Part 3
Parts 1 2 3 Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981

When we left Los Angeles last week, it was one-hundred-and-five degrees, and it was too hot for comfort; over here, you may complain about your Summer, with all justification — you would like some more sun — but for us it's nice and cool and refreshing. I have a very good band here; the first trumpet player, Derek Watkins, is magnificent — Duncan Lament is excellent on tenor sax also. And a very good young piano player — I think his name is Mark Stephens.

They're very receptive audiences. You hear so much about the reserved English manner — well, they don't seem in the least reserved to me; they're very pleasant, very receptive to everything you do. Whereas in the United States people are very blasι about entertainment — they have been entertained to death. They've had all types of diversion, and as a result, very little of it can reach them any more. Our publicists and our advertising media have devised so many ingenious ways to get at people that people have developed a resistance against whatever angle you try to reach them from.

It's been a bombardment by radio, television, newspaper blurbs, everything — it just seems as if all the means of persuading people to buy products or to give to various charities have been worked to death. Therefore what you have left are people who are not easily reached. Though London is a very sophisticated city, I have a feeling that personal privacy has not been breached the way it has been in the States. Which makes for a more receptive, more sensitive, more appreciative person — one who can be much more easily stirred. So I appreciate that.


The money syndrome in the United States is incredible. Everything is based on money — it's so materialistic. And I say this sadly, because we're all part of it; getting on an airplane and travelling sixty-five hundred miles does not remove one from all this — I can make comments and yet I'm part of it. I do know that when I come to London I'm received as an individual; in Los Angeles, where I've spent about thirty-five years now, I am warmly received in many areas, but I'm thought of as a person who's been around quite a while — the one thing I lack is the impact of a new name. Having, in my own way, worked the area over very carefully for all these years, they no longer look to me as anything new. And the word "new" has the ultimate magic in the United States. Somebody told me that the words "new" and "free" — first of all, because they're short and explosive, either to say or to read — are the two most potent words in advertising, or in self-salesmanship. I'm not free, and I'm certainly not new.

We have a large influx of musicians to California from all parts of the world — and many from New York. It seems that from the standpoint of the opportunity to gain employment in the entertainment field, Los Angeles is still the mecca — even though at the moment we're torn with various strikes that have practically immobilised the film/television field, and, I have a feeling, have had a strong impact on feature films.

New York used to be where most of the action took place, but it is becoming something of a dead city. Chicago was years and years ago, but I don't think anything much is happening there. There is a trickle of activity in Chicago, and quite a bit in New York doing musical jingles for advertising agencies. Then, of course, there is the sometime employment of Broadway, where musicians can get jobs in pits, and a few selected orchestrators can go in and do scores for plays.

Eddie Sauter, who you'll remember from the Sauter-Finegan band, and before that the many, many wonderful arrangements he did for the early Benny Goodman band — that was his mainstay, I believe, at the end. He orchestrated Broadway shows, which I guess is quite lucrative. Eddie died a few weeks ago — he was only about sixty-six.

When I come over here, I find they treasure the past; by treasuring the past, they fasten me firmly in the present — which is nice, I must say. I'm over here with Sarah Vaughan and Andy Williams — two very viable as well as extremely talented singers — and I think they are both very appreciative of the reaction that the audiences give to their efforts. Of course, taking things for granted when they're always around — that's part of human nature. As the Biblical quotation puts it: a prophet is not without honour, except in his own country. I'm not a prophet, and the United States gives me a very comfortable income — but nevertheless, there is a definite difference between the reaction that one gets going to London and, say, flying to New York.

Both Sarah and Andy are very delightful people. Sarah has been very sweet — actually, all I do is to introduce her, and make a little talk while her musicians are getting set up. As for Andy, I'm doing all his conducting here, and he's been very patient. We skated through the first show without any serious damage; by the second show things were improved a lot, and I think last night we turned in a near-flawless performance. Fortunately, having worked with many singers, I can feel comfortable with singers; I suspect that they sometimes feel comfortable with me.

The funny thing is: I never worked with Andy or Sarah before. I did a concert over here with Tony Bennett once at the Royal Festival Hall, and that's the only time I ever worked with him — I hope to do some recordings with him. And in August Sarah Vaughan and I are going to do the umpteenth, perhaps, but hopefully a very new approach towards the music of Porgy And Bess for Norman Granz's Pablo Records. Norman and his wife are coming in tonight to see Sarah and me, and I guess some of the conversation will revolve around our project. This is going to be a solo album for Sarah, written by myself; she's going to adapt the songs to her own needs. I'm looking forward to that very much. Such events are very valuable, because, once again — some of our fine voices in the States are stilled on record, due to the record business having changed so drastically.

These days I do a lot of "pops" concerts with symphony orchestras; fortunately, I have music which fits that, and I've transcribed a lot of film music so that it sounds quite nice with symphony orchestra. Then I do some concerts with what would amount to a dance band set-up, plus a singer — there's a lady over in Los Angeles named Linda Price, who sings very well and plays excellent jazz flute; so sometimes we can put on a show that way. I'm still active in television — but the hectic state of television right now has made me less active than I would like to be. No one is committing themselves, or anyone else, to long-term projects. I was doing a series called Harper Valley P. T.A., which is a spin-off from a feature film I did — which, in turn, was prompted by the lyrics of a hit record a few years ago. It's an interesting, folksy, cute show, that I enjoy doing. The show has been renewed for the Fall, but the trouble is that until the studios can work out some kind of deal with the writers, and most important of all, with the directors — who are scheduled to go on strike soon — they will not give the go-ahead sign to the producers of Harper Valley to do any more segments. And if it drags on for a few more weeks, it will delay or cancel the Fall season.

Besides that, we have now the influx of cable TV coming up — and that's largely what all the dispute is about. The writers and the directors feel that they want some of the profits, and the producers, somewhat poetically, describe the situation as: "trying to figure out the cost of the fruit while the trees are still blossoming". But I don't think either the writers or directors are buying that bit of imagery. They insist that there is no substitute for being in on the ground floor, because once the basement has been built and the first floor has started to take shape, it's awfully hard to get in some of those windows if they're barred.

The musicians also tried such tactics, starting in August of last year — and we wound up a five-and-a-half months' strike finally accepting, without any participation in this cable TV, a settlement which was a little bit less than they had offered us in August. We found ourselves without the income of almost a year's efforts; we found ourselves on the tail–end of the 1980/81 TV season, with most of the music having been scored in far–away places in Europe. Not much of it in England, though — the English union seemed to feel a loyalty towards us; I think that is noteworthy and very creditable. I hope that in some way we can show a loyalty to them, if the situation ever arises — we most certainly should.

Then again, there were breaks in the ranks right in the United States — for instance, three of the Harper Valley shows were scored in Arizona. We have the loyalty of people sixty-five hundred miles away, yet not that of some a few hundred miles away. The musicians were not united. There were certain writers in Los Angeles whose pencils never got cold; they wrote right on through the strike. So you can't get anywhere that way — you could barely get anywhere if you were united. The poor musicians were not only up against the phalanx of the producers, but some of their own people were sabotaging any halting forward efforts they made. Just a mess.

I still feel badly about it. People's political views and their values are supposed to be their own privacy, but I still claim that if you're part of a union you stand to reap the benefits of that union. I'm not a pro-union person, strangely enough, but there is a practical side to it — if you're accepting such benefits as raises in pay, pensions and so on, then you should also be prepared to act as a unit when there's some kind of a crisis. To pick up all these other goodies and in the meantime go your own merry way seems to be wanting it at both ends. It's distinctly unfair to the other members of the union, who are trying to make some kind of a point.

Perhaps I'm not as angry as I was, but I do have definite feelings about it. One must, as they say, get along with people. It's funny, though — a thing like this gives you a feeling of reality. And the reality is that everybody doesn't act the way you think they should, any more than you act the way they think you should. In general, the problem can be simplified by being put under one heading: greed. That's the name of the game. Greed is at the top of the priority list.

Yes, I did have an involvement in the Frank Sinatra "Trilogy" album. He seemed to like one particular cut I did. I had done an arrangement years ago of a Beatle song called "Something"; he was going to appear at our Music Center in Los Angeles, and the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, were going to provide the accompaniment — so he asked me if I would write a "pseudo-symphonic" arrangement of this song, and it turned out very nicely. I was there when it was rehearsed, and it sounded very pretty, with all those strings.

Another thing I'm going to do while I'm over here is an album for your EMI company; it's an album of Fred Astaire tunes with Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin — that is something I look forward to very much. I admire both those men so considerably — it's a great privilege to work with them. I'd written all the scores for it before I left; they've been delivered to EMI, we'll be walking into the studio in July, and hopefully everything will go very sweetly and musically. Of course, that will be another first for me. Oh, I have many interesting things to look forward to.

