Background to a musical marriage

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1988

BBC report    Laurie    A Musical Marriage
Photo by Dennis Matthews

I was born in Natchez, Mississippi. My father was a hotelier—he had a big band playing on the roof of this hotel, which was a night–club; he was in the resort hotel business. And I just thought it was the greatest thing; when I was just a toddler I could lie in bed at night and hear the band. That was in the wartime days, when all the big bands were really going, and he had all the big names down there. By the time we left that particular area, I was around six or seven; by then I’d been able to have an early dinner, then go up and hear the first couple of numbers. The bandleaders would invite the various children to conduct the band; you’d wave around and they’d all go crazy—I remember that quite well, because it was magic. I felt so in love with it.

And I always loved music. We were surrounded by music, because most of the staff that worked for my father were black, and they loved to sing—they just sang all the time. So I was raised around all of that—and they adopted me a lot.

When my father took over another place, a country club, the party kind of activities took place in a building some distance from our villa; so I didn’t get to see much of the dances. I was coming up to eleven, and again all the staff were black; a lot of them came with my father. They sang, and they let me sing and do a dance—and they would tell me how wonderful I was going to be. Really, they were the people who I will always remember as giving me confidence as a child, musically. I had no confidence as far as school was concerned—I was a wash–out—but musically, I grew up hearing root chords. I heard the root of blues chords, gospel chords and stuff like that being sung, and lots of times in harmony.

So as a consequence, I developed—I don’t know whether you’re born with it or you develop it—but I developed a very good ear. And that’s probably been the most successful attribute I ever had—a good ear. It’s not infallible, but it’s good. I tend to believe that I can feel the way a chord’s going . When you’re playing jazz, there are so many ways to go that sometimes you don’t get lost because of the ways you can go.

Somehow you know the right way—particularly if you’ve got somebody good at the keyboard, who hears too. They hear where you’re going, and it’s that kind of instant meeting of minds. And sometimes you goof like mad — and I guess, in a sense, it’s one thing that makes a jazz singer: making the logical progression out of a mistake. You make a mistake; so somehow you get back—and that’s jazz. But the other thing is: I never really considered myself an out–and–out jazz singer, and still don’t—although I’m ridiculously oriented in that line. Maybe it’s a false modesty, not enough confidence or something like that, but to me jazz singers are people like Chris Connor, Anita O’Day and Sarah Vaughan. I don’t know that I’m that original, although I think I’m very good at what I do. It seems to me that I’ve been put into a jazz mould because I have a low voice. I mean, Barbra Streisand, to name but several, sings monstrous jazz phrases and notes and inflections, but she’s got that high– pitched voice and that clarity, and as a consequence she’s not necessarily considered a jazz singer. However, if she had a low–timbered voice, she would be. There’s nobody in the world who would like to sing “New York, New York” more than I would—because you can get all that body movement and everything—but it’d be absurd for me to do something like that, because I don’t have the vocal . . .not just prowess, but legitimacy to do it. So I do the best I can with what I’ve got!

Anyway, as I was saying—I always wanted to be a singer. The family moved to Georgia—a rather disastrous move financially, from which they never recovered; it was just one of those unfortunate things that happen. Be that as it may, it landed me in a town that, to this day, is very cliquey socially, in which everybody wore white gloves. I just went crazy; I became very unsettled in my mind, because I wanted the Arts. I wanted museums, galleries, concerts, and anything of that kind, the nearest large town that offered them was Atlanta, but I didn’t drive, the transport wasn’t that great, and one wasn’t encouraged to go on one’s own. So I spent five or six very fallow but very formative years getting angry and frustrated.

If someone asked me what I wanted to do, I said: “I want to be a singer”—but I didn’t know how to do that, and it was not only not encouraged—it was frowned upon. You sang in church—that was okay, and I did a lot of that. I don’t want to make the place sound horrible; there were a lot of lovely things about it—it was a very family–oriented town. Even with television, people would sit around and sing songs at the piano; but I could never sing along with ‘em, because I didn’t sing in their key! I was always trying to sing harmonies, and stuff like that.

During that period the rhythm’n’blues thing really hit—black music was beginning to come up and knock on the door of commercial acceptance. I was just head–over–heels in love with it. I kept getting thrown out of record stores, because in those days they had the booths where you could go in and listen. A wonderful guy said to me one day: “Marion, I love you, dear, and I’m so pleased you like the music, but you’re wearing out my records, and if you don’t buy something . . .” Everything that was played on the radio was very basic country music—with some Sinatras and things like Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On–A–My House”, but you had to hunt for that. That was one reason I haunted all the record stores.

Then I went off to college in Virginia—and it was there that I finally met up with people with artistic interests. And it was the first time I ever heard Gerry Mulligan play—who happens to be a good friend, thank God, now. For the first time also I heard Mel Tormé sing, and June Christy, and Chris Connor—all of whom I know now, and never would have believed possible then. I couldn’t believe it — because I could sing along with them. They sang virtually in my keys—and I was just out of my mind with excitement. Therefore, not only was there the influence of my culture—my black culture, in a sense—but all of a sudden there was this cool, controlled thing coming through. Well, of course, school work, yet again, went for a Burton! I just sat in the room and listened to records.

I used to have a lot of Liberace records, when they first came out, because I always loved the piano. And guitarists; I loved Segovia and that lot. And the things you get involved in when you first begin to listen—the Rachmaninovs, the Debussys, and this and that. Then, of course, all this blues music and jazz music. I was awful: “Can I borrow that?” and never give it back, you know.

I remember a deputation of girls came to my room at one point and said: “We always know where you are, Marion, because there’s always beautiful music coming out of the room—so you can’t hide our records from us any more!” I got very embarrassed and everything, and they said: “All we want to know is: can we come in and hear them? You’re saving us storage space, but at the end of the year we want ‘em back!” 

In college I was studying drama, basically because academically I was a slouch, and it was obviously something I was fascinated by. Because of that, our particular unit was called upon to: perform at various Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, and all those charitable organisation that they have. There was a girl at the college who really played good piano, and she and I would get together—and I’d dance, funnily enough, a little bit like Isadora Duncan. So we were called upon to do a lot of that, and one day this girl said: “Well, why don’t you sing that first, and then dance it—because you can sing.” I did that—and thereafter people started saying: “We want that girl that did the singing—we heard that she was very good.”

That kind of boosted my ego. Also, before I left high school, I had won a contest called Stars Of Tomorrow—well, I actually tied. It was a big contest that was run throughout the state; we did television, but that was the end of it. I did “Sleepy Time Gal”, and by the time I got to go on, I meant it. I said to the player: “No, it’s lower than that.” She said: “No, it isn’t” and I said: “I promise you.”

After college, I went back home. A sorority sister of mine had a Summer job at a local television station in Atlanta, and she dared me to come down and sing on a local programme. She bet me a fifth of Scotch—and as the county was dry, that was gold dust! I went down with a bunch of friends and did it, and they asked me to come back the next week. I did a month of that, and as a result the girl who was head of continuity got me a job at a big department store, Sears and Roebuck, doing fashion copy in the advertising department.

So I told my parents I wanted to move down to Atlanta, and as I was around twenty–one, they agreed. I  worked at Sears, and went to the television station once a week; they worked out a deal whereby Sears would let me off to go over there for the day if I would wear their clothes and talk about what was going on in the store. So they got free publicity, I got to sing, and the station got a singer—and no money changed hands.

And that’s been going on a lot recently, I want to tell you! There was nobody that came knocking on the door saying: “You’re the greatest thing since sliced bread,” but through that I met a lot of musicians. And there was an Army base in Atlanta that had a Special Services Unit. In those days of total conscription, the musicians they had were good ones—really top–notch players. They wanted to work; so they worked scab, and I got to be on jobs with them.

A week after I left Sears and went into a publishing company, I got a call from a young guy whose parents had an Italian restaurant in the arty section of Atlanta. He was opening a jazz room, and would I come and do the weekend there? The piano player was Duke Pearson, who later went on to take over Blue Note; with him was a guy named Louis Smith, a wonderful trumpet player, also a fine bass player named Laymon Jackson.

They were all just black as the Ace of Spades, and this was the South, and I was blonde then—you know, it was quite a contrast to people. I adored it, and they taught me a great deal, They said: “Okay, baby – you’re not going to make us look like fools. You’re going to do it right”. I went in there for a week, and stayed for three months, every night.

One night during that time, I went down to a club called The Cave, and it was a black club. Laymon, the bass player was there; he took me aside, and he said: “Now. we’ve got . ..” and he named singers I’d never heard of. I didn’t even know Billie Holiday. I’d been in the business about a year, if that—I was an amateur really. It seemed to be an hour that he was naming singers—it must have been ten minutes, but he went from Peggy Lee back to Bessie Smith and beyond that. Then he said: “We’ve got them”—and he got up and walked off. I sat there rigid; I went home, and I put away ever single female vocalist’s record I ever had. And it took me years to get around to sitting down and actually listening to and enjoying a female singer.

It was a traumatic awakening to the fact that there’s no sense in copying. To this day . . . somebody last night asked me if I did “Lush Life”; I replied that I do it very badly, because I can’t get away from Sarah Vaughan doing it—I hear her in my head; so therefore I’d rather leave it alone. I know it, and I still do it—but it’s her ending. That ending was so good, and it’s too tempting to fall into using it, because it was so right—it was the definitive ending to that song, in my mind.

Next thing that happened was: I got sick, and I couldn’t do both jobs any more. I was doing a play, and one thing and another, and just like all kids, I overdid it. I gave up the day job, and then I worked for an agent in his office, who’s still a great friend—I just recently stayed with him and his wife overnight in Atlanta when I was there, and they’re wonderful. I went to him and I said: “You’ve got to put me on the road. If you don’t give me a job, I’m going to jump out your window”. He said: “Sit down. Can you type? Okay—do it.” From there, I went on the road, and I played a lot of strip joints, because that’s all there was in the South.

Eventually I managed to get up North, and I was amazed to find that there were kids doing acts, whose parents would come and cheer them, and who had gone to school to study this. I mean, I went to a voice teacher in college, and she did the obligatory: “Forget it—there’s nothing I can teach you” routine. And there wasn’t, because she was teaching voice production and stuff—which I now wish she had, because I could have used it. Anyway, while I was up there. I was working a club, and one of the guys there—his brother was a songwriter, and he asked me if I would record a song called  “The Exciting Mr. Fitch” as a demonstration disc. Which I did, and he then sent it to Peggy Lee.

Shortly thereafter, because of lack of training, and because of bad mikes, bad clubs, smoke and stuff like that, I got the nodes on the vocal cords. I went and had an operation for it, and it didn’t work.

What they’re supposed to do is: they shave one side of the vocal cord, and that stops the corn that has formed; the other one will just dissipate, because it has nothing to rub up against. But somehow, while doing it, they nicked the other cord, and, as the specialist told me, what happened was the cord crystallised. So I had booked jobs three months after that, and couldn’t make ‘em. My voice had become just a croak.

Through having worked Chicago at the Happy Medium and Mister Kelly’s, I knew a woman who I thought was wonderful; she was a singer, and had been in the revue at Mister Kelly’s—she was very much like Rosalind  Russell. She’d talked to me at one point about a voice teacher she was going to; I called her and asked her about him. She said: “You sound terrible!” I croaked: “I am terrible!” Anyway, she told me his name, Eugene Foisting, and where I could find him.

The doctors I’d been to had told me: “You’ll be lucky if you ever talk again properly. Say as little as possible to anybody, and see what happens. There’s nothing we can really do.” So it was in desperation that I called this woman. In the meantime, a man in Philadelphia had wanted to be my manager, and he didn’t believe me about the voice—he thought I was goofing off. I decided the only thing I could do was get in the car, drive to Philadelphia and show him what the situation was. On the way there, as I reached the outskirts of Chicago, I thought: “I’m going to go to this guy—I’ve got nothing to lose.” So I drove into Chicago, down to the Music Academy.

I went up, and I knocked on his office door. He had a student, and the door pulled open—and this enormous, shaggily–bearded man standing there, bellowed: “How dare you interrupt a lesson of mine!” With my croak of a voice, I said: “Oh, I’m so sorry . . .” He said: “You’ve had an operation on your throat, and it didn’t go right . . . Who told you to come to me?” I named this woman, and he said: “Go downstairs and have a cup of coffee—have you got any money?” I shook my head; I’d just borrowed enough petrol money to get to Philadelphia. He gave me fifty cents: “Go down the coffee shop, and come back here in twenty minutes—on the dot!” I went back in twenty minutes; he said: “Now I’ve called your friend, and she says you have talent—so I’ll take you. You’ll have to not speak to a soul; don’t open your mouth for any reason. Even if you’re being run over by a car—run.” I was with him for three months—and he got me talking; then he got me singing.

My father helped me financially, my manager advanced me a hundred dollars a month, and I got a little room in a hotel, where I shared the use of the bath, and made my soup, boiled my eggs. Luckily, I met some very nice people within the hotel itself; every now and then, if somebody really good was in town, they would take me—so my mind, although it was in bad shape, still became involved with the music, the comedy and stuff like that in Chicago at that time.

Then I got a call from this guy in Philadelphia saying: “Capitol Records want you to come in and sing for them. Peggy Lee received the ‘Exciting Mr Fitch’ demo, and said: ‘Forget the song—get the singer’. And Dave Cavanaugh’s taking her up on it”. I went to Eugene, and I said: “What do I do?” And he said: “Well, you can do it. You’re going to get there; you’re very much on the way. Just sing quiet.” Because by that time I’d gotten enough of a voice that as long as I sang something like “Bye Bye Blackbird” in a relaxed manner, I could do that. But if I got any kind of pressure, it just went to pieces.

So I went into this audition in New York, and it was so funny—I sat there with my box of Kleenex and my Vick spray inhaler and everything, to pretend that I had a terrible cold. I’ll never forget it: they were recording George Chakiris at the time—so my eyes were popping out, in the first place. And Dick Hyman, Joe Newman and all that bunch were in there. After the recording session, they asked: “Will you guys stay on for half–an–hour? We want to put some tracks down for this girl”. I went in, they gave me a stool; I had my Kleenex, I was blowing my nose and carrying on. I got up on the stool, and Dave said: “Okay, guys, now we gotta take it easy, ‘cause this chick has just had an operation on her throat.” I’d gone through all this performance . . . I was just flabbergasted! And that’s when I learned about the power of the engineer, because he made that little tiny voice monstrous. It’s a lesson I should have really learned more than I did; I’ve had problems recording for years, for lots of different reasons, but one of which was that it was a forced situation—which I would hear back and dislike so much that my confidence level on recording just went zilch.

Anyway, after that I did record for Capitol. One of the songs was “When Sunny Gets Blue”, and that hit—and that really started me off. From then on, I got good management, good accountancy, a really first–class agent, and I was just taken care of for the next three or four years. I mean, I never stopped working –– I was just so lucky. I began to build not only a financial background but a reputation. It was during that time that I got this offer for a job in England, came and met Laurie, and I didn’t go back.

I was with GAC in the States: their representative here was Vic Lewis. And GAC put artists into the Cool Elephant in London, including Mel Tormé, June Christy and me. The week before I came over, I was in Miami with Mel and Jack Jones. Mel and I were talking, and he said: “Where are you going next?” I said: “I’m going to go to England.” He said: “Oh, I’m going over there.” I said: “Where are you playing?” He said: “A place called the Cool Elephant.” I said: “Well, so am I.” So we met up again over here.

Laurie had been Cleo Laine’s MD for years on the road, and when John Dankworth took over the MD–ship of the Cool Elephant, he asked Laurie to come in, because he knew Laurie was such a wonderful accompanist for singers—as it was a singers’ room. And Laurie was his protégé, in a sense, anyway; they just clicked with each other musically. I think John also knew that he would be called upon to do other things—he was writing for films at the time—and he needed somebody who would be his deputy MD, really. Incidentally, the opposite band on that engagement was the Dudley Moore Trio: Dudley, Peter McGurk and Chris Karan. So that’s where Laurie and I met—at the Cool Elephant.

I remember driving around Hyde Park after we decided to marry. Laurie was saying: “Well, where are you living?” I said: “Where are you living?” He said: “I’m living here.” So I said: “Well, I guess I’m going to live here.” And that was that. After we married, I went back and did ‘Vegas and Basin Street East and places that I was supposed to have gone back and done initially. But I was glad to get back here again after that.

People have asked me: did I ever regret not pursuing the career in the States? At one point, I really did; it irked me when I saw people that had been my contemporaries, on the same sort of general level that I was, doing all this stuff, and I really thought: “Ooh, I wish I’d done that as well.” But then, on the other hand—on a career level—that was right when the Beatles started, and the whole pop thing was really breaking. I know for a fact, because I see Nancy Wilson and all that lot, that there was a ten–year period that was totally fallow for any of our ilk—it was like, scratching around. Perry Como didn’t record for years. Sinatra hardly recorded for years, other than a few things like ‘Yesterday”. There just wasn’t the material around; the whole genre of material went in a completely different direction.

It’s only been recently—in the last two years or so—that my folks, the Tony Bennetts and the Nancy Wilsons, have begun to find material now. And therefore they’ve come out of their shells. Also the standard thing is getting moving again—yes, a new generation is discovering them. This is what we’re all getting excited and thrilled about. I mean, I’ve started recording again—and I’ve got more confidence. Laurie has given me a lot of confidence to do it, and so has Richard Rodney Bennett. I’ve found out I don’t have to shout—I can just stand there and sing. Which is magic. Another thing is that I’m older; I don’t feel that pressure to be ‘glamorous’—you know, that sort of thing that is in the back of your mind, that you’re supposed to be a ‘star’ or something. I don’t necessarily feel that any more—that’s me now.

You don’t have to be whatever it is that you thought the business expected of you. You go out, and you look as good as you can, it makes you feel good. You’re not trying to be something you may not be—which, again, helps in your confidence level, because you don’t have to prove anything to yourself. You just go out there and hopefully have a good time—and everybody else has a good time too.

 Copyright © 1988, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved