Rags to Riches
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971
When people use words like genius about me, Iím grateful; being human, certainly I appreciate it. It would be true to say Iíve come from ďrags to richesĒ, because I started at zero. I grew up in below povertyĖlevel Americaójust about the poorest they had, really.
My basic instrument was piano; from there I started to fool around with clarinet. As a matter of fact, I used to be a much better clarinet player than a saxophonist. But then saxophones became very popular; so I switched over. I play a little of all of them now.
The singing was always there. As a little kid, maybe three years old, I was trying to holler something. I did them both, playing and singing, from the beginning. Without wanting to sound too egotisticalóto be perfectly frank I thought all along that I would make it both ways. I felt that I could sing fairly well, and on piano, I didnít regard myself as an Art Tatum, but I thought I could probably hold my own.
Itís hard to say whether being blind has had any bearing on my musical abilities. since I donít have anything to compare with. What I mean by that: if I had seen for, maybe, eighteen or twenty years and then lost my sight, I could talk about it. But, you see, ever since I was about six, somewhere along in there, Iíve been blind; so there is no way for me to say I would have been better or worse in any way. However, I think that I probably was meant to become an entertainer, regardless of which way it had gone.
Regarding the people who have inspired me: in earlier days, Nat Cole certainly had a tremendous influence on me in my singing. So did Charles Brown and some of the other blues singers who went out of style, and I didnít have a chance to get around to. Such as Big Joe Turner, Tampa Red, Big Boy Crudup, Blind Boy Phillips.
These are people I heard when I was eight or nine years old, and admired very much. And, of course, for my piano playing, as a child I considered Art Tatum to be the greatest. Even today, I still think heís the greatest who ever lived.
As for composers I like, I have to mention Quincy Jones, even though people may think Iím saying that because heís a personal friend of mine. We are very tight, but even if we werenít Iíd still name him as a marvellous writer. Peter Nero is also excellent, and he can really play, too; so is Henry Mancini. This is the kind of thing I like. Thereís a lot of very good composers around today.
That live recording by Aretha Franklin that I joined in on recently? It was a true accident. I just happened to be in a club in San Francisco, and somebody said to me: ďHey, Ray, Arethaís working at Basin Street WestĒ or wherever it was, and I said: ďI didnít know that. So why donít we go by and catch her?Ē So we all went by, and I was sitting out there. Evidently somebody told her, and before I knew it sheíd left the stage and come up and snatched me. I mean, I canít argue with a womanóitís very difficult for me! She said: ďCome on up and do somethingĒ. but I didnít know what to do. Iím sure, if you listen to the song we did, ďThe Spirit In The DarkĒ, you could tell I donít even know the thing. Iíd heard her sing it, but I think when Aretha sings something, after that everybody else should forget about it. You know nothing else can be done to it. So I didnít know it, but I figured: okay, since Iím here we might as well fake it the best we can. And the thing wound up selling over a million records.
On the question of doing a complete album with her, itís not a matter of planning but of desire. I would like to do it, but right now there arenít any plans for it, mainly because of difficulties connected with distribution. For my money, I donít think there is any female singer around today that can outĖsing Aretha. I really mean that, with all respect. Iím not saying that there arenít good female singers, or that there arenít any that are as good in their own field. But for what Aretha does, in her field, no woman can beat heróitís as simple as that.
The film that I made about five years ago wasnít terribly successful; the showing it got was only because of the name I have. I must say: it was not really a good film. It was good for me, only because Iíd never made a film before. I really enjoyed doing it, and it gave me an insight on what goes into filmĖmaking.
I donít think I would like to be a movie star. When you make movies, you do an awful lot of nothing. You go on a set and you waste so much time. Maybe it takes you thirty minutes tops to actually do the small scene that they have for you; then you go back to your dressingĖroom and you wait twoĖandĖaĖhalf hours.
And televisionís a great deal like that also. Once I get on stage, I do my work, and when Iím finished, thatís it, But making a movie or doing television is a little different.
Is it any problem to keep that happy spirit in my performances, two shows a night, for many nights in a row? Well, I would like to think that Iím something of a professional. Iíve been doing this for over twentyĖfive years. The key to the whole thing is to know how to pace yourself. Itís like anything else: youíre aware of what you can do and what you canít do, and youíre geared up for it. Obviously, itís work, but itís good work, plus the fact that I like to regard it as a hobby that I get paid for.
To relax off the stage, Iím a great lover of the game of chess. So when I have any time whatsoever, I like to just sit down and play some chess, where you have to think. Believe it or not, to me thatís quite relaxing.
I wouldnít say Iím against being totally immersed in the music business, though. Actually, I donít know if Iím totally against anything. I like to think that a human being has a right to do whatever fits him. Unfortunately, many people seem to try to live as other people do. The greatest thing in the world is to know how you want to live, and live that way.
I donít give a damn what anybody else thinks; my way is what I want. If a feel I want to eat my cereal after breakfast instead of before my eggs, then Iíll do that. Iím the kind of a guy: I conform when it suits me, and if it doesnít suit me, I donít. Iím not of any particular faithóIím not Catholic, Baptist, Jewish or anything elseóbut I happen to believe in a Supreme Being. I try to be sincere, not only with myself but with the public; so that when I go out on stage, if I donít feel I can do a good show, I wonít continue. A human being should always be him or herself.
Yes, last December we recorded a jazz session with the band, and I guess it should be out around November of this year. I would love to do a jazz date with a small combo, too. If you could just get the musicians together . . . but itís very difficult, you know. Each guy has his own thing going. If you can get Clark Terry, then maybe Dizzy Gillespieís in Europe. If you can get Cannonball, then J. J. Johnson may be some place else. Iíll tell you: one of these days Iíll sit down and give you a list of the people Iíd love to get together in a small combo and do a session. But thatís dreaming, really. If you could pull it off, though, I think it would be very, very great.
†Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved