September marks 15 years since Randy Van Horne passed away. I can hear many of you imitating an owl. Who? Yet you know Van Horne even if you think you don’t. Did you watch The Flintstones or The Jetsons as a kid? Those theme songs, among others, were sung by the Randy Van Horne Singers. The group also sang in TV and radio commercials.
Van Horne was born in 1924 in El Paso, Texas. He was a World War II veteran, studied music after the war, became a session musician, and started the Van Horne Singers in the late 1950’s following the breakup of his first group, The Encores. Known for their easy listening but uplifting compositions and singing, the group recorded several albums including a collaboration with Esquivel. The group performed on a few national television shows and member Marni Nixon later became a break-out solo artist. Original member Thurl Ravenscroft became the voice of “Tony the Tiger” and was the uncredited singer on You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.
By the early 1970’s the group had dissolved, only to be revived by Van Horne in early 2000. The New Randy Van Horne Singers formed to keep his legacy alive. Earlier this year, some in the group lent their composing and vocal talents to the jingle for my Internet radio station, Wind Chime Radio. I was fortunate enough to connected with several of the members via email to find out more about the group, the music, and the man. Below are their collective answers reported by group member Lynn Keller.
Peter: What made the original Van Horne Singers different from other vocal groups at that time?
Lynn: There were a number of popular quartets and singing groups at the time that Randy’s singers performed. What made his group unique is that he used some of the best session singers in Hollywood and he did his own arranging. Randy’s arrangements were unique as his style was to often write tight, 8-part vocal harmonies that were designed to sound like the different sections of a full 17-piece big band. This means the quality of the vocals often mirrored the trumpets, trombones in tempo, color and dynamics. Singers vocally produce the different sections of the band. Additionally, singers are accustomed to 4-part singing or soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB,) arrangements. Having 8-part singing means the vocal lines are closer together so there is more chance of dissonant harmonies among the sections. Randy used the top session singers who were prolific at reading charts, as his unique style brought often unexpected notes and dynamics to a vocal part.
Peter: What was the appeal of this music back in the day and why did it decline?
Lynn: Randy worked with Hanna Barbera arranging The Flintstones and other cartoon themes; these familiar themes have become part of our collective pop culture. The themes were memorable and were connected to popular TV shows. Randy’s group was also featured on TV variety shows with guest performances on the Nat King Cole Show and Mel Torme’s show for example. When the variety shows became too expensive and challenging to produce there were fewer options for Randy’s music to be heard by a wider audience. However, during these years he continued to product albums with a number of noteworthy artists. Finally, the music itself (the great American Songbook) and much of the music of the 1st [half] of the 20th century became less popular with the advent of rock and other forms of popular music. Here is a list of Randy’s recordings:
- The Clef Dwellers, RCA Victor LPM-1751
- Sing a Song of Goodman, MGM SE-3720; 1958
- Sleighride, Everest SDBR-1112; 1960
- Rollin’ West Everest SDBR-1071; 1960
- Swingin’ Singin’ RCA LPM-1321
- The March of the Regiment, Everest 19399
- Moments to Remember, Sunset SUS-5151
- Our Magic Moments Everest SDBR-1089; 1961
This list does not include selections from albums produced by other artists with Van Horne’s singers.
Peter: Is it true the original group sang on Bob Thompson’s RCA albums and on Martin Denny’s “Afrodesia” album? And that they were occasional backup singers for Dean Martin and Mel Torme?
Lynn: We often hear that his group was featured on different variety shows. We have verified their appearance on the following shows: Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. I’m not sure about Dean Martin. The members of the group like Marni Nixon, Gene Merlino, Marilyn King, Harry Middlebrooks, Sue Allen and more were back-up singers and overdub singers on many albums. It’s difficult to track down all of their jobs because they didn’t get credits.
Peter: How many singers are in the new group vs. the original group and what is the age range?
Lynn: The original group had a minimum of 8 singers. Randy reformed the group in the early 2000’s. Since that time the number of singers in the group has varied. In the early 2000’s there were about 20 singers then the number went up and down. Since the pandemic, there are somewhere around 8-10 which varies with singer’s comfort with singing in a group.
Peter: I know it changes but I’d like to identify the group’s current line-up.
Lynn: COVID has reduced our ranks for the time being. We have the following folks currently performing with our group:
1st Sopranos Lorelei Finch, Franny McCartney
2nd Soprano Lynn Keller
1st Alto Sara Taylor (Our newest member with an impressive background)
2nd Alto Bonnie Janofsky (composer, arranger), Liane Schirmer
Tenor, Alan Wilson (Also conductor,) John Schroeder
Baritone, Bill Havis
Bass, Steve Grant, Michael Alexander
Piano Accompanist, Marty Rosen
Peter: The group may have changed over the years, but when and how did the new group form?
Lynn: Randy brought the group together and directed it. When he retired from the group, he asked Alan Wilson to conduct. New group members are recruited sometimes from the audience when the group does shows. Often singers ask if they can join the group. Also, occasionally members are recruited from singer’s networks.
Peter: What’s the new group’s mission?
Lynn: We continue to perform Randy’s music and to produce shows that reflect his style. Over time we have added other arrangers- Anita Kerr and Ed Lojeski to name a few. We do themed shows so we often perform music that fits a theme and we add music accordingly. Additionally, our shows include solos, duets, quartets and other songs that require different combinations of singers. We follow our theme, but always include Randy arrangements.
