Jazz Professional               



Frank conversation


One thrill after another
Everything is the answer
Frank conversation
Big band salute

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980

So you’d say that musically Frank has never been better?

I think he gets better as he gets older. And when I say older—it’s older in numbers. It’s only a number.

I think he’s younger now than he was twenty–five years ago. He looks marvellous, he feels marvellous, and he’s singing marvellous. And it’s amazing how he gets you up, the minute he walks on stage. If you don’t get up for it—then something is wrong with you.

Well, I mean, you’ve been behind him all these years—so you’re some authority to be able to say that he’s at a peak now.

He’s definitely at a peak. Well, let’s put it this way—I don’t think this man will ever reach the kind of peak where you say it stops and after that you go downhill. He has so many levels of peaks, that there’s no end to it. And he’s the only one I know who is that way. After seeing him and being with him all this time, I can say: there are no levels with this man. He’s on a ladder that reaches, step by step, to the high heavens.

As a kind of an explanation for what has happened, the way I tend to analyse it is: to my mind, just before his so–called ‘retirement’ in 1971, a certain amount of strain was evident; there were some TV shows that did not show him at his best . . . so he had a break . . .

That’s right—he sounded tired. I agree. I don’t know if we can call that a retirement; I would say he just took a rest. When he came back, after laying off for eighteen months, naturally it was a strain at the beginning. But I must say, the past four or five years this man has just ,been incredible.

But the fact is, though, the actual volume of singing he does now has never been greater, has it? How much work do YOU do with him per year?

Well, we average anywhere between twenty and twenty–four weeks a year—and that’s quite a bit. Right—nearly half the year. Then, at the beginning of the year, he made a picture, in which he was involved for three or four months—now, that’s hard work, too. But while he did that, we were still doing weekends at Atlantic City. So this is a man with a strong constitution: he’s made of iron, you know—and I guess maybe that’s what keeps him going. There was a time, though, when he was making movies just about all the time—and I would think that that detracted from his concentration on the singing. But he seems to have really got down to it now.

Sure—you’ve got the movie on your mind, you’ve got lines to remember; I would think that it’s hard to do three things at one time. Still, when he walks out on that stage . . . many people that I’ve spoken to—they wouldn’t care even if he just spoke the words. The charisma, the electricity is there. But, thank ‘God—and hopefully it goes on for many, many more years—his voice holds up, the way it is now.

It more than holds up. It’s like a finely–tuned instrument that seems to be getting polished and improved as he goes along, somehow.

He is an instrument. Usually, when you do a show, and you continually play the same charts . . . I remember, playing with many, many other people—after a week you get bored. But you never get bored, with him. I’ve been playing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” for twenty–five years—I recorded that with him —and I still enjoy playing it. Yes, the excitement remains. It really is astonishing. He is one of a kind, and that’s it.

Your library, of course, is enormous now. As we speak, I haven’t seen the show as yet this time, but is it a fact that there is more of an emphasis on the older material, rather than newer songs?

Yes, there is—and I’m glad that he’s doing that, because that is Sinatra. We’re doing some charts from “The Wee Small Hours”, and things like “Willow Weep For Me”, which was very big for him. I love the programme—I enjoy it now more than at any other time. This is what he is.

I mean, he always does full justice to new material—but certain material he’s tried doesn’t seem to have been really ideally suited to him.

Like some of the light rock, so to speak? Well, to me that’s not Sinatra. But there are a few recent ballads in the show, that were done in the “Trilogy” album—“Summer Me, Winter Me” and “You And Me” —I think they’re beautiful, and he sings his butt off. Now we have the new hit—“New York, New York”.

That’s a new song in a sort of an old vein.

Right. And I must say, if you go to New York in the near future—wherever you go, you’ll hear the chart. You can go to a restaurant, it’s there; you go to the ball park, it’s played there; go to the men’s room, you still hear it—wherever you go.

On the subject of the “Trilogy” album—one thing unique about it, apart from its overall brilliance, is that there is a sheet giving the total personnel; every single musician taking part is named. That has never been done with a Sinatra LP before. It involves nearly four hundred names. You were on the first album and the third, weren’t you?

The first and third—that’s it. What happened: the second album, written by Don Costa, was done in New York, and, of course, our guys live in Los Angeles and Las Vegas—it didn’t pay for us to go in, so to speak. They were all done towards the end of last year, but the Billy May and the Gordon Jenkins were made in Los Angeles. Now, the Gordon Jenkins section of it was excellent, I thought—he composed it, arranged it, conducted it, and wrote all the lyrics—and ‘Gordie is one of the finest arranger/composers there are, in the whole country. But some of the critics were quite harsh about that third record—I don’t think they knew what they were talking about.

Well, in fact, it was a very interesting departure for Frank —a very broad–ranging suite, specially written for him.

I thought it was done in very good taste—just superb. It was too far above the critic’s heads, though, for them to realise that.

I suppose they’re so used to a set formula from him, that they can’t adapt themselves to something different.

Of course. But I’m glad that did so well—and I presume we’ll do some more albums in the near future. I think there are some jazz albums to be done, too—he’s going to go the whole route.

That’s wonderful news, especially as there was such a long gap between this and the one before. I kept hearing from various people that he’d been in the studio during those years. For instance, Harry Edison told me that he’d been on an album with Frank, arranged by Nelson Riddle, of all girls’ name–title songs. What happened?

It was never released. I think we ran short of girls! But maybe some day that will be put out; I think there are a few more charts that were written. He’ll get around to it. But he was talking about doing some jazz charts—just going in and wailing. So I’m sure we’ll have Harry Edison back on that——hopefully. Isn’t Harry a gorgeous player? He’s a tradition in himself.

To speak about the tribute Frank paid to you last December—as an admirer of you both, I thought that was a marvellous thing.

Well, I was quite proud of it, I can tell you, and I’m going to treasure that little article. Coming from him, it’s got to be the greatest compliment that I’ve ever received.

The first thing he says is that he thinks you’re one of the two or three finest drummers in the world. I’d be interested to hear who the other two are!

Oh—he’s probably thinking of Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson. Let me put it this way—there are many, many great drummers; in the past ten years, there’s been a rise in the number. To me, Buddy is . . . he’s my god; there’s nobody like him. Louie Bellson is a great, great artist. Now, you go from there—I could name a dozen drummers who are really great, plus your English drummers. If he mentions two or three of the greatest, then maybe Tony Bennett will name two or three others. You can’t say who is the greatest. I don’t want to be the greatest—I want to be one of the best.

I find a definite parallel between Buddy Rich and Frank. Every time Buddy comes over here, you wouldn’t think it possible that he could have a better band; yet somehow he does—and he’s playing better. It’s the same with Frank.

The exact same thing. Like I said, are no levels for these people. For myself—I’m still learning to play, every day. I feel now like I’m twenty–five years old; I feel marvellous about the instrument.

He mentions the question of tempo; he relies on you to keep the tempo straight. Obviously, this is something you’ve always considered very important.

Look, that’s what the drummer’s there for. I think the drummer’s the captain of the ship anyway; I don’t want to offend any M.D.‘s—some of them are great, and some of them don’t belong in front of a band. Sometimes, if things go wrong, you’ve got to get that steering–wheel and straighten it out right away—and you’ve got to be aware of it. I don’t say I have to do it all that often, but a tempo may start wrong once in a while—and you do it in a way where it’s not obvious. Just ease it down, or ease it up a bit. And that you learn through experience; you don’t pound the hell out of the drums and say “Well, here it is”, you know. Do it nice and easy. You may have an M.D. that gets excited on his count–off—so you’ve got to ease that a bit too. The drummer’s is a hot chair—when you’re working for somebody out front.

As Frank puts it, you’re not a flash drummer; you make yourself an integral part of the orchestration.

That’s been my way of playing ever since I broke in—and the one who taught me that, fortunately for me, was Red Norvo, in my earliest big band days. He was a great teacher, and I’m very grateful to him.

I was very lucky to start with Red Norvo; if I’d started with Kay Kyser, it would have been a different story! I was a seventeen–year–old boy, and that was my first big band—Red Norvo. I admire him—and I thank him. Yes, Red’s time is impeccable; you cannot teach time, but you can acquire it by listening and having your own thing. I went to listen to many drummers as a youngster; there were Chick Webb, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Shadow Wilson—that’s off the top of my head right now. These were very, very great time drummers—musical drummers, who never got in anybody’s way. Which is what the drummer is there for. I learned from these people, and did what I had to do.

Of course, if it comes time for you to take a solo, then you make the most of that.

I do, but I’m basically not a soloist. Of course, in the band days you always had to play drum solos; that was natural. I made the most of it, and I never considered myself a soloist; I went the other route—just being a big band drummer. And it helped quite a bit going to California in the studios, too.

Another statement from Frank: your execution has been so clean that it’s as if you’re playing the melody, without losing the percussive effect.

That I learned from working with the Claude Thornhill band. One of the giants of the writers that we have—Gil Evans was there—and I learned many, many good things from Thornhill. So I was fortunate enough to work with people that I learned from—and I had my ears wide open, believe me. Whatever talent that I had was eventually brought out. I’m not trying to brag, but I must have had something, to play with them.

Again, it was a great privilege and pleasure for me. I’ve learned a lot from Frank—he’s a great, great musician. Then the fact that I worked with Tommy Dorsey helped also, because I knew what Frank liked when I first recorded with him. I wasn’t out to break any world records with solos or anything—I just played for him, and I knew right then and there that he liked it. And that’s the association that there’s been ever since.

Yes, you were on Frank’s first long–playing record, weren’t you?

IF I recall, it was also the first thing that Nelson did with him—“Songs For Young Lovers”. I think it was 1955—it was a big hit. Then there was “Songs For Swinging Lovers”, and all the Billy May albums that we’ve done with Frank. It just worked out; it was a good marriage.

I suppose it would be impossible to name any favourite albums of yours, that you’ve been on with Frank.

There were so many, really; it’s hard to pick one. I’ll tell you a good album: it was one written by Nelson Riddle about ten or eleven years ago. There was a hit single called “Strangers In The Night”: they put that—in the album, and in it were “On A Clear Day’, The Most Beautiful ‘Girl In The World”, “Summer Wind”. That was a great album. So were the ones Billy May did—and, of course, all the ballad albums with Nelson, like “Only The Lonely” and “‘Wee Small Hours”. These are classics.

Then, as a big voice showcase, “The Concert Sinatra” was a classic. But interestingly, I think his voice can be said to be even bigger now than it was then.

I like it better now. Yes, the power is definitely there, and the phrasing . . . well, there’s nobody like him.

Bill Miller always used to say to me that he felt that Frank’s perfect forte was the ballad. He said he regarded Frank as predominantly a ballad singer.

I would have to say that—but, adding to that, he can swing his butt off. And you feel it; I know I do—we all do. Yes, he is swinging more than ever. You’re going to enjoy this programme when you see it. It swings from the beginning to the end —including the ballads. I’m really very proud to be with him.

But people don’t necessarily think of a drummer as a melodic player . . .

You have to be musical—you have to be a musician, not just a drummer, and that takes years and years of playing experience. I think every drummer should play a little piano, and some percussion—it helps you, definitely.

It’s no sort of come–down to play a ballad.

No way—that’s what I learned with Thornhill. You can swing and play a ballad too—it’s a different kind of a swing. But you have to get in a certain mood to play ballads. There were times when it used to be boring working in the studios or doing a TV show. With Mr. Sinatra ballads swing.

Would you like to say a few words about the British musicians you work with over here?

Oh—they’re all excellent players, without a doubt. I love playing with them, You can’t find anybody better than Don Lusher—he’s one of the best players I’ve ever heard. And ,that goes for the entire orchestra. I must mention the leader of the strings, Raymond Cohen—one of the finest concert violinists in the world. He deserves mention. Marvellous players. No problems—and they can swing. 

Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.