One thrill after another
thrill after another
Everything is the answer
Big band salute
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1975
It’s been about twenty years now that I’ve worked for Frank Sinatra, and I hope it goes on for another twenty years. It’s one thrill after another to play for this man. Most of my work is in L.A., in the studios, and every time there’s a call from Frank, I just up and go—that’s it, you know. I’d say I do about ninety per cent of his things.
A certain kind of drums are required, by all means. Not any fancy drumming, no solos—just big band swinging style. You can’t make a detour off the road with Frank; you just lay down some good time, swing the band and swing him. Sure, it’s basically a jazz approach. He’s got a feel for not only jazz, for everything in music—all kinds of music. It’s Frank Sinatra—that’s it. There are certain superstars, and you have to put him on the side, like you would Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson or one of your best English drummers.
Definitely, even though I know him so well. I still hold him in awe. When we play arenas where the orchestra’s in the middle—“in the well”, we call it—and where he’s close to the orchestra, there are times when you get so mesmerised, you forget where you are; you’re just listening to him. And he never fails, in that respect.
Yes. I must say it’s rubbed off on my musicianship: because you’re at your best when you work with him. He brings out the best in you. And there’s only two or three other people that I can recall, that have done that to me—Claude Thornhill and Tommy Dorsey during the band days, Billy May and Nelson Riddle in later times. Such people are heavyweight giants.
I was born and raised in New York, and I got my training there. Initially, when I was twelve years old, I played violin; after a year I burned it. Not that I didn’t like music, but I didn’t like the violin—my parents put me on that. I immediately went out and bought some drumsticks. I used to be a neighbour of Mark Warnaw, who was a big radio conductor, and his brother Raymond Scott—the bandleader; he used to do the Hit Parade show years ago in New. York City. Their father owned the music store; that’s the way I came to playing drums.
At fourteen, I falsified my age, and got into the Union! Then I went to the training ground, the Catskill Mountains in New York. That’s where they have, like, thousands of hotels with shows; this was the era where everybody—comedians, singers, musicians—broke in. So by the time I was seventeen I had three years of good experience under my belt.
My first band was Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey—which was a lucky start for me, for jazz music. That was when Red had a big band—well, fourteen men—at the Famous Door. As a youngster of seventeen I was very nervous to begin with, but it was a real cooking band, and I learned a lot from such a giant of percussion as Red Norvo. From there it was band after band, one–nighters on the road: I did it for ten years, till I got tired of the bus. By that time I’d got married. we had our first child. and I got a taste of California with Claude Thornhill in 1942. I loved it out there, made up my mind to move there! I finally did so in 1947—I’ve remained ever since.
As for the Thornhill band—that was quite a difference. You had to be able to play a ballad—not many young drummers today know what the word means; they don’t know what a pair of brushes are. I was with Thornhill before he entered the Service, went with him when he reorganised at the end of the war, and stayed about another year–and–a–half before going to the Coast. Oh, those arrangements were twenty–five years ahead of time —because that was Gil Evans, one of the greatest writers of our time.
The music took plenty of rehearsing, since he was a perfectionist. It’s amazing to recall the age of the musicians in the band at the time—between twenty–one and twenty–three years old—Conrad Gozzo, Bob Jenney, Jack Ferrier, to mention a few: He was the first one to use French horns. And the ensemble work in the orchestra was tremendous. I still have some 78s at home, “Snowfall” and others, which I think are collectors’ items now.
After Buddy Rich went in the Service, I spent some time with Tommy. The Dorsey band was another kind of music—but, again, you learn a little bit from each. With Tommy, you had to play, and I got along tremendously with him. I did the opposite of Buddy; who can do what he does? —it’s impossible. All I did was just play big band drums. In fact, when I joined the band, I said: “No solos—no way will I ever try”. Although in those days, everybody played drum solos. But I said: “I’ll lay down some time, swing the band”, and everything was great. Sure, Tommy was a hard disciplinarian—I’ve seen it. But, like I say, I had no trouble whatever with him; so I can’t say anything bad about him.
No, I never played with Frank in those days; he was already gone when I was with Tommy—‘43 or ‘44, I forget the year. Frank was out on his own by then; I didn’t get, to see him till the early fifties, on the Coast. It’s true that Frank has a tremendous feeling for that era—and this is the type of drums he likes to hear. I really don’t know if he knows I’ve been with the band, but it was a good marriage right from the start.
