Obituary: Gene Page

`Take any romantic record of the last 25-30 years and you've heard Gene Page's work. He was a spectacular arranger. No one could put together cellos, French horns and violins like him'

THE CONTRIBUTION of arrangers to popular music recordings is often ignored, George Martin and Quincy Jones being the exception to the rule. Gene Page, the American orchestrator and producer who died last month in Los Angeles, was "session call number one" for any artist needing lush strings to heighten the appeal of a ballad.

As the guitarist Ray Parker Jnr (of Ghostbusters fame) said in tribute to his long-time friend and colleague:

Take any romantic record of the last 25-30 years, be it by the Righteous Brothers, Michael Jackson, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers or Whitney Houston, and you've heard Gene Page's work. He was a spectacular arranger, no one could put together cellos, French horns and violins like him.

When I was a kid, still in diapers, Gene was already happening. I was a big fan of his. He had the same effect on me as Stevie Wonder. When you have this level of talent around in the studio, you get a little more humble.

Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Eugene Page Jnr was taught piano by his father. Something of a child prodigy, he won a scholarship to the Brooklyn Conservatory and seemed destined for a career as a concert pianist. However, to earn extra cash, he started to help various acts polish their demo tapes. In the early Sixties, his work caught the ear of Reprise Records who hired him as their in-house arranger.

Meanwhile, after the success of the Ronettes' seminal "Be My Baby", their producer Phil Spector was looking for another act and spotted Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield. Renamed the Righteous Brothers, the original blue- eyed soul duo had already scored a minor hit with "Little Latin Lupe Lu". Spector commissioned the husband-and-wife team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ".

In the summer of 1964, Phil Spector's first-choice arranger, Jack Nitzsche, was busy and so the producer decided to give Page a try on the studio date. His swelling, swirling string arrangements greatly enhanced the recording of this epic track which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " is still named by many as the greatest single of all time and probably the definitive illustration of the Spector "Wall of Sound".

Page was on a roll; he worked with the Drifters and, in 1965, helped Dobie Gray to fashion "The In Crowd", the dancefloor filler and northern soul favourite. By the following year, the arranger had become part of the elite of Los Angeles sessionmen which included the guitarist Glen Campbell, the drummer Hal Blaine and the engineer Bones Howe. Under the aegis of the producer Lou Adler, this team backed the Mamas and the Papas on "California Dreamin' " and "Monday, Monday", both million-sellers.

In the late Sixties, Page met the young singer Barry White, who was doing odd jobs to make ends meet between recording dates. To this day, the soul superstar remembers the arranger's generosity:

Gene Page used to feed my family, pay my rent, give me gas money, food money for my children. I never had to pay him back. I tried many times . . . he'd never take it. When my ship came in, why would I use anyone else? When you say Barry White, Love Unlimited Orchestra, whatever else you say, always mention his name.

Page sneaked him into the studio where he was collaborating with the Tamla Motown songwriters and producers Holland-Dozier-Holland (Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland). They were cutting "Forever Came Today" for Diana Ross and the Supremes and White was transfixed. White would eventually get a chance to try and emulate his heroes.

In 1972, White called Page in to work on Love Unlimited's slinky, sensuous "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love". White couldn't read or write music and, at first, wouldn't even sing himself: he let his protegees the sisters Glodean and Linda James and Diane Taylor front the record while his deep voice came in on the telephone line halfway through the track, which became a Top 15 single in Britain and the United States. Soon, Page became an indispensable right-hand man, listening intently to White's ideas and directions, writing out charts for the different instruments and helping him fashion his unique, symphonic soul sound.

Page recalled in interviews:

Barry would play with so much energy that the legs of the piano would buckle; his sweat would pour out into the keyboard. Barry White was the first to have five guitarists on one song, all playing different parts. The guitarists couldn't hear it. And sometimes I couldn't either. I'd question him. "Trust me" was his favourite line. And suddenly, magically, the parts and counterparts blended to perfection. Barry's ears went to harpsichords, French horns, flutes, mandolins.

His ideas were never on paper but inside his head. Licks for tenor solos, accents for

horns, complex patterns between drummers and bassists; Barry dictated, demonstrated, hummed out the parts. It was highly unorthodox, and it was also brilliant.

Between 1973 and 1978, the brilliance of those pillow-talk recordings helped Barry White, as a solo artist and with his Love Unlimited and Love Unlimited Orchestra offshoots, sell over 100 million units and create what some sexologists still define as a "Barry boom". No night out was complete until you'd heard the rhapsodic strings and shuffling rhythms of such songs as "Never Never Gonna Give You Up", "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe", "You're the First the Last My Everything", "What Am I Gonna Do With You" and "Let The Music Play".

When not co-arranging all these, Page also released his own albums Hot City (1975) and Lovelock (1976), featuring Merry Clayton and Augie Johnson, on Atlantic Records. Page still managed to fit in a host of other sessions with the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, Deniece Williams, Natalie Cole, Dionne Warwick, Crystal Gayle, Julio Iglesias, Leo Sayer and even Elton John, an early Barry White convert who used Page to great effect on the Philly-Sound-influenced single "Philadelphia Freedom" and the album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).

A prolific composer of film music, Page provided the scores for Brewster McCloud (1970), Blacula (1972), Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976), with Bill Cosby and Raquel Welch, and Fun with Dick and Jane (1976), featuring Jane Fonda and George Segal, as well as working on Richard Pryor, Patti Labelle and Cagney and Lacey television specials. Towards the end of the disco boom, Page produced a curious dance version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Arista before reverting to his forte as an orchestrator of ballads for James Taylor, Herb Alpert, the Gap Band, Shalamar and Anita Baker.

Major Eighties successes included "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, "Tonight I Celebrate My Love" by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack, "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston and "Always" by Atlantic Starr. In all, his name appeared on more than 200 gold and platinum records.

The last two songs were performed at Page's funeral. during which many of the musicians who worked with him played as a tribute. The Rev William Minson Jnr, who officiated at the service, remembers Page as "a man who always cared and shared with other people. More than his 35 year-career in popular music, I believe that is Gene Page's biggest legacy."

Eugene Page, arranger, pianist and composer: born Los Angeles, California 13 September 1940; married (one son, one daughter); died Westwood, California 24 August 1998.

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