On a new plateau of vocal artistry
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1984
There are two things I’d like to say, to begin with, Peggy. Firstly, to be here talking with you fulfils a long–held ambition for me. Secondly, as far as I’m concerned, the show I’ve just enjoyed is the best I’ve ever heard from you and I’ve been listening to you for many, many years. To say it was the best yet does not overstate the case a bit.
Oh, that’s marvellous thank you very much. You don’t know how good it is to hear that. That’s wonderful.
And you sang some of the finest songs of all time. Anyway–the tour so far is going very will, it seems.
It’s going very well. And I can’t get over the audiences herethey’re just absolutely wonderful. Well, you heard them. I did over thirty numbers.
Well, it wasn’t one too many. I wouldn’t like to say what other ones I wish you’d done, because you did so many that I’d hoped to hear, plus the extra, unexpected things. Like “As Time Goes By” that was great.
Thank you. I love that song. Can’t even remember everything I dida whole long, long list of them.
As for your superb supporting groupit’s an Anglo–American situation, of course..
Yes. Two of them are from New YorkMike Renzie and Grady Tate, who are very well–known, of course. We’ve all worked together now for about a year, because we were working on the play, Peg, in New York. And Grady’s been working with me, off and on, since 1959, and he’s such a love. I’ve just started doing concerts with the small group only, and I like it a lot, because it’s so free. We can do different numbers, and they know the music so well that it’s just a great pleasure. Couldn’t be better. We will be adding strings for the Royal Festival Hall and that’ll be pretty, won’t it? I hope I didn’t forget the string parts! I must check that.
Knowing how thoroughly you always rehearse for your performances, it’s interesting to see that you are allowing yourself the flexibility to insert unrehearsed items on the spot.
Well, I couldn’t do it if Mike and Grady weren’t so superb. And these musicians from England are so wonderful—I really like them a lot. Mitch Dalton on guitar, Paul Morgan on bass and our percussionist, Jim Lawless they’re just fantastic.
Some of your albums have included what are described as “head arrangements” on them. You like to work up a head thing now and again, do you?
Yes, I do. “Lover” started out as a head arrangement and then Gordon Jenkins did the masterful job of arranging it. We just worked out the basics, you know. Dear Gordonwe certainly will miss him.
There’s an obvious head arrangement that I’m fond of on the “Big Spender” album on Capitola swinging blues–type tune, “You Don’t Know”. It ends: “No, you can’t no, you dontknow how I feel.”
Oh, you know that? I don’t remember where I heard it... it seemed to me I’d heard it on an old Leadbelly record. Yeah I love that.
On the subject of your early listeningback in Jamestown, North Dakota, what music around you was inspiring you?
I used to listen to Kansas City on a five–dial Attwater Kent radio. I’d hear Bill Basie... I think they called him Bill Basie and his Kansas City Coon Shoutersso funny; it sounds so ridiculous now! Yes and the Blue Devils. And then oh, the Kid From Red Bank. Oh, what a giant to go! Gordon, and now Count Basie oh, my goodness.
Yes, we’re losing some great people. From the beginning, did you feel that your self–expression was going to be your voice?
Mm–mm absolutely. I always knew that. No, I wasn’t listening to singers at that time. I did as soon as I could. But I knew it before I heard anybody else sing. Strangeknowing that. The great desire was there in me to do that, and a kind of a will for it to happen.
How about the song–writing? Were you writing songs at an early age?
No, I used to write little poemsI loved that. And then gradually it became another profession. It’s wonderful to do that. Johnny Mercer was a big.. .well, he was my mentor, for song–writing. That’s another one we’ve lost. Well, we haven’t lost himhe’s still in our hearts.
Was your first successful song “It’s A Good Day”? Or was it “I Don’t Know Enough About You”?
I think “It’s A Good Day” was first. Or let me seeno, “You Was Right, Baby” was the first one; “What More Can A Woman Do?” and then “It’s A Good Day” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You” in that order, I think. “Manana” was some place in there, and then on later, with other writers.
You began your singing in hotels and night–spots, didn’t you?
The very first was glee clubs in church and any time anyone would listen.
But you were listening to the bands, and eventually were able to join one. Will Osborne, wasn’t it?
Before that I sang with a college orchestrastudents that were making their way through college, playing. Then later on I did join Will for about three months, but the band broke up; and then I started out on my own.
And at some point, in Chicago, you were discovered by Benny Goodman.