Big band drumming is a very precise art, definitely; there are very few of us left. And I feel sorry for the young drummers, because they cannot get that kind of playing today: it’s three or four men and a loud rock group, and that’s it. There’s some nice groups, and good rock jazz, but when you put ‘em in a big band—they’re strangers. I’m not putting ‘em down; it’s just a fact that they don’t have that experience—they’ve never tasted that, you know.
After Dorsey, I worked with other bands on the basis that I didn’t want to travel any more. Every time a band would come into New York, I’d get a call : “Do you want to work the hotel”, or theatre or whatever, and I would join ‘em. I said “No road”, and they knew it; so I worked with about fifteen bands, such as Sonny Dunham, George Paxton, Jerry Wald, every time they came back into town. There was one time I worked the New Yorker Hotel with three different bands, and left my drums there.
The Coast was like another world compared to New York City—the weather, the people, the countryside. My folks had already moved there, five years before I made it. It took me three months to get into the studios, because they had quota laws then, which they don’t have now, and I had to wait my time out.
Studio work was another challenge, since there was very little jazz; you never knew what you were going to play when you got there, and you had to be equipped to do whatever they put in front of you. Thanks to the early training in New York City and all the studying I did, everything combined, I was prepared for .it. I’ve done every kind of thing in the studios—movies, television, records, jingles. I gained a lot of new experience, things I never did in jazz bands, but, because of the training, it came easy.
Up until three or four years ago, I had my own little group, and we used to go to Palm Springs, about a hundred–and–twenty–five miles away, and play clubs there. I had one of your boys with me——Vic Feldman, who’s a tremendous player. We took golfers with us, that’s all—so we could have a ball playing golf, as well as our instruments.
The connection with Frank came about because I had been working with Nelson Riddle, he got his first album call, to do “Songs For Young Lovers” with Frank, and he called me to do it. Frank has had so many good writers, but I think Nelson has done some of the greatest for him——“Only The Lonely” was a simply tremendous album. Billy May and Neal Hefti have done great jazz albums, but for the ballads, Nelson was the best. Of course, Don Costa’s another fine ballad writer.
These are people who know how to write a drum part—very few writers do. I’ll say this: the less you write in a drum part, the better—it should be left up to the taste of the drummer, actually. There are writers who go haywire; if you had to play what they wrote it would sound like a melody instrument.
The drummers I’ve listened to? As a youngster, Chick Webb was still around—an absolute giant—then Jo Jones, in the early days of Count Basie, Davey Tough, Sid Catlett. It was a combination of all of ‘em that got me going; they all had something to say. And I hope that there are drummers who think that I contributed something. The feeling I have with the young drummers is that they should listen. Like, I listen to rock, because it’s here; there are some very fine drummers in that field, and they have something to say. Anyway, today ninety per cent of the work is that style.
My most important teacher was Billy Gladstone; like Jascha Heifetz was on fiddle—that’s how he was on snare drum. I put in two years with him. And if you didn’t get your lesson right, forget it—he’d send you home. He sent me home a few times! If I hadn’t done that, I could never have worked in studios when I arrived in California, because most of it required legitimate snare drum playing—aside from jazz, in those days. Also, you had to learn other percussion—you know, xylophone, tympani. Although my instrument is drums, I did study these as well.
For twelve years I did the Dinah Shore show; in those days, there was only one drummer on the show. You had to play everything—and it was live, not taped. One hour live, with no chance for mistakes—drums, tympani, xylophone, whatever, and get your roller skates on! Well, there’s no teacher like experience.
There’s some fine drum teachers today, but they’re only teaching rock—which I think is wrong. There are only a few good legitimate teachers. You have some natural drummers, but, on the whole, I think they should be studying the rudiments, legitimate drumming, reading. Because if it ever turns around again, the young drummer’s in a lot of trouble—he’s gonna be down a blind alley.
I must say that, as regards equipment, everything’s a gimmick today. The original feeling is something you can’t get away from. Eighteen tom–toms, the clear heads, the amplified drums—all gimmicks. Sit down at a set of drums and play it, that’s all.
Over the years, I’ve kept the same basic set–up—one tom–tom, a bass drum and one on the floor. And my three cymbals, and my hi–hats. Once in the while—on the TV shows, movie dates or jingles—it requires the three little tom–toms, you know, on a bass drum, which I do have. It’s a must—and you have to do it. But basically, for the big band drumming, it’s the same set I’ve used for thirty–five years, only newer.
