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A Les Tomkins Interview
An interview with American swing singer Billy Eckstine talking to Les Tomkins in 1976.
Source: Jazz Professional
Being on the same show with Sammy Davis is marvellous. I’ve known Sam, I guess, maybe thirty–five years—when I had my band, he was a dancer with a trio. We’ve been friends a long, long time. We have a lot of fun; it’s very relaxing, you know.
But he does the impression of me too well ! Do I listen to jazz now? Remember me? That’s my roots, and I’ll never get away from it. As for that band of mine—now that it’s over, I can say that I believe it was the best band other ‘than Duke Ellington’s legendary band. Really—now that I don’t have to sound like I’m braggadocio. But the bad thing was: nobody heard it.
The whole problem, in those days, was that they wanted me to get a band that was more or less just a background thing for my singing. But no way—I couldn’t think of it that way. In fact, before I organised the band, the plans were to take a band that was already organised. The one they mentioned was a band named George Hudson, from St. Louis, where people like Clark Terry were.
I went and heard them—a good band, but at that time I had too many of my buddies from the Earl Hines band, that I wanted to keep around me. Such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I was listening to this new style of music, and loving it. Because 1 like music itself—I like to write, compose, things like that.
Sarah Vaughan? Well, she only lives about three or four miles from me, at home; we both live out in San Fernando Valley. (\Oh, Sassy’s my little sister—this is my baby. We definitely want to do some more duets, but, see, the problem has been that she has been with another company than I’ve been with. When she was with Mainstream and I was with Stax, I had it all set up to do it, but the guy wouldn’t let her do one. We were going to do a reciprocal thing—one for each label. Now I’m with A&M and she’s with Atlantic, there may be a chance, because they are more versed on those type of things. Sure, I’d love to do that—we had a lot of fun doing those things.
For popular music, Sarah has the greatest sound that I’ve heard from a human voice. And the things she can do with her voice! Moreover, she’s a musician—which has always been our contention. I love Ella, but you’ll notice I said the sound of the voice. Nobody has a sound like Sarah.
Definitely, being a musician has always been a big asset. See, I went to music school to get my degree, and now have a programme—I’m going to get my master’s degree and my doctorate from the University of Southern California. Not to use it for anything—for my own self. The thing about music is that you can never learn enough of it. I play trumpet and guitar in the act, but I‘ve really been getting into composition and orchestration. That’s always my biggest advice to a youngster: study, get that knowledge of what it’s about. and it fortifies you.
For any of the guys that know what they’re doing, like Mel Torme, there’s so much more satisfaction—and you get more respect from musicians. I used to laugh, with my band, when you’d get certain acts, that naturally didn’t know music, and they’d say: “When we get to the part that says . . .” and they’d sing something. What musician is listening to all the words? You have to show it to ‘em on the sheet, if you want ‘em to understand.
Oh, you liked that album I made with just the Bobby Tucker Trio accompanying me? No, we’ve never done any trio things since then. The business has gotten so competitive now, you know, that companies don’t take chances—with everything now, they look at the red and the blue pencil. Thank God, I’ve signed with A&M, and I’m with Quincy, which is strictly musical. But Mercury, I didn’t have that much chance there; Motown, of course, none; Victor, none.
When we did that with Bobby —who is still with me, incidentally, on MGM, they would take a chance, because at that time it wasn’t as competitive as it is now. Since then, we’ve tried to progress along with music. I’m not going to say that I’m trying to be Marvin Gaye, of course—but there’s good things written.
There’s still some very great young musicians—but the style is different now. I’m not one who says that it all ended with the guys that were in my band; I think they started a lot of this. If you notice, a lot of the young, contemporary bands now have moved vast all that noise of rock’n’roll & Chicago, like Earth, Wind And Fire, like the way Quincy uses today’s feeling. They’re using instruments, they’re using good, exciting chord sequences that are right back in modern jazz. Of course, you’ve still got a lot of garbage there. But what I’m happy about is : for a while there was nothing but that. You know, you never heard a trumpet, a flute; all you heard was guitars and a tenor saxophone. Now, they’re playing all kinds of things.
I’m very glad to see the youngsters accepting good things now. Like George Benson, who is a brilliant musician. Sure, his most successful album is one on which he also sings,and he sounds good singing it, too. All right, so they’ll buy it to hear him singing on that, but they can also hear him play guitar. If you can indoctrinate them like that, it’s a good sign.
See, I have a large family myself, and a lot of this I have learned from just having to learn it, listening to my kids play ‘em. But I’ve also seen ‘em go through a transition, from things that were completely elementary and distasteful—cycles of fourths and dumb stuff; then all of a sudden one day they start discovering Erroll Garner. It happens all the way along with ‘em. And now I see the music itself changing.
I have one son who plays guitar and bass, but he’s in Public Relations with Quincy; one of my sons is a manager. They’re all in the business, but not into the performing end, except my youngest son, who plays drums. And I have my two girls, who are seventeen and eighteen; one of ‘em has been studying voice for about two years now. She may go into the profession—if she wants to. I’m not a show–business father; I don’t believe you have to follow in your father’s footsteps. I like to see them pick what they want to do.
My oldest son is a writer; he writes correctional scripts and things like that on television. Then one of my other sons is a fireman. All of them have had music—so they have music appreciation. Like, Ed., the one that’s with Quincy: when he was in school, he was in a little rock band, things like that, and he just knew he was going to be a performing musician; but now he’s moved right on out of that through college and everything; he went into journalism, writing for different magazines and things, and that’s what he loves. But he still loves music. As long as they’re happy—that’s it.
I once had a buddy, that I went to college with in Washington; his father, a brilliant doctor, had a private sanatorium, his uncle was a doctor, and his grandfather had been a doctor. His name was Clark Carson, and he was a fine pianist; he played with us when we were in a band in school. But he had to carry the medical thing on. Today he’s a great surgeon—but he’s an alcoholic. He’s never done what he really wanted to do—he wanted to play piano.
I’ve been very fortunate, in having been associated with some absolute musical greats—most of whom are no longer with us. It’s the end of that particular era, but it’s not going to be the end of creativity. Because I think right now that little Stevie Wonder is as creative as anybody I’ve ever seen. And just remember—he’s only twenty–six or twenty–seven years old, something like that; he hasn’t even found himself musically yet. He’s done his homework, as far as knowing what he’s doing—and his creativity is unreal. He has the one thing that I have never seen in a composer, other than Ellington. That is: he can write a rhythmic thing, and he can write a very beautiful ballad. Then he cam write a novelty, you know, and so on.
Duke’s mind was that way; he wrote all kinds of things. Sometimes you’ll find a person who can write the ballads, but his rhythm pieces don’t feel quite right. But Stevie—I think he’ll be here a long, long time.
I thought that Jimmy Webb was going to be a great composer, but I don’t know what happened to him. He came out with several monsters, right after each other: “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Didn’t We”, “Up, Up And Away”, “MacArthur Park”. Lately, he hasn’t done anything. But creative people can have their low periods, where they run into a mental block.
Yes, the young talent is there. And I’ve been doing a lot of seminars at colleges, where you sit and talk with some of these kids. It really gives you faith, because you look at your television and all you’re seeing is somebody throwing bricks, and things like that. But having a big family, I know that they don’t show the kids that are in there taking care of business. I must say, from having these meetings, it’s brilliant to talk with ‘em.
What do they ask? Well, a lot of nostalgic things about the musicians. And they ask about the value of certain things—the same as you or I would ask, as a kid in school. You often wonder what good something like algebra is going to do you in life, but later on you find out that it does do you some good—though not in that particular sense.
Then, naturally, going round the colleges in America, with the blacks having been segregated for so long—not only in America, throughout the world—a lot of the students now ask you how you could survive, why you didn’t throw up your hands, or something like that. You have to get them to finally understand that you never had that in your mind. Quitting? You never thought of that.
It might have seemed that segregation didn’t exist in the music business. It did, but it was subtle. This is a money—making business, on a personality basis; so, therefore, if this person happens to be black, but he’s got something different to sell, and there’s money to be made there, walls are automatically broken down, openly.
