Record Collector Magazine
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. HAS A HIDDEN TALENT, AS A NEW ALBUM REVEALS,
PAT GILBERT SPEAKS TO THE SCOTTISH ACTOR
Oscar Wilde once complained that he'd put all his genius into his life, but only his talent into his work. Evidently, things have got a lot easier over the last 90 years, since actor David McCallum has become an international star without putting even all his talent into his day job. One of his greatest skills has been virtually unused: conducting and arranging orchestral music. That's right -- the 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' star might not exude the eccentric energy of Andre Previn, or the bare charisma of Leonard Bernstein, but he's nonetheless a demon with a baton.
Since leaving RADA in the early 1950's, McCallum's busy schedule as a TV, film and stage actor hasn't left him much time to indulge his passion for conducting. True, his two talents converged when he was required to lead an orchestra in the 1989 TV serial, 'Mother Love,' but the only other occasion he has been paid to wave the conductor's magic wand was in 1966, while he was filming the cult TV series 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'. At the time, the movie giant MGM was keen for the diminutive Scot to cross over into the pop market, so they approached Capitol with an idea for an album of orchestral songs. The result was, in fact, two albums, both of which appeared in 1966 and featured orchestral arrangements of contemporary pop hits like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", "Michelle" and "1-2-3," with a few originals thrown in for good measure.
So far so normal, in a big-business Hollywood kind of way. The albums failed to make any impact, and McCallum went back to acting, happy that his lessons at the Royal Academy of Music hadn't been wasted. Although he's scored a minor U.K. hit with a song called "Communication" before the albums came out (it reached No. 32 in 1966), it was clear that his days of moonlighting as a pop artist were over.
Or so it seemed until last year, when Joe Foster, the head of Creation's reissue imprint, Rev-Ola, heard these long-lost recordings, and was bowled over by their sheer joi de vivre. (Remember, this is the man who one issued a CD of Robert Mitchum singing calypso songs.) In a climate when Easy Listening was infiltrating the club scene with all the insidious stealth of an agent from U.N.C.L.E.'s chief adversaries, THRUSH, it seemed as if McCallum's demonic arrangement of "The Batman Theme" and his sublime, summery score for "Up Tight (Everything Is Alright)" were ripe for resuscitation. After all, this was jus the kind of stuff to mellow the mood of a club or to play at home while watching 'Bravo' with the sound off.
Adding tracks from the "Communication" single and its follow-up "In The Garden, Under The Tree", Foster has now compiled the albums into one big easy listening extravaganza, "Open Channel D", which is out later this month.
Spotting an excuse to chat to one of the most respected actors of his generation, RC tracked McCallum down to his New York home, where he now lives with his second wife, Katherine. Speaking on the phone, he was puzzled that someone would want to put out the material from "Music...A Part Of Me" and "Music...A Bit More of Me", but only to happy to flesh out the story behind the recording sessions. He was also happy to answer questions abut his violinist father, the one-time leader of the Scottish Orchestra who was hired together with 39 other seasoned classical musicians to play on the Beatles seminal "Sgt. Pepper" track, "A Day In The Life." Here's the interview more or less in full:
RECORD COLLECTOR: So, David, how did the two Capitol singles come about?
DAVID MCCALLUM: Well, "Communication" was just a 50's type novelty record, with me talking over the music. The follow-up was "In The Garden, Under The Tree", which came from a film called 'Three Bites Of The Apple.' It was meant to be a comedy with a lot of funny things in it, but the studio took it upon themselves to recut it and make it into a romantic picture.
RC: What about the albums?
DM: MGM came to me and said, with the success of 'U.N.C.L.E.', you ought to sing a whole album of songs. I said, I'm an actor, not a singer. They said, well, just read the telephone book or something and we'll put music to it. I found that somewhat reprehensible, and suggested that I could do some orchestral arrangements of contemporary pop songs, using woodwind with four French horns as a back up, and rhythm. The idea was to do it with straight orchestral instruments and no guitar or amplification. They gave the idea to David Axelrod at Capitol, who passed it onto H.P. Barnum, the arranger there, who was involved in Motown and rock. When I arrived at the studio they had the finest musicians sitting there, and you can see it was going to be full rock.
RC: Did that worry you?
DM: No, it was great fun doing it. My father was touring America with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the time, and he came along to a couple of those sessions. The whole period was very exciting.
RC: Were you pop fan?
DM: Yeah, totally. I'm still listening to those songs now. That early '60's music is unique and very expressive of the emergence of the whole rock thing that followed. The toughest thing was the selection of the music.
RC: Was it recorded quickly?
DM: I went to Barnum's house and we just chatted. He wrote out he charts and he'd take me through it once, just to check it was OK. Then I got up there and did it. I've got a picture of myself on the wall conducting the orchestra with a white shirt and thin black tie on -- which means I'd come straight from the set of 'U.N.C.L.E.', as they were Illya Kuryakin's clothes.
RC: The character of Illya Kuryakin made you famous all over the world --
did you identify with him?
DM: Yes. What you have to understand is that Kuryakin was me. Our two characters are one and the same. There is no distinction. The only difference is that I go around using my brains, and he went about using the words on the script. But we shared the same body, the same face, the same hair. But you're not thinking like Illya when you're conducting an orchestra.
RC: Your father played on "Sgt. Pepper", didn't he?
DM: Yes, I know he worked with the Beatles. There's one famous guitar player who uses a bow...
RC: Jimmy Page?
DM: Yes, it was my father who suggested to him to do it (what about Creation's Eddie Phillips?-ed.). Whenever Jimmy Page is around, he always talks about my father.
RC: After the Beatles insisted the "Pepper" orchestra should
wear evening dress for the session, your father reportedly turned up wearing a
clown's red nose...
DM: Yeah, he was a great comedian. Do you remember the Billy Cotton Band Show? They'd wear top hats and fool around. He was one of those guys.
RC: You obviously enjoyed that period.
DM: I've enjoyed my whole life. If you're talking nostalgia, then the early 60s was the time. That was when I met my wife and we've been married 30 years. She was a fashion model. We didn't do much hanging out, though. I got up at five o'clock in the morning. I remember getting up before the sun, driving to the studio as the sun came up, driving home when it was going down or at night. Weekends were spent relaxing with my family.
RC: Do you feel lucky that you've become, as Illya, a 60s icon?
DM: I wouldn't say lucky. I find that all rather ridiculous. But it's nice to be remembered affectionately. If people feel that way, I'll gladly accept their idolatry.