Adapted from an interview by Les Tomkins in 1976
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I really don’t have many complaints. The biggest problem with me was that I started in early ‘47 as a solo artist, and this is purely my evaluation, and I may be wrong about it: 1 was led down a path, which, incidentally, I followed rather easily—I didn’t fight it as much as I should have. It was a path of commercialism.
This “Velvet Fog” nonsense took hold—it was coined by a disc jockey in New York, Fred Robbins. I never used it, but other people did; it was never in my contract to use it, but they latched on to that. And, sure enough, just recently the Herald Tribune here reviewed Bing and me, and said: “Boy—both in town at the same time: The Groaner and the Velvet Fog.” So, you know, at this point I just throw my hands up and say: “Look, if you want to call me ‘the Velvet Fog’, it is anachronistic; it is absolutely not, in any way, shape or form, descriptive of the way I sing now.” You saw me opening night—you know that. But if they want to say it—fine; I don’t really care.
Originally, though, Carlos Gastel took me over, and I think I would be an ingrate to complain. I got very good treatment. I started out at the Copacabana, the top place to play in the country. The biggest problem was that I personally, with all that experience behind me, really thought that if I sang to the zenith of my ability at the Copa that would be enough—and it wasn’t enough.
I didn’t really have an act per se—a theatrical performance, as opposed to just: here I am, folks, and you’re all supposed to be dead quiet while I sing eight or nine songs, then get off the stage. It was presumptuous, and I was wrong—and I got roundly roasted by the critics. Although I was a very big hit at the Copa. because of the kids and everything, —you know. Consequently, I’m afraid that I reacted as I guess any twenty–year–old kid would react—I was twenty at the time, but I was quite a young twenty.
I was offended, hurt; I felt that it was unfair. I can look back on it now, and be introspective about it, but in those days it seemed unfair—and I said so, very vocally. There is the ‘little guy’ syndrome. If you happen to be twenty years old, your name is Marion Morrison, you change it to John Wayne, and you say : “I don’t like what ya wrote about me, ya creep . . . “, you get away with it; for some crazy reason, imposing height denotes maturity to people. But when you’re a little guy, and particularly when you’ve been compared all your life to some extent to Mickey Rooney, before you even open your mouth: “Well, I’ll bet he’s cocky as hell.”
Some of what I said did not make wildly good sense, but some of it did —because I’ve re–read interviews and conversations with me over and again, from the old days. Yet it was all put down to temperament, arrogance, egotism and cockiness. Well, knowing that I meant what I said, that it came from my heart, and feeling that to some degree I was right, that went towards pushing me more over in a direction that I was finding very unpleasant.
I became very defensive: “You better not look at me the wrong way, or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat! ” And I did some teeth kicking, too—which I regret now, really sorely. To answer your original question, about finding it tough sledding—it was only tough because very early on I chose to do the best material possible.
I had certain musical standards—that was the thing, but those were standards I really can’t brag about. They weren’t original with me; they were what I had listened to. I was conditioned to those standards, because I was a great band fan, and a great fan of good singers—and great musicianship, right. I respected it. And I thought. if I’m gonna make it at all in this business I want to be respected: if I don’t become the biggest high—visibility superstar three–hundred–thousand–dollars–a–week act in Las Vegas—that’s one form of success.
There are singers in this business who make much more money than I, but it means something whenever somebody walks up to me backstage and says: “That performance was spectacular”, or somebody looks me directly in the eye and says: “You are absolutely the very best singer in the world today.” That’s their opinion, and I would never ever say: “My God, they’re right”; I mean. there are some marvellous singers; and if I can just be considered to be one of the good ones, I’m happy.
The point is, when anybody does—say that, and really believes it—and I get a lot of mail like that—that is my compensation for having eschewed the path of rank commercialism just to make a buck and be popular. I think the other way to go is wrong, too. I really have disdain for these guys who say: “Hey, man, I’m gonna sing the far–outest, most obscure music possible, because what I really want is a cult of twelve people in every town.”
That doesn’t pay the bills, and it really doesn’t perpetuate you in the business. But there’s a good middle road, and, indeed, I think the act I did at the Talk Of The Town was a very good example of it—with some Sedaka, some scat, the tribute to Krupa, the movie medley, plus the fact that I’ve arranged it all. And all the arranging is in the mode of people like Marty Paich. Shorty Rogers, Lennie Niehaus, Angela Morley. I really believe in the middle ground, and it works for me; I didn’t have one single night without a standing ovation.
Now, that’s a very broad cross—section audience; it’s not like playing Ronnie Scott’s or doing a concert at the Albert Hall. It’s really nitty gritty, down–home, middle Europe, middle America—it’s where the people really are.
I hadn’t been a recording artist all that long when albums came on the scene, and I was one of the first singers to point the way to how varied an album’s contents could be. And be successful. “Mountain Greenery”, which was so big here in England in ‘56, came out of one of those albums. But there were a lot of other marvellous singers who were contributing at the time, and paving the way for what we now know is one of the biggest businesses, I suppose, in the world.
As regards whether the album has raised performance levels, as opposed to the field of the one-shot commercial single: well much more enduring ability and musicality is called for. Just think . . . I used to call it “the music business”, but it’s not that any more. It’s not even “the business”; it’s just “business”, in quotation marks, underlined. Because obviously the whole purpose of putting records out is purely and simply to make money. Of course, it was never a philanthropic kind of endeavour, but in past times there was real attention paid, in my opinion, to the content of the record.
Let me put it this wav—I firmly believe that most of the record companies these days would be delighted if somebody came on a record and belched for forty minutes, as long as there was a guaranteed five hundred thousand sale on it. I don’t think the men at the top give a tinker’s damn about the musical content of it.
Absolutely not. They’re in it to own three cars, to have houses in the country, to be, quote, “successful”. Again, we go back to that middle of the road—I think I’m living proof that it can be done. Talking money is crass; so I’m not going to tell you what I made last year. But I will tell you that in the complete history of my career it was the biggest financial year I’ve ever had—the tax I paid was obscene. I am grateful for it; I’m not bragging. What I’m saying is that obviously one can stick to one’s guns. One does not have to sell out; nor does one have to be a very fine elitist commodity.
Just a few weeks ago, I played the Waldorf in New York City, co-starring with Buddy Rich and his Orchestra. Jazz fans don’t come to the Waldorf —you got to have a hell of a lot of money. I would say, most nights, people were in tuxes—I mean, they were nightclub/hotel room habitués. And there is no lessening of standards.
There’s something that I’d like to get off my chest, and I think this might be a very good time to do it. There is the Sinatra/Fitzgerald/Torme/Peggy Lee cultist who comes in and says: “Why do you have to talk to the audience? We just want to hear you sing, man.” Well, that’s too bloody bad, because that guy is in a very small minority. In a given audience, let’s say, of five hundred. there may be five people—no joke—who really know what the hell you’re saying as a singer. That’s one per cent. The rest of them are there because they want to show their clothes off, or because it’s the thing to do to be there, or because they like you, but they don’t know why.
As far as I’m concerned, it has always been incumbent upon singers to make a performance visually, audibly and entertainment–wise palatable to those people who come in, who are not fortunate enough to have studied music at Juilliard—or to have been listening to the works of Benny Goodman, Jimmy Lunceford, etc., since they were three years old. Which are the majority. So I’m sorry, I’m going to continue to talk to the people, because I do believe that if they get to know you and what you are as a human being, they can more appreciate what you are as a performer.
As long as it doesn’t become funny hats, jokes, fun and games and silliness to the point where it detracts from your singing. Let’s take Mr. X, jazz singer, appearing at Ronnie Scott’s, the Albert Hall or whatever—if that man pulls his pants down, says: “Look at my polka—dotted jockey shorts”, then leaves them down and sings “Here’s That Rainy Day” superbly, how on earth can a critic comment on his singing?
Speaking of critics, many of whom, I would say—not most of whom, but many—are totally unqualified to talk or write about music, anyway; I mean, it’s absurd, the way they become music critics . . . too often, critics will take their emotions about a performer as to what he is as a person., and transfer that criticism to the singing, when it has nothing to do with the singing. I know a lot of show business people and a lot of musicians that I really have no use for, socially or personally. But you must make a dichotomy right there—you’ve got to separate one from the other. No matter what those people are on a personal level, if they are superb artists as musicians, singers, what–have–you...that must be judged separately.
The performance—that’s all that matters. I mean, I know a man right now who for years and years has been one of the kingpins of jazz. I’d say he’s one of the five most famous big band leaders of all time. He is one of the prime vulgarians of all time. He’s a man who belches in front of women, and never says “Excuse me”.
I’m not going to say who he is, of course. I have on occasion worked with him, and have been astounded that in all these years he’s never learned any social graciousness at all. But when he picks his axe up to play—God in heaven! You’ve got to separate that—it’s terribly important, I think. But nevertheless, at least some of a person’s personality comes through in their performance.
Musicians have it a little easier, because they are not dealing with the sung word. Which, indeed, colours an audience’s reaction to a performer: whatever you’re singing—love songs, torch songs, rhythm songs—it’s a reflection in their minds at that moment of your personality. If you’re singing “Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”, and you really throw yourself into it, they picture you in war torn England, with a tin helmet on and a gas-mask. Whereas a musician is luckier; a lot of times, the reflection of what he is as a human being is not even remotely carried through in what he plays.
There are musicians in my business who are very dour people, who are angry for one reason or another, who are malcontents or whatever. I’m generalising now; there are a lot of tremendous people, too, like in all walks of life. But the truth of the matter is when they play their instrument, it’s a different person. You begin to think that person is only happy when that horn is stuck in his mouth, or against his mouth, or the sticks are in his hands, or he’s touching the piano keys. or plucking a bass, or a guitar, you know.
And even singers . . . there are a lot of singers who are quite intellectual, who read, and who are good companions of an evening; then there are some singers, very candidly, who are just plain stupid from a standpoint of any intellectuality, or really, any real intelligence at all—but are superb artists at being able to cover that defect once the words of sophisticated songs come out of their mouths.
They carry it off superbly well, and I give them great credit for that. I like so many wonderful people in our business, and my only real complaint is: 1 hate to be alienated by somebody in our business who hasn’t gotten on his or her knees and thanked their lucky stars they’re doing what they’re doing, that they’ve been successful, and said: “Now I’m going to mould my character. Now I’m going to grow into a full human being.” Instead of somebody that just deals with love lyrics all the time, and doesn’t really know the meaning of the word love.
Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved