Saturday, February 5, 2011
When you piece together the history of contemporary North American music, you discover composer/pianist Otis Blackwell is the rightful owner of the title, King of Rock 'n 'Roll. Throughout the past 30 years, Blackwell's hit songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley - 'All Shook Up, Don't Be Cruel, Paralyzed, Return To Sender, Please Don't Drag That String (Around), One Broken Heart For Sale', Jerry Lee Lewis 'Great Balls Of Fire, Breathless, Let's Talk About Us', Little Willie John and Peggy Lee 'Fever', Dee Clark 'Just Keep It Up' and Jimmy Jones, Del Shannon and James Taylor 'Handyman'.
Bill King: You've been in the studio working on some new projects. What type of sounds are you recording?
Otis Blackwell: Actually, I've been finishing up three albums. I'd been in Nashville recording and a fellow in Baltimore is helping me start a little record label. How is it up there?
B.K: Warm and rainy.
O.B: It's been raining like crazy here.
B.K: It can be a problem year after year in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee. After the drought of '88, this must come as a surprise.
O.B: It's definitely a wet one.
B.K: I first met you at a club in the early '80s, when I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. I managed to get one of your promotion leaflets and was astonished at the number of hit rock 'n' roll songs you have written. Where did all this music come from?
O.B: I really don't know. When I was young, I just sat down and started playing Chopsticks at the piano. I got so far and then lost interest. Eventually, I regained it and started writing songs.
B.K: Was there music you heard when you were young that helped you develop a style of writing?
O.B: I didn't play much early on. What I really liked was cowboy movies. I was a big cowboy fan and liked western music. You couldn't get that stuff where I lived, so I hung out at a little theater that played Gene Autrey and Tex Ritter movies. Tex Ritter is still my favourite singer.
B.K: Did you listen to a lot of radio?
O.B: Yeah, but I didn't get to listen to country music. When the radio was turned on in my house, you had either spirituals, the news or Chuck Willis and Larry Darnell.
B.K: Was it difficult to get people interested in your songs?
O.B: When I started writing it was kind of hard getting people to do my stuff. They say they couldn't do my style. At one point I decided to open an office at 1650 The Brill Building, which is supposedly where all the great music writers have theirs. I opened it and down the hall was a business school. Students would pass by my door, and, eventually, some came in. They looked around and asked, " Are you a songwriter?" I said, "Yeah." " You wrote such and such.Yeah, I did." On my wall I had people like Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, James Taylor and six or seven other white artists and the kids said, " How come you don't have any black artists on your all?' I told them. "That's my gold wall, and they're the ones who sold millions. I've never had a black artist do that with my songs.
B.K: Were black artists recording your songs?
O.B: No, I was getting a lot of covers, but either they weren't getting out or just weren't clicking. I think the one that really happened was Fever with Little Willie John. But, it only went so far because Peggy Lee jumped on it.
B.K: Was there more interest from black producers and artists after your first successes?
O.B: There were two gentlemen. One was Henry Glover, he dug what I did. I got a bunch of records through him. The other fellow, Calvin Carter, was from Vee Jay Records and he recorded a lot of my material. Other than those two, I didn't get much interest.
B.K: How were you able to get you songs to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and Peggy?
O.B: A writer by the name of Leroy Kirkland took me to a publishing house called Shalamar Music. A fellow there by the name of Al Stanton was a friend of another fellow named Paul Cates, who was with the Elvis Presley people. He got my songs through. When Moe Gail, who owned Shalamar Music, passed away, I moved over to another publishing company.
B.K: Did they treat you right?
O.B: Oh, you better believe it. It was slow at first. You had a lot of late hours, but that's all part of it. Now, you don't have to wait to record. You can spend five to eight dollars on a cassette and they don't even listen to it. I'd hate to be a songwriter starting a career today. So many independent publishers and they're all important. They've done a lot of wrong things, but some good as well.
B.K: When the movie 'Breathless' came out, did things begin to turn around again?
O.B: Oh yeah, I've noticed it usually turns around every nine or ten years.
B.K: Years ago, I met Don Covey, Tommy Tucker and Johnny Nash in a New York studio called A-1 Sounds. They were all selling songs to the owner, Herb Abramson, who held the publishing on 'High Heel Sneakers'. It seemed every few years his fortune would increase when Elvis or Jose Feliciano would record the tune.
O.B: I talk to Herb every time I go to California. We hung out a lot and had many a good time. He's still driving, but he can't see right; he drives that car like he's crazy.
B.K: He's the first producer I met in new York when I was there in 1967. I was down and out, had a couple of songs and he bought them.
O.B: He was the original partner and founder of Atlantic along with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. They all started it together.
B.K: I always wondered why Herb and the others parted ways.
O.B: I think he went into the service and, by the time he got out, things had changed. I really like doing that old stuff and he's got a good ear for that. That's the way he wants to record. His thing is rhythm 'n' blues.
B.K: His door was always open to black artists.
O.B: He understood the music. We're all in it to make money, but hew really loved it. He talks it all the time.
B.K: How did Peggy Lee get hold of 'Fever'?
O.B: I used to be with a publishing house called Roosevelt Music. A gentleman there told me he had seen Peggy Lee perform Fever in Las Vegas and I found out later she wanted to record it.
B.K: Did you ever meet her?
O.B: No, I didn't meet her, but came close about three years ago - it was too crowded. I was to meet her after the show, bit I didn't want to hang around and deal with the crowd.
B.K: Did you ever attempt to talk to any of the artists that had considerable success with your songs?
O.B: I never really wanted to meet them because there's the problem of getting between the artist and the manager. It can get kind of funny at times. I always figured it was best if I write my songs, take them to my publisher and just lay back. There used to be so many things going on - getting to the artist, getting to the publishers - you know, politics. I just didn't want to get mixed up in all of that.
B.K: Did you ever do anything with Sun Records?
O.B: I met what's his name.
B.K: Sam Phillips?
O.B: Yeah, I met him a couple of times when I went down to Memphis. That's as far as it goes. I used to go down every year for the remembrance of Elvis' birthday. Memphis State College invited me to sit in the auditorium and speak to the people for one of those Elvis days.
B.K: When are they going to have an Otis Blackwell Day?
O.B: I don't know - it might be nice. I'm very low-keyed. There have been many times when I've been asked to appear and I'd say to myself, "What am I going to talk about?' Early on, when I did interviews, I'd tell everyone, "Don't ask me about dates. I don't even remember what I did yesterday."
B.K: How did you come up with those wonderful bass lines that were at the core of the music?
O.B: I started as one of those two-fingered players, then graduated to three and four fingers and, eventually five. I played a little boogie-woogie and the shuffle, so I wrote over that. Then the Beatles came over and knocked that out.
B.K: Where did you grow up?
O.B: I was born in Brooklyn and still live right around the corner from where I was born. Everybody used to tell me to go to Nashville, and I'd say, "OK, where is it?" I started coming here years ago to hang out, and now I love it.
B.K: Any plans for the future?
O.B: I've decided to run back in forth between Brooklyn and Nashville. I like this town, it's really great. They've put me in The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. This town is about music. It's about the kind of music I like. I've also started a small record label, so I've done an album. People always talk about what I've done, but this is what I'm doing now. I got behind that pencil and nothing happened for many years, but since they put me in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I've turned around. I took a good look at myself and said, " I think it's time to get back at work."
B.K: How has your writing changed?
O.B: You know my thing was always about I Love You. Your Feets Too Big and that kind of stuff, so I figured I'd sit down and write something different. One of the new songs deals with the situation with guns, and another one deals with the homeless. I've got two or three rock 'n' roll tunes. It's the best stuff I've done in a long time. I've taken my time and worked on them for a couple of years.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
I met Devon Haines on the basketball court in Poinsettia Park one warm sun-drenched California afternoon in 1976 . He’d been waiting patiently to enter the next game and needed one more player to complete his team. I was new to the court and a bit leery of invading the fracas without a semi-formal introduction. Rather than eagerly volunteer I decided to watch before joining the battle.
My mate and I, drove from Toronto to L.A. stopping briefly in Arizona for a round of clay court basketball at the home of the Arizona Wildcats. After a couple thousand miles of sleet and frigid temperatures the dense blue sky and soothing heat proved most inviting. A few games of two on two were a blissful prelude to the months ahead.
As beautiful as it was in Arizona, L.A. was where the real basketball action was. There was an air of coolness on and off the court that made hands sweat and mind sharp. The brothers in the park regarded Devon “The little man from Detroit”. Somebody always knew someone who had a cousin related to a neighbor living near a basketball court.
The brothers in L.A. came from every playground in America, and were somehow interconnected. The object to this scene was to maintain cool and float in and out like a near visible slab of Greenlandic ice. Only then would one be invited to join in conversation. The best introduction was made by making a modest showing on the court. This meant don’t throw the ball away. Don’t pass to the other team; which I must admit was my first mistake, and feed the ball to the guys who earn their reputation jamming the ball through the hole daily. If at some point you found yourself open with the ball and shot it cleanly through the cylinder you were rewarded a small amount of respect, usually in the form of a passing slap at a sweaty palm or an opportunity to touch the ball on another occasion.
As I awaited my call to glory, Devon gave me one of those black men, white man intros. Eyebrows spread, voice deepened, triceps pumped, then the words. “Where you from big man”? When I said Toronto, he thought I said Tonto. In my broken southern and partial Canadian dialect I guess it must have sounded like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick. Devon soon warmed to our regional commonality and ran off a list of homeboys he thought I may have had occasion to meet. Suddenly the game ended and it was our turn to burn the pavement.
When teams were divided and play ready to resume I made a mental note of those players assigned to my team. One white dude - nine brothers. Faces I’d never seen in my life. Fortunately, Devon was on my side so I knew one person I could pass to without throwing the ball away.
As soon as the ball was inbound I gripped it and a voice bellowed,” Over here”. That’s when I quickly reacted with a well - timed pass in the hands of the opposition. This brought a wild chorus of laughter. Devon was no help with his size and awkwardness. With Afro Devon measured a tall 5’11”. But in actual body distance he was more like 5’6”.
As he dribbled the ball his legs spread like a figure skater in a side to side glide making any forward progress implausible. The other players were well-conditioned athletes used to the fast pace and hungry for a struggle under the boards.
The game passed quickly, which didn’t disappoint me. Besides this was my first time in this climate and I knew my body would eventually thaw. I’d just made my first conversation with another ball hound and nothing could have been sweeter.
After the wipeout, Devon and I shared our first laughs. He had a broad smile, infectious laugh and desire to know more about me. During our exchange we discovered common ground, our love of music and sports. He spoke of Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, Ray Leonard, Ali, Kenny Norton, Eddy “the Animal” Lopez, Carlos Palomino. Singers and fighters! He lived to be outdoors. Detroit winters robbed him of precious moments in warm sunshine. Devon dreamed of being on stage traveling the world like his heroes.
Haines was handsome with light brown skin partially dotted with small freckles. He was momma’s boy away from home with too much pride to call and confess things weren’t progressing in Hollywood as he’d envisioned. In fact it was the environment that impeded his maturing into the entertainer he’d hope to be. He loved the taste of cheap weed. Shunned all alcohol, and loved playing family man with his adopted wife and son. This was a family at ease with the lifestyle and under a lot of pressure to stay afloat. Their apartment was always heated to the point of inducing drowsiness in all visitors. The kitchen counter was the entertainment centre stabilizing the super- super eight projector, making daily viewing of boxing’s great moments, the main event.
Devon owned an upright piano located at the apartment’s entrance. From there he gave the occasional singing lesson to aspiring young singers. The pocket change afforded him the luxury of buying a dime bag of twigs, seeds and a bit of dust for a short high.
There were about six of us from the court who would pile in the tiny living room and whoop it up. We’d be on our feet for every “Sugar Ray” blow and on the carpet for every DarrylDawkins slam. On the ceiling for every Dr. J. skydive, pumped and ready for a return confrontation in the park. We traveled as a group, Bruce, Ron, Devon, myself, and two other brothers not as tightly wound to our scene.
We hit Cahaunega Park every day at 4:00 p.m. and at least once a week the midnight game at San Vincente Park. Each playground had its own cast of superstars and hacks. The right combination of personalities took the afternoon to euphoric proportions. One bad seed brought out the pre-evolution traits all males should aspire to exorcise from the body.
I booked Devon a few cameo-singing interludes at a weekly amateur night called Skippy Lowe’s Showcase ‘76, of which I was the house replacement pianist. For awhile it offered him an opportunity to perform in front of a neutral audience. He was received enthusiastically until Lowe decided to fill the position with white boys he thought he could prey on. The brothers from the court encouraged Scott, but after awhile it alienated both of us from the pasty-faced predator. I was fired and Devon's limitations as a vocalist became more apparent. He relied too much on the gospel thumping mannerisms and vocal inflections of Little Richard. He never ventured far from the tradition. It was like his potential had been straight-jacketed.
Remember me mentioning the heat in Scott’s apartment? When we’d visit, Susan, Devon and young John, would nod-out simultaneously as if someone had asked them to participate in group hypnosis. The same would happen when they’d visit our cottage. My wife and I played a little game with Devon’s car keys. He’d usually slope unconscious upright in a wooden chair. We’d dangle the car keys around his ears inducing a smile and a few garbled sentences. Eventually the neck would weaken and the head would collapse. We’d repeat the sequence until we’d almost bruise a gut muscle. Susan and John were usually pronounced dead. No pulse, no party. After a couple hours of unconscious merriment we’d gently awaken and deliver them to the van.
The two years spent in this environment made me believe life would stretch into one endless series of jump shots and aerial moves. My work took me beyond the neighborhood for months at a time. When I returned, my friends were all there, as if time had held them in place.
Devon cruised his way around Hollywood smiling like a Cheshire cat, with Afro comb in hand and body perfectly toned from hours spent pumping iron courtesy parks department.
Towards the end of our hang we made one last drive for the elusive Colombian Ganga. SDevon had a friend who knew someone on Sunset Boulevard who possessed the real buzz -less twig and more smoke.
We drove around in Devon’s white and red pinstriped van eventually locating a number which corresponded with some homeboy’s instructions. A rap on the door brought one of the meanest looking dudes I’ve ever come face to face with. Devon used the cousin from Detroit bullshit line gaining entry to the playpen. While Scott quietly looked over the shoulder of the dealer who had a revolver placed strategically on the table, I was interrogated by a PCP addict who informed me of his desire to kill someone. Killer was recently released from an L.A. jail, barely capable of restraining an urge to extract retribution. Devon contained the room by assuring everyone I was cool. I felt like Woody Allen in one of those implausible situations only an unsuspecting idiot would invade. Fortunately, for the both of us the headman’s old lady lost her patience with the whole situation and began arguing with her lover/dealer. That allowed the both of us an escape route past PCP man, out of a potentially dangerous situation.
While the twosome fought on the street we sped off to Watts and an extended night of adventure. Devon had a friend who knew some guy who was, ‘The man’ in Watts . He liked music, in fact owned expensive high-end recording equipment. The whole proposition seemed risky to me. But off we drove intent on buying a dime of herbal bliss.
As we approached our destination, police helicopters circled above us. The moment we park a penetrating beam strikes a pedestrian shuffling along the street. From the clouds above comes a commanding voice demanding to know the name, reason, and travel details of the old gentleman. After viewing the suspect for a few moments, the copter quickly disappears on a mission more eventful than this. We froze with fear in Scott’s van, but the thought of smoking the real ganja kept us focused on our mission.
Surprisingly, the old man was heading to same address. The young man who answered the door was like one of the young black militants I had met in the Fillmore district of San Francisco a decade earlier and with hair was wound tightly in corn-rows. He was cautious, yet sharp enough to read us as no threat. Besides we had to be crazy driving down here together.
The three of us sat around the living room as he stood over a baby’s crib, reached under the mattress, and pulled out a plastic bag. He gave us a handful of joints each a different
color, labeled with some kind of inscription. He then asked how high we wanted to go - From Mexico to PCP land. We settled on Colombia. The old man wanted to fry his brain on PCP, way out of our league.
The young brother had a beautiful upright piano resting peacefully in a corner. Devon introduced me as a bad-assed blues and jazz pianist. This got me a place situated behind the keys. I played and played and played. Each piece sounded better than the previous. The room resonated with the rhythm of the vibrating strings. When I figured I’d exhausted the moment, the fellows keep encouraging me to play on. We laugh, sing, we listen. We share one of the most special moments in our lives. There was no uneasiness over color. No fear of being in the wrong neighborhood. No need to compete with each other - just magic.
When Devon and I drove away that night we sensed we’d never spend another evening together as precious as this. There was a quiet calm during the ride back to Hollywood.
Devon and I went mountain climbing, more driving and found ourselves in many hilarious situations, but time on the loose was running out. I needed to move on with my family and Scott had to come to grips with his.
Seven years later I returned to L.A. and located Devon. He had changed dramatically. The family was gone and laughter missing from his eyes. Con man had entered his soul along with addictive Asian powder. His pants were stained and pride diminished. His dreams were more a distant excuse for living a life he had never intended. I loved him as a true friend and was shattered by what I had witnessed. I was now the intruder with little time to bring him back.
I ran into Bruce near a liquor store. His life had succumbed to begging quarters for another pint. The basketball court where we earned one another’s respect was now vacant. The neighborhood was all the more dangerous. Our game had become a ghostly memory. None of us were pro material or a threat to unseat the street legends. We were guys who found a world of friendship, shared interests, and a whole lot of laughter, at a crossroads in our lives.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
New York-born Tony Bennett is one of the most respected vocalists in the world today. With a 56 year musical career that includes performing with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 50s, classic recordings with Bill Evans in the ‘60s and an incredible solo performing and recording career spanning five decades, Bennett has always been accompanied by an impeccable collection of jazz musicians. His passion for music is equaled only by his love of art. As a painter, he continues to study and show his work at galleries throughout the U.S. Bennett was open and giving during this interview. In 2009, I had the privilege of photographing him live in concert at the Festival du Jazz de Montreal. At 84, he’s still a powerhouse.
Bill King: You’ve had a remarkable year, beginning with a Grammy for your tribute to Frank Sinatra, ‘Perfectly Frank’, and now the release of ‘Steppin’ Out’, a tribute to Fred Astaire. Is this one of the most fulfilling periods of your life?
Tony Bennett: Yes, it is. Producers often try to change the creative instincts of performers instead of trusting them. They’ll want you to do a quick novelty song or something silly to sell records immediately. A good artist avoids that.
We did ‘Steppin’ Out’ and ‘Perfectly Frank’ as they say “unplugged”. Actually, I’ve been “unplugged” for years. We just did it the way we know how to do things; very naturally.
Winning the Grammy was a very gratifying experience because no producers interfered with this project. The fact that we were able to do the album in an uncompromising way win in an age of heavy metal, rap and hip-hop, is very exciting.
B.K.: How important was it for great composers like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others to have Fred Astaire introduce their songs?
T.B.: From what I understand, they wouldn’t make a move without Fred. His colleagues mention it and so do the history books. He was part of the Golden Era. They respected him so much. He would bring shows in, not just songs. This was way before he did films and was on Broadway.
It’s interesting that not one of those songs hit the charts, yet they are heard internationally and have become our ambassadors all over the world. If I sing ‘Dancing in the Dark’ in Japan or ’A Foggy Day in London Town’ in Italy, everybody knows those songs as American songs. Like jazz itself, the cream rises to the top.
B.K.: it’s been the jazz players who have kept these songs alive through all the changes that have occurred in popular music.
T.B.: Yeah. All the famous - Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins records, -Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and now Wynton Marsalis keep the music fresh. There are so many artists, I could go on. Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington. All of them interpreted those songs.
B.K.: it speaks a lot for the dynamics of an inspired composition.
T.B.: They are our tradition. We are such a young country and don’t realize it. We’re always craving for something new, something that will be bigger than the Beatles or Elvis Presley. The industry just wants the big cash. Businessmen are blinded by that, all they want is more.
Jazz deals with the truth, with honesty and sincerity. Sooner or later, when people hear it down the line, even 2000 years, we’ll be hailed for giving the world some of the most beautiful music it’s ever heard.
B.K.: Do you think any of the songs in the last 15 to 20 years will have the same kind of longevity?
T.B.: I’m positive they won’t. There are just a few by people like Stevie Wonder, Billie Joel, Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Stephen Sondheim and Burton Lane – they are all great composers of mature popular craft, but they aren’t played on radio.
Everybody’s hyped up. This is the age of obsolescence. People want something that will increase sales.
B.K.: Are you an artist who lives in the recording studio, or one who devotes the bulk of his time to pre-production?
T.B.: I spend time preparing so that when I go in, I do it fast. I spend months in preparation. I memorize everything. On the latest album, I planned the sequence of the songs instead of waiting until later. We just went in and started with the first tune should be placed and what kind of concept it should have.
B.K.: How many songs did you record to arrive at 18?
T.B.: I did 24. Fred Astaire’s advice was whenever you have an act that feels perfect, pull out 15 minutes no matter how good you feel it is. The reason is to avoid staying on stage too long. I feel a record has to be the same way. You don’t want to be predictable or monotonous.
B.K.: Do you have a philosophy for linking songs together?
T.B.: I look for songs that uplift the human experience.
B.K.: Pianist Ralph Sharon has been with you for over 30 years. What has made this a perfect match?
T.B.: He’s my favourite musician. He’s the best colleague a guy could ever have. I just love being with him. He’s very intelligent and doesn’t throw it out at everybody. He’s much understated, but very educated.
He grew up in Britain and was on the top of the jazz magazine charts there. He was number one for 12 years. He used to play piano for Ted Heath who had the most famous band in England. Ralph also did a lot of movie scores. He’s a jazz player who also loves the public and likes to entertain them.
As a result, he’s very good at selecting songs. He’s found all the songs for me the past 30 years. We consider ourselves tunesmiths and collaborate on introducing songs. We’ve introduced 135 so far, and out of that 50 of them are real blockbusters. Everybody, musicians and singers, performs them now.
B.K.; You find jewels like ‘Drifting’.
T.B.: Ella Fitzgerald suggested that song for me. She said,’ Do that song Drifting,’ and you know when Ella suggests a song you better give it a listen.
B.K.: What makes an accompanist like Ralph Sutton invaluable to a singer?
T.B.: I consider those guys high artists. When I say those guys, it’s just a few people who really know how to accompany, like Tommy Flannagan and John Bunch. There is just a handful of guys who really know how to play behind a singer. Bill Evans, of course, was just ideal.
B.K.: Do you have to be a great soloist?
T.B.: It’s someone like Count Basie, another great accompanist, who made all of his musicians sound magnificent. It’s a gift that’s in them where they want to help other cats out. There’s niceness about them. They decide to sublimate themselves to make everybody else sound good. I think that’s a wonderful quality.
I think they are high artists who aren’t respected enough because they’re in the background, but that background is what makes the whole thing happen. It’s like Jo Jones who took a newspaper, wrapped it up backstage at Newport and just hit his knee and kept time and the whole band knew it. Everyone picked up on it and it became the best Ellington live performance record ever made - just done with a newspaper.
Some guys play too much and it interrupts the singers. You’ve got to breathe with the singer. You’ve got to know every move the singer is going to make. Ralph knows me like the back of his hand. He knows what I’m thinking from phrase to phrase.
B.K.:A vocalist like Shirley Horn understands herself so well it would be impossible to find a better accompanist.
T.B.:I love the way she sings. I heard a cut she recorded recently called ‘Too Late Now’ by Burton Lane and Allan J. Leonard, it’s just perfect. She accompanies herself absolutely perfectly.
B.K.: Personnel changes in your rhythm section are a rare occurrence. What inspires you to alter the chemistry from time to time?
T.B.: I’ve always had very superior musicians like Joe LaBarbera and Paul Longosch who were with me many years. They’re perfect guys and Joe is just the sanest person I’ve ever met. He wanted to settle down. He bought a house and is working in L.A. and doing very well. He’s getting married. What happens is that after a while certain guys get tired of the road. I’ve brought in some wonderful guys like Douglas Richeson from Ohio and Clayton Cameron who played with Sammy Davis Jr. for seven years. All of the musicians say he’s the in-thing right now. He’s everybody’s favourite drummer.
B.K.: Do you find travelling a strain?
T.B.: No, I’ve been doing it 45 years and have gotten used to it. If you look around at people who live in one place, they’re strained too. I love to read. When I get on an airplane, especially on overseas trips, I can finally get into some long-term reading. There are no phones. Other people say,”Oh, God, what a long flight”. To me, it’s like a dream. I can get into a book without having to pick up a telephone.
B.K.: Have you modified your style over the years?
T.B.: I think I have. You get to learn what to leave out. I keep trying to get better. I work at it and take good care of myself. I’ve done almost everything to experience life in the past and now I feel very mellow about the fact I’m in control of myself. I’m disciplined, eating good foods, exercise properly. I’m 67 and in good spirits. I feel very good about life. I know that doesn’t make news, but I’ve never felt better.
B.K.: With all of the radical changes in popular music, you’ve managed to withstand the excesses, wore a smile and attracted new fans. Were there periods which tested your confidence?
T.B.: Yes, Abbey Mann, a good friend I grew up with and the author of ‘Judgment at Nuremburg’, said, “Do you realize how many produces we’ve been through and we’re still here.” That was very astute.
