Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
|Parts 1 2 3 4 5|
Singing some of your own lyrics, as you do, must help you to deliver them convincingly. But there are certain singers who, although they may sing them very well and very stylishly, don’t necessarily seem to appreciate the actual meaning of the lyrics they are singing.
I think that’s quite true. They don’t understand what they’re singing. But, in fairness to them, too, the popular song per se is really a pretty shallow medium to perform in. I mean, it’s very limited—from the standpoint of subject matter alone. It’s usually a love song, that says: a) “I love you, baby—thank God you love me”, or b) “I love you, baby, but you left me, and now I’d like to get you back”, or c) “I loved you, baby, but you left me, and I’ll never get you back, and here I am in a bar at a quarter to three, and there’s no one in the place, etc., or d) “I loved you, baby, but you done me wrong; so I left you. I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry over me.” But it all goes down the same sink—hole. It’s a very narrow spectrum of expression.
But it contains a lot of very fine poetry, doesn’t it?
Yes. Within the perimeters of the popular song, when you start dealing with people like Johnny Mercer—well, so many, there’s no point in naming them—contemporary guys and guys from the past, there are some superb lyric writers, undoubtedly. And that’s what makes it redeeming and a little bit worthwhile—because you occasionally run into a song like “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” by Paul Williams, that has a whole new idea. I mean, when a guy writes a lyric that goes: “I must face a world of strangers where I don’t belong. I’m not that strong”, there’s great courage in that. Because what that says is: “I’m a man, and I’m willing to admit that I’m not that strong, that within the course of a day’s meeting of strangers in the big, lonely city, that I’m vulnerable.” And in an era of what I call “the bull. . . . macho syndrome”, I think it’s refreshing for a guy like Paul Williams to be able to write a lyric like that.
I found that song very attractive, I wrote an arrangement on it, and I’ve been doing it constantly. I’ve only just gently taken it out of the act, because I started doing these two Sedaka things. Right now, quite candidly, Sedaka is very hot, and I felt it would be topical to do some of his material.
Although, obviously, you have a high regard for the best of the standard songs from past eras, would you say you don’t find any dearth of good material today?
There isn’t a dearth of it, but I will confess that it’s harder for me to find songs on which I’m willing to invest anything from ten to fifteen hours writing an arrangement than it was in times past. They’re still there, though—that’s the whole point; they’re just not in such great profusion. But you’ve got to understand also, there are so many songs, that I’m sure that weekly I probably miss eight songs that would be just super to do in the act. I haven’t got the time to listen to them all: I’ve got other careers going. I finished a novel, that took five years to write; I write all my own arrangements. All terribly time–consuming. Other singers, to their great credit, maybe take one full day every week, and say: “Right, from the minute I’ve had my toast, bacon and coffee, I’m going to listen to records all day.” I just can’t—I don’t have the time or the inclination, really.
I would be a liar if I said it wouldn’t be lovely and soothing—that’s the word—to have a hit single or a hit album. I’m just not inclined to beat my brains out, or beat my breast about making the next big platinum record. If it happens to happen—fine. And I don’t say that I’m not going to try; I certainly am, if I’m going to record. Again, we’re going back to that elitist syndrome I don’t want to make records for elite people, for just the guy who, so–called; understands Mel Torme.
I want to sing for the broadest possible audience. But, since I am what we call in America “a middle–of–the–road, jazz orientated pop singer”, to spend my life in competition with the hundred and fifty to two hundred new artists that weekly crop up in the charts—no possible way. Not interested.
I don’t want to compete with—I want to be very careful how I say this—the majority of amateurs who weekly break into the business. I do want to compete in the pop field with Neil Sedaka, with Neil Diamond, with Janis Ian, with David Clayton–Thomas. I’d like to compete as a singer with Donald Fagen, the guy that sings with Steely Dan, who’s super. There are an awful lot of people I admire—that’s a very tiny selection from a broad, big list. If a record company says to me—and I’m just about to re–sign with somebody—if they say: “Now, you gotta do this song . . .“. there’s no way; I’m not gonna do it. It’s that simple.
I made forty–one albums, hundreds of singles—I’ve proved what I had to prove as a singer. And if somebody wants to record me, as I hope they will, for what I am—and, by the way, try to get some good original songs by Tom Paxton, and Nilsson maybe, and Kris Kristoffersen, if he’s got anything going right now: certainly Paul Williams, whom I’m very fond of (personally, as well, I might add)—yes, I’m all for that.
This diversification is clearly a natural thing with you; you’ve always spread yourself into a variety of areas. You don’t find it any problem, to be doing so many different things?
Absolutely not, because I’ve learned to compartmentise my days—and it wasn’t an easy lesson; it took a long time. So that I know that of a given day, if I get to bed, and I’m going to get seven hours, which is great—eight is better, but seven is fine: that’s exactly what I slept last night, seven hours—then I get up, and I know I can organise my time. It may sound a bit like an army barracks, but the truth of the matter is: there must be some time laid aside for arranging, time for working on either a book or an article—I’ve written two articles in the last four months for the New York Times book review section. And there has to be a time for my family and my kids, a time to recreate, go to a movie or watch a little television, and a time to work at a night–club at night.
There are a hell of a lot of hours in the day—more than people realise—and if one uses sixteen or seventeen hours of the day profitably, instead of wasting them, it really isn’t amazing at all, honestly, to follow two or three separate careers. Right now, my career is in three directions: as a performer, as an arranger, as an author—and I don’t give any one of them true precedent, or true top marks, as opposed to the other two. Obviously, I make the most money as a singer, and that enables me to have the luxury of freedom, so to speak—because it pays the bills—to write books, and to take the time to write my own charts, as opposed to just doling them out.