Sure, for the two bass drums idea, there’s Louie Bellson and a few more. That’s Louie’s thing, and the way he does it is tremendous, but you can still only play one bass drum when you’re playing jazz drums. Using it on the solos and the endings—Louie is an artist at that, and he deserves all the admiration or praise he gets. We all have to do our thing.
I have a collection of about thirty–five to forty cymbals, and I’ve made a study of each studio that I work in; I use certain cymbals in each studio, because some of my best cymbals won’t sound good in some of the studios. And I have different drums for each studio. I’ve studied the various acoustics, tested them, with the result that I use four different kits. It’s amazing that some of the bad cymbals that I have—well, not bad, but not as good as my best ones—they’ll sound great in a particular room, because of the way it’s built.
With me now, by the way, I’ve got cymbals that I’ve used with Thornhill’s and Dorsey’s bands: I’ve had ‘em that long. If I ever lose them—oh, I don’t want to think of it.
I remember one time we were doing a show with Frank in ‘Vegas, and all the drum companies happened to be holding a convention there. The makers. had brought over some new cymbals for me to try. I used them on one show—they were terrible; I couldn’t wait for that show to end. And Frank turned around; I’m sure he knew something was wrong.
Oh yes, he’s got great ears. I’ve seen many instances of it; he can detect the slightest clam or’ whatever.
The thirtieth fiddle player may be goofing, or if there’s a wrong note accidentally—he can hear it. Tremendous ears. He knows exactly what he wants to hear, at all times.
As for all the studio retakes with Frank—that was years ago. Recently —I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t care; I’m sure he cares, and he wants perfection, but he doesn’t do it that way. In those days, twenty or twenty–five takes were like nothing; there would be retakes by producers of records for no reason at all. Maybe the producer would go to ten takes, and pick out the second one, or the third one. As far as I’m concerned, the more takes you do, the worse it gets; you get stagnant and rusty. So now we do maybe three or four takes, and that’s great—as long as the feeling is there, correct notes, and he’s right, that’s it.
Now, that “Main Event” at Madison Square Gardens—I thought that was great. And here we were in a big arena, and the sound was fine. I think the studios are messing up a lot of the sound with their new gimmicks—spreading it out, having the rhythm section in one part of the hall, the brass in another part, the earphone bit—it’s unnatural. All the feeling is gone; it’s mechanical now.
I dislike it very much. Mixing—there’s another gimmick. I like the idea of the full orchestra and everybody there at the same time. So does Frank. I think it only happened once or twice, where they overdubbed. Electronic gimmicks, that’s all it is. I think it’s a lot easier for them to record—it has to be—but the more studios they build, the worse they get.
Some of the old studios where we used to record, at Capitol, Decca, they were very warm studios, they were compact, they had good acoustics. And they were monaural. Which I like. Take that Thornhill record of “Snowfall’‘—now, you couldn’t ask for better sound than that. It was done at Liedercrantz Hall, downtown Manhattan; all the bands used to record there for the sound, because the hall was just built right. And they only used one microphone, hanging from the ceiling, to pick up the entire band. There were no mikes by the drums at all! Today’s engineers wouldn’t know what to do!
Well, the recording engineer today can make you or break you. They’ve got so many mikes around the drums, you want to go hit a cymbal and go hit a microphone! They’re up your nose, practically! But I think it was all due to the rock situation—it was so noisy that they had to make separation. Up until ten or twelve years ago, the sound was good. You heard everything, because you played normal, the entire band was there, you knew when to shade, when to play a little more or when to come down. Now, if you’re just going to record with a rhythm section, how do you know how loud or soft to play when the rest of the band isn’t there? Okay. it’s written in the part —but you have to have some kind of feeling with the rest of the band.
Thank heavens for Frank Sinatra, I say, and some other great peoplewho keep good music alive. And I must also add: on this tour, he sounded absolutely tremendous. He’s picked up the band, the minute he walks on. He can still do it; in fact, I think he’s better now than ever, really. His voice is deeper, naturally. I feel very fortunate and very proud to have been associated with him through the years. He’s something else. He’s a great musical instrument, that’s what he is.
Copyright © 1975 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.