HEAVEN SENT A STRING MAN (Paul Buckmaster, R.I.P.)

The personnel for Elton John’s breakthrough album. Paul Buckmaster second from the left.

Strange and disorienting serendipity because this Child of the Seventies is just now–literally this week–catching up to Elton John’s first five albums, where Paul Buckmaster was an insistent and insidious presence.

Buckmaster–classically trained instrumentalist, composer, conductor and ace arranger–was the definer of Orchestral Rock for Modern Ears. In other hands, that would almost certainly would have been a dubious distinction. On some of those Elton John records it was a dubious distinction.

But his fingers were on (usually all over) a number of wonderful era-defining records in the early seventies: “Space Oddity,” “You’re So Vain,” “Without You,” Terrapin Station, numerous projects that involved him working with everyone from John (for whom he arranged the breakthrough hit “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” the closest Sir Elton ever came to a statement of balladeering purpose and one that has grown with the years) to Leonard Cohen to Blood, Sweat and Tears to Miles Davis.

It may not be a coincidence that Carly Simon, Harry Nillson, Elton John and Mick Jagger all waxed tracks that were contenders for their finest vocals when Buckmaster was handing them arrangements that begged for something more than they themselves may have thought they could deliver.

Which brings us to this, the greatest album closer in the history of Rock and Roll if only because it closed so much more than an album…and ushered in a New Age where all concerned would be subsumed….Including, just today, Paul Buckmaster.

Him and God should be having a very interesting talk about now. I’m rooting for a better understanding.


4 thoughts on “HEAVEN SENT A STRING MAN (Paul Buckmaster, R.I.P.)

    • And thanks to you for the kind words.

      It’s kind of weird because his records have been on my mind a lot lately…Just got hold of a cheap box of Elton’s first five albums. I was contemplating a post of My Favorite Album Closer (which I probably won’t do now….it was between “Moonlight Mile” and a Patty Loveless closer called “Where I’m Bound”…and “Moonlight Mile” was gonna win).

      And I’ve got an upcoming Diamonds in the Shade post which I’ll try to get to tonight or tomorrow….A couple of obscure Elton John records, one of which Buckmaster arranged. There must have been SOMETHING trying to reach out to me through the ether.

  1. When the orchestration actually stands out as one of the song’s very hooks, just as compelling and anticipated as the actual chorus (cf. the last few seconds of “Without You”), you know you’ve made your mark. A great write-up and a brilliant arranger. RIP. You’ve had a busy day today.

    • Thanks Chris…Yes, one of the first things I noticed about the list of records from his catalog that really stood out was how DISTINCTIVE they were. Nothing really like “Without You” in the rest of Nillson’s catalog, nothing quite like “You’re So Vain,” in Carly’s, no ballad that flows quite as easily (and wistfully) as “Tiny Dancer” in Elton’s.If the mechanization of Disco hadn’t descended so swiftly, I don’t doubt there would have been more, but those records alone would make a worthy legacy.

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