Jazz Professional               



Big band salute


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

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1985

Here we are again, then, Irv—four years later. Welcome back.

Thank you, Les. My pleasure, believe me. It’s been a long four years, and hopefully, we won’t have to wait four years again because this is my favourite city. Love it. The London people; just the general atmosphere of the city itself—it’s so much more civilised than any other city I’ve been in.

Have you been working a great deal with Frank since you were here last?

We still do our five, six months every year not in succession; we have three or four weeks off, then go out for a month again, you know we split it up that way. And I might add: it’s been very successful, wherever we go. The crowds have been great; it’s been packed in spite of the press. Which I think are animals most of ‘em, anyway.

Yes—they really went to town on the Canada story —perhaps you can put the record straight on that.

I’d be very happy to. We arrived in Canada for the open–air concert in the ball park: it was a dreary day, and about one hour and a half before show time there was a terrible downpour—almost hurricane style. An hour before the show, they were ready to cancel—I couldn’t see how they did go on. But there were fifteen thousand people in the audience, getting drenched, soaked, whatever. And Mr. Sinatra decided: “As long as there’s that many people, we’ll do the show”—taking into consideration that he and the band were getting wet, and in danger of getting electrocuted. He did a show of forty–eight minutes which was, I think, forty–eight minutes too long. So he did the show and got crucified for doing it, and taking a chance of being killed. I guess he can’t win.

As far as he was concerned, he was keeping faith with all those people.

Oh, definitely by all means and 1 can’t see why, in heaven’s name, they crucified him for that.

Well, they even reduced the amount of time that he played to twenty minutes.

One paper said he did eight minutes; another said twenty–five—but it was forty–eight minutes. Buddy opened the show with his band, but cut it short a bit; between Buddy and Sinatra, the people saw a one hour and ten minutes show. In that pouring rain my God, I thought it was tremendous.

It’s a kind of vendetta that seems to exist between him and the daily papers I guess it’s because he holds out against giving interviews.

Yeah we all know that. Even the promoter was on Frank’s side; he said Frank was completely right, and that the people had got their money’s worth—there was no scene for them to do what they did. So there we go again—but, let’s face it. no matter how many years they’ve been after him with this vendetta, I think Frank really wins out in the end.

He rises above it all. Incidentally you must have been having a ball, travelling around with Buddy all the time.

Oh, yeah he is something. He’s a beautiful person, to begin with and what can I say about his drumming that I haven’t said before? I think he was put on this earth by another planet! The man is approaching what, sixty–seven? I think he’s playing better than he ever did in his entire life. Without a doubt, he is the drummer of all drummers and it’s a joy being with him. As for him playing six weeks after his heart surgery last year that was amazing. He feels great, he’s strong, and it shows, you know.

Has Frank been nagging him at all, about taking it easier after the operation?

Well, at the beginning I think he had some words with him. But he’s fine now—he’s just in great shape. I keep telling him he’s the worst drummer in the world, but he won’t listen to me! And that band—as you know. it backs Frank, and I must say: it’s one of the greatest cooking bands that I’ve heard in many, many a year. These kids are marvellous; they’re great players, and Buddy should be very proud of them. And they do a tremendous job behind Frank. Of course, Buddy expects players to be up to his level and they prove that they are. I’m glad to see fine young musicians like this coming up instead of the garbage that’s been around. This shows me there’s a little turn–about going on; hopefully, it’ll overtake the other scene.

So he’s continuing to use purely big band backings for his songs—there’s been no return to strings?

He’s maintained it I think it’s over three years now. We add three French horns. And it’s got a good sound although you do miss strings at times. But it sounds beautiful.

What musicians make up his regular nucleus now?

W E have a new MD and pianist—Joe Parnello, who used to be with Vic Damone and Tom Jones. Our guitarist Tony Mottola, who was with us last time, is still here. And we have a new bassist Don Baldwin, from L.A.; I believe Gene Cherico got a little tired of the travelling and decided to stay home. And it’s been great. I’m an old warhorse I keep going! I love it. I’m back where I started from, forty–five years ago; as you know, I spent thirty years in the studios in L.A., and I like what I’m doing now. I feel very young again and that’s just the way I want to feel. Although the travelling, between forty–five years ago and now, is a little different. You used to sit in a bus for five hundred miles; so it’s much easier now.

It’s very good news that you have a new big band album of your own out. When was that made?

It was recorded about a year–and–a–half ago, in New York, while we were at Carnegie Hall. The album actually was in concept about ten years ago, but the producer wanted it as a hard rock album. I couldn’t see it that way; it’s not my bag—although, as a rock album it probably would have sold much better than it is now. Anyway, we finally did it, my way.

The unfortunate part is: I went with a company I didn’t know was going broke; so we had very little distribution. The final outcome: I purchased my contract back about two months ago, which gives me full control of the album. I sell it through mail order now, and while in London I’m contacting several distributors and speaking with a few of the record stores here; I think we’ll work out something beneficial. It will also be sold in all the colleges and high schools; there are drum charts with the album, and students can play with it. So here we are starting all over again with it and it looks like it’ll have a future.

The writing is by Torrie Zito, who’s been around for quite a while and has been MD for Tony Bennett and others. He also wrote for Frank’s new album, didn’t he.

Let’s see.. . Oh, he did “Teach Me Tonight” for that. A fine writer—he did a superb job on the album.

Was the concept always that of using songs associated with Sinatra?

It was. I picked the ten I thought were ones mostly sung exclusively by Frank; I think these ten were big hits for him. Of course, we could pick out others, and go on for ever. Hopefully, if this does well now, maybe we can do another one; I’d like to get two or three in the bag with this. He must have recorded two thousand—twenty–five hundred tunes.

But there haven’t been many albums under your name, have there?

Actually, I’ve done three, Les. I did one for Capitol; I forget the name of the album, but there were five drummers Buddy Rich, Dave Black, Stan Levey, Alvin Stoller and myself. In those days I got a flat fee. Then I had my own album under Somerset Records when percussion albums were big; it was called “Around The World In Percussion”—got a flat fee for that also, and I had no way of telling how well it did. With this present album, I think we’ve got a good shot. wanted to do this, and I felt that there was a little resurgence with the big bands in the last two or three years so the time was ripe. However, another thing: after I sign with this company, I get a call from RCA the next day—wanting the album. Timing and luck is everything. But we’ll be doing another one.

Well, it’s long overdue… you’ve been doing all this great drumming all this time...

I‘ve had a very beautiful career, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to accomplish what I have. I intend to go on and on and, hopefully, come back here and do some clinics with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We’re working on that. There’s so many avenues to go now; there are clinics, appearances in the schools, and I think the album’ll be getting the publicity that we finally needed. It’ s receiving tremendous airplay in the States. It’ s not a wild album; it’ s more on the commercial side, and played well. The solos and ensemble work are of a standard to make it good listening. I understand they’ve been using it for exercise classes—it had the right tempos for that. In Washington and Philadelphia, it did come out on top as the Number One big band album which made me very happy.

Do you get chances to get in much general jazz playing these days?

Not too often, because there’s always conflictions. It seems every time I do get a call to do a jazz thing we’re out on the road so there’ s very little opportunity for it. But in spare times, when I’ m home, there are a few that I can handle and get to. Sometimes I sit in somewhere. And there are times I just goof around and play a lot of golf and relax.

Drums, of course, are your first love.

Oh, of course. Family first—then my drums. That’s my lifestyle.

Copyright © 1985 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.