Doing what you believe in
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970
This is a long–awaited visit, Harry, and we’re very glad to see you here. The band sounds marvellous.
Thank you very much; it’s a pleasure to be here. Including the Continent. it will have been over three weeks when we get back to Las Vegas. We go to work with Phil Harris on October 7th at the Desert Inn.
I gather this is a little more strenuous than you’re used to—with two shows a night.
Well, it really isn’t the easiest work in the world, because we’re travelling all day long, and then doing the two shows so early. Because in Las Vegas we do two shows, but our first show is at 8.0 in the evening and our second is at midnight. Right now, we did one show at 5.0 in the afternoon—which is 9.0 in the morning at home. So it is really a little off of our usual schedule.
How would you say this band compares with previous bands you’ve had?
I’ve never really had bands in the sense that you say: get a band and do this or that. We’ve been active ever since I started my band. We may make one or two changes a year; we might even make two or three changes, or sometimes four or five. But most of the guys have been with the band twelve, thirteen or fourteen years.
Do you regard this as the same organisation, as it were, that you started out with in the late ‘fifties?
No, thank God. Not in the late ‘fifties—we started in the early ‘forties.
You link this band with your original one, do you?
No, I do not, thank God, because the intelligence of the musicianship is five hundred per cent better now than it was then. We have better musicians to choose from, the music is better–written, and I think we all play better than we used to. Not as good as we’ll play tomorrow, but better than we played yesterday. But I’ve never re–formed my band: I don’t know where anybody would get that impression. I have continuously worked from January 25th, 1939 until this particular day. I’ve changed one man here and there; I’ve had new arrangers. We were lucky enough to get Ernie Wilkins to write a lot for us; also Jay Hill, Billy May, Neal Hefti and a few people like that. There was no re–forming—it was just a matter of getting new arrangements in the band, which—were fun to play. Maybe they were on a different kick than we’d had before, because we didn’t have those people available at that time.
You had no idea of changing your basic format?
Well, I’ve never had a format to my band. I take each individual arrangement as a particular composition, and I try to play it as I would like to interpret this tune, whether it be a ballad or jazz or Dixieland or what. I mean, there’s no such thing as everything we play having to conform to this or that format, or this or that style, because this is ridiculous. If you’re going to have fried chicken, you don’t compare it to a steak. You don’t say: “I’ll have my chicken like my steak.” Each thing that we play is an individual performance of that tune—and that’s the way I like music. To me there’s only two kinds of music—good and bad.
It was with the Benny Goodman band that you made your initial reputation, and you left him to form a band of your own . . .
Well, actually I was very fortunate in having my first job with Ben Pollack’s band. And Ben Pollack also was fortunate in having people like Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa to play for him—and he was a great teacher in music. When I joined Goodman, it was about two years later, after I had appeared with Pollack. I was with Benny Goodman for two years; then I decided to go out and try it on my own.
This was just a logical development for you, was it?
Not really. I’ve never really had any goal set in my life. My satisfaction is playing music. When I was with Goodman, a man came up to me and he said: “How would you like to take your own band out?” I told him I’d like to try; so that was it. It wasn’t my idea—it was the agent’s idea. And Benny Goodman said, “You have my blessing.” In fact, it was Benny’s agent, Willard Alexander, that started me out.
Do you feel you owe something to Benny for giving you a certain status as a soloist within his band?
I feel that I contributed to his band also—as did Ziggy Elman, Gene Krupa, Jess Stacy, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Vido Musso, Vernon Brown and Chris Griffin. I mean, to me you’re as good as your associates. Just like, for instance, you can have the greatest baseball manager in the world, but if he doesn’t have the talent to put on the field he’s not a good manager. Benny surrounded himself with great musicians, and at that particular time his was the only great white band that was working; so everyone that liked to play jazz wanted to work for Goodman. So it was a mutual thing; it worked both ways.
We look back now at that big band era; were you especially conscious of it being a propitious time to become a bandleader?
