Bell's Sweet Singers
Take 60 lovely girls. Snarl at them, drill them mercilessly. You’ll have a queen of choirs—if you’re Les Bell
TWO NIGHTS a week, 40 weeks a year, 60 charming and lively young ladies voluntarily gather in the Ontario College of Education on Toronto’s Bloor Street to be insulted.
Each girl has already put in a hard day’s work as schoolteacher, secretary, clerk, physiotherapist, university student, or any of a dozen other callings. Each has grabbed a hasty supper in order to make the 7.30 rendezvous on time, under threat of penalty. Now, packed two to a school desk in a stuffy classroom, they hush their chatter and submit their 60 varied wills to the acid reproaches of a merciless, musical Svengali.
At the front of the classroom, Dr. Leslie Bell sounds a pitch pipe, pauses for a moment of electric silence, then slices the air with a flashing gesture at which 60 voices burst into song. It may be a rollicking romp through the “Oklahoma” music, it may be a Bach chorale or a Quebec chanson. Whatever the mood the conductor’s attack is expressive, explosive, uncompromising.
With violent chopping and slicing motions he calls for fortissimo; pursing his fingertips together he draws out the long notes; patting the air gently he holds the music down low and soft. He uses no baton. “Never mind your music,” he shouts, “—follow my hands!” Watching those hands, it is almost possible to see the music.
A complete set of facial expressions goes with
each signal—he pouts, he scowls, he winces, until suddenly it all becomes too much for him and he beats the air for silence. Deliberately he removes his coat, rolls up his sleeves, turns graciously to his choir.
“You have the weakness of all female choirs— you cannot hit a note on the nose. It’s horrible to hear you,” he declares.
He turns on a trio: “You’re angels up in heaven —not hog callers! Go out into the hall and sing and close the door so we won’t have to hear you too plainly.”
Or if he is overcome with pleasure he may announce heartily, “Well, that’s fine. I’m sure it won’t take more than a few years for you to do it perfectly.”
Resigned to such abuse, even stimulated by it, the choristers take a fresh breath and start all over again, and come back twice next week for more. For these are the Bell Singers, not yet widely known beyond central Canada, but in their eighth year of organization already rated the best all-girl choir in the country. When, some 20 times a year, they raise their voices in public, spotlighted in pastel beauty, or bobbing prettily in hoop skirts, they never fail to fill a house or win enthusiastic acclaim.
They turn down 13 engagements for every one they accept. Their annual concerts at Eaton Auditorium are sold out two days after tickets go on sale. Their frequent guest spots with the Toronto Symphony and Prom Concert orchestras have won them an aura of culture which even occasional fulsome renditions of “The Fireman’s Bride” cannot dispel. On the air they first drew rave notices for their Victory Loan shows which have been followed by appearances of from five to 20 of their group on the Jolly Miller Show, Stage 47, and Canadian Cavalcade. They will soon be seen and heard in a National Film Board picture. Recording companies, too, have shown an interest.
High spot in their success story so far came last November with a northern Ontario concert tour, during which their reception was little short of Sinatra-sized. At Port Continued on page 26
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Bell's Sweet Singers
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Arthur their dynamic conductor wras mobbedby autograph-hunting highschool kids and had to be rescued by his choir, wrho gallantly formed a flying wedge. When a small boy reverently picked up a butt Bell had dropped, the master turned to his Singers with a delicate smile.
“Would any of you care to breathe in my smoke?” he asked gently.
The Beautiful Baritones
As may be gathered from the enthusiastic reception they inspire, the Bell Singers are something of a musical phenomenon. Dr. Bell’s arrangements, already in demand by choirs on at least three continents, are part of the secret. Their other unique advantage is that the girls sing not in threeor four-part harmony but in six or eight, which any whistler knows is impossible without bringing in another sex. This makes the choir something like a cross between Phil Spitalny’s all-girl choral group and the Don Cossacks. Some people say that the Leslie Bell Singers are better than either.
