An interview with arranger Larry Kerchner, part 3

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

Publisher’s note: This is the third part of the interview series. Part 1 appeared in the December 2006 edition and part 2 in the January 2007 issue. This part appeared in the March 2007 issue of the newspaper.

Harry Heidelmark: Do you believe DCI will some day allow woodwind instruments and, if so, how should the maximum number of corps members be increased to allow for them?

Larry Kerchner: Given that everything anyone has wanted thus far has eventually been allowed, it’s probably a good bet that woodwinds will ultimately be legalized. Over the years, we finally “evolved” to 1815, the year the piston valve was invented. As soon as it was, it didn’t take long to realize that it took three of them to be able to play a chromatic scale.

Of course, drum corps’ evolution to date has been confined to the brass and percussion areas, so a foray into the wonderful world of woodwinds will take drum corps into another realm.

Something new and unheard of — marching band. Yeah, it’s really evolving.

By the way, I keep saying “drum corps” which is, of course, short for “drum and bugle corps.” This term is being phased out by “marching ensemble,” “teams” and all sorts of euphemisms, including simply “DCI.” Will DCI have to change its name, too?

I don’t know what the maximum number would be, but, since woodwinds don’t project the same as brass, I imagine the number would have to be at least double those of the brass lines.

HH: Do you believe DCI should allow trombones and sousaphones?

LK: Why not? In for a penny, in for a pound. The only reason they haven’t been allowed is to keep the old drum corps “look.” As long as our horns look relatively the same as they always have, the details of numbers and types of valves has been easier to swallow.

Trombone slides do the same thing as three valves in lengthening the tubing, and the Sousaphone was just a way to project the sound of tubas and helicons forward, instead of up. They were “bell-front” instruments over a hundred years ago. Sound familiar?

HH: While recruiting new members, I’ve known of some people who compare marching in drum corps to going to band camp for two months, but instead of cabins or tents, you sleep in a bus. Would you say that’s a fair comparison?

LK: Given the smaller, more-concentrated competition schedule that now exists, as well as the “winter camp” phenomenon, which has replaced weekly or semi-weekly rehearsals, I can see where the “band camp” comparison could be a fair one. Maybe today’s competing drum corps are more like bands of Gypsies, or better yet, illusionists!

They don’t exist. Then they exist monthly for a minute. Then they tour. Then they disappear again and lie dormant until a new band of Gypsies is gathered to repeat the life cycle. A little different from the hometown style of yesteryear, isn’t it? (smiles)

HH: In addition to writing charts for numerous marching ensembles, what other genres have featured your musical arrangements?

LK: Oh boy, where to start . . . While at Berklee, I learned the techniques of writing for jazz bands of all sizes, which led to my doing night club arrangements for various singers in the Boston area. I also worked with many R&B acts like the G Clefs, Tavaraz and several girl groups, writing songs and doing vocal arrangements.

This was a very fertile time in my songwriting career, having written my first tune at age 15, but without the opportunity to hear my early works. Now I actually got to hear the things I’d write, not only with these artists, but regularly at Berklee in ensemble classes.

This was akin to what I had experienced at 11 or 12 with my first drum corps arrangements. One important professional thing happened to me while still attending Berklee: I got to know Mel Tormé (through a friend who had worked with him in Vegas) and to write both a song and an arrangement for him. He was a nice man, in addition to being an incredible singer who, by the way, was an accomplished pianist, drummer and baritone ukulele player!

After college, when I moved from Boston to North Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, I was immediately contacted by the manager of an up-and-coming singer named Peter Lemongello. Peter needed an arranger and conductor for his Vegas-style act, so I took the gig.

Turns out he had “connections,” shall we say, and, after playing every venue from Long Island to the Catskills to Jersey to the Poconos, and working with classic “old school” acts like Henny Youngman and Eddie Fisher, we started getting gigs opening for name acts that were hot at that time.

One of the “biggies” was Don Rickles, the comedian. When we worked with him for two weeks (two shows a night) at the Copacabana in New York, doors started to open, not only for Peter as a performer, but for me as well, as an arranger, songwriter and conductor.

Every night, both the showroom and dressing room were jammed with celebrities and “their people.” There were many “deals” on many “tables” and they led to working Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe with Don, which begat connection after connection from THOSE venues.

We did the “Jerry Lewis MD Telethon,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show” — all multiple times.

If I may pause here, I’d like to tell you that two of the biggest thrills for me around that time were having my charts played by Doc Severinsen and “The Tonight Show” band, and rehearsing with the musicians playing my first MD Telethon and discovering that, in addition to all of the other New York “heavies,” was none other than Urbie Green on 1st trombone.

Urbie is the best trombone player I’ve ever heard. I used to wear his records out, and there I was about to hear him play MY arrangement, which just so happened to open with a trombone solo! Man, was I in heaven!

I personally handed out the parts just to make sure Urbie got the solo. WOW, what a thrill! Incidentally, he just turned 90 and is still playing!

All this stuff was going on in one part of my life while, at the same time, in my other persona, I was teaching the Caballeros, Muchachos, Bridgemen, Townsmen, Saints, Royal Brigade and writing for many other corps all over the country.

I’m sure they wondered why I would disappear for a week or two every once in a while, but I just kept a low profile regarding my show business life. It was always quite an adjustment coming from working with the best players in the business, to teaching essentially non-musicians who were playing G-F piston-rotary bugles — an adjustment I learned to make fairly seamlessly.

I never looked down at my drum corps friends. Rather, I gave them a lot of credit for choosing to make playing music their hobby instead of so many other things they could have done instead. Where else could they have that opportunity? I always looked at drum corps as a place where non-musicians could express themselves musically, and that’s a good thing.

Anyway, back to my saga, which I’ll try to condense — I’m sorry, Harry, but you opened up a huge can of worms with that last question. I have so many show business stories I could tell you that we’d be here for days.

HH: That’s quite alright. Please continue.

LK: Okay, other cool things that came my way . . . I used to use a music prep outfit called Associated Music Services, on 54th Street, just off Broadway in New York City, which was staffed with professional music copyists who would extract the individual parts from my big, hand-written scores.

I’m sad to say that it’s a dying art, with the advent of computer-generated music-writing programs, but that’s another topic for another time.

The copyist I used and became good friends with was a man named Les Abramson. He was the best and many other arrangers used his services.

It was through Les that I met a man named Norman Paris, a well-known piano virtuoso and arranger. Norman was married to Dorothy Loudon, a comedienne/actress who had just scored a big hit by playing Miss Hannigan in the Broadway musical “Annie.”

Les used to show Norman lead sheets of my songs, which he’d copy for me, and one day Norman asked if I’d like to write some songs for a kids’ TV show for which he was musical director.

I said, “Sure,” and wrote several tunes for a show on Public Television called, “The Big Blue Marble.”

After that, Norman, who was also a big jingle writer/producer, turned me on to writing commercial jingles for some pretty big clients, like McDonald’s, Papst Blue Ribbon, Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, 7-Up, Diet Pepsi, Coke and even Monmouth Race Track in “Joisey!”
Incidentally, Barry Manilow wrote the MacDonald’s theme I arranged and produced — “You deserve a break today . . .” That was before his big break with Bette Midler.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine had introduced me to a fellow named Ken Harper, who was a DJ, and later, program director for WPIX radio in New York. Seems that Ken had a brainstorm to produce an all-black Broadway production of “The Wizard of Oz” and that it was going to be called “The Wiz.”

After showing us costume sketches and dialogue, he asked me if I wanted to audition some songs for the show — his intention was to use a half-dozen or so different composers/lyricists to create the score.

I took him up on it and, a week later, played three songs for him, which he liked, and used in the show, even though he ultimately hired Charlie Smalls as the composer of record.

My contributions were Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News, So You Want to Meet the Wizard and Home.

Even though I had to sell the songs outright, it was a break for me and a good learning experience, not to mention a thrill to have been in the wings at the St. James Theatre on opening night when Mabel King came off stage after killing ’em with Don’t Nobody.

I said (in my coolest vernacular of the day) “Dynamite, Mama!” (laughs) and she said, “Thank you, Darlin’!” and gave me a big, sweaty, make-up smearing hug. What a magical. albeit messy, night!

Let’s see . . . What else can I tell you that you might find interesting? Why don’t I just list some of the other writing gigs I’ve had and then maybe some of the things I’m currently involved in.

You might find it interesting that I wrote the music for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for many years.

You also might find it interesting to know that the Ringling Circus is actually two complete circuses in one — the Blue Unit and the Red Unit. Each unit does a two-year tour of the U.S. so, one year the Red Unit learns a completely new show in Tampa, FL, during the month of December, while the Blue Unit is starting the second year of its tour. Then the following year, the Blue Unit comes to Tampa to learn its new two-year show which, incidentally, is a totally different show from the Red Unit.

So, the circus may come to town every year, but it’s a different circus each time. The stories I could tell from my yearly excursion to Florida could fill volumes . . . and curl your hair! (laughs)

HH: I understand you work in the recording industry as well. What are a few of your projects?

LK: I composed, arranged and produced an album of “retro” swing music a few years ago, which was a fun project, especially in researching the “lingo” of the day for my lyrics.

In addition to writing a good number of Christmas songs, I also wrote a song for Kwanzaa, titled Happy Kwanzaa!, which I’m hoping will become sort of an anthem for that holiday.

I enjoy stretching my areas of expertise and learning new things. For example, my latest project is a black gospel album, which I produced in Philadelphia. We just finished mastering it in Nashville and it’s ready to be packaged and distributed. For you gospel music fans out there, the group’s name is FRIENDZ and the title of the album is “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.”

HH: I know you’ve been nominated for a couple of Grammy Awards, but aren’t you involved in The Recording Academy in other ways?

LK: Yes, I’m a voting member of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, aka The Recording Academy) and, as such, I nominate and vote for artists, writers, producers, et al, for the Grammy Award.

HH: Do you ever attend the Grammys?

LK: Yes, I attend the awards telecast whenever I can. It’s a lot of fun, especially the parties afterward.
HH: Don’t you also publish music for marching bands and other groups?

LK: In the genres of marching band, concert band, jazz band and chorals, I’ve had over 300 arrangements and compositions published by companies like Hal Leonard, Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures, Barnhouse, Wm Allen, Music Company of North America and my current (and favorite) publisher, Arrangers’ Publishing Company from Nashville, TN.

They sure do good work, and I would encourage anyone out there to look to them for a quality products.