Bill Miller remembers
Bobby Lamb on tour with Frank Sinatra
|Bill Miller talking to Les Tomkins in 1970|
We prepared for the Festival Hall concerts for more than a week. Prior to coming here, we went to Las Vegas for six days, and I’m sure Frank only took the engagement to rehearse for London. Because even there he did over an hour which he normally wouldn’t do. He usually does forty to forty–five minutes. So it was a sort of a warm–up. This was with the house band—augmented, of course. We brought in a lead trumpet player, the bass player, guitar player, drummer, and about four or five extra strings.
There are certain musicians who are more or less attached to Frank, when they’re available. We usually try to get Al Viola on the guitar, Irv Cottler on drums. Pete Candoli plays lead trumpet with us. Lou Raderman is the concert master, with his wife also on violin. And we took Monty Budwig on bass last trip; he’s an excellent bass player.
I’ve been with Frank for eighteen years now—quite a slice of my life as well as his. We’ve had very few differences in that time, other than minor ones. We first met when I had a trio in Las Vegas. He came through and at the time he wanted to make a change. So I just happened to be there at the right time. Since he liked what I did, he took a gamble with me and it worked out. That would be early 1952; I was with him on his TV show and whatever else he might be doing.
It was right after that when he had his bad little period there for about a year and a half. He was at the tail–end of his Columbia contract. Before Capitol and all that; before From Here To Eternity—that sort of changed the whole thing for him. I gambled and came out ahead too, in fact. Yes, the Capitol period was quite outstanding, I’d say, Of course, he’s done other excellent things with Reprise—which was his own company. It isn’t now; he sold out about a year ago. But he still has absolute carte blanche with his own record dates.
He’ll very often ask my advice on material. Sometimes he commissions somebody to write a song or two for him; which may or may not turn out. Like any singer, he just has to look for material.
My exact function with Frank? Well, I’ve been his accompanist for those years. And I also conduct from time to time. As a matter of fact, over the last maybe four years now I’ve been mostly conducting. I play on the necessary songs, like the ballads, where there’s a good portion of piano alone; and possibly two or three of the rhythm tunes, so that I can sit down once in a while! Conducting or playing is almost the same thing, as regards directing his accompaniment.
The deviation to my being a complete musical director for him would be when he does an album or a recording with, let’s say, Don Costa. In those cases, I will either play or perhaps conduct on one or two of the pieces if Costa should happen to want to be in the booth; then we would hire another pianist to stand by. But that’s not very often.
Most of the arrangers are the leaders now—and rightly so. And, of course, with recording, I think Frank would rather have the man that wrote the music in front of the band. I didn’t play on the new one, “Watertown”. It’s not my cup of tea, anyway. On that particular album, Frank wasn’t even there. They recorded the tracks in New York, and than he dubbed the voice in Los Angeles some time later. The only exceptions were a couple of the verses that were left blank, and he sang them with guitar alone; that was Al Viola. I haven’t the faintest idea who the drummer was; probably a young player.
The “Watertown” thing was a planned project. He thought these two boys, Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, might came up with an idea —and they did. I don’t think the album is doing as well as he would have liked, but we’ll see. Oh, he was pleased with it. But, you see, again—knowing him, I don’t think he would do one like it again, after hearing it. Of course, I’m not speaking for him, but if I were going to bet, I would bet that he wouldn’t.
It was just a little change of pace, I think. Gaudio and Holmes are very talented in that area, but it doesn’t seem to me like it’s the real Sinatra.The mod sound is fine—I just don’t think it’s for him. That’s my opinion, anyway.
As for his live performances—in the States we do seven or eight benefits a year, for charitable purposes. Outside of that, he only works in a night club—which is his first love. We only did five weeks, I think, last year. And this year, so far, three weeks; however, we go back to Las Vegas in September for two.
When I’m not working with Frank, I’m free to do other things. I do some freelance recording, some TV, like Al Viola and Irv Cottler do.
I’ve worked with other singers occasionally, such as Vic Damone and Peggy Lee. As for travelling with anybody else now, though, I think I’ve had it. I’d just as soon stay close to home; I’ve lived in Los Angeles for twenty years.
Sometimes I do a jazz job, just for fun. In the States we have a five–day week; what some of the boys do is take a job for two nights a week, rather than work the five days and perhaps not be able to take off to do recording, TV or whatever it might be. And usually it’s a couple of nights when not too much is happening anywhere—perhaps a Sunday and a Monday. That’s what I’d like to do when I get back; I probably will. Just for my own satisfaction. I wouldn’t like to work five nights a week even; maybe it’s because I’ve done it when I needed to.
Frank keeps me on a full–time retainer, just to be available. I’m informed as to what might be happening. I know I can’t book anything for May 30th, because we’re doing a benefit in Nashville, Tennessee.
One thing I can say about Frank: a lot of the unfavourable newspaper stories you’ve read about him are not just exaggerated—they’re completely untrue. Because in many cases I’ve been there and I know what happened. The facts have been twisted around to make an unhappy incident sound 1ik.e he was just a bad character.
Sometimes it’s just been a case of being a little angry at somebody and saying something that we all might say. If someone calls you ,a nasty name, you’re liable to turn round and call them one, aren’t you? As a matter of fact, I think he’s more tolerant than he needs to be.
Because he’s a target, you see, much more so than you or I would be, of course. Many times he just kind of brushes the whole thing off: “Oh, what the hell. Nothing new.” Yes, he definitely has a great affinity for musicians. He likes the big band sound. Which is what these concerts, were, really. Strings were practically unheard of back in the days when he was with Dorsey, except for a period around 1940 when Dorsey did add a small complement of strings.
We’ve done things without strings, such as the first Basie album and the one with Neal Hefti. But within the last seven or eight years, I’d say, we’ve had strings on just about everything.
On that delightful “Wee Small Hours” album, which must have been done around 1955, he wanted that little intimate sound. Then, after hearing four or so tracks with just the rhythm section and added celeste, he decided to do half the album that way and use the full band on the rest. That one worked out nicely. He wanted that sort of unrehearsed sound with the rhythm section.
He is a perfectionist. I forget the song, but I remember we did fourteen takes on one occasion. However, they’re deceiving fourteen takes could mean that on the very second bar of the introduction somebody goofed and we’d have to start again; well. that’s still called a take.
But singing–wise normally, to strike an average, I’d say usually by the third or fourth take he’s got it in the can. Even if the dynamics of the orchestra are not quite what they should be, if his vocal is what he thinks is it, he’ll say: “Well, that sounds good enough to me.” He’s able to assess his own work very accurately.
When it’s a completely new song, I always run it down for him, and rehearse it with him. He’s a very fast learner; unless it’s a really unusual song, constructed in a strange way then it may take a little longer.
He does read just a little. He can pick out certain notes; which he does on the piano, too. Singly, he knows where every note is; he can differentiate A flat from E flat, etc. But reading per se no. I would say he has quite an above–average ear.
Frank is one of the few singers I know who hardly ever sings out of tune. Very rarely. And then only perhaps one little note; maybe it’s one of those tough songs, let’s say, where he has had a problem. After twelve takes, there’s not much left, so you settle for the best of the lot, you see. Otherwise we’d have to come back and do it again which we’ve done and the same thing might occur. As I say, that’s a very rare occasion.
If it just wasn’t up to his standard, he’d scrap it. I wouldn’t say he’s scrapped a lot of things, but there have been a few that, after he’s heard it three or four times, he’s decided that his performance wasn’t really what it should be. Occasionally we’d go back and re–do it, but most of the times just drop it entirely.
There was the case of that album he came over to Britain to do—all British ballads arranged by Robert Farnon. It was released over here, but he didn’t want it put out in the States after he’d heard it. Why he allowed its release here I don’t know; maybe he had no control outside the States. At the time he recorded it, he was very happy with it; the arrangements were beautiful. I know he told me that after several hearings of the complete album he didn’t feel that his singing was up to par on it, generally speaking. I suppose they could have picked two, three or four sides and put them out as singles, but for some season or other he just let it go.
He has tried doing single sessions, and he’s had pretty good luck with some of them. But basically it seems to be that he’s an album seller: and out of an album, as often as’ not, one or two will pop up as singles. A lot of singers just go in and strive for a single; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. He’s done that, too, but more often we just do the album and hope there’ll be a single or two in there somewhere.
As for the quality of Frank’s voice today I think he sounds as good now, if not better, than he did, say, fifteen years ago. His voice has matured sort of mellowed. Also his capacity to swing has increased. He became more conscious of time when we got into, let’s say, the Billy May things. Maybe one or two of the Nelson Riddle things, too.
But, as well as he wrote, Nelson was not what you would call a jazz writer. It was cute and commercial, but not jazz per se, as opposed to Neal Hefti, Billy May, Johnny Mandel.
Perhaps Frank felt somewhat straitjacketed within the Nelson Riddle sound. I think it’s quite obvious that when he finally decided to do an album with Billy May it was to deviate from one sound to another—and why not? Then back to Nelson again, then on to Gordon Jenkins a couple of times, back to Nelson, then, on to Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones. Don Costa.
He’ll consider using anything that’s really musical. Like, we look at a lot of the songs by younger writers: some work well for him. We did “Didn’t We?” by Tim Webb, who’s only 22 years old. Not the way some of the other artists do it but strictly as a pretty ballad, and it came off.
He tries to interpret the modern songs in his own way. Some of them don’t seem to suit him—well, you can’t win ‘em all ! The final decision about material and treatment is always his. He says : “Here’s the way I think we’ll do it” and that’s how it’s done. For the most part they’re all his own ideas. When a session is coming up, there’s a general conference and exchange of thoughts between everybody involved. Or he .may have a concert for an album long before a consultation, and he just says: “This is what we’re going to do.” It’s only when there’s a little doubt in his mind that he may be open to suggestions.
It was his idea to do the album with Antonio Carlos Jobim. As for the writing, Jobim suggested Claus Ogerman, who did the first album. Frank said: “Fine—use whoever you want,” and he said he had no particular ideas on routines, as I remember, except to try to keep them under, say, 3½ minutes, if possible.
And Ogerman was very compatible with that sort of bossa nova idea. He knows how to write subtly with the strings. In itself, the bossa nova is kind of a monotonous feel. You never get loud unless the concept of the album is such.
We’ve made another bossa nova album since then, which has not been released as yet. And on that we used brass and it got pretty raucous; it was by a young writer whose name escapes me. I liked it, but when we got to the pretty side of it, the contrast didn’t come off as well. It just didn’t quite happen, if you know what I mean. Maybe that’s why they’re holding up the release till he makes a decision on that one.
Things either work or they don’t work. There’s not usually any in–between.
He may occasionally ask for a complete re–write of an arrangement after we’ve gone into the studio, but very seldom. Because most of the writers are chosen. He knows what he likes, and they sort of say: “Well, I’ll do this as opposed to that” because it’s Sinatra, you see. Many of the writers are not as daring with Frank as they might like to be. Although that’s not always true; sometimes he’ll say to somebody like, maybe, Quincy Jones : “Make it raucous and do anything you want.” Then, of course, they will.
I’m not sure, hut I think he’s down to about one film a year now. He needs the right property for a film, so there’s no hurry. What’s the difference whether it’s one every year–and–a–half or every year? He has a business enterprise to occupy him, and what pictures he makes are enough to keep the Sinatra image going.
Of course, singing is still his first love, and until he can’t do it any more I suppose he’ll be recording. I hope so. He’ll be trying new things, too.
We’re going to try something very shortly, which would take me too long to explain; but we heard a new writer in town: Dee Barton, who used to write for Stan Kenton. A trombonist and drummer: he writes very well. He has a band now; they freelance and work one regular night a week. The Dee Barton orchestra has sort of a Kenton sound only —well, let’s say it swings more.
Because Frank likes jazz, too, you know. I got him over to hear this band one night about three months ago, and he was very impressed; he sat through two sets. And he told Dee he’d like to do something with him. We’re finally getting around to it; we’ll be doing it in another month or so.
I think what we might do is book one session, and see what he comes up with. Rather than have him write a complete album it gets a little expensive and then maybe not use it. But. like I say, Frank’s willing to try. ‘If the first date comes off great—we’ll do the whole album.
Sure, he’s on the look–out all the time. And I keep an eye open on his behalf. If I hear something a little unusual, I’ll tell him about it.
Anyway, we will be back in November, and I’m looking forward to that. I don’t think it’ll be with Basie next time; probably we’ll be using an all British band. The one thing Frank wouldn’t want to do is appear in a big stadium or something. Because then you don’t get the intimacy with the audience.
There was a sort of a club atmosphere in the Festival Hall, because of the sound—the marvellous acoustics in there. Sound–wise, it was better than any club we’ve ever worked.
Where we worked in ‘Vegas, Caesar’s Palace, the room only seats 800 people, and practically every show they squeezed in 400 more—that was 1,200 of ‘em in there. How the Fire Department allowed that, I don’t know—whether they just turned their back or what. It’s a hazard, really. But they did it.
That’s the sort of thing he likes.
Normally, if you want to play to five or ten thousand people, you need a large auditorium. Then it ceases to be fuzz; then it’s work to make money. And he doesn’t need it. He feels an obligation to his public, also; but when he sings for them, he wants to enjoy it. If he enjoys it, the public does.
Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.