Peter: In general, what’s the background of the members?
Lynn: Singers should have live performance experience and they should be able to read music. One of our strengths is that we care about and respect each other. This comes across when we perform. Audiences often say they appreciate our ability to connect with them and that we demonstrate our love for what we are doing in our shows.
Peter: When you sing live are you typically accompanied with just a piano?
Lynn: Yes, we always use piano accompaniment. This presents a challenge because Randy’s music isn’t that easy to play.
Peter: Have you ever taken any contemporary songs or pop hits and Van Horne-ized them?
Lynn: No, but we use other arranger’s charts. We also strive to stay true to Randy’s musical ideas and don’t make changes to his work. We apply the rule of staying true to whatever arranger’s ideas we select so we don’t modify their music. We perform it as it was intended. For example, recently we used TV theme shows in a performance entitled “We Love To Laugh”. We incorporated themes like “Gilligan’s Island,” and “The Addam’s Family,” replicating the music as the themes were performed in the TV show
Peter: Does the group have a favorite original Van Horne non-Christmas song they like performing?
Lynn: We love a few of them. “The Hucklebuck” is a fun arrangement that bounces around quite a bit. We have typically done it in shows. Additionally, many of Randy’s charts include sections where the vocals sound like different instruments of the orchestra. We practice these sections so we do in fact sound like the different sections of the orchestra. We also regularly perform “My Blue Heaven,” “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and “My Foolish Heart, (a ballad).” These are all great Randy arrangements.
Peter: Are there members who can speak to what it was like to work with Van Horne?
Lynn: Yes, some of us have stories about Randy and his ways. We share them regularly. 3-4 of us worked with him directly, me included. He was much like many arrangers. They continue to “tinker” with their music. He would make changes to his charts nearly every week and tell stories about his experiences. He loved to hear the recordings of his music so we often sang to them to get the feel and nuance of how they were originally performed. He told us stories about his life. For example, for a period he made his living writing jingles. Sometimes he would have 30 minutes to write a jingle and then hand it to the singers so they could learn it on the spot. It would be recorded at the same time. He spoke of how challenging it was and the pressure he felt.
Randy handed the baton to Alan Wilson a year or so before he passed. Alan is a fabulous tenor and had extensive background in choral groups. Randy had a lot of confidence in Alan’s ability to carry his legacy forward.
Peter: Is the new group active mainly during the holiday season?
Lynn: We are active year-round. Whenever we can do a show, we try to do it more than once. It takes a lot of effort to coordinate the music, the singers, the accompaniment, the sound and other aspects of a fully-produced show. Before the pandemic we were doing 5-6 shows per year. This included 1-2 shows during the holidays. The pay-off for all of us is the joy of doing the music before a live audience. There’s nothing better!
Peter: Do you hope to record an album in the future?
Lynn: Currently, there is no plan to do an album. However, we do videotape our shows and sometimes share them on YouTube.
Peter: Do you think Van Horne would be pleased with your group?
Lynn: Yes, he would be happy that his music lives on. Over the years, he continued to re-invent the group. I believe this is a clear testament to him wanting to keep the music alive. We are also in touch with his son and his son continues to support our efforts.
Peter: What are the individual projects some of you have been/are involved in?
Lynn: We all have prior performance experience. Some of us sing with bands, some have CD’s, some sing in church choirs or other singing groups. Some of us have been background singers with famous performers. In these cases, the singers have been on the road with the popular artists like Bette Midler, Tanya Tucker, Glenn Campbell, Elvis, etc.
Peter: What music have some of you been listening to lately?
Lynn: Our members are familiar with all types of music and often refer to pop music. As a genre, many of us appreciate selections from the Great American songbook so we tend to listen to current and vintage recordings of this music. However, it’s safe to say that we pull music from all types of genres.
Peter: How was it to work on the jingle for Wind Chime Radio?
Lynn: It was challenging and it was fun. We wanted to get the idea of wind chimes in the recordings. We experimented with the accompaniment to increase the authenticity and finally chose the vibes as the accompaniment because they sounded more like chimes than the piano. It was a kick to do original music for the radio.
Peter: Any final thoughts?
Lynn: We are looking forward to rebuilding the group once the pandemic is well behind us. We just added a new member and will do more recruiting when potential members and prior members are more comfortable singing in a group.
Harry Randell Van Horne passed away at the age of 83 on September 26, 2007 in Los Angeles. He was active almost until the end, leading a big band that performed around Los Angeles.
My profound thanks to New Randy Van Horne member Lynn Keller for coordinating the responses to my questions and to her and the group’s superb work on the Wind Chime Radio jingle.
Trivia (provided by the New Randy Van Horne Singers): “A fun fact is that the original singers were each paid $50 at the time for the recording of The Flintstones theme….no other payments or royalties were provided!”
NRVH Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rvhsingers/
Franny McCartney https://www.frannymccartney.com/
Liane Schirmer https://www.behindthevoiceactors.com/Liane-Schirmer/
Lynn Keller https://lynnkellersmusic.com/
Bonnie Janofsky: http://www.bonniejanofsky.com/
Wind Chime Radio: https://zeno.fm/radio/wind-chime-radio/
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