No, I never really thought of it. The man said: “Benny would like to help you with it,” and at the time I was very lacking in funds. So he loaned me 1,900 dollars and I paid him back 26,000. Which I think is a pretty good investment—that’s not too bad a deal.
They got us some bookings and we struggled, worked hard, played what we wanted to play—hoping that the people would like it. Eventually we had a record that they did like. and whatever success we’ve had came from that. But it’s never been a thing where I planned to do this or that. I never take a tune and say: “Oh boy, this is going to be a big commercial hit.” No matter what it is, if it’s successful I’m happy; if it isn’t—I’m still happy.
You’d say one big record was responsible for your band’s continuance?
Well, yes, definitely—it was the record of “You Made Me Love You” that started the people knowing us. Before that, a few of the jazz people knew us. And the reason I made that particular record is because I felt like playing it. I was very much an admirer of Judy Garland, and she had just recorded it; every night I would listen to the radio and hear her doing it. I said: “Gee, I would like to do that song”; so I wrote the arrangements and did it.
Speaking of singers . . . didn’t you first hear Sinatra by chance on the radio?
In a way, yes. We were working at the Paramount Theatre, New York City; I came home one evening and turned the radio on. They were doing what they called spot broadcasts from different little clubs around the town, and I heard this singer on one of them, who sounded excellent. I thought he was a great vocalist. Then I found out the name of the club: the next evening we went out there, and I talked to him about joining the band.
He had never been with a band before; he just worked as a Master of Ceremonies and a singer at this club. So he came down, we got together, and that was how Frank Sinatra signed a year’s contract with us. We were struggling—really struggling. He had been with us about seven months and he still had five months to go on his contract when he had a chance to go with Tommy Dorsey—at the time that was a very big band.
You see, a lot of people don’t realise that Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmv Dorsey, Bennv Goodman. Artie Shaw—were all before me by about seven or eight years. And when they were very popular I was still trying to get started. So when Sinatra had the Dorsey offer, I said: “Well, go ahead.” Because we were hardly making enough money to even eat. After he went with the Dorsey band, it was only another eight months or so before we were fortunate enough to get our own hit record. Dick Haymes came in to replace Sinatra; then Dick was with us for about three years.
You’ve certainly had some very fine singers.
Oh yes—luckily, we have. Sinatra, Dick Haymes; Helen Forrest was with us when we made a lot of our early recordings; Kitty Kallen. I feel that when our vocalist is on I sorta take a back seat, go off the stage or something, because I like to give a person a chance to express themselves, and show their own talent.
During the period Sinatra was with you, did you visualise his potential?
Not at all. I didn’t see his potential, or anyone else’s. It was just a matter of playing day by day, doing what we wanted to do, and doing it to the best of our ability. Naturally, hoping that everything would be okay. I’ve been that way all my life—just involved in what I’m doing at the moment. That’s why I still enjoy playing so much—because I’m very sincere about it, I like what I play. If someone doesn’t like it, I’m sorry; if they do, I’m glad. But I’m not going to change it or do something that somebody says they think I should do—I just don’t believe in that.
Then you’d claim you’ve never yielded to any kind of commercial pressures with regard to material?
Never. The only commercial pressures I’ve ever had is when I have come up to do a recording date in the past few years, in which the companies have said to me: “Please re–do some of the older things that you did in the early ‘forties, because now we can get it on stereo and so forth, instead of it being only on 78s.” And I wasn’t happy to do it, but I thought: “Well, if there are people that liked this well enough to buy the records earlier, then they would like to hear them enhanced by modern recording methods.” The same arrangements, that is; I don’t change the old ones. I have many, many new scores, but I figure that if someone wants to hear an old arrangement, they don’t want it embellished or played in a different vein. They want to hear what they associated with it before. If I want to play something other than that, then I play the new things. Because we have a lot of beautiful charts by Thad Jones, Neal Hefti and many other fine arrangers—you know, good jazz things. We have some good instrumentalists in the band; so we keep our own spirits up by playing our new material.
But do you only delve back to the more notable successes like “Trumpet Blues”? I used to enjoy things like “Back Beat Boogie”.
Well, they were such little things, you know, at the time. To play that type of thing right now would not be satisfying to me. I would rather play Ernie Wilkins’ “Blues For Sale”, or something of the same type, that would have the same feel to it but that we would enjoy playing more, you see. Actually, “Back Beat Boogie” was just a head arrangement. We just sketched out a couple of backgrounds, Dave Matthews and myself.
The thing that we try to do now is play enough of the older things that people like, so that they’re not disappointed, and in the meantime show the same people that we’re capable of playing many of today’s things. So we hope they will leave saying: “Yes, I’m satisfied that they’re still playing the music I’m familiar with, but also happy that they haven’t been standing still.”
How did your period as a Hollywood star affect you?
I didn’t really consider myself a star. We would go in and maybe do seven or eight minutes in an hour–and–a–half movie; so you can’t call that starring in it. We’d do a number in a scene, or I’d have one little line to say or something; there were never any dramatic sequences that we had to do. It was just a matter of commercialising on the band’s name for the film; we’d do what we were supposed to do and get off with it.
As I remember, though, there were one or two where you had a character part to play.
A little bit, you know. Nothing where anybody could wonder if I was going to get an Academy Award for it.
Were you working just as much with the band during that period as any other?
Oh, sure. Usually when we were doing the pictures at 20th Century Fox we were working in Los Angeles. Our participation in the movies would involve a month or six weeks, whereas the whole movie would probably take a year or more. We’d do our part in a scheduled time; then we’d leave and go back and do our one–night stands, or our engagements in Las Vegas, or at the Astor Hotel, wherever it might be. We had too many other things to do for it to be more than a spell of six weeks or so in a movie. In fact, that’s the main reason why this is our first trip to England—we just haven’t had the time to get out and go. We’re just too busy trying to take care of everything at home.
Obviously, then, there is a great demand still for bands like yours.
It depends on the individual. There’s about seven bands, I imagine, that are organised—and I mean by that, that are together all the time; like, there’s the great Basie band, and Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton. Les Brown does his television show, but he has his band. And that’s about it. So, with only six or seven bands, the ones that are available to work —they just work their heads off, you see. Our biggest problem is trying to get time off. Really.
And, of course, the other bands that try to organise temporarily, get a group of local guys or something and go out and work—well, they do nothing but kill themselves. Because the people are a little too intelligent to walk up and hear a band playing and not be able to tell whether or not the band has been together steadily or is just a bunch of guys recruited for a tour.
That has been the hindrance for the bands—the fact that there haven’t been any replacements for the Dorseys, Millers, these kind of people. We haven’t had any young bands come up. It’s almost like a baseball team —if you don’t have a farm system and bring up the young players, that’s the end of it.
The last band . . . well, of course, Buddy Rich has only organized his band in the last few years. I mean, he had played with us for about six or seven years, or longer and, of course, he was with Dorsey and everything. And he’s a great musician and all. But as a bandleader, he’s only been in it maybe five or six years.
But he’s had a fluctuating personnel, hasn’t he?
Well—I really don’t know, because I haven’t seen Buddy in a bit of time. However, you see, Buddy has an advantage over a lot of new bandleaders, because everyone knows him, and knows what a great drummer and great personality he is. So he has a little easier job than, say, somebody who happens to be an excellent trombonist or trumpet player, but is unknown—for him to get the exposure with a new band is —almost impossible. You don’t have the record outlay that we used to have, maybe twenty years ago, when there were all bands, including new ones, recording.
And now a young band can’t get on a television show. It all makes it very difficult for a new, unheard—of band to be exposed to the public. And I think the best thing that’s happened—oh, in the last five, six or seven years—is Blood, Sweat And Tears. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the group over here.
Yes, they’re touring Europe at the moment.
They are, really? Well, this to me is a great, beautiful group. They’re excellent musicians; they play great jazz, they play today, they play everything. And I had the pleasure of helping to instigate their being in Las Vegas this past Christmas. They were in for only three days, and they did such a terrific job at Caesar’s Palace that they had to do a special performance at 2.30 in the morning on their third day, just for the show–people that work around the town. They were very gracious; I went to see their show, and I was just thrilled with it.