But the way we could always tell: you could have all that open thing like that, but then you had certain things that always gave you that little feeling. You were accepted for your talent. But, thank God, a lot of it is changing, in leaps and bounds. People are becoming more human, on both sides—on my side, as a black man, and on the white side. Because both of us have to do it.
It’s true that black musicians have tended to band together We did it because we had to. If you’re not going to be able to acquire for your talent the rightful money, whereas somebody can imitate you and, if he’s white, he gets ten times as much, he can work the better places, he can do the better things that you can’t do it means that the white side is banding together. So when we band together, it is for a unity of ourselves.
Through Martin Luther King, in the early periods of things, there was a banding together of ideals, concerning your heritage and so forth. Racial segregation is such a thing, that people automatically link up; any deprived person is going to find somebody else who will accept him on a mono–mono basis.
I’ve enjoyed my career. As I say, I’ve been one of the luckiest guys in the world in that, through no planning of mine, I happened eventually to be around with the people who are legends. Duke Ellington was my biggest inspiration, as a kid going to school—his demeanour, everything about him gave me a wonderful feeling. Because the situation then was: people being caustic, or blacks being stereotyped—some of ‘em on their own doing it. But Duke—his speech was eloquent, his bearing that of an aristocrat; so he gave that incentive to the young, aspiring blacks, who wanted to unshackle this Uncle Tom attitude, not to play parts in pictures as a stable–boy, or come out in tatters to sing a song, all of the gimmickry that was done.
After him inspiring me so much, then to one day be able to be with him in so many ways, and be a friend of his—that was wonderful. Of course, I’ve always sung his songs. And I have a thing at home . . . he was making an interview in New York with Earl Wilson, and Earl asked him: “Your songs have been played and sung throughout the world. Is there any favourite performance that you have?”—he just said that one line, and I have it permoplaqued in my den; he said: “Nobody’s singing my songs like B.” I told my wife: “Put that on my epitaph, on my gravestone, when I go.” Oh, man—that’s the biggest compliment you could ever get.
In the act now, we do some of the older things, and some of the newer things also. I don’t believe in constantly doing the same old nostalgic things, because I’d get so tired of doing that.
But I still would not get away from doing a segment of those in my performance—because it’s a great honour for people to remember you for certain things. So you never turn your back on that.
My main working area now is the Nevada scene; over the course of the year, I do about eight weeks there. Then we have these theatres–in–the round, as we call them; it’s a big thing at home now—a family type of thing. They seat about three thousand people. You do a week in each place; there’s a circuit of them. Then I’ll occasionally work a couple of the good little jazz clubs—which I like to do, for kicks. And I stay in the studios a lot now, and write and do things with Quincy, now that I’m over there with him; we’ll be doing a lot of that work.
The situation with Quincy Jones is that he is my producer at A&M Records—his production company. But, more importantly, Quincy’s one of the dearest friends I have. I’ve known him since he was about twelve years old, when I had my band, and I’ve watched his career all along—he’s a brilliant, brilliant musician. Our families are very, very close. It just makes it very happy to have somebody you can believe in who is writing and producing for you, who knows you, who knows what to write for you—who knows your limitations. So I’m looking forward to the association.
I just signed with him; in fact, my first release on A&M that Quincy did just came out in Britain—it’s called “The Best Thing”. After I get back home, I have to do two clubs; then I’m going to take about six weeks off, to stay home, and we’re going to finish the album that we’re working on.
I’m not carrying my own group of musicians on this tour. But Bobby Tucker, of course, my conductor and pianist, is right here—he’s been with me for twenty–seven years. Bobby’s been in show business for thirty–four years and only had two jobs—with Billie Holiday for seven years and me for twenty–seven. Fantastic, isn’t it? Well, he’s a master musician—a great arranger, one of the greatest accompanists ever. I think he is the greatest, but I’d be prejudiced because he’s been with me so long. He’s had a good schooling—a Juilliard graduate. A great conductor. He’s just something else.
With him there always, I never even think. I mean, I wouldn’t know how to work without Bobby. I never had a brother, but no brother could be as close to me as Bobby is. He’s a gentleman, all the way.
Sure, I take periods off. This is pretty rough now, because we’ve been on the road for four weeks. We close Saturday, travel Sunday, and I have to open up Monday in Detroit. I work ten days there; then I do a concert in Cleveland, and then I go into Baltimore, to one of those theatres–in–the–round that I was speaking about, for a week. Those were all booked, and I couldn’t get out of it, but then—the six–week break, right on up through Christmas.
For relaxation, I play golf, swim, mainly sit around and write. My home is in Woodland Hills, California, which is out in the San Fernando Valley. I listen to music all the time—music is on in my house from morning till night, always. All kinds. I like, all kinds of music; I like symphony music, some of the young contemporary music, and I love jazz, of course.
Yes, many more people are listening to the best of all musical fields. And that’s very healthy—I don’t think a person should put blinders on, and think of one way only, because that’s just not the way to do it. Music is too diversified. You can like one way better, but you should still listen to the other also, and learn to appreciate that. Not to compare it, but to appreciate it.
I listen to electronic music quite a bit—because music is moving that way. Some of it I don’t like; it can be a little bit too excitable, too full of gimmicks. But some of it’s very good. Because Quincy’s using a lot of the electronic things now—but he’s using ‘em musically.
Music is in a very healthy state now. Also, I think that right now the good part of music is in its embryonic stage—it’s going to really blossom. I would say that within the next fifteen years the new usages of things the new feelings, rhythmically, electronically and otherwise, are really going to take us into some uncharted areas, that are waiting out there.
Oh, it’s going to be musical. That’s what I mean—I think now it’s really going to be musical. The gimmickry, the amplifiers exploding, and all of this loud noise——that part of it is going to gradually subside. That was the starting point, but the people are now finding things about it. How much can you explode? You’re going to have to come back to the roots.
To any youngster wanting to make a career as a solo singer. I would say they should be prepared to constantly prove to themselves that they really want to. A lot of ‘em just see the tinsel on the Christmas tree, the people applauding for you and everything—but you have to be ready, as you go through the years, to have the little pitfalls that happen all the time to you. And this serves to make you realise whether or not this is what you want.
And the other, most important, technical part of it is to get as much musical knowledge as you can; you can’t get enough, because that fortifies you. Years ago, one of my teachers told me: “You learn music not to know what to do, but to know what not to do.” If you know that this chord is a major chord, we’ll say, and you hear somebody singing a minor note against it, you’re aware that you can’t do that. But if you don’t know what it is, you’ll just say: “Oh, man, there’s something there that I don’t like.” So that’s the main thing—to study it, get all you can, and be dedicated to it. But it’s a tedious study: it’s very boring sometimes, and it’s easier to throw up your hands and quit. The thing is, though—it later pays off.
Through my career, a lot of things have happened to me that I never expected. Things springboard from something else that you’d never have visualised; then, sometimes, you can plan things, carry the plan out, and you find that it was a disastrous move. What you just knew would be a good thing, isn’t. It’s a case of trial and error.
There are many, many things I’d like to do yet. That’s why I’m in school studying now—for my personal satisfaction. Indirectly, it does apply to my professional work. Now the fact that I’m studying composition, orchestration, arranging and things like that, it has no direct application—a singer doesn’t necessarily have to write his own music. But it gives me self–satisfaction, because it’s something I want to do.
It’s like playing the instruments. They used to tell me : “You’re a singer—what do you want to play trumpet for?” I said: “Because it’s something else I want to do.” You see—I never had any voice lessons: I just had it on the instruments, and music, but through the trumpet and the trombone, that I used to play, it showed me how to breathe vocally. Which I would never have known; before that, I used to sing from my throat. So that there’s nothing tiring about it now. If I hadn’t taken up the trumpet, I wouldn’t have learned the right way of singing.
One thing I’m very lucky about is that I’ve never had any problem with my voice. Unlike singers, I don’t take care of my voice. Really, I don’t; it’s something I always could do. When I was a little kid, I used to sing in the choir with my mother; I can’t remember when I didn’t sing—not professionally, I mean, not knowing I was going to. I never did that, until later, when I started in it. It’s a funny thing —if this doesn’t sound silly, I don’t see why I can and somebody else can’t. It’s just that I’ve done it all my life, see.
Now, to show you what I mean—I can see why I don’t play trumpet as well as Dizzy or Miles or any of the great trumpet players. That’s something you have to study in order to do. And there are gifted trumpet players, too. Like Louis was—he didn’t have any technical knowledge of the instrument, but it was there; it was just God—given. I don’t understand it, but I guess it can be the same way In singing.
It’s been fun, overall; I really enjoy it. If it gets to the point where I don’t enjoy it, then I imagine I’d just stay home and write, or get in a recording studio, produce other people, write for people, or something like that. But it’s very enjoyable to come to places you’ve been before, where you’ve made old friends, or go new places.
I have a lot of friends over here. The last time I played the Palladium, I think, would be around 1953. We used to come over and do all of the Moss Empire theatres—all through the provinces, everywhere. So I know England very well: I’ve been to all those little towns, like Hanley, Stoke–on–Trent. We worked places like the Finsbury Park Empire, the Davis, Croydon—they’ve torn ‘em all down now. Year after year, we would come and do twelve or fourteen weeks of theatres, for Val Parnell. I love to play golf, and they have some of the best golf courses up in those areas; we’d go up there, and play every day.
We certainly have fun on the show with Sammy Davis. What are you going to say about this guy? He really does everything—he’s unbelievable, a fantastic performer. I think he is the greatest that I’ve ever seen—I’ve never seen anybody as versatile as he is.
They say Al Jolson was a great entertainer. but I never saw him, and, frankly, I never liked the way he sang. But I know Sam is great. And, as we all try to do, he has a ball.
A word from SAMMY DAVIS JNR.
On working with Billy Eckstine: We’ve been working together for the last two years and we’ve been friends for thirty years or so. He was a very big guiding light to me, when I was trying to get my foot in the door; we became friends then, and we’ve remained friends. And a couple of years ago, I said: “Hey, we gotta do some dates together.” He said: “Okay, you pick out a couple—we’ll do ‘em.” Then after we had done ‘Vegas, Miami and a few other places, the tour was being formulated; so I asked him to tome to Europe with me.
But it’s a marvellous relationship, you know—it really is. And he’s singing better than ever. Do I leave out my impersonation of him? No way! Because he leaves right after the show!
On playing instruments: Other than on rare occasions, I don’t play anything in my act now. As for playing them for my own pleasure—I haven’t got the time any more, my friend, I wish I did, but I just don’t have the time to do it. And I think that that whole ‘total versatility’ thing . . . it works on occasions, but in the general, overall run, it does not. Because a lot of people resented it; they said: “Jeez, why doesn’t he do one thing, and be satisfied with that?”
I remember a couple of reviews, when I first came to London, said that. But I was sixteen years younger—and now, with what I .have, I think I’ve trimmed the fat. The waste has gone. Oh, it’s fun occasionally to sit down and do a little Basie type of piano or play some drums, but it’s something that you’ve got to keep up with. You must practise every day, and I don’t—because I have no time.
On his stage musicals: When I was well enough to do it, I enjoyed doing Golden Boy at the Palladium. But I was just so sick during the season here that I missed about eight or nine shows. Which upset me, because I’d wanted to come to London with the show. It was a good show; it had something to say—in that period. In 1968, it had a lot to say. Now, doing Golden Boy today, I don’t know if it would be as relevant. Certainly, being in a stage musical appeals to me. I did two on Broadway very successfully, thank God. People came. We stayed in Mister Wonderful almost two years, and did Golden Boy two–and–a–half years. That’s a pretty good record.
Billy Eckstine's band 1944 - 1945
Personnel included: Billy Eckstine (vocals, valve trombone); Sarah Vaughan (vocals); Budd Johnson (alto & tenor saxophones); Sonny Stitt (alto saxophone); Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon (tenor saxophone); Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro (trumpet); Trummy Young, Howard Scott (trombone); John Malachi (piano); Connie Wainwright (guitar); Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter (bass); Art Blakey (drums).
Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved