Jazz Professional               


The critics

Bill Miller remembers
The critics
Bobby Lamb on tour with Frank Sinatra
Bill Miller talking to Les Tomkins in 1975

Frank’s “retirement” didn’t come as a surprise to me. He had informed me, and several people, that he was planning to retire. And not necessarily for all time—I don’t think he announced it that way, anyway, really. It was a nice hiatus for him, but I never thought he would give up completely—he likes to work too much. After all, how much golf can you play, how much travelling can one do? Yes, I would say his real kicks are in performing.

During that period, I just freelanced. I do what we call “the outside” an occasional TV show, a few record dates here and there, a few clubs. I sorta took it easy myself, really; I welcomed the break, to a degree. I’m normally somewhat lazy, but when I’ve been off for as much as four weeks, it’s too long for me—I need to be doing something. And luckily, I found enough to do.

Sure, Frank kept me on a retainer the whole time; so I didn’t really have to worry financially. However, at the same time, the music business in general in Los Angeles was a bit slow, for some reason or other. And I’m afraid I was a little bored, yeah. When he decided to go back to work, I welcomed it. Well, after more than twenty years, I know him; I like the way he works and I like working with him.

In the course of that two–year break, he did three or four benefits in different cities, where he sang, but maybe only one song, as a gesture. So that could hardly be called working. I didn’t notice any difference in his voice, though; maybe he practised during the afternoon, or warmed up, so to speak—but it’s pretty hard to go wrong with one song! Since he’s been, back, certainly, his voice has improved tremendously. He has taken some of the songs down to lower keys—not all of them, but quite a few. He might take one tune down half a tone; another song he might take down a whole tone. Which is normal—if they work, why not? Of course, I disagree totally with the critics who say he is “past it”.

When recorded evidence to the contrary exists, each album better than the one before, I just don’t know how they can say that. He sounds great on the live performances, too. I mean, I don’t say he might not have a night where he’ll have a little problem with his voice—but that’s just a temporary thing. The live show is, the test, where he works at least forty–five minutes; on some of the concerts, he’s been doing up to an hour and fifteen minutes. Holds up beautifully.

And he has certainly not left out any difficult material. As I said, he’s taken down one or two of the rangey songs. I mean, he can still hit the Es and the Fs—but there weren’t that many of them, anyway. What’s the difference, whether he hits an F or an E flat? As to whether he’s more of a jazz singer now—that expression always bothers me. Is there such a thing? Oh sure, he’s good at bending the melody, and injecting a jazz feel into a song. But being such a fine ballad singer, he does more or less concentrate on the ballads. And rightly so; his forte, of course, is ballads. On the swinging things, perhaps he does swing more now than he used to.

Let’s put it another way—he sounds now just as good, if not better than he has at any time in the last four or five years. He’s working at it. He wants to carry on for years yet—I’m pretty sure he does. Why not? If only to prove the critics wrong! Some mean things have been said about him—they’re just not true, and I don’t know why they say them.

In particular, I don’t understand the references to his physical appearance. I can understand a critic saying: “I don’t like the way he sings”—well, that’s his opinion and he’s entitled to that. But you just don’t pick a man apart personally. I’m sure any star doesn’t have a world–wide following of all the masses. Bound to be a few people who maybe prefer Ray Charles, or some of the country singers or rock singers who are popular—it’s understandable, up to a point. But why not appreciate everything? However, it doesn’t always work that way.

A lot of the Press have treated Frank very badly; so he hits back—isn’t that natural? Constructive criticism anybody can tolerate, but not vicious criticism. I haven’t any idea why this apparent vendetta goes on. I only know that if I were a major star, and if I chose not to have my picture taken or be interviewed, then why should I be? I would be entitled to my privacy, just like anybody else—that’s my opinion. Generally speaking, he reacts against arrogant people who seem to think otherwise. He reserves his right of refusal; he’s a citizen, as we all are—the man who’s doing the interviewing has that same right. And having been misrepresented so many times, he’s bound to be reluctant and wary.

His musicianship is what matters, yes. Well, he is a musician—at least, at heart. He doesn’t read music, but he feels it, he understands it, he knows what it’s all about. It’s there. You just have to see him to know how musically exceptional he is watch him perform, and listen. That’s the only way to defeat the critics just go out and do a bang–up job, and there it is.

Most of the time, when he gets something new, he first tries it out with me. First of all, he has to like the melody, the construction of the song; secondly, he studies the lyric, as he reads it. And if it’s not all there, if the lyric is not what it should be, he’ll reject the song. Occasionally, if he likes the melody that well, maybe he’ll try to convince the lyric–writer to rewrite it. That’s only happened on rare occasions, though. Yes, certain songs have been specially tailored for him.

Has all the close contact with him rubbed off on my own performance? I think so. Yeah, I’ve learned to be more responsive, a little more sensitive to what I’m doing. If I have something to do with him, let’s say, that’s just piano and voice, I’ve learned to perhaps underplay just a little, to be sure I don’t get in his way, so to speak. My job is to provide something fitting, with the best taste I can manage. As for my expertise at that, that’s not for me to say—but I try.

I don’t do any arranging now. I’m not as fast, as productive, or as good as some of the chaps who have been writing in the last fifteen years, let’s say. Around seventeen or eighteen years ago, I wrote some arrangements for him—it’s mostly the small group things I’ve done. Well, on the “Wee Small Hours” album, those were more or less just sketches. We did a tour one time, and I wrote seven or eight charts for a septet that we had; several other writers contributed also.

When I’m conducting, and have complete control of the music, I usually just play on the things where I know he’d feel more comfortable with me playing. I can generally tell which ones those are. Not that we haven’t had some good pianists when I’ve been conducting. But there is a little break–in period; it just saves time when I do it, because I know his likes and dislikes—the approach, so to speak.

Of course, we work with the best musicians, around the world. The orchestras in various countries, presuming that they are highly qualified—most of them are—have certain little differences in their concepts. And those differences, wherever you go, even though they’re playing the same arrangements everybody else has played, is sometimes pleasant.

Working with the Woody Herman band was great; they definitely got their own feeling into the scores. Naturally, we added strings to the band. They were with us on tour for about two weeks; the Madison Square Garden thing came as the climax to that, really.

There are these highlights, but I’m inclined to be a little blasé, because most of ‘em are just so good it sort of spoils one. Yes, you get to take quality for granted. But I’m looking forward to September in New York—we’re going to do. two weeks at one of the theatres with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Hopefully, Ella and Frank will have a nice long medley to do at the end of the show; that’s what he wants to do. That should work very well; should be a lot of fun, really—and musical.

As a matter of fact, we’ve been working much more than he used to. We used to only travel perhaps seven or eight weeks a year—maybe nine; last year I think we were out travelling for about seventeen weeks, and this year could be the same. It doesn’t sound like a lot of weeks out of the year, but when you do concerts, a series of one–night stands, one can become a little weary. But it’s not seventeen weeks in succession; it’s spread out. You know, two or three weeks here, two or three weeks there, go home for two weeks and rest like that. I think he does, too.

Sure, there are certain regular places he works. Las Vegas is one of the few places left where he can work a club—there aren’t any in L.A. or in New York. that I know of—of the necessary size. That’s why he will be in a theatre in New York. I think it’s the Uris Theatre: I don’t know what it holds, but I ’ would imagine a thousand or twelve hundred people—that’s enough.

Yes, previously he was making films part of the time. He might do another film, I don’t know, depending on the script. It would be my guess that music was what he most wanted to get back to. He probably gets a lot of scripts, but if they’re not for him, no point in doing them.

As for my spare time, music plays quite a part in that. I like to go out and listen to music; I play my records, of course. I have all of Frank’s, and I listen back to them at times. I listen to classical music as well as jazz; I’m on a Rachmaninov kick right now, particularly some of the piano things. In the jazz field, I like some of the present–day groups, using electric piano, very much, but I must say my heart is in the period of twenty or so years back. Does that mean I’m getting old? I hope not. I mean, I like all kinds of music, when it’s good, but it’s just that I seem to go back to the Basie sound . . . even the Ellington sound—it’s fun to go back to that. Frank never did more than the one album with Ellington—and that album didn’t really happen, for some reason or other. It might have been lack of time. I don’t know of any new recording collaborations in the offing.

The one that I really liked was the “Sinatra And Jobim” album. Claus Ogerman wrote the arrangements, you know, and he knew exactly what to do with that kind of music very successful. Yeah, the feeling in the studio was very good. That one happened, certainly. .

I like small group playing, but I think it’s just as well that he hasn’t done much work with anything like that septet we had about twelve years ago. A small group tends to become a little monotonous after a while, working night after night. It’s fun, but there doesn’t seem to be any anticlimax. And you’re limited as far as the variety of sounds you can get out of piano, guitar, vibraphone, flute. It’s natural that he’d prefer to use the full orchestral spectrum.

In music in general, after the rock phase, the trend seems to be reversing now—to what degree, I’m not sure. But I think jazz is on the up–swing again. Jazz will always be around, but it’s nice to hear that more people are going out to hear live jazz music, and buying more jazz records. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard too many of the jazz groups live myself—I  haven’t been in the right place at the right time. I’ve heard the records, of course. When you’re moving around, it’s a matter of knowing who’s where and when.

All in all, I’ve had a varied career, and I’ve no complaints. I’m part of something musical, and I like it—what else could I ask for? As well as an employer, Frank is a good friend. As a person, he’s complex sometimes, but then we all are, aren’t we? There’ve been times when I’ve been angry with him, and times when he’s been angry with me. There are also the majority of times, when he’s just great. I respect him, and as a genera1 statement, I just have to say that I like him as a human being—because he is that.

Most definitely, I think the Sinatra era will be looked back on as a very important one. His career speaks for itself as to his great contribution to music. And his albums speak for themselves most eloquently; I won’t say they were all gems, but most of them were. The same goes for his live performances. I hope and believe that he has a lot more yet to say.

Copyright © 1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.