The Straight Skinny

This wasn’t supposed to be posted until next weekend, but I hit the wrong button and here we are. There is no undo or erase, so we’ll go with it.

A deeper Dive Into Introspection

Time for some music talk. Time to spill some guts, set some records straight, and “sing,” as the old gangsters used to say. Time to “‘fess up,” to dive deep, to get to the bottom of it all.Yup, it’s that time.

Now before I begin, a caveat, please. This is going to sound, to most of you, like “what’s the big deal? It’s only music… no need to make a production out of this, your career is done and the rest of the world has moved on. Get over it.”

And that’s all true… to a degree, I feel the exact same way. Except for one thing… it was my life, after all, and I tried to portray myself as one thing, when, in truth, I was a different thing. That’s right. And I discovered it while sitting here in the deep of an evening earlier this winter, brandy close at hand, listening to some of my old recordings, much the way Jerry Vale used to do. Ah, poor Jerry, And ah, poor me. Because in that listening I finally realized where the very heart of my music lay… and it wasn’t where I wanted it to be, and it wasn’t in the image I tried to portray about myself for my whole professional life. No. I never quite became what I wanted most to be… a great ;jazz pianist. And I never became as bright as I would have liked, or I would have realized all this 40 years ago.

Not that I would’ve done anything differently. I played a ton of jazz over the years, and absolutely loved it. Every minute of it. For me, good jazz, mostly built on the old standards, raises the hair on my neck, sprouts goose bumps on my arms, and often stops my breathing all together. I’ve been known to not breathe for almost a minute when i’m soloing with a good jazz group. The excitement, the euphoria, totally overcomes me. It did from the beginning, and never stopped. Being somewhat of an “addictive personality,” I never stopped chasing the thrill of live jazz, nor have I ever stopped drinking.

Like a lot of my artistic friends, I have chased that elusive euphoric state much of my life, and have spent a good deal of time in it. No drugs, just that magical timelessness that seems to happen when we’re all “on the same page,” and the music is singing a tune that is somehow beyond what each of us is playing at the moment. That has happened so often in my career that I can now reproduce it just by sitting down at the piano in the evening and plunking out a few of the old tunes for my B.

Sidebar here: Don’t know whether my Buddhist studies enhanced my love of jazz, and it’s magical effects on me, or whether it’s the other way around, And you know, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not nirvana, it’s as good as I can stand.

In Atlanta, I slowly realized that I wasn’t “the shit” of jazz pianists in that town. Oh, I wanted to be, and a lot of people treated me as if I were, but there were a half dozen guys who walked all over me, and for a short time my ego had a problem with that. The truth can hurt, but it was the truth… so silly. After all, I was making money hand over tea kettle in the recording studios… so what was my problem??

Simple. Erroneous self-perception. I thought I was being who I wanted to be, and sold that image at every opportunity, sometimes clumsily and often inappropriately. It took me sooo long to figure it out. My self-image worked on most of the public… it was the musicians who saw through it. Bless them, none of them ever said a word, partly because they knew it was a sensitive issue with me, and partly because I was still hiring them for gigs and recording sessions.

Thee great ones – Yonrico Scot, Ricky Keller, Oliver Wells

So now we get down to the straight skinny. In jazz terms, the “straight skinny” is “the real truth of it all.” Where the rubber meets the road… remember that one? In one of my late-night Jerry Vale reveries, I was listening to some of my experiments in jazz, things that I recorded, trying out new ideas, testing new tone generators, as they were called back then. Was into this fairly jazzy piece I had done, when it finally hit me… and hit me hard. Yes, I was a jazz guy, and yes, I loved it and played it to the best of my ability. But there were STRINGS in there. There’s no strings in jazz! (except for Don Sebesky, who did a most tasteful, beautiful job on an album or two.) I processed that and listened to a few more experimental tracks. Remember, I had a working recording studio for 30 years, so I have a ton of recorded memories. Anyway, strings kept flowing smoothly in the background of many of my so-called original jazz attempts, and I finally had to come to the awful, most horrible truth… I was doing jazzy elevator music, thinking it was beautiful, artistic, creative, even edgy, jazz!

Oh god. The pain. How could this be?? That’s not who I wanted to be… AT ALL! But there it was. And the more tracks I listened to, the more obvious it became. I loved piano and strings! And it kept showing up in so many of my studio demos. It was true, and I had to find a way to deal with it, or at least rationalize it. That wasn’t supposed to be me… and now it was too late. There were electronic strings on so many of my demos, and lush strings (at least by my standards) on many of my record projects.

The tune below is one of many late-night experiments in my studio. It was imperative to experiment with the “new” horn, woodwind and string sounds that were being made available for computers at the time, and recording little jazz tunes (that no one would ever hear) was my way of being ready, in case someone came to the studio wanting real-sounding instruments. This one was done sometime in ’86.

It has taken awhile to make my peace with this bit of shocking revelation. I began searching my memory bank to try to glue this aberration of an otherwise sincere attempt to be a jazzy guy together in a fashion that might actually make sense. My half-sister, Gyla Hulse, sent me an Andre Previn and Friends album when I was in high school. At the time, I loved it, and wore it out. But there were no strings. So I had yet another brandy and kept trying to remember. And then it hit me.

Back in the fall of ’59, I was coming back from Peru, where I’d been living with my folks for a year and a half. I’d flown from Tacna up to Lima, where I got a hotel room at the Savoy for the evening, as I had an early morning flight out to Panama, then Miami. I remember having dinner, then going up to my room to get to sleep early. It was something of an adventure for me, flying by myself at 15, from Peru back to Montana.

The Savoy Hotel in the center of Lima, and a souvenir of my stay there

I got ready for bed and turned on the radio in the corner, a big console type, hoping to relax and get to sleep early. I found a station that seemed to be playing American music, and it sounded so good to me, I left it on and settled into the big bed. Well. Whatever that station was, whatever that music was, it was beyond perfect! I was in Lima, Peru, young, painfully impressionable, going back to the states which I’d been missing for 18 months. I was a big guy now, on my own, with money in my wallet to burn, a new ring my dad had bought me as a going-away present, that had real Peruvian gold in it. And I had a plane ticket to Montana, and a pack of Winstons in my shirt pocket… I was a man!!

But I digress. Yes, my life was as close to perfect as it ever would be that evening. But the music – it swirled around the room in my head in a way I’d never experienced before. It sounded deep, sophisticated, worldly to me, a magical mixture of sound and emotion that seemed to transport me right out of the room. And what was it, basically? Orchestral arrangements, mostly strings, and tinkling piano!

Shows us how naive my musical taste was right then. After all, my favorite songs in 1959, were Elvis’ “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear” and Johnny Mathis’ “It’s Not For Me To Say.” Years later I tried to find out where those orchestral tracks might have come from, but found it was probably just music recorded by 101 Strings, or several other studio orchestras out of New York… what we now think of as “elevator music.” And there, unhappily, we have it… one of my all-time influences in music was elevator music. God help me. Naturally I didn’t know it until this year, but that evening in that hotel room in Lima back in ’59 somehow burned into my brain, and cemented my concept of what beautiful music should be. I’m sure it was set right there, that night. And no, I don’t think there was any Ayahuasca in my evening meal at the Savoy.

Not sure what a person could do to change the events of one’s life to make it exactly the way they want it. In hindsight, I guess I don’t regret it. I became a good string arranger, which was beyond any of my boyhood dreams. I took my string arranging skills for granted all those years, even though most of my string arrangements brought me so much satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment. And they served me so very well in the long run, as did not being a notable jazz pianist. I stayed in the recording studio, (Doppler, of course) for at least 13 years, and that made the whole difference in my career.


Control RoomDoppler Studio E

Here’s one of my tunes from my first Album, Snowblind, “No To Love.” It has my love of strings all over it. Twelve of the Atlanta’s finest played on this piece, cost me way over $1K… and worth every penny. The Atlanta Violinists always easily as good as the three different string sections I worked with in L.A. – one of which featured Glenn Dicterow, right before be became the concert master for the New York Philharmonic! When I listen to the song now, I can’t imagine it without my strings! My old friend, Steve Davis, was the audio engineer on this project. Listen to how beautifully he pulled all the elements together, and Carol Vito’s voice in the background of the guitar solo was all Steve Davis’ idea… and I love it!


The proof of this pudding is easily told – one of my all-time favorite songs is the one that Brenda Russell wrote and sang – When He Plays Piano In The Dark. And there it is, and there I am… guilty as charged. Feeling foolish and proud at the same time… and it’s ridiculous. Per usual, I yam what I yam. Hell, I remember when I was in the eighth grade and the Martin Denny song came out on the radio, Quiet Village… I loved that song so much back then… wish someone could have told me that Martin Denny’s quiet, easy style of instrumental music was not jazz, yet was to be much of my destiny.

I listened to Quiet Village on YouTube last week for the first time in 62 years. It sounds terrible now, the music totally over-ridden by jungle bird sounds. It has a Liberace-like piano part on it, and the song itself is fairly simple. but I remember why I liked it… I had never heard exotic chords like that before! I’d never heard piano played like that before, had never heard a vibraphone before and I hadn’t heard any instrumental music on a Montana radio station before, except for an occasional Chet Atkins guitar instrumental. So it stuck in my mind as to what music might be… the kind of music I liked… instrumental music!


It’s deceptively easy to wish we could become who we dreamed of being when we were young. Trying to imagine who we might have become brings with it the realization that our lives would be totally different right now if that could have happened. Where would we be now… who would we be now? This might be a difficult exercise for those who don’t like how or where they have ended up in life. In that light, however, I’m a very lucky boy, ridiculously happy with where I am and who I ended up with… my dear heart, Betty Johnson! Do I wish i might have been a different, better person? Sure, my faults usually find a way of jabbing me every day. Do I wish I could have been a better jazz player? Yes, but not at the risk of removing all those precious years of working and playing at Doppler Studios in Atlanta. I wouldn’t trade those for anything! And therein lies my cop out for finally being okay with being a string arranger who plays some tinkly piano in the dark. That, my friend, is the straight skinny.

Steve Hulse

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