I learned this morning, via Social Media (as is so often the case these days), of the passing of Paul Buckmaster. I have no idea of the details, just of his untimely death.
I first got to know Paul in 1981 (although I was already a huge fan of his work). I was working on Judie Tzuke’s “I Am the Phoenix” album, and Paul was commissioned to write some string arrangements. Because I lived nearby, I was asked to pick him up (from his house in the West suburbs on London) and drive him into Whitfield Street, to the (then) CBS studios.
I remember arriving at the house and ringing the doorbell. What seemed like an age went by before the door opened: Paul in full “fluster” mode, trailing charts & pencils from his briefcase. He was (as always seemed to be the case) “running a little behind” and spent most of the journey to CBS writing furiously in the passenger seat. When we arrived he was given an office upstairs, to continue writing, while the copyist started transcribing the charts that were finished, and Martyn Ford conducted the orchestra!
I don’t need to tell you the result was nothing short of stunning. It always was.
Paul studied cello at the Royal Academy of Music, and for a time was a student of Peter Halling. Peter Halling (and his brother, Pat) were part of George Martin’s “go-to” string section for the Beatles. They played on “Yesterday” and “ Eleanor Rigby” etc. It just so happens Peter Halling’s son, Roderick, and I were friends since the age of 7, and also schoolmates (Rod’s mother, Marge, taught me piano for several years)! A mere 2 degrees of separation. One example of Paul’s early work was an album that Rod Halling and I almost wore out: the Quatermass album: specifically, an instrumental track called “Laughing Tackle.”
Some of Paul’s earliest arrangement work was on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which was produced by Gus Dudgeon. This collaboration was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship, culminating with their seminal work on Elton John’s albums.
Paul’s work on the eponymous “Elton John” album really brought him into the public eye. From that moment on, Pop Music was changed forever. Paul’s unique style officially broke the mould and set a new bar for modern string-arrangement.
The next time Paul and I spent any time together was during the recording of Elton’s “Made in England” album, at AIR Lyndhurst in 1994. Paul was brought back into the “family” for this most underrated of Elton’s later albums. This was another incredibly productive & creative time. We were all down in the main studio, recording tracks which were then sub-mixed to Tascam 8-track format, and the cassettes were than sent upstairs to Paul’s aptly named “Digital Dungeon” (a room with a keyboard, a MacIntosh computer (mine, as it happens) with Digital performer software, banks of sound modules, and a TASCAM tape player). Paul would write his arrangements to our backtracks. At various times I remember the phone would ring in the control room of Studio 1, and we would then climb the stairs to “the Dungeon” and listen to Paul’s latest offering! Once several arrangements were ready, there would be a (normally weekend) session where the real players were brought in to record the finished product. As I said, an incredibly productive process.
During these sessions, Paul and I often sat in the studio cafeteria and chatted. My wife at the time was half-Italian, and so was Paul, as it turned out! He was also a keen follower of World Economics, another thing we both had in common (in later years this became something of an obsession for both of us). His passion and enthusiasm for life was infectious.We passed many hours in the AIR cafeteria, while Davey was doing a guitar overdub, or Elton was adding vocals to a track. Thinking back, these are moments I will cherish.
When I moved to the USA in 1999, he and I kept in touch. We would often speak on the phone, and I saw him a few times in Los Angeles. We lost touch when I moved to Nashville in 2007, but he was every bit as prolific, writing arrangements for Taylor Swift, Ben Folds Five, the GooGoo Dolls, and Heart, to name but a few.
True genius is something that is rare & beyond value. Paul was one of those people who could have been great at almost anything he put his mind to. It just so happens music was his passion, and we are much better off as a result.
As I finish writing this, “Madman Across the Water” is playing in the background. What an incredible piece of collaborative genius! Elton, Gus & Paul.