Now something like this is needed, you see—where you have a link with today’s music. Yet most of the kids are conservatory graduates. This shows that there is definitely a connection between a good big band sound and today’s playing. And I believe that there’s always this connection with music. Like I say—good or bad.
I’m very happy that they’re travelling; I didn’t know that they were here. But I hope they’re very successful here, because the people that don’t hear them are going to really miss something—it’s a great organisation. And it is a definite organisation—it isn’t just a bunch of guys dolled up and playing. I mean, they really have everything down where it is. They’re great. There again, of course, you go back to the fact that they’re happy and they’re sincere in what they’re doing; so it comes across.
You think that sincerity always wins through?
As far as I’m concerned it does. People laugh about Lawrence Welk, music–wise, but Lawrence himself thinks that this is the greatest music in the world that he plays and his sincerity gets over. Guy Lombardo is equally honest, too. You don’t have to particularly like it, but it is honesty; it isn’t someone trying to copy something that someone else did.
It’s doing what you believe in. You do your own thing, as they say, and that’s it. From your heart, you know, if it’s sincere.
You were mentioning Buddy Rich just now. Is it true that he was the highest–paid drummer while he was with your band?
Yes, while he was with me he was, because he was my only drummer. But now Sonny Payne is with us, and Sonny gets every bit as much money as Buddy did. Because to me there’s only three drummers in the United States for a band—that’s Buddy Rich, Sonny Payne and Louie Bellson. And other than these three . . . I mean, there are great drummers; I’m not saying that there aren’t fantastic drummers. But for a band that plays like my band plays, where you want to really get in and play for the band, performing many, many different kinds of music, it takes a pretty good mind, you know. You have to be flexible. So these are the only three guys that I know of, that I would be happy with having in the band.
We’ve had many, many other drummers that are so–called big stars in the States, and I have not been happy with them. With us. I’d be very happy with them with someone else, to listen to them—but not with us.
Sonny Payne is doing a fantastic job for us now. In fact, he joined right after Buddy left and he’s been with us now, I think, almost six years. Then, in between times, when Buddy was doing some things, just starting out on his own and all, Louie Bellson would come in and play a few dates with us. And Louie is such a beautiful gentleman and such a great musician. He’s by far the best musician of any of ‘em, because of his capabilities—like his writing.
Actually, the thing we do as Sonny’s solo on the stage, Louie wrote for him —it’s called “Apples”. Yeah, he’s such a sweet guy, you know. We have about fifteen charts by Louie in the band, as a matter of fact. You can’t replace beautiful people with anything.
These three drummers also happen to be very fine soloists, who are able to hold the interest.
Right. But, to my way of thinking . . . you see, many times we might play places like a country club or a dance, when a solo is not needed. These particular people are capable of playing so great for the band; they’re not sitting back saying: “Oh, when do I play my solo?” They know that they would not be that much appreciated taking a solo during a dance job. This is great intelligence, which I really admire all three of them for. Especially Sonny—he doesn’t care at all; his flexibility is great.
Do you play a lot of dance jobs in the States?
Well, when we leave Nevada we do. In Las Vegas we’re working in the show, but we do a two–month tour in April and May, also a tour usually in October or November, and then we go to Disneyland every year around July; these are mostly dance jobs. So we do have to play a lot of dance music. But most of the things that we play on the concert are danceable, anyway; we might just change the tempo a little bit.
Yes, it was originally created partially for dancing. It’s only a pity that we can’t just occasionally have the experience of hearing a band of the calibre of yours play in a dance situation in this country.
We did the other night. We played an hour concert in, Munich; then the following hour was for dancing, and it was in the ballroom of the hotel. It was fun; we enjoyed it.
So you are planning to keep the band going indefinitely?
U–huh—until I get tired of it; which I doubt will ever happen. And so long as the Lord is good to me, and I don’t lose my chops, I’ll go on.
Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.