Working with Tony Bennett
with Tony Bennett
The art of accompaniment
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1988
I’ve been back to Britain quite a few times now; I anxiously look forward to it each time, to see my family, who are still here, and all my friends, musical and otherwise. I always try to see as many people as possible. My original roots are in the East End of London, and if I go down there it’s sort of strange where I was born and brought up, everything has changed. London, to me, is not what it was; it’s all built—up, and it seems a lot of people have moved out of the East End and gone to different places. Even this time, just going around London a little bit, I see all this construction going on, and I can’t believe it. Somebody told me they’re building a new Piccadilly Circus I never thought I’d see the day.
Yes, the majority of my time in the States has been spent working with Tony Bennett and, let me say, the most rewarding time musically. Because with Tony I have been able to cover the whole spectrum of popular music and jazz right from, years ago, working with Duke Ellington’s orchestra with Tony, and then all the big bands: Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich. Plus the other type of things, where you get a straight orchestra, with strings, French horns and things like that.
Tony is very jazz–oriented; so whatever he does has got to have the beat, the feel with it. It’s a musical education, really. Funnily enough, we got together very casually—it all happened on a handshake. But he really seemed to be influenced by the. jazz feeling and even more today, We just made an album, “Tony Bennett Sings Irving Berlin”, and it’s with the trio myself, Paul and Joe—plus we had Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson and Dexter Gordon. It’s an out–and–out jazz album, which he loved and people seem to like it very much.
I’m happy to say that jazz seems to be getting more and more acceptance with the general public. In his own way, Tony is a leader in this direction. He’s a popular singer; so he attracts a different kind of audience but once you’ve got them in, and you play jazz to them, they like it. It really is a good thing. Incidentally, some years back there was a cover picture taken showing Tony, Bobby Hackett and myself—I still have that at home. You have that album of Tony’s called “The Beat Of My Heart”? I got that together for him people like Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Chico Hamilton—they were all very happy to do it. It’s about time that album was reissued too; I think it’s sort of lost somewhere, and there’s some terrific stuff on it. Kai Winding, Herbie Mann, Al Cohn and Nat Adderley were among the her great players who took part.
My mother was American, and she used to be a professional pianist ; she used to play piano in theatres in New York; she was one of those who played for the films. Then she got married, and emigrated over here; so I think that’s where I got the influence. I often used to say to her: “If you’d just stayed were you were, you’d have saved me emigrating back to the United States!” Anyway, I just studied with a normal lady piano teacher, who came around and gave lessons and like any other kid, I hated it. They used to try and lock me in a room to practise, and I wouldn’t practise until I was around thirteen and I started hearing jazz records. Fats Waller and Art Tatum caught my ear, and then I became intrigued by them. From then on I started playing with little local bands, just around the Bethnal Green area.
My first professional job was with the Ted Heath orchestra and I always say: I worked my way down from there! Yes, I was the youngster in the band, at that time. I’ve been seeing quite a bit of Derek Boulton, who is a promoter now; he was the band manager for the Heath band in those days, and we always speak of our recollections from then.
So I really slipped into the music business. There were the little jazz clubs around then, like Club Eleven, and, of course, the Feldman Club, when that was in its heyday and I just loved to do all that. It was the ‘forties—the time of the birth of bebop. I can remember, even in the Heath days, sitting with people like Jack Parnell, Dave Goldberg and Pete Chilver, hearing these recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and just shaking our heads, saying: “This is something unbelievable!” We were all very heavily influenced by this; yes, it completely turned us around.
Suddenly somebody had a whole new approach to jazz music. And there was the terrific interest over here which I’m sure there still is of learning and getting on with what was new. I think, from what I’ve heard of British jazz now, and some of the players, that it’s completely assimilated. I mean, I don’t think there’s that dividing line any more.
When I first went to the States, the big thing I noticed was the difference in rhythm sections; that, to me, was the main difference but now that’s been eliminated. They’ve heard everything for many years now, and there are equally great players here. Sure, someone like Lennie Bush was great then. I don’t know it seemed that mainly with drummers and bass players there was a different freedom over there. That’s no longer a thing it’s really sort of moot point.
The Melodisc sides I made would have been my first recordings—I don’t have any of those. It was a tenor player, Jack Chilkes, who ran that company; that used to be fine. I went around with a sextet that included Victor Feldman, who was a little boy at that time, and Jimmy Skidmore—a good group.
My main thing in going to the States was a musical reason; I was so wrapped up in it that I just wanted to be at the source of it all. George Shearing left a few years before me. George is playing terrifically too I see him every now and again, and we talk quite a bit.
I went out there on spec, as you might say; I just took off, and landed there with a bag. And luckily Tony Scott, a very great clarinet player, who also played alto with Duke Ellington for a while, took me in. I just moved in with him until I managed to get a union card, so that I could start working. I’d had a couple of albums out over here, and I had those with me; so I was able to go to an agency.
It was the Billy Shaw Agency, that’s no longer around, and they used to handle people like Sarah Vaughan, mostly black jazz acts; they started booking me with a trio, and that worked well for a while.
Then, being a pianist, they decided to start putting me with singers; that was the next step,, and I was with people like Chris Connor, Carmen McRae in fact, all the good singers. They’d send me out with a trio with those people.
So all of a sudden I became an accompanist, more than a piano leader. It really was accidental, but it was something I liked. And the main thing I’d like to emphasise is: being an accompanist is not an inferior role musically no. Many people think you’re just in the background, but I don’t think it is at all. Then I found I really liked to do that.
One thing led to another, and I got a call right out of the blue from Tony Bennett’s office. And I’d never heard of him because he was in a different field completely. He was in the pop field, and I was a strict jazzman—I knew nothing about that. I met him, we did a couple of engagements together, and I thought: “I rather like this.” He was very good to me, and it went on through the years.
I’m not bragging or anything, but it’s true that I got Tony into jazz. He’ll say that himself: “Ralph said ‘Why don’t you do something with a jazz feeling?’ And he found a whole new audience, and a whole new way to sing and phrase and to present himself. Now, he couldn’t be without it. The great thing is that it’s returned to him—jazz musicians really look up to him. People like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and all the great players are very highly approving of what he does. They’ll say: “The songs you sing, we like to play” —because he comes up with the good tunes. Certainly, I do say to him: ‘Have a look at this.” Which prompts this story: I had two friends in New York who used to write songs—some of them were children’s songs, that were published for schools and things like that. They did have one tune that Pearl Bailey recorded years ago. But they kept showing me these tunes, that I’d look at and say: “Well, this is very nice, but it’s not the kind of thing for Tony.” One day they gave me a song, and I didn’t even look at it—I put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it.
About a year later, we were going on a tour, and I was looking through a drawer for some shirts; I pulled this sheet out, and it said: “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. So I thought: “Well, we’re going to San Francisco—I’ll just put this in my case” I still didn’t look at it.
Anyway, we got to Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is in the middle of nowhere; I took a look at this song, played it and said to Tony: “It might be a good idea to do a song like this when we’re in San Francisco.” I played it for him, and it was in the saloon bar of the hotel. There was a bartender standing there, and he said: “If you record that, I’ll buy it!” So we thought: “Well, that’s good.” And he performed the song in San Francisco ‘and it was very well received.
But he thought, and I thought too: singing a song like that in San Francisco is just asking for applause, but it’s just a home–town song. Tony was with Columbia at the time, and the local man came in; he said: “You know, if you go back to New York and record that, you’re guaranteed at least good sales here.” It took a few months to finally record it, and it was done as a B side.
Mitch Miller was the A & R man, and he said: “Well, you know if you want to do that, throw it in.” The A side on that was “Once Upon A Time”, which was a very pretty song from a Broadway show called All American. That was it; it was put out. I called these two fellows, and said: “Tony’s just recorded your song” they went crazy. But it took two or three years for it to actually hit. What happened was: other singers picked it up and started singing it and then it became a world–wide hit.
It’s Tony’s signature tune now, and everything else. Yet it was a complete accident—if I hadn’t looked for that shirt in that drawer, it would never have happened.
I do help him pick his material. People are always sending me songs; they send him songs too, and he shows them to me, and says: “See what you think of this.” And he likes to do something that’s got some meat in it. he won’t do a bad song.Copyright © 1988 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.