Photo by Jonas Neilson

First Wives Club the Musical is pleased to have Motown veteran HB Barnum as our musical orchestrator and arranger. HB helped create the Motown sound alongside Holland-Dozier-Holland. He’s worked with some of the greatest artists in musical history and we want to put his behind the scenes work up front and center.

HB is a humble man, but he was kind enough to share his vision of the music for First Wives Club.

You have worked with Aretha Franklin, Puff Daddy, Frank Sinatra and so many more. What is it like to work with those huge stars?

HB: The first thing is that they are good people, so that makes it easy to do. The fact that they have talent makes it special for me because the talent I have complements what they do. That makes a good marriage.

When you worked on “Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God” with Jennifer Holiday, did you feel or sense she was destined to be a big star?

HB: Actually, I worked on the show when it first started. We didn’t have any big stars in the show. We had Clifton Davis who later had a good TV run. Jennifer wasn’t in the first cast. She came along later once we brought in people like Patti LaBelle. Whenever you hear Jennifer sing, she is a monster.

I was watching some videos of “Your Arms are Too Short to Box with God” today. I love that title, it resonates with me.

HB: That title was brought about by the lady who wrote the play, Micki Grant. I worked with Micki back in the, I can’t say, maybe the fifties. She wrote a hit song called “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces” I knew here from there. When the show came about Vinnette Carroll and Micki called me into New York. The show was picking up Broadway long before Jennifer got into the cast. You know, we did grow.

When did you first start to work with Holland-Dozier-Holland?

HB: I’m going to say in the early sixties, I came to Motown. I was brought in there around 1961 or ‘62, so I guess that was my first start to work with them. We became friends as well as people who work together. They are true geniuses. That trio will never be duplicated.

What was it like in the Motown days, and how did it work?

HB: The fun of it was, I would spend two weeks at a time in Detroit, I’ve always been up on the west coast, and I would go in and get a call from Lamont, and he would say hey, man come on around two o’clock, and it’s half past, and he said, I mean in the morning. Oh ya? OK, so I would go and we would sit there and a lot of times Brian wouldn’t come until later on, but Eddie would sit there and we would go over little passages and stuff. We might work from two to five or six in the morning, or we might start at one in the afternoon and work until three o’clock in the morning. There was no schedule, it was whenever they felt the groove and that’s what made it fun. It was good for me because it taught me a lot. I learned a lot from those guys.

HB Barnum and Eddie Holland
Eddie Holland jokes with HB Barnum. Image courtesy of Jonas Neilson.

They are amazing songwriters.

HB: They could write a hit when they wanted to, it was like a mandate from on high that says we need a number one and a number three and a number seven this week and they would turn it out.

When HDH was cranking out all those hits, what were they like as individuals?

HB: I’ve always had a very great relationship with them. Brian played golf, so that made it good for us. Eddie was the suave person and Lamont was a nut like me, so it worked out fine.

Did you have a favorite Motown singer or group?

HB: You know what was strange about working for Motown? We would make some songs and I didn’t know as an arranger who they were for. We would make a great song and then maybe four months later the song came out, and I’d say, oh that was for the Tops or that was for the Supremes. I think that’s the way that they wrote songs. They would write a great song and whoever needed a hit that’s who they would give it to. They were just turning out great pieces of material, and I think sometimes even they didn’t know who they were going to be for, they were just making great, great music.

The Supremes did some great stuff with their songs.

HB: All the artists of Motown benefited from those guys, as well as the other writers; people like Johnny Bristol and Barrett Strong who learned from them. They learned how to write hits from Holland-Dozier -Holland. McKinley Jackson, all the guys who had hits after them learned their structure and the way they put pieces together. They not only wrote the hits themselves, they influenced other writers.

I grew up on that music, it’s timeless.

HB: While we were doing it, we were learning about it too. The music made such a great change not only in the music industry but the social climate of the country because those songs crossed over and became pop songs that made it possible for African-American artists to get on shows like Ed Sullivan and Dave Clark and Alan Freed because the music was so great.

The producers of The First Wives Club have said you are one of the few people on earth that understand the HDH sound. What makes it so magical? And why is it so difficult to execute?

HB: I won’t claim that one. I lived it with them. There were certain things about their music that if it’s not there, it’s not them. It’s like David Letterman wears white socks and if he’s coming out in black socks, it’s not David Letterman. There is a certain thing that happens in their music –  the strong foundation of rhythm, the guitars, the vibe, the drums, things that are basic to their music – the classical overlay of all of their music. They think classic. They may not have been trained, but they hear it. The music had strong foundations and also a classical overlay and a great melodic thing that happened. Not only in the song itself, but the introductions sometimes had such melodic and such memorable phrases that people can’t forget the music. You hear the da da da da da, it has nothing to do with the song, it’s just a tremendous introduction so you know when you hear that beat, it’s the identification of those song that made it so special. You don’t find that in music today. We don’t find songs where when you hear that first note you know who it is. There was such trueness and realism in the music back in the 60s. Brian and Eddie and Lamont, they were the ones who really put a foundation down.

HB and Jonas Neilson
H.B. Barnum and First Wives Club Musical producer Jonas Neilson relax away from the thrilling work of creating the show.

I know that they have inspired a lot of younger artists too.

