"IT'S NOT a human sound!” exclaimed the American soprano Eileen Farrell when she heard The Singers Unlimited, four voices who overdubbed themselves into a choir of near-heavenly dimensions. Between 1971 and 1980, its members – arranger Gene Puerling and the jingle-singing wunderkinds Bonnie Herman, Len Dresslar, and Don Shelton – met once or twice a year at the MPS recording studio in the Black Forest of southwest Germany. There they created easy-listening LPs of the most sophisticated order. Puerling, who masterminded an incomparable quartet of the ‘50s, the Hi-Lo’s, is often called a genius of vocal arranging. With The Singers Unlimited, as with the Hi-Lo’s, he wrote for singers who could meet him at the outer edge of his imagination.

Now, however, they had the latest breakthroughs in studio technology – and the masterful engineer who owned MPS, Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer – to take them even farther. Their lines, sung with an uncanny accuracy, were multitracked into an intricate wall of sound, full of shifting harmonies, modulations, and unearthly overtones. The finished product had a sense of unreality; naturally the group could never perform live. But somehow the lyrics of their superbly chosen repertoire emerged with clarity and feeling. Studio wizardry was placed at the feet of vocal perfectionism – not used at it so often is today, to rescue unworthy pop singers from their own ineptitude. Today, TSU’s fifteen albums are regarded as a Bible of group singing.

Their first,
In Tune, teamed them with the trio of MPS artist Oscar Peterson, who launched TSU as recording artists by bringing a demo of theirs to Brunner-Schwer. With his dizzying virtuosity, Peterson wouldn’t seem like an ideal accompanist for singers, even though he recorded with Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. But as Puerling says: “I think he was smart enough to know not to go crazy when we were going crazy.” He adds with a smile: “I don’t think we got too much in his way.” In fact, this album features some of the gentlest, most understated playing of Peterson’s career.

The group’s members were ready for anything. Working in the commercial jingle and studio-singing business, they had made barrels of money through their ability to sight-read brilliantly and to master parts fast, with every word and tone crystal-clear. Herman, Dresslar, and Shelton spent much of the 1960s and ‘70s running from session to session in Chicago, where they lived. But in the mid-‘60s, Puerling wasn’t as busy. The Hi-Lo’s had broken up, and Shelton, one of its singers, had joined a new group, the J’s with Jamie.

Puerling was looking for jingle work, and the door to it opened in 1967. Don Shelton phoned him at his home near San Francisco to say that the J’s with Jamie had dissolved, and that it might be a good time to form another group. Puerling flew to Chicago to brainstorm with Shelton and another member of the J’s with Jamie, Len Dresslar. They brought in Bonnie Herman – who in her early twenties was virtually the queen of the Chicago jingle business – to try an experiment. Puerling spent about thirty hours writing a painstaking arrangement, in the future TSU style, of the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill.” He and the other singers recorded it as a demo to solicit jingle work. “You really intuitively know if it’s gonna work or not,” says Puerling of that first union of the Singers Unlimited. “With the Hi-Lo’s, the first time we sang together we said, ‘This is gonna be good!’ The same thing happened here.” For the next few years, the group’s bright, breezy sound was heard on numerous commercials and radio-station IDs.

Around 1970, Puerling’s friend Audrey Morris, one of Chicago’s most beloved singer-pianists, sent a tape of “The Fool on the Hill” to Oscar Peterson, her longtime pal. Peterson played it for his producer-engineer, Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. “We both cried, it was so incredibly beautiful!” said Brunner-Schwer shortly before his death in 2004. “’This is unreal,’ I said to Oscar. ‘I just have to have this group!’” He signed them almost immediately to make an album with Peterson and his first-rate sidemen, bassist George Mraz and drummer Louis Hayes.

The Singers Unlimited would probably never have blossomed as they did without Brunner-Schwer, one of the most ingenious engineers in Europe. A pioneer developer of audiophile stereo equipment, he went on to found MPS in 1969. Brunner-Schwer built the studio next to his mansion in Villingen, inside the Black Forest. He recorded pianists such as Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, George Shearing, and Peterson, all of whom marveled at the warm, clear sound he captured through his expertise about microphones, studio acoustics, and mixing. Now, with the Singers Unlimited, he could sink his teeth into the challenge of multitrack recording, which had never before been approached at this level.

Preparation time for
In Tune was uncomfortably brief. Puerling only had a couple of days to work with Peterson at the piano before the sessions. “He was a very nice man and he loved us, and really enjoyed doing this,” says the arranger. “He brought us many of the songs he wanted to do, and we did all those. Then he said, ‘Do something that you want to do.’ I picked out some more standard stuff.”

After he wrote his charts everyone met in Villingen, and the recording began. Peterson’s trio laid down their part to a “guide” vocal by Bonnie Herman. Then came the challenge of building a vocal orchestra on top of it. Using a 16-track deck that MPS had bought for the occasion, the group layered on chords, melody lines, solos. Often they were sung in four- or eight-bar pieces that required something like magic to assemble. With reverb and equalization, TSU ended up sounding as resonant as a church choir.

“Usually, when you listened to the first stage, just the four voices without any overdubbing, it didn’t sound like much,” said Brunner-Schwer. “But by the second transfer something happened, and by the third it got even stronger. This process was almost addictive because it seemed the more you added, the more you polished, the better the results got.”

The combination of TSU and Peterson held its own wonder. To the group’s bright, squeaky-clean jingle sound, the pianist added a lot of spice. On the theme song of TV’s
Sesame Street, his right-hand offered a tough, swinging counterpart to Herman’s confectionary first chorus. Children’s Game (a Jobim waltz originally titled “Chovendo na Roseira,” or “Raining on the Rosebush”) found him playing an airy single-note line just as did Jobim did on his own recordings. The wordless vocal is an embroidery of Peterson’s ideas. In another Brazilian song, Luiz Bonfá’s The Gentle Rain, Peterson’s notes sound like raindrops falling from the group’s cloudlike harmonies.

Puerling’s arrangement of
It Never Entered My Mind, one of the saddest Rodgers & Hart torch songs, is a stunning piece of architecture, delivered emotionally. Peterson solos with and without the delicate aid of Mraz and Hayes; the group offers part of the lyric a capella, then adds wordless chords to Peterson’s lines. Bonnie Herman provides one of her most expressive solos. The group’s closing chord has the richness of a pipe organ. “I like that track very much,” allows Puerling. “It was really lovely.”

The band and TSU treat
A Child Is Born, a hymnlike Thad Jones original, with utmost tenderness. A lyric exists, but the singers don’t need it to tell the story. Herman sings a dewy-voiced, childlike solo in Once Upon a Summertime, a Michel Legrand ballad known as “La Valse des Lilas” (The Waltz of the Lilacs) until Johnny Mercer wrote an English lyric in 1958. The Shadow of Your Smile, says Puerling, “was the only exclusively four-part thing that we did. Oscar Peterson played a lovely background.” His billowy solo on Here’s That Rainy Day shows the full measure of his eloquence, while the singers sound as ethereal as angels.

It was a grueling process to make such fiendishly complex ideas seem effortless. By the end of each day in the studio, the singers were exhausted. But Puerling, whose writing tested everyone’s endurance, is known for keeping his cool. “It was a pleasure,” he says now of
In Tune. “I think it turned out pretty well.”