June 15, 2013

On one of Bergen White’s first Music Row recording sessions as an arranger, he had been warned that the gathering of top A-team musicians might give him a hard time. “Don’t let these guys spook you,” he was told by friends Wayne Moss and Norbert Putnam, both veteran studio musicians. “They’re going to mess with you. Whatever happens, just pay no attention to it.”

Indeed, as the players started into the song, bassist Bob Moore played in the wrong key. The other musicians didn’t say a word; they just performed their parts as if nothing was wrong. “Nobody even cracked a smile,” White recalled. “I didn’t even look at him. I just thought, ‘This is what they were talking about.’”

White finished the session, which was produced by Chet Atkins, and apparently he passed his test. Still active today-White had sessions coming up with Garth Brooks and Ronnie Milsap-he has been a go-to arranger in Nashville for those needing a special touch for adding strings, horns, or harmony vocals to a recording. His list of credits covers a good portion of those who have recorded in Nashville in the last forty years.

White spoke about his career during an installment of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly series Nashville Cats, which pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in country music. In a multi-media program and interview in the museum’s Ford Theater, White spoke about the highlights and challenges of his career, often peppering the discussion with his dry humor. As program host Bill Lloyd said, “If you have needed a special string or horn arrangement while recording in Nashville, chances are good that Bergen White got the call.”

White was born in Miami, Oklahoma, in 1939. The son of a Baptist music minister, he and his family moved frequently, landing in Nashville when White was fourteen years old. As a teenager, singing in church choirs led by his father, White learned harmony and the rudiments of arranging vocals. “I don’t even remember learning to read music,” White said. “It just happened.”

In Nashville, White became friends with classmate Bobby Russell, who had musical aspirations. “Bobby is responsible for getting me in the music business,” White said. The future arranger was teaching high school in nearby Fairview, Tennessee, when Russell recruited him to sing harmony on a session of “sound-alike” records, which copied the big hits of the day and issued them at a discount price.

White’s first record was singing harmony on a cover of a Beatles hit. He went on to record many sound-alikes, getting an education about the recording process along the way. His initial experience as a studio arranger was creating string charts for a remake of “Yesterday.”

In the mid-1960s, White found early success as a songwriter, co-writing a couple of songs cut by California pop duo Jan & Dean. Around the same time, he recorded and toured as a member of the rock band Ronny & the Daytonas, known for the hits “G.T.O.” and “Sandy.” White also recorded frequently as a harmony singer, including working with the Marijohn Singers, led by Marijohn Wilkin. White began doing vocal arrangements for the group’s sessions.

White put out a couple of singles under his name on Monument Records, then recorded 1969’s For Women Only, an album of lush, romantic pop for record executive Shelby Singleton’s label SSS International. A cult favorite, the album was reissued in 2004 on CD and vinyl by England’s Rev-Ola Records. White also recorded several singles for England’s Private Stock Records, starting in 1975, and a Christmas album released under the name The Bergen White Christmas Singers.

But his primary focus has been studio work for others. His range of clients includes soul singer Joe Simon, gospel acts Shirley Caesar, Amy Grant, and Mighty Clouds of Joy, songwriters Jimmy Buffett and Townes Van Zandt, pop acts England Dan & John Ford Coley and Bobby Vinton, and swamp rocker Tony Joe White. Bergen White also worked regularly with Elvis Presley, George Jones, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Lee Greenwood, Tim McGraw, and countless other country singers. “I can’t remember all of them,” White said.

White noted that some producers asked him to create his own arrangements, while others gave more specific instructions. “Billy Sherrill always knew exactly what he wanted,” White said. “He’d meet with you and say, ‘I don’t want anything here. Put strings right here, then get out here, and come back in here.’ He knew exactly what he wanted and where he wanted it.”

All the while, White worked regularly as a harmony singer and provided vocals and arrangements for advertising jingles. He and David Briggs served as musical directors for the CMA Awards for many years, too.

The memorable career moments he recounted included doing string arrangements for Garth Brooks’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which opened the 1993 Super Bowl. Brooks brought White to Los Angeles for the big game, saying that he expected crowd noise to make it difficult to hear his opening cue. He asked White to stand on a platform near the fifty-yard line by the Dallas Cowboys bench, so that White could prompt Brooks on when to start the song.

As Brooks and actress Marlee Matlin (who translated the lyrics into sign language) rose onto the field from within a huge American flag, the famous singer looked toward the end zone instead of toward White. “I panicked,” the arranger said. “I’m over here! Where are you looking? I thought maybe I should run toward the end zone, but I was on a platform. I got so upset, I lost my place. I was just sick. Finally, he looked over and started singing. He knew where he was all along.”

Afterward, as White relaxed on Brooks’s tour bus, the singer walked in, looked over at White and smiled. “Gotcha,” he said.

A large contingent of former Nashville Cats honorees attended the event, as did many other musicians and producers. Among those in the crowd were Country Music Hall of Fame members Charlie McCoy and Pig Robbins; former Nashville Cats honorees David Briggs, Jerry Kennedy, Millie Kirkham, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, Norbert Putnam, Ray Stevens, Chip Young, and Reggie Young; producers Fred Foster and Allen Reynolds; Grand Ole Opry musical director Steve Gibson; the family of the late Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires; and longtime publishing executive Bob Beckham.

-Michael McCall