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Singers are Special

David Berger



Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I was bombarded with great singers daily on TV and records. My mom watched Perry Como and Dinah Shore every week, and with my grandfather we watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights, where we got a steady diet of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Durante, Eydie Gormé, Doris Day, and all sorts of Broadway stars. When I was 12, I discovered jazz, and then it was Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong, Nat Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington for me. 


I started arranging for my high school big band when I was 15. My second chart was a vocal on Like Someone In Love for Paul Miller, who went on to direct Saturday Night Live. A year later, I was arranging band numbers, dance numbers, and vocals for our yearly Pop Concert. I wrote everything from opera to current show tunes to standards and jazz. 


Aside from the sheer volume of work and variety of styles, the thing I remember most is the audience reaction. They really didn't relate to the band numbers, but as soon as a singer came to the microphone, they loved it. The heyday of the big bands was over; singers were the stars now. Whereas few people can relate to what an instrumentalist is doing, everyone can follow the singer's story, and relates to him or her as the person in the song. 


Plus everyone can sing. It may just be in the shower, but it doesn't take lessons or practice. It may just be Row, Row, Row Your Boat in pre-school, but singing is universal. What makes some singers better than others? Lots of singers have technique, but the real secret to success is believability. It's no coincidence that Frank Sinatra became the top singer of his generation. He built on Louis Armstrong's swing phrasing, Bing Crosby's intimacy (made possible by his use of the microphone) and added his sincere acting skill. When Sinatra sings a lyric, we feel him relating his personal story.


That's where we come in as arrangers. It's our job to not only make vocalists sound good, but also make the story believable. Sometimes we add to the sentiment of the lyric, and sometimes we work at cross-purposes to it, to give the music and story great emotional depth and scope. 


Some singers aren't good enough musicians or artists to appreciate good arrangements. I can't tell you how many acts I had to suffer through back in my trumpet playing days. On the other hand, some singers are known for their exquisite taste in choosing arrangers and excellent musicians. Sammy Davis, Jr., Mel Tormé, and Eydie Gormé come to mind. Sinatra would always tell the audience who wrote the arrangement he was about to sing. He paid top dollar and got his money's worth. 


As an arranger, you want to develop trust with the singers you write for. When I used to write for Jon Hendricks, I could write the craziest dissonant music, and Jon wouldn't even flinch. He couldn't read music, but had an incredible ear. He would listen to the arrangement and find his path. There were times I would ask him, "Too out?" His answer would be something like, "No, that's beautiful." 


Not all singers want to be challenged. I've had to rein it in when writing for some. Occasionally, I've had to make changes on the fly to accommodate them. Once, a long time ago, I was channel surfing one afternoon while practicing trumpet and saw the great jazz guitarist Barney Kessel accompanying singer Jimmy Dean on Dean's talk show. It was just the two of them. Dean introduced Kessel with such pride to be accompanied by such a great artist. So, Barney played a beautiful dominant arpeggio with altered tensions. Dean starts to sing but can't find the key. He stops and instructs Barney to start again. This time Barney simplifies and just sticks in a flat 9. Again, Dean is stymied. He turns to Barney and says, "Just give me an F7."  


I had a similar situation, although it fortunately happened at rehearsal, and not on live TV in front of millions of people. I wrote an arrangement of Carol Burnett's theme song for a TV show I did with her. The previous instrumental number segued into her vocal, which was in a new key. When we read it down, she seemed a bit confused and I could tell it was making her a bit nervous, so I told the band to circle the intro and just have the pianist give her an arpeggio. Before we even played it, a relieved Carol looked over at me with a thankful smile. She knew I had her back. 


Conducting that number with her was one of the sweetest moments of my career. I wasn't doing anything different from all those vocal charts I wrote in high school, only now I was more experienced and working with stars, top-flight musicians, and being seen and heard by millions of people. 


When I was young, the older musicians took me under their wings and taught me the big things and the little things about our craft and the business. Now that I'm the older generation with a half-century of experience, it's my turn to pass on our tribal lore to the next generation. My new book about writing songs and arrangements for singers focuses on story telling through music. The musical examples are all seen in the context of full arrangements, so you get to see the details and how they relate to the big picture. Special thanks to the wonderful singer Denzal Sinclaire and to my swinging band for making my little black dots come to life on the accompanying recordings.

On Sale Today:

Now released - Volume II of Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging: Writing for Singers!  Buy now and get $10 off for one day only.  Price will go up to the regular price at midnight on Feb 19, 2019, so jump on it!

Here's what some other arrangers and composers have to say about it:

David Berger’s new book, Writing for Singers (Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging II) has so many worthwhile things to recommend it. The insights and observations in the opening pages, by Berger and lyricist Paul Mendenhall, convey an understanding of and love for the tradition of the Great American Songbook that will cause even many experienced jazz musicians to reexamine all the great songs they think they know, and probably expose them to at least a few that they don’t know.

