Musical all my life
to Les Tomkins in 1972
As a long—time enthusiast for your work, Sarah, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. I attended your opening performance at Ronnie Scott’s, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Oh, thank you. I thought it was a beautiful opening. I think it was better the second show, because I was so nervous on the first one.
Well, nobody would have known it, really. Certainly, your appearing in a club in this country is long overdue.
I almost got in Ronnie’s last year, I think, but something came up, and we didn’t make it. But Ronnie’s club would be about the only club here that I would want to work. Well, the Talk Of The Town was mentioned once, but that wasn’t it. It’s more relaxed at Ronnie’s, and it’s a place where everybody can go and afford it, I think.
I know you do more concerts than clubs, but are there certain clubs in the States that you do regularly?
There are certain clubs I do. One is the Roxy in Los Angeles—which, by the way, is a rock’n’roll club. But when I go in there, the audience I get is unbelievable—it looks like they’re from age two on up. At my age, it’s quite thrilling, because I haven’t done too many recordings; so I guess their parents or someone must be telling ‘em what’s going on out here in the world. The majority are young people—the same type who come to see the rock groups.
You say: not too many recordings, but in recent years, there’ve been some on the Mainstream label. . . .
Well . . . I left Mainstream and went to Atlantic. For Atlantic, I just did a new album, that took six or seven months to make, of all Beatle songs; it was produced by Marty Paich and his son David Paich—a beautiful album, we all thought. And just before we came to London, we were told that they weren’t going to let it out. Their reason is: there wasn’t any hit material in there. I don’t know how they can recognise hits in advance.
Without having heard it, I know an album of you singing Beatles songs would have to be very good. They wrote a few very nice songs; done in your way, they’d take on another kind of magic.
Beautiful songs. I think they wanted me to do ‘em in the rock’n’roll sort of form. Listen, I gave up making records for five years—that’s how much I am against making things that I don’t approve of. So now—here I go again, We were quite shocked about that, though.
In today’s wide music world, I find this ‘hit single’ criterion very strange. With an artist of your caliber, an album can obviously stand up on its own. But, to change the subject—I’d like to jump back. . . .
To when I was a baby?
Not quite as far back as that! In your home town—Newark, New Jersey—you sang in the church choir. As you recall, were you always singing?
Oh, I’ve been musical all my life. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, and I took organ when I was about fifteen. In school, I was in choirs, glee clubs, a cappella choirs. Then, when I quit school . . .they had a thing in the States called NYA National Youth Association, for kids who didn’t finish school; I think you got twenty-five dollars a month. I had quit school—my mother didn’t even know it—and I was singing in this NYA chorus. All girls; it was excellent, and we used to sing in Catholic churches. It was all good for me—anything that happens when you’re young, always helps a lot.
In your youth, did you hope to earn a living as a singer, or as a musician—or hadn’t you thought about it?
When I entered show business at eighteen, it was unplanned—it just happened. Oh, in the back of my mind I wanted to be in show business, but I always thought: “Silly girl—it’ll never happen.” So then I did the Amateur Hour at Apollo—just to get the ten dollars, which was the first prize. A week at the theatre went with it, but I wasn’t even worried about that—I just wanted that ten dollars, because that was a lot of money. I won it, and the week that I was there, I was on the bill with Ella Fitzgerald and Earl Hines. So I said : “Well, my goodness—you can’t beat this! ” While I was there, Billy Eckstine came to catch the show; he went back and talked to Earl “Father” Hines—within a couple of weeks, I think, I was in show business. And that was a shock.
You didn’t get heard on records immediately, but were you singing the same kind of way then?
Oh, I was really going up and down the scale more so than I am now —I’ve tamed down a lot. Yeah, I think then they wouldn’t even know what the hell I was singing, because I was running all through the chords, and up and down and around. But I was in the band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—what else should you do? I was matching up to them —yes, indeed. And if those weren’t two good teachers, you just couldn’t get any!
The first recording of yours I heard was “Loverman”. . . .
No, my first recording, I cried about it. I cried so bad, till Billy Eckstine said : “Jesus—let her make a record ‘cause this noise is about to kill me.” They (Billy’s band) were recording, and I was just sitting there wondering how come I couldn’t make a record. But they wouldn’t let me make none; so I just boo-hooed so—I mean, you could hear me all over the place. In order to get me to shut up, I made a record. The first one was called “I’ll Wait And Pray,” which was written by Jerry Valentine. And I’m still waiting, and I’m still praying. After that, I did the small group things—“Loverman”. “Mean To Me”,and—“If You Could See Me Now”; written by Tadd Dameron. Lots of things.
Looking back, would you say that was a pretty exciting time, with the musical changes that were taking place then?
I think I could do it all over again—just take out a few of the baddies: I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. And you still hear Charlie. They have the saxophone group that plays all of ‘Charlie’s music—yeah, Supersax. I caught them last week, and I got so thrilled, because I was saying: “Gee—I was in the band when they were doing all that.” And I felt so proud; I said: “How about that?”
At that time, did Charlie seem to have a special aura about him?
Did he ever! Everybody wanted to be like him, play like him, and do the things that he was doing—and you know what he was doing. I never got that far, but there were a lot of musicians that went by the wayside, doing exactly what Charlie did—Charlie outlived ‘em all. He probably could be still living now, if it hadn’t been for that other side of his life. But he seemed happy; it didn’t bother him none.
I could write a book about those days with Charlie. I’ll tell you what—we just had fun. We did some fantastic things. With Earl and Billy, so much was created right on the spot. There was Fats Navarro. Gene Ammons, Benny Green—I could go on and on. They were all there in—1942, when I joined Earl’s band—it was much better than going to school.
Coming from an earlier era, was Earl’s attitude welcoming to the new developments?
I think he liked it, because I’m sure he knew that we knew. Sometimes he would look up and sorta wonder about us. Well, he had to like it—or else get rid of us! They call that the bebop era. but I call it the good music era. Everybody was staring at us a lot during that time. We’d play dances, and people would be standing and staring. Only a few, that knew what we were doing, and could understand the rhythm and stuff, would be jitterbugging around for ever in a little circle in the corner. When we played slow tunes, everyone would dance, but once we got back into those fast things, they would stare again.
Did you find certain limitations in being a band singer?
Yes—I had about two or three arrangements, and I sang those songs to death. I don’t know why, but vocalists in bands never had too many arrangements; those we had, we sang for ever. Every night the same songs; if we wanted to do something different, the rhythm section would just strike up, I’d sing, and somebody would blow behind me, or something like that.
The other one you were with, after Hines and Eckstine, was John Kirby’s small band, wasn’t it?
That was quite an experience, though I only worked with him for a short time. We worked the Copacabana in New York, and at that time they didn’t allow coloured people to come into the club. In fact, we didn’t have any dressing rooms: I had to dress at home, do my show, then get out of there between shows, go round the corner, and have a few drinks. And what I like about that is: the Copacabana went through the Frank Sinatras and the Nat Coles; then business got bad, and they had the rock’n’rollers, who tore the place up; but, as they’re just going out, they always end up getting some jazz people. So, just recently, I returned to the Copacabana. It was a thrill, because it was us at the last thing that they had to relate to, to keep the club going. Soon after that, they went boom-boom and I was glad. I’m sorry it lasted that long! You know, you wonder why those things went on like they did. I don’t know what music has to do with colour, but it does. I can even remember when they had Race records; we had a hit, and then you had a hit—it was a separate thing. Yeah, it’s a dumb world we live in, I think.
Was it your decision to go out as a solo?
Soon after the John Kirby, yes.
My first single was the Café Society Downtown. I’m sure you’ve heard of Café Society Downtown and Uptown; the Uptown was the chi-chi one, and the Downtown one was where it was all at. They closed at two o’clock, but we stayed open till four; so everybody uptown came downtown, and let their hair down—it was just utterly ridiculous how they let their hair down! They used to get drunk, but it was lots of fun.
Now, would you believe this! John Hammond, at that time, wanted to make me a Bessie Smith. I knew the name, but when I was little I really hadn’t heard too much about Bessie Smith. So I told him to stick it up his ear. He got a little peeved about that—and every night he used to come in, sit on the ringside, and read a newspaper. We loved it, because it would sorta stop the show a bit; wouldn’t be too much getting done, due to us being in hysterics. Imagine somebody doing that, just because you don’t want to do what they want you to do.
Well, it was a total misconception of you, to suppose that you could have been made into a contemporary blues singer.
I was a little insulted about that, too, I think. Back at that time, they thought all coloured folk should sing the blues, for some reason or other. When they were singing the blues then, they really had something to sing the blues about. It was awfully good, but it was usually about the troubles, the hard times—and some of the good times. I just use the blues in the riffing I do. I don’t think I could sing the blues like I would like to hear it. Like, I loved the way Dinah Washington sang the blues—and when she got into it, she would go on and on for ever, just making up verses. I can’t even hardly remember the words that are there on paper!
Yours is more of a developed, trained type of voice than the old blues singers had. . . .
Well, not trained, because I never had any lessons singing.
The range you have, the high notes you’re able to hit—this hadn’t been applied in jazz before, had it?
Oh, singers—no, I wouldn’t think so. ,But my range is getting wider and lower and higher. I don’t understand it. Usually, when you get older, things get less of, you know. It’s amazing me—1 think God is good. And—you know, I noticed when we were rehearsing before starting this engagement, if I lay off a long time I get more vibrato. I said: “Oh, my goodness”; my voice was just trembling. But as I sang the first two shows, it went away. Because I’d been off a month-and-a-half.
As you continued as a solo artist, was a lot of pressure put on you to sing in less of a jazz style?
It was, but I think that happened more when I was with bands; they wanted that of everybody. They said: “Charlie, would you play a melody, please, so the people can understand it better?” When I was on my own, I could do whatever I liked. They still said those things, of course. I have learned now . . . I don’t run through chords as often as I did. That all comes from experience—you know, learning. Although sometimes—as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t made it yet.
Things get better. . . but strange as it seems, you’re still out here struggling.” I can get a bad audience out there; somebody will keep screaming at me to sing a certain song. So I’ll turn round to my piano player, say: “Play that”, and I’ll sing it. and I’ll run through changes and changes for ever. Then, when I get through. they’ll still ask for the same song! That’s when I know that they should get up and go home. But now I do what I want to do.
Did you have some difficult times, after venturing out?
Oh, it was rough. You know, you had maybe three or four shows a night during the week, and four or five on the weekends. And we’re doing loads and loads of one-nighters, and loads and loads of clubs, and loads and loads of loudness. and loads and loads of drunkenness, and loads an loads of no money. But it was still fun. Now that it’s over!
Would you say there was an particular turning point, where you really felt that you’d made it?
I haven’t made it yet, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, things get better —but I don’t think I’ve made it. As strange as it seems, you’re still out here struggling—trying to get that, and trying to get this, before somebody else gets that. We’re trying to be first at something—but I never am; I’m always third or fourth. Like, when they opened up the way to go to Cuba, I had mentioned to my husband: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if they had a boat trip from New York to Cuba.” And about two weeks later, I looked in the paper, and Roberta Flack was going, and Dizzy was going.
I said: “Well, there it is again. I missed that one.” At the end, I heard that she cancelled out, and I still tried to go—but it was too late. But it’s all a struggle in this business, even when you’re on top. I don’t want to get on top—you get on top, where do you go? You’re just at a level then, and you stay there.
Does doing as you want to do now mean that you will no longer stretch your musicianship to making something out of such material as “Make Yourself comfortable”, that you did way back, and “Broken-Hearted Melody?”
Ugh! They were hits, too, by the way. See, that’s why hits don’t bother me too much. I think if I had to depend on a hit record, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today—‘cause how many did I ever have? Or Ella Fitzgerald, for instance. But I like it, because I believe talent will out. You know, you’ll make it. Look at most of the people now that have hits constantly—when they stop having a hit, you don’t hear of them any more.
So you’d say those things happened as kind of accidents along the way?
Yeah. My career really began when I met Marshall. I had two husbands that . . . well, that’s it, for that subject—I had two husbands, period. Then I married Marshall, and now my business is taken care of, I have an accountant, I don’t have to worry about anything. All he wants me to do is sing.
That really makes the world of difference, to have the right background.
If you don’t have your business properly taken care of . . . before, I had accountants, and it was them that told me: “You’re going to get busted for income tax. I’ll see you later!” Now I have a very good accountant, and I know I can look back as far as ‘69, and see where my money went, things like that. He sends me an account every week, a thing at the end of the month; I put ‘em in my notebook, and I can find out who got a cheque or something.
I have Marshall to thank for that. It’s hard when you’ve got things on your mind, like : “Where’s my money? I’m working this week, but where’s it going? Who’s gonna get it? Not me.” Now everything is perfect. And I have my trio; Carl Schroeder looks after all the music—so it’s no problem. Plus my bass player Walter Booker and drummer Jimmy Cobb; we have fun—it’s just one happy family.
Do you always pick the musicians yourself?
Definitely. But sometimes you have good musicians, and it’s hard to get along with them; so you get rid of them. You want to be happy with the people you work with.
We really have a ball, with the group we have now. As far as I’m concerned, if they choose to, they’ll probably be with me for ever. Carl’s been with me over seven years. Booker’s the newest—he was with Cannonball. Having them helps an awful lot, too.
Does Carl do some arranging for you?
He arranges little trio things, but he just did a thing for the symphony. We’ve never done it yet, but we’re trying it with the trio; we just started rehearsing it yesterday. It’s a medley of three Gershwin tunes, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I mean, it’s not like going from one tune to the other; you sing one tune, then there’s little classical parts in there, and then we go into the next tune. Little breaks—seven or eight bars, thirty-two bars. It’s interesting; it’s hard to do that for trio. But I like it when it’s not easy.
Do you make a point of looking for songs that will give you a challenge?
No, it’s not so much the tune—it’s how its going to be done, the arranging part. Well, there are some tunes that are difficult to sing—but after you learn ‘em, it’s no problem.
I’d say that when you take a very good song—like “Send In The Clowns”, for instance—you really make it into your own thing.
Well, on the record it’s nothing like what we do. I hated it on the record; I didn’t know who the arranger was or anything. When I got there, the arrangement had already been made, and we did it—and I didn’t like it. So Carl did it our way.
Is it often that you take a song you haven’t been happy with on a record, and stretch out on it with the trio?
Just occasionally; usually, we like what we’re doing on records. We just take little things out of the big arrangement, put ‘em with the trio, so that it can be kinda recognisable—like, maybe make the introduction the same as the record. From twenty pieces down to three; it’s just certain hits and licks.
But you don’t seem to find a massive orchestra inhibiting to your musical adventurousness. I have the album you made with Michel Legrand; that’s one of the biggest sounds you’ve had behind you, isn’t it?
Oh, I don’t know. I did an album with Robert Farnon—“Vaughan And Voices”. That was in Copenhagen, and that was one of my favourite albums that I’ve made. Oh, I love him. And by the way, we’re doing a radio show with him, right after we close at Ronnie’s I can hardly wait. Do I like Robert’s writing? Oh, my goodness—he’s marvellous.Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.