Before he died mysteriously in 1971, musician, composer and arranger Gary McFarland collaborated with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Clark Terry, Cal Tjader… and Wendy & Bonnie. Filmmaker (and director of This is Gary McFarland) Kristian St. Clair talked with Wendy Flower (back in October 2006) about her memories of “the jazz legend who should have been a pop star.”
Kristian St. Clair: I thought we could begin by discussing how the Wendy & Bonnie Genesis album project came about? I know you were seventeen and your sister Bonnie was thirteen.
Wendy Flower: That is good that you got the ages right because they made us lie about our ages so many times that I actually got confused about it myself. I had signed a recording contract with another company and Bonnie was just about to sign the same contract. Because we were minors, it didn’t work out. My parents would not sign for us and they wanted us to do something with Skye Records. [Vibraphonist and Skye Records co-owner] Cal Tjader, let’s call him our unofficial godfather that we’d known since we were babies, heard us singing together and really liked what he heard. He thought that Gary would be very interested so we made this reel-to-reel of our music. They heard it and they liked it! The first two songs happened to be the ‘The Winter is Cold’ and ‘The Paisley Window Pane.’
Cal said that both Norman [Schwartz, Skye co-owner and manager at the time for Gary McFarland, Cal Tjader and Gabor Szabo] and Gary liked it a lot. Gary actually came to our house in Millbrae. They flew out from New York. I wanted them to hear our band at the time, the Crystal Fountain, but unfortunately my other bandmates were older and they had already signed recording contracts. They were kind of entangled with that. Gary said he really liked… let’s call it the ‘folk-ish, unplugged music’ Bonnie and I were singing, just the two of us in the living room, singing harmony. He really liked it. They were just going to record a single so we went to Los Angeles. I guess the recording session went really well and they were very happy with the way it sounded. Actually, I did just find some of the original studio recordings that I didn’t know we had when my parents moved recently.
St. Clair: Genesis original session reels?
Flower: Yes. You can hear Gary’s voice on it, directing the band. It’s really neat. I’ve been finding a lot of old recordings. It’s exciting. I’m still looking for some songs that are missing.
St. Clair: How was it when Gary came for the first visit to hear your music?
Flower: He, Cal and Norman came to the house. Norman didn’t say very much. Cal was Cal, always this extreme amount of energy. And Gary was very peaceful. He just had this presence. Anybody who was around Gary would instantly relax. I always wished I could tap into that! He came into our home and he was very gracious and I just instantly felt at ease with him. I’m not a very outgoing person normally, except when I’m performing (but that is a different personality). I felt very at ease around him and I know my sister did as well.
St. Clair: And shortly thereafter you recorded the first single?
Flower: Yes. We ended up going to Los Angeles to cut the single and we were really excited. That was just an awesome experience. Both Bonnie and myself had never been on a plane before! I think my father came with us the first time as a chaperone. We were pretty young. I wasn’t quite eighteen yet. Bonnie was very young. She was thirteen. Fortunately, because of Cal Tjader, we had a little bit of experience doing some backup recordings with him and I had made a little single with the Crystal Fountain before. So, thankfully, we’d had some recording studio experience. And talk about patience! These jazz greats were all there watching us and everybody was so positive. Gary just guided us. The thing I especially liked about working with Gary was that he didn’t try to make us sing any other way than the way we were singing. He didn’t say, ‘I want you to sing like this…’ or ‘I want you to sing like that…’ He just let us do it.
As far as the lead vocals went, we just got to do our own thing. But then he enhanced and opened us up to learning about counterparts and harmonies, especially in the song ‘Children Laughing.’ It was my vision in my head but I would not have been able to do anything like that. And he opened up all these wonderful possibilities in the way that he orchestrated the songs. I learned more from Gary McFarland in the brief time that I knew him and got to work with him than I’ve ever learned in any music class or even from my own parents. My dad is a music teacher and my mom is a voice teacher. I learned more from Gary McFarland in those brief sessions than I’ve ever learned! I’m sure Bonnie would say the same thing. He taught us almost on a spiritual level. He opened us up and it was an unbelievable experience.
St. Clair: It seems like teaching harmonies and counterpoints is almost like teaching intangibles. How did he go about showing this all to you?
Flower: Both Bonnie and I have a classical music background and I think we did hear music on a different level to begin with (which was to our advantage). I could always hear the harmonies. But it was one of those things where I’d always hear it but there wasn’t this third person to sing with us. I went crazy with this part of it [recording vocal overdubs] because I loved it so much. [Gary] would overdub harmony on top of harmony and I was in awe of the whole thing. And then he started arranging counterparts to go with it and it was just wonderful! He really enhanced what we were doing by recording these counterparts, especially ‘Children Laughing.’ He made it an adventure! He’d say, ‘Now you’re doing this, let’s expand it and try this.’ We were in a state of awe.
St. Clair: Did he contribute counterparts or did he just help draw out what you already had in your heads?
Flower: It was a collaborative effort, especially on ‘Paisley Window Pane.’ He had some different counterparts that we did not hear ourselves, and also, with ‘Children Laughing,’ I had never envisioned a whole chorus of us singing it. It was really exciting to hear your creations expanded that way.
St. Clair: So after the single was recorded, Gary decided to do a whole album?
Flower: We came back thinking that was it and we were all excited about the single and Gary liked what he heard and called us later and said, ‘Come up with enough songs to make an album and you have a month!’ That was the scary part. Fortunately, I had a song I had been playing with the Crystal Fountain and Bonnie had another one she had been working on. Bonnie would be in one room and I’d be in another room and we’d just start going with different ideas. And Bonnie played some guitar (but she’s really a drummer) and I played violin (but sadly I had to put my violin aside because I couldn’t sing and look at the chords). So I was focusing on my singing and doing a little bit with mallet instruments, vibraphone, marimba, etc. It all came together so wonderfully and naturally.
We came up with these songs and my father made charts and we made more recordings on the reel-to-reel. We sent them on to Gary and he liked them all. Gary was really the catalyst. He inspired us so greatly; we just kept coming up with ideas! [Before the first day of recording in Los Angeles] we spent the night and Cal had a gig. Gary left a note (I still have it somewhere) and it said, ‘Wendy, take a cab.’ And I didn’t know how to take a cab. I had never taken a cab in my life! He had the address on Sunset Strip for United Recording Studio and the time so I had to get directions on how to take a cab and we made it there all right. When we did go out to the recording studio, they did the rhythm tracks first and then we went back and did all the vocal tracks, including harmonies and counterparts, in a day. Unfortunately, because of the winter, I was quite ill and, wouldn’t you know it, right during these vocal sessions! The recording studio time was already paid for (and you don’t have a choice) so I was drinking this stuff called Citrusin to try to open up my vocal chords.
Somehow we got through it and Gary was so patient even though my voice didn’t sound as good as it had and he just said, ‘Don’t worry it will be okay. You’ll be fine, your voice is okay.’ Gabor [Szabo] was with us and he’d actually wanted to play guitar on ‘By the Sea.’ Sadly, Skye didn’t want to pay him to play on it. But he really liked it. He liked the song and the energy of it and he was really getting into it. After the recording session, they took us out to dinner and I was too nervous to eat. Gabor was with us and I told him I was worried about my voice and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Wendy, we shall overdub!’ So cute. And Jim Keltner complimented Bonnie on her guitar work. She was really pleased. She had just started playing guitar. I think she did great. She played guitar on the beginning of ‘By the Sea.’ We went out to eat and Norman Schwartz was saying, ‘How does it feel to potentially be stars? You’re going to be driving an XKE [Jaguar]!’ and all this garbage, basically. And then he said, ‘Now what would you like to eat? The sky is the limit!’ I remember him saying that, because I was thinking Skye Records Company and the play on words. The Skye is the limit, you know!
