Tells his story

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1988

Stephane Grappelli, Marion Montgomery and Laurie Holloway
Marion   A Musical Marriage

I’m from Oldham, Lancashire, of a musical family. Dad played piano by ear; so it was likely that my brother and I would play. There were always sing-songs at weekends. They tell me I started playing piano when I was about four—by ear, of course. I went for lessons at seven, and when I was about twelve or thirteen I became organist and choirmaster at the church, which was great. I still love choral music as much as anything.

I started doing Saturday night gigs in the local ballroom—learning the tunes.

Then, when I was fourteen, I’d just come home from school one Monday evening, and the bell rang. This chap said: “I’m Eddie Mendoza; I’m working the Theatre Royal this week, and my piano player hasn’t turned up.” So he’d gone to the local music shop for help, and they’d suggested me. And that was my first taste of showbiz—a white piano, and I had to dress up in a big jacket and a wig, because it was Eddie Mendoza and his Crazy Loonies! I did the week, for which I received a five-pound cheque.

At the ballroom, where I’d go mainly to dance, there was a great band—Tommy Smith’s band. Ronnie Hazelhurst, who’s done very well since, was in that band actually. And I got friendly with the band’s male vocalist, Jackie Allen. When I was sixteen I did O-levels, and became an apprentice draughtsman for six months. One day Jackie came to the house and said: “I’ve just met somebody who needs a piano player, on the road.” I said: “When do I start?“, and I turned pro at sixteen, with Syd Willmott and his Band. I did Spring seasons, Summer seasons; I stayed with him about two years.

Again, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn all the tunes. I sometimes wonder how you get to know tunes—but it’s just trial and error, I suppose. It’s a matter of playing them over and over again until you get them right.

After Syd, I went to another good band, in Dundee—Arthur Plant, who had some good musicians, such as Harry Hall, a great trumpet player, in the Kenny Baker style. Then the whole band got fired from the ballroom, and we did an audition for Geraldo, to go on the boats. Doing that for two years was another learning process: I had to play church services, tea music, bingo music and dance music.

I came off the boats, and I’d heard about Archer Street being where you got work; so I went down there. Somebody said: “Oh, Ronnie Rand’s looking for a piano player”, and I got the job with him at the Astoria, Charing Cross Road, where I stayed for two years. That was 2.30 to 5.30 p.m., tea dances, and then 7.30 to 11.00 p.m. But the clock was five minutes fast, and I did a doubling job at the Gargoyle, a strip club near Ronnie’s, from 11.00 p.m. till 3.15 a.m. It was hard work, but good fun, and I got to know a lot of people. I used to go down the club that Mike Senn and Jackie Sharpe ran in Old Compton Street—the Downbeat. There I met people like Eddie Thompson and Tubby Hayes—and that was really the beginning of my jazz awareness. Mike had a band that played weekends in Manor House, and I was in that. Then I went with Johnny Gray—and his Band Of Decay, as we called it! Cyril Stapleton’s band followed for a couple of years; through making albums with Cyril, I met Charlie Katz, the fixer. Charlie asked me if I’d like to do some work; so I got into studio work, which meant leaving Cyril’s band.

That period I really enjoyed. I was working very busy days: 10.00 till 1.00; 2.00 till 5.00; 7.00 till 10.00, in the studios—never knowing who you were going to work with. Decca, Pye, EMI—a lovely time. It was much more diverse then.

You’d do things with Pet Clark; I did “Downtown” and all those Tony Hatch recordings. Barbra Streisand came over—lots of names.

By then I was into arranging as well, and I had an agent called Dick Katz—a good piano player, who used to be with Ray Ellington’s group. I’d been booked to do a Sinatra concert—round about 1970, I think it was. Just after that, I got a call from Gordon Mills: would I go with Engelbert Humperdinck to the States? I said: “Yes, I can do that, but I’ve got to came back for the Sinatra concert.” He said: “No, you don’t—I’ve just bought the agency.” So I didn’t get to play with Sinatra after all. I did five years with Humperdinck, on the road in the States, working on all his albums.

It wasn’t my first time in the States; I’d been there with Johnny Gray. When the union exchanges started, the first small group here was the Brubeck Quartet, and we had to send over a quartet in exchange.

Johnny was the one who was chosen, and they stuck us out in the Catskill Mountains. But my first important experience of the American scene was in the late ‘fifties, when I was on the boats. We used to get five days in New York, and go to places like the Embers and Birdland—Basie was always on at Birdland: a wonderful time. We didn’t get a lot of money; I think it was £ll a week, but the cover charge at clubs was $2.50—we’d sit there all night and listen. I used to see Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson…it was throbbing in those days. And the band on the boat was good; we used to play Shorty Rogers things. It was all education.

Anyway, I was talking about Humperdinck—my five years in the wilderness! That was theatres in the round, like the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles; ‘Vegas we did two months a year, Lake Tahoe a month; and the occasional Canadian tour, Japan, Mexico, Australia. Not very thrilling musically, but it was a different facet of the business, which I’m glad I saw. Everything was first-class, limousines . . . if you believed it, you were in trouble. They weren’t after us; they were after Humperdinck. Then I had enough of that—because each year we planned the musical content of the programme in April, went out on the road, and we were still playing the same show in January the next year. So I wasn’t doing a lot of writing, and I wasn’t playing much; I was conducting more than anything.

I left Humperdinck in ‘75, and took about a year off, to recover! Then I got a call from Harry Rabinowitz, to do some sessions for him. People got to know that I was back—and off it went again, into studio work.

The conducting didn’t actually start with Humperdinck; I’d done the David Frost shows at London Weekend prior to that—they used to have Frost On Friday, . . . On Saturday and . . . On Sunday—and I’d MD’d various television shows. But I suppose being employed as an MD/conductor came afterwards. Doing mainly television was a good direction to go in, really. People asked me to write sig. tunes—unfortunately, a lot of it was game shows. I got pigeon-holed a little bit into light entertainment, rather than the classical side—which I would have liked to dabble in, given the chance.

My association with John Dankworth originated when Cleo went solo from John’s band. I was her MD, and we were doing Batley Variety Club, and clubs in Leeds and Liverpool. It was just me, and we’d pick up bass and drums wherever we went; John would show up now and again and play, which was always a thrill. It was funny—Cleo first got big enough to go solo; then John escalated, and they got back together again, and it was then that I went into John’s band. Which was lovely; I used to sit on the end at Ronnie’s—not a lot to play, just enjoying listening to it.

We did a marvellous album in 1967 called “The Million Dollar Collection”—beautiful music. Tony Coe was in the band; the drummer was John Spooner, an old mate of mine, and Kenny Napper was on bass. I’ve always admired John’s writing. We just differed slightly, in that his idol was Ellington and mine was Basie. I thought Ellington was a bit . . . all meat and no gravy. I used to try to play piano as the Basie band itself played—not so esoteric, perhaps. Having seen the band a lot, and caught the atmosphere, I was appreciating the arrangements of people like Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti.

As for my marriage to Marion . . . was it love at first sight? Well, I think it was free arrangements at first sight! It was just after Christmas, I think, and it was cold and wet; Marion came in, and I was introduced. We were playing for either June Christy or Mel Tormé that week.

Yes, it sort of was love at first sight—within the two weeks she was there, we were very much together. I flew over for one weekend, and it was definitely on—we had a future together.

I worked with John until the Cool Elephant folded—which was a pity. It was a good atmosphere there—an upmarket Ronnie’s. I suppose; it was pretty expensive. I well remember playing for Mel Tormé down there—he was fantastic.

One other thing I should mention is the musical I wrote. I was in the pit band in Lionel Bart’s Blitz at the Adelphi in the Strand. The lead actor was a chap called Bob Grant, and we became good friends.

He came up to me one night and said: “I’ve written the book and lyrics of a musical—would you like to write the music?” I said okay, and he gave me a song a day; so I wrote it in about two weeks.

We did a demo tape, and on the last night of Blitz the show’s producer, Donald Albery—now Sir Donald Albery—came round to the dressing room to thank Bob. And we were playing the tape at the time. He said: “What’s that? Can I take it home?” About a week later he came back and said: “Brian Rix and I are going to put it on.” It was like a dream—I was only about twenty-four or something; it went on at the Piccadilly for a year, with Joan Sims, Harold Goodwin, Wallas Eaton. Then it did six months in Australia with June Whitfield. It was a musical farce called Instant Marriage. Nothing educational; just a sit-back-and-enjoy-it type of thing.

We wrote another one—a musical called Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. We sent it to Donald and Brian Rix: “No, thank you very much”—and that was the end of my career as a writer of musicals. I suppose we should have tried and tried again, but the problem is: when you’re doing pretty well anyway at what you’re doing, it’s difficult to get the incentive to branch out somewhere else.

I write songs—not exactly for Marion, but they seem to suit her. Cleo’s recorded a couple of mine. I try to write the lyrics as well. I don’t write many in a jazz vein; these are not commercial as Joe Public thinks of it—they would have been standard-type songs in the ‘fifties or ‘sixties. I enjoy it—as a form of late-night relaxation.

 Copyright © 1988, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved