Singing Blues with Basie
Blues with Basie
Talk of the Town
Robert Farnon talking
Tony and Buddy
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1966
From my experience with them, British musicians are very good. My favourite is Robert Farnon. I keep listening to his recordings, and it’s an ambition of mine to do an album with him some day. We’ve been talking about it for the last fifteen years. I think he’s the best orchestrator there is.Of course, I’ve always been involved with musicians. I had my own group for about seven years. Before that, I had Chuck Wayne as my musical director. Then Ralph Sharon was with me for a lone time. and now I have Tommy Flanagan. Just piano and voice, and then we rub shoulders with artistry. We run into Woody Herman, Count Basie or Duke Ellington, and join And the combination seems to work out real nice. Recently in Los Angeles I worked with Basie and Buddy Rich together. Buddy played drums with Count Basie’s orchestra. A very gratifying evening.
It’s funny how much Basie can teach everybody around him by not saying anything—just by his actions. He really enjoys his work. It’s very pleasurable to him to perform to audiences. And he always has a good orchestra.
It’s hard to explain how I felt the first time I ever sang in front of the Basie band. It was something I’d dreamed of, and I never thought that it would ever become a reality—but there it was. And whenever I get with the orchestra now, they seem to play better and better.
Singing blues with Basie is another kind of bag, and it’s actually the truest way to sing with the band. The famous Joe Williams sounded great with them.
Out of all the singers, though, I think the best put–together album I’ve ever heard is the one Basie made with Billy Eckstine, on which he did many blues.
Premise But it’s very interesting how Basie has had different singers create a premise for his orchestra a lot of times—Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine have been with him as vocalists. And it kind of changes the whole concept of the band. Right now they have a new trombone player named Richard Boone, who is also a blues singer and comedian. In the first two bars, he gets the audience and the musicians falling over in their seats. He starts bopping, then he goes into yodelling and all kinds of funny things.
I’d like to speak of your own Ralph Sharon, with whom I’ve had a very close association. As popular as he is, Ralph is a very underrated artist. He taught me an awful lot. When I first started on records, I was stuck into a format and quite inhibited. The record company would tell me what to sing. And I would get to dislike my recordings after I heard them later on. They would kind of gimmick up the backgrounds—thinking of the expedient dollar, instead of something lasting.
And Ralph actually caused the breakthrough for me. At rehearsals, he told me that it wasn’t that difficult to be inspired with good, dedicated musicians around me. He loosened me up, got me to relax and enjoy performing. I’ve followed in that tradition ever since.
He wrote some very nice arrangements for me and I still do them. He’s settled down in San Francisco now. I guess, after so many years of travelling, he’s decided to slow down and have a little family life, which he deserves very much. He’s very happy—he has his own trio on a very popular local television show. Ralph Sharon will always swing—he’s just that kind of guy.
Tommy Flanagan has been with me about a year now—and it’s quite a kick to actually sit down with a pianist who played with Charlie Parker. Almost every song we do becomes a performance in itself. To my ears. I like making recordings now with just Tommy. He got me interested in the medium range, instead of a pushing quality that I had. He decided to bring things down to a natural kind of conversational key.
As for my bringing above–average songs to light—I do it out of necessity. I haven’t got a talent for writing, and almost all of my songs become autobiographical to me. To express myself, I try to look for a song that fits the way that I feel at that time. Identifying with lyrics is the only way I can really sing a song properly.
It takes time to take a song on stage. What happens in the rehearsal studio and what happens in front of a live audience are two very different things. I may take a tempo very fast when we rehearse it, and then find out, once I get it to the audience, that they want it in a very relaxed, down tempo. Then the audience varies from night to night, so your performance changes also. Audiences are the best critics in the world—you get a true sense of where you’re at.
So I prefer live shows. I do a lot of cafe dates, concerts and many colleges. All kinds of mediums. My first television special went out on October 26th. It took quite a while to prepare it, and I’m very happy with the way it came out. We had many famous jazz artists on the show—Bobby Hackett, Paul Horn, Buddy Rich, Milt Jackson, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal; the Ralph Burns Orchestra.
Now, Bobby Hackett—he’s the most dedicated musician that I’ve ever met. Whenever you see him, he rehearses, actually. He’s playing all the time. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Bobby. And it comes out that way, doesn’t it? He has a knowledge of chords from being a guitarist with Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller through the years. It gave him this great ear he has, when he transferred himself over to cornet.
Before I became a singer, I was thinking of becoming a painter. So painting now is a good hobby for me. It knocks off a couple of hours a day—kind of cleans the cobwebs out of my mind. And it’s very relative to music, because it’s all line form and colour. It helps indirectly towards performing in the evening.
Actually, I’ve been singing straight through life. I started when I was about six. I never met an Italian–descent family in America that isn’t musical. Someone has a mandolin or a guitar, and they’re always singing. My first public appearances were in the Army and Navy hospitals for the G.I.‘s. That was a great experience. because you get to realise how much music is wanted by the public that way. Then I worked in some clubs in my neighbourhood in New York City, and it took about eight or nine years for me to actually get going professionally.
There’s a lot of criticism directed against the rock’n’roll groups around today—but I think the earlier the start the better. A good example is Buddy Rich—since I’ve met him, I find out he was entertaining on stages at a very early age. The fact that these young kids who like music are being allowed onstage is very encouraging.
When I first started, I had a group and we auditioned for quite a few agents. And they said: “Well, it’s a very good attempt, but come back in about seven years.” Now, at least, if a teenager feels he’d like to perform, there’s some kind of work for him Then, if he becomes dedicated later on, he just has that much more experience. So I think it’s very good for the whole atmosphere of things.
I like the fact that things seem to be going back to the public appreciating the really sincere musicians like Dizzy Gillespie. There’s an awful lot of talk in the States now about the big bands coming back. Buddy Rich has a great new orchestra, that was received very well in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. With a little encouragement, they’re ready and willing to go on the road. If it happens, I think it can be the beginning of a trend back to big bands again.
It’s been a theory of mine for quite a while that a good way to do it would be the linking up of a name vocal artist with a big band. I could see some very neat combinations—like Jack Jones with Duke Ellington or Nancy Wilson with Woody Herman. Putting on the two together gives the public their money’s worth, and at the same time they hear all these good. sounds. It’s a complete contrasting ‘double package, and it formulates a very good concert.
Right now, Willard Alexander, who is Basic’s manager in the States, is sketching out a tour with Count Basie and myself for Europe. So I hope that becomes a reality, and that we play England, too. It comes off so relaxed, and everybody enjoys it.
Regarding my branching out into movie acting recently—the critics were kind of cruel about the picture, but actually I liked it—as a very first effort on my part. In the words of Lauren Bacall: “All you have to do is get about five under your belt—and you‘ll be off and running.” So I’m ready to withstand the piercing of the vanity until I develop into it. I find it very fascinating. It’s very similar to music, in the sense that if you’re with the right associates the picture comes in good.
Before films, I did some Summer stock, and also studied at the American Theatre Wing for two and a half years. So I have a bit of background. I want to keep doing it—but avoiding being typed. It distresses me how long it takes to make a film. If it isn’t a very interesting part, I’d rather wait for the right one.
A musical film would be ideal—I’d like to do that some day. Music motivates me in everything. Just getting the right song—you never know when you’re going to find it. And it’s not necessarily a new song. The other day I heard Pearl Bailey at the Talk Of The Town here—she sang “On A Clear Day”. I’ve always heard this song, and it’s funny how at times something can be right in front of you—yet you don’t see it. After I heard her performance I got the complete message on the song: Now I can’t wait to memorise it and do it in front of an audience. It’s a very lovely song.
Last Christmas I had a great experience. Right across the street from my hotel, Duke Ellington—on the altar of God—gave a Concert Of Sacred Music, with his whole orchestra. Lena Horne was the guest soloist, Bunny Briggs danced, and there was a full chorus. Having enjoyed it very much, I went back to my hotel room. And I heard these voices coming out of the wall. It got kind of spooky—I thought the television must have switched itself on while I’d been away. I opened the door—and Duke had sent his whole chorus up. They were singing “On A Clear Day”. Wasn’t that something? So now I find myself constantly thinking of that one song.
One of my absolute favourite composers is Johnny Mercer. He just wrote a new song for a Warner Brothers movie called “I Had A Big, Beautiful Ball”. Only he could end up writing words that way. Blossom Dearie showed me a song that he wrote, too—“How Do You Say Auf Wiedersehn?” Isn’t that a good song? Blossom takes a lot of time in finding the right material. When she likes a song, she has a way of simply playing it and singing it correctly.
Every once in a while, Johnny Mercer seems to have a French bag going. He did “When The World Was Young”, “Once Upon A Summertime” and now this one. And you can sense how much these words are meant. It’s probably very similar to Somerset Maugham—like, one incident that happened, which he remembers and feels very much.
I spoke to him about that particular song when I was in L.A. It’s very interesting to speak to the composers and find out how they would like to have their songs done. It kind of gives you the right amount of regimentation. Sometimes you can go way out on an interpretation, and find that the songwriter didn’t like the way that you did it.
On my last album, Johnny Mandel wrote a couple. And there aren’t really that many dedicated musicians in songwriting. I think today there’s Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Heusen, Allan Jay Lerner—just a handful. Johnny Mandel is really a very good composer, because his ideas have a vitalness to them.
They don’t sound like anybody else’s songs. They have the right construction—they’re good for jazz musicians to play later. I understand “The Shadow Of Your Smile” has probably been recorded by just about every name jazz artist.
As for doing my versions of pop songs —there are a few real swingers, such as “Satisfaction”. That has a good feeling to it. However, I may change, but I’ve gotten spoiled, I think. Right now I’m still very interested in what people like Mercer,. Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn are saying. “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think Of Her” is a good example of words and music that have substance and a fresh approach. I like the guys who put this concentrated four hours into their working day. They usually come up with a song that has real solidity to it.
Copyright © 1966 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.