My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Don Walker

No.4 – Don Walker 

Don Walker

Born in 1907, New Jersey, Don entered high school at the age 10 where one day he noticed the school band didn’t have a drummer, so he took up drumming. A year later there was no flute player, so he learnt the flute.Then there was no cellist, so he learnt the cello using saxophone parts, then…you get the picture. He graduated from high school at 14 and was too young to go to music college, so his parents sent him to a business college to study the joys of accounting.
During his time at college he did arrangements here and there for radio orchestras and big bands, until finally establishing himself in New York with the publishing house Harms in 1935, orchestrating Romberg and Hammerstein’s ‘May Wine’ 

Walker started to establish himself on Broadway for creating punchy jazz and swing charts, giving saxophones a much bigger role to play than they had before. And when Walker teamed up with song writers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for a “College” show, they created a new sounding orchestra pit with 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and five reeds all doubling on saxophone. This was unparalleled to anything at the time, with most brass sections containing about 4 players and reed players rarely doubling on anything except a variation of their instrument e.g. Bb and Eb clarinet. The silent producer on this show was the legendary composer Richard Rogers. He effectively ditched his orchestrator of 9 previous shows, Hans Spialek and switched to Walker. Here, Walker’s career took off!

In 1945 Russell Bennett (Widely considered the God Father of theatre orchestration) was orchestrating Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel’. Under mysterious circumstances he dropped out of the show. At the time, Walker was working on his own musical, a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore called ‘Memphis Bound’ (Can someone please produce this) when Rogers called him in to orchestrate the rest of the show. An odd choice you might say for what is very much an operetta. However, what resulted was some of Walker’s finest work and firmly cemented him as an “Can do anything” orchestrator. One great example is the “Carousel Waltz” a 524 bar beast of a ballet and soaring waltz. Rogers was so pleased with it that he made Walker adapt it for a symphony orchestra but one that could still be played by 40 person pit.

Walker subsequently was hired by Rogers to re-orchestrate the revivals of ‘Pal Joey’ (1951) ‘On Your Toes’ (1954) and ‘Babes in Arms’ (1959), replacing all of Spialek’s previous orchestrations. ‘On Your Toes’ again demonstrates Walkers vast vocabulary of styles especially in the number “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”. I have fast forwarded it to near the end, but if you have time, then I recommend listening to all of it!

An interesting fact to mention, was that during Walker’s re-orchestration of Pal Joey, he became angry with the original music and orchestration materials he had been given by licensing house Tams-Witmark. They were in a disarray and incomplete. With this in mind he set about creating his own competing licensing house to preserve the integrity of orchestrators and composers. Every licensing house needs a product, so he invited composer Frank Loesser to join him. Loesser bought along his hit’Guys and Dolls’ with him, and together they created Musical Theatre International. Now the company is the leading distributor of play and musical rights globally, with it’s sister company Josef Weinberger here in the UK.

Staying with Frank Loesser, in 1956 he finished writing the gargantuan musical ‘The Most Happy Fella’  after four years of writing. An almost all recitative musical like Les Mis, it is frequently described as an opera due to it’s 5 hour length, though the music style is firmly rooted on Broadway. With Walker providing orchestrations he stated “We opened in Boston at 7.30pm, it ran until 12.20am!”
The show was so long that the orchestration bill came to $21,371! In comparison to My Fair Lady which came to $11,000.
Walker continues about the length saying “To go into a show like that, and not to have timed it, was crazy. But he [Loesser] wanted to hear every note he’d written”. Anyway, Walker once again surpassed himself on the orchestration front,  with outstanding orchestration for an overly long show. The original cast recording is unique in that it is the complete score you hear and was released as 3-record complete recording after Loesser secured a very rare special deal with the record label. See below two of my favourite examples of Walkers orchestration from the show; “Standing on the Corner” and “Joey, Joey, Joey” (as sung by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane)

Standing on the Corner

(Extract of Don Walker’s Orchestration for “Standing on the Corner” from The Most Happy Fella. Property of Frank Loesser Enterprises)

Walker also provided a lot of ghost work. Which in orchestration terms, is when an orchestrator calls in the help of an orchestrator to finish charts due to  time constraints. This would normally go un-credited, hence the name ghosting. One major example of this is ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, where Walker was called in to help Russell Bennett, in the end he actually orchestrated 10 number instead of usual 2-3 when ghosting. One great example from this show is Walkers terrific instrumental break in “Another Op’nin”

Walker also ghosted for Bennett in the ‘The King and I’ and ‘South Pacific’, orchestrating “Shall We Dance” and “Carefully Taught” respectively.

Walker was gaining admirers of his orchestration from everybody, including Stephen Sondheim fresh off the success of his first two musicals West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When Sondheim heard Walker’s orchestration for Carousel he mentioned it was some of “The finest orchestration I had ever heard in my life…I admired Don enormously”. So, naturally, he chose Walker to orchestrate his show ‘Anyone Can Whistle’.

An avant garde score and musical, it is one of Sondheim’s more notorious shows for all the wrong reasons. It lasted only for 9 performances. Nether the less, Walker’s orchestrations for this show are some of my favourite. Walker had an uncanny knack of trying to give a show an unusual sound using quirky instrumentations and instruments that fits the show’s setting and cultural ethnicity. This show was no different with the complete absence of high strings (Just cellos in fact) and an accordion thrown in too. Although the show closed after nine performances the producer Goddard Lieberson allowed the recording of the soundtrack the day after the curtain came down hence some quite gloomy performances on the OBC recording. Sondheim later dedicated the score to Goddard.

(A very brassy and pulsating arrangement with counter point thrown around the whole pit. Great fun to listen to.)

(Walker here is able to gain the most enormous sounds from the pit during the climax of this song. Again bold and brassy being Walkers trademarks.)

(One of the rare songs to survive the demise of the show and have a life after. Inventive orchestration again from Walker, utilising bouncy woodwinds and long sostenuto cellos)

Some of you of probably thinking that Sondheim and Walker had a great relationship with Sondheim being such a than of his. Uh, no. Things didn’t go so smoothly between them. Sondheim states “Don would give me a cold smile whenever I made a suggestion and he’d ignore it. He was a song writer manqué, a very bitter fellow, he resented me greatly. Sondheim also states that Walkers assistant (Herbie Greene) gave an interview a few years later and stated how “Everyone was laughing at the score”. Still these are delightful and fun orchestrations, but I don’t think Don like many others at the time during the early 60’s understood Sondheim’s music, especially when he started finding his style with this show.

Moving on. Walker in his later years orchestrated ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ both have terrific scores and orchestration, well worth a listen.

In the end, Walker orchestrated for almost every major composer of the 20th century including; Berlin, Styne, Bernstein, Kander, Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz. He has contributed so much to Broadway and yet I have barely scraped the surface.

Hal Prince – “He was stern and serious. And he was brilliant”.

Thanks for reading!

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3 Responses to My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Don Walker

  1. Pingback: My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Irwin Kostal | Behind the Stave: The Back Room World of Orchestration

  2. Pingback: My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Robert “Red” Ginzler | Behind the Stave: The Back Room World of Orchestration

  3. Pingback: My Top 5 Past Orchestrators – Irwin Kostal | Behind the Stave: The Back Room World of Orchestration

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