A personality thing
This way and that
A personality thing
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
Photo by Howard Lucraft
How would you describe your vocal concept? Are there certain singers whose approach particularly appeals to you?
Once I hear a great singer, I’m very aware of him. I heard Nat “King” Cole when I was a baby, and I never forgot him. I followed him throughout, all the way up until the time of his death, and beyond—I’m still listening at his records, trying to find out what it is about Nat “King” Cole that is so great. It’s a personality thing, though, you know; you can’t be Nat—you can only enjoy him. I don’t think there’s so much of the technical thing that you could really put your finger on. He was a natural singer—though there were some techniques that he used in his lower tones that are very valuable.
There are many great singers—some today—who are using valuable techniques. And I’m aware of them—just like I was of the guitar players. I’m aware of Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow—all those great players. I mean, because once you hear those guys . . . how could I call myself a player, and not know who the real players are when I hear them? They’re the guys who helped to shape my concept, and to give me the idea on which to base some of my ideas. I’m never afraid to mention another great artist; I’m not trying to show that I’m better than any other player—what I want to do is to be as dedicated to what I’m doing, or to be as real about it, as I think these artists are. Because it takes a certain amount of dedication, and knowledge, and gift to be what they are. And I’m the first guy to go to their concerts when I hear of them being any placeI run and hear them. It’s a great experience, plus I learn something.
The important thing, of course, is rhat you are at all times yourself. If you sing “Nature Boy”, for instance, you’re not going to sing it the way Nat used to.
Of course not. You can never go into competition with Nat on that; he has the classic version of that song. Not that there can’t be two classic versions, because it happens sometimes. Very rarely, but it happens. I mean, you could hear a song by Ella Fitzgerald, and you know in your heart that there’s never gonna be another song like that. But somebody might come along later—you might hear Sarah Vaughan sing it, and have the same feeling. Rarely, I admit. No—I don’t try to go into competition with Nat. It was more or less bringing back to mind a great song, and knowing that when people heard it they would relate back to Nat. That can only be a plus for me—because anything that brings back such a good memory to people can’t be anything but good. It makes me feel good. I got it from his daughter, Natalie, strangely enough; she was gonna include it in her show, and I went to the rehearsal—I was gonna sing it with her. But she didn’t show for the rehearsal, and I had to sing it by myself. Then I ran immediately back to the studio, which I had come from—I was doing my album, “In Flight”—and I said: “Stop what we’re doing—we’re gonna record ‘Nature Boy’.” And that was the one take that we did on it, right there at the time—we went right into it.
Well, as it turned out, that did very well for you. It seems that some of your last–minute afterthoughts have really paid off.
I think there’s a certain amount of people who really are looking for that. People are intelligent, and we have to remember that we’re just people too. The more we can relate to them on a one–to–one basis, the better we are. That spontaneous thing perks them up; they say: “Hey, I didn’t know he was gonna do that—but it fits very well.” They’re so used to being catered to by people in the recording industry—a certain number of bars, with a certain amount of strings, that go here and there. In a lot of Instances, they’re being soothed, so to speak. Productions are being laid on ‘em—and it works; they like that, because they don’t have to think too hard to relate to it, you know.
But when you’re able to come along and take ‘em by surprise in some way, you make them listen—and then they might find something else that they like also. But I like that element of surprise when I listen to music—so my concept is that a lot of other people can enjoy that too.
What is the area of your listening? Presumably, you listen to quite a lot of jazz, being still rooted in that field.
There are periods I go through where suddenly I want to hear John Coltrane only. I listen to him, and I remember sitting in the same room with this man, going to his club performances, listening to his high energy music—and I get angry at myself for not really taking it in when it was happening —live. I knew the man, and hung out with him on a couple of occasions. I was in a room once with him and Wes Montgomery—man, these are memories . . . people would give their eye–tooth to say that they did that. Now, even me—I was there, and I would give my eye–tooth to have it ,happen again. But when I listen to him, strictly from the music point of view—he was such an incredible musician; you could never get enough of him. Then I go back to Art Tatum, listen to him: I have periods where I don’t want to hear anybody else but Art Tatum. And then Django Rheinhardt; and then Charlie Christian—I go through these phases.
A lot of people say: “Well, don’t you listen to any modern guys?” You hear them all the time, you know. And there are some great artists alive today—no mistake about that. In just about all fields. They have some rock geniuses on guitar—and piano, and every other instrument. Naturally, they have classical geniuses. Then in country music, they’ve got some guitar pickers that’ll blow you away, with their technique and concept.
