From Motown to Abbey Road

January 31, 2019
 

It was a fun thought. I began to imagine the first annual “Bring Your Symphony Orchestra to School Day.”  Why not!  There are open houses.  And there are opportunities for students from one school to visit another or for students to bring along prospective high school students.

Actually, the idea came to mind after I saw a note on a recording from around 1960 featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  It seems that orchestra didn’t need an invitation to visit Cass Technical High School in Detroit. In fact, the musicians spent a lot of time there rehearsing and recording.

The school (named for statesman Lewis Cass) had a 3,000 seat auditorium and boasted fine acoustics. That’s what made the visits to the school so inviting for the orchestra. And that means that the legendary French conductor Paul Paray, who was the orchestra’s Music Director at the time, walked through the halls of Cass. But so did other legendary performers over the years – as students – including musicians Diana Ross and Donald Byrd and comedian Lily Tomlin.

The orchestra's recording sessions supposedly took place outside school hours. The maroon sound truck for the recording company parked in a garage that was a classroom for mechanical studies. The listening staff was set up in another classroom.  And a telephone system kept the technical crew members in contact with each other.

The auditorium was located in a building that no longer exists. It was replaced in 2005 and demolished in 2011. But its legacy continues with the recordings that were made there with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

With the likes of Paul Paray and Diana Ross walking in the same hallways, I wondered if their worlds ever came together on the outside? It turns out that they did. Members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra often performed as session musicians for Motown artists in the 1960s. There were string players featured on a good number of those hit singles. They were led by the orchestra’s concertmaster Gordon Staples. The session players called themselves “Gordon Staples and the String Thing.” They released an album titled “Strung Out” in 1970.  Today, Gordon’s son Gregory Staples is a violinist with the orchestra, as well as Gregory’s mother Beatriz Budinsky, a longtime member of the first violin section.

I shared the info about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Cass Technical High School on Classic Mornings just before playing music by Charles Gounod from one of the orchestra’s “school” recordings. Afterwards, I jokingly introduced the next piece of music as one that makes its way into high schools regularly: Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, a portion of which is played at graduations.

After all the talk about classical and pop musicians walking through the same halls, I noticed that the Elgar march, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yehudi Menuhin, was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. That facility has been shared by classical and pop musicians for years.

The studios were built at the site of a townhouse that dates back to 1831. In 1929 the Gramophone company acquired the property and converted it into studios, which were in use beginning in 1931. That same year, the Gramophone Company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries (EMI).

The studios were known as the EMI Studios even at the time the Beatles recorded their famous album named for the road on which the studios are located. Though the album (which celebrates its 50th anniversary later this year) was titled “Abbey Road,” not all of it was recorded there. Yet many previous Beatles albums and singles were.  So the group sort of earned the right to borrow the name. And after the success of the album, EMI decided that it too had earned the right to rename its facility Abbey Road Studios

It’s not uncommon to see Abbey Road Studios listed as the recording venue for many classical recordings. Studio 1 is the legendary orchestral studio, and has been the locale for the creation of some memorable film soundtracks as well. The Beatles recorded mostly in Studio 2.

The studios and the Beatles album are named for the road. I was curious to know something about the “abbey” of the road. Turns out it’s Kilburn Priory (another name for abbey), established in the 12th century as a monastic community for nuns. Ruins from the old priory have been located in that area of northwest London which is called Kilburn. And other roads with the words “Kilburn” and “Priory” also recall the monastery. I’m guessing their crosswalks don’t attract as many tourists as one in particular on Abbey Road. 


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