On leaving the Service, where I was mainly a band director, I returned to New York, and I was asked to become the musical director of the Zanzibar Club. They had used bands as an attraction, on a revolving basis, but they'd had them all so many times that they'd used 'em all up. So they decided to change their policy; they were going to present a show. Well, they'd had shows all along, but they were going to concentrate on them now, making them bigger productions, with a chorus and stars like Ethel Waters. They wanted somebody who was a conductor, who would also score the shows. I took that job, and it involved getting a house band together. Then, two weeks after we went in, the fellow who owned the place became seriously ill, and, of course, the club closed.
And there I was with a band on my hands; so I went out with it for a few months—to get my money out. That didn't last long; the last thing in the world I ever wanted was a band. The Decca records under my name weren't done at that time, though; that was after I started working on staff for Decca—they did many of the Lunceford things over. No, during that time, the MGM label had just started—we did a thing for them called "Slow Burn", that would have really been a big record if they'd have got it on the market sufficiently, but they were still operating under wartime manufacturing restrictions. It was written by a guy named Billy Moore, who is in Europe now; he took my place as a writer for Lunceford's band after I left. The fellow who was the head of the New York branch of MGM had been a good friend of mine at Victor; we were the first band to record for them.
As I said, at that time I had no interest in being a bandleader—wow, who needs it? Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't be bothered with it now. I mean, trying to keep a band working for fifty-two weeks a year is ridiculous—I wouldn't consider it. The way we work now is: there are a few places where we are quite popular; both the impresario and I can make money for three weeks. Then I go home and get in bed, pull the covers up and sleep for three weeks!
But the fellows in my band are all very well-established — guys like Panama Francis, who's playing drums with us; Peck Morrison's my bassist. The rest of them are of comparable stature, and they're very much in demand—they're not dependent on my working with the band. I let them know when I have something coming up. For instance, just prior to our trip to Britain, we closed at the Americana after three weeks. The band did very well; so they want us back for six weeks, till the end of their season. The only reason I'm doing this is that I talked myself into it; I suggested to them that if a hotel put in a band such as mine, that's playing the sort of things that people who patronise these places want to hear, they could eventually build up a following like Guy Lombardo used to have at the Roosevelt. They've taken me up on it, and decided to test it out. Ordinarily, I wouldn't take an engagement for six weeks—too long.
Officially, I'm no longer working for a livelihood. I was musical director for the Olympia Theatre in Paris during 1968 and '69. When I went back, I retired. I closed my office; I no longer arranged for a living.
This is funny—I retired in order to go to school again. That's why I left Lunceford's band, way back in '39— not to join Dorsey, but to go to school. And Dorsey offered me a job, which I couldn't very well turn down—glad I didn't, as things worked out. But there's a school in New York, that's quite famous, called The New School. It has an international faculty, and you can select any subject you like. It's so arranged as to accommodate adults who are seeking education for specific lines. So I went there to study things I'd been interested in; I took courses in philosophy, psychology and some humanities courses. But, after a couple of semesters, I came to realise that I was too old, actually, to get a new career. I'd always wanted to be a lawyer, but literally didn't have time. I also found that it didn't interest me as I had anticipated; it's like everything you've been looking forward to for a lifetime—when it becomes a fait accompli, it's never quite what you expected. I'd been through one career—you know, seen it all.
I began thinking of what would be the ideal existence for me. I realised it would have to be something in music, but at the same time I didn't want to become totally involved; I wanted to be able to work at my discretion. Which, incidentally, is very difficult to do. You can't do anything part-way.
As soon as I began doing things with a band again, I had the New York Jazz Repertory Company call me up, asking me to be a music director. Well, in all conscience, I can't refuse, because it's a good thing for music, and I feel that the people who do have the experience and expertise should help get it off the ground. So, once again, I find myself totally involved!
However, it's in a completely different area. Orchestration, when you're a youngster, is a very satisfying thing. To write something, and hear it played, sounding as you had wanted it to sound, is very thrilling. But after fifty years of it—how many thrills are there left? Furthermore, at this point, I'm no longer writing as I did when I was a kid—through the sheer joy of doing it. Now I'm a mechanic. I can sit down and make an orchestration for you that would stop a show at the Albert Hall, and be watching television at the same time. You just call on your experience, the things that you know will work. You're no longer experimenting.
There's nothing new—that's it. It's too bad, but it's inevitable. Not many people have the capacity to go on creating the way Duke Ellington has. If they did, there'd be a lot of Duke Ellingtons. But there aren't.
The situation requires a certain type of writing—so you do it. I don't get up in the morning now and say: "Gee what a wonderful idea", and can't get to the paper fast enough. I only do things for my band . . . like, we're going back in the Americana, and we'll probably do two shows a night—between now and then I'll do something fresh, that we didn't do the last time we were there. Speaking of that—I open in the Americana on the 16th;
on the 26th, the New York Jazz Repertory Company does a concert of Duke Ellington's music. The rehearsals begin on the 23rd! In the meantime, I'll be playing at the club five nights a week. Now, how am I gonna get that two hours of Ellington music written? And I said I had retired!
