Open Your Ears

Stan Applebaum, the master of arranging, tells his secrets

Volume 114, No. 12December, 2014

ApplebaumSpanning almost half a century, Stan Applebaum’s career has been rich and diverse. His compositions and arrangements have earned him numerous awards, including 35 top-ten hits and several number-one singles for extraordinary artists such as Ben E. King, Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka, the Drifters, the Coasters, Connie Francis and Brook Benton. Stan has won multiple Clio Awards for writing and producing music for over 250 commercials. His big band arrangements have been played by Benny Goodman, Harry James, Raymond Scott and Cootie Williams. Stan was an arranger and orchestrator for the the U.S. Army Air Force Spectacular, the Goldbergs, Jimmy Durante, Radio City Music Hall, NBC and CBS. In addition to his outstanding pop and jazz contributions, Stan wrote for some of the world’s most renowned symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic. He’s been a member of Local 802 since 1941. Local 802’s Steve Danenberg and Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Stan and asked him about his life looking for – and finding – that perfect voicing.

Allegro: How did you get started in music?

Stan Applebaum: When I was 7, I broke my pinky on my right hand playing baseball with my friends. In those days, the doctor made house calls, and in our home he noticed an old player piano and suggested that I strengthen my finger by tapping on the keys. Before I knew it, I was playing melodies out of nowhere and picking up songs like “Happy Birthday” and “Twinkle Twinkle.” My mother took notice of it and soon after found me a piano teacher. I studied with neighborhood teachers until I outgrew them and was taken on by a dedicated Russian concert pianist.

I grew up listening to all different kinds of music. It intrigued me that the same song sounded different with each orchestra and that made me dig deep to find out what the secret was in each. By the time I was 12, I was experimenting with writing arrangements for my high school band and orchestra. My first arrangement was “Limehouse Blues” for big band. A few years later, I started playing club dates. I learned different types of music and got gigs playing Greek, Polish, Italian and Jewish weddings. This diversity and understanding of different styles kept growing every day and became one of my most valuable skills for the rest of my life.

I ended up arranging for Cootie Williams, Lucky Millinder, and a couple of other bands, but when I went into the Army everything just stopped. But actually, it was music that saved my life. When my tour of duty ended in Germany, they were about to ship me off to Japan. At the very last second, someone in a position of power who knew of my musicality changed the transfer from Japan and instead put me in the Special Services where I did arrangements for the Army band.

When I came out of the Army, I met a variety of people including Phil Lang, who was a top orchestrator for Broadway. He liked what he saw of my work and he offered me a job as a proofreader with Edward H. Morris and Company. There was a man visiting there by the name of Mort Palitz. He was the head of Jubilee Records and told me, “I have a singer by the name of Marilyn Lovell. I’d like to do a Scottish music album with her called ‘Scotch Mist.’ Can you do it?” I said, “Of course!” I never said no to anything, even if I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I learned; I had a good group of singers who made the corrections that I made errors on. I learned a great deal about vocals. And from that point on, word got around about this new kid who was doing arranging.

Before I knew it I was going to Nola’s studio on Broadway right near the big restaurant, The Turf. The big bands would come off the road and rehearse there and I made it my business to come in and just walk around and hear what was being played. I had the gall to walk up to the leader and say I could do that just as well. And they said, “O.K., do it! If we like it, we’ll buy it. If we don’t like it, you’ll take it back.” I said, “Fair enough!”

Allegro: Tell us about your arranging work at that time.

Stan Applebaum: I was working for Benny Goodman, Raymond Scott, Charlie Ventura and others. There were deadlines all the time. Three to five days maximum on every project. I developed speed and learned how to knock off arrangements in a relatively short period of time. Once I had a 38-piece orchestra and a 60-voice chorus and I was given less than a week in which to do the work – and it must have been an hour’s worth of music.

Allegro: Did you do the arrangements at the piano or in your head?

Stan Applebaum: I have relative pitch, so I worked away from the piano as much as I could, but I used the piano to find different progressions that my ear wanted to hear but was uncertain if they were accurate. So I used the piano as a backup tool.

Allegro: What musical skills did you have that helped you the most?

Stan Applebaum: My ability to think quickly and with confidence. Whatever I write, if I’m there to conduct it and I hear an error, I can correct it. My instinct always worked for me about how to lay out the arrangement and what kind of voicing was needed.

Allegro: What was your process in arranging a piece of music?

Stan Applebaum: It always varied, but first I would sit down at the piano and play the piece, familiarize myself with it, decide on the tempo, and try to figure out what the rhythm should be to support it. The rhythm would be one of the first things I would write. Then I would go to reeds and brass, and the strings would be the extra dressing. But it all depended upon the instrumentation and the music to be written.

Allegro: Who taught you about composing?

Stan Applebaum: Stefan Wolpe. I came to audition for him. I had heard that he was a hot new teacher in town. Eddie Sauter and Johnny Carisi were studying with him. I figured if they can do it, so can I. I called and made an appointment and he told me to bring in some stuff I’ve written. I brought four or five things and he sat down and looked through them and then in one instant tore it all up and said, in German, “Quatsch!” (“Nonsense!”) He finally told me, “You show talent. I’ll teach you, but not today. I’m too busy. Come back in a week. Go home and compose one note.” I said, “One note?” For two or three days, I struggled. What the hell did he mean, compose one note? Then it dawned on me. One note meant one pitch. One pitch can be played more than once. A piece using just one pitch can have tempo, syncopation, dynamics, accelerando. One “note” is all that a drummer has to play when he or she is playing the snare drum. So I wrote a variety of samples and I came back and gave it to him. He said, “You’re in. Now we start studying.” And the one thing I can say he gave me is a very strong sense of rhythm. His manner of teaching me rhythm was singing. He would sing a rhythm and show me where the accents should be. Then he would say, “Now take that, transcribe it and put it into music.” This was a challenge but it taught me a concept, and to this day I use that idea of singing the rhythm.

Allegro: You’re famous for the string arrangement for “Stand by Me,” one of the great classics of all time in pop music. Tell us about it.

Stan Applebaum: I was doing work for Ben E. King, the leader of soul. I did “Spanish Harlem,” and then “Stand by Me” came about. I worked with Ben E. and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller on the layout, and when it came time to do the instrumental they said, “Go ahead and write whatever you want.” I wrote what I thought was a very esoteric kind of classical piece of music, which had nothing to do at all with the rest of the song, but it became a very important defining feature of it. And the deal I made with Mike and Jerry was that if they didn’t like it, they would drop it from the recording. I said, “Fair enough!” But it worked out right. And the recording as it stands now is identical to the way it was when we wrote it. Very few changes were made in the studio – maybe a rhythm change, but the format remained identical.

Allegro: Your arrangements were responsible for so many hits. Who were some of the artists you wrote for?

Stanley Applebaum: Diane Leslie, Ella Fitzgerald, Neil Sedaka, Anita Bryant, the Drifters, the Coasters, Janice Harper, Brian Highland, Sammy Turner, Joanie Summers, Della Reese, Connie Francis, Barbara McNair, Ben E. King, Nanette Fabray…the list goes on.

Allegro: How did you get into jingles and commercials?

Stan Applebaum: Stan Krell bumped into me one day and asked how busy I was. I said it depends what you need. He said, “Well, the wife of a man who was doing the work for me passed away and I need somebody to do a commercial for me in the next 48 hours.” I said fine. When I found out it was for TWA Airlines, I got very excited. And he had about 28 musicians. I knocked it off and I was able to catch all the synch points. From that point on, word got around about the guy who was doing these commercials and before I knew it, I was doing work for so many companies. It was a very exciting period because I was doing so many diverse projects that there was no chance of my being bored with anything. I strove to be as different and creative as I could, never repeating myself.

Allegro: For 15 years, you did the lion’s share of arranging and orchestrating for the New York Pops Orchestra. What are your memories of that?

Stan Applebaum: My memories of the Pops are beautiful. Skitch Henderson was a very nice man to work for. Very musical in his tastes. He allowed me to go any way my mind took me. He never dictated what to do. He only made suggestions in certain parts to guide me. And invariably I was able to please him.

Allegro: How did you start working on classical music?

Stan Applebaum: My first recollection of doing a symphonic work was when I wrote an original piece of music, which was quite beautiful. A classical music publisher looked it over and told me they’ve got a date with the Philharmonic and do you think you can arrange it. I’d never written for symphony orchestra – but again, I always said yes. And I wrote it. Brick Fleagle was the copyist and I remember asking him if I could divide the cellos and if I could divide the violas. He said do whatever you want. I was that insecure at the time about symphonic orchestration. But I did it and I heard it, and it worked well and was accepted and that was my introduction to symphonic writing. I also ended up writing about 14 or 15 arrangements for concert band.

Allegro: How did you find writing in that style?

Stan Applebaum: Very enjoyable, but challenging because of the fact that for concert band I had limited colors – I didn’t have all the instruments I would like to have. I had to write it in such a way that if the band was cut down in size, it would sound as good as if the full complement were there. And I had to remember something I heard back when I was playing with my high school orchestra. We played stock arrangements by Jack Mason and Paul Wierick that sounded as good with eight musicians as with 18, and it was a challenge to find out what the trick was. So in writing for symphonic band, never knowing how big the high school or college orchestra would be, I wrote in such a way that it could be played by a smaller complement.

One other note about classical music. In 1971, the jingle I wrote for Pan Am (called “Pan Am Makes the Going Great”) was turned into a ballet by George Balanchine called “PAMTGG.” The ballet was very unusual and on the evening of the first performance, they had a group of audience members parading back and forth claiming they didn’t want anything that was a commercial hit being made into a ballet. But it has remained on the repertoire of the company.

Allegro: Tell us about the books you wrote.

Stan Applebaum: I wrote many piano books; one was selected in 1978 as the outstanding contribution to piano literature for intermediate students, a book called “Sound/World.” I was writing combinations of intricate sounds developed around a minor second, sharp fourth, flat fifth and major seventh. Then I have a piano book called “Creative Rhythmic Reading” at the piano where I established something in 4/4, and I gave it variations going into 7/4 and 5/4 and 6/4 without changing the notes or the position of the hand. I also have a book that did very well called “Bach Music Simple Style” where I took very involved works of Bach and reduced them to absolute simplicity by enlarging the time value of sixteenth notes to quarter notes, so that the very elementary student could work on something worthwhile. I also wrote “Introduction to Dissonance” where I explain that all music has stress, and if you find the right release then you’ve got the answer to stress. The note creating this stress must be resolved in a specific fashion, which is usually a half step above or below. What this really means to me is that the voicing always has to be right.

Allegro: What advice would you give to a young composer or arranger?

Stan Applebaum: Open your ears. Listen and absorb. Listen to as many different sounds and styles as you can. And study. Analyze and study scores. It’s important for students to sharpen their relative pitch, so they can work away from the piano. Be efficient. I found that all the guys who worked for me loved that I didn’t waste time but they hated me because there was no overtime! But they loved it because they had good things to play.

Let me end with a story. I was arranging and conducting an album for the Italian-American vocalist Sergio Franchi. I was writing very dramatic symphonic music. In the middle of conducting, the baton flew out of my hand and landed in the middle of the string section. Everyone stopped playing, and a pall fell over the whole room. A man handed me the baton and said, “Maestro, your baton,” with tongue in cheek. I sensed the tension in the room and I figured I had to diffuse it in some way. I picked up my hands and on the downbeat I said, “And now for my second trick.” And everyone broke up and the rehearsal went on.

An excerpt from Stan Applebaum's "Sound/World," an intricate etude book, which won a prize in 1978 as the outstanding contribution to piano literature for intermediate students.

An excerpt from Stan Applebaum’s “Sound/World,” an intricate etude book, which won a prize in 1978 as the outstanding contribution to piano literature for intermediate students.