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    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Anatomy of a Session: Inside the Studio with Larry Ching

Ben Fong-Torres

As a writer at Rolling Stone, I have done a lot of time in recording studios. Crosby Stills and Nashs first album; Sly and the Family Stone; Ray Charles running his own control board; Fleetwood Mac; Jefferson Airplane. Richard Perry producing Carly Simon, Leo Sayer, and others. That is a lot of time. Rehearsing, recording, endless retakes, and lots of sitting around.

The Larry Ching session was completely different. We jumped back a few generations to the way records used to be cut.

AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor at Rolling Stone. Ben recently produced a CD featuring the golden voice of Larry Ching, one of the featured performers at the famous San Francisco nightclub, Forbidden City.

LARRY CHING 1920 - 2003

Larry Ching passed away on July 5, 2003 in San Francisco. He was 82, and is survived by wife Jane Seid, six sons and stepsons, and 11 grandchildren.

Larry had just been toasted at a party for his debut CD at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, where he received a proclamation from San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declaring June 28 "Larry Ching Day."

The following column was written in mid-June. My next one will report on the CD party, a celebration of a life filled with fun, family and music.

-- Ben Fong-Torres

Kimberlye Gold, a singing, songwriting buddy, wrote a piece for SF Weekly about the Larry Ching CD I produced. Her editor, she told me, wanted to know, among many other things, how I felt in the studio, during the recording of the album. And it occurred to me that I had never addressed that point. I have written mostly about Larry, about why I wanted to record him, and about how he felt, making his first CD at age 80-something.

But during the session, at San Francisco State University, I did jot down some notes. So, to take you behind the scenes, here is a more written-out version of what I told Kimberlye:

As a writer at Rolling Stone, I have done a lot of time in recording studios. Crosby Stills and Nashs first album; Sly and the Family Stone; Ray Charles running his own control board; Fleetwood Mac; Jefferson Airplane. Richard Perry producing Carly Simon, Leo Sayer, and others. That is a lot of time. Rehearsing, recording, endless retakes, and lots of sitting around.

The Larry Ching session was completely different. We jumped back a few generations to the way records used to be cut, quick and dirty. But we were forced to. John Barsotti, who would be engineering, was giving us his studio at SF State, where he teaches audio engineering and production, for free, but we had to wedge ourselves in on a Sunday afternoon, and had to set up, get miked, and do all the recording between about 3:30 and 8:30. We started recording at about 5 and, even with a dinner break, we nailed 12 tracks. That would have taken a rock band about a month if they didnt break up, first.

So it was really old school, the way the artists worked. It was old school technically, too. John recorded on analog tape, and we did not go 64-track just what was needed to capture the music about 15 tracks, with multiple mikings on the standup bass, drums, and Larry. Then, for mixing, fixing, and mastering, John went digital at his home studio down in Woodside. So it was a nice blend of old and new technology.

At the session, I was amazed. Larry is 82, and he is susceptible to mood swings and occasional memory lapses. Also, this was his first time in a recording studio in 50 or 60 years. He enjoys singing, but he has always done it casually. This was different, and you could not blame him if he were nervous, knowing that any time he or anyone else made a mistake, it was back to the top. But he and the guys went through the first three songs flawlessly. One take each. When it comes to his favorite songs, Larrys memory was solid.

I think we got spoiled, but then things got a little tougher. Larry has his own set ways with phrasings on certain songs, and sometimes I asked him to redo a line, usually to no avail. On Hawaiian Wedding Song,?i> I wanted to hear him do it in both English and Hawaiian, so that we could choose one, the other, or a blend. We changed tempos on a couple of songs, and, of course, there were technical issues here and there. So things slowed down, and by the time we regrouped after dinner, I was the nervous one. But Larry finished like a champ, and wrapped things up with a beautiful version of Once in a While, which has been done by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan to the doo-wop group The Chimes, and an obscure and lovely song, Hawaiian Paradise.

Besides helping to serve up the food, catered from the Yet Wah restaurant, my job was mostly to keep Larrys spirit and confidence up. His voice would do the rest. He got tired in mid-session, and when we finished, he was saying he had never worked this hard in years. In the control room, John and I had looked at each other when Larry ended a performance with a loud sigh of relief, or a self-deprecating exclamation. And yes, I wish we had had another few hours to go over or, as they say, punch in a few things, redoing a phrase here and there.

But I thought we had captured what I had wanted to for years: that sweet and singular voice of his. I relied on John for his musical ear, and that worked out nicely. And George Yamasaki, the pianist, consulted with me about the order of songs, but he ran the combo, kept Larry musically comfortable, and did a great job, even though it was his first time in a studio. It was my first time, too, in a sense. As I said, I have observed plenty of sessions, but never from this vantage point, and in this role. This was definitely not Sly & the Family Stone.

RANDOM NOTES: We have built a pretty nifty home page for Larry, with MP3 samples, full-length videos for two songs (thanks to another singer-songwriter pal of mine, Laura Allan), and info not only on Larry and the CD, but also on the Forbidden City nightclub, where he and other Asian American pioneer performers worked for so many years. Enjoy a visit at www.larryching.com The media have been all over Larry and his CD. Just about everyone except Jayson Blair has called (of course, he doesnt need to, to write his story).

In one week, three TV stations visited, and KRONs Vic Lee did a beautiful On Assignment piece that may still be on www.kron.com. Its worth a search. Jim Lange on KABL mentioned the CD weeks before it even came out; so did the San Francisco Examiners Jan Wahl.

The Chronicle is publishing my first-person piece on Larry on June 29, in its Sunday Magazine (a copy is on the Larry Ching home page). The Nichi Bei Times Kyle Tatsumoto and Keith Kamisugi, who write the Hawaii-centric column, Two Japanee Bruddahs, profiled Larry, remarking, Ho, da smooth Uncle can still sing! And the San Jose Mercury, the Honolulu Advertiser (Hi, Wayne Harada!), and others are on the case. We may actually sell a few CDs before this is all over.

By the way, if you snap up a copy soon, you will have a collectors item. The manufacturer mistakenly left off Larrys name from the cover. The errors being fixed. Meantime, buyers are getting a true rarity It is da kine, bruddah!