You were asking me what type of things I'm working on these days. Some recording — not much. TV film, whenever I can do it; most certainly feature films, whenever I can do them. Last year I did a picture called "Rough Cut", with David Niven, Lesley-Anne Down and Burt Reynolds, for Paramount. I usually do a film a year — which is not as much as I'd like to do, but then again, with the rather heavy competition, I'm glad to get what I do. There are people who do only films, and there are three or four writers in the United States who do ninety per cent of those things. Then there is a whole "new wave" — to take a phrase from the kids' vernacular — of young writers whose name you see once on a picture credit, and then you never hear from them again, however effectively they wrote. Maybe they were a friend of the producer or the director, or the money-man.

But the whole picture premise is shaky right now. They've gone about as far as they can with horror movies, and space movies. Since the normal telling of a beautiful story is apparently very passé and can't reach people any more, I'm curious as to what they'll develop next. Horror in space? Very good. Maybe you should write a Love March for such a thing — I don't know. But as they whirl off into the competitive field of how to capture people's attention on screen, it seems to me that the music aspect becomes more of a sound effect, and less of a musical effort. Slowly I'm becoming disinterested, just by the very . . . yes, the sameness that is a by-produce of looking for something quite new. I don't understand it. That's a real paradox.

It’s true that I scored an album for Frank Sinatra about three years ago consisting of songs with girls' names. A special song called "Barbara" was written, for Frank's wife; there were some very pretty songs. But I think Frank felt that it was an old-fashioned premise. You know, they used to group things together like that — but grouping can also be inhibiting. In other words, to madly scramble for twelve girls' names on songs might end up with about eight really good songs and four efforts that are mostly there because of the girls' names connection. So some of those neat little packages that we used to form in the earlier days of records, where we'd do songs about the rain, or songs about nature, or songs about various parts of the world in a musical tour format — that whole premise, I think, has gone by the board. Now they're thinking mostly in terms of the actual quality and meaning of the songs themselves. He seemed very pleased with the musical results, but he did confide to some disc-jockey in New York with whom he is very friendly that he didn't think he would release the album.

He gives a great deal of thought to what is right for him to do. That's the one thing that — being in the business as long as he has — doesn't get any easier. First of all, he's done practically everything on record. What type of release would he need to have to capture people's attention and, hopefully, capture sales? See, now the change in the record business gives him pause; he doesn't always probably reach for the first idea or the second idea. He gives it some thought — and he would have to. He can't compete in the kid market, for a start; what can he add to the already wonderful pile of albums that he's done which will be a significant contribution? So he has to go slowly and carefully.

"Trilogy" was well thought out. Being as large as it is, it seemed to have something for everybody in it. And I believe it sold better than he had even anticipated. Which is good; now, having done that, he's got to think of something else. It's a funny business. Okay — if it takes time and thought, then it deserves both time and thought. As to whether that shelved album will ever be put out — who knows? Whatever is going to happen is in the future, and may be as enigmatic to him as it is to us speculating about it.

Equally, whether I will do further projects with Frank is something that remains to be seen. We spent practically twenty-five years of musical closeness — and that is already a tremendous achievement in a world that changes as fast as the music world does. I'm very content with what we have done, and if he ever decides to do anything else that he feels I could help him with — why, that would be fine. But I've already had a substantial portion. I have no feeling of regret about the things we did, because I think they represented the best that both of us could do. Yes, they're classics. And that's where you get the nice English reaction — because they haven't forgotten those things. Not only is he welcomed with open arms here, but certainly I've been afforded a warm handshake every time I've been over here.

My writing can be said to have had an identifiable sound in earlier years — but one would have to do many different things. Not in a frantic effort to keep up with the times — I frankly don't know where my sounds would fit into punk rock, new wave or something like that. That's a total different outcropping, and I don't view it with alarm — I just view some of it with amazement; that's a more accurate word. It's a symptom of the times. You know, all those years ago, Frank and I had hardly even started on our tour when Elvis Presley and Fats Domino were already starting a revolution underneath the surface. And I've often thought: it's marvellous that we were able to speak in familiar terms, and fairly constant terms, to the musical public for that long — in the face of inevitable, probably in the long run beneficial, but certainly quite logical changes which were taking place. Nothing stands still — nothing should. From about 1953 until, say, 1963, we were able to keep people very much interested in what we were doing.

Then Frank became concerned. Because his need — at least, at one time — was to remain contemporary. He didn't want to be thought of as a star of yester-year. He hadn't realised, at that time, or maybe it hadn't quite come true yet, that he was the superstar that he became — therefore, his efforts are timeless. Now, he doesn't even have to think about that. But he had many moments of self-doubt, I'm sure, and lots of gropings into the music of youth. He recorded "Water-town" and some more of those things — trying to make sense out of that, and, I think, realising reluctantly that one cannot reach over the decades forever. Specially as those decades keep piling up while you're doing the reaching. So he decided to just sing good music.

I wish it was always true that as long as you have a major talent, whatever you do is worth-while — I wish it were as simple as that. It does happen in certain given instances. As it turns out, I just became sixty and I'm still quite active. I'm probably about as active as I want to be; I don't want to work as hard as I used to. Even as much fun as music is, there are many other things in life than work to think about. Right now, I like periods to be quiet — they aren't that long, because one assignment after another keeps cropping up. It's also important to my mental health to keep busy — but not frantically busy. I'm quite happy at the way things have evolved; I don't say my music is timeless, but it still has a large, appreciative audience. And if one has to climb on a plane and travel sixty-five hundred miles to see some of that audience — that's all right.

As for those two German MPS albums I did in the 'seventies — in my opinion, at least, they didn't entirely come off. In a way, I was groping at the time. Claus Ogerman was the one who put this thing together; one album, "Changing Colours", had some standards in it. The other, "Communication", was a strange premise — not in its concept, but in the way it came out. It was supposedly devoted to the works of young German composers — which sounds very idealistic. The fact that these young composers seem to have given all the publishing rights to the people who put the album together was a plus as far as it being economically viable, but I'm not too sure that the combination of all these writers came up with the same quality that was in the other album.

There was an occasional good song or two, but I think there was perhaps too much of a tendency to lean on the arranger to really make these things highly attractive. And you can't always do that, you know — you've got to have the material. The material has to be as strong as the arrangement, even though supposedly arrangers spend their lives gilding the less-than-lovely lily. That gilding can only go along so far, because the music has to be there. It sounds as if I'm knocking the efforts of the young German writers; I'm not, but if they had taken the very best two or three of them and put them in an album otherwise made up of standards, it would have been much better — rather than devoting a whole album to them. So they ended up with all the publishing — but if the album doesn't sell, they get a hundred per cent of nothing.

But these were certainly efforts on my part to think in a different way. Because I really enjoy certain aspects of today's music . . . although it moves so fast that maybe I'd better say yesterday's music — if you think of my own rhythmic feel as the day before yesterday. I like the fender bass, and the double-time feel of the bass line. Bass lines have become very pretty things, in more thoughtful modern music. In the old days, it was a clunking four or a swinging two, and sometimes the bass player would insert some interesting notes, but there was no opportunity, based on how the music was written, for him to make those interesting patterns which now exist, and which I get a big kick out of. I love a good rock drummer, and I like the feel of a good rock rhythm section; then you put the other things on top of that, and you've got a pretty interesting record.

A more ideal package would be "Vive Legrand!", the album of Michel Legrand's songs that I did on Daybreak — all good material. Then again, I would like to have done a little better job by a couple of them. Actually, I use "I Was Born In Love With You" quite often on my live appearances — and people like it. But I feel that way about a lot of my things — that I would like another shot at them. It's a problem. Then I'll go back and play something that I did years ago, and I'll be amazed at how good it is. Which sounds very egotistical on my part — but somewhere along the line I've always been trying very hard to do the best I could. With the usual human result, that it didn't always turn out quite as good as I had hoped. I did a lot of excerpts from my early albums, like "The Tender Touch" and "C'mon, Get Happy" in some BBC broadcasts I did in February — now we're talking about four more concerts for the BBC. Those things, if they're played correctly, and you get exactly the right tempo and the right feel — they still swing pretty good.

I'm very happy that my time on record hasn't been wasted. And my time isn't over yet — I've got some more albums that I'm going to do. But I do them more slowly now; I don't do them one after the other, the way I used to. I did an album for a German label about a year-and-a-half ago, called "Romance, Wind And Fire". It was quite a good album; it's got a couple of disco sides on it that I enjoyed. That was a time when they thought disco was going to be around forever; it turned out to be more like six months. That disco became very complicated and very thrilling for a while; then, like everything else — too much of it, and it became boring. But there were some immensely swinging things they did with it. It showed that if something is written right and played right, it can come off.

 Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved