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April 3, 2008

Gene Puerling - Obituary

San Francisco Chronicle:

Gene Puerling, the Grammy-winning vocal arranger whose intricate, harmonically rich arrangements for the Hi-Lo's and The Singers Unlimited influenced many ensembles, including the Beach Boys, Manhattan Transfer and Take Six, died March 25 in a Marin County hospital of complications from diabetes. He was 78.

Mr. Puerling, who lived in San Anselmo, was one of the great jazz and pop vocal arrangers who expanded the sound of harmony singing. The Hi-Lo's, a quartet formed in Los Angeles in 1953 with Mr. Puerling singing bass-baritone and writing the arrangements, became the most popular jazz-based vocal group of the period. They were heard widely on record, in concert and on TV shows hosted by Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Steve Allen and Nat Cole.

"Any vocal group that didn't listen to the Hi-Lo's was remiss," said jazz singer Jon Hendricks of the legendary vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

"Gene broadened the harmonies, like Bird did with bebop," said Hendricks, comparing Mr. Puerling to pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker. "The sound of the Hi-Lo's was choral, even though there were only four of them. The way the chords were spread out, they sounded like a choir."

In late 1950s, when the Hi-Lo's were performing at Birdland in New York, Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross would sit up front, soak up the sound and try to figure out who was singing lead. "Because the blend was so marvelous, we couldn't find the lead half the time," Hendricks recalled with a laugh.

Born in Milwaukee in 1929, Mr. Puerling took a few piano lessons but was a largely self-taught musician. A fan of vocal groups like Mel Torme's the Mel-Tones, the Modernaires and the Four Freshmen, Mr. Puerling formed a series of vocal groups in high school. One of them, the Shades, featured baritone Bob Strasen, who would become one of the original Hi-Lo's (with baritone Bob Morse and tenor Clark Burroughs, the latter replaced in 1959 by tenor Don Shelton).

Mr. Puerling worked as a Milwaukee disc jockey for a spell before moving to Los Angeles, where he sang on recordings by Les Baxter and Gordon Jenkins. With a push from bandleader and film composer Jerry Fielding, the Hi-Lo's began recording for the small Starlite label, performing Mr. Puerling's arrangements of standards like "She's Funny That Way" and "Have You Met Miss Jones?" Their breakthrough year was 1956, when the quartet became the house vocal group for the nationally televised Rosemary Clooney show and was signed to Columbia Records.

Over the next few years, the Hi-Lo's appeared on the tube with Sinatra, Benny Goodman and other stars, toured with Judy Garland, played major halls like Madison Square Garden and recorded commercial jingles for Hertz Rent a Car and other advertisers. After being dropped from Columbia, the group was signed to Sinatra's Reprise label in the early '60s, recording some of the folk songs and bossa nova numbers popular at the time. But with the advent of rock 'n' roll, the Hi-Lo's, like other older pop groups, went out of vogue, and split in 1964.

Mr. Puerling went to work in the Chicago studios writing and singing commercial jingles. Working with fellow singers Shelton, Len Dresslar and Bonnie Herman, Mr. Puerling began experimenting with the new multi-track recording technology to create a rich, layered choral sound by overdubbing the voices. Called The Singers Unlimited, the quartet made a recording of the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" that inspired pianist Oscar Peterson to recommend the group to his record label, MPS of Germany, which put out more than a dozen Singers Unlimited albums.

Mr. Puerling, who was nominated for 14 Grammys, won the award in 1982 for his arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" for Manhattan Transfer. He also wrote arrangements for Chanticleer, Linda Ronstadt and other artists.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Puerling reunited the Hi-Lo's, with whom he recorded a couple of CDs and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere around the country. In recent years, he taught workshops at the Marin-based Harmony Sweepstakes.

"As a craftsman of the art of blending and harmonizing the human voice in song, Gene has no equal," said Harmony Sweepstakes producer John Neal.

Mr. Puerling is survived by his wife, Helen. No funeral plans have been announced.

Posted by acapnews at April 3, 2008 7:26 AM


As a long-time fan of the Hi-los, as well as the Singers Unlimited, I was saddened to hear of Gene's passing. My heartfelt condolences to his wife and family members. I have several of the Hi-lo's CD re-releases--some from many of the original LP's that I have in my collection. Plus, I also purchased the complete "Box Set" of the Singers Unlimited releases. I play them often, and will continue to do so. Gene's artistry and genius will be sorely missed. But, his harmony styles will live forever. As a former musician, I can truly attest to the tremendous talent that Gene possessed. May God Bless his soul and bring comfort and solace to those loved ones mourning his loss.

Sincerely, Bob Pici
Westland, Michigan

Posted by: Bob Pici at April 13, 2008 5:53 PM

From 1989 to 2001, I was one of The Four Freshmen. What led me to this was my obsession
not only for the Freshmen but The Hi-Lo's and
The Singers Unlimited. I mean I have EVERYTHING
all 3 of these groups recorded and I studied them
relentlessly. I guess it paid off given my career path. I had a chance to know Gene fairly
well and his comments to me regarding the solo
album I recorded after leaving the Freshmen meant
the world to me. He was the crown jewel of jazz
vocal groups. I wish he had never stopped recording---we've missed so much. I'm heart broken.....

