Part 1

Adapted from an interview by Les Tomkins in 1976

Parts 1 2 3 4 5

Gene Krupa and I grew up four blocks away from each other: I knew him since I was a child. We were dear friends, and I had enormous admiration for him, certainly, as a great innovator, along with some of the other early drummers. He was a very big influence on many people. As regards my feelings about drummers—there’s Buddy Rich, and then there’s everybody else. Buddy Rich is one of a kind; he’s a genius, and that’s all there is to it. I’m going to write a biography of him, by the way.

Gene was the man who popularised drums, with his tremendous showmanship—obviously, they had never been popularised before. Now, that’s a different story, because he was with thirteen or fourteen other men, and featured; he was part of a band that was not only superb, but superb showmanship-wise as well.

There were Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and Benny Goodman himself, who was a marvellous showman in his own right, as far as I’m concerned.

We’ve been doing the Krupa tribute for over a year. There’s this big nostalgia chase in England right now, with bands and stuff. which is super—but I did not originally frame the number to cash in on any of this. Basically, it was framed on an idea I’ve had for years, and have never really brought to fruition. I’ve always done a drum number in my act, but it’s really been an excuse to play drums, as part of what I would hope the audience regards as multifacetedness. This is the first time there’s been a reason for it.

I have a set of drums that Gene used in 1938—the old Slingerland drums. When I found out that it was available, I couldn’t believe it. There was one set left, because everything else of his had burned in a fire at his home, including a couple of old sets, that he kept for memorabilia’s sake.

I said to Don Osborne, Senior: “Please—I’ve got an idea, that I think could be very valuable to me, and maybe ultimately to Slingerland.” He pored over the idea, called me a little while later, and said: “Okay, but you’ve got to see these. There’s a twenty-six-inch bass drum, and it’s yellow with age. I don’t know if you’d want to uses these drums.”

Nostalgia-wise or not, the average audience, looking at rather cruddy-looking drums from 1938, is going to say: “Well, swell—but for God’s sake, at least refurbish ‘em.” So that’s what we did; we had new shells put on. And the logo on the bass drum head is OK; it’s his old logo, the bigger shield that he used with his own band—I had it copied exactly. Consequently, there’s an eerie feeling some nights about doing that tribute to Gene, when you’re playing on the drums that he probably used in Some Like It Hot, or one of his early dates, with Corky Cornelius on trumpet, Remo Biondi—that whole band, of that era.

I didn’t bring this drum set over here, though, because bringing them all the way from Los Angeles is tough. Don Senior has always been marvellous—extremely co-operative whenever I’ve needed him to be. I asked if he could supply the drums here, and he did—exactly the two sets of drums that Donny (his son) and I use in the States, supplied by Keith Tonks and Cleartone.

I was a singer professionally when I was four years old, and I did not really begin to play any instrument—the first one, of course, was drums—till I was about nine years old. My initial career, really, as a baby, was as a singer. As Buddy Rich, for instance, broke into the business at the age of three, I think it was, on drums, so indeed did I break into the business at the age of four as a singer. And never was out of the business since then.

It happened totally by accident at the Black Hawk Restaurant in Chicago, where my parents took me for dinner. There was a very famous band of its day there, called the Coon-Sanders Orchestra. I was in a sailor suit, and one of ‘em commented: “What a cute little boy.” My mother said: “Yes, and he listens to your broadcasts religiously, knows every song—he sings right along with the radio.” They took me up, I sang “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, and apparently it was some sort of silly little sensation in those crazy days, back in the late ‘twenties. So I became a regular feature in there—for fifteen dollars, every Monday night.

And that led my going into the vaudeville area. I was in a lot of vaudeville units. And I sang with other bands in Chicago, among them Frankie Masters. Buddy Rogers, of Mary Pickford fame, movie fame, etc. had an orchestra, and I sang with that band, at the Sherman Hotel—the old College Inn. I didn’t really start writing songs till I was about fourteen—really kind of dabbling in it. And one of ‘em, “Lament To Love”, I got published, and the darn thing got on the hit parade.

Because I was so young, I got a lot of publicity about it; that was the beginning of the song–writing phase of my career. There were five records on “Lament To Love”: Harry James, Les Brown, Sonny Dunham, Lanny Ross and Roy Smeck—whoever that was.

I got into radio when I was eight, and I was one of the busiest child dramatic actors in America. I think. Because Chicago was to radio what Hollywood was to films and Broadway was to the theatre: it was the hub of radio. How many radio shows I did is lost to memory now; it’s in the hundreds—maybe even close to being in the thousands—for the span of years from the time I was eight till I was about fifteen.

Whenever I did a good performance, my Dad and my uncles, who were rabid movie fans, took me to the movies. There began my underlying love affair with film. But, of course, the big band world also held a great attraction for me.

As I think back on it—my greatest desire was to be a singing/drumming/arranging bandleader; my greatest regret is that I was born ten years too late for it. Because by the time I’d reached any kind of age where I could be with a band, it was nearly over—that halcyon era.

I reckon the big band era was precisely a decade; it ran from ‘35, when Benny Goodman busted loose at the Palomar, and then at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, and other bands, of course, followed suit—virtually to the end of the war.

During the war, the emergence had been taking place of Sinatra, Como, Dick Haymes, and, to an extent, Bob Eberle—although he never reached the heights that he should have, in my opinion, because he was a superb singer. Then it seemed that attention was defocused from bands, as being the prime element in music, as far as popularity was concerned, and was refocused on the individual singers. I’m just grateful that I got to sing, play drums for a while, and arrange for a vocal group with the Chico Marx Orchestra.

Now, when you say Chico Marx, there’s a little grin at the side of people’s faces. But it was a tremendous swing band; it had nothing to do with corn. It had people like Marty Marsala, George Wettling, Barney Kessel in it; it was put together by Ben Pollack, who created some of the greatest bands of all time, and had one of the best of his own; I mean, it was a genuine thing. with arrangements by Paul Weston and Freddie Norman—a black arranger in those days, whose only other writing was for Tommy Dorsey.

Cooking, kicking charts—a really good band. By and large, that was my only real band experience. A lot of people think I worked for Artie Shaw, when the Meltones and I made those records with him. I never worked for Artie Shaw, ever; he never paid me one penny. I worked with Artie in conjunction with Musicraft Records: we were both under contract, and we were slung together by the record company. But only as joint artists; he was never my employer. He was my idol, though—I thought he was just great.

I would say the Meltones, as a purely vocal group, was well above the average at that time. A lot of the groups with bands had a set kind of sound that they made, that could become a little stilted.

What I tried to do with the Meltones, really, was to think of them as a sax section, and write for them that way. Although, if I’m to really be honest, I must recall what I said on the back of an album—I wrote the liner note to an album that we did in ‘62, called “Back In Town—Mel Tormé With The Meltones”, on Verve, which had “What Is This Thing Called Love”, “It Happened In Monterey” and some newer things that I’d written.

I had to admit candidly that, first of all, the Six Hits And A Miss had simulated the sound of a band with a lot of the things they did, long before I had the Meltones, and they were a big factor in the way I wrote for the Meltones. So were the Modernaires and a lot of vocal groups, as a matter of fact. We were only a departure because we did sing some band figures as if there were two saxophone sections with Artie Shaw, rather than one. We tried to do it that way—and it seemed to work. We kept the group going for three years. We got together in late ‘43, and I broke the group up at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco in November of ‘46.

The reason for breaking the group up was that I was getting offers to go out as a single. And also the fact that, tragically, the best vocal groups in the world just didn’t make it. Certainly, the Hi–Lo’s are a great example of it; they were marvellous, and I’m a tremendous admirer of the group as a group and of Gene Puerling as an arranger—but they starved. For whatever reason, they didn’t dress up in silly, stupid clothes, and forget to bathe, and let their hair grow long. And they made the drastic, fatal mistake of singing in four–part harmony, and of using some good, sophisticated chord patterns.

In short, they were an intellectual group in a time when anti–intellectuality musically was the thing, and they just couldn’t survive— it’s that simple. And the Meltones were the same. I mean, I wrote arrangement after arrangement, and I never got paid for them, because I was the leader. When we did the Fitch Bandwagon, I got a rapid hundred–and–twenty–five dollars a week, and I think the Meltones were making seventy–five a week on that show.

Well, you know, those aren’t living wages, even at a time when prices are lower, when there’s no dearth of economy. So eventually, because I was getting offers, but also because it was a financial consideration, I just had to say: “We’ve got to call halt to this. We’re all working our heads off, singing like mad, and I’m slaving away writing these arrangements—and the rewards just aren’t enough.”

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 Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved