In this interview with John Danny Madden, Background Vocal Arranger, extraordinaire, we not only learn about the career of this most talented man, but we also explore his work in detail by breaking down the tracks of a number of songs and learning the hows and whys of Vocal Arranging. You’ll laugh and gasp along with me at his marvelous work and learn to listen to music on a whole new level. Both entertaining and educational -- all at the same time!
Scattershot Symphony is presented by Watchfire Music watchfiremusic.com
The Music of Peter Link
People ask me, “Why “Symphony? You’re not a classical composer.” Well, Wikipedia defines “Symphony” as: an extended musical composition most often written by composers for orchestra – often presented in several movements.
And so, I bring you the music of a lifetime of composition – often presented in several movements. That’s the nature of these podcasts – a scattershot look at a lifetime of music …
So, strap on them headphones.
We’re 90% music with just a smattering of commentary.
So for god sakes,
Turn it up!
This week being the fifteenth episode of this podcast, I prefer to let the music do the talkin’. However, if you need to know more about me, please visit Wikipedia.com – Peter Link.
This episode is entitled
“The Magical Touch Of Vocal Arranging”
An Interview With John Danny Madden
One of the least recognized, but most important aspects of any song, especially in the Pop, Gospel, and R&B genres is the absolute art of the creation of the background vocals or sometimes even supporting choirs. It’s a craft that I can do, but it’s one that I often chose not to do for several reasons. Sometimes, sadly, it’s just lack of budget, but more often, if one works with the right people, they can bring ideas and a kind of beauty that I might never have imagined to my music. “They” are called the Vocal Arrangers.
In my lifetime in music I’ve been very fortunate to work with two of the very best in the business. Margaret Dorn and John Danny Madden. Both have added mountains of amazing creativity to my work over the years and it’s always one of my favorite parts in the creation of a song to see or hear the magic that they bring.
We’re fortunate to have with us here today, to discuss his work in depth, one of those masters of magic in John Danny Madden.
Peter Link: The warmest of welcomes.
Danny Madden: Peter, thank you so much. I am so excited about being here. That's all I can say. And you know, you are my brother from another mother, so I am really happy. Thank you so much for inviting me, Peter.
Peter Link: My pleasure. The purpose of today is to take a listen to some of those magical moments created over the years and get an insiders, listen to the hows and whys and wherefores of their creation.
Let me first ask you, Danny, how did you get into this particular field of recording? What got you started?
Danny Madden: You know, when I came to New York, I didn't know what I was going to do. I came from Oberlin conservatory, classically trained, and I came to New York and said, I have to make a living. I started as a backup singer.
I was a backup singer for Melba Moore, for Freddy Jackson, Jocelyn Brown. A friend of mine, Angela Bofill, recording artist, was signed to GRP records. She was a close friend of mine. She said, "Danny, I'm doing my first record. I want you on it." Great. So when she said that I knew I was going to sing, I said, "Great, I'll sing on it."
I also recorded my first song that I'd ever written was on that album "Angel of the Night" called "Love to Last". But then she said, "Danny, I want you to arrange the backgrounds on the album." And I said, "Really?" I said, "Oh my goodness. Okay." And because she was a friend and all the other singers were friends of ours, I got an opportunity to arrange background vocals on that album.
Well, Dave Grusin said, "Kid, you are good." So that gave me validation and that started me off.
Peter Link: Okay. You know, usually with me, the vocal arranger enters the picture when the track and orchestration has been recorded and at least a good scratch vocal has been laid down by the lead singer. Danny. Do you find that this is the way that most everyone works with you?
Danny Madden: Absolutely right Pete, thank you for bringing that up. Yes. They give me a picture or shall I say the producer gives me a picture of what their vision is and I get all of it. I feel it. And the music speaks to me. So yes, that's normally how they work.
Peter Link: I know you've done great work with some of the greats.
Can you name a few or did you just name a few?
Danny Madden: No, I will name a few as a vocal producer and a vocal background arranger specifically. I have been truly blessed. I've worked with people like Mavis Staples, Isaac Hayes, Jocelyn Brown. I've worked with Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, *NSYNC, RuPaul. And recently I just finished working with Billy Porter on a project that's coming out.
That was fantastic.
Peter Link: I also know you've dedicated a lot of your time to working with children. Tell us a little about that
Danny Madden: Children are my heart. I love working with children. Seeing the world through children's eyes is priceless. Right now I am course director for two expanded and incredible school initiatives.
One is the KIPP Infinity Middle School. The other is the Prep for Prep School. In the KIPP Infinity Middle School we do in-school and outside of school performances. The chorus performs for shelters and hospitals around the New York City area. And we've had the opportunity of performing for now six years straight at the United Nations.
The kids love it.
Peter Link: And how old are those kids?
Danny Madden: This is middle school from grade 5 up until 8
Peter Link: And do you have tryouts or do you have to just take all of them?
Danny Madden: Oh, well, you know what I do, Peter, I've never turned down any kid. I've even had some kids that really could not sing, Peter. And you know what I did, I just tell them, sing a little softer.
I put them on the end or I surround them by people that can really sing so I never turn down a kid.
Peter Link: Beautiful. Okay. So please share with us some of your creative process: start with what you do once you receive a rough mix with a scratch or a finished lead vocal. For instance, how do you decide where to put the background vocal?
Danny Madden: Well, Peter, great composers like yourself...
Peter Link: Aw, shucks.
Danny Madden: ...they put everything in their composition and what I mean by that, I really listen. The great composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Peter Link-- and I really, I really mean this, okay, Peter?-- the things that you gave me was all in the music. I am inspired. The music speaks to me and it literally tells me and shows me what I should do, where background vocals should be placed.
I think of background vocals as icing on a cake: imagine getting a good cake. And there's no icing on it; you like it, and between the layers it's good. But when you put the icing on the cake, it not only feeds you visually, but it feeds your taste buds. Well background vocals for me are like that. I want to be that icing on the cake.
Peter Link: Yeah. Well, I know that one of the principles of background vocals is don't put them on the first verse.
Danny Madden: Well, usually again, like I said, I really always want to honor the composer. The composer shows me what should be and when it comes to music or a song, I look at a song like an airplane when the airplane is on the tarmac it's rolling, the wheels, and that's the first verse. Right? And then the nose begins to dip and it begins to take flight. And then eventually it catches flight and it's soaring. I think of songs as being that kind of a journey. So I want the composer's intention to be set. So usually on the first verse, yes, I usually don't put any background vocals there because I want the melody to be etched in the minds of the listener.
Peter Link: Hmm. How many singers do you prefer to work with for a normal background group?
Danny Madden: I really like to work with just three singers covering soprano, alto, and tenor/baritone. Usually that's what I do. Three is fine for me.
Peter Link: And a fourth would come in when you are doing what kind of music?
Danny Madden: You're absolutely right.
That's a great question. When you ask that, it depends on the music. If I'm doing a classical piece, then it is four part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, bass/baritone. If I'm doing most pop stuff or gospel stuff, it is just three parts. So you're right, Peter. It depends on the musical genre.
Peter Link: Great. And is this usually your choice or are you just told what the budget is and are expected to work with that?
Danny Madden: Well, normally when a person approaches me for a vocal arrangement, I, they send me the song. And again, I want to honor the composer's vision. That's really what it's about. I talk to them and they really give me a full picture of what they have in mind. I go back and I listen to the song. I come back to the composer and say, "Okay, this is what I've heard."
And usually the composer has told me the kind of genre, they've told me everything that they'd had in mind. So I start there and then I will ask them, I also hear X, Y, and Z or 1, 2, 3. And if they're open, I do that at that time, we talk budget, but usually budget is not a problem because usually, you know, you get what you pay for.
And I'm fortunate that I don't do a project if I don't feel it and like it. I graciously bow, but I've been fortunate that way.
Peter Link: So if I were Joe Schmoe and I came to you and said, "Hey, I got these three girls who are really great. Will you work with them?"
Danny Madden: No.
Peter Link: Keep it simple.
Danny Madden: Exactly right. No, I don't. If they want a Danny Madden backup vocal arranger, then they have to go with what I work with.
But I tell them, I'm sorry that if you want me to do the project and you want me to do my best, then let me bring in my crew.
Peter Link: Okay. What makes a great background singer? What do you look for in somebody that you hire?
Danny Madden: Great question, Peter. When it comes to being a great background singer, of course, there are basics such as pitch, quickness, vibrato.
Those are basics. Okay. So I assume that the basics are covered. I don't assume that they're not, alright? But above and beyond that for Danny Madden, you have to have a great attitude because remember you are giving birth and you're adding something that a composer took the time to put together. So if you don't bring that positive energy to the project...
Peter Link: Yeah, forget it.
Danny Madden: ...I want to see a person with positive energy coming, ready to work.
Peter Link: They say that lead singers don't always make good background singers. Can you speak to that?
Danny Madden: Yes, lead singers are shaped in their own form. They're not used to using their voices like an instrument. I'm glad you brought that up. One of the things to be a good background singer for me is to be able to use your voice like an instrument.
And I want to be able to take you anywhere I want you to go. So part of the basic is mastery of vocal technique. If I want you to be breathy, I want you to be breathy. I want you to have a gospel sound, I want you to be able to do that. Lead singers have spent most of their lives doing what they do, which is not wrong, that's okay. But vocal backup singers are likened to instrumentalists.
Peter Link: And they're blenders aren't they? They have the sensitivity and the ability to blend. Whereas the lead singer wants to stick out.
Danny Madden: Yes, exactly. And a lead singer is not used to listening back to harmonies. That's another thing; a lead singer is a lead singer.
They're not singing with anyone else. Backup singers, like you said, are blending, but they're also getting used to harmony.
Peter Link: Yeah. Well, I always knew with you that they had to have good attitudes because once you get them into the booth, you'll work them to death.
I remember many three hour sessions that were five hour sessions.
Danny Madden: Well, you know what, Peter, one of the things I love with you and, and you know, you like myself, we come from an eclectic background. We like folk, we like jazz, we like gospel, we like this, this, so what I love about your compositions is that they go on a journey and they live like I live, I can, it's almost like when I'm coming to one of your sessions, Peter, it's really like, okay, what fun am I going to do to do, what am I going to get today?
Peter Link: I remember one session with, uh, uh, it was in the summer. And of course you can't have air conditioned booth, right? Because the fan makes noise. So they were in there sweating away. And I looked in the window and there was Keith Fluitt had gone down to his underwear.
Danny Madden: Exactly.
Peter Link: And Keith Fluitt is one guy who should not have been in his underwear. So who are some of your favorites? Can you talk about that?
Danny Madden: Please, I'm honored to speak about what I call my A-Team.
My A-Team singers are Audrey Wheeler Downing, Cindy Mizelle and Keith Anthony Fluitt. Oh my goodness. Peter, you know them; they, they sing any style of music. They are quick. They can do amazing things with their sound. They can sing as a group and they're all soloists in their own rights. So they're my A-Team. That's who I call.
Peter Link: Thank you, Danny. So now let's listen to some of your work. I'd love you to think back to the times of creation on a few of these and comment on that process. Share a few insights, a few stories, you know, bring us into the sessions and allow us to watch and listen. Up first, Jenny Burton, "I Stand for You" a basic call and response.
Jenny suggested this title. When her mom, a preacher in the south Bronx passed on, she wanted to honor her work. I took the title and then wrote the song that in a way, defines Jenny Burton, we're going to listen to your work, the background singers first to focus in on them. And then add the lead singer to see how that completes the song "I Stand for You".
So wouldn't you call that call and response?
Danny Madden: Yes. Oh my goodness.
Peter Link: Except our listener has not yet heard the call, right. Jenny does the call and then you do the response, right? Sometimes you have them join her and sometimes you don't. Is there a principle behind that or is it just instinct?
Danny Madden: That's instinct Peter, total instinct.
Peter Link: Uh- huh. Okay. Well, let's just listen to Ms. Burton join the work of Danny Madden and gang. Here we go.
Now, some of that was in unison. And some in harmony, right? I have a feeling you're going to answer this question the same every time. Was the decision based on principle or was that pure instinct?
Danny Madden: Pure instinct, Peter. Let me, let me say this to Peter. I get, as I told you before, the music speaks to me and gives me everything.
There's a piano in there, gospel piano, that is crazy, which I love. And it's like a train. If you can imagine a train chugging along chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-chug, and then when Jenny gets there. Oh, by goodness, Peter, the other thing is I look at backup singers, especially Jenny is one of, in my opinion, one of the world's best singers.
We are her, her, her Robin, and she is Batman. So we had to join her. That's why we had to match her attitude. That song rocks Peter.
Peter Link: Well next, it really gets rocking. We're going to now play a later section of the song where you'll hear some amazing work by Danny Madden and his team first without Jenny, then with. "I Stand for You".
Danny Madden: Woo...that is good, isn't it?
Peter Link: That is good. That's a great work, Danny. And those ladies went up and held that note.
Danny Madden: I remember when they did it in the studio, they looked at me like I was crazy, but I said, come on guys.
Peter Link: And that was in the fourth and a half hour. They were saying, you want us to do this now? Uh that's without Jenny, right?
Danny Madden: Well, they say you play Jenny. Oh my goodness.
Peter Link: Okay. Now Jenny joins.
Danny Madden: It's a wonderful song. I didn't know that it was written because of Jenny's mother, who was a minister. And in this song, the vision that I got that God gave me was Jenny was a minister and the congregation were all those parts. You know, when people are in a church, especially a black church, Peter, they witness and rejoice in different ways.
Some people clap, some people just throw their hands up. That's what the background parts were for me, the congregation. And Jenny was the minister like her mom. So I'm just saying to you that's one of my, believe me, that's one of my favorite of a lifetime of work that I've ever done. Vicky, my wife, feels the same way.
Peter Link: Yeah. I've always said that one of the most important principles of music was repetition. That's what makes a song catchy, your use of repetition there creates a pulse behind her that's so infectious.
Danny Madden: I'm going to say that it's amazing because you didn't grow up in a black church, did you?
Peter Link: You know, I was married to Jenny and so I sat next to her in church for a number of years absorbing the music of her mom's church. And so I was a witness.
Danny Madden: There you go. There you go. Peter. There you go. That's that says it all. I love that. Thank you for playing that, Peter.
Peter Link: Wow. That's fun. Okay, let's do one completely different now. In this next song sung by Julia Wade, you created a choir out of just three or four singers through multi-tracking or doubling and tripling the singers. And I was able to, with reverbs and delays, add to the magic. But what I most love about this next example is the combination of strings and voices.
It's a sound that I've sought and loved throughout my career on many songs. And this next one is certainly one of the best. Give it a listen. Danny's voices and orchestra by yours truly. "There Is a Balm in Gilead".
Beautiful work, Danny.
Danny Madden: I love that. You know, Peter, uh, again, again, I, I have to go and say you did... everything that I'm doing, I get from the music, the strings, the changes, the colors that you painted in this song that I had to react to. Here I'm reacting. I reacted to what you gave me. That's my point.
Peter Link: It's also interesting to me that especially for our listeners, Here's a guy that's just as funky as he can be in the previous song. And then he shifts in this song to his classical background and handles it with such a professional touch.
Danny Madden: But look at what you did in that song. That song is A Balm in Gilead. It is spiritual. It is pop. And along with so many other things that we've done together two people traveling from different planets and we met on the same place. That was the blessing for me, Peter, really was. I'm telling you the divine journey. That's not me. God says, Danny, I'm going to give you someone like you that understands you and that will accept you as you are, you know, every time I hear you said, Danny, what do you think of this? But it was wonderful. It really, it really is a blessing.
Peter Link: In my thinking, what we just heard was a duet between the orchestral strings and the choir. Let's make it a trio now and bring in our lead singer Julia Wade.
Danny Madden: Uh, when I first met Julia, one of the... one word describes Julia to me is love. When I met Julia, it was love emanating from her like the sun. It was that, it was that clear to me and when I listened to Julia, she's a master singer, master singer, and it's a blessing in my journey to always work with masters.
But on top of that, her love and her embrace of lyrics. The way that she phrases, she actually makes you see a song as well as feel it. So when she's singing, she's angelic and the love. And I think because she is your wife that is captured in that track, it really is Peter. It was marvelous.
Peter Link: Okay. Here's another song.
Now, where did you find that opening singer? Ladies and gentlemen, that was Danny Madden singing at the beginning.
Danny Madden: Peter, you had the, I totally forgotten about that opening. Oh my goodness.
Peter Link: This is another Julia Wade song, "The Palms": Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem when his followers honored him. This song also has some of your really beautiful work.
Listen now to just the background singers. And you'll see that there are some places where they sing and some where they don't, then we'll play it with Julia singing lead and you'll know why.
And now with Julia Wade.
Wow. This moment brings me to one of the principle reasons for this particular podcast, which is that most people, when they listen to music, they listen to the lead singer. They feel the background singers, and they listen to them, but their attention is not on that. I'm hoping that this will help people be able to separate the elements and be able to hear the beautiful work that goes on behind the scenes, so to speak. The beauty of Danny's most important work, as well as my own.
Danny Madden: Peter, I can't thank you enough for what you just said and having the spirit to do that. Background singers, at the end of the day, are support. That's what we are. And when she says "these are the palms", when she says, we say, yes, it's okay. Yeah, you can, you can do that.
We're just supporting, reiterating what Julia said. So it was such a wonderful picture. I would love for there to be a video of that, Peter, it was amazing, but everything was in this song. And I can't tell people this enough to listen to music and let it overtake you. That's what your music and everything that we've done together, does to me, Peter.
Peter Link: Great. I'm going to play now the companion piece to "The Palms": "Song of Easter". This is a piece that starts in the strings, moves to another theme and then moves back to its main theme. When the main theme is repeated, Danny adds the choir and writes a part that is basically just two notes, but oh, what those two notes bring, give it a listen.
Okay. This next is the same song. And it's the perfect example of when not to, and when to. Now in the interest of time, I'm going to play the full mix with Julia, sometimes singing by herself, and then she'll sing the same melody again, but Danny we'll add to it and what he adds to it. Well, this is another piece of Danny's brilliance.
And then lastly, on "Song of Easter", as the song develops, listen to the beautiful and fascinating things that Danny does with his answering voices. These aren't just some background parts; this right here, this kind of singing and arranging is exactly why I would hire Danny time after time, session after session. The background voices stand beautifully on their own.
Now that was a case at the very end there where you did one motif of background vocals, and then you created a completely different motif and stuck it right on top of the first one. Beautiful.
Danny Madden: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Link: Now that we've brought you our audience's attention to Danny's work, just follow the relationships between the lead vocalists and the backgrounds through these next three songs.
I'm just going to play the next songs and sit back and listen with you. I figure that in the process of doing this particular podcast, it has perhaps brought our listeners attention more to the brilliance of the background vocals. So everybody let's listen with slightly different ears to the wondrous work of John Danny Madden.
I believe that this first example is a masterpiece of vocal arranging.
Here's one, just for the fun of it. Imagine it without Danny's work. Yikes. I'd be all alone. Yours, truly "Boogie Man".
Finally one for the ages. Notice we bring a previous song into the middle of this time-honored classic with yet a completely different Madden vocal arrangement. Julia Wade, "Joy to the World".
And alas we've come to the end. Danny, anything else you might want to add?
Danny Madden: Yes. I want to say that as a background, arranger, the blessing for me, and I don't mean to make you uncomfortable, Peter, but it's giving me the freedom to do what I do. It's having belief in me to say here's a person that I believe in.
And seeing my vision come to fruition. I like to give more than give less because I think it's easier to pull back than to create on the spot. So I will always give a hundred percent. I want to say that music is fun and music is alive. I love the fact that Peter, the music that you've created, for me, is alive.
And so I'm living it as I do it. And more than anything, it's fun. I know that when I'm working Peter with you, and I see you laugh and I see a smile on your face that says I'm doing my job. That's the blessing that you let me be me. And I say to everyone have fun. This is not math. This is not science.
Have fun with me.
Peter Link: Well, it was real easy for me to let you be you because your work as we have seen today is just terrific.
Danny Madden: Well, I thank you, buddy. This is, this has been a wonderful, a wonderful afternoon for me.
Peter Link: Me too, Danny. Thank you.
Danny Madden: Thank you. Because I love you, man. You know that.
Peter Link: So there you have it.
Scattershot Symphony episode 15. Next, episode 16: no lyrics, no singer, just music, an exploration of instrumentals from many genres over the years, film scores, motivational scores, Tony Award Broadway scores, personal musings, and a raft of other musical delights. Come sail with us. Also, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts.
A grateful nod goes to the following Madden A-Teamers who sang on the songs that you just listened to: LaJuan Carter-Dent, Keith Anthony Fluitt, La Tanya Hall, John James, Audrey Wheeler-Downing, Cindy Mizelle, and Nicki Richards -- All the best of the best! Eternal Thank yous to all!
A very special thanks also to Stuart Barefoot, our Associate Producer for all your invaluable knowledge and good vibes.
And a posthumous thanks to Ludwig Van Beethoven for your opening 4 bars.