Friday, May 14, 2021

Harum Scarum: The Ralph Strobel (Oboe) Interview

Interview with Ralph Strobel who played the oboe on the Harum Scarum soundtrack.

As my ten-year-old daughter is playing the flute (I played the clarinet for some 20 years and my brother the oboe), I started thinking about Elvis music with woodwind instruments in it. The flute led me to the recording sessions for Elvis’ movie Harum Scarum from 1965, where the studio musicians were joined by Rufus Long on flute and Ralph Strobe on oboe in order to lend a middle Eastern touch to the soundtrack. The recordings took place on February 24-26, that year.

A bit of research revealed that Rufus Long unfortunately had passed away in 2016. However, I also found out that Ralph Strobel is an assistant professor emeritus at Ball State University. Therefore, I contacted him, asking if he would like to answer some questions for my blog. I was delighted when he wrote a long letter back and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time sharing his memories of recording with Elvis.

First, can you tell me a little bit about your background in music?

In the fifth grade I took a year of piano lessons. I am glad I learned to read both the treble and bass clefs before starting a wind instrument. A year later at the age of 11, my parents bought me a metal clarinet for $27.50. That seemed like a great deal of money for an instrument in 1952. I liked the clarinet, but other woodwind instruments fascinated me, and at the age of 13 a school oboe was available so I decided to try it. When I was 14, I also learned to play the saxophone. The clarinet and saxophone were played in marching band, pep band, and dance band. I continued to play the oboe in our high school band and symphony orchestra.  

The oboe is is a type of double reed woodwind instrument.
In 1958 I graduated from Coeur d'Alene High School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Since I liked performing in ensembles and music in general, I decided to major in music and graduated from the University of Idaho in 1962 with a bachelor's degree in performance. I studied all the woodwind instruments privately, but the oboe was my major instrument. I had previously studied the oboe with a lady who was principal oboist in the Spokane, WA Symphony.  She invited the conductor to her home and he listened to my playing. He was impressed and asked if I would like to become the 2nd oboe player in the orchestra. I was 18 at the time. The violin teacher at the University of Idaho would drive us to Spokane for rehearsals and concerts. This was my first professional experience and I was paid a bit for performing. Spokane has a very fine orchestra.  

After leaving Idaho, I was given a graduate assistantship scholarship at the University of Michigan. I taught a beginning oboe class to other music majors five days a week each semester. While there, I also studied all the woodwind instruments privately and received a master's degree in 1964 in performance.  

After leaving Ann Arbor I went back to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, not knowing what would be next.  In August of 1964 I received a phone call from Nashville, Tennessee. My name had been given to a professor there at Peabody College. A new music school was opening in Nashville that was a part of the college. It was the Blair Academy of Music. (Now known as Blair School of Music and a part of Vanderbilt University). I was interviewed over the telephone to teach oboe and bassoon at Blair. I was also told I could begin a doctorate at Peabody College which I did. Unfortunately, I did not complete the doctorate which I now regret. I was hired at the Blair Academy and also auditioned for a 2nd oboe position in the Nashville Symphony and was hired.

How did you end up playing on the soundtrack sessions for Harum Scarum?

In November of that year I received a phone call from RCA Studios regarding my first recording session. Another oboe player was originally scheduled to play these sessions but had a conflict so gave my name as being capable of doing so. I was told the sessions would be February 24-26, 1965 with Elvis Presley and would begin each night at 10 p.m. Since I am a night owl that was fine with me and I certainly could use the money.

RCA Studios in Nashville.

In late February of 1965, Nashville was hit with a terrible snow storm, but fortunately I was able to drive to the RCA studio which was on 17th Ave. S., less than a mile from my apartment. I arrived at the RCA building before 10 p.m. The building is on a corner and on the side street, there were two police cars with flashing red and blue lights and what looked to be over 100 young female fans on the side of the building, apparently waiting to greet Elvis. Policemen were outside their cars watching these screaming females jumping up and down in a very cold temperature of 10 degrees.

I went to the front of the building and found the door to be open. A lady was working at the front desk and I told her I was to be the oboe player. She told me to go straight back to Studio B. I did so and noticed my friend Rufus Long, principal flutist from the Nashville Symphony, was also playing the session. We were the only wind players.  

And when did Elvis arrive?

The musicians waited for some time and finally at 11 p.m. Elvis walked into the studio with his manager Col. Tom Parker and the man who conducted the ensemble. Elvis was dressed to kill, wearing a blue suede suit, bow tie, and blue suede shoes. Finally, everyone was ready to begin recording one of the songs.

The conductor told Rufus and I, "We won't be needing you on this first song, so just sit over there on the other side of the room until we do." Then we were told there would be no sheet music handed to anyone.  I thought, "Oh no, I'm not a jazz musician, I can't improvise. How will I know what to do?" 

Then it was explained that all the songs used in the film would be older songs that had been recorded some years ago by various singers. The conductor had brought a small record player with a 45 rpm recording of each song. Once he put the needle down on the record, each of the four outstanding guitar players began writing each chord in every measure on a piece of staff paper. I was impressed that these men could identify each chord without hesitation. They could also easily identify the key the song was in and would write C Major, G Major, etc. The record was played a number of times. Another impressive musician was the pianist, Floyd Cramer. Floyd played piano for many country singers and Elvis. He was a genius at improvisation.

Chords for "Shake That Tambourine," the only song recorded on February 24.

So what happened next?

There was quite a bit of rehearsal time before the recording began. It was obvious that Elvis was not prepared at all. When the recording began, Elvis was having problems with the lyrics and rhythm. The conductor would stop and everyone would try again. This happened over and over many times. Finally, Elvis got upset with himself and every time he made a mistake he would say, "Oh ---- !! (I told my Music History 100 classes at Ball State that Elvis's favorite cuss word rhymed with mitt, fit, and a few other words I best not mention. The students laughed)!

After numerous tries to get the song recorded, we were told there would be a thirty minute break. Someone had gone to a restaurant and brought in huge boxes of food for all of us. The boxes were filled with coffee, cold drinks, all types of sandwiches, French fries, etc. We had a nice snack. Then it was back to work.

I asked Rufus, "If it takes this long to get one song on tape, how is it possible in the next two nights, to get ten more?" He didn't have any idea! Now it was 2:30 a.m. and Rufus and I were getting paid just to watch. Elvis was still upset with himself cussing away, but the men in the control room and the conductor were always very polite.

Finally, at 5 a.m. the 50th take of the song was perfect and we could stop for the night. Rufus and I hadn't played a note, but were making money. Also, the Musician Union rules state that after two and a half hours, all musicians are paid time and a half. We liked that rule!! Upon leaving, the police cars with flashing lights and the young screaming girls were still outside in the freezing cold.

And how was it when you came back for the second night of recordings?

The second night was quite similar. Police cars were there with flashing lights, and many young girls screaming and carrying on. We began promptly at 10 p.m. as I recall. Elvis wore the same blue suede suit and boots. Now it was time to record a song that required both flute and oboe. The conductor would play a recording of the piece and while the record was playing, he would tell us what we were to play. There were no problems for either of us to quickly write down the melodies and identify the key the song was in.

Elvis at RCA Studio B on February 25. 1965.

It was obvious that Elvis had done some major practicing and was having no problems. I don't recall any of his cussing that night. Again, at 2 p.m. we took a break with more boxes and nice food. 

That night there were five songs put on tape that could be used in the film and long play record. We went home at 4:30 a.m. Again, police cars with flashing lights and young girls were still outside in the cold. I imagine these girls got rested up in the day like Elvis did?

What are your recollections of the third and last night of the sessions?

The third night had the last five songs to be recorded. The same situation with the cold weather, snow, flashing lights on police cars, and screaming young females outside. Elvis was decked out in the same beautiful suit as usual. Again, Elvis was prepared and no problems, so five more songs could be recorded. I recall that after one of the songs, the engineer said, "Good, that was a take!" Floyd Cramer piped up and said, "We'll have to do it again. I played one wrong note!" So we went through it again with Floyd commenting, "Now, it's right!" I believe we finished at 5 a.m. that morning.

Elvis then went to each of us individually and shook hands with all. He commented that he thought there would be some really good acting in the film Harum Scarum. If you have read the book Elvis and Me by his ex-wife Priscilla Beaulieu, Elvis was disappointed that was not the case. When I left the RCA building the same situation was outside with the police cars and screaming females. In all three nights, all the musicians cleared well over $500.

Did you see Harum Scarum and what did you think about the soundtrack?

Yes, I did see the movie when it came out and also have the recording. The disappointing part is that the flute and oboe tracks are very much in the background and can not be heard well. One thing I should have done that I didn't think to do what to ask Elvis for his autograph. Today, it would be worth some money.  

The back cover of the album Harum Scarum, released in November, 1965.
I believe that other than myself there is only one other living musician that performed in the soundtrack of Harum Scarum. That musician is outstanding guitar player Charlie McCoy. Charlie was born March 28, 1941. I was born September 23, 1940. We are both 80 years of age.  

Did you record with other artists while living In Nashville?

I also recorded for two of Floyd Cramer's piano solo albums playing oboe and English horn. They are The Class of 1967 and The Class of 1968. These albums are instrumental versions of songs that were popular in those years. Floyd was born October 27, 1933. Being a heavy smoker, he succumbed to lung cancer on December 31, New Year's Eve, 1997 at the age of 64.

In May of 1968 I recorded with the famous country singer, Eddy Arnold. Eddy was born May 15, 1918 and died May 8, 2008 at the age of 89. The album I'm playing on is called The Romantic World of Eddy Arnold. Many of these songs were hits at the time. The arrangements were made by Bill Walker, a man from Australia who conducted the orchestra for these sessions. There were many wonderful oboe and English horn solos in the arrangements. Rufus Long was the other woodwind player, who played flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and baritone saxophone. The tracks the woodwinds are on are prominently heard on the recording.

The Romantic World of Eddy Arnold includes three songs that Elvis would later record: "It's Over," "What Now My Love" and "Gentle On My Mind."

Every couple of years I receive a royalty check for these recording and the Harum Scarum film. It's not a big amount, but I always save the check stub to prove to anyone I am being truthful. The check stub has my name and those I performed with.

You are now an assistant professor emeritus of music performance at Bell State University, Muncie, Indiana. What road took you there?

The second year I lived in Nashville I taught elementary band in the public schools. I heard one band director say that young players couldn't play with good intonation so it wouldn't do any good for them to tune their instruments. I could not believe such a stupid remark! I made a point with fifth and sixth graders to learn good intonation, rhythm, dynamics and phrasing. I was even complemented by a principal of one school that he could identify the songs the students were playing. He said, "Previous band directors just let the kids make noise." I told him it didn't have to be that way at all.

The following year the Nashville Symphony was given a government grant to begin a chamber orchestra made up of 16 musicians. I was then the principal oboe player in the symphony. The 16 full time members would travel by bus to perform in Central Tennessee schools during the day and evenings. Unfortunately, after two years the grant money had run out and the chamber orchestra folded.

The following year I left Nashville and lived in Durham, NC where I played full time with the North Carolina Symphony. From 1968-72 I taught oboe and played principal oboe in the symphony at the Brevard Music Center, a large summer music camp. In 1969 I got into college teaching at taught at Jacksonville University in Florida. A year later I taught at Texas A & I University in Kingsville, TX and performed with the Corpus Christi Symphony.

In 1971 I heard about an opening at Ball State University, Muncie, IN for an oboe professor and principal oboe position with the Muncie Symphony. I applied for the job. Dr. Robert Hargreaves was the director of the Ball State School of Music and was also the conductor of the Muncie symphony. Dr. Hargreaves had been a guest conductor for the Nashville Symphony when I performed there. He remember me and my oboe playing. 

I auditioned in August of 1971 for Dr. Hargreaves and a committee of six music faculty members. I played the first movement of a concerto for them and expected to play other solos material. Instead, the committee wanted to hear oboe solos from the entire orchestral literature. There was no music brought and everything was from memory. This group drilled me for more than thirty minutes mentioning works that had major oboe solos. Fortunately, I have a good memory for this, and no matter what they asked I played it for them. Even today, although I am retired, I could still play these solos from memory. Melodies go through my mind every day. I'm sure this is what got me the job. I began teaching here in September of 1971 and retired after 35 years in July of 2006.

Finally, I understand I am not the first one to contact you about your Elvis sessions?

I believe it was 2002 when I received an e-mail from a man who wanted to know if I was the Ralph Strobel that played in the soundtrack of Harum Scarum. I assured him I was. He wanted to know if he could send me a picture postcard of the Harum Scarum album cover for my autograph. I told him that was fine. In a few days I got his letter and returned his card signed Ralph Strobel "oboe" as he wanted. He later told me he was a police officer in Lakeland, Florida who collected autographs of famous people. I told my Music History classes I had no idea I was a "famous" individual until this man pointed it out to me.

Track listing of the album Harum Scarum, on which Ralph Strobel played the oboe.


John P said...

This is a real eye-opener. It gives a great insight into the Elvis recording sessions for a film soundtrack. Harem was one of the few that used Studio B instead of Radio Recorders in Hollywood. (Those "existing songs " were in fact the demos, only just recorded by singers for the project.)

Thomas said...

I agree, John. Thanks to Ralph Strobel I got a real sense of how the Harum Scarum recording sessions took place. And for that I am grateful. Now knowing more of what was going on during those three nights, I will no doubt listen to the soundtrack and the outtakes from it in a somehow different light.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the interview with Mr. Strobel. How gracious of him to participate and share his memories.

Kees said...

Nice piece again Thomas, adding some new perspectives on the Elvis timeline and his work. Now did you ask for Mr. Strobels autograph? ;-)

Thomas said...

Thank you, Kees, glad you liked it! And yes, of course I did!

Piers Elvis Info Network said...

Great interview. Thanks.
There are very few insider views from those mid-60s movie sessions so it was a cool insight.
And if it was 2am in the morning and I was supposed to be recording HARUM SCARUM I'd be smoking as many psychedelics as I possibly could!
Poor Elvis.

Thomas said...

Thank you Piers, glad you liked it! And I agree, it offers great insight into the recording of an Elvis soundtrack in the mid 60's. Reading it, I almost felt like I was there in the studio myself, thanks to Ralph Strobel. I can't thank him enough for taking the time to write about his experiences during those three nights in February, 1965.

MĂ„rtenbrother said...

Wonderful that you found Mr Strobel, his answers to your questions are very interesting. The Romantic World of Eddy Arnold is a great record! Maybe Harum Scarum isn't, but I've always enjoyed it anyway ...

Thomas said...

Yes, MĂ„rten, I was thrilled when Ralph Strobel agreed to answer my questions, and like you say, they are very interesting. Reading them, I almost felt I was there in the studio with him. I also agree that The Romantic World of Eddy Arnold is a great album, with beautiful arrangements and many nice oboe and English horn solos. And like you, I have a soft spot for Harum Scarum. It was one of those albums that I found exciting to listen to while becoming an Elvis fan. So to me it's special.

TY - The Mystery Train Blog said...

Thomas, I am a little late to the party here, but that was a fantastic piece! This is what I love about Elvis fans - every musician that was around him is important to us. Thanks for bringing us Mr. Strobel's insights.

Thomas said...

Thank you Ty, glad you liked it! And I agree that every musician is important, often it's only the most known ones that are interviewed, but there were so many who contributed to Elvis' music that haven't told their stories or shared their experiences. Also, Ralph Strobel describes it with such detail it really gives you a feeling of what was going on during a soundtrack recording.