They have great ideas—you’d be crazy not to listen, and find out who they are; they make some great contributions to modern music. But I can never get over those guys I go back to the roots for—they make me practise, and I need that inspiration. They’re the ones who first got me interested in music; so I go back to reaffirm who I am—and it keeps my head from getting big, too.
Do you listen to any classical music at all?
Very little. Not because I don’t like it—I love classical music. It’s just that if I got too involved in it I might lose my hold on the pulse of today’s audiences. I think I have to devote a fair proportion of my time to that—so that I never forget where I want to go. But, man, there’s some beautiful players around now. Recently, the career of Earl Klugh, the young player that I brought over here with me in 1971, has started to come along very nicely —he’s selling a great amount of records. His first album was two hundred thousand records—which is almost unheard of for a person from his background. I don’t know of any classical artists doing that. It really gives me pleasure to think that when he asked me years ago if he should change his style, I said: “Well, first of all, you can’t change style, because that’s personality.” I think of style as personality, something you can’t copy; there are no two people with the same personality. And his personality was already prevalent. I told him: “When I think of you, I think of a man who’s got a great sensitivity and balance, and a great heart—and it does not show when he’s using that pick. It shows when he’s playing with the classical concept. There’s nothing wrong with being the first of your kind—just be good, and be honest with what you have.” Sure enough, he stuck to it, and now he’s coming along very well. When I hear of his success, and read about him, I say: “Wow, I’m sure glad the advice I gave him was good!”
You could see that that was the right thing for him—where it wouldn’t have been for you.
That’s exactly right. I try to remember who I am. and what I am, and never try to deal in things that are out of my reach. That’s very important for guys—if you’re a bantamweight or a middleweight, don’t try to fight in the heavyweights; you stay in your class. No man can cover it all—it’s too vast. I believe it was designed that way, so that we all could enjoy life, reaching our own levels. You can go as high as you want to go, if you try not to cover too much ground at once, and remember that there’s a million people trying to get to the same place that you want to go. That helps you to be realistic about the scope of the task that you have in front of you, and not to expect too much. I never expected too much, I always thought I knew where I was, and I always tried to be realistic with myself. And that keeps me from going into what we musicians call “nutsville’‘—where you know you got your thing together but it ain’t happening, you know.
It happens to a lot of people; there are a lot of great artists who have not made it—and some may never make it—but that doesn’t mean that they’re not loved and revered by people in the trade or fans. It just means that they have not become significant to the record people to the degree where they’re gonna be exploited, and reach their highest potential. But there’s only room for a certain number of people at the top.
One thing that you’ve certainly paid a great contribution to is the reawakening of interest, after a spell, in the straightforward electric guitar, as opposed to the more screaming—type sound that the rock–orientated people were making.
Yeah, I have a love for the sound of wood, you know. I even don’t like to turn on the amplifier, but it’s unrealistic to believe that you could hear me in a concert hall, with all those electric instruments in back of me, without it. But we manage to get a pretty decent sound that still relates back to the natural. So I feel very good about the success I’ve had with what we call the “dry” guitar. I think it’s gonna help the concepts, and reaffirm the belief of others who play dry—let them know that they don’t have to go that other route if they don’t want to.
An outstanding example is Pat Metheny—he’s a young guitarist who’s come up, playing dry in his own way, and great.
He certainly is, man. I love to hear them—I hope it never dies. That’s the reason why I stick to it; as long as I’m making it that way, there’s no need for me to change—so I won’t. Although I hear some very interesting players in other fields now, who use those instruments. I just can’t relate to the personality as well as I can when I hear the player play dry—because there’s only fingers on strings, as opposed to going through a box which changes the projection of those thoughts, and shapes them differently. I can’t really identify; it’s like a man with a mask on—his voice is coming through, certain parts of his features are there, but I can’t make out the whole face.
Well, an instrument really should be an extension of yourself, shouldn’t it? It should be like just writing on a piece of paper.
I think so. Yes, I think that’s the reason why someone like Andres Segovia has remained for so long—he’s easily identifiable, and he relates one–to–one with the people when he plays. You know right away when you hear B. B. King play who it is—just straight B.B.! Or even Chuck Berry; although with his playing there’s some distortion from the amp—but his personality is there.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.