Posted by: Greg Stegeman at May 8, 2008 1:07 PM

Although I was preparing myself for this news, I am still extremely saddened to hear of Gene Puerling's passing. When I first discovered the Singers Unlimited in 1978, I was so blown away by the genius of the arrangements that I got Gene's phone number from 'Information' and called him up to inquire about how I could get every album they made. He was a perfect gentleman and was very helpful. He even explained how he didn't even have control over most of his Hi-Lo's charts because of copyrights, etc.

In 1983, as a singer with the Dallas Vocal Majority barbershop chorus, I again called Gene and offered to send he and his wife Helen tickets to one of our shows in Berkeley, where we would be performing. I met him at the front door before the show and introduced him to our director. After the show, I had the honor of introducing him to the chorus. We corresponded by mail for a short time afterward. The chance to meet Gene remains one of my greatest thrills. As a self-taught arranger, I have always regarded Gene Puerling as my arranging idol, and I always will. But not only was he an incredible musical genius, he was a very soft-spoken, unassuming, and humble man.

Although I and thousands of other admirers will miss him greatly, he has left his genius for us to enjoy for all time. There will never be another Gene Puerling. God rest his soul. Well done, Gene.

Posted by: Pete Rupay at June 22, 2008 11:16 PM

In 1986 I started my adventure with vocal jazz as a young member of a small vocal group. I had only one tape with a few The Singers Unlimited recordings (simply these LPs were absolutely unavailable in Poland at that time) but I listened to it countlessly. Gene's arrangements made me understand what the harmony is all about. Although I am not a professional musician, I do believe, that this experience made me a great harmony lover. I play this music to my 2 years old daughter and I am sure that this music will live forever. Thanks a lot Gene!
God rest your soul.

Posted by: Roman Urbanski at September 12, 2008 2:39 PM

I am heart broken to have just learned of the passing of Gene Puerling. He was unquestionably without peer in the arrangement of vocals. I happened to be sitting at my desk and decided to listen to my boxset of the Singers Unlimited. While listening, I did a search of Gene on the net and found this page. I am a Seventh-day Adventist and the sounds of the HiLo's and the Singers Unlimited were something that we of my generation hold in high regard and influenced our music greatly. Before the box set became available, people would come from everywhere to make recordings of my Singers Unlimited and HiLo's albums. I also have them accompanying Bill Pierce on a couple of his albums. Priceless!!! Unless you have studied his body of work, you know nothing about vocals. He will be missed.

Posted by: Henry Fordham at September 17, 2008 11:36 AM

What a huge loss to the art of arranging. Anything Mr. Puerling touched magically turned into a masterpiece under his guidence. I have always been a harmony fan, and it was greatly influenced by listening to his stuff. I sing with a Southern Gospel Qt. and we are blessed with an arranger who grew up with Puerling chord's running through his head. Our songs are a reflection of the stuff I always dreamed of oneday singing. He will be truly missed by all who were fortunate to have experienced his magical touch in music.

Posted by: Randy Lewis at October 24, 2008 7:44 PM

Being a teacher of arrangement at the University of Copenhagen - Gene Puerling is to me the great master. When it comes to ideas he´s unequalled. In his arrangements he´ll use any color from the palette of sound from fun, humor to deep seriousness. And always with taste and perfect understanding of the tune. His work is indeed worth studying. I met him once and talked to him on phone several times and would her meet a humble, gentle and very nice person. Far away from what one could have expected from a world famous celebrity. Thank you Gene, for what you did and what you left.

Posted by: Erik Axel Wessberg at December 20, 2008 5:30 AM

What a talent and what a loss. I held up a bank in order to buy the Singers Unlimited complete album, and what a great investment it turned out to be. The number of times I have played this masterful album defies counting. How I wish SU had toured I would have been front row center for each performance. In my religious beliefs we call your passing as "Making a Transition". Hopefully, when I make my "transition" I'll get a chance to meet you and thank you for sharing your talent with us. Safe journey, Gene, and God Bless.

Posted by: Bob Scott at December 25, 2008 2:18 PM

As "Randy Neal," I do a 3-hour jazz show on www.wobofm.com, wobo 88.7, Cincinnati, wednesday 9 pm till midnight. And I wouldn't be building listeners without the astonishing contribution to jazz singing from Gene Puerling. A cappella singing is a vital entry-point for younger people coming to love and understand jazz. I mix the Hi-Los, Singers Unlimited, Vocapella, LHR, and others with Tony Scott, Coltrane, Miles, Dizzy, Ellington, Basie, etc., and I get calls in the studio every broadcast -- from younger folk -- asking about the a cappella groups. Gene Puerling is way underestimated for his contributions to jazz.

