Don Cello, In His Own Words
I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised. My musical life started in the ’50s, and whatever my parents had is what I listened to in the beginning. It went from Mahalia Jackson to classical music to all different kinds of things. Modern Jazz Quartet. Then I really started getting into soul music via my cello playing and via a few other things by the ’60s, when I was already a teenager. But I had already been involved in music since I was little—I loved Elvis Presley too. I was a big fan of Elvis and I learned how to play all his songs on the guitar. And then I played the cello and I learned Bach and Mozart. I was about 8. I’m an obsessive man; I love music. The ’60s I loved Stax, Percy Sledge. Otis Redding I thought was a genius. I started loving those records, then I also loved the Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick records that were orchestrated, and I had the chance to play live with a lot of different people that were left over from my mom and dad’s generation, being a cellist. Some of those arrangements just fell into my head, and then of course there was the Beatles. So there’s been a lot of different influences in my lifetime! [laughs] For a minute I was really enamoured with blues, like Muddy Waters. There was a blues club in Philadelphia that I just thought was the greatest thing. Even acoustic blues was fascinating, [seeing] what one guy with a guitar could say.
By the end of the ’60s I had my own groups, but as far as making records I had made a few records that weren’t of note [before that]. I had group with Todd Rundgren for a minute, then Todd left and did something else. That was a real good blues band for a while but we never made a record together. A lot of the groups I had, you know, life was so fast then. Too much LSD, a lot of different drug-taking and all that kind of stuff—things that were only a year seemed like a lot longer. To make a long story short, [I released] nothing definitive. Actually, as a session player I started playing on records early on, and I learned how to make records from listening to Gamble & Huff and Tommy Bell and those guys. I ended up being a cello player there for the longest time, then I graduated as an arranger towards the end of the ’70s. This [Larry Gold Presents Don Cello And Friends] is the first album I’ve made and even this album is [made] all with my friends. It’s a co-operative album; I only included one real instrumental on the record, because mostly what I do is accompany vocalists.
I’ve been doing strings on records my whole life. In the late-’80s John Whitehead introduced me to his sons and they shared their hip-hop [with me]. I mean, I did some Pop-Art records with Laurence Goodman, it was about making a living but it was [also] about trying to get into the soul of the music. As far as getting involved with the Roots, that was their doing, not mine. I had done “The Boy Is Mine” with Rodney Jerkins with Brandy, and that was a big record. They’d heard about me, and I’d opened a studio in Philadelphia. I’d always liked designing studios and having recording studios. So I’d opened the studio and, as you well know, bands need to record in a studio. Even though home recording has become very popular at this point in life, the Roots still use studios. So [their sessions] happened there and we ended up doing some records together. I knew James Poyser for a long time, because at the beginning of the ’90s I made an album with the Whitehead brothers which did well in this country [England], and James Poyser played in their band. That was already twelve years ago. I don’t know how old James is, but he was probably early twenties then. I’ve always been friends with [Jazzy] Jeff Townes, and it just evolved. It’s hard for me to say (how I became so involved in hip-hop). I think what happened was that I’ve always made records. Even when I wasn’t making a good living from it I still made records. I had tape recorders. I’m always fussing around with that kind of stuff. Basically I think we all just found each other and I’m honoured that the kids still like me. One thing leads to another, it’s like fate. Scott Storch was working with the Roots at that point and he introduced me to Timbaland. A lot of my success in recent years has been through these guys. It’s an honour for me to put strings on something I think is outstanding to begin with, you know what I mean? It gives me the chills to even think about it and I can’t wait to get there in the morning to do it. This record I made is all the people who come to my studio, and as they came I said, “Well, you want to make a record?” and we made a record. There was more pre-thought about how I wanted to make a record featuring the vocalists and my friends. That was it. I’m a humble guy, I don’t know what to say. I’m used to being behind the scenes.
It’s not about doing something current. It’s about taking all I’ve learned over the years and trying to do it with the younger artists as well as some of my old friends—McFadden & Whitehead and Bunny Sigler are on there. I put a group of songs together and I’m grateful for the opportunity Peter [Adarkwah, of BBE] gave me. I never even thought of doing this myself. It’s all different influences, you know? Some of the songs I did with Kamal from the Roots; Ahmir from the Roots gave me a song. It’s like a compilation record. The root of it is that it all happened at my facility and it all happened with me being the producer. I would say 80% of it I co-wrote. At one point I was just going to make it all instrumental with hip-hop beats, and I’m going to do a future album like that. But what I do every day of the week is write strings accompanying vocalists, these great vocalists, and to me that’s still the art of making a great record. That’s what I’ve been refining for most of my life—how do you do this and bring excitement and passion to the record?