St. Clair: And that was the end of the making of the album?
Flower: Gary was going to make sure we got on the plane okay. We were literally running through LAX and Gary said to me, ‘I’ll see you next time I’m in Frisco and we’ll work on the next album together.’ And I said, ‘Thank you!’ He said, ‘You two keep writing!’ and that was it. That was the last time I saw him. I was just absolutely devastated when we didn’t get to see him again. It really, really hit me (as it did many people).
St. Clair: How did you find out about his death?
Flower: Cal told my parents and my parents told us. I kind locked myself in the bedroom. I was shocked and I was very upset. I always felt that Gary really believed in us and supported what we were doing. I realize now that Skye was having financial troubles but, from where we were sitting at the time, I kept thinking we didn’t sell enough. [I thought] it was something we had done. Unfortunately, I internalized a lot of it. I think Bonnie did as well. But, being younger, it kind of flew off of her a little more. I was too attached to the whole thing. I’m embarrassed to tell you this but I threw away a lot of [the original records]. I was so disillusioned after the company went bankrupt. I threw them like Frisbees!
St. Clair: Were there plans for a second Wendy & Bonnie record on Skye?
Flower: We [sent them some more demos,] and they liked ‘December Sun’ and ‘The Ice Cream Man.’ Norman didn’t like anything that had conflict (for whatever reason). The sinister side of me started emerging and, as Bonnie and I were maturing, we were starting to write about different subject matters. Norman, for one, said, ‘I want you to write happy, Wendy & Bonnie. I don’t want you two writing anything too depressing. You’re too young and innocent to know about the things in life you’re starting to write about!’ I have a feeling there would have been problems down the line because I really wouldn’t have liked someone telling me what to write.
They also liked ‘Summer is Here.’ That [demo recording] disappeared, by the way. We can’t find it. My dad accidentally taped over it so we don’t have a copy of it. I found a piece of it on one of the old tapes but we’re looking for that because I really liked it. It was kind of a samba. That would have been on the second one. Even after Skye went bankrupt, I kept thinking that maybe we’d still do something with Gary because I’d loved working with him so much and only had positive feelings for him. Bonnie felt the same way. He was our mentor. I have no doubt there would have been another project somewhere down the line.
St. Clair: Outside of your own album with Gary McFarland, what are some other favorites of yours by him?
Flower: My personal favorite of his is ‘America, the Beautiful.’ I love that album. I can’t listen to it without crying. Every time I listen to it, I find something new, whether it’s the phrasing of a horn or whatever. There’s some new place the music always takes me to. It’s an adventure every time you listen to it.
St. Clair: And thanks to renewed interest in the Genesis album, you’re writing and recording music again with the album Flower Power.
Flower: We had a lot of fun with that. A lot of people donated their time. It had zero budget. We had some children from my classroom on it and some professional musicians as well who were so generous. It has a sixties feel to it. It is a family album. They like it in Japan! The new project I’m really excited about [ultimately titled ‘New’ and released in 2013] will be a lot closer to my roots, a little more classical, hopefully a little bit of a Wendy & Bonnie feel to it, a little Brazilian music… It will be for grown-ups. That’s what I’m really excited about. We’ve been working on that one for a while now. I hope to get it out next year. I’m an analogue babe so just learning about digital recording is a whole new experience! After Skye Records fell apart, I kind of got out of music and went into other art forms. But, for the last eight years, I’ve been getting back to music (which is a good thing). [Wendy Flower also made a guest appearance on the Jane Weaver album Fallen by Watchbird from 2010.]
St. Clair: Any other thoughts about Gary McFarland?
Flower: When I sit down at night and play a little piano, when I’m doing my writing, I think to myself sometimes that he’s watching. I just feel like his spirit is in my heart. I never in a million years thought that this would happen for my sister and myself, that anybody would still be listening to this music after all these years. And it’s really because of Gary, because of his timelessness.