Of great bands and magic moments . .
gets harder all the time
Of great bands and magic moments
Bill, Bob and Brass
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
After leaving Joe Loss, I was working as a rehearsal pianist at the Adelphi Theatre, London, for a show called Golden City. In my lunchtime I used to practise; that was all I ever did, practise! One day I was practising Rachmaninov’s 2nd or 3rd, and this voice behind me said: “What are you doing?” I said: “I’m sorry, but I like to practise during the lunchtime break.” He said: “Are you the rehearsal pianist?” I said I was. “Not any more, you’re not.” I said: “Oh, I can’t leave the job—it’s the only job I’ve got.” And he said: “Well, my name’s Phil Green. Come on.” Separate Soon after that, I was in his house, practising a concerto he was working on for a film. Then I went down to Elstree with him, and I played this concerto in a film. Afterwards, some of the boys in the band came over to me—all sessioneers I’d been in great awe of, people like Max Goldberg, Jock Bain, Freddy Gardner—and said: “Wonderful piano playing, son. What’s your name? Who have you been with?” Its amazing; you would think that, being with a big–name band like Joe Loss, the musicians would know of you. But touring bands were a separate existence entirely from the world of the sessioneer.
Anyway, next thing I knew I was working regularly with Phil Green on sessions. That was the start for me in that field, really. The other pianist was Harry Rabinowitz; when he couldn’t do them, I was doing them. Finally, Harry and I were thinking of forming a two–piano double act. But that never materialised—he went his way, and I went mine.
Then I joined Maurice Winnick, and after that Ambrose. I’d never worked in a night–club before. Because I lost a lot of work in London, due to my not being able to busk. I used to say to them: “Listen, I’m not a busker.” I’m a pianist, I’ll play; if they’ve got a book with the chords of all the tunes, I’m as happy as a Lord. But a lot of these musicians didn’t have that; so, rather than take a chance, they’d say: “Well, learn some of the tunes.” I learned them, naturally, but by that time I was in another resident band. I was still doing a lot of sessions; there again, that was all reading.
I was still trying to develop this thing of swinging; you know, if I felt it was swinging, that was it. I was listening to so many jazz piano records. Basie was never off. And Tatum, definitely—with that colossal drive, and these twelfths in the left hand. Also I’d listened to boogie players, like Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pete Johnson. Later there were great people like Russ Freeman and Pete Jolly. Incidentally, Pete recorded one of my tunes a few years ago—that was a thrill. Over here, Ralph Sharon and Norman Stenfalt used to knock me out.
Basically, my goal has always been to conquer the instrument. And, as I say, the greatest belief I had was that I had to swing. I used to hear some fine piano players with whom, as far as I was concerned, it just wasn’t happening. Then, when I heard someone with not as much ability, but who was swinging, I used to say: “Oh, my—if I could do that . . . ” That’s still the prime motive for me today.
In the commercial bands, there were some opportunities to play jazz—although we got told off for it! People like Maurice Winnick used to say: “Don’t play so much of that stuff,” but you used to let it creep in here and there. And there were some sessions where you were allowed to go a bit mad.
As a session pianist, I think I played with all the bands at one time or another. I did a record date with Ted Heath once; the pianist was ill and Ted asked me if I would do it. One of the titles was a boogie thing, on which I played a solo. I enjoyed that very much; that was a lovely band. So was Geraldo’s band—I used to dep for Sid Bright on Tip Top Tunes.
I played as dep with the Squads, which was another fantastic band. I did some stuff with them for Radio Luxembourg, in a studio somewhere off Baker Street. Don Lusher was in that band, as well as Tommy Mac, Jimmy Watson. And the piano was right in front of the brass section. Oh, when they blew—goodness gracious! With Ronnie Aldrich conducting, it was a wonderful noise—a really exciting band.
I’d been broadcasting on my own, but the BBC Show Band job came while I was with Sidney Lipton—that was a big break for me. They said it was going to be all the best musicians; so when I was approached I was very flattered, and very excited about it. Initially, we did what was supposed to be a secret session, behind locked doors at the Aeolian Hall. I found they’d gathered quite a band together, including Tommy Whittle, Tommy McQuater, Stan Roderick, George Chisholm, Laddie Busby, Jackie Armstrong. Playing regularly with such a line–up was a great thrill.
In those Show Band programmes I was given a feature spot, and it brought my name to the attention of the public, with the help of the nice things that were written by Steve Race, Maurice Burman and Laurie Henshaw, who always gave me credit for playing well. I was most grateful to them.
At that time, I don’t think there was a band to compare with it. And we accompanied everybody. Sinatra was great; everybody was petrified of him, really. On “Birth Of The Blues”, he held that bottom B flat for about five minutes. Another wonderful thrill was Nat “King” Cole; he did a few with us. During the breaks, Nat and I and his rhythm section used to have some nice little sessions. As I say, I used to practise all the time, and when Nat came and sat down he’d say: “Stay, Billy”, and we’d jam together. That was a knock–out. And I won one of the musical polls that year; they had a presentation at the Albert Hall, and Nat gave the prizes away. He went up and he says: “I’m going to take some lessons from Bill”; I said: “You must be joking. I’ve admired you all my life.” Great fun.
A particular thrill I had one night was accompanying Sarah Vaughan. I’ll never forget when she did “Polka Dots And Moonbeams”. There was no intro or anything, and I had fourths to start with. She just nodded her head, I came in with her, and she was away somewhere else entirely! I was crying at the end of the number—I’d never heard anything like it. Oh, she was wonderful.
I have a funny story about Rosemary Clooney. We were doing a number called “Come On–A My House which she recorded with a harpsichord; we had no harpsichord, and so it was on a jangle piano. I’ve got a habit, even today, when I’m working with a singer, of looking up and making sure that they’re ready, four bars before they come in. So I’m playing this and, during my eight bar solo in the middle of it, I looked at Rosemary, she looked at me, and I nodded. She just nodded back—so I repeated the solo. At the same point, I nodded at her—she nodded back again! I played another eight bars.
It took a couple more nods for her to realise, suddenly, that she should be in. She never forgot that. Instead of eight bars, I must have played about thirty–two! We just kept nodding to each other. She was such a lovely person; I suppose she was nervous, like all of us, and she thought I was just giving her friendly nods.
In my Show Band spot, I played some of my own compositions. But that’s where I developed a sort of a commercial style that the public seemed to like. People would say: “Oh, you certainly know when you’re on.” It was nice to feel I was at last managing to get through with a sound of my own.
On our Friday night broadcasts, we played all the jazz, which was great. Then I joined Kenny Baker’s Dozen—just fabulous. I was on those for about two or three years; I’ve never seen musicians so happy. It’s amazing it’s never come back. We enjoyed ourselves so much, playing those lovely arrangements that Kenny did, with beautiful soloists in the band, like George Chisholm, Keith Bird, Tommy Whittle sometimes, Eric Delaney on drums, and E. 0. Pogson, of course, on everything from the tin whistle to the serpent. They were fantastic.
During this time, I really started to get interested in writing—in composition, basically. I was playing piano with Bob Farnon for so long, on film sessions and everything. There’s no one better than him; I still worship him today. He’s brilliant. I think it goes for any writer—if you’ve worked with Farnon, it’s got to rub off. His musical thought, his knowledge of orchestration, his composing genius—you name it, he’s got it. We used to rave about Farnon, and the Americans all agree with us now, that he’s the greatest. I just heard a work that he wrote to feature Bob Burns, “Saxophone Triparti”—it’s really beautiful.
And Bob has this tremendous thing—when he writes an arrangement, and you’re going to be in the band, he writes for you. You look at the part, and you say: “My goodness, I could have written this myself.” He knows you so well, he fits it to your identity.
Wally Stott is another one who does this. I adore playing with Wally on sessions. Great arrangements like his mean that everybody is excited about it, and this sheer delight comes over in all the soloists and the band as a whole.
There are so many good writers here now. Music has reached such a high degree of proficiency. At one time we were all afraid of Americans; now we discover that there’s a lot of talent here as well—in some cases, much better talent. You begin to find: “I much prefer to play that music than I do this”—no matter how big he is.
Here and there, you find the geniuses. Like, some of the stuff Peter Knight writes is out of this world. And Farnon, undoubtedly, is quite unique. In getting into film scoring, Bob was a great help to me. I was associated with him on an awful lot of pictures. The one that I suppose everybody knows about was Road To Hong Kong. with Crosby and Hope.
Working with Bing was an experience in itself. Often, if we had half–an–hour off Bing would start singing. It was wonderful accompanying the old man—just the two of us. And we’d look round to see the whole studio had stopped, and they were all round the piano.
One, day, the phone went, and it was Bob Hope. He sass: “Bill, there’s a concert at the Coliseum on Sunday. Would you like to come along and play for me?” I said: “Of course—love to.” And Bobby Kevin was with me on drums; we used to do all the choreography—you know, rehearse the dance routines and write down the music as it happened for Bob Farnon, ready for him to orchestrate. So Bobby and a bass player were to come along and do the concert with me. The next thing, Bob Hope said: “Oh, Bing wants to talk to you.” Bing came on: “Bill, would you play for me as well?” I said: “Oh yes—marvellous.” We arranged that I’d see him the next morning at the studios and discuss what we were going to do. I hung the phone up and after about fifteen seconds it rang again.
It was the operator. She said: “Excuse me, sir, I hope you don’t think I’m rude, but was that Bing Crosby you were talking to?” I said: “Yes, it was.” She said: “Oh, my goodness —I’m going to tell everybody!” Then gradually I began to get pictures on my own, to develop my own sort of talent. I try to be as original as possible, but sometimes you’re not allowed to be. You’re told the sort of thing they want and, though you don’t always agree with them, you have to turn out the article for them. Other times, you’re given a lot of scope to do what you think. And when it comes off, this is a great satisfaction. After you’ve done it, you’re so pleased; then, a couple of days later, you put the tapes on, and say: “Oh, my God, I must do much better than that.”
I very rarely write to feature my piano in films. I feature the players I have in the band mostly. If I’ve got Bob Burns, who I always try to have, I write for him. And Johnny McLevy, who to me is unique. I hardly do a job now without John’s in the band somewhere; even with a small group, he’s there. I could listen to that fellow all day—the ideas, you know. I’ve ,played with Johnny for years, but it’s only in the past six years or so that he’s really hit people; he’s been doing it all his life, but never had the opportunities to push it through like he has been lately.
It was with the Benny Goodman big band that it really got hold of people what Johnny can do. And Benny loved it—as we all did in the band. Some of his solos were fantastic, really. Benny wanted to feature soloists in the band, like myself, Bob Burns and Johnny. On one of the concerts somewhere abroad, Benny just shouted to Johnny: “Baubles, Bangles And Beads”. John came down, played that, and blew up a storm—naturally, that was in every night after that.
I remember one night it went down so well with the audience that Benny said: “Go on, Johnny, give us another one.” Johnny started to play “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”—he’d only played the first few bars, and the applause was deafening. We all looked at each other. He played it beautifully. And when we came off after the first half. one of the trombone players, Jimmy Wilson, said to Johnny: “You know. when you were playing that first few bars, there was an old couple in the front row shaking hands and saying: ‘That’s our favourite!”
Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.