Posted by: Randy McAusland at February 4, 2009 7:03 AM

I've come late to know of Gene's passing, and that I regret. I formed vocal quartets in high school and university, but when I stumbled on the Four Freshman in the early 50's I was blown away. Then, studying music in England, I had formed a vocal group called the Concords, which did very well on BBC radio and ATV television. Then I heard the HiLo's, and I knew I had met the master.
I began writing a kind of mix of Freshmen and HiLo's for the Concords, and the leader of the group who backed us on ATV, Jerry Allen, said, "I don't know what you're doing, but keep doing it."
Then it happened -- the HiLo's toured Britain in 1958, and I boldly introduced myself to Gene, who very graciously invited me to bring the Concords to meet him when they were performing at Southend-on-Sea. Asking us to sing for him, we daringly performed the HiLo's arrangement of Through the Years. Gene was knocked out, ran around backstage getting everyone to "come hear us, but it's not us!" We sang again, then Gene wanted the 8 of us to sing it together -- the forerunner of the Singers Unlimited? Then Gene said he'd always wondered what would happen if they ever had to replace a voice, and would it change the sound of the the HiLO's. He asked me to step in and sing with the HiLo's in place of Bob Strassen. Scared as I was, I did it, and Gene was ecstatic. "It didn't change the sound a bit," he said, "It was the HiLo's." We chummed with a couple of them for the next week or so, I met Bob Morse for lunch in LA in the summer of 1960 after they'd replaced Bob Strassen with Don Shelton, and Bob told me they didn't know where I was (back in Canada as an army Director of Music) and they had 10 days to find a replacement and open in Vegas. We met again in Britain on their next tour in 1962 when I was singing with the Fraser-Hayes Four, and one night a small group of us sang a cappella under a streetlight in Soho, after a great meal and several brews. In a few years came the Singers Unlimited, and Gene had reached the pinnacle of vocal arranging. It doesn't get better. But I was honoured, and still am, that I once sang third voice with the HiLo's, and was the first to do so outside the original four. In the world of the best musicians there ever was, Gene Peurling is at the top of the list for vocal groups and vocal arranging. Many will try to copy him, but no one will ever reach him,

Posted by: Harry Currie at March 20, 2009 12:47 AM

Gene was on my paper route as a kid. I always knew him as a cool guy. Later on when I found out who he was and heard his music, I went back to his house with my Hi-Lo's album in hand and got it signed and had a nice talk with him. I wish I would have hit him up for some lessons when I was younger. Great guy.

Posted by: Chris Ellinger at April 3, 2009 6:04 PM

I have everything from Hi-lo's and Singers Unlimited. I think Gene was the most fantastic and original arranger I've heard. Thank you Gene!

Posted by: Roberto Araujo at May 21, 2009 10:42 AM

Just learned of his passing... I heard my first Hi-Lo and Singers Unlimited recordings as s sophomore in high school (1982) and it changed my life forever. I sang some of his arrangements in high school and college and absolutely LOVED the challenge and rewards of working on his material. Gene's genius changed the world for the better.

Posted by: Paul Wickline at August 5, 2009 4:58 PM

Just played the Singers Unlimited (Disc 5 from the box set for the umpteenth time) and decided to check out the members on line.

I can not express the sadness I felt when I read the news of Gene's passing. I also can not add to the accolades above but, as a member of the Four Freshmen Society, was moved by the comments of Greg Stegman (a great Freshmen himself).

Yes, Gene was everything the above contributers said he was. Rest peacefully Gene.

Posted by: P F Smith at December 6, 2009 8:26 PM

I was so saddened to hear of Gene's passing. A giant has left us. His influence will live on in the groups that realized his importance and vocal genius. I remember sitting with my ear 6 inches from the speaker trying to soak up ever nuance and inflection of those HiLo charts. When I was able I ordered all of the HiLo records and continued to committ them to memory.

We were in Chicago playing at the Mill Run Theatre in the 70s. One of the house musicians (a great friend) came up to me in between shows and asked if I'd heard of this new vocal group....Singers Unlimited. I said no. Who are they? He said they were fronted by Gene Puerling, and that's all I needed to hear. He had a tape of one of their tunes and played it for me. It was that incredible Puerling arrangement of Fool on a Hill. I sat on the floor and wept as I listened. I couldn't move or speak. It was the most beautiful sound I've ever heard in my life.....with Bonnie on top soaring over the guys...I mean...NO ONE IS SUPPOSED TO SING LIKE THAT!! No mere mortal, anyway, which the Singers Unlimited were not.

Thank you , Gene, for giving me a vocal compass for my life and for constantly raising the bar for part singing. I will never forget what you have done for all of us....

Doug Strawn

Posted by: Doug Strawn at May 21, 2010 3:28 PM

My intro to TSU was though a friend while I was in the Air Force in Ohio. His name was Don and was forming a small group of 6 singers. We started with some of the Puerling arrangements from TSU. My all-time favorite still remains "London By Night", the first that we learned. I still have the sheet music. After we learned them, he played some of them from tape. I had never experienced such a wonderful sound. Since then, I've read up a lot purchased most of the recorded works of both the HiLo's and Singers Unlimited. To this day they are still treasure to me. Great work by one of the masters. He will be missed.

Posted by: Rich hawley at June 24, 2010 4:14 PM

I purchased TSU's Christmas album in July of 1974. Didn't stop playing it until well into 1075!

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