Berger has included a combination of songs from the nineteen-teens through the thirties, and several originals with lyrics by Mendenhall, which encompass a variety of tempos, moods, harmonic schemes, and orchestration combinations for big band and vocalist (All By Myself even includes a chorus of four-part vocal writing). The music is superbly delivered by the band Berger assembled for the recordings, featuring vocalist Denzal Sinclaire (Champian Fulton is added on All By Myself).

The reader is clearly led through the entire process of creating each arrangement from lead sheet to finished score, and each transposed score page includes a condensed C-score reduction at the bottom.

As in the first volume of this set, Berger’s anecdotal tales of the professional jazz scene from Ellington to the present are as insightful as they are entertaining. His description of the creative process, like his arrangements, reflects the gamut of the human experience, including thoughtfulness, respect, surprise, enthusiasm, warmth, suspense, wit and charm.

Any musician interested in learning to arrange in a manner that perfectly balances the song, singer and band will find this book to be a goldmine of valuable information, conveyed through memorable and soulful performances.

-Bill Dobbins, jazz pianist, composer/arranger, professor of jazz studies, Eastman School of Music

David Berger’s book offers a keen insight into songwriting and the arranging of them in a swing-era big band context. His long-time collaborator (lyricist Paul Mendenhall) provides the important perspective of quality lyric-writing found in the Great American Songbook. David helps the reader understand the keen relationship between human emotion and musical craft while offering excellent pragmatic advice in this context.

-Rich DeRosa, Professor of Jazz Composition and Arranging, UNT.



Very well designed and formatted that facilitates ease of use in terms of using the included full scores and excellent recordings with the text.

David walks the walk and talks, or should I say sings, the talk, writing about his vast experiences of arranging for a wide variety of noted singers. He gets to the very heart of what the collaborative process of writing for vocalists should be. This book fills a large gap in the literature.

David also adds a touch of humor based on anecdotes and past experiences, along with a little history that places each song and experience in a broader context.

This book goes beyond the typical academic manual or handbook in that it is a practical “how” and “why” tutorial with detailed and explanations of a wide range of music. The book is not just about the notes, it’s about a philosophy that should guide writers in how to support a lyric and vocalist in their arrangements. David describes what an arranger often does intuitively or subconsciously and what is done consciously, or intellectually through an editing process. In the process he does an exceptional job in analyzing his own creative practice and scores.

-Richard Lawn, author of Jazz Scores and Analysis and other books on jazz



Dear Dave:

THANK YOU for letting me see your new book!  I really enjoyed reading it and didn’t notice a single typo that bothered me.  I DID see a whole lot of stuff with which I agreed completely, though my choices for the “3 best jazz arrangers” would lean away from Gil, Duke and Strayhorn and towards Neil Hefti, Oliver Nelson, etc. - but mostly we are in accord in our opinions.

I found your intensive analyses of both the songs AND the arrangements very detailed and comprehensive.  It’s instructive to see how your writing about the charts brought certain realizations to consciousness that you weren’t aware of at the time you were creating them.  Your emphasis on the fundamentals of good music-making; structure, textures, integrity as well as charm - are useful reminders to younger writers who may not have grown up with these qualities and standards as part of their music educations. Likewise the basics of show biz; relating to the audience, making it FUN and including everyone in on the joke, as much as possible = all valuable info worth repeating.

The musical samples are invaluable and I trust will be accessible online directly once the book is published.  The glossary and index appear to be very complete.  I especially enjoyed the stories of the biz that are peppered throughout your narrative - the music biz really IS an intimate environment and it’s good to be reminded of how human we all are!  :-)  

Mostly I’m impressed with how you’ve revealed the process of working on various assignments - from how and why you choose to restructure the chords in the leadsheet to determining which sections support the vocalist and how best to reveal the treasures of the lyric. Overall, I think this book holds out hope for both songwriters AND arrangers by championing the standards of good songs and the redemptive power of music in all of our lives.  I appreciate the conversational style of your writing, with which I’ve become familiar thru reading your blogposts. You’re a good musical friend/teacher to have in ANY context, Dave, and I’m sure that whoever buys and reads WRITING FOR SINGERS will agree!

XO - Marilyn

-Marilyn Harris, Singer, Arranger, and Composer

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  • Freda Payne on
    Hi David, I had just finished reading your article on working with singers I then ran to my cd collection to find the Harry Warren CD that I was a part of and so fondly remember recording with you and your big band in New York. And then there was Chuck Israel A very fabulous bass player who recommended me to you and Robert Schwartz to be a part of the Harry Warren project. It was one of those rewarding experiences working with the big band. You mentioned Denzel Sinclair who I remember as a wonderful and talented vocalist also on that CD. Happy to know you still work with him he’s really great. You are so right when you say singers are special , it is indeed an artistic relationship between vocalist and arranger. I’ll always be proud of sing me A Love Song .❤️❤️🙏🏽

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