Robert Maxwell x 30 

- by Sabine Meijers (IJHF), 2012 


‘Robert Maxwell’s career as a soloist far surpassed that of any other harpist before him, even the celebrated Harpo Marx’, reads the liner note of his album ‘the Harp in Hi-Fi’. 


Although this is not his earliest record, it is a great introduction to Robert Maxwell with two of his most famous compositions making their debut here, ‘Ebb Tide’ and ‘Shangri-La’. For a harpist like me, being European and active in the 21st century, it is somewhat difficult to fully understand the value of Maxwell’s musical legacy at first sight. But upon diving into his music and career, there is only respect and more curiosity towards this great and creative harpist. Yes, it’s easy not to like his somewhat exotic ‘easy listening’ type of music, I mean, it’s popular music from more than half a century ago. Times were completely different, a lot of new things still had to happen for the first time that we now consider outdated. But it is amazing that it was a harpist who wrote those two very popular love songs that hit the charts for a long time. Although, maybe it’s not that strange after all, Maxwell was a great composer and when you listen closer you’ll hear a great harpist pulling the strings as well. He’s just harping another way than you would expect from a classically trained Juilliard/Grandjany Graduate.  


It was World War II, when Maxwell fulfilled his Military Service duties by playing in the United States Coast Guard touring band under the command of Rudy Vallee. Commander/director Vallee asked him to write for the band and put him in the spotlight during performances. And so Maxwell developed his talents towards using the harp in popular music. After his Military Services he went on playing and arranging for tv, radio, and the movies. He even was a summer substitute for no one less than Frank Sinatra on CBS. 


By the time Maxwell wrote his first hit, ‘Ebb Tide’, the world was well in it’s fifties. The world had just recovered from World War II, and was in the middle of the Cold War. There were clashes between Capitalism and Communism. When he wrote his second largest hit, the world was in it’s sixties. The Space Race had begun with the launch of Sputnik 1, and the US was politically in a conservative state. Stereo was introduced, and the long player record received a widespread mass appeal. Rock & Roll became mainstream with Elvis Presley as a leading artist. In jazz, it was the time for stars like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, and many others. Pop Art, with its roots in Dadaism, in opposition to the earlier abstract expressionism, was dominant. A perfect time to write love songs linking surfer boys and girls to eternal love and heavenly surreal beaches. 


When ‘Ebb Tide’ hit the charts in 1964, it was in the midst of the British explosion of music with all the great and pioneering British bands. This record was played right along with them on AM radio in New York City, and stood out most prominently [as read in a comment on YouTube]. According to a retired radio DJ, Shangri-la even threw the Beatles off the first place in the charts of Southern New England! Youngsters of that time now write comments to recordings of Ebb Tide and Shangri-la like: ‘I wil never forget this song, which introduced me to true love, and now I have my own true love of 30 years’. 


Maxwell commercialized his music writing and playing for a big audience. You can see this in the way he marketed his cd’s. In the 50’s and 60’s, record labels put beautiful women on their covers, and we also see this trend on Maxwell’s records. Sometimes within an exotic picture, sometimes more influenced by Pop Art and mass culture. And I bet that we could have seen some beautifully styled Ducktail hairdo’s amongst the male part of Maxwell’s audience!  



Maxwell did not only reach his audience through his performances, cd’s and reviews in common media channels. If you would read the very popular postmodern book of Haruki Murakami, ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, somewhere you would be reading this: ‘Inside, the cleaner’s shop looked the same as ever. The same black boom box played the same kind of mood music, while in back an old-fashioned air conditioner roared along and clouds of steam rose from the iron to the ceiling. The song was ‘Ebb Tide’. Robert Maxwell, harp. I thought how wonderful it would be if I could go to the ocean. I imagined the smell of the beach and the sound of waves breaking on the shore. Seagulls. Ice-cold cans of beer.’ 

Murakami is known to mention a lot of music in his books. In this book, Maxwell is among some very well known composers, such as Rossini, Bach, the Beatles, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Mozart, and many more. 


We know Robert Maxwell because of his unique and sometimes extravaganza approach to music and use of the harp. He was not afraid to use all kinds of technical gadgetry like wiring a harp to lights and synchronize his playing with it. Also, he very much liked to use the overdub from time to time. Overdubbing is a standard technique for recording popular music since the early 1960’s, and we all know the overdubbing of the voices in Bohemian Rhapsody, creating a chorus effect. No one less than Steve Reich became famous because of his overdubbing of 10 guitars and 2 electric bass parts and playing the 11th guitar part live in Electric Counterpoint. But hey, we harpists have Robert Maxwell!  

Read this liner note on this Mercury MG album ‘The Harp in Hi-Fi’ about his whopping 15-time-overdub:  


Two of the recordings in this album are a veritable spree of virtuoso harp playing. His renditions of ‘Limehouse Blues’ and ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown,’ are a composite of 15 successive playings having been dubbed in on each record. So in only two numbers, you actually hear Robert Maxwell a total of thirty times. Only the most versatile musical masters can accurately ‘play-in’ dubs with the precision needed to maintain over-all balance and quality. Pay particular attention to these two numbers and you will be amazed at what Robert Maxwell has accomplished’. 


I am still amazed that I only found out about Robert Maxwell in my late twenties, and only thanks to the internet and the search for harpists that play jazz. Maybe it is because I am European and not American. But still, it’s a pity he wasn’t mentioned in my harp history class at the conservatory. Maybe I am not that much into this style of music, but I could learn a lot from mr. Maxwell. From the choices he made, the way he carried out his artistry, and yes, I also heard a few really nice and groovy jazz licks on some recordings, like his version of ‘Don’t get around much anymore’! Check that one out from his album Peg O’ My Heart! 


Recordings like these make us eager to learn and communicate more about him. Do you have anything to share on Robert Maxwell and his music? Let us know! 




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