The Bell Singers are often compared to the all-male Don Cossacks, who also have achieved multipart harmony. The Russians feature male sopranos in most of their arrangements; the Singers have about eight female baritones, treak voices Dr. Bell has trained to give his arrangements the effect of a mixed choir. This never fails to stump experts in the audience who search each of the 60 faces suspiciously, looking for “ringers” from the YMCA.
To develop what he calls low contraltos, Dr. Bell says, is purely a matter of coaxing. “When I find a girl with a deep voice I give her a note. She says that’s far too low, she can’t possibly sing it. I insist, so she sings it.
I A bit later 1 give her another note and ' we repeat the process until we reach A flat or thereabouts.”
It takes an unusually perceptive ear to single out the beauteous baritones. What the general public has ccme to dote on are the good-looking girls and t he breath-stopping arrangements, and that’s where (he Leslie Bell Singers have it over the Spitalny group like one of Omar’s tents.
If sitting out front when the Bell Singers perform offers a treat for both ear and eye, being on the other side of the footlights demands high sacrifice of time and effort. The lure that has captured the loyalty of these 60 talented singers isn't merely public
acclaim. And it certainly isn’t money; the most highly paid vocalist drew less than $100 as her share of last season’s take.
There is only one reason for the extraordinary appeal of the organization and that is Leslie Bell, a mild, deserving man who turned to music in his teens when a leg injury kept him in bed for four years. Dr. Bell dispenses a free course in singing and music appreciation which few high-fee schools can approach. A.T.C.M.’s and bookkeepers alike tackle Bach, Debussy and Hoagy Carmichael in equal doses and revere each. Unfettered by breathing exercises, monotonous scales or nosmoking rules—radical notions few choirmasters share—the singers find practice time most painless. Dr. Bell likes to work with amateur singers, thinks they make the best musicians because they haven’t had the mechanics of singing drilled into them the way professionals have.
Of far more interest to musicians than the classy chassis Dr. Bell arranges neatly on stage are the arrangements he hands them to sing. Thousands of choral singers in the States, England and Australia who have never heard of the Singers are thoroughly familiar with the credit line, “Arrangement by Leslie Bell.”
Arrangements to Fit
Leslie Bell, the arranger, came into being on the heels of Leslie Bell the choral director, chiefly because he couldn’t find the kind of music he wanted for his all-girl choir. Composers and arrangers of traditional music preferred resounding choirs of mixed voices, and Dr. Bell had to score his own, tailored to the voices at his disposal. As a result, he is now the country’s finest arranger of choral music. It is said in the trade that he could triple his present earnings if he chose to depart the College of Education and the University of Toronto for the crude commercial world of freelance arranging. But Bell doesn’t want to leave; he has too much fun in his present job. Music publishers reportedly are eager to cross his palm with silver. Canadian Music Sales Corporation already has had some success in this venture, and its president, William Lowe, considers Leslie Bell one of his prime trophies.
“1 don’t know of any in this country and there are few in the world who have more musical ability than Les Bell,” says Mr. Lowe warmly. “We receive requests for his arrangements from all over the world. For instance a
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Tyrolean Christmas carol he rejuven-
ated, called ‘Falan Tiding,’ has been
released in three countries and his
collection of Christmas carols for
children sells 20,000 to 25,000 copies a
“Leslie Bell has one unusual feature, for a musician,” comments Bill Lowe dryly. “He doesn’t think he’s the Almighty. You’ve no idea what a wonderful attribute that is.”
Bell names as his favorite arrangement his Quebec, Somerset and Vermont suite of folk songs for treble voices. Other musicians rate it highly and follow it with themes from Stephen Foster, “Oklahoma” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” This last is the arrangement Bell says he worked hardest on—it took him a whole week end.
Les Bell himself appears to be the only critic his Singers have failed to convince. While it is only during rehearsals that he is to be seen holding his nose with one hand and directing with the other, even on stage during a concert his facial expressions register horror and pain, and it is a great loss to mankind that audiences view only his writhing back. Dr. Bell is the Barrymore as well as the Svengali of the choir conductors. His mugging is quite deliberate; his facial gymnastics arc meant to guide and inspire the choir.
Off stage Les Bell has a lazy, easygoing manner which is pure fraud, since lie is neither. He carries on two fulltime jobs simultaneously—his teaching and directing the Bell Singers—plus hours-long stretches of composing and of writing textbooks on music. His choir knows him as a relentless perfectionist willing to scrap an arrangement and write another rather than have them sing it one degree under his standard.
He shifts endlessly in his chair as he ! talks, favoring his game leg, and rapidly fills every ash tray within reach with butts. He Bilks through his teeth, scarcely moving his jaw, in a j low level voice, and the subject he finds ¡ least interesting is Les Bell. His i favorite topic is the dearth of music ! lovers in this country; his solution is to expose our young to good music from birth and let it seep in.
“He’s a ruddy idealist,” growls one j of his musical friends. “He thinks his j work teaching music teachers at the j college and the choir is going to help music in Canada. I guess he’s right at that.”
The history of Dr. Bell’s Singers is ; t hat of a hobby which got slightly out j of hand. It began when Leslie Bell became English and history teacher at Toronto’s Parkdale Collegiate hr 1934. Bell was asked to introduce music to Parkdale. *
This completed a circle. While a student at Parkdale Bell had practiced hard and become a professional clarinetist and saxophonist. He graduated, expecting to make his living as a musician. Then the talkies came, and theatre orchestras were dismissed in dozens. Les could see no future in being a bandsman, so he went to University of Toronto and emerged with an M.A. in English. He kicked his saxophone under the bed and went hunting for a teaching job
Now he was back at Parkdale—and music.
With his typical inability to do anything on a small scale, Beli whipped up a 60-piece symphony orchestra. A choir was needed for a school play so Bell produced two, a senior and a junior, neither of which ever placed below first at subsequent school musical festivals.
Ellis McLintock, a school symphony member who now haaf a dance bami of,*
his own, remembers his conductor as a rather versatile musician.
“One night we were having our annual school concert,” he relates, “and Dr. Bell was bouncing around as usual leading the orchestra, conducting the junior and senior choirs and directing the dramatic presentation. Then the audience settled down to see the ‘Evolution of Jazz’ as done by the school’s swing band. The curtain parted and there was Les Bell leading the swing band.”
“I did everything at tnat school but wash the windows,” recalls Bell. “I even married one of the students.”
It’s a Vocal Orchestra
in 1939 Bell left Parkdale—and English—to become music professor at the Ontario College of Education. He soon found himself pining for the choir. Then he heard that in the States it is common practice for students to form alumni choirs on leaving school, so he rounded up about a dozen Parkdale girl graduates and started what he called the Alumni Choir. His choir became a demonstrating body for his classes and gradually gathered a reputation as an inexpensive item for perking up school concerts and garden parties.
“We discovered we had an unprintable name,” explains Bell. “Printers usually called us the ‘Aluminum Choir’ on programs so I asked the girls to pick a new name. They came up with Leslie Bell Singers and it stuck.”
Bell, the saxophonist turned choral director, got instrumental effects out of his choir, and this is part of the secrët of his successful arrangements. He thought in terms of a “flute soprano” and a “cello contralto.” Some of his arrangements dispense with words
entirely: the choir uses only vowel sounds and humming. This is known in the business as “vocalize.”
Dr. Bell & Co. early discovered that one big barrier stood between them and any hopes of great financial reward— the size of their organization. Mainly because the girls are individually occupied from nine to five with earning a living, Bell can accept only about 20 engagements a year for his choir. For these he names his own price, which goes up to four figures a concert, but the hitch—the thing that keeps them poor—lies in what the Army would call logistics.
It is obvious that 60 larynxes completely surrounded by hale and hungry womanhood are considerably more costly and cumbersome to transport from concert to concert than even 60 bass viols. In fact, with tears in his eyes, Dr. Bell has turned down no less than three offers to make concert tours in the States. Apart, from the girls being otherwise occupied, it is extremely unlikely the choir could do better than break even financially. Dr. Bell is in the nightmarish position of a master musician who has perfected a unique and wonderful instrument which he can’t get through the door of his workshop. It is small wonder he is losing his hair.
