How to succeed in music by really trying
Variety and its virtues
How to succeed
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
In the field of writing music for TV commercials, a problem can be the insecurity of some advertising agencies. Some of ‘em say: “Once you’ve got the melody, may we hear it? Can you make us a demo?” And I kinda shiver—because I make the demo on piano. It’s all piano, no matter what I direct them to: “Well, this is the trumpets here, and they’re doing this, and the trombones are doing that, and the clarinets are doing this.” But they don’t visualise it so well sometimes, and they’ll say: “But. . . it all sounds the same.” I say: “That’s what I’m trying to tell you—I don’t have the trumpets and trombones here!” Things like this caused me to go out and buy different kinds of equipment. So I’ve got a little studio at home now, where I have a couple of synthesisers, a string machine, a rhythm machine and all kinds of stuff—and I can approximate it enough to give ‘em a better idea.
I worked with one agency. . . they were so insecure that, for this one assignment, for a food chain, I wound up writing nine different songs. I mean, this is unheard of.
We went in the studio and recorded the one that they liked—” Oh, great!” Two days later, I got a call: “I think we’ve got a problem, Benny . . .” Somebody else, higher up in the agency, had heard it and wasn’t happy with it.
Now I go back, and I write two more songs; I’ve written eleven now. “Ah, yeah—that’s the one!” We record it; then I go in and see the higher–up with them—and I realise they’re in trouble when the higher–up says to me: “What do you think?” Oh, boy—they’re asking me! And you know what they finally went with? The first one that I did! Incredible.
I must say, though—it’s filled with problems, but it’s like an adventure. You never quite know what’s going to happen. Even though you’re doing the same kind of work, the situations are not always the same. So it makes for an adventurous kind of thing—and I like it. Besides—it helps to pay my rent; so I’m not going to complain too much.
Of course, in order to qualify myself to handle the breadth of work I do, I really put a lot of time in. Because that’s what it takes—otherwise, what’s going to differentiate you from the guy down the street. Being black, I knew that I had to be really prepared—coming into an area where the competition is fierce to begin with. There are not many blacks in it, and to stand beside the others, many times you have to be more equipped. Well, not only did I know I had to be, but I wanted to be prepared. I had insatiable desire to do these things—without knowing whether they would pay off. And I enjoy studying, practising, reaching out into the unknown areas—and, hopefully, growing. Yeah, it did pay off for me, but I tell you—part of it was being in the right place at the right time too.
There’s always an element of the right circumstances—knowing the right people. Quincy Jones had already gone out and helped pave the way; 0liver Nelson had asked me to come out; Leonard Feather had said: “Why don’t you come out?” Through Earle Hagen, who I started to work with on some shows back there, and through Quincy, I met Lionel Newman, the man in charge of music out at Twentieth Century–Fox, and I started doing things there. Quincy got me with his agent—Percy Faith’s son, Peter—and he took me right out to Universal Studios.
When I first got in town. . . my teacher had been orchestrating for Alex North—they’d done Cleopatra , Kings Go Forth and whatnot—and he called him to do some period work for him. I’d just moved out there; so he says: “I can’t do it, but one of my students is out here.” He called me, and I did this period music. And period music is nothing more than: in whatever period of time it’s located, the music should sound that way—if it’s the fifteenth century, or eighteenth century, or George Shearing, or Miles Davis, or Dixieland, it’s period music. So I did a lot of that for a picture called The Devil’s Brigade , with Bill Holman—it was the very first thing I did. Then, out at Universal, I started right away on a new series called It Takes A Thief , with Robert Wagner. Dave Grusin had just done the theme for it, but he was getting busier than I was, and he couldn’t stay with the show and write it every week; so after he’d done the first episode, I came right in on the second episode. I did that; they liked it, and said: “Would you like to do another one?” It was so much work, I was breathing a sigh of relief to have finished it—but I said: “Oh, sure!” Anyway, I worked on that show a couple of years, I guess, off and on—other writers worked on it too. Next I was out at Twentieth Century–Fox on a show called Room 222 for a couple of years. And there was a new one going: M. A. S. H.
A friend of mine, Johnny Mandel had done the theme, but he was doing pictures and couldn’t do it every week either. I started on that; it had been underway about two years before I got there. Gene Reynolds, who had also been the producer on Room 222—see how things work—now he and Larry Gelbart were doing M. A. S. H., and he says: “Well, let’s try Benny Golson.” So I did that for about three years—very enjoyable; all nice people—Alan Alda’s a sweetheart. And I did a few other things over there; I went to Screen Gems for a while, and did things like The Partridge Family . Then I started doing everything: Mod Squad among others; pilots for ABC and CBS—some shown, some never shown. You just do what you can do.
And somewhere along the line, while all this was going on, Benny Golson, jazz musician, got lost. For eight years I never even opened my saxophone case. I had about six different kinds of instrument; I think I sold about three or four, and I was even contemplating selling my main saxophone. I just felt that I would never play—I didn’t even have the desire at that time. I was in a new world, and I was enjoying it. Something that I always wanted to do—write for film. But after the eighth year, I was working on a show. . . right after Oliver Nelson died, they called me in to do Million Dollar Man , and as I was doing this episode, something was happening to me. It was so hard for me to do that show—it was like pulling teeth, every cue I would write. And I told my wife while I was in the middle of it: “You know, I have the feeling that this is going to be my last show.” The hours that you spend over the drawing–board, writing day in, day out, you hardly have any time for yourself—it was getting me kind of down. It’s a beautiful day out, and you want to walk out into the sun, and you dare not; you run back into the room, under the light, bend over and get at it again.
Nobody ever talked about not being ready—suppose you didn’t finish. That would be your end, if you turned up and you didn’t have the music ready for the show. One fellow did that—I felt so sorry for him. And sometimes we didn’t have much time to do it—three days to write a whole show. You’d get up at the crack of dawn, and you would write and write and write. I was really down.
People had been asking me: “Come on—won’t you come back and do a concert.” I said: “Oh, it would take me too long, getting ready for one concert.” Eventually, the idea started sounding better and better, and I did. Then I started to play at a local club, which I’d never done there. I hadn’t played in L. A.—I’d turned down all the job offers, until everybody stopped calling me. But this started to feel kind of good. And I noticed a strange thing—when I picked the horn up, eight years later, I didn’t sound the way I did when I put it down. Well, evidently, even though I wasn’t playing, I was thinking a lot during that time. Actually, the style had begun to change when I put it down, in’65; now it wasn’t even there—it was somewhere else. I said: “This is interesting. Let me just go ahead and play—see where I wind up.” And I guess it’s still changing, to some extent. I still feel like I’m getting over a stroke—so many things happened to me physically, being gone eight years.
As for free form playing—that never did appeal to me personally. Not from a performance point of view. Oh, I enjoy listening to some of it, but it’s not for me; I don’t feel that I personally want to give my time to it. High harmonics? Occasionally I might go up and touch something, if the spirit hits me. I’m not saying that it’s forbidden; I might do it for a certain feeling—but very judiciously. I’m not putting it down; I just don’t feel it for me.
I can appreciate, objectively, things in other people that I wouldn’t ever care to be associated with.
Obviously, there are a few musicians who feel they have to shout and scream, sure. It didn’t just start—it started years and years ago. I guess it’s become more pronounced now. However, I don’t feel akin to that kind of thing—black or white or rich or poor—because I have another point of view: one that just sort of washes that all away. I believe that all men are created equal; we all have the same opportunities—whether we take advantage of them or not is up to us.
It’s paradoxical that some people who purport to be supporting the musician and helping him to have a livelihood are only chasing the audience away. Yes, people like myself are back on the scene; we’re doing what we do out of a heartfelt motive. True, we want to make a living, as we do in most things in life, but not just for that. Someone asked me just a few months ago. . . it was a friend of mine too; I was surprised. . . he said: “Don’t you write to try to please the people?” I said: “Oh, no—never.
have to write what I feel in my heart. I can’t write to please the people. I write it, and I must say, I hope they like it—but if they don’t, it’s too bad. It’s got to be what I feel; otherwise it would be all for naught—it would be a lie. I’ve got to be fair to myself.”
Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.