Part 2
Parts 1 2 3 Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970

When I last spoke to you three years ago. Nelson, we talked about the Sinatra you knew when you were working with him a great deal, particularly in the ‘fifties. How do you feel about Sinatra as an artist today?

He will always be a fine artist, because that’s the way he was born. He has devoted himself to the songs of today, and he has tried to keep in touch with the musical trends, with his album of Rod McKuen and so on. And not too long ago, when the bossa nova was effective, he did an album with Jobim. So it shows that he tries to keep his finger on the changing pulse of music.

That’s the important thing to do, I feel—move with the times. Even though I’ve done it not too successfully myself. Which is also to be expected, in a way, since the tools of my trade are a great deal more complicated in a sense than the tools of his.

It’s merely a matter of putting another song before the eyes of a singer, and have him sing it. Whereas, to write an arrangement of a song in an entirely different way means that you have to take all the tools that you learned to use, carefully put them aside, fashion new tools, pick them up and use them.

The same can be said of songwriters. There are very, very few—at the moment I can’t think of one—successful composers of songs in the ‘fifties who are now composing songs very successfully in the ‘sixties. I speak of the ‘sixties as if we were still in them, but we can’t really say that we’re in the ‘seventies yet; the first five months of the ‘seventies certainly reflects all that’s gone on in the ‘sixties.

I know many of the ‘fifties songwriters; they were largely my friends, because I had arranged so many of their songs for Frank. And you find that they became less and less active as the ‘sixties developed; they’ve had to live on the ASCAP royalties of their previous efforts.

It’s more difficult to join a new decade having made one’s success and devised one’s approach based on the needs of the previous decade.

But any singer—Sinatra as much as anybody—depends upon the people who write for him, in order to translate any given material into something acceptable to him and the public.

That’s right. Though I say it somewhat regretfully, that’s why I think he was wise in going to other sources than myself for his backgrounds. If he were to say: “Well, Nelson, I’ll sing an approximation of what a modern song is, and I want you to do an approximation of a background for me.  After all, we’ve both got our roots, you in the ‘fifties and I in the ‘forties, but we’ll take a crack at it together”, that would be very unwise.   It would sound forced, of course.

If he can find a comfortable contemporary background and then he puts his voice over it, you can’t fault that. It’s still Sinatra.  He needed backgrounds which made a drastic change from what he had to where he was going. And I think he was very clever to do that. It’s up to me now to see if I can become as much a part of the ‘seventies as I was of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties.

You regard it as a challenge, to do something valid?

It is and it isn’t. But once again, music is the common denominator. In a sense, that’s what I speak of with him. If he could sing a ‘fifties song in tune, he most certainly can do so with a ‘seventies song. If he can sing it in tune, and get the best out of the words, then he’s ageless, really.

Was it his perfectionism that always impressed you most about him?

Yes, but we’re speaking as if the association was something entirely of the past. But I do still work with him once in a while.  I had an album out this last Christmas which I’d done with him and his family. He was as much the perfectionist then, but the only thing was that, dealing with his children as we were, it became necessary to accommodate them.

Frank Junior is a professional singer and Nancy has had some hit records, but Tina wasn’t in the music profession at all. So all his perfectionism had to be slightly altered as a result.

For instance, we heard that on the “Wee Small Hours” album he was at great pains to get all of them exactly right.

Oh yes. Remember he had just come from the jaws of anonymity; he was very much on his toes in those days. He still can be on his toes if the rest of life will let him concentrate on what he’s up to. If something else is perturbing him at a given moment, then he’s not as inclined to have his whole mind on his music.

But how does anybody ever know if that’s the case?

He’s normally a perfectionist; he always was. Many, many records that you hear are the best that he could do at the time. And, of course, his best was better than practically anyone’s.

As to your very recent activities, what sort of an album have you been making in London?

It’s with a large orchestra, and has a modern feel to it. When I say modern, I mean contemporary. It’s trying to incorporate some of the things I’ve done before with some of the feel of what’s going on now. Not the heavy thing with the percussion and guitars until they’re coming out of your eyeballs, but more or a concern for the bass pattern—using, naturally, the fender bass, the twelve-string guitar and a couple of other guitars. And a very good drummer.

Also, the figures have to be written differently. I can’t use any of the old figures that I used, because those figures make the impulse of the 4/4 bar come out either on the down-beat or the third beat. Apparently, in this type of music, it comes out anywhere it comes out.

I had a thirty-piece string section; I used the bass trombone and muted trumpet. But it’s a different approach from any album I’ve done up to now; which my albums require in order to sound contemporary. It contains nine of my originals; with the sounds of today in my head, I composed them so that they would work for what I had in mind.

There are three of today’s songs on it; among them “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, which is a very pretty thing. But, in the main, to write the originals is better than finding a tune of today to do, because most of them, with the youthful naturalness, have been done beautifully and rhythmically. To the point where you can’t improve on them very much. As a matter of fact, you stand a good chance of copying what they’ve done, which automatically ruins your individuality.

It’s also better than taking something of yesterday and trying to make it into today because, in truth, the arranging of today also requires the songs of today, in my opinion. The songs of yesterday, unless they have long, uncluttered lines, don’t lend themselves well to today’s treatment. And I must say that today’s songs wouldn’t have been much previously. Yesterday’s approach required its type of melody.

And naturally you used all local musicians.   You’ve worked with British musicians before, of course, such as when you did that TV show in 1967.

Yeah, and it’s always a pleasure. They’re not as blasé as American musicians. Very often they play as well; occasionally they play better. But it’s great not to have that constant struggle with indifference.

Have you been working mainly in movies since you were last in this country?

Mainly, yes. I believe I was doing the Smothers Brothers TV show at that time. Well, that finished up at the end of March, 1969. Interspersed with that, I had also done a picture called Paint Your Wagon, which is out here now. In which is a song by Lee Marvin that became your Number One song for a little while —“Wand’rin’ Star”.  I did the background to that. All of a sudden I found myself in the role of background arranger again on a very big record—from a most unexpected source, I might say. I had to be very careful with that, due to the fact that he sang it so low.

Anyway, after that I did a picture called On A Clear Day, with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand. Actually I finished working on that just the day before I came over here.

The album you made with Oscar Peterson a couple of years ago must have been an interesting assignment.

Wonderful. We didn’t work out each bar, because, as a true improviser, he would not know from time to time what he was going to do in each particular bar. As you remember, I left it open. A great deal of the time when he played the melody, I’d just leave him alone and then come on in again at a certain time. It was the wisest thing to do under the circumstances, I think.

I was doing about eighty other things at the time, but I know it worked well. I knew that if I gave him a bunch of harmonies that he didn’t hear or that he would have done himself otherwise, I’d be in large trouble. I’m glad Oscar was so happy with it. I’d love to do another one with him.

Have you now carried out your intention to get more into composing rather than arranging? Outside of your film scores, of course.

Yes, I have. I’ve written a short symphony, which I performed with three orchestras in the States: the Santa Monica Symphony who gave it its birth by commissioning it, the Chicago Symphony and the Vancouver, British Columbia Symphony.   I performed it with the Vancouver Symphony on April 18th.

I’ve also written a piece called a Chaconne, which is a short melody, changed to some fifteen variations either by superimposing something on it or below it; nevertheless, it is a constant repetition of the same short melody. It’s about fifteen minutes long, and is composed for symphony orchestra. I haven’t had that performed yet.

Another recent composition is a sonata for ‘cello and piano. And when I get back I’m going to write a theme and variations for the Santa Monica Symphony, and that’ll be performed in October.

Is this a fulfillment for you, would you say, to do this kind of writing?

Well, that would indicate that I waited for this, in order to be fulfilled. Not truly. I’ve enjoyed working with Frank, with Oscar and countless other projects. But this is a different direction, that is very satisfying.

 Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved