Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
Photo: Associated Press
After being out of the piano playing scene for about five years, now
that I’m back into it I really have a great desire to play, and I’m enjoying
it. And the experience of working with Bing on his tour was absolutely
fantastic. I mean, I can’t imagine any other artist in the world who opens
up to a standing ovation the way he does—the whole place totally coming
apart at the seams. Or I should say: getting glued together again at the
seams. Good Lord, I think if Bing slaved about a two-week stand in
In the show, he makes a gag about the guy who said to him: “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” In one of the reviews in the Irish papers, I liked the closing remark: “He still is—and that’s entertainment.”
My involvement with Bing has been my total respect for his musicality,
his sound, and the man. He’s a great guy, and I know him as a friend.
And I sure dig being friends with anybody that sounds that good! I’ve
known him well, since 1940, when I was with Tommy Dorsey’s band. We did
the title track of Road To Morocco, along with Victor Young’s big
orchestra—a studio full of cats. There we were, stashed in and amongst
the big symphonic
I’m sure Bing must have had somethine to do with it—I know he’d have to okay it; he was the boss. I don’t think anybody is gonna be playing music in back of Bing, unless he okays it, or asks for it.
During the war, he recorded a song I wrote, called “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Town Of Berlin”, which became a war-time hit. He recorded it without even looking at the lead–sheet; he saw my name-on it—it said ‘Sergeant Bushkin’ on the song, as the composer. He just automatically recorded it—he figured I could use the money, as a basic Sergeant in the Army. Ain’t no way you couldn’t use some extra loot! Scale was very low in that department. Scale was really very low for getting killed! It’s a little higher now, I think.
Yeah, the Army bands were fantastic. We had a great band with Winged Victory—I could go on and mention a million guys you’d know. In spite of the fact that there were famous musicians in the band, it sounded good! That may sound like a strange statement to be making—but think about it.
We were talking about commercialism before, about Louis. Louis’ whole
career was based on the fact that he was a musician. He was Louis Armstrong.
And you don’t have to be Siegmund Freud, really, to know that if your
gig is playing music, and the people pay you your fee—like being a great
lawyer, or a doctor, or whatever the hell it is—you play music, don’t
you? In fact, there’s a great analyst in
He’s gotten all the awards—he’s an Oscar–winning analyst. When he was put down about this refusal, he said there were enough sick artists around to handle. His point of view is: you decide what your fee is, and if you’re a piano player, if they put a piano in a men’s room, they put a light on you, there’s a keyboard there, and the guy pays you your fee, you okay the piano. Which is great—I go along with that.
I imagine the acoustics’d even be pretty good in there! You wouldn’t need a monitor, with all that tile around! Having met every kind of musician, naturally, I can say that there are some guys whose attitude to life is . . . well, difficult. If they’re miserable, they play beautifully. But you’re getting the advantage of their beautiful playing, I guess, and you don’t have to be their miserable self. As a listener, you take the plus side of the situation. Of course, when you’re a fellow–musician. having to deal with ‘em . . . oh, brother! But they shall remain nameless, because I’ll be darned if I’m gonna give them a plug! That’s the only reason I’m not mentioning a few names—I am not gonna give them any free publicity. So whoever’s reading this, knows who we’re talking about—or what we’re talking about.
I wish I did. Like—Johnny Mercer sent me a card one time which knocked
me out. He was somewhere like Helsinki, talking about taking a stroll
around this lake that was frozen right on down—you know, walking on the
water, so to speak. On a slow track. And the line was: ‘Having a wonderful
time. Wish I were here.’ Johnny Mercer—for lyric writing, he was the poet.
He and Johnny Burke, really. Not forgetting Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter,
though. And Irving Berlin—if you gotta start some place, you might as
well start right there, with Daddy-O. I know these people; I was brought
up around them—we were all on the scene. I played Hoagy Carmichael’s wedding
in 1935—to his first wife, that was. I’ll never forget playing that party:
it was on
And George Gershwin was there: at that time he was writing Porgy And Bess—he played Summertime and a couple of things from this new show he was working on. That was a solid chunk of history there. But it was just as automatic to talk to him as it would be to talk to any other attractive guest who was patting his foot and digging the music—and who you could count on not to request Melancholy Baby! Which happens to be a pretty good tune, by the way—which I like.
You want to know the story about me writing Oh, Look At Me Now?
That was a very frustrating experience for me. We did a radio programme
called Fame And Fortune, and every week an advertising agency sent
a batch of music to the Dorsey band, wherever we were—and we were on the
road doing one-nighters most of the time. Between Sy Oliver, Axel Stordahl
and myself, we’d sort through this mess. It was an amateur songwriting
contest, where the winner would get a one hundred–dollar bond and the
great privilege of having the Tommy Dorsey Music Company publish your
song: You know how much effort that takes, getting a song in actual print—you
just call the printer, don’t you? However—at one point, we got to
Now, Oh, Look At Me Now was originally written for the Pied Pipers. They didn’t have that much to do within the library, and whatever they were going to do had to be really orchestrated and written out for a vocal group. At one of our rehearsals, at the Astor Roof, Tommy mentioned to the guys in the band, did they have any tunes that might be good for the Pipers? I brought in a couple of tunes, and Oh, Look At Me Now was one of ‘em. We always played it during the dinner serving; Tommy didn’t come in till the supper show—then he came back on the stand with the band, and played the dance for the rest of the evening. People would come up and ask for the song, and Tommy would say: “We don’t have that tune.” He had no idea that we had been doing the song.
Anyway—the music did not arrive in
I agreed to this, we did it, and the damn song got more mail than any had before. Well, the amateur songs—we had to patch them up somehow, throw everything but the kitchen sink into the orchestrations, and there were always Sinatra, Connie Haines and the Pipers to help make them into big production numbers; so they sounded all right.
But my song took off by itself, and became a hit. It took off with odds
against it, because it would have been very, very tricky for Tommy to
have to explain that song being written by one of the guys in the band.
It was just an accidental thing. In those days, a tune stayed popular
for a real long time. We were playing at Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, and
I was driving to work—and it was on Bing’s
It was a lucky break when they cancelled the programme. There’s a switch for you—I couldn’t wait for the cancellation, so I could go around and tell people: “Goddamit, I wrote this tune.” Beautiful, the day Tommy said : “Fellows, we lost our programme.” That meant about twenty quid apiece chopped off your salary, which in those days was a hell of a lot of money—and I was jumping for joy. No wonder I got the reputation of being an eccentric musician! So—when Benny Goodman’s record and others came out, my name was on the label. Not too long ago, I sold the renewal rights.
On the subject of songwriters—it happens that I’ve only ever had one piano student. It was Burt Bacharach.
After the war, in ‘46, I was a studio pianist; I got a call from Freddie Robbins, who was a jazz disc jockey in New York at that time, on a big jazz station, WOV—which, somehow or other, wasn’t considered as unique as a jazz station is considered now, with all of the equipment, the stereo, the cassettes, and so many more players. He called me up, and he said that the station was sponsoring a contest for piano players in high school, and the prize was ten lessons with either Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams or myself. We were going to get paid ten recording sessions for the lessons, which would be of an hour’s duration. Musicians’ scale for a session then was thirty dollars; today, it’s a hundred–and–ten dollars—so we’re speaking of about fifteen quid, and fifty–five. You can relate that to what’s coming down—that could well be a pretty accurate figure, in terms of what that bought, what this buys.
Well, anyway, I said: “Fine”; I went along with that. The contest went on; a couple of months later they held the finals—there were six or eight of these young kids, and they all played. Teddy, Mary and myself were there, but we didn’t want to get involved in the judging part of it—we didn’t think that was fair. We thought that the music teachers of all the schools that were involved should be doing the voting; then you got the problem of them politically voting for their own kid—but there were enough schoolteachers for that situation to be wiped out. And Burt Bacharach won it.
His nickname then was Happy Bacharach. I met his dad and mother, and I couldn’t understand him choosing me as a first prize. Because Teddy Wilson was teaching at Juilliard, had a system of teaching, was really into it—whereas there was no way I’d know where to start. But it was very basic: he wanted to know how I made certain runs; he knew the Bunny Berigan “High Societv” record, and a lot of Mugsy Spanier things like “Relaxin’ At The Touro” —he just wanted to learn those things first–hand. So about three lessons later, I exhausted my professional stance, and I wrote out a few runs, fingerings and so forth for him.
I called his dad. and asked him if it was all right if he stayed overnight
on Friday. I was working Saturday, and I took him to the racetrack. And
the last time I saw Burt, he had a horse in the sixteenth race on the
grass, and so did I. In the same race—that’s a kick. isn’t it? All these
years later. But back in ‘46, I took him to the track for the first time;
then Saturday night I took him to hear Art Tatum. and to hear
I was probably the best teacher in the world for him, because he didn’t have to do any studying or anything; all he had to do was study how to get there on time Friday, so that we could go out and hear Count Basie or something. Pretty good lessons, too.
He met all the cats; I figured: if this was what he was going to be doing he’d better get around to it as soon as possible.
It was, kind of amusing: last year at the Eclipse Awards—that’s a big dinner they have for the awards for thoroughbred racehorses—Burt and I were at the table of Charlie Wittinger, a leading trainer in the States. Burt’s telling Charlie about me being his piano teacher, and I had to cool him out—I said: “He didn’t play that well. I was getting a bum rap.” Obviously, this is a gag—I just love Burt. He’s a very special guy, and a very creative writer. Sure—he’s written some of the great songs of our time. So it shows you—you can have a lousy teacher, and you can become a hell of a songwriter! It’s how you overcome your handicaps that creates your originality.
Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.