Gene Page In His Own Right
By David Nathan
If you take the time to check out the credits on numerous albums and singles that have hit the charts within the last year or so, you will most decidedly be aware of Gene Page. What you may not know is that this extraordinarily talented young man has been the arranging maestro behind hit records stretching back over at least a decade — with credits on records by Diana Ross & The Supremes, Dobie Gray, Stevie Wonder, Martha & The Vandellas, The Righteous Bros., The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin - to name but a few…
With the release of Mr. Page's second album for Atlantic — entitled "Lovelock!" — we got the opportunity to get some background on the man. "Well, I was actually born here in L.A.," the man relates, "but I was raised in New York until I was about 17. From then on, I was a West Coast baby!" Coming from a musical family ("my father was very much into composing serious music and my mother was a singer"), it was inevitable that Gene would be encouraged in that direction. "Initially, I wanted to go for being a concert pianist but, you know, the pressure in something like that is really too intense. So after attending college, I started to write and make demos for my brother, Billy, for the American Music Company.
"At that time, folks like Glen Campbell and Johnny Rivers were doing demos of Billy's songs and I'd arrange them. It was from this work that I met up with Jimmy Bowen, who later produced people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr." It wasn't too long before the then newly-formed Reprise Records hired Gene as a staff arranger. "I stayed there a couple of years working on their acts — Frank, Dean Martin and so on — until I went independent. That brought me working with Phil Spector on The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and Dobie Gray's "In Crowd" before Motown hired me to do sessions for them."
During his period working with the company, Gene acknowledges "it was a fantastic experience working with such an incredible amount of talent. It would seem that you'd only just finish with one and start working with another great artist. What would happen is that the company would present me with a demo of the song, explain the kind of feeling they'd want and I'd maybe meet with the artist ahead of time to establish their vocal range and what key to do the song in. But I wasn't always there when the artists put their vocals on — only if the song was particularly difficult, which happened sometimes. There were times when I'd have to sing the song for the artist myself — but believe me, I can't sing, so they always erased it pretty quickly — as soon as the artist had gotten the song right!"
It was only during Gene's last days with Motown that the company began to put credit on the records for arrangements which is why so many of the hits that you hear certainly have Gene's inimitable stamp on them without his name appearing there too. Other projects outside the r&b field that Gene worked on included Barbara Streisand's "Stoney End" ("she was really great to work with — cool, relaxed and with a wonderful sense of humour"), The Mamas & Papas and Tiny Tim ("he was interesting if somewhat limited!") but one of Gene's biggest claims to fame came when he began working with Barry White.
"I had known Barry right at the beginning of my career when he was still at school and we'd always been good friends,” Gene states. Whilst he was working with Mustang Records, we did some things on artists like Felice Taylor and when the company folded, Barry started working on other projects. One day, he came to me and told me about the three girls he'd found and what he wanted to do with them musically. Right then, we didn't have a record deal but we worked on an album and that, of course, was the birth of Love Unlimited, who bust wide open with "Walkin' In The Rain (With The One I Love)". Then, as you know, Barry began to work on his own thing, which was really fantastic."
Comment has been made in the past that much of Barry White's success is due to Gene's excellent string arrangements but Gene is quick off the mark about that! "Credit must be given where it's due and the truth is that Barry adds a very great deal to whatever he does personally. He is the driving force and it's just the combination of him with the string arrangements which I come up that makes for the hits. What usually happened with Barry was that he'd lay down a basic piano track, maybe with a chorus or two. Then he'd give me some idea of the general concept he was aiming at. He'd write the melody, put it together, we'd put the rhythm track, then the strings and add the voice on at the end. Many times, Barry wouldn't even write the lyrics till then. We'd follow basically the same route with Love Unlimited Orchestra projects."
Gene and Barry amicably parted company during 1975 but Gene explains: "It was really because our schedules just didn't coincide and Barry needed to go ahead with his work. Also, he felt that it was necessary to try for something different which can always be achieved by changing the formula somewhat. But we have three albums coming up on which I'll be working with Barry starting in March, two vocal and one instrumental. Plus there's a Love Unlimited album which we finished off early last year. I must add that Barry is the most generous person I've every worked with, and when we work it's just like a party".
Mr. White was, of course, instrumental in getting Gene to record himself. "It was actually the suggestion of Barry and my brother Billy that I do an album and Barry just said he wanted to do an album with me. Naturally, I was very excited and after we'd signed with Atlantic Records, we began working on material that he'd written and that I'd written. Everything worked out fine — we cut the album, "Hot City" back in '74. I feel that it was successful, although it could have done better. But it's a problem with an artist like myself who doesn't perform. Plus the release of the album coincided with Barry's "White Gold" album which meant there was split play on the two albums."
Following "Hot City" and his continued commitments to Mr. White, Gene found himself involved in several other interesting projects including albums on Nancy Wilson (he produced "All In Love Is Fair" and co-produced "Come Get To This" with brother Billy, as well as writing several songs for the albums with him), Betty Everett and Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin.
"Yes, it was really an experience working with Aretha — really incredible. Hopefully, we'll be working together again if our schedules coincide". He did allow himself enough time, however, to get in and do a second album, "Lovelock!" which he recorded last summer. "I think this is very much a different type of album from the first one which was more in a 'big band' bag. This one accented the rhythm tracks more, with a lot more singing, more synthesizers used. I have to say that I'm satisfied with the album but, as a perfectionist, I'm never. For some reason, things always sound better to me when they're successful!"
Success is something which has certainly not eluded Gene — since he's put his magic touch to many people's work and he mentioned, in passing, that one of the most exciting experiences was working with Marvin Gaye on his "Live" album and the "Let's Get It On" set.
For the future, Gene says he'll continue to arrange, "because that seems to be the most successful aspect of my career right now. Upcoming are sessions I'm doing with Johnny Mathis, The Main Ingredient and Leon Haywood and we just finished an album with David T. Walker for Ode Records. But I want to concentrate on my own career as an artist — I guess it's an ego thing in some ways, because you want people to know who you are. So often, the arranger is really not acknowledged at all. Hopefully, I'm going to start doing some concerts real soon. We're working on possibly doing some dates with Stanley Turrentine and I must admit I'm greatly looking forward to going out there. I've done special concerts when I was conducting with people — we did a thing with Barry White and with Marvin. So it's definitely a certain amount of fun involved and I dig it!"
If Gene's work gets the exposure that some of his work for others has gotten in the past, there will be no stopping this talented gentleman.