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Pulling the strings Print-ready version

by Dan DeLuca
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 8, 2009

The arranger, conductor and cellist forms the link from the Sound of Philadelphia to hip-hop and R&B acts up for Grammys tonight.

Larry Gold will be on stage tonight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles during the 51st annual Grammy Awards.

But unless you're on the lookout for a 60-year-old Jewish guy from Kensington cueing the string section during T.I. and Justin Timberlake's performance of "Dead and Gone," you probably won't notice him.

"I'll be in the back, dressed all in black," says the cellist, owner of Philadelphia recording hub The Studio and string arranger to such stars as Kanye West, R. Kelly, John Legend, Jill Scott and The Roots. "You'll barely see me."

That's the way it usually goes for Gold. The Philly soul vet - whose storied history includes a '60s stint with Todd Rundgren's band, Woody's Truck Stop, a '70s gig as a member of the legendary Philadelphia International Records house band MFSB, and an '80s detour writing songs like "Teeny Little Super Guy" for Sesame Street - is used to being in the background.

Gold isn't up for any Grammys this year. But he's the man behind the curtain on six different projects that have garnered a total of eight nominations. And he is a direct link from the Sound of Philadelphia to the contemporary hip-hop and R&B acts looking for a taste of Philly soul sophistication.

His lush handiwork can be heard on Ne-Yo's Year of the Gentleman (up for album of the year and contemporary R&B album), and on Al Green's Lay It Down and Boyz II Men's A Journey Through Hitsville U.S.A. (both up for R&B album).

He contributed to Kirk Franklin's The Fight of My Life, nominated for contemporary R&B gospel album and best gospel song ("Help Me Believe"). He did the strings on Mary J. Blige's Growing Pains (in the running for contemporary R&B album) and on "Dead and Gone," which is on T.I.'s Paper Trail, up for best rap album.

In the days of LPs, a listener was more likely to examine the fine print on the sleeve for musicians, engineers and arrangers. "But nobody reads the credits anymore," says Gold, in front of a Yamaha keyboard in his workroom at the 18,000-square-foot Studio, where everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to Allen Iverson have recorded since it opened in 1995.

Gold is dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, a ponytail worn tight at the back of his neck. The cello he plays an hour a day - mostly Bach, occasionally Beethoven or Brahms - is at his side. Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Fritz the Cat, as drawn by Robert Crumb, look down from the walls. He's working on an arrangement for Colombian pop singer Shakira, who wants something that sounds like a 1970s TV show for a song called "Spy."

The credits, he says, "aren't on the back of the album anymore. And if you buy the music from iTunes, there are no credits at all. So who even knows who did what? Nobody knows what I do."

Well, not nobody. Those in the know know.

People like Jay-Z, who gave him the nickname "Don Cello," after he conducted the string section on the rapper's 2001 live Unplugged album. The 2003 album Larry Gold Presents Don Cello and Friends brought together generations of Philadelphia vocalists from McFadden & Whitehead to Black Thought of The Roots.

People like West, who asked Gold to come up with something "as big as a movie" for his song "See You in My Nightmares," one of three Gold arrangements on West's wrenching 808s & Heartbreak.

And people like Timberlake, who, after hearing about Gold from the producer Timbaland, used him for his 2002 hit "Cry Me a River." When Timberlake was producing T.I.'s "Dead and Gone," he knew Gold was his guy.

"Dead and Gone," is "sad, cathartic, and at the same time it's a song about redemption," Timberlake says in an e-mail. "I knew that Larry could capture all of those things. The sweeping emotional arrangement really makes the song."

Timberlake decided that to do "Dead and Gone" live, he needed Gold to be there. And while he's got the cellist in L.A., Timberlake is putting him to work on a song he's producing for British pop siren Leona Lewis. Gold is "brilliant and humble at the same time," Timberlake says. "And I've never seen anyone work faster in a session!"

Gold did the strings on Philadelphia R&B love-man Musiq Soulchild's new hit single, "IfUleave," a duet with Blige. "I just wanted something simple and classy," says the singer. "He's really strong at helping whoever he's working with express the full effect of the point that is being made in a song. He listens for what you really want, and does his very best to get it for you."

R. Kelly once came to The Studio, where the walls are lined with gold and platinum records, for a weekend, and stayed for six weeks. "He even had the barber come in," Gold recalls. One night, rapper Foxy Brown sucker-punched a woman eyeing her then-boyfriend, the Philadelphia rapper Kurupt.

Members of Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots maintain their own studio within the north-of-Center City space, and Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson houses his record library there.

While Gold's business as an arranger continues to boom, The Studio is not as busy as it was in the early '00s. "The record business is really falling apart," Gold says. "And now that the country is really in a deep recession, it's a scary thing. I always tell people this used to be a beautiful business. That's my old Jewish way of saying it."

It's been a pretty good business for Gold, though, since he picked up an Elvis Presley guitar in his father Lenny's Kensington toy shop in the 1950s. He switched to violin, and then to cello because it was the biggest instrument in his elementary-school music room.

"I was the smallest kid in my class," says Gold, who stands 5-foot-5, and lives with his wife, Vicky, a sculptor, in the neighborhood he calls Chinatown North. "If they had a bass in the room, I'd be playing bass now. I've had an inferiority complex my entire . . . life. I think when you grow up in Kensington, you grow up with a chip on your shoulder."

Gold studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and was playing studio sessions at 13. He heard the call of hippiedom and played in Woody's Truck Stop, while also backing up Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in the house band at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill. One night at the Sansom Street folk club the Second Fret, Joni Mitchell told him "she never heard the cello sound so emotional."

While at Philadelphia International Records, he found himself doing sessions on hits like McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." "Gamble and Huff and Thommy Bell - they knew how to make records," Gold says, with admiration.

"I watched all these guys who really knew how to put all the elements together. I made a decision in the late '60s that, if I was going to learn how to make records, that was the better school to learn in. . . . And I made my living my whole life on some of the knowledge that they imparted to me. I honor them."

His path to owning The Studio, writing the arrangements, and conducting the musicians "has been very serendipitous," he says. "I was never happy just to be a cello player."

When synthesized strings pushed musicians out the door in the '80s, he improvised, scoring films and, inspired by his daughter Elizabeth, writing for Sesame Street. And when he sensed that Philadelphia needed a state-of-the-art facility, he opened The Studio in 1995.

"I'm like Leo the late bloomer," he says. "I want to expand myself as a person, and think outside of the box. That's all I care about. That and putting food on the table for my family." For that to happen, he has to "hope that the phone will ring with the next job. Which it does. It's rung for the last 45 years."

This article has been viewed 460 times since being added on February 9, 2009.

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