HB: I taught a class last night and the kids knew the songs but they had no idea who had created it. A lot of those songs have been recorded again. They thought the artist who had recorded it in the 90s was the one who wrote the song. No idea. It was a rhythm and blues class and I was telling them about those songs and they said. “Oh I heard that song before, didn’t Beyoncé do it?” No. Beyoncé did it, but that’s not where it came from. Like wine, it gets better with age.

Which is your favorite new Holland Dozier Holland song from First Wives Club? And why?

HB: Now you are going to put me on the spot. I don’t have a favorite. I think “Morty’s Got It All” is so cute and so comical. I’m going to love that, but then again, “My Heart Wants to Try One More Time”, I heard Eddie do that in a little reading the other day, and it brings you to tears. There are so many good new songs in the show, and then you also get to hear some of the old songs as well. When you sing “My World is Empty without You”, that’s one of the old ones and yet the moment [and mood] is so different in the show than the original song. I don’t have any favorites, I just think the show is going to great because when people walk out of the theater they will enjoy the new songs, remember the old songs, and they will feel the moments. I think it’s going to be a special show.

When you do the orchestrations for The First Wives Club, what kind of sound are you striving to achieve? A pop sound or a Broadway orchestra? Or a blend of both?

HB: Here is the trick that I hope I did accomplish – I understand Broadway and I understand the climatic thing that should happen, but I don’t want to disturb the sanctity of this music. Hopefully, between all of our team, our actors, singers, myself and other people involved, we will be able to retain that. We want people to be able to leave knowing this music and knowing the importance of this music. We also want them to have a Broadway experience. I’m sure that between Simon and all the people involved, we are going to have that happen, but above all we want to stick to the trueness and the sanctity of the music.

HB Barnum
HB Barnum (center) arranges the music that will be the heart of First Wives Club The Musical.

How big will the orchestra be, and what will be the instrumental categories represented?

HB: We have a 100 piece, 13-man orchestra.  I think we are going to be fine. Unfortunately, there are things like budgets, but we are going to have a good orchestra. It’s going to be good, it’s going to sound nice and full and it’s going to be funky. People are going to be clapping their hands and really enjoy being in the moment.

There’s nothing like live music, that’s for sure.

HB: It’s live. We’re going to have the key pieces, the conductor, Mr. Kenny Seymour, will be playing one of the keyboards and we’ll have three keyboards. We’re going to have some synthesizers just to cover some of the things because we don’t have a big string section, but it sounds good. We have two guitars, two percussionists, bass and four horn players.  We’re going to have a nice fat sound so the Broadway people will be happy and we are going to have a nice funky sound so the music tourists will be happy.

Can you describe what it’s like to be doing this specific musical?

HB: I’m having fun! When I met Paul, I explained to him that I’m never going to be rich, I’m never going to be famous, but I want to enjoy my life. When they called me to do this show and just to reunite with the Holland guys, it was such a special thing for me. We’re having fun. We’re fighting, we’re fussing, we’re making music and I think in the end, we are going to have a great show and that’s what’s important.

That’s what it is all about, and it’s a great story. Is there anything you want people to know about you or the play?

HB: Not about me, but about this fantastic show we are about to do. I think if people like inspiring music, if they like musical comedy and theater, if they like good actors- and we’ve got a great cast- then they are going to have a great evening. I hope people want to see over and over again.

Get YOUR TICKETS here!
Playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theater
Previews: February 17th – March 10th
Premiere date: March 11, 2015
Chicago run: thru March 29th

About HB Barnum

HB Barnum is a producer, arranger, composer and performer. He founded the doo-wop group The Dootones in 1955. He lent his voice to a number of groups and as a solo artist had a Top 40 hit in 1960 for the instrumental “Lost Love”. He released his debut LP, The Big Voice of Barnum — H.B. That Is! the same year.

HB worked behind the scenes as producer of the hit song, Dodie Stevens’ “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces.” He joined Capital Records in 1965, working with producer and l friend David Axelrod. HB has worked with some of the greats – Sinatra, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Lou Rawls, the Supremes, the Temptations, The Four Tops, The Ojays, , Nancy Wilson, the Jacksons, Martha & The Vandellas, Phil Collins, P-Diddy (Puff-Daddy), Dionne Warwick, Glady’s Knight, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Sly Stone, Charlie Rich, The Osmonds, Little Willie John, Cannonball Adderley, BB King, Ray Charles and many more.

He’s scored a number of TV series and commercials and worked on some of the leading award and entertainment shows including The Oscars, Golden Globe Awards, The Grammy’s, The Tonight Show, American Idol, The Black Achievement Awards, The Olympics, The Supremes on Broadway and The NAACP Award.

HB is also known for his philanthropy and spiritual focus as the founder and director of H.B. Barnum’s Life Choir. Founded in 1981, the choir’s annual Thanksgiving Day Feast has been providing a celebratory meal for homeless people and seniors for over three decades. The HB Barnum Celebrity Golf Tournament raises funds for charity and celebrated its 26th year this past summer.

3 thoughts on “The Incomparable Orchestrator and Arranger HB Barnum on The Studio and the Stage

  1. Uncle HB you amaze me and inspire me everyday. we love you so dearly. Can’t wait to see this show! Love Toni and family.

  2. So looking forward to seeing and enjoying the show! Being very aware of Mr Barnum’s amazing talent i know this show will be an unforgettable experiance !!

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