Jazz Professional               


Views from a musical marriage

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1988

Stephane Grappelli, Marion Montgomery and Laurie Holloway
Marion    Laurie  

The musical marriage would seem to be a very enviable thing - to be married partners who both perform, and can share to the full their interest in music. Another outstanding example, of course, that of John and Cleo. In your marriage, would you say it has been particularly valuable for you both to be musical?

Marion: Whoís first?

Laurie: You.

Marion: I knew that. I knew you were going to drop me in it.

Laurie: Well, Iíll go first.

Marion: Go first.

Laurie: Well, itís wonderful and itís terrible because weíre together all the time. Most of my neighbourhood friends leave for the office at eight in the morning, get back at six in the evening, go for a pint; theyíre home at seven, they have dinner, watch the News At Ten, and go to bed. But weíre actually together most of the time not working together all the time, but Iím in the house. Which is marvellous, until it gets . . . constant. So I do down the pub at lunchtime, and in the evening now and again. It has its pros and cons.

Marion: Laurieís life has gotten away from the Oldham, Lancashire pattern, I think. Listen we donít talk very much about this sort of thing; so oneís always surprised at other peopleís attitudes. Not just Oldham the English pattern is: the chap goes to the pub for lunch, meets his mates; itís just that Laurieís is upgraded in the sense that instead of darts he plays golf. On the other hand, I love for him to go and play golf, to go down and have his time with his friends and part and parcel of that, Iím sure, is exactly what he said, because we are together constantly.

There isnít the kind of desperation that a woman may have when her husband spends all his time in the pub. In Laurieís case heís in a heads down on the piano, heads down writing arrangementsóthat tunnel-vision thing is there. And that would drive any man up the wall. Iím content and happy about his golf, as he is about me going out to lunch with my girl-friends. I believe in menís clubs and womenís clubs and Iím a very liberated woman but I believe in that division. The privacy of it. And if we have any problem, itís, as Laurie says, this lack of privacy.

Laurie: But we do have marvellous musical moments at home, donít we where we just get round the piano and rehearse, and magic happens.

Thatís what I mean you have the great asset of being able to share that aspect of both your lives.

Laurie: And we have very similar musical backgrounds, donít we?

Marion: Yes, really church and stuff like that.

Laurie: We donít disagree a lot about the way a number should be done, do we? I mean, you always do it the way I say it should be done!

Marion: Total rubbish! We fight like cats and dogs, Les heís not telling you the truth. I donít want to sound like Iím tugging the forelock or anything like that nor do I want to sound like Iím the biggest cow that came down the pike but I have a way of working that, in my mind, has nothing to do with any kind of personality. Itís like working with somebody like a machine and itís not good.

I mean, Iím the least political person and every time I try to be political, I just dig a hole for myself, because itís so transparent that Iím being a hypocrite.

And as a consequence, as Laurie says, we do have some absolute magic moments, when suddenly something will happen and itís just great.

The other day we were just talking about songs, and we thought of ďYou Came A Long Way From St LouisĒ and all of a sudden Laurie played some chords that seemed right out of left field.

I said: ďThatís wonderful!Ē and he said: ďYeah I like that.Ē So he did this arrangement for me I think itís a gas! The orchestras that have played it have liked it too; we did it with the LSO, and the musicians were coming up afterwards and saying: ďThat was great!Ē But itís so simple. Laurie writes beautifully simply which I think is a talent beyond compare. He can get as complicated as anybody, but he has, in my view, the sensitivity and sense enough to realise that complexity for complexityís sake is a load of baloney.

Laurie: Yes, thatís out now. That was the British disease, wasnít it, at one time? Cram in as much as you can.

Marion: Itís just a matter of getting a line and following it through.

Laurie: In a way, the American music thatís around now like George Benson and things like that has influenced us to write simpler. Theyíll repeat a phrase, or theyíll stay on simple chords whereas we got a bit . . . introvert.

Well, self-consciously hip or with-it.

Marion: I think a lot of that goes back to the hymns in this country, because itís not been all that long that we havenít been considered a Christian country. For instance, compare the American and British tunes to ďOh, Little Town Of BethlehemĒ the British version puts even weight on every note. As a consequence, people were brought up with the classic tradition each syllable having a notation and it did become the British disease. It became self-indulgently clever.

Laurie: Well, I remember, when I was with bands like Stapleton or Ronnie Rand, if there was a gap in what the front-line was playing, Iíd put something in on piano. Now, I just leave it blank, and when Iím playing solo things I find that what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

Marion: Absolutely.

I feel that way about singers also. Without mentioning names, there are certain singers who just go too far with the technicalities, and it becomes sort of painful, really, to hear all that going on. You want to tell Ďem to cool down.

Marion: Yeah this is one reason I love Elkie Brooks: the economy of her singing is really admirable. I saw part of a concert she did recently, and I was just mesmerised by it; I think sheís wonderful. And, see, Madeline Bell has the same thing, I think.

I think you have it too.

Marion: Well, I have always wanted simplicity. If I had to name two favourite singers in the world, I guess they would be Doris Day, for her control and purity, and Dinah Washington, who to me was a downright honest singer. Thatís what I would like to be an honest singer.

Laurie sometimes jumps on my back because he says I play with time too muchó lots of times thatís because Iíve gotten myself into a bind and canít get out of it.

Other times it is: ďOh, I can do thisĒ; so I have to be a little bit careful about that.

But to get back to the marriage and the music: as Laurie said, it can be equally fine or terrible, because when we do disagree, it can be radical. See, itís a marriage on two levels, and both of them are dreadfully emotional. One is the obvious emotional level, as between a man and a woman; the other is getting into such an ego level that it is dangerous.

It gets competitive, does it?

Marion: Well I donít like competitive.

Laurie: Itís difficult to work in the study and disagree about something quite strongly, and maybe have an argument about it, and then say: ďOkay, thatís the end of that. Letís have tea.Ē You canít just cut off.

Marion: The only way I know out of that is to talk about it, and the only way he knows out of it is to be quiet. As a consequence, I find myself rabbiting to a wall, and he finds himself constantly having to say: ďGive me a break.Ē So that is the hard part, I would think, in almost anybodyís artistic marriage unless they are on such a wavelength that they just tune in. And youíve seen some of those, but not very many. I remember at one point talking to another couple who are in the business, and the wife saying to me: ďSometimes I wish I would be with somebody else, because I could honesty feel like I might be turning them on to what I was doing musically. But we know each other so well, that I donít feel there are any surprises.Ē There was no musical sparking-off between them.

Laurie: But thatís not the case with us.

Marion: No. I was going to say: the marvellous thing about Laurie is that he . so inventive. Pm not all that original, i! ut he is inventive. All of a sudden, heíll play a chord, and then Pm a good engineer, and I can put it together and then thatíll spark me off on something, that he in turn will do something else with. And thatís the way we build. Weíve got that going for us he always surprises me. It took a long time to get here, though, didnít itóto where we are now, in this work thing.

Laurie: Yes, weíre better than we used to be..

But youíve found that the opportunity to work with Marion, simply as an artist, has inspired you as a musician?

Laurie: Well, sheís wonderful to work with. Itís the way she gets an audience it comes across as completely sincere, whatever sheís doing. In a way, it doesnít matter so much what sheís singing or how sheís singing it, but the sincerity she has just captivates an audience.

Marion: Musically, though I think thatís what Les is talking about as far as an audience is concerned, I generally like Ďem. And I get very distressed if Iím uptight, and I walk out and I feel that Iím putting a barrier up between them.

Laurie: Iíll tell you what surprised me recently: you singing, ďBye Bye BIackbirdĒ at Ronnie Scottís and getting the audience to join in! Like Butlinís Holiday Camp on a Saturday night!

Marion: That happened quite by chance one night; I was down there singing ďBye Bye BlackbirdĒ and some people started to sing along and all of a sudden the whole audience was singing. And Pete King came and stood by the stand and said: ďI donít believe it!Ē So I just thought, well, Iíd keep it in. You know, just because theyíre a jazz audience it doesnít mean they donít want to get in on the act as well. So keep it in. But people said you couldnít do countryíníwestern stuff at Ronnieís and I did.

Laurie: Well, audience participation is a good thing. Marion said to them: ďNow you can go home and say youíve sung at Ronnie Scottís!Ē

Itís akin to a married couple thereís a sharing that goes on. You share things with an audience, as you do with your marital partner.

Marion: I feel totally safe with Laurie on the floor and Iím a terrible goof-off. I get into what Iím doing, without worrying about, the words and I use wrong words, I change verses around, and stuff like that. One night at Ronnieís I was thinking about what I was feeling, instead of what I was actually singing, and I added two bars to ďGod Bless The ChildĒ; Ron Mathewson, the bass player, was almost thrown thank God heís the musician he is . . .

Laurie: She got me another night she sang the verse to a song, and went into a different chorus! It keeps me on my toes, anyway.

Marion: Yes, I did. But I really feel . . . I know this sounds like an odd word to use . . . desperately safe with Laurie there.

And the reason I use the word is because sometimes you can feel so desperately unsafe. So then you start marching through sand and try to do the best you can with what youíve got. Cy Coleman once upon a time said to me, as did several other people: ďYouíre in trouble, because youíre going to always have to work with the best. Thatís where youíre going to be happy and youíre in trouble.Ē

Thatís it ó you canít accept anything less.

Marion: I have a very hard time with it I mean, I can do it, but thereís that undercore in me of Southern violence and rage at having to settle for less, that probably came from losing the war between the States! And I really get angry about it Iím making myself sound absolutely awful, but I have very limited patience in a situation like that.

Well, without a good rhythm section youíre doing less than youíre capable of, because you donít have that uplift, that power behind you.

Marion: No, you canít do it and how can you explain that to somebody? You cannot get up and be a parlour singer; you cannot do something unless itís right.

Laurie: Talking of power behind you I remember working a club in Charing Cross Road called The 142; it was the music publishersí club, and it was upstairs, with a grotty bar. I did it with a local bass and drums, who were fine players. And one night in came Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, and we had a drink in our break. Then I said: ďWeíd better go back onĒ; so I went on, started playing something and suddenly there was a magic feeling . . . Ray Brown had come up, and then Ed Thigpen came up . . . then I realised what Oscar was doing he was sort of floating on top of this solid foundation; it made it so much easier.

Marion: Well, you see, thatís what Laurie does for me. But when you ask for something, you donít endear yourself to musicians. In the early days, when I first came to this country, and Laurie was just flat out in the studio all the time, I wanted to rehearse, keep my chops up and this and that; so I said: ďListen, I know youíre so busy give me a list of piano players that you think are good, so that I can call up somebody.Ē A number of the people I called up said: ďWhy donít you work with your old man?Ē Then when Iíd go out to work with another piano player, Iíd turn around and say: ďWhen I do this there, can you play a chord that . . .?Ē ďIím not your husbandĒ you know.

So people say: ďWhy did you lose your confidence?Ē For a lot of reasons. I was spoilt rotten; I was used to musicians loving me. I was used to musicians who donít like working with singers wanting to work with me, because they felt that I was relatively musical, and they knew how much I revered them. What I didnít recognise, because I guess I was too naive, was that it wasnít me they were, in a sense, jealous of they were jealous of Laurieís talent.

Laurie: But youíve done well for piano players. Youíve got Richard Rodney Bennett . . .

Marion: Oh, honey I couldnít be more covered, really.

Thatís been a whole thing in itself, with Richard, of course.

Marlon: Right. You see, Laurie was on the road for a long time with Engelbert.

So I was working with a guy named Brian Miller, who I adore and love, and who is a bloody great piano player. Brianís background was not in standards, though; he was more the sort of pop/rock thing and I was doing a lot of that at the time. Brian and I would still be together, I think, if I could have afforded him, but he got with Cats. He was wonderful took over, in charge, funny, easy to be with, great on the road, and looked after me. While Laurie was gone, I had that help, as well as Jeff Clyne, Trevor Tomkins, Alan Jackson. Also Phil Leeís been with me a long time a wonderful, lyrical guitarist. But along the line there wasnít that much work, although I was working with the BBC and stuff like that. You know youíve got to do it. Itís like anything if you donít practise it, you go downhill. I mean, you can speak fluent French, and if you donít speak it for ten years youíre in trouble when you try again.

Laurie: The thing we didnít do, though, was what Cleo and John did. Iím not sure, but I think they are booked as Cleo and John whereas Marion is booked as Marion Montgomery, and if Iím not doing anything else, then Iíll go and work with Marion.

Marion: Yes we made a mistake with that.

Laurie: But a lot of people expect me to be there anyway.

Marion: And I think thatís going to have to change in the future because Laurie is so well-known within the industry, etc. that itís a little bit bizarre for me to feel that weíre not on a par publicity-wise is what Iím talking about.

Youíve been on these concerts, like the Stephane Grappelli Eightieth Birthday, where youíve both been featured, separately and together.

Marion: We do a lot of that. We did the thing with Ray Charles, and the thing with Dizzy Gillespie. And when we do the Barbican with John heís so sweet to ask us to do this Pops thing, which is a knockout he turns the orchestra over to Laurie. Well, I think he should get credit for that, you know.

Laurie: It doesnít bother me in the least.

Marion: I know it doesnít bother you but it bothers me!

So what have been the actual benefits of your association with Richard Rodney Bennett?

Marion: Well, because it was just two voices and piano and because Richard, like Laurie, as that old adage says, will read a fly on the paper he also has a musical shorthand. So he would say to me: ďScat-sing this thingĒ and I would never scat anything before; I just didnít think that was my bag at all. But I would do it, and he would jot it down, almost as I was singing it and then he would teach it back to me, so that we could incorporate it in what we did. And by doing that, and the fact that he liked the way I sang, and because we would work a thing over and over, I got back into a real rehearsal mentality. Whereas before it was just: ďOh, do itóit doesnít mean anything.Ē I became interested again. As you know, if that confidence goes, it can be hard to get it back I think the way you do is by little things that happen along the line. The ladder is very, very slender. And now I donít think Iím the greatest singer in the world, and I donít think Iíve got all the confidence that I : would like to have, but Iím fifty thousand times better than I was. I get tired, though. Laurie has a source of energy somehow thatís quite amazing to me itís just somewhere there-but I run out.

I have seen him get tired and go on I mean exhausted tired. Iíve seen him come offstage with the shakes from fatigue, which scares me to death but heís held together up there. Unfortunately, I get onstage, and all of a sudden the bottom just drops out.

Laurie: The opposite happens to me. Sometimes I donít want to be involved in the event whatsoever; Iíd rather not be there. But when I go on, something happens I get stuck in, and give it one. Which is lovely. It means I donít have to get hyped up before I go on. A lot of artists need to do that they need to psyche themselves into a mental situation where theyíre up and running. I just go on, and after about three or four bars Iím into it.

Marion: And totally you know, like lock-in time. I think itís wonderfulóI envy that, actually.

Laurie: Itís the magic of music, isnít it?

Copyright © 1988, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved