Released: 21 May 1971 (UK), 17 May 1971 (US)
Paul McCartney: vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, xylophone
Linda McCartney: backing vocals
Hugh McCracken: acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Denny Seiwell: drums
Paul Beaver: synthesizer
David Nadien, Aaron Rosand: violin
Marvin Stamm, Mel Davis, Ray Crisara, Snooky Young: brass
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
The fifth song on Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 album Ram, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was issued as a single in the United States. It became his first post-Beatles number one single.
The song was partly inspired by Albert Kendall, who had worked with McCartney’s father Jim at Liverpudlian cotton merchants A Hannay & Co. Kendall was a clerk at the business, and subsequently married Jim’s sister Milly, making him Paul’s uncle Albert.
I had an uncle – Albert Kendall – who was a lot of fun, and when I came to write Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey it was loosely about addressing that older generation, half thinking ‘What would they think of the way my generation does things? ‘That’s why I wrote the line ‘We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert’. There’s an imaginary element in many of my songs – to me, Admiral Halsey is symbolic of authority and therefore not to be taken too seriously. We recorded it in New York and George Martin helped me with the orchestral arrangement. I was surprised when it became a big hit.
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McCartney also suggested that the Admiral Halsey in the lyrics was loosely based on World War II US Naval officer Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr, commonly known as Bill or Bull Halsey. “As for Admiral Halsey, he’s one of yours, an American admiral,” McCartney said.
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was one of the few songs on Ram about which John Lennon spoke favourably. although he was typically disparaging about its range of disparate elements.
I thought it [Ram] was awful! McCartney was better because at least there were some tunes on it, like Junk. I liked the beginning of Ram On, the beginning of Uncle Albert and I liked some of My Dog’s Got Three Legs. I liked the little bit about ‘Hands across the water’, but it just tripped off all the time. I didn’t like that a bit!
As suggested by the title, Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was a song in two distinct parts, but contained several more unfinished fragments of tunes that McCartney weaved together. The song comprises 12 distinct parts, some of which are repeated during the course of the song.
The mid-tempo opening two minutes are McCartney at his most melodious, showing doubters that his songwriting skills hadn’t died with The Beatles. It also featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged by The Beatles’ producer George Martin.
Martin’s contribution was not credited on the album, and was unknown by the general public for nearly 30 years. His score sheets for the orchestral arrangement mistakenly bore the title Uncle Arthur.
McCartney conducted the orchestral musicians; the recording took place in Studio A1 at A&R Studios in New York. According to producer Phil Ramone, “The funny thing is about 20% of the orchestra didn’t know who he was. They were classical players.”
The song’s second half featured the Admiral Halsey motif, three instances of the “Hands across the water/Heads across the sky” refrain, and the “Live a little, be a gypsy, get around” passage. The outro alone is in two distinct parts, the first with country and western guitar licks, moving into a segue that marks the beginning of Smile Away.
Admiral Halsey was notable for its production, which contained various sound effects: rain, a vocal approximation of a telephone tone, sea birds and wind. Paul and Linda also demonstrated their best upper class English accents (“We haven’t done a bloody thing all day”; “Butter pie?”).
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Paul gurgling right before the telephone voice comes in. That sound was his imitation of a British telephone ring. He was supposed to give the engineer a cue when he wanted the lowpass filter dropped in for the Admiral Halsey character. The engineer made the switch too early and the filter came in on one of the gurgles! Paul didn’t care, though. To him, it was all about the feel of the music.
In the studio
The backing track for Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was first recorded in November 1970 at Columbia Studios in New York, with David Spinozza on guitar. However, the song was later re-recorded with Hugh McCracken before a number of overdubs were added.
Security was tight, and each day Paul and Linda would come up the back elevator with their kids and a playpen, which we set up in the front of the control room. I was a part-time nanny since Mary would often be crawling around the console and sitting on my lap! The interplay between Paul and Linda was sweet, especially when they were on-mic. Linda actually came up with some parts on her own — the entire backing vocals on Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey consists of the two of them — but when she needed a hand, Paul was great with her.
We used a combination of U87s — if we were working on something smooth — and Shure SM57s for the rockier stuff throughout the album. Paul didn’t care what mic you put on him, although he did like the U87. He’s such a great singer. I know that the vocals they cut over at CBS are Paul singing live right off the floor with the rhythm section into an Electro-Voice RE20, which was a relatively new mic at the time. They recorded the telephone section over at CBS, as well. That character voice was also Paul, with a simple highpass filter engaged to give the telephone effect.
From around 1966 onwards, McCartney tended to arrive at the studio with clear ideas of how he wanted his songs to be recorded. This often bred dissatisfaction or resentment from his fellow musicians, who occasionally felt their suggestions were being dismissed by the single-minded McCartney.
Although McCracken he had previously worked under McCartney’s close supervision, on Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey he was given free rein to compose his own parts.
This song represented a breakthrough in our musical relationship. Paul is a genius. He sees and hears everything he wants, and would give specific instructions to me and the drummer. But he didn’t know what he wanted the guitar part to be like on this song. I asked him to trust me, and he did. After I came up with the parts, he was very pleased. For the rest of the record, Paul let me try things out before making any suggestions.
The flugelhorn solo, meanwhile, that marks the beginning of the Admiral Halsey section, was performed by American bebop trumpeter Marvin Stamm.
When Paul decided he wanted a short solo from one of the horn players – me, Snooky Young, Mel Davis, Ray Crisara – someone in the section yelled out, ‘Let the kid do it!’ Paul must have liked the idea, because he asked me to go ahead with it.
By the time this session occurred, I had been in New York for about four years working as a studio recording musician, so I felt very comfortable within the community, although I was only 31 years old at the time. Paul was very relaxed in the studio, he did not try to cause any tension. He was also very open and respectful of everyone. We were going to do the brass for three different songs in three separate sessions, completely apart from the strings overdubs.
For Admiral Halsey, we listened to the backing track, that had a scratch vocal on it and the solo was the last thing we recorded for the track. There was nothing terribly difficult to play. THe most difficult thing was to make the music sound the way Paul wanted it to sound. It was a challenge. He sat on a chair and sang the part, that he would have like to sound as much as possible close to the old radio days.
Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013), Luca Perasi
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was released as a single in the United States on 2 August 1971, as Apple 1837. Its b-side was Too Many People.
The single topped the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1971, becoming the first in a string of McCartney’s number one singles throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was an epic thing, a Number 1 in America, surprisingly enough. I like the little bit that breaks in: ‘Admiral Halsey notified me, da-da-da, had a cup of tea and a butter pie.’ It’s a bit surreal, but I was in a very free mood, and looking back I like all of that. It must have freaked a few people, ’cause it was quite daft.
McCartney received a Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey in 1971.