As a singer, the biggest joy I have are the arrangements. I love it, specially when a band like the Buddy Rich band or the Woody Herman band really glow with them, and really like them. You know, you get to the point where it’s pretty hard for anybody to blow smoke at you; you can pretty well tell they mean it, if they come to you voluntarily. Without you saying: “Gee, what did you think of that?” I would never do that—that would be gross and crass.
But these are just two bands I can think of right now, who have both alluded to my charts with great enjoyment—they’ve said so to me. That means a great deal to me.
Do you get as much of a kick out of writing things for somebody else, as you did for Judy Garland, rather than for yourself? Or do you prefer to have the joy of performing them as well?
I prefer to do them for myself. It’s not just so much the joy, but the point is that I fashion them for myself, so that I know where the band is supposed to come in, and where I am. Sometimes, when you do it for somebody else, what you’re doing is all that work. and taking your heart in your mouth. See, I never wrote arrangements for the band for Judy Garland; I did strictly special material, special lyrics, put together all of her medleys.
I was her musical adviser: “What should I sing this week, Mel?” “Okay—let me tell you what I think you should sing.” And most times she took my advice; sometimes she didn’t, and she had every right—it was her show. 1 never orchestrated anything for her; I wouldn’t orchestrate anything for anybody. I did it once, for one guy—a dear friend of mine, a superstar, who shall go nameless. I wrote him an arrangement of “The Sunshine Of My Life”, free, because he loved the arrangement that I’d written for myself. I did a totally different one for him, which I really felt was at least as good, if not better, than the other one.
He didn’t like it—and he finally paid somebody else to write it. And that settled that—I will never do that again. It was a lesson. I’m glad I did do it; it was a labour of love, because he’s a super guy. But it’s typical—you can please yourself, but God knows who else you please. If I’m going to please somebody else, I want to be paid a great amount of money for it, or I don’t want to do it.
The truth is, Les. I don’t really want to do it at all. I get people coming up to me all the time. asking: “Would you write me an arrangement?” By the way, including Buddy Rich; he’s asked me twenty times if I’d write some charts for the band—because he likes the way I write, you know. And I would love to do that for Buddy. But the thing is, I’m constantly changing my act—and it takes so long to write an arrangement. I’ve never studied any music: it’s all instinctive. So 1 have enough to do, just writing my own charts. I’ve just had to leave it at that.
During much of your career. though, you’ve entrusted the writing to various other people. The writer who is mostly thought of in connection with you is Marty Paich isn’t be? Particularly because of those Dektette sessions.
Yes—absolutely. He’s the one arranger that I’ve worked with consistently through the years But it’s a two–way street—I discovered Marty Paich, and I was the first guy to ever put him on record in the context in which he appeared on my first album, “It’s A Blue World”. And I had a lot of resistance from Bethlehem, who said: “Look, it’s an album debut—let’s get Nelson Riddle or somebody.” I said: “No—there’s this guy who writes for little groups. He wrote a thing for Shelly Manne and his Men on “You’re My Thrill” that just knocks me out.” “Yeah, but how do we know he can write for strings? Sure—a lot of kids around town write like that.”
I didn’t know Marty from Adam; I got his number, called him, told him who I was, and he knew me —and I got him to write four arrangements in that album. And the next album was the original Marty Paich Dektette album.
I want to say this about Marty . . . all singers, at one time or another, for whatever reason, are in a position to help people. I’ve been in a position to really help three people, and indeed to sort of discover them—Marty Paich. Kay Ballard, the comedienne, and Rich Little, the Canadian impressionist. And they’ll tell you that: that’s what I love about them. They’re very vocal about it; they say it in print. When Rich Little won the Golden Globes award. he said: “The first person I want to thank. before anybody else, is Mel Torme.”
He said that on national television. By the same token, I acknowledge the people who’ve helped me. Woody Herman and Les Brown went to Carlos Gastel. and said: “This kid who’s got this vocal group—we think he could make it as a solo singer.” And whenever Woody and I work together . . . we just did a special together called Mel Torme In Concert for public television, and it’s up for several Emmies now, I’m proud to say—and on the show I said: “Ladies and gentlemen, if it weren’t for the man conducting this orchestra doing what he did for me, by touting me as a possible important singer to a manager, I might not be standing here tonight. I might still be with a vocal group, writing for the movies, or whatever.”
I’m sure Vic Damone has discovered some people, and Frank certainly has —we all do. You’re in a certain position, on occasion, to be able to say: “Hey. I know somebody that you’d love.” In Rich Little’s case. it was on the Judy Garland show, and she resisted me for two and a half weeks: “What’s is this guy to you? Is he your cousin?” I said: “No, I’ve heard him once, but he’s phenomenal. He’s not an impressionist—he’s an artist.”
So I got him on, and that began it all for him. There’s one other person that I can think of, that I discovered, who went the other way—and who is absolutely no good as a person. I’ve no use for him at all. And it happens that way. But in Marty’s case—every time somebody asks him where he got his start, on backs of albums, ad infinitum, he says: “Mel Torme”, and he tells the story.
I love that, because what it is: it’s an indication of honour. That’s why I love England, because it’s probably the last real bastion of honour left—as we knew it. in a Victorian sense—in the world.
Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved