Robert Farnon talking
Talking to Les Tomkins in
I’ve known Tony for many years. As a matter of fact, I think the idea for this TV series came about twenty years ago, when he and I talked about doing television and about recording together. The recording work we have done, but the television happened firstly in January of last year—the concert at the Albert Hall. Although we’d dreamed of a series, there was never any opportunity until this year. Then he decided to take the bull by the horns, and said: “Well, I’m going to do one.” Incidentally, he is producing it himself.
The concert really started the ball rolling, because it was so successful. It was televised and shown in America, Canada and other places. Everywhere it got rave notices; as a result, Tony said: “Yes, we’re safe to go ahead now.” Last Summer I was in New York, and we were recording a bit; then we did a concert at Carnegie Hall in October. I stayed around for a few days. and we just chewed it over, you know. We formulated the ideas for the programme, made up a format, chose some material. After that, we didn’t meet until he came over here, a week before the first show in January.
Tony’s concept for the show is original in many ways. It’s a lovely idea, as opposed to some of the musical half–hour shows, where they introduce comedy and Lord knows what else. Tony just wanted a purely musical show, with a minimum of talk. And there is very little; I should think he speaks about two dozen words throughout the entire show. It’s all music, and one musical guest.
Also there’s one orchestral feature, which is very cleverly done in accordance with an idea of his. As handsome as some musicians are, people don’t like staring at them all the time; so we open up on the orchestra, perhaps on individuals or sections, and then dissolve to a film sequence of Tony in Britain. He might be around Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Buckingham Palace. Kew Gardens or whatever. And the music for it, original compositions of mine, is chosen because of being appropriate to that particular scene. For instance, we play “Westminster Waltz” while Tony is seen strolling in Parliament Square. Just towards the end, as the music comes to a conclusion, it dissolves back to the orchestra. And this is most effective; it comes off very well.
All stars We use a 38–piece orchestra, containing some of the cream of British musicians people like Kenny Baker, Stan Roderick, Tony Fisher, Bobby Lamb, Don Lusher, Roy Willox, Danny Moss, Bob Efford, Arthur Watts, Kenny Clare. But I shouldn’t really mention names, because it’s an all–star personnel—every one of them is an absolutely tremendous player.
This is what Tony wanted: a collection of fine musicians that I’ve worked with for many years, and to make sure that they would be available for the entire series. And, of course, all of them wanted to take part in the series so much that they’ve probably given up work that would have been a little more remunerative, in order to be on it.
As well as the featured composition of mine, I’ve written the title music. Some arrangements are required from time to time, but a lot of the scores we’re doing are standards from Tony’s repertoire —some arranged by myself, of course, and some by American arrangers. The guests usually bring their own scores with them; at times these need a little sweetening with strings, but there’s not much work to be done there.
The first guest was a very good singer from America, Tommy Leonetti. Then we had Sarah Vaughan for two shows. followed by Billv Eckstine for two. Other guests have been Annie Ross, Cleo Laine and Matt Munro.
We’ve been recording two shows each Sunday at the Talk Of The Town, each of about twenty–five minutes’ duration, to make it worthwhile for the audience to come along; otherwise they’d be in and out so quickly.
Between the shows, we have a little interval, during which Tony’s pianist, John Bunch, bassist Arthur Watts and drummer Kenny Clare have a fifteen minute jam session, to keep the audience warm, as it were, while they set up for the next lot of filming.
This environment is so attractive; the audience sit at tables with a little bit of champagne, and the atmosphere is marvellous. And I must say that it’s the easiest show that I’ve ever had to do no—pressure at all. We have a terrific producer in Peter Fraser–Jones. You hardly know he’s there half the time; he doesn’t come out in panics like some of them, and say “Stop! Cut! ” and so forth. He makes it one big happy family.
Even the guest artists who’ve come in have said the same thing—that they’ve never worked on such a show. So it all speaks well for British musicians and technicians. There’s a great feeling, all day long. Nobody gets bored and television can be so boring. All the musicians are eager to play.
Doing vocal backings is nothing out of the ordinary for me, because after the war when I received my discharge in Britain, I started out with a job at Decca, accompanying singers such as Vera Lynn. Denny Dennis, Beryl Davis, Johnny Green even Gracie Fields. And I was doing this for two or three years, until eventually they asked me if I would do an album of orchestral music. Then I stopped writing vocal accompaniments, apart from the radio series we did with the orchestra from time to time. called Melody Fair, when we would have singers on, for whom I would do some arrangements.
Later on, after a long spell of only instrumental work, American artists like Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra were coming over and wanting me to do albums with them. This was because they’d heard orchestral albums I’d done—not vocal albums—and that was the kind of sound they wanted. And Tony, too that appealed to him. I got back into the vocal arranging side of it again just by doing it for these artists. I’ve done three albums for Tony now; I certainly enjoy working with him.
Yes, he’s done very well with my song, “Country Girl”; I think the way he did that is gorgeous. Tony has said he wants to do an album of songs of mine, and he’s sent two or three tunes over to America, to see if he can get some lyrics for them.
In this TV series he’s singing “How Beautiful Is Night”, which he has recorded, and also “Lazy Day”, “Daydream”; he’s waiting for lyrics now, before he can do any more.
I’ve been working with a chap in Hollywood as a lyricist, called Milton Raskin. Actually, I’ve never met him, but he wrote me once and said he’d heard some of my slower light music pieces, and he’d like to set lyrics to them. So I told him to go ahead, and he produced “How Beautiful Is Night” and the others. He’s also a composer and conductor in his own right. But Tony has now appointed somebody in New York to write lyrics.
Eventually he wants to get ten to twelve titles for the album, which will probably be named “Tony Bennett Sings Robert Farnon”. I’d conduct it, and we would record it here, I expect, because he enjoys so much recording here with British musicians. Of course, one reason for his making the TV series in London is that I’m here, and he wants to work with me. Another is his liking for British musicians, who are absolutely on a par now with American musicians. He enjoys working in America, but he really loves coming to Europe. And he knows I’m a family man. and that I love to be with my five children as much as possible. I’d hate to have to go over there and do a thirteen–week series, to be away that long this he appreciates.
The orchestral compositions used in the show so far, other than two or three recent ones, are some of my old warhorses. But, apart from “Portrait Of A Flirt”, those we’re using aren’t too well–known. But the titles are right for the subjects. We filmed one sequence in Guernsey, amid daffodil fields, and we used a piece called “A Promise Of Spring”, which is descriptive of that kind of scene.
When he went down to the Cutty Sark, one called “Proud Canvas” was ideal. And “Playtime” fitted naturally when they filmed him with his two–year–old daughter in the children’s miniature village at Beaconsfield.
He wants to follow up with another thirteen programmes as soon as possible, when he plans to do the orchestral sequence in a different city of Europe each week. Which just involves a small camera unit and himself. Then I’ll write music especially for each occasion; I’ll have to do it before the shooting starts. I’m looking forward to that—it’s a nice assignment to be given.
The day is a long one at the Talk Of The Town, you know from ten o’clock on Sunday morning till ten at night. But the musicians like playing the music, because Tony has such nice charts; so they don’t mind it one scrap. Also, Thames Television provides a meal for everyone, which is nice; they don’t even have to go out, although they do go to the pub for a quick one.
Incidentally, after he appeared on the first show, Tommy Leonetti stayed over for the series, at Tony’s request, because he likes to have an adviser who can see him from another angle. Tommy is very popular in America; he’s a Jack Jones type of singer I think he’s as good as Jack Jones, actually. He spent a few years in Australia; that’s probably why he’s not too well–known here. But he’s not only a good singer, he’s a good arranger he writes his own charts. So he comes in, does a little writing—he did a great arrangement of “Sophisticated Lady” for Billy Eckstine and he’s enjoying it tremendously.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.