When you do commercial arranging, you write what the client wants. It's often quite amusing—people come to you because of the work you've done, because of your style, and then they want you to do something completely different! Or they don't know what you can do. Clear to the day my office closed, people used to come in and say; "Mr. Oliver, do you write for strings?" It used to irritate me at first; then I would just put on an album for them—something like the one I did with Sinatra, "I'll Remember Tommy". Just the other day, I had a stupid question, talking about the "Louis And The Good Book" album —"Who did the vocal arrangements?" I said: "I did." "Oh, do you write for voices7 "
Actually, I shouldn't really react the way I do. How could they know? But I think it was because I hated to be stereotyped. Although it took me some time to get over the fact that there were no longer just two worlds of music, too. It takes some living and some thinking to adjust to change. People saying things like that to me was the reflection of their idea of a stereotype—that's why I've resented it.
As for my singing—I got into that in a very casual, left-handed way. Many of the vocals I did early on were a result of somebody not learning it properly, or being unable to do it. Like Lunceford's "Sweet Sue"— that was supposed to be Trummy's vocal; if you noticed, I sang it in his style. Trummy happened to have laryngitis that day; he could play, but he couldn't sing. Dorsey's "Yes, Indeed"— the part that I sang with Jo Stafford was meant to be a band ensemble. As it happened, on the date we had very little time. And the fellows just weren't singing it together well, even though it was written out; most musicians have a block about reading vocal music—it takes 'em a little time to get with it. So Tommy suggested that I do it, as I was there— just a matter of saving time. As I say, I've never aspired to be a vocalist, although I do enjoy it. I like to sing with vocal groups, as much as the solo vocals.
My wife (Lil Clark) and I made a vocal album for Dot. I think you'd enjoy it; it's called "Sy Oliver Backstage". We do versions of things like "Seventy-Six Trombones", just with a rhythm section. I never pursued it. I only did that because my wife said: "You make arrangements for everybody in the world but me. Why don't we do something?"
How I met Lil was: I got out of the Army in 1945, and the Clark Sisters had left the Dorsey band; one of the sisters married one of the musicians in the band, and Lil took her place. About that time, a certain radio station in New York decided to change its policy from classical to pop music. They converted their orchestra, hired Tommy Dorsey to supervise the whole thing, and they put on a weekly variety show called Endorsed By Dorsey. Tommy called me and asked me to write for it and conduct it. I knew the girls were in town; so I hired them for the show. In the meantime, Lil had become one of the Clark Sisters. After working together for twenty-six weeks, Lilian and I were married.
All through the years, Lilian has been what you call here a background singer. She worked with such people as Ray Charles; she did the Perry Como TV show for years. At one time that group did every commercial jingle on the air; they had the whole thing wrapped up. She did many TV shows, and recorded with everybody. It was her choir, actually, on "Louis And The Good Book". That's her voice you can hear taking a solo part in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Of course, I used to use the Ray Charles Singers all the time on the records I did for Decca with people like Ella and Louis—such as Ella's "Smooth Sailing".
In that sense, we've worked together. Other than that, although we've been closely allied in the business, she has her career and I have mine. It's better that way. People always ask me why she doesn't sing with the band. She asks me always why she doesn't sing with the band! I'll tell you what I tell her: she's constitutionally incapable of disassociating herself from the fact that she's my wife. She would be on the bandstand telling everybody what to do, just as she does me!
Lilian is an excellent musician. She had a graduate scholarship on the piano at Juilliard when she was seventeen years old. She's an accomplished pianist. Actually, the way she began singing with the Clark Sisters came from that. She wasn't a singer; she's never intended to be. During the Summer, she was doing accompaniment work for a vocal coach, and the Clark Sisters called this office looking for a girl to take Mary's place. The office sent somebody along, and Lilian went with her to sort of hold her hand. At the audition, Lilian picked up the music and was singing the parts; she can sing anything on sight. So the girls said: "Hey, you're the one that's singing. Why don't you come with us?" That's how she got into it.
I never really got into movie writing—although I nearly did. Dorsey had done some pictures with MGM, which I did the music for—Ship Ahoy and things like that. And MGM offered me a job—just as the Army got me. After I couldn't take it, they offered it to a kid named Calvin Jackson, a very fine pianist who'd been with the Harry James band, and he was there for quite some time.
But I didn't like movie work. It's too confining, and there are too many people to say yea or nay; nobody can make up his mind. It's very much like a record session; A&R men are always afraid to declare themselves, and say "Yes, that's it" in the first take. And so often they wind up, the first take is the one that gets published. The same thing in ad agencies
—that's why I dislike doing jingles. Those guys don't know what they want, and everybody's scared to make a decision. The sponsor's wife'll come along, and maybe their maid burned the toast for breakfast—immediately she doesn't like it. I can't go through that nonsense; I refuse to sit there and hear somebody who doesn't know what he's talking about tell me something's wrong, when I know it's right. I'm a professional, you know—and I don't need it.
Nowadays, my wife and I like to go places we haven't seen, see things we haven't seen—that was a prime reason I came on this tour. Aside from the fact that I like being associated with Dorsey's music. People are always talking about the "ghost bands", asking me if I don't think this is sort of macabre. I knew Tommy very well, and he's the last person who would have wanted his music to die—he put too much into it. Too many people enjoy it. He was a man who hated waste—I hate waste, too. But Lilian loves to travel, and it was an opportunity for us to work together. I wouldn't have come by myself; nor would she. We live rather exclusively; we are each other's lives.
Yes, I'm going on with the band. I have no intention of trying to become an international figure of any sort. It's fun, keeps my hand in, keeps me satisfied. People don't walk up to me and say: "Sy, the band sounds good." They just say: "Thank you." When anybody asks me, what am I playing, I tell 'em I'm playing the music that I happen to like, for my own personal satisfaction. Hopefully, I feel that the people support it.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved