This way and that

My present group
This way and that
A personality thing
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
Photo by Howard Lucraft

The last time I talked with you George, was in the Spring of 1974, when you were playing a date at Ronnie Scott’s . . .

Yeah, that was a good two weeks we had there. I brought over a young guitar player, called Earl Klugh, plus a drummer and a bass player. And it was a really interesting engagement.

Yes, I remember how much I enjoyed the various sets I heard. But since then quite a lot has happened to you in your musical life, hasn’t it?

It has. We’ve been thrown this way and that, and gone up and down. But mostly up in the last couple of years, since my signing with the Warner Brothers record label. We’ve had a tremendous amount of promotion but we’ve given them something to promote. You know, something that we consider is suited for today’s record buyers and listeners more like an across-the-board kind of concept, that includes a lot of the elements that today’s people look for. When I say today’s people, I’m talking about the people who have sort of shaped the record industry, and have demanded a certain kind of concept to their music. We’ve given them some of the things they know, and we try to maintain our creativity as we indulge in this.

This is the heartening thing—you’ve been bringing good music to a large number of people.

I’m glad to hear you say that, because, naturally, we get a lot of criticism about not being solid in this area or that area. That’s the thing that I commend today’s audience for allowing us—I mean the people who came from the jazz field to be heard, finally. Now that the light is shining in my direction, and they’re saying : “Give us something”, I’m trying to give them something that I think they can understand, without putting the people down: There are those who say that it’s an insult to the people’s intelligence not just playing for the sake of playing and letting them have their own opinion. That’s not necessarily true.

When you’re speaking another language to a man; and you know that he doesn’t understand, you can’t expect him to pick it up easily. You’ve got to make some concessions; you’ve got to do some sort of translation, even if you do it with your hands. So jazz music has been a stranger to most of the people, because they haven’t heard it; now they’re beginning to hear parts of it, through my manner of speech, or in the way that I’m presenting it, and they’ll be able to relate to it on a much more esoteric basis as they go along. They’re picking up pieces as they go, and they’re understanding more and more -that association is starting to come about. We’re not trying to prove anything when we play; all we’re trying to do is communicate and that’s not always easy!

I think it’s true to say, though, that you haven’t changed your essential approach. You’re playing the same solid, groovy way that you always played.

I’ve always been a rhythmic player, always believed in having good rhythm around me. The records that I have always associated with in the past, that to me are the greatest records in jazz music, have been the swing things, with that solid background. Admittedly, it’s been four–four rhythm different from today’s market, the things that they’re selling today, which is more like a polyrhythm or a back–beat kind of feel. A two-four concept, you know, but still the same solid. I have to have that solid foundation in front of me, and I like to dance over the top of it.

That allows me to be free to think of other things, without having to concentrate on thumping out the rhythm myself. That’s all there but what has changed, that people may not have picked up on, is my environment. The people who did hear me, and bought my records, before, heard me in another context playing with the greatest jazz musicians in the world, admittedly. Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and all those guys recorded with me for close to ten years, but when I went to Warner Brothers Records I was allowed to choose my own rhythm section for the first time. Fortunately for me, I happened to have musicians around me who understand what I’m trying to do, and who help nurture the projects along. I’m not saying that they’re better than Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham, but they are good musicians; plus they know me and what I want to present. and they are more into the project, because they’re also going to benefit by it directly, since they work with me on a constant basis.

So the whole rhythm section has changed: then my producer now has a different concept than the previous guy, who produced eight albums. Also the new engineer has a completely different way of engineering. And the marketing of the records because now you might find me in the pop listings at the record store, where before I was only put in the jazz category.

Well, in fact. you can be accurately termed a ‘pop star’ nowadays.

We have made giant steps in that direction, yes. We have really started to get the same kind of treatment that pop artists get.

It was your recording of “This Masquerade”, from ‘the album “Breezin’,” that really turned the tide for you, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was direct communication—speaking the language that everybody understands. English–speaking people, that is. I sang to them, or talked to them, in a language they all know, and they picked up on it, because, more than likely, they liked the way it was presented. It was a good song— I wish I had written it! It had good colours in it for musicians; I find a lot of musicians playing it—that’s the reason why I selected it to sing. It had these beautiful chord changes, that we could play on if we wanted to, and it had a good story. It had all the right elements for a good song. All I had to do was keep from hurting it!

I just caught it by accident on the radio one time, and I thought: “That’s a nice version of that song. Who’s that?” Then I heard some quality guitar coming in; I said: “A good backing for the singer as well.” At the end of the record, someone announced: “That was George Benson.” Well, I certainly didn’t know you could sing like that. But, in fact, you had been singing in earlier years, hadn’t you? This wasn’t your first venture into the vocal department.

No. I had vocals scattered throughout my albums. Except for the CTI records; though. Creed Taylor did produce some vocals—when I was with A & M Records he produced three albums for me there. Some vocals were included, but at that time the guitar was overshadowing them, and I didn’t select the material; so I wasn’t into it one hundred per cent, because here I was trying to please the producer, trying to do what he had in his head and not what I believed in.

In the case of the “Breezin”’ album, even though the song was suggested to me by the producer, I could do it or not do it. And I elected to do it at the last minute, by which time the producer didn’t want to do it, as it was going so well as an instrumental album. He said: “Man, I don’t know if we need that vocal now”, and I said: “After all the trouble you went through to get me to do this, we should do it at least one time. If it comes out okay, we’ll use it; if not, we won’t.” So we did it one time. It was a one–take situation—the most incredible thing that ever happened to me. Every day after that, there was a call from somebody who said: “This is it ! ” But had heard that so many times in the past. I ignored it: I said: “Oh. this is it, huh? Okay—thank you very much. I’m glad you liked it.” But the result has been that it’s worked the other way round now.

A lot of people who believed you to be simply a new singer on the scene have discovered that you can also play good guitar.

Because we managed to maintain . . . the fortunate thing about the “Breezin”’ album was that it was not overburdened with too many vocals. Some of the people who bought it, thinking they were gonna hear an album full of vocals, were disappointed at first until they realised they had what the world is now calling a classic album. Now they’re proud of it, and they went out and bought their second one, to make sure that they could never run out. So it’s really good; that album has catapulted me into another category all of my own, as a matter of fact. It’s like being in a place where you can’t be touched for a while it’s that way with me. And it’s a good place, in most instances. Of course, I’m still getting the darts and criticisms; but I know what validity is. I know when I’m being criticised for something valid.

Some of them have been valid points, because some people who really love jazz are gonna miss some of the things I used to do, and rightfully so—I  mean. that’s their privilege. But feel that, at this particular time in my life. I’m gonna do what I believe will represent security for me. Especially since I don’t mind doing it—I love it. If I ever get back to doing the esoteric things, it’ll be because people are gonna be allowing us to do these things and then I won’t cause anyone else to suffer by doing it.

There is a possible parallel, though, to be drawn with what happened in the case of Nat “King” Cole. He was known as a fine piano player, but when he achieved commercial success as a singer, the singing, as time went by, completely eclipsed the piano playing. Do you see any danger of this?

I don’t see it, but, you know, you never can tell. I get your point, but I can’t see it right now, because I love to play. But we have to make up our minds whether we’re playing for ourselves, or do we like having an audience when we do our thing. We can’t be confused on that issue. If you’re a guy who just wants to play for the sake of playing, then I think you should go to some loft somewhere, and just jam with some of the guys. Because it’s a completely different thing when you have not done what you were paid to do. If a man hired me to work in the Post Office, or anywhere, I would do that job the best that I could do it or else I wouldn’t feel good on payday. And I feel the same way when I go out in front of an audience. I know what people go through to come to my concerts; I’ve seen ‘em sleeping on the sidewalk, and it rained on ‘em all night so they could be there, and make sure they didn’t miss getting the tickets. They have to hire baby–sitters, they have to find parking spaces, they stand in line for hours, sometimes the policemen hit ‘em in the head with sticks, run ‘em around corners—that’s what they go through to come hear me play. Now wouldn’t that be terrible, if they came hear me, and I didn’t make some concessions for them and do some of the things they liked.

I mean, we should do that, at least, and then if you want to put some things on ‘em that you think are important, and you want to let ‘em know there’s some other sides to you, that’s good, too. Proportionately, it should be dealt out with some intelligence. But to say that we should ignore people, and just play for the sake of just being spacey—don’t do that in front of an audience.

All I’m saying is: as you are, to my mind, one the finest jazz guitarists to come up in recent years, I would assume that you would never let go of that.

0h, no, man I have no intentions of doing that, even if I have to become one of those cellar guys. But I don’t think that the public will let me become a cellar man; I think that they would be interested in what I’m doing—it’s just that I feel that there has to be an intelligent concept to that. You can’t wean people on something, and then suddenly snatch it away from ‘em, you know. And this is the reason why I record with other people because I never want them to forget me as a player.

I have that outlet, where Nat may not have had that years ago; it might not have been a good business move for him to become a sideman on another man’s record, and remain a front singer. Because we didn’t have those options; first of all, there weren’t that many record companies in that day, and nobody would be willing to let him be used in that way. Today it’s a completely different concept; I can still be me, and still use my talents somewhere else, without being considered a let–down. There are some people who really want to hear me in those contexts, and I like to do them so I do them. I just did an album with Freddie Hubbard; I’ve been on some records with Benny Goodman. I’ve recorded with everybody . . . singers—great singers—I always demand that the people I work with are major artists, making a contribution and not just jiving, you know, because I’m very serious about everything that I do.

So, in a sense, you’re really having your cake and eating it—getting the best of both worlds.

There’s a lot of people say that! Yes, I am, at this moment. I feel that I’m getting a large down–payment on those years that I put in the twenty–seven years it took for me to make it.

Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.