Yes, his fiancé, Alice Duckworth came in; she later became Mrs. Goodman. She brought Benny in; so he sat there and listened, but he looked as though he was preoccupied and didn’t like it very much. The next day he called me on the phone, and I didn’t believe it was Benny, but my room–mate convinced me.
That must have been a pretty exciting time for you, working with that band.
Well, I was already a big fanI would put all my extra nickels in the jukebox, and listen to “Don’t Be That Way” and all those things. Then, when I was working with him, I’d just sit there and enjoy his playing and the band was wonderful. There were some great people in there, like Cutty Cutshall, Jimmy Maxwell, Big Sid Catlett oh, just so many.
Lou McGarity on trombone—I remember that “Blues In The Night” that you did with him.
Wonderful, and “Where Or When”, “The Way You Look Tonight”. . .
And, of course, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Thats when I met Dave Barbour, with Benny when he joined the band. And I tried to retire when we got married, but it didn’t work; David didn’t want me to, eitherhe said that later I might resent not having used the talent I’d been given. I guess that was true... I was very happy, though. Wouldn’t that have been something? It would have changed a lot of things. We’d have missed a great deal of good music.
Would you say you have some sort of affinity with the guitar? You married a guitarist, you’ve often featured the instrument on recordsonce you even made an album with an orchestra of guitars (“Guitars A La Lee” on Capitol).
Yes I do have, I guess. Guitars and piano and flutes and French horns, trumpets and flugelhorns—and I could go on and on; pretty soon I’ll have an orchestra! I guess I love music. Sure, I like the guitar a lot and bass too.
Have you found, over the years, that once you’ve established a key in which to sing any given song, you stick with that?
It hasn’t changed much. For instance, “Them There Eyes” is in G, and I’ve been doing it in G as long as I can remember. So it must be that my voice is not changing. If anything, it’s grown on both ends of the range. Do you think so?
Oh, yes on tonight’s showing, particularly, the growth is evident. It seems as if you’re on a new plateau. Do you feel that?
Yes, I do and I’m loving it.
As regards routines and tempos, though, you believe in varying them?
We have changed some of them around. Grady is so marvellous with all those things and Mike too. They’re so flexible; they can make any tempo the right tempo, and make me enjoy singing it, you know. I’m just loving this whole thing. Like, we’re doing “I Want To Be Happy” as a sort of a Latin and reggae mixed in together. That’s been my whole thingthe percussion patterns. I love changing things around like “Lover”, you know.
You’ve made so many albums; do you have any particular ones that you look back on as special to you? For instance, “Black Coffee”is that special?
I’d say “Black Coffee”, because.. . you realise how long that’s been selling? It was when they started making long–play albums. And then I like the one that Frank Sinatra conducted—he actually produced it. Originally it was “The Man I Love” and then it became “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”; now I understand it’s back to “The Man I Love”. They’re coming in from Japan, France and so onit’s amazing. I hope I’m getting my royalties!
Yes, there’s a gratifying spate of reissues of classic LPs of yours out now“Black Coffee”, “Dream Street” and many more. It enables buyers to catch up with the backlog or get any they missed. Mentioning SinatraI know you haven’t been known to do duets, but was it never mooted that you and he should do something together vocally?
Oh I would love to do duets with him. That would be fantastic. I wish he felt it was a good idea too; I don’t know how he would feel about that, but I certainly would love it. We did a television show once, and we sang a lot of songs—that was marvellous. But I think I could do a better job with him now than I did thenI’d be more comfortable in myself.
Well, to me you’re totally on a par both of you, with maturity, seem to be getting better all the time, and, of course, you both come from the big band era. It would be the ultimate summit meeting.
It would be for me! I must see if I can get in touch with him, and see if he has any ideas about that.
What are your thoughts about Sinatra? You’ve followed his career, of course?
Oh, yes and I consider him to be a very good friend. He’s a wonderful man; he’s done a lot of kind things. We used to be neighbours, and he’s a very thoughtful personcouldn’t have been nicer. I see him now and then, and it’s wonderful to see him whenever I do.
We’re looking forward at the moment to him coming over here in September.
Yes well, if you see him, tell him I said that I think he’s the greatest.
Your performances, naturally, contain the highest proportion of earlier standards. Do you find that recent material is harder to select from?
There aren’t many of the newer songs that really have enough content to them for me. I need to have things that are like little one–act plays. I love the one I’m singing now, though “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings”—because it expresses something to the audience that I strongly feel.
Copyright © 1984, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved