Anatomy of an Arrangement: "The Letter" by The Arbors

In 1964, two sets of brothers who met at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor formed a pop quartet they named The Arbors, whose lush four-part harmonies may remind you of groups like The Four Freshmen and The Lettermen. In 1968, they released The Arbors Featuring 'I Can't Quit Her/The Letter' a remarkable album that included covers of the Box Tops' "The Letter," Al Kooper's "I Can't Quit Her," the Doors' "Touch Me," and songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

The man who arranged the songs on that album, Joe Scott, got his start as a musician playing jazz piano to pay for his tuition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied classical music theory and composition. But he made his biggest mark in the music world as an arranger for some of the great pop and rock groups of the '60s. His greatest accomplishment as an arranger was the Arbors' truly mindblowing cover of "The Letter," a record that has to be heard to be believed.

Gary Hailey of Songfacts talked to Joe Scott recently about his life as a performer and arranger – and his decision to walk away from the music business at the height of his success to go to law school.
Gary Hailey (Songfacts): Joe, how did you get your start in music?

Joe Scott: I started at nine, taking piano lessons. There was no doubt that that was what I was going to do, even at the age of nine. I had tremendous support from my parents – particularly my father, although he didn't play an instrument. My parents were immigrants from Sicily.

Songfacts: Where did you grow up?
Newark Arts High School, which opened in 1931, was the first public high school in the United States for the visual and performing arts. Its graduates include singers Sarah Vaughn, Connie Francis, and Melba Moore, jazz composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and tap dancer and choreographer Savion Glover.
Joe: I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which was really a great place to grow up. I went to the Newark Arts High School. At that time there were really only three public schools that focused on the arts – the one in New York that was made famous in Fame, and one in California, and Newark Arts High School. Pretty much the most talented people were there, and I was just surrounded by talent. The high school was so advanced – they were doing operas and had a symphony orchestra. There were so many guys who played jazz and we had so many jazz groups and guys who were writing arrangements, and when I got into high school, I knew that I wanted to be an arranger – that was when I made up my mind.

Songfacts: What kind of music classes did you take there?

Joe: Obviously, if you played piano, you couldn't be in the band or the orchestra, so all of us who played keyboard instruments learned another instrument. I played clarinet for two years and then trombone for two years, and also took music theory and learned sight-singing – we had all of that. It was an incredible education. One of my classmates was Melba Moore – there were all kinds of gifted people there – it was amazing. I was just one of many. I wasn't more gifted than anybody else.

Songfacts: What did you do after high school?
The Manhattan School of Music, which was founded in 1917, offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in jazz and classical performance and composition. It currently has about 900 students from over 40 countries.
Joe: When I graduated, I wanted to go to Manhattan School of Music. My father had died, and there really was no money, so I had to work. I was playing in a band, and then after a year, I entered Manhattan School of Music as a theory/composition major and I went through all the way to my master's.

Songfacts: Tell me about the jazz scene in New York City in those days.

Joe: The late '50s and the '60s were really the heyday of jazz – Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely, Cannonball Adderly. I started playing nightclubs when I was in high school. After high school, when I was working my way through the Manhattan School of Music, I worked four or five nights a week in a nightclub with a band – there were a million nightclubs where you could work and you could make great money.

Songfacts: Were you a fan of rock or pop music in those days?

Joe: I don't like '50s music. Elvis Presley did nothing for me. I loved what we now think of as classic rock – the Beatles, Motown, all of it. I love great songs.

Songfacts: How did you make the move from playing jazz in nightclubs to becoming a composer and arranger?

Joe: I knew that to break into the scene in New York was going to be very difficult – very competitive. In 1965 I made a connection with a guy who was a studio player in New York City and he was trying to produce records. He cut a deal with Chappell Music, which was a very prominent music publisher. At that time music publishers were important. They aren't now, because everybody publishes their own music, but we were still at that time where you went to a publisher with your songs so that the publisher could get it to the artist, and they were still using contract arrangers as opposed to self-contained groups. There was still a lot of arranging to be done. So he said to me, "I think you've got some talent as a songwriter, so we'll put you under contract with Chappell." And he said, "In the meantime, what you can do is to get your experience writing and arranging for a recording studio, which is a different animal from writing for a live band." So he explained to me that every time they sent a new song out to an artist who might want to record it, they would cut a demo of the song. He told me I could do the arrangements for those demos – I didn't get paid for that work, you understand.

Songfacts: So a publisher would get some studio musicians to record a new song that the publisher was hoping a big singer would want to record, and if the record sold a lot of copies, the publishing company would get a share?

Joe: That's right. I was there every day, and I would write songs and I would meet people and I just kept doing demos and kept getting a lot of experience. So I'm plugging away there, and one of the producers – a young guy who was something of a scatterbrain – walked in one day, when I was sitting there with the guy who got me the job for Chappell Music. He tells my friend, "I'm stuck. I'm doing this R&B record, and we've got the rhythm down but I need sweetening with horns." So my friend says, "Here's Joe," and the producer says, "You want to do this? We've got to have it done by tomorrow morning." And not only did I have to write the arrangements, I had to copy the parts out by hand. But I said I could do it, and he says, "Here's the deal: I'll give you $50 but my name goes on for the arranging credit – not yours." I said that was no problem.

Songfacts: You just wanted to get your foot in the door with this producer, show him you could get the job done – so you didn't care about the arranging credit?

Joe: Exactly. It was late in the afternoon and everyone who worked in the Brill Building – which is where we were – was closing up, and there was no piano I could use. So the producer brought a tape recorder up with a tape of what they had already recorded with the rhythm section. We were in a hallway in the Brill Building and I took some diet pills so I could stay awake. The guy sang the licks that he wanted and I picked up on it – I knew what he was looking for. I think there were eight horns, so I had to write eight parts. I listened to the rhythm section recording and wrote the eight horn parts. I was able to write the arrangements without the use of a piano. I had that skill because of the training at the Manhattan School of Music – that was the way they taught you to orchestrate. So anyway, that all worked out, and so I got my $50 and he got the credit, and that was the end of that. It was not a hit that I know of, but it was for Scepter Records, which was Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles and the Isley Brothers and a bunch of others.
Joe Scott was a very busy arranger for the next few years. The breadth of his assignments was astonishing. One day he might help sweeten a Moby Grape album or Supersession, the next day he'd do arrangements for Phyllis Diller (who released an album that included "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I, "Bei Mir, Bist Du Schon," and "Satisfaction"). Joe worked with Phil Ramone and the Four Seasons and did TV commercials for major corporations like American Airlines, Pepsi, and Texaco – he did the arrangements for nine different "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star" TV spots for Texaco. And he released two albums under the name "Joe Scott and his Orchestra" that featured arrangements of pop and rock songs for a symphonic orchestra.
Songfacts: How were you chosen to do the arranging for the Arbors' cover of "The Letter"? That was 1968, I believe.

Joe: I was hired by Roy Cicala and his wife, Lori Burton, who produced "The Letter." Roy was a great recording engineer, and Lori was a very successful songwriter and a great singer. Roy and Lori wanted a new and unique arrangement, and they knew I had good skills from my schooling, so they thought I could do it. The Arbors didn't have an album deal at the time – the single of "The Letter" was done on spec, and the album came later.

Songfacts: Joe, I took piano lessons for a long time, and I took a couple of music theory and composition classes in college, but I'm really just a beginner compared to a professional like you. A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed you my analysis of "The Letter" – did it make any sense at all?

Joe: I got that and I said to myself, "What, is this guy kidding me?" It was so complicated, I couldn't even follow it. [Laughter.] I'm looking at this thing and saying, "Is that what I did?" I didn't even remember "The Letter" very well.

Songfacts: Have you listened to it recently?

Joe: Oh sure – I went to YouTube after I got your e-mail.

Songfacts: Well, I think the whole thing – especially the arrangement – is just remarkable. How do you feel about it?
"The Letter" was a #1 hit for Alex Chilton's group The Box Tops in 1967. Two years later, The Arbors returned the song to the chart, reaching #20 with their version. The song became a showstopper for Joe Cocker, whose live version with Leon Russell hit #7 in 1970.
Joe: I think it's one of the best things I've ever done. But it's important to remember that great records take more than one person. The talents of Roy and Lori and the great sound of the Arbors were vital to the outcome.

Songfacts: I'm glad you think it was a great record – so I'm not crazy after all!

Joe: Not at all! [Laughter.]

Songfacts: "The Letter" opens with a four-measure guitar introduction – it reminded me a little of Jose Felicano, or maybe the guitar on "Ode to Billie Joe."

Joe: There were two guitars on that - an acoustic guitar plays first, and then an electric guitar answers. Jay Berliner did the acoustic. Ralph Casale played the answer on the electric.

Songfacts: The arrangement of the next minute or so of the record - the first verse, then the second verse, and then the chorus – is fairly straightforward. But the middle section of "The Letter" – the part that begins at about 1:20 and ends 90 seconds later, at 2:50 - is anything but straightforward.

The middle section of "The Letter" starts off pretty quietly at 1:20, with eight measures of strings, accompanied by guitar. At the end of those eight measures (1:38), the strings subtly modulate into a new key, and sustain a held note for four more measures. Then all hell breaks loose. Out of nowhere, the Arbors come in (at 1:48) with the chorus – gorgeous harmony over the sustained note in the strings.

Joe: That's called a pedal tone. It's a device used in classical music. The beauty of a pedal tone is that it does not change even when the harmony changes.

Songfacts: At 2:08, the Arbors repeat the chorus, and things really start to get interesting – the tempo retards dramatically as the volume increases, and the tension begins to build. At 2:32, they get to the last word in the chorus – "more" – and the singers and the strings land on a fortissimo dominant seventh and hold it until the listener's need to have that dominant seventh resolve back to the tonic is almost unbearable. But you never resolve that dominant seventh – instead, you just slide into the four-measure guitar intro once more and then the Arbors sing the last verse.

Joe: You know the record better than I do! [Laughter.]

Songfacts: Joe, I've never heard anything like that middle section – where in the world did that all come from?

Joe: It's going to be hard for me to tell you exactly what I was thinking. Whatever we do in life, we are influenced by different forms of education and experiences. What I can tell you is that being a composition major – a classical composition major at Manhattan School of Music - that is where that comes from. That's totally classical. When you are a music composition major, you do about 25% writing your own music and 75% analyzing the music of other composers. So the idea of bridging the two keys with the high pedal note would have been a classical thing. That's where that comes from.

Songfacts: And the same applies to the vocals – when the Arbors come in with the chorus at 1:48.

Joe: Yes, where they come out blasting – what I call the "fanfare" - that's classical, that's not rock at all. That's totally classical.

Songfacts: I've never heard "fanfare" applied to vocal music, but that's the perfect word for it – it's almost like a trumpet fanfare.
Roy Cicala, who died earlier this year, engineered or produced albums by the Amboy Dukes, the Cowsills, Frank Sinatra, Alice Cooper, and many others, but was best known for his work with John Lennon. Lori Burton, who released a solo album titled Breakout in 1967, wrote songs that were recorded by Lulu, Patti LaBelle, the Young Rascals, and Shania Twain (among others).
Joe: When you hear the fanfare by the Arbors, that's a new take. That starts brand new. We give them the pitch and they come in – they overdubbed it. That's how that was done. The record was recorded in three different sessions - sections that Roy Cicala and our engineer had to put together. Now, my guess is that in that instrumental section, we were going to do an instrumental solo. Maybe we did one, I don't know – but I do know that Roy and Lori were listening to it and said, "We're not going to put any solo here, just let the rhythm section play." I'm sure that was their idea. Otherwise there probably would have been a guitar solo or something in there.

Songfacts: And that would have been something a little more conventional for an instrumental break, you're saying.

Joe: That's right. But instead we just let the rhythm run. And we have to go back to the musicians now. When you're arranging this kind of music, as opposed to Frank Sinatra... you hire those players in the rhythm section, you know their style. You know what they're capable of. You pretty much know what the feel is going to be with the Arbors, you know what you're looking for, so you hire the people who you believe can play in that style.

Songfacts: How much of the instrumental arrangement do you write out note for note?

Joe: The arranger - once he writes the introduction – really just writes the chords. And then you tell [session guitarists like Hugh] McCracken or [Jay] Berliner or whoever it is, "This is what I need to feel. Can you cop something for me?" And they work with the bass player and drummer and give you something, and maybe you say, "No – not quite that," and finally they came up with that accompaniment, which was so critical on this record. For me, it was those guys. That's who pretty much made the record. Unless the arranger is also the guitar player, that is something he cannot take credit for. I mean, those guys are so important in establishing the feel. They just listen to each other. I don't tell the drummer to use this cymbal or use that cymbal – I mean, I would say, "Can you do something different, can you do something like..." whatever. But these guys create that feel. That's how it's done.

Songfacts: So a record like this - it's truly a collaboration involving all kinds of people.

Joe: Exactly – as I said before. Big time, big time.

Songfacts: The way everything connects together...

Joe: You call that a happening, Gary. If that was a Monday, we could have gone into the studio on a Wednesday and that wouldn't have happened. It's spontaneous. You have to be very fortunate. And many times we never get what we wanted – there was nothing special about it. But the final product here was special. And that wouldn't have happened without the Arbors, without Roy and Lori, without the guitar players, and so on and so forth.

Songfacts: "The Letter" was released in 1968 on an album titled The Arbors Featuring 'I Can't Quit Her/The Letter' - one of the clumsiest album titles ever. It included covers of Al Kooper's "I Can't Quit Her" (which was on the first Blood Sweat & Tears album), the Doors' "Touch Me," and Bob Dylan and Beatles songs. You did the arrangements for all those?

Joe: All those. As you can hear, there are different instrumental combinations on those tracks - some have horns, some have strings, some have whatever.

Songfacts: What were the Arbors like to work with?

Joe: They were amazing to work with. Not only were they the nicest guys in the world, but they were so gifted - great musicians. I mean, that was a once in a lifetime to work with them. [Click here to read a 1974 article about the Arbors that appeared in the University of Michigan alumni magazine.]

Songfacts: After this album they did one more single, then they started to do TV commercials and didn't really do any more records.

Joe: I think it was simply because the follow-up single to "The Letter" was not successful.

Songfacts: Joe, you stopped arranging in 1971. What happened? Why did you leave the record business?

Joe: I was at the peak of my profession in 1969 and 1970 – I was keeping very busy, and making a lot of money. That was important to me because my dad had died when I was young, and we were in poverty during much of my childhood. I loved music but I began to get disillusioned with the music business. I was getting tired of what I had been doing, plus music was changing – groups started doing everything themselves, and that was a trend that was going to result in a lot of arrangers like me being eliminated from the picture.

Songfacts: So what did you do?

Joe: I entered Seton Hall University's law school in 1972. I thought I wanted to do entertainment law, but that would have meant working in Manhattan, which I didn't want to do. So I became a business lawyer – did commercial real estate law, that sort of thing.

Songfacts: Joe, I'm a lawyer, too. But I've often fantasized about having a career in music. I can't imagine giving up a successful music career to go into the practice of law. I think there are a lot more lawyers who would be musicians if they could than there are musicians dying to become lawyers. Did you ever regret your decision to give up music?

Joe: After about ten years, I really started to miss music. In the mid-1980s, I started to sneak out of the office and play in local jazz clubs. By 1986, I was married and had a young daughter, and we bought a condo in Florida so we could spend winter vacations there. A few years later, I went to the managing partner of my law firm and asked if I could take two or three months off so my wife and I could live in our condo and decide if we wanted to move to Florida permanently. I think my partner knew that I planned to try to get back into music in Florida, and he gave me his blessing.

Songfacts: So you've been in Florida since then?

Joe: That's right. We moved to the Palm Beach area and never looked back. I teach some courses at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and I usually play jazz piano three or four nights a week - I'm so lucky at my age to still be getting paid for playing the piano.

Songfacts: I'm sure that the people who come to hear you perform are glad you made the decision you did to leave the legal profession and put your musical talent to use again.

Joe: I never thought that much of myself as a musician because right from Newark Arts High School to the peak of my professional career, I was surrounded by such great talent. It wasn't until I gave music up for the practice of law that I realized how special music is and really appreciated the talent I had.

December 9, 2014.
To read more by Songfacts contributor Gary Hailey, please visit his music blog, 2 or 3 lines (and so much more).

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