Executives of the record companies and other media like television and film feel very superior in their positions, but when they’re out of it, they have no power. Each new guy decides to change everything.
Once the companies have enough of your catalogue, they get somebody else. If they sense you’re predictable, you’re out. To get into the game of longevity, you have to bob and weave.
B.K.: When performing, where do you direct you art - to yourself, the audience or the musicians?
T.B.: First to myself. The whole idea is to communicate with the audience. I can’t wait to hit the stage. I’m that kind of performer. Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, we all went for the audience. We want to entertain.
B.K.: Are you more at ease in concert or in the studio?
T.B.: I like all of it. You have to prepare for it. If you’re going to get nervous, it should be with live performance because there are no retakes. With recording, you have at least four takes for every tune. You don’t have to release anything you don’t want to. With that many takes, you can usually find one that is near perfect.
With live performance, you’re going out there and if that one shot isn’t right, it’s gone with the wind. If you’re going to get shook up, it better be on stage, not in the recording studio. The studio feels really comfortable with me.
B.K.: Do you ever fear they’ll release the ‘out-takes’ on a compilation?
T.B.: They shouldn’t. It would be disastrous.. I also paint and one of my big jobs is to tear up the paintings that don’t work. You should never present a picture unless it’s absolutely excellent. It’s representative of you. You have to shoot for a very high level and that doesn’t happen every day. Most of the time, you’re just doing exercises in painting and once in a while you hit one and say, ‘Look at that, it’s really good’.
B.K.: Have you always painted?
T.B.: I’ve gone to art schools my whole life. I’m still studying. I study with the best painter in America, Everett Raymond Kinstler. I feel so fortunate that he’s teaching me. Painting gives you a happy life. You’re studying nature. Every day you paint, you learn. You always feel fulfilled. It’s meditative and knocks out any of your worries. When you’re painting, four hours go by like four minutes.
B.K.: Would you give some brief thoughts or impressions on some artists? Sarah Vaughan.
T.B.: Sarah Vaughan was blessed with the most wonderful voice - a four-octave range without falsetto. She was really the essence of a singer. When you say Sarah Vaughan, I say she was born to sing.
B.K.: Frank Sinatra.
T.B.: Sinatra is the king of the entertainment world. He’s conquered all the mediums. He’s the Al Jolson of today. He was also blessed with a golden voice.
B.K.: Billie Holiday.
T.B.: Every once in a while there are singers that are very rare. I can think of three. -Hank Williams down south, Edith Piaf in Paris and Billie Holiday. There is a destiny about those three singers. Their lives have become legendary.
B.K. Joe Williams.
T.B.: A magnificent singer. He was with Basie’s band. I was the first white singer to sing with the band and he was the vocalist at the time. Those were some of the greatest days, being around the Count Basie band in the ‘50s.
B.K.: Betty Carter.
T.B.: She’s a wonderful singer. You’re hitting on something that’s so interesting to me because when someone says to me what your category is, I find I dislike that word. I sing all kinds of songs, but I do lean towards pop-jazz singing. Like Ella, God goes through Betty on every note.
B.K.: Harry Connick Jr.
T.B.: I think he’s got a lot of talent. For a young guy, he’s come a long way. I had a lot to do with getting him into films. We had the same agent and I suggested it right at the beginning. He’s just a grand guy.
B.K.: What jazz artists do you listen to?
T.B.: I’m still bewildered by Duke Ellington. I just think that he’s timeless and so avant-garde. Each guy in his legendary orchestra was an artist: Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Cootie Williams. All these guys were part of an era of individualism. I love that era.
B.K.: With all the new reissues, artists like Ella Fitzgerald are topping the jazz charts with recordings that were classics in another era.
T.B.: That’s very good, you know. When there’s a change on the entire music scene, there are a lot of different reasons why it happens. The big thing has been the compact disc. All of a sudden everybody’s hearing recordings without any surface scratching. They’ll hear a production of an early Erroll Garner record and say, I never knew it sounded like that.
It’s an education for people who have never heard this on the radio. For 30 years, we’ve been rock-saturated. Young people have had to live through this obsolescent age and don’t know about great performers like Fats Waller who made some magnificent records and is really fun to listen to.
The Beatles generation now has two or three young children and all of a sudden they’re discovering their folks weren’t wrong. Young people are starting to come on- board with artists like Natalie Cole and Harry Connick Jr. In fact, I was even in in Rolling Stone this week.