Marconi’s little gadget would seem to be the solution to Dr. Bell’s problem and this happy thought often strikes loitering radio sponsors quite forcefully. But here again, cost has raised its ugly head and sent the small boys scattering. Even at the union minimum of $15 per girl per show the full choir alone would nick the Postum-Wostum man $900. Thus even those commercial shows which so far have hired the Bell Singers for one-spot appearances have never signed on more than a third of
the group. But the choir’s fame is spreading, and Bell has hopes of sponsorship for the whole group.
The choir’s longest trip from home, the tour of northern Ontario last fall, was part of a plan of the Ontario Department of Education to bring good music to out-of-the-way towns and encouragement to young artists. The Department was sponsoring a concert series by relatively unknown young performers and used the spreading fame of the Bell Singers as a drawing card in the sale of series tickets. The choir made a triumphal tour of the North, giving concerts at Barrie, North Bay, Sudbury, Kirkland Lake and Port Arthur.
Thirty-two of the girls wangled a week’s leave of absence from their jobs and travelled in a chartered Pullman, two to a lower and one to an upper. Lacking only a 100-piece orchestra in the background to complete the resemblance to a Hollywood musical, they harmonized with the porter on Negro spirituals one night, 32 heads in curlers stuck through the green curtains.
Picked for Looks, Too
Dr. Bell’s Singers are all fresh-faced, cologne-scented lovelies—“and not a tramp among them,” he comments with pride—mainly because he uses his discerning male eye as well as his discerning musical ear in selecting them, though even a plain girl has a chance of passing an audition if her voice is exceptional.
Their leader claims he has little trouble keeping down the feline tendencies in the choir. He has noticed now that he is getting older (he has just turned 41) the girls have more of a tendency to confide in him and he dispenses advice when all attempts to be noncommittal fail. One thing he won’t offer advice on is boy-friend trouble.
Once a year the girls hold a meeting to elect three directors—a personnel director to take care of the point system on which the kitty is divided, a social director to keep track of such things as deaths and marriages (three of the former and over 80 of the latter) and a librarian to take charge of some 4,000 sheets of music. This last, along with other of Dr. Bell’s assistants, draws a fee from the choir treasury.
The point system is the only sign of a big black whip to be found in the choir. Les Bell awards five points for a concert and two. points for attending practice, holding that practices are vital. One point is docked for being late, another for leaving early (without a righteous excuse) and two points for missing the practice entirely. The surplus profits, as they are laughingly called, are split according to score. Peggy Earle, a contralto who has not been late or absent in three years, was the high scorer last year. Her take was 100 times that of the lowest scorer, who didn’t get enough out of the kitty to buy a box of chocolates.
And Then They Get Ma ried
The girls range in age from 17 to 25 years and Dr. Bell’s pet horror, the middle-aged wavering soprano, has no chance of ever materializing as the years roll on The marriage rate is so high that the Bell Singers are rarely the same choir from month to month. Five girls were leaving choir for kitchen at the time of writing and new rings were flashing at almost every practice. There are married women in the choir, but most brides can’t spare the time for practice.
The nuptial casualty rate was a constant threat to the choir for years during which frantic auditions were held every fall to fill the June-time
gap« in the ranks. But now Dr. Bell auditions all year round and successful candidates are made associate members of the choir. Some 20 associates attend practices, anxiously scanning left hands of regular choir members in search of new rings. At the first sound of wedding bells offstage a replacement is prepared to leap into the breach, sounding her A.
The choir’s conductor was exceptionally pleased with his solution until he discovered that he now has a waiting list of nearly 200 names waiting to get
on his waiting list. The whole thing is beginning to confuse him, particularly as he sees himself caught between two fires—the cumbersome size of his present organization and the disastrous threat Cupid would offer a smaller, full-time
“That’s why all-girl choirs are a headache,” sighs Dr. Bell. “A small choir, one that could go on tour without coming to financial ruin, only lasts a few seasons before half the girls go off and get married. That’s why choir conductors hate Lohengrin.” if