EDITORIAL:  Gene Lees and Claus' Work for Pop Artists
by B.J. Major

Gene Lees has been involved in the music business a very long time.  By and large, he's pretty highly thought of in most circles.  He has written many books and articles, some of which include a couple of my own artists (Mancini, Jobim, Ogerman).  His translated English lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim raised a lot of ire in Brazil, but that is not the subject of this editorial.  I am primarily concerned about his opinion of the work that Claus Ogerman did for the pop artists in the early 1960s, when Claus first arrived in the U.S.  Especially the chart-busting work Claus did under Quincy Jones at the Mercury label for such stars as Lesley Gore.

By the time Claus emigrated from Germany in 1959, he was already an established composer, arranger, pianist and even - vocalist.  He had arranged and played for some of Germany's finest Big Bands of the era and also had at least one suite of classical music composed.  Claus was by no means a newbie in the field, although he had not yet established a reputation as a first-rate arranger/conductor in the U.S. 

Because Claus has done everything so well and is such a talented musician on so many levels and in so many totally different styles of music, you can imagine how hard it hit me when I read in print Mr. Lees' remarks (quoted below).   But first, here is the complete and unedited letter I wrote to Gene Lees (to which I never received either a U.S. Mail or an email reply):

* * *

November 20, 2003

Dear Gene Lees,

I am an internet discographer and I have previously emailed you in years past concerning two of the artists I cover (Henry Mancini and Antonio Carlos Jobim).  I am writing you this time to object in the strongest way possible to what you have written in print form regarding the early part
of Claus Ogerman’s recording career in the U.S. You have written very disparaging remarks a total of three times that I have read (twice in your Jazzletter newsletter, once in “The Man From Ipanema” CD set booklet) - calling Claus’ work for the rock and roll artists of that period “commercial crap” and “trash” as well as written the remark that Claus “could turn out trash on demand”.  I can imagine that in defense of what you wrote, you will say (and indeed I’ve read, in those same articles) that you have talked about this with Claus and he agrees with you; that is really not the point because even if you personally felt that way about his early arrangements for the rock and roll artists, you did not have to put it in print for the whole world to read - not once,
but a total of three times! You could have just voiced your disapproval/objections to him privately. You say that you are friends with Claus, but putting these remarks in print for posterity really isn’t something I would consider that a true friend would do. Your remarks were insulting and offensive for me to read, as I consider myself a very devoted fan of Claus; I can only imagine what Claus himself thought when he first read the remarks.

I created and maintain Claus Ogerman’s website and internet discography which has been online for almost three years. I am also in touch with him directly and he is without a doubt one of the most special musicians who has ever lived (in my opinion). Claus’ complete diversity and non-prejudice when it comes to working with various styles of music is totally unsurpassed and
has not been achieved by anyone else past or present. I cannot recall in my own memory any other composer/arranger who arranged top hits for rock and roll stars, music for soul artists &
rhythm and blues musicians, music from the Broadway stage as well as orchestrations for many jazz artists and bossa nova pioneers Jobim, Joao Donato & The Gilbertos. Not to mention Claus' many arrangements crafted for easy-listening orchestras and even a Roaring ‘20s album. It seems as though there is almost no style of music that has escaped his exquisite touch.  And mentioning all this does not even include his original works in the jazz, classical and pop instrumental fields, his film scores for German films, tracks written for big band albums, his ballet score and even his own record of German Oktoberfest songs.

Whether or not you happen to like the top 40 hits of Lesley Gore, Connie Francis, etc. really isn’t the issue. I can’t say that I care for those particular artists either, myself. But I can see and hear
why the arrangements Claus did for them propelled them into the stratosphere of popularity with young people. What is without dispute is that the music those stars recorded with Claus
served a need for young people in general and teenagers in particular.  Credit needs to be given where credit is due and what Claus Ogerman has achieved in totality within his career is nothing
short of amazing - and I’m convinced will be recognized as such by future generations of music students who study his career.

NOTHING Claus Ogerman ever touched or had anything to do with was “crap” or “trash”.

Sincerely yours,

* * *

My letter to Claus Ogerman on
September 23, 2003 including the following:

". . . I know from everything I’ve read that Gene Lees is a good friend of yours, but I have to tell you that I really don’t like some things he has said about you, some very negative things that he has said in print in at least two places.  He calls some of your early work (when you first came to the U.S.) “commercial crap” - and that’s really insulting to me.  I can only imagine how insulting that was for you to have to read.  And he has also said in print that you, as one of the busiest arrangers around, were able to turn out “trash on demand.”  As far as I am concerned, NOTHING you have ever done or have been involved with musically was trash or crap.  Far from it.  I never understood people who automatically equate commercial success with poorly done music.  I hope you don’t mind me being totally honest here; I feel that I have no secrets from you and I wanted you to know exactly how I felt about this."

* * *

Claus' personal reply back to me included only one sentence about how I felt:

"Gene Lees is nothing to worry about".

* * *

This really wasn't the kind of answer I was looking for from Claus, but I guess it will have to do as it was all he replied back to me on the subject. 

Regarding what Gene Lees said -
ok, so everyone is entitled to their opinion.   Mr. Lees thinks very highly of what Claus arranged for Jobim some albums later. He also thinks highly of Claus' classical works.  But did he really have to use the words "trash" and "crap" when describing Claus' arrangements and work for pop artists?  I don't think so.  In fact, I believe it totally disrespects Claus' entire career and complete body of work to say such a thing.  But then, that's only my opinion.

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