With Soul and Feeling: Marlowe Shepherd & The Abraham Becker Orchestra Prepares to Swing into The Lyric

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY BRENT THOMPSON

THE SOUNDS OF GERSHWIN, PORTER, CARMICHAEL, AND MERCER. A VOCALIST ACCOMPANIED BY A 22-PIECE ORCHESTRA. EIGHTEEN MONTHS OF REHEARSAL TIME. SIMPLY PUT, MARLOWE SHEPHERD AND THE ABRAHAM BECKER ORCHESTRA’S UPCOMING PERFORMANCE AT THE LYRIC THEATRE WILL BE AN EVENT, NOT A SHOW. ON THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, VOCALIST SHEPHERD AND UPRIGHT BASSIST/ARRANGER BECKER WILL BRING THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK TO THE LIVE STAGE. RECENTLY, WE SAT DOWN WITH THE TWO BIRMINGHAM-BASED ARTISTS TO DISCUSS FRANK SINATRA, SONGS, AND A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

Marlowe and Abraham, thanks for your time. What are a couple of key things you want people to know about the Lyric performance as the show date nears?

Marlowe Shepherd: There’s a string section. Most bands that are 12 to 14 pieces don’t have strings. If you listen to songs from the Sinatra [record label] Reprise sessions, there are strings on almost all of them. [Strings] add cool and smooth – they have a smoothing effect across the horns. There are great 12 to 14-piece swing bands that do a lot of great charts, but they can’t do what we do because they don’t have strings. So, that’s what separates us. All the songs are love songs. There’s a parallel between the popularity of swing and really hard times in America. You think of World War II – that was Sinatra’s first career. His second career was in ‘61 when he left Columbia [Records] and started Reprise. The Roaring Twenties into the ‘30s – when America was in the Depression, and everyone was broke – the movies and entertainment made money. People spent their last dimes to go to see movies to escape their lives. We deliver a message of love through songs – we don’t have a point-of-view, and there’s no divisiveness, and there’s a lot of it right now in this country. We need love – it’s a simple mission.

Where else in the U.S. does a show like this exist? Did you use any other artists or markets as templates for your performance?

Abraham Becker: You’d probably have to go to New York. I remember reading an article in The New York Times – there are these hotshot players that show up and do it because that’s what they’re trained to do and there isn’t that opportunity in too many places. 

Shepherd: It’s Abraham’s orchestra, and this guy knows what he’s doing, and it’s really important to focus on that. I know a fair amount about the songs by Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael – there are about 300 songs in the Great American Songbook written just by those two.

With so many songs available in the Great American Songbook, how have you selected the material to be performed?

Becker: It’s a combination of things. We want to find things that have strings as part of the arrangement – it has to fit the instrumentation – and it has to be right for Marlowe. 

Shepherd: We play songs that people are going to know. Some of the songs we’ve chosen they’re not going to know, but in my opinion, they’re some of the best songs ever written. A huge chunk of this show is Frank Sinatra’s versions of these songs in his Reprise years from 1961 to 1967. I think he left Columbia in ‘59 because he didn’t own his music, and he started Reprise Records and re-cut a large swath of his songbook, and they’re better arrangements because they’re his and he had control of them. So, you can find two versions of most of his work. 

I’m doing four different guys – Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett and Harry Connick, Jr. I’m not trying to sing like Sinatra – I just happen to believe that they are the best arrangements and he has the greatest phrasing ever.

How do you place your own stamp on this material while retaining the integrity of the original versions?

Shepherd: We work from those examples, so they’ve set an incredible bar. We try to do arrangements that are, in some cases, what those Reprise arrangements were and then it’s up to my ability to sell the song. The notes are on the page – it’s just how the musicians interpret them. We want them interpreted with soul and feeling – that’s the main goal. You need to be in the moment. 

Becker: Every riff has a character, and if you’re just reading the notes off a page, it comes across as flat, and you don’t get the fact that it’s funny or moving. The notes don’t tell you character, so you really have to listen. With classical music, you’re listening to extremely talented people who can play anything, but when they get outside of that, they don’t understand what to do. That’s one of the things that popular music introduces – that there are a variety of ways that it can be.

If you will, give us some historical perspective on the material and your thoughts on the timeless nature of it. 

Shepherd: With Gershwin or Porter or Carmichael, Broadway musicals were how songs were financed, so you have a reference of what’s happening in a given musical. Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwin – they would be given a play and be told they needed a song. Some of the greatest songs we’re playing that night come from musicals such as South Pacific. You need a huge budget to do it right with large ensembles of 70 to 80 people playing it. 

Becker: The song moved a story and a musical forward, but it’s also a great pop song in its own right. Musical theatre today doesn’t have the luxury of doing that. Back in the day, you had a score that told a story. These days, more of the stories go into songs, which makes them less successful. There’s amazing music coming out of Broadway, but there’s too much story in it to be a general pop song. 

Shepherd: Cole Porter wrote songs in the ‘20s, and those songs have been recorded from then all the way to the current. So, they wouldn’t be standards if they weren’t the greatest songs ever written. Here’s a question – are songs that are being written today going to be played by other people in a hundred years? I doubt it very seriously. Harry Connick, Jr. brought it back, and Brian Setzer has done it to a certain level, and Michael Buble has made his career out of singing standards. Tony Bennett has kept it alive. There are a hundred examples of artists who have cut these songs because the songs are that good. 

Becker: Some songs are great songs but a lousy piece of music. You take away the words, and what are you left with? Does it work? Even songs you think would work – one that comes to mind is [Prince’s] “Raspberry Beret” [hums the melody] – it’s a great song, but it’s a bad piece of music. Everything we’re doing is a great song and a great piece of music. 

Logistically, this has obviously been a challenging production to implement. How do you schedule rehearsals given the number of musicians involved?

Becker: It’s a bunch of emails, and we went through a process and found that we could rehearse on Wednesday and Sunday nights. 

Shepherd: We live in a small city, and if you’re good at what you do, you’re busy. So it’s a huge challenge for Abraham to get the best guys to lock down to our schedule, which involves numerous rehearsals and a big time-suck. A lot of guys that we want we can’t get because they’re too busy.

Becker: I get a lot of feedback from the players, and they want to do it because it’s what they’re trained to do. Even if you’re really good, you don’t get a chance to do that often. A lot of players wind up playing small combo stuff.

What are your plans following the September 19 show?

Shepherd: We did this for a reason, and the reason is not to be playing in Birmingham. The reason is to launch it from Birmingham. I know enough about this market to know that this market can only sustain a performance like this once a year. So, the program is built to take to large markets. There are maybe three to four weddings a year in Alabama that can afford us. We wrote a show so Abraham and I can travel. Just the two of us can go to any major market and audition and do three rehearsals and play a world-class show because the notes are on the page. The goal is to take it overseas. This is high-end stuff, and that’s where the work is.

To your point of it being a high-end event, what do you envision as you take the stage at the Lyric?

Becker: Short of going to see the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, you don’t get to see [a show like] this. It’s going to be an experience. 

Shepherd: We don’t have a dress code, but I think people are going to get the gist by the way this is branded. People will be well-dressed – it’s a big night, and it’s an orchestra. Let’s play dress-up and let’s live the era. 

Code-R Productions presents Marlowe Shepherd and the Abraham Becker Orchestra at The Lyric Theatre on Thursday, September 19. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com.