by Doug Coombe
Gordon Staples was the concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and basically did the same for the Motown's string sessions in the '60s and '70s. Remember, that was an age when many of his DSO co-workers looked down on the pop coming out of Motown. But Staples embraced Motown enthusiastically, always taking his Stradivarius violin with him to Motown recording sessions because, truth be told, string and horn arrangements on soul songs were serious business then. Though an arrangement (basically putting all the song's musical pieces together in the best possible way) can be so seamless and integral to a song that a typical listener might only subconsciously notice it, a great arrangement can turn a good soul song into a hit single. And years later, those same arrangements could turn it into a heavily sampled song (think of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, for example).
Staples had proven himself working with legendary Motown arrangers Paul Riser and David Van De Pitte as well as with production team of Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore on all of their sessions.
In 1970, Motown rewarded his hard work with an album of his own with arrangements and most compositions by Paul Riser. While the idea of an orchestrated and funky instrumental album owed a clear debt to Cadet Records producer Richard Evans' Soulful Strings (which had been around since 1966), the sound here is pure and perfect Motown.
The opener, "Strung Out," kicks things off with the swirling chaos of a string section tuning up like "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" accompanied by an accelerating heart beat from the drummer. When James Jamerson's bass kicks into a funky groove moments later — with Dennis Coffey's wah-wah guitar and two electric keyboards — you know you're listening to a Motown record. Equally funky are "Sounds of the Zodiac" and "Get Down." Being an instrumental album, more than half the songs are ballads, including a cover of Diana Ross & the Supremes' hit "Someday We'll Be Together."
The song "Strung Out" was issued as a 45 with "Sounds of the Zodiac" on the flipside in April, 1971, yet the album never went anywhere and has remained a great soul obscurity … until now.
Even though this record abounds with lush strings, backing vocals, flutes, harps and vibraphones, it's far from an easy listening record. Sinatra arrangers Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May might've showed us how strings can swing, but arrangers Paul Riser, Richard Evans and Barry White showed strings can be tight and funky. It took such musicians as Gordon Staples to make sure the strings got down at the recording session.
Indeed, the music on Strung Out was so funky it reappeared as the soundtrack to Fred Williamson's 1976 film Mean Johnny Barrow. Bravo to the underrated label Reel Music for its recent string of great Motown reissues including this long lost gem.