Talk of the Town
Blues with Basie
Talk of the Town
Robert Farnon talking
Tony and Buddy
to Les Tomkins in 1966
This is very gratifying to me, because I waited fifteen years to do a TV show a certain way. I had some definite convictions as to how a show should be done. And I happened to get very lucky and run into the right family: Peter Fraser–Jones, who’s my director, plus Robert Farnon as my musical director. I can’t ask for better than that.
Also there’s the fact that we got rid of all cue cards and the kind of nondescript dialogue that they usually have on the typical variety or musical shows, where you have people holding supposedly spontaneous conversations, but you can sense that it’s all been supplied by some writer. We discarded all this stiffness, and got right down to getting temrrific special stars like Annie Ross, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine—very musical artists, so that they were all really performing. I’m very happy with the results.
It’s come over with immense clarity; certain instinctive feelings I’ve had have been confirmed. Like, when they come in close on Arthur Watts’ bass, they always photograph the right hand instead of the left hand. There are all these kind of little intelligent touches on the camera. They take a big general shot of this vast audience at the Talk Of The Town and also this vast orchestra, but then once the show starts it goes right intto either threequarter or intimate head shots, so that everybody can be seen really into the music.
There are certain taboos that TV has always restricted music to, and I object to them. Just as I dislike that corny old cliché you hear: will the big bands ever come back? It’s just a fallacy, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve been watching Duke Ellington and Basie and Woody Herman making millions every season; so I don’t understand that.
The TV directors are usually quite unoriginal, in that they try to hide the musicians; they seem to be afraid to show them. They build stands, so that you just see their heads, and you don’t even see the instruments they’re playing. It’s an attitude of wanting to baffle the sound all the time, trying to keep everybody separate. This is the kind of pseudo–intellectualism that breaks up music, rather than have it get together. I’ve always had this dream: to show music in its natural setting, and to bring the best out of the musicians by presenting them as human beings, as well as artists. And I think that the family of technicians and artists that we have here has accomplished this.
Then we have the location filming which goes with the show’s instrumental spot. The idea for this was prompted by the myth that the British are very cool. After playing twenty seasons here, I see the opposite; they’re very warm, in fact—much warmer than almost any other country. If they film in Italy, France or Austria, they always show the romantic side of it, but they never bring this out in London. Yet I always find that when anyone comes to London they end up having a great time.
So on camera we’ve attempted to show the warm, romantic side of London. We went right around Westminster, up the Thames river and so on, to show all these beautiful sights. I think we’ve captured it.
The last vote on the show, of course, will be up to the critics—by which I mean the general public. They’ll be seeing it, and they’ll judge as to whether it’s come off or not. I would love to have this show continue. I wouldn’t even want to change it; right from the first week it felt right. It’s quite natural, and I’d love to keep doing it at least six months out of the year, to come back here every three months and do a series of thirteen weeks.
My first guests have been vocal artists, but I can definitely see Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and other fabulous jazz performers doing solo spots. You see, throughout the world, because of my co–production tie—up with Thames Television, it’ll be called Tony Bennett From The Talk Of The Town, but in America and in sections of the world where my company owns it, the name of the show is This Is Music. So it actually puts any musical artist into focus. And if the show does click with the world–wide syndicated networks, we will go for every artist of musical worth, and present them properly.
I’ve experienced annoyance when they’ve had a great artist say something silly, and constant disappointment: “God, there’s Errol1 Garner, and they’ve only given him one number on a big TV special.” Even though they’re half–hour shows, we give the guest artist a good amount of time, plus a duet with me, so that they’re on camera quite a while.
My ambition is to start something, so that others will follow in my footsteps. I want to see music become as big as sports, getting as much. space in the daily newspapers and on TV.
In America, it’s become all conversation, and it’s almost too much news coverage. It would be a lot more fantastic to see musical artists on television. What I hope is to have the audience hear the best all the time, on a concentrated basis, so that it doesn’t look like good music is really fading out. It’s seemed as if we were into the Age of the Amateur, where you see a so–called musical performer and you just say: “What’s that?” You can’t even figure it out. So the pros were kind of put up on the shelf there for a while, and I think it’s really silly, because the public deserves good entertainment and experienced entertainment.
It’s really getting easier to find good new songs now because no one else is doing them! When Nat “King” Cole was alive, it was much more healthy on a competitive basis. I’d hear a Nat Cole record, and say: “Oh whoops, I’m going to have to find one that meets that standard.” But those were the days when Sinatra and Nat Cole were running neck to neck, with each song they released better than the last. Now—when you hear a good, vital new song of worth, it’s a real rarity.
The good songs are there, though. I’ve been running down a new song that I just heard by Matt Dennis—“Blues ‘For Breakfast”. I have a lot of faith in that song.
That, after all, is my main job—being a songsmith, looking for new songs. Like, I was listening to a track by Louis Armstrong the other day—“Song Of ‘The Islands”—and he says: “Listen to those chords, gate” right in the middle of the record. I like to hear these nice changes; these are the songs that have that solidity. And I love to find songs that musicians love to play.
I respect the tradition of Billie Holiday’s singing. There’s a real ball game out there, that unfortunately a lot of the youngsters aren’t being programmed towards. The advertisers are making it look like it’s all too easy. The reason we all love Billie so much is that she lived the songs; you could tell that she’d experienced all these feelings that she sang about. The records she made became real.
Today it’s a quick buck market—almost like a no–art period. You turn the radio on, and it absolutely blasts you right out—two or three chords; you can’t believe it. I mean, next to a good Billie Holiday song, it’s a joke.
But I think there is a whole wide—open market for good music. Because there are so many questions that we all ask one another. Representing them musically is the gift of great composers like Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern. Also it’s to be found in some of the new Beatles songs and in Burt Bacharach’s work. Michel Legrand is way up there right now. Of all of the new songwriters, though, Cy Coleman is my favourite. I think he’s the new Cole” Porter. He just keeps growing; every season his songs get better.
These are the kind of songs that I’m hanging out with, because they hold up. I did Jobim’s “Wave” about a year ago, and it’s just getting popular now, you know. As a songsmith, it takes about a year to really connect with a song. And this is the fun of it, to have the guts to keep performing it, keep selling it, in a way that isn’t overbearing.
The reason for my affinity with contemporary Latin music is, I think, that I actually experienced it quite a time before anybody else. In fact, I left England one season and I went to Rio, just on the request of a friend. When I got down there a bass player who was with me at the time, Don Payne, said: ‘Come out to the beach. I want you to hear something.” I was sound asleep and kinda ‘bugged, but I went down with him, and lo and behold, there were Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Astrud. They were all on the beach—just kids having fun with American jazz, adding a little samba to it.
From Rio I went up to San Francisco. I went in the studios, to the librarians, and said: “There’s a new music called bossa nova.” They said: “What’s that?” And now, of course, it’s an international beat that everybody got into. It’s still a cute concept—especially in the hands of Antonio Carlos Jobim. He keeps writing one good tune after another. I heard a Sinatra recording of his “Someone To Light Up My Life” that Gene Lees wrote the lyric to, and right now I’m looking forward to recording it with Robert Farnon. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time.
You do have to be able to believe in the lyrics, because with the performance of a song it all gets down to feeling. It’s one thing for a young kid to write about “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and another to have actually been stranded in a town like Phoenix, so that when you sing it you make it really believable. I look at the songs I sing as kind of autobiographical: they relate to feelings I’ve experienced, things that have happened to me in my own personal life. Then if I hear a song that really explains the way I feel, plus the musical instinct that goes along with it, I fall in love with the song. I start working it on the stage, get an audience reaction and then finally record it.
My original premise—and I will not make any concessions in that department—is that I won’t sing a song unless I really love it. So that if it does become a hit, I don’t have to find myself drunk at a bar over the fact that I regret I ever sang that song. I don’t want to regret any material I’ve done. I’d rather say: “No, I like this. Therefore, if they ask me to sing it a thousand times, I’ll still like it.” As long as it’s based on good music, I’ll never get tired of it.
Along with established repertoire, I always try to present new, current songs that warrant attention. Burt Bacharach is very consistent lately in turning out distinctive songs. He has a talent for making people walk into a shop and ask for a record. He writes a simple little song like “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” and makes everybody in the world go out and buy it. It’s just simple enough that the average layman says: “Boy, I’d really like to have that record in my collection.” On my next album, which I’m making here. the rhythm section will be kind of looked at as a relief to some big orchestrations. It’s really just an excuse for me to sing “It’s The Talk Of The ‘Town”, after doing this show! I’d rather not do a large orchestral version of it, because it’s been done that way many times. And I like this rhythm section such a lot. Arthur Watts and Kenny Clare get along very happily with John Bunch: they’re fabulous musicians—the best here, I think. It’s been great fun playing with them.
I studied music on 52nd Street when it was jumping, and I’ve always thought along the lines of associating with jazz players. These guys are all idols of mine, you know; they have been right through the years. My teacher, Miriam Spear, always kept telling me to imitate the singers and the musicians on that street, like the Art Tatums, the Coleman Hawkins and the Lester Youngs; Billie Holiday was singing there at that time, too.
So I chose Tatum—and I still haven’t figured out how he played! All those beautiful notes! In focus It inspires me so much to hear real feeling and musicianship. The thing I love about jazz musicians is their honesty; they’re nice people, too, even though they live in a society that doesn’t really appreciate them as much as they should be appreciated. It reminds me of the lack of recognition that the French impressionist painters had to undergo. With someone as creative as Ben Webster hidden away in Holland, it’s almost like the same situation being reborn.
You know, when you first start out, you don’t really know quite what you’re doing. You just follow your heart and your instincts. But it was Maurice Chevalier one time who saw me in Chicago and said: “You know what your talent is as a performer?” I said: “No, I don’t”. He said: “Well you have a way of bringing out music.” So it’s as if I’m a sort of an unorthodox conductor. I know how to present music in the way that I like it so much. If I hear Zoot Sims playing, it just swells my heart and makes me feel great, and I believe the audience likes to see this reaction in me. Which makes them react, too. I feel like a catalyst—kind of putting in focus something wonderful that’s happening. A lot of musicians are on the stand, but then there’s always one or two or three that are really saying something. I respond to these two or three, and I can take the people right alone with me.
This seems to be my game now, to find songs, and also to show everybody how wonderful it is that they have ears, how entertaining it could be for them. Woody Herman and a disc jockey in New York by the name of William B. Williams both gave me a very good suggestion. They said: “Just go towards good music.” I tried every other game. but by following this advice it’s made my own personal life a lot more worthwhile, because it’s quite an education.
I’ve noticed now in the teenagers an opening of the ears. Not only in my own audiences. The Beatles have had a great deal to do with it; young listeners have realised it’s not all rock’n’roll, and they’ve awakened to more complex forms. They’re very interested in classical music, and they’re arriving at the realisation that there’s a whole spectrum of music—not just one style. Not just jazz, not just rock, but all kinds. The young students coming up in America right now are taking an interest in a broad range of music. This is very encouraging. And they’re playing wonderfully, too, by the way—there are a lot of great woodwind players in the schools. They’re all starting to get with studying their music, and they’re enjoying it.
Another thing is: thanks to the Carpenters and Carole King. they found out there was such a thing as nuance. It’s pretty funny, really. Some kids didn’t even know that you could use brushes on the drums; they thought you were supposed to stay strictly with sticks. So it’s getting good now. That’s the kind of thing that makes Count Basie so wonderful —that nuance that he always creates.
Yes, the new teenagers are appreciating that there is a good life out there for them. For a while they were getting pretty confused, because they were subjected to that narrow–minded Alan Freed treatment: “This is your music.” It was a kind of a Nazi approach; they’d tag everything else as schmaltzy or something terrible and delude the teenagers away from real good music.
But they hit on something when they started analysing that they liked being honest. Saying “We like honesty”—that broke into all kinds of categories, not just the teenage market. It meant that everything good and honest belonged to them then. And the necessity for honesty was, as I said before, why it took fifteen years for me to have my own TV show. I was offered the other kind of plastic–type shows, and I was deathly afraid of it. because I sensed what the end–result would be. Everybody would have said: “Well, that isn’t Tony Bennett. Why did he do that?” I think it would have hurt my career. So this was worth holding out for, and it’s a great joy that I was able to do it here in Britain. where I’m surrounded by nice people, with real musicianship happening around me.
This show disproves again that assertion the advertisers make, that the public doesn‘t want any good music. The audiences are all responding verv favourably to it; in fact, they’re loving it. So I’m very happy about all of it. I can say that I’m experiencing the best–ever time of my life.
Copyright © 1966 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.