Mad Mandolin Man, Neil Sedaka and the man from Edelweiss

I’m at one of the biggest dinner parties I’ve ever been to, maybe 40 people around the table.

About ten seats down to my left is a dark-haired and very pretty woman. I feel sure I know her.

Then someone says: “Norma, pass the potatoes?”

“Norma! That’s who you are,” I call down the table, like she doesn’t know her own name. “The tape op at CBS.”

She looks at me for a few seconds, scrolling back 20 years through her memory: “Oh my God – you’re Mad Mandolin Man!”

Shall I explain? I think I should.

Towards the end of my time at CBS, with half a foot out of the door, they signed Vince Hill, a British crooner who had narrowly missed the number one slot with his signature hit, Edelweiss from The Sound Of Music.

At that time, I was developing a sound in my head, a sound gleaned from a few seconds of a Bob Dylan track.

If You See Her Say Hello, from Blood On The Tracks, has a magical sonic accident where a guitar and a mandolin, just for seconds here and there, react together in a way that really caught my ear.

From these snippets, I built a sound in my head where I used more and more guitars, and multiple mandolins.

Then Vince Hill came along, and he had been talking to Neil Sedaka.

Sedaka was embarked on a major comeback and writing the best songs of his career. One of them, The Hungry Years, he had promised to Vince.

When I heard The Hungry Years, I knew this was the song on which to try out my sound. It’s a long way from Bob Dylan to Vince Hill, I know, but they don’t call me Mad Mandolin Man for nothing.

I telephoned arranger Keith Mansfield and asked him to score the session for me. No way, he said. Sounds bonkers. I’m not getting involved with that.

So I did it myself.

Now consider. I had never written an arrangement. I could write music, very slowly. But an arrangement? That was ridiculous. There would be more than 50 musicians in the studio, and I’d have to hire a conductor. If I failed it was going to be spectacular. It was also going to be very expensive.

But I’m nothing if not determined. And stubborn.

I scored three songs, including The Hungry Years, for 20 violins (in four parts), 10 cellos, five double basses, six 12-string guitars, six 6-string guitars, six mandolins, drums, bass and electric guitar. Oh, and a harp.

Actually, I didn’t score for the harp. I asked Skaila Kanga – the most revered harpist in the country – if she’d be ok with me giving her the chord sheets and she could just vamp it.

How mad is that? You get 50-odd players in a studio, and ask one of them – a classical musician who’s worked with Otto Klemperer, Andre Previn, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle – to make it up as they go along. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my own chutzpah.

On the day I’m about as nervous as it’s possible to be without falling over. Vince is there, along with his musical director, Ernie Dunstall.

Keith Mansfield turns up. “What are you doing here?” I ask. He laughs. “I’ve come to watch you fail.”

The booker’s there too. This is the guy who books musicians for sessions. They never go to sessions. They’d never get any work done. I’m getting a bit paranoid now. He explains: “You’ve got just about every guitarist in London here, so I’ve got nothing else to do. I thought I’d come along and see what you’re up to.”

With all this pressure and anticipation building, I’d love to tell you it was brilliant.

So I will. It was. It was brilliant.

Ernie Dunstall had been watching intently through the studio window as perspiration became preparation became pin-drop quiet as the conductor lifted his baton.

About one minute in, Ernie turned round, beaming. “Mr Phillips, I think you’ve triumphed.”

Skaila Kanga, front and centre with her beautiful concert harp, had been perfectly willing to go with my flow. Now she was also smiling.

It was absolutely thrilling, the sound coming from that studio.

Later, Vince put his vocals on, and even added harmonies. I’ll never forget the look on his face just before he left the sessions. “No-one’s ever gone to this much trouble for me,” he said. “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, back at the record company, they got the jitters. They hadn’t signed Vince Hill as an experimental artist (which is a laugh: listening now it’s a really sweet sound; nothing shocking about it at all. It just didn’t adhere to the formula).

I knew what they wanted. For a singer like Vince, the formula was to find a bunch of songs that were going to be in the charts in three to four months time, put them all on an album arranged much like the originals and pray that one or two of the songs would be in the Top 10 when the album was released.

So that’s what I did. By the time the album was released – arranged by Keith Mansfield, and minus my mad mandolins – its title track, Mandy, had been number one for Barry Manilow. A couple of the other songs were either in or on their way out of the charts. So we cracked the formula.

My Vince Hill/Bob Dylan collaboration was never released, not even finished. The sessions were never mixed.

All I have to remind me of one of the biggest challenges – and thrills – of my life are the monitor mixes where the magical harmonics caught between 12 guitars, six mandolins and 20 violins are not really apparent.

But maybe, somewhere in there, you can apply your own imagination to my wall of sound and hear at least some of what I heard on the only occasion in my life when 50+ musicians played arrangements that I had written down.

And Vince – I know you’re having the toughest of years. This one’s for you, just to remind everyone that you really did have what it takes. And you let a 25-year-old mandolin fool mess with your career. Thank you.


PS: Of course, that wasn’t the end of me and mandolins. Car 67 features a bunch of ’em.