Walter and Me…
…a story of music and friendship.
Walter Latzko was the finest human being I ever met. Over the past thirty-five years, I’ve traveled the world, performing in forty-seven states and thirteen foreign countries, meeting tens of thousands of (mostly) good people. Of these, Walter was simply the best.
As a child, I first heard his name from the lips of my mother, when I overheard her say to my father that Walter’s “West Side Story Medley” was the greatest barbershop quartet arrangement ever written. Later, I was directly enamored of his genius, as he wrote chart after chart for my quartets and choruses. Each of Walter’s arrangements is tasteful and timeless, well-suited to the song, and satisfying to singer and listener alike.
My world champion quartet, the Bluegrass Student Union, recorded and performed dozens of his arrangements that eventually became iconic works of art in the minds of barbershop quartet fans. As we created artistic works together over the years, Walter and I became the closest of friends. After all, making music that serves the noble purpose of art – to exercise the emotions of the observer – requires great empathy and lots of truth, so the better the music – the stronger the personal connection (and vice-versa).
Walter always encouraged what he called my “musical sensibilities,” so twenty years into our friendship, I began to think that perhaps I might some day write a good arrangement or two myself. Walter supported me in that endeavor, and became my long-distance mentor. I made frequent visits to his home, and we burned up the phone lines (and later, the Internet) between New York and Kentucky. He reviewed each of my primitive works and always found something positive to say before offering the careful critiques for which I (sincerely) longed.
He was my favorite educator, not only in music, but in other disciplines as well. Raised in Austria, Walter came to the USA as a boy when his family fled the growing Nazi threat. Ironically, this great man, who spoke with an accent, had the most extensive English vocabulary of anyone I ever knew. He also offered life-lessons from a mature perspective when needed (which was more often than I would like to admit). In all of our conversations with each other, I never heard him say anything rude or negative about another person. That was a first.
After ten years of study and collaboration, I made plans to release a recording of some of mine and Walter’s works. Like most prolific songwriters and arrangers, Walter wrote four charts that never had occasion to be sung for every one that did. In his collection of over 1,200 works, there are many undiscovered classics, and the recording artist in me was determined to experience more of them. In addition, I longed to hear the fruition of some of our collaborative works, as well as some arrangements that I’d written alone.
The retirement of my long-time quartet in 2006 got me to thinking about singing those charts myself, but I was cautious. Could there be a market for a barbershop recording that featured no quartet and no chorus? No other barbershop harmony singer had ever released an a cappella recording of (only) his voice. Fellow quartet-champion Tim Waurick (Vocal Spectrum) changed all that with his 2010 release of an award-winning quartet recording that featured Tim’s voice on all four parts. So, I got to thinking; maybe there are folks who will enjoy the music without a quartet to worship (if it’s really good)!
Walter and his wife, Margie Latzko, encouraged me in this project, listening to each rendition, sometimes even before it was finished. Sadly, Walter passed away in September of 2010, so I won’t get to see his reaction when he hears the final product. But Margie continues to provide valuable feedback, and we both know that somewhere, Walter will be listening.
1. Day by Day: This tune was made famous by Frank Sinatra as a ballad, but with writers like Sammy Cahn, Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl, you know you can swing it! This version was inspired by the Four Freshmen, so Walter applied close jazz chords, but kept the melody in the lead range, with tenor harmony on top. It made a great opener for The Exchange and The Daddy-Ohs! quartets, but it needs some more singin’!
2. God Only Knows: The Brian Wilson – Tony Asher classic pop tune was called the best pop song ever written by rival Paul McCartney. The former two wrestled with the inclusion of the reference to a deity in the title and lyric, but I have no such reservation. The song’s interior modulations create a complex melody that is riveting, yet intelligent and emotional to the listener. I used every lesson I ever learned from Walter to write this challenging chart after his passing. The experience of singing it was a joy, as I had admired the Beach Boys’ version from their “Pet Sounds” album as a 12-year-old in Louisville, KY. It always seemed perfect for an a cappella rendition, and the result “pheels phat!”
3. That’s How the Yodel was Born: My son, Mike and I used to enjoy watching “Riders in the Sky” on Saturday mornings, and we went to see them live at the Kentucky State Fair. Yup, got the tee-shirt! Anyway, this cowboy swing band featured singer-songwriter Douglass Green, better known as “Ranger Doug,” who also wrote the tune in his inimitable “Cowboy way.” The “Sensations” quartet “woodshedded” a solo treatment of this one in 2000 that seemed as sidesplitting to our audiences as the Riders’ accompanied recording. I later wrote an intro and a tag to frame it – along with a verse – to set up the hilarious chorus, and Walter agreed to collaborate on this new contest version. Fun!
4. Skylark: It’s fitting that this version of the Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer standard should be included. It’s reminiscent of Walter’s classic arrangements of “Stardust,” “Foggy Day” and “All the Things You Are.” Walter’s treatment of the haunting bridge is equaled only by his tasteful variations after the “turnaround.” I didn’t change a note.
