The first time I’d heard music written by Gene Puerling was in 1994. I was studying in Iowa with Phil Mattson, a vocal jazz and choral guru who knew Gene. Phil programmed Gene’s music often, and even edited several publications of Gene’s music, so that it might be available for school ensembles to sing. The first Gene Puerling piece I sang was his quintessential arrangement of “All the Things You Are.” Every measure of music offered up a different harmonic and textural delight.
I remember asking Phil if I might boot-leg copies of his cassette tapes of The Singers Unlimited and The Hi-Lo’s – the two monumental vocal groups that Gene wrote for. You see, in 1994, it was very difficult to find recordings of The Hi-Lo’s and next to impossible to find The Singers Unlimited in record stores. And the internet was nothing close to what it is today.
So when The Singers Unlimited finally released a box set of their 14 albums on 7 CDs, I remember feeling as if it was Christmas morning – except a Christmas morning that lasted for weeks. Not to wax too poetic, but Gene’s lush harmonies could wash over you, through you, and sometimes even sneak up on you. Joining Gene’s baritone part were soprano Bonnie Herman, tenor Don Shelton, and the late bass singer Len Dresslar.
Though only 4 singers were in TSU, they were “Unlimited” – because through the wonder of studio multi-tracking, they could sound like a multitude of singers. They were also some of the finest radio jingle singers in Chicago, so Gene could write anything he wanted. He stretched what was possible for the vocal jazz ensemble, adding daringness, grace, and at times his great humor.
It is because of the multi-tracking that The Singers Unlimited rarely sang to a live audience. I was lucky to hear Don, Bonnie, and Clark Burroughs (the original lead singer for The Hi-Lo’s) in 1997. I was in the audience for a stellar tribute to Gene Puerling at the International Association for Jazz Education convention. It was fitting that the ensemble was Gold Company from Western Michigan, as Gene had been friends with their director Dr. Steve Zegree, and had written a number of pieces for Zegree’s ensemble over the years.
Now, 7 years after Gene’s passing, his widow Helen has decided to bestow Gene’s original manuscripts, photographs, and some memorabilia to the University of North Texas. The goal and hope is that Gene’s musical legacy will be preserved, and perhaps his pieces even made available for others to sing and enjoy. This past weekend, the University of North Texas Jazz Singers performed their spring concert in honor of Gene – with emphasis being given to their new collection of Gene’s manuscripts. The 12 ensemble singers were directed by Jennifer Barnes – herself the daughter of Don Shelton (from both the Hi-Lo’s and TSU). They were singing charts that were edited by Jennifer, as well as by Doctoral Teaching Fellow Justin Binek.
Joining them on stage were once again Don, Bonnie, and Clark. Other distinguished people were in attendance – Mervyn Warren who co-founded Take 6; and four singers from the new vocal group Accent, including Stockholm native Simon Åkesson. Other arrangers paid their respect, including Chicagoan Jeremy Landig, and my friend Jorge Estrada from Guadalajara, Mexico. It was beyond humbling to be there soaking up the vibrations, the harmonies, and all of the loving energy in the air.
Though I’d never known Gene, when I heard of his passing that day in March of 2008, I remember feeling the loss deeply and persistently for a long time. I wish I’d have found a way to contact him, to tell him what his music has meant to me.
I can only say to the universe in all humility: thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Gene Puerling. All the things you were, meant so very much to me.