or singing, you can hear the same characteristics of a beautiful and rounded sound, and an intelligence and elegance of phrasing and melodic invention that are just superb.  

Don Shelton is a musician’s musician.  He can play virtually any style, and he can do the same with his voice.  He has exquisite taste, and he happens to be an amazingly nice and generous man.  It is no wonder that his wife, Joan, has stayed by his side (and he by hers) for more than close to five decades.  They are a wonderfully matched pair of truly gentle and kind people.

I had a chance to sit down with Don Shelton in March, 2006 while we were both judging and performing at the Columbia College Jazz Festival in Sonora, California.  Rod Harris runs a wonderful program up there, producing a really fun weekend’s worth of vocal jazz.  Groups from high schools and colleges all over California come to perform and to work with clinicians including Phil Mattson, Barbara Morrison and Don Shelton for two full days.  The past couple of years Clockwork has been invited to perform in the evening shows, lead some daytime clinics, and to work with the participating groups.  This year, we were even honored to have Don sit in with us in the evening concert sets – a highlight for us, I can assure you.

Another bit of background before we start.  In October, 2005, Len Dresslar passed away.  Known to many as the voice of the Jolly Green Giant, but known to a cappella fans the world over as the foundational bass singer of The Singers Unlimited.  He was a personal idol of mine since I was in high school.  His is the voice I heard in my mind’s ear as the ideal for how to support a vocal jazz group.  Thanks in part to Don, I was able to be in touch with Len before he passed.  Don had also fairly recently lost a close friend from the Hi-Lo’s, Bob Morse.  I asked him to talk about them and give some more detail to those of us who didn’t have the fortune to know either of them, personally.

On Bob Morse

SDS: I’d like to open it up by asking you to share some memories of Bob [Morse] and Len [Dresslar].

DS: Things that I think of with Bob Morse, since he came first, (‘cause I was with the Hi Lo’s first), was one of making me feel so relaxed.  [I was] the new guy coming into the group that had never had any change before, and I was singing his parts.  He moved down a notch to sing third, and I was singing his parts, second.

SDS: Was Gene (Puerling) always singing bass?

DS: With Gene on the bottom.  And here he is standing next to me, and I’m singing his parts.  Well, it was amusing on this side of the coin.  It was funny because there were times when he would slip for a second and sing his old part.  He had been doing it for five years or whatever, and it’s so ingrained.  And we would look at each other and he would look at me and like, “Oops! I didn’t mean to do that…” <laughter>.  It took a little while because, as I say, it was ingrained.  

But the wonderful part was that for me, performing with the Hi Lo’s was a new experience.  I’d never been in front of the public like that with a renowned group that was well entrenched and well known, and so forth.  My first performance with the Hi Lo’s was at the Columbia record convention in Los Angeles in ’59.  Joan and I had just gotten married, we’d gone on our honeymoon, and flew to Miami to do the Columbia record convention with all the record executives there and artists galore, and everything.  My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, I don’t know if I was holding a straight tone or not.  

But Bob was just able to comfort me and make me feel so relaxed by doing little… He was a very funny man.  Very shy, retiring, immensely talented, with an incredible voice and an incredible musical intuitiveness; he just knew how to present a song. He would do little things to put me at ease, is all what I’m trying to get to.  He had a way of just looking at me and “It’s all right.  Everything’s going to be OK.”  And when he would do “Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries” and “Down The Old Ox Road” and sometimes he would quietly, when he said “Down The Old Ox Road” he would have a way of pronouncing it that was just so comedic.

There was a time when we had a line, and he would put in the word “Oat” instead of the word “Oak,” and it would just crack me up!  <laughter>  He was disarming, you know, “Take a deep breath, relax…” And he would just look over at me…So we had this thing and it just grew and built from there and it was just absolutely enormous.  Of course, he was known in the group as the romantic baritone.  He sang those solos with the Hi Lo’s before I was with them, even though he was singing high tenor, because that part in the Hi Lo’s, many times is singing the higher part because of the cross voicing – many times, because Clark [Burroughs] always has the melody wherever that goes.    {mosimage}

The Hi Lo’s Style

That’s Gene’s unique way of writing.  He didn’t write like Four Freshmen, like all the groups that have come, and many since.  I like to talk about when you have the staff marker when you have five pieces of chalk and you’re going to do a staff [on a chalkboard], and you go [draws a staff in the air with his five fingers].  A lot of vocal group writers, if you’re in four parts or five… [sings a melody and moves his fingers in parallel with it] the top is always top, and everybody else… you follow, like a graph, that line.  It is so uninteresting to me, especially after doing the Hi Lo’s and Gene’s uncanny way of having Clark take the melody wherever it goes, and many times there will not only be one, but maybe two parts above that melody line.  That feeling, in connection to the melody, is unbelievable.  To be up on a G and Clark will be in the staff, on an E, and I’m a tenth away from him, and Bob, the third part, may be on a B, or whatever alternate chord that Gene might have done.  And that’s one of the uniquenesses of the Hi Lo’s. 

The point was, that singing Bob’s parts was a little intimidating because here I am coming in and he knows those parts and I’m trying to sing them as well as he did.                          


Working with a Vocal Coach

It took me a good year to learn, vocal production-wise, to figure out how to feather that voice out.  When I was a boy, I always had a voice, like, “PING!” I could just pierce armor with it.  Basically, I was an instrumentalist, but I did a lot of singing.  So I had to learn how to sing the thing by going to their vocal coach, who we’d work with a lot.

SDS: Who was that?

DS: Gene Byron, a noted vocal coach.  He used to work with Judy Garland…Judy would call him from Las Vegas and say, “Gene, I’m in trouble.  You need to fly up to Vegas and help me.” And he would jump on a plane…like a doctor of voice.  And he’d go up and sit up with her all night and help her through.  While he was working, she [went through] all sorts of things.  He was really a confidante.  But he also worked with tons and tons of big Hollywood actors who wanted to sing.  So he was not a stylist coach.  He was a vocal, voice builder coach.  He knew the problems, because he had worked with Bell Telephone to do x-rays of the human voice, and he could show you the mechanism. 

I’m an instrumentalist and I’m working with a clarinet reed and my alto sax all the time, and that’s your key.  If that’s not working, you’re dead.  It doesn’t matter what else you’ve got going – you’ve got to have a good reed that’s not too hard, not too soft; it’s got to be the right resistance.  He was able to do that; to help you vocally, to understand what those vocal folds are all about, and what’s happening.  Because you can’t see it, you can’t work with it.  It’s totally different from playing woodwinds.  It was a mystery inside of here.  And he was able to say, “Well, here’s what’s going on when you sing this note, there…”  And he would demonstrate it, because he was like an operatic singer.  So that was my first experience with the voice at that level.  Really knowing something about it, rather than just singing in the shower.

On Len Dresslar

Len, on the other hand…Singing with the “Jolly Green Giant” was another experience.  Boy!  ‘Cause, again, he stood on my right side, and for many, many, many, many years I was just listening to those dulcet tones of his come out.  His was a situation, especially when we formed Singers Unlimited…Singing with The J’s With Jamie was one thing, but once we got into Gene’s arrangements with The Singers Unlimited, it was again, not unlike me joining the Hi Lo’s and learning how to use the voice and blend it in a way and feather it to make it be like the other voices; to amalgamate into one, and that’s really what a vocal group is all about.

Well, we had to do that same thing with Len because he too, he could be very cutting, you know.  Man, he could turn it on and just…Brrrr, you know? 

SDS: I think we can hear that sound in Motherless Child (A Capella III), when he would do solos.

DS: Exactly. He would to that naturally.  And what we did with Len was that thing of, “Man, you’ve got to feather that out and get it bigger and fatter and rounder and be the pillar of the bass, of this chord.  Because now we’re talking six parts, sometimes more, that Gene has written, and Len - a good singer will be able to do that, and Len was able to do that. I always think of that being so interesting because that’s what I had to do with the Hi Lo’s. {mosimage}

He was such a Broadway type singer.  He used to do a road show, and “South Pacific” with Enzio Pinza, and oh, my gosh, he could really do his “Some Enchanted Evening!”  It was incredible.  And that’s how he got started.  He was that kind of singer and because of his immense vocal range. 

They found him, Joe and Jamie, and that’s when they formed J’s With Jamie in Chicago for advertising purposes.  And then he went on to become the “Ho Ho Ho,” of course, of the Jolly Green Giant, and tons of others.  He used to be Diggem in the Kellog’s Sugar Smacks - we used to do all that.  And he was Snap, “Snap, what a happy sound; Snap is the happiest sound I’ve found…”  He was Snap, I was Crackle, Gene was Pop.  Oh, yeah.  And on this tape that I told you about, that was played at his memorial, were a lot of these kinds of things.  His voice, his characters.  He did tons of them for all sorts of products. 

He was very good.  I have tapes at home of him from My Fair Lady, doing Professor Higgins, and Bonnie [Herman] is [Eliza Doolittle]…“Manly good soul.”  “Oh, Manly, you manly good soul!”  And they’re singing…We’re doing Schlitz, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer!”  A new campaign back in the 60’s for Schlitz beer.  One day we did 43 spots for Schlitz… 

SDS: My gosh!

DS: I know…You’re running from studio A to studio B, back to studio A… It was just unbelievable.  New campaign.  They don’t do that anymore.  And Len was very, very big with character things.  He just did tons of stuff.

But he was wonderful to stand next to, and we’d feed off of each other.  A person like that, you learn things from them, they’re listening to you.  He was learning to swing better, ‘cause he was more classical / Broadway, which is not always swing.  And my being an instrumentalist, what I was able to contribute to the Hi Lo’s, really, my thing would be that I was able to help them get a better swing feel, and really dig in, you know.  Put some more energy into it in a big band sort of way. 

Next time: What it was like to audition for the Hi-Lo’s, and how Don got the idea to start Singers Unlimited.