Frank Hunter

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During the '50s and '60s, part of the pop music kingdom was ruled by lavishly produced and carefully arranged musical showcases for singers such as Frankie Avalon. The arrangers and conductors behind…
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During the '50s and '60s, part of the pop music kingdom was ruled by lavishly produced and carefully arranged musical showcases for singers such as Frankie Avalon. The arrangers and conductors behind the scenes often had more creative agendas of their own, and Frank Hunter was definitely a good example. He was fortunate enough to work not only with performers of the Avalon ilk, but with seriously great jazz singers such as Carmen McRae and Johnny Hartman. His personal masterpieces created outside of the mainstream may have languished in obscurity, but eventually were rediscovered, in the '90s, by the new audience for exotica, space age pop, and lounge music. His album White Goddess has been compared to the Holy Grail by exotica fans, one of the only albums apparently worthy of being placed on the shelf next to Marty Manning's Twilight Zone. Not that lounges have shelves. One thing Hunter and the latter-space age pop astronaut have in common is that they were quiet heroes from an earlier dynasty of corporate popular music production. Sadly overlooked in favor of the glamorous stars who sang over the top of their arrangements, these baton wavers and scribblers of notation were sometimes the ones actually making a vocalist sound good; although that hardly could be said of some of the extremely talented singers this arranger worked with. Johnny Hartman would still have sounded great even with the White Goddess album in the background (i.e., the mysterious sounds of the obscure Ondioline, scintillating scat singing, Chinese bells, and the buzzimba, apparently a musical instrument and not a brand of bong). Yes, Hunter is the kind of shreeve who brings bongos to the party -- not just bongos, but chromatic bongos.

He began his career not with bongos tucked under his arm, but as a trombonist associated with the Philadelphia jazz scene. By the time he switched his allegiance to the studios in the late '50s, he was already considered a big band veteran. His jazz experience made him well-equipped to rise to the occasion in certain situations, such as providing arrangements for tenor saxophone giant Coleman Hawkins on the album Hawk Talk, or a mid-'50s session for the fine trumpeter Howard McGhee on Bethlehem. As an arranger, his first chance to show his stuff was provided by Elliot Lawrence's orchestra. This bandleader was also crucial in giving the jazz baritone saxophonist and composer Gerry Mulligan a career kick-start; in fact, eventually Hunter and Mulligan would be in stiff competition for the bandleader's attention. Hunter was known as Frank Huntermark at the time the Lawrence band was first formed, but erased the "mark" shortly thereafter. He worked for the Bethlehem label in the mid-'50s with Frances Faye and others, a launching pad for a variety of other label positions and artist relationships. He was employed by Mercury, Medallion, and Top Rank in this period. At Kapp, he created arrangements for smoothies such as Roger Williams and Joe Harnell, as well as Anita Darian, a vocalist who has been described as the Yma Sumac of Armenia. These tasks came with the caveat of being granted freedom to create his own project, one of which was the immortal White Goddess.

After his deal with Kapp was off, his relationships as arranger were with a diverse group of hitmakers including Pat Boone (but not the heavy metal album), the wonderful Chad & Jeremy, and Leo Diamond. He also created much music for commercials, some of which was eventually released on its own as part of a collection of Hunter's material on the Sesac label. He worked on a special set of box sets for CBS, created annually, based on the past year's hit parade -- hardly the sign of an arranger on a hot streak. From there, he had periods where he was off the scene entirely, but resurfaced in 2001 at the age of 81 as the mentor and consultant to the Old Timers Jazz Band. He went on to write arrangements for the modern edition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, conducted by Larry O'Brien. Hunter's work has become inextricably linked with the finer things in life, to judge from some of the album titles he is associated with, such as Music to Watch Girls By and Music For a Bachelor's Den. Of course, that kind of action doesn't appeal to everyone. Quoth a jazz critic, on the subject of Hunter's arrangements for trumpeter Bobby Hackett: "...SO dated, sappy, and corny you'll think you've been transported into one of those early-'60s Doris Day movies."