Talking to Les Tomkins in 1965
Do you find there is more freedom with a small group as opposed to a big band supporting your singing?
Oh, yes. You can do ad lib things that would have to be conducted if you were doing them with a big band. It would have to be an empathy–type thing going between the conductor and the members of the orchestra and it would have to be well–rehearsed. You get more spontaneous jazz with a small group. You can do something else with any one number. It’s complete freedom. This is one of the reasons why so many big–band musicians go around to the jazz clubs and jam.
How long have you been backed by the Junior Mance Trio?
We’ve been together now since August. For the previous 18 months I’d used the Harry Edison Quintet as an accompanying group—with ‘Sweets’ Edison on trumpet, Jimmy Forrest on tenor, Hugh Lawson on piano and Clarence Johnston on drums. For a while we had Tommy Potter on bass but later on we secured the services of Ike Isaacs who before that had the trio that was backing Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. This was a fine musical sound. We had a good book. I had enough music to do three shows of one hour’s duration without repeating numbers. I spent a great deal of money on the music and I was very happy with the whole situation.
Was it, in fact, your decision to change over to the Trio?
Yes, it was. There are a lot of clubs you play in America where you can’t use horns. You don’t need them. In the business today–as Basie puts it—all you really need is a good piano player. This is true of quite a few of the acts in show business. My manager, John Levy, and I discussed this at length and we decided that we would try it for a while.
It’s been very inspirational for me because––once again—I don’t have the straitjacket of arrangements. When I had the two horns it was a matter of trying to get the two–part harmony from them and then getting the piano to play a third and fourth, with the bass adding a fifth. The voice would add the sixth part—for harmonic reasons. And this takes a great deal of doing. You stand up there and you’re in a straitjacket as far as the flexibility of the musical arrangements is concerned. When you come to the end, baby, it says coda and it’s all over!
Did you pick Junior Mance yourself?
Yes, I did. I heard him in Chicago with Gene Ammons years ago. And I’ve heard him since with Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie and his own group. I thought it would be wonderful if Junior would like to do it. He agreed, and it’s a relationship that’s still growing. That’s the beautiful part about it. I love anything in music––or in the artistic field–that grows.
Looking back on your six years with Count Basie, what do you feel you gained from the experience?
Being with Bill Basie was a showcase that took me to Europe some six times, all over the country in America. Radio, television and records, as well. From these media, quite a few people know the name Joe Williams. We didn’t leave America last year, except to go to Canada, and we worked 46 weeks out of the year. This was after having left Basie. It was well planned, inasmuch as I had six months full booking before I did my last job with Basie. In fact, I told Count Basie six months prior to my leaving that I intended to go and the approximate time. Its worked out according to plan—except now I’m more of a businessman than an artist sometimes. I have so many things to consider other than just walking on to the stage and singing.
In your pre–Basie days you sang quite a lot of ballads. Would you say that your work with Basie has created a public’conception of you as a blues singer?
Well, I don’t call the labels. For instance, Frank Sinatra wins jazz polls and he wins popular polls as well, so this puts him in the category of a Nat Cole, a Sarah Vaughan or an Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a good thing that jazz is becoming more popular, because I think it should. The first record I made with Bill Basie was in 1955—“Ev’ry Day I Have The Blues”—and this record went on to the popular charts. But it has remained a jazz standard. Actually, anyone going in there has to work in the shadow of the fact that this is primarily a blues band. And even the things you do that are not strict blues might have a blues quality in them.
In recent years you seem to have turned to ballads to a certain extent.
Yes, I’ve made three string albums in the last four years but I’ve also made three blues albums. Nobody seems to pay any attention to them. Music and jazz is entertaining. If you have the scope, you should at least venture out into other things. You should keep enlarging your repertoire as far as you can.
Was the Chicago scene of the ‘forties substantially different from the way it is today?
It was quite different.. There were many big bands in the city. From any downtown hotel or any of the ballrooms—which were spread out over a large area—you could hear such orchestras as Jimmy Noone, Johnny Long, Erskine Tate and King Kolax. There must have been at least 30 big bands working almost all the time. This doesn’t include the travelling bands that would come to town—Ellington, Bermy Goodman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Andy Kirk, Lionel Hampton or Basie. There was so much for you to listen to.
And from the nightclubs themselves—since this was before television—they would have what they called remote broadcasts that would be carried into the home from coast to coast. As well as all this fine jazz, the most beautiful dancing you would ever want to see in your life was taking place—not only by professional dancers but by the people who came to listen. It’s changed quite a bit. Now you go to a jazz club and people mostly sit and listen and drink. I don’t know if the era will ever come back—or if it will ever progress to the point where there’ll be that many good big bands again. At present it isn’t being pushed. And it’s a shame, too, because there’s an entire generation of young people who don’t know the feeling of wanting to dance to the big band sound. Instead you get two guitars and an electric bass. Turn up the amplifiers and nearly everybody does the same jig.
Did you plan to sing professionally before actually doing so?
No, I didn’t, I was interested in sports as a youngster in Chicago. I played baseball, handball, soccer, football and tennis. But friends of mine on the ball club told me: “You should sing Joe.” Because after the ball game sometimes we’d sit around and discuss the game and then as it got dark I would sing. And I’d make the fellows sing, give them their different harmonies and what have you—and we would sing in harmony.
Then one night at a dance the boys finally persuaded me to sing. I remember I was scared to death. I did the tune “Dinner For One, Please, James” with Francois’ band at the Warwick Hall. Later on I began to feel it would be nice to do this for a living, so I asked a bandleader on the South side, Johnny Long, to let me sing with his orchestra. He did—and paid me nothing at first. Then he started giving me fifty cents a night, then a dollar, then a dollar and a half and finally it was five dollars a night. That was the most I ever made from Johnny. But I didn’t care because of the fact that I was singing. The band would play one number, then I’d sing a number—and all for dancing. He had a monopoly on the dances on the South side at the time.
After that I went from one band to another—from him to Erskine Tate, then Jimmy Noone and finally Coleman Hawkins. Later on I sang with Lionel Hampton’s great band when he had Milt Buckner on piano and arranging and Vernon Ring on bass. In his trumpet section alone he had Joe Newman, Joe Morris, Joe Wilder, and Lamar Wright, Junior. He had Fred Beckett and ‘Booty’ Wood playing trombones. Earl Bostic was the lead alto, Ted McRae and Arnette Cobb were the tenormen and Rudy Rutherford was playing baritone and clarinet. He also had a girl singer with him named Dinah Washington. I had the chance to work with this band for about five or six months and it was a real swinging pleasure.
Then the great Andy Kirk’s band with Ben Thigpen—the father of Edmund, who is with Oscar Peterson—and oh, just wonderful experiences. You never missed anybody like Lunceford or Kirk or Ellington when they came to town. But times have changed and that scene is gone now.
Would you name any one of your big band stays as happier than the others?
Oh yes, night for night—the fine band of Count Basie. Ninety–nine per cent. of the time, when you hear this band, you are hearing an inspired performance by a group of the finest musicians in the world. And I was with them much longer than I was with any other group. Also Lionel Hampton’s band of 1942 was one of the finest bands I ever had the pleasure of working with.
Coleman Hawkins had a good band out of Chicago when I worked with him in 1941. It’s a funny thing about that. I was singing blues at the Cafe Society and Coleman had the orchestra there. He paid me exactly double what I was making—I think I was making about 41 dollars a week—and he paid me 80 dollars a week to join his orchestra and sing ballads.
Where exactly did your path and Count Basie’s first cross?
It was in 1942. To supplement my income as a singer and because I enjoyed meeting people too, I worked as a stage doorman at the Regal Theatre and he came there as the star attraction. I had no idea that he even knew that I could sing. Then in 1950 he came to Chicago with a small combo that included Clark Terry on trumpet, Buddy De France on clarinet, Freddie Greene on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass and Gus Johnson on drums. And he had a tenor player named Wardell Gray. I started singing with this Basie group at a club downtown called The Brass Rail. Four years later—in December, 1954 —I joined him when he’d got the big band together again and I was with him until January of 1961.
As an acknowledged Ray Charles admirer, how do you view his Hit Parade excursions?
Well, I think he’s Ray Charles no matter what he does. It’s a good thing that the man is getting this exposure. The sound is being put into the ears of the world over a period of years. Do you realise that people like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Billy Eckstine have been making top–selling records since either the late ‘thirties or early ‘forties? And that’s twenty years of listening that the general public has had.
Since then there have been other people, such as Johnny Mathis, who have received as much exposure for their work and consequently they have become part of Americana as far as the buying public is concerned. Now the same thing has happened to Ray Charles.
But I also resent the fact that the sound of an Art Tatum wasn’t put into the ears of the world. And there’s some–one right now—Oscar Peterson. I don’t think that his sound is being promoted properly. Why not put this noise in the ears of the world to hear. Because it is overpoweringly the greatest that I ever heard. I haven’t heard anything to compare with it.
There was the commercial success of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Could this have been a step in the right direction?
Yes. By the same token they could play something of Peterson’s every day—just as a lesson for those who want to do something—and as an inspiration for them. It does seem that insufficient efforts are being made to popularise jazz. I don’t like every track on any record that I’ve ever made. And when you see me in person you’ll notice I don’t sing it like I do on the records. It’s not jazz otherwise.
This is why big bands won’t come back. They—more than individual artists—need this kind of exposure. Can you imagine an hour programme every day devoted to big band music? I mean, just for the people that are doing it today? That isn’t to say that everything every big band plays is good listening. Some time could be taken out to choose the things that are good.Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.