5. Time of My Life: The David Cook version of this pop tune reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100 in June of 2008. I arranged it as part of an experiment inspired by my friend and former wife, Barbara, when she heard me say one day, “They just don’t write good songs anymore.” Well, Barbara knew better, and she insisted that I watch the Grammy awards with her. Sure enough, I discovered what she already knew; if you listen closely, there are still songs being written every day with strong melodies, interesting chords and compelling, emotional content. This is one.
6. County Fair: This work was written by the legendary Mel Tormé and his partner, Bob Wells, for a 1948 Disney film called “So Dear to My Heart.” The movie didn’t really catch on, but what a song! I came across an orchestral recording of it on with Mel doing the singing, and I knew right away that it was a great fit for the barbershop style. The form is innovative; reminiscent of opera, with rubato verses rife with musical themes and lyric imagery (you can smell the hay). Walter agreed with my enthusiasm, so this turned out to be our final collaboration, completed in June of 2010. It’s a single artistic work, divided into two songs for a contest set. Some enterprising chorus is going to want this, but they’d better pack a lunch! It’s just a little ambitious.
7. County Fair (Reprise): Part II of the work described in song #6.
8. I’ve Found a New Baby: This was the last chart Walter penned before he passed away. He finished the writing using the new laptop presented to him by friends and admirers within the Association of International Champions, after he had been taken ill in July of 2010. I have purposely made no performance modifications (excepting breath points). This song is a favorite of Dixieland bands, and is typically played as an instrumental. Leave it to Walter to dig up the charming lyric and put it to a Charleston beat! This one is all you, Ol’ Pal!
9. When Big Profundo Sang Low C: Written in 1921, this public domain song was brought to my attention by Gary Rogness, bass of the 2004 Seniors International Champions, “Downstate Express.” I wrote a bass solo chart that was never sung, but Walter later responded to my request for a new arrangement that could be used in a barbershop contest. It’s interesting that the bass still sings the melody about half the time, which seems to be OK with contest judges, due to the title and theme.
10. Let Me off Uptown: Speaking of Mel Tormé, my arrangement of this classic jazz tune was inspired by his recording (not the more well-known version by Anita O’Day). I’ve spent several years as a professional big band singer (outside the realm of barbershop-dom), and have grown attached to the full sound of those thirteen horns. This work was an experiment with emulation of the horn parts and percussive white space utilized in traditional jazz, and I offer it in that light. See what you think!
11. Girl Talk: I had heard this cool Bobby Troupe-Neal Hefti song sung only by “Singers Unlimited,” who didn’t use the lyric. When I came across it in a fake book, I fell in love with the words, and sketched it out using the same form as was employed by the late Gene Puerling for his (second) famous mixed ensemble. Walter agreed to help me with the arrangement, and yes, he ended up writing all the good parts. The Daddy-Ohs! have sung it for afterglows, and Derby City Chorus recorded the ladies’ version, but this song can use some more singin’ too!
12. 100 Years: This contemporary pop-tune was popularized by “Five for Fighting.” Like track #14, it was written by a fellow named John Ondrasik, whom I don’t otherwise know from a load of coal, but who happens to have written two of the best popular songs to come along in the past fifty years. Both are melodic and interesting, with gripping messages that make you want to park the car and have a good cry when you first hear them. I sure did!
13. The Trolley Song: This has always struck me as the perfect driving-tempo song. We started with a chart written by the late Ed Gentry, but by the time Walter and I finished, it really was a brand new work. The resulting arrangement has been tested for excitement in front of contest audiences by the Exchange quartet and the Thoroughbred Chorus.
14. Superman (It’s Not Easy): I listened to the Billboard Top-100 songs for each year from 2000-2009, in an effort to identify new pop tunes that are adaptable to the barbershop style (as I define it). I found about 50 songs out of 1000 that I consider great art that is adaptable to the contemporary barbershop style, and this is the third one used here. Like track 12, it was made popular by “Five for Fighting,” and it resonates with the person who has accomplished great things at the expense of personal relationships; a really good lesson for musicians here!
15. Paint Your Wagon Montage: The final piece is a medley of four tunes written by Lerner and Loewe for a Broadway Show that later became a Hollywood film by the same name, featuring those great singers, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Believing my rendition might have a chance to compare favorably, I tackled this project as a commissioned work for the Thoroughbred Chorus. Now that it’s finished, I don’t know, so you will have to be the judge. My writing of this work was greatly impacted by Walter’s famous Broadway medleys of songs from “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
It’s been a rewarding project, and even if no one ever hears it except you and me, the musical experience was therapeutic, as always. That William Congreve guy knew from whence he “spake” with that stuff about music soothing the “savage breast.” I miss my friend, Walter, but he is always with me, and I know our music can speak to everyone in a kindly way, making trials and sorrows a little less profound. If you have experienced any depth of emotion as a result of your listening, I am grateful. Or, as Walter would say, “One does what one can.”
This recording was engineered by Phil Stirgwolt of TNT Productions in Louisville. Phil’s musicianship was invaluable to the quality of my studio performances. His never-ending dedication, the guidance of friend Margie Latzko, encouragement from former wife Barbara Hatton and artistic direction from brother Allen Hatton absolutely must be acknowledged here. I extend my sincere thanks to that “quartet” of supporters, without whom this project could not have been undertaken. Of course, Walter, ever the gentleman, thanks them too.