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Dave Pell's behind-the-scenes career may be more familiar to space age pop fans than his own accomplishments as a performer. As head of artists and repertory (A&R) for Liberty Records and United Artists in the 1960s, Pell produced many of the best-known albums by Martin Denny, Si Zentner, the Ventures, Trombones Unlimited, and others.
But Pell started as a working musician in the heydays of the big bands. He joined Tony Pastor's band in 1944, spent two years working with Bob Crosby's Bobcats, then moved to Los Angeles and joined Les Brown's new "Band of Renown" group in 1947. As a tenor sax player, Pell became one of the stars of the Brown band, and he remained with them until 1955.
He then formed his own group, the Dave Pell Octet, along with trumpeter Don Fagerquist, and adopted a lighter style, very much in the spirit of the West Coast jazz movement. Pell hired some of the best arranging talents available, including Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Jerry Fielding, and Bill Holman, and the group's albums sold well. Some critics panned the group as "middlebrow jazz" and Pell himself once referred to it as "mortgage-paying jazz," but its tight ensemble recordings have become highly collectable.
Pell also recorded a series of albums with a larger band, performing in the style of the most famous names from the big band era, for a small budget label he owned called PRI. Several years later, he cashed in on the percussion album craze by hiring drummer Frankie Capp to overdub percussion parts on these recordings and released them as Percussion in a Tribute to ... on Kimberley Records, another label he started.
Like many West Coast jazz musicians, Pell moved to the security of studio work as the interest and market for live jazz waned. He joined the staff of Liberty Records and soon became a major contributor. He worked hard on both the technical and musical sides, improving Liberty's studio processes and working to develop its roster of artists. He often collaborated with producer Snuff Garrett and arranger Bob Florence, cultivating both pop and rock artists. He was the first to record singer Vicki Carr, fresh out of stint as a girl singer in Ray Anthony's road show, and produced her first 11 albums, including It Must Be Him, which sold over a million copies.
Pell released three albums under his own name on Liberty. The first two, in 1963, featured Florence's arrangements for small combo and jazz chorus. The last, released in 1969, is now a great favorite of soft pop/easy tempo fans, with terrific versions of Piero Umiliani's dippy classic, "Mah-Na, Mah-Na," the Electric Indians' "Kemo Sabe," and the title tune from the nude musical, "Oh, Calcutta."
Pell and Florence are rumored to have become so familiar with Martin Denny's style that they ghosted several of Denny's albums while the performer was out on tour. Certainly Pell and Moog player Paul Beaver had more to do with the great Exotic Moog than Denny himself did, which Denny himself readily admits.
After Liberty was ingested by United Artists, Pell became creative director for Motown Records, where he hired the Commodores and helped the label through its challenging transition from Detroit to Los Angeles, and from the "Motown sound" to 70s soul and disco. He worked with Garrett again in the 1980s, heading Garrett's Viva label, which had some of the hotter country artists of the period in Shelly West and David Frizzell, and running a music publishing conglomerate that encompassed over 30 different companies. He joined up with another West Coast jazz vet, Lennie Niehaus, and handled the soundtrack recordings for a number of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds films, including "Sudden Impact" and "Sharkey's Machine" (which included the last known recording by former Liberty cover girl Julie London). He also founded Headfirst, a pioneering digital recording label.
Pell continues to work in the music industry and has his own website, www.davepell.com. And over forty years after their first release, his "Tribute" series made its third appearance, this time on Pell's CD label, Group 7 Records.
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