Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Conversation With the Tonight Show's Steve Allen

It was sometime during 1993 and I had just hung up after a riveting conversation with the extraordinary Tony Bennett and I thought to myself, ‘why not go after another long time hero – comic, Steve Allen.’ People do talk – especially entertainers. I wouldn’t try this today with so many handlers advising sub-stars stay mute unless it’s a promo junket, but then it was still the tail end of the golden years – a good many of the pioneers were still in play.

I hook up with Allen through his record label – Concord/A&M. I truly didn’t expect much of an effort on his part – Christ sakes, he created late night television and married dream girl Audrey Meadows – sister of Honeymooners’ Audrey Meadows. 

After contacting his agent I get a message from Allen – “Bill, I’m mailing you several binders which will help you prep for the interview.” A week passes and seven organized and detailed binders arrive all carefully packaged. Wow! I still don’t know anyone this meticulous about documenting their career other than jazz icon Billy Taylor.

I read through the hundreds of pages and then it dawned on me – I’d been life-surfing – this guy was driving full speed through heavy traffic – pedal to the metal!

As a musician, Allen had one Grammy under his belt - co-composer of the jazz standard “Gravy Waltz” with bassist Ray Brown. He’d written 14,000 songs of which I recall The Tonight Show  theme – “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.”

I also religiously watched The Tonight Show when it went network in 1954 – it was designated family viewing. The show roared for nearly four years until a dispiriting Jack Parr arrives. Parr was much more political and an avowed enemy of the coming counter-culture.

Johnny Carson arrived in 1962 and departed in 1992. The show thrived, making Carson the all time king of late night television. Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon followed.

The landscape today is much more fractured. Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel, goodbye to Jon Stewart – hello… Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher – a barely visible Seth Meyers. There are some great laughs there, brilliant writers and plenty skits that flat-line.

I came across our conversation a few days ago and here’s an excerpt from the hour long chat:

Bill King: What was it that made The Tonight Show unique and what was your call on storylines and guests?

Steve Allen: One of the great things when I was hosting The Tonight Show was the ability to have a kind of power to think of somebody whose work I’d admired and turn to someone in my office and say, “Get me Lester Young.” That’s like a fantasy.

During the four years I did the show, that’s how it worked. At the time, I never thought of it as unusual, but fully appreciated it because I idolized all those great players. The ability to tell someone on my staff to see if Roy Eldridge was in town and have him show up was sheer beauty to me.

We used to do more than book the great jazz players on the show. We used to honor them. I used to intro them. I didn’t need a cue card or a teleprompter to talk about these men because I had worshipped them since I was 16 years old.

Lester, since I mentioned his name, knocked me out. I remember the first time I met him. I’d seen him playing, but had never met him before. This particular night on The Tonight Show  he came through the back, they call it a scene-dock door. It’s an enormous door they have in theatres where you can move in an elephant or big scenery. He just walked in off 45th Street and suddenly appeared. I looked up and saw this guy with a pork pie hat and tenor case standing there with no one speaking to him, so I hurried right over. I said, “Lester,” and he said, “Yes.” He seemed to have a couple drinks and was a little sideways. I said, “I’m Steve Allen.” Until that moment he wasn’t sure who he was talking to. He got me in focus, leaned close and said, “many eyes.’ It was typically him and really knocked me out. We got along great.

When we would book the giants, they wouldn’t just do one tune the way they do today. We’d let them do two, three or four tunes sometimes. When it was somebody like an Erroll Garner or Art Tatum, they could stay on theoretically as long as they wanted. It was usually for at least three or four numbers.

Sometimes I would take the occasion to do a little ad lib editorializing both about them and about jazz. The most noteworthy example of that came the night Monk was on. It was kind of an odd booking because he’s better understood today. At the time, when he showed up, other players would say, “Don’t quote me man, but I don’t understand what he’s doing.” It was a little strange harmonically.

The night he appeared on The Tonight Show, I was right out of my mind with nothing prepared. I did a five-minute introduction sitting at the piano and sort of took the audience through a brief history of jazz piano. I’d mention the names, do a little Fats Waller lick, Count Basie lick, a little Earl Hines, some boogie-woogie. It was all very quick sketchy strokes. Then I said, ‘Now, we jump into the future. This man is waiting for the rest of us to catch up to him and here is, Thelonious Monk. After my five-minute introduction, he played a two-minute number, got up and walked off.

B.K: On The Tonight Show you presented animated shorts which pertained to musicians in both classical and jazz music. That was hilarious. Where did the shorts originate?

S.A: We didn’t create those; somebody just brought them to us. Why do I think of Lenny Bruce?

B.K: It might have been the Shelly Pederson monologue which was animated from Bruce’s interview album.

S.A: That’s it, and somebody drew. I’m trying to think of the artist that may have done it. It might have been Ernie Pintoff. The original audio track was so hip and the artwork fit perfectly.

B.K: You’ve always had a tremendous sense of comedy. On The Tonight Show you did things like roll out a bathtub and take an oatmeal bath live on-stage and introduce items like attachable chest-hair for men. Do you think a lot of what you originated is still alive on late night TV?

S.A: We did that to a considerable extent on the original show and then did it even more on the second talk show which ran from 1962-1964 in syndication. That was the one David Letterman reportedly used to watch every night.

B.K: His show is similar in many ways.

S.A: His personal style and mine are different, but the gimmicks on the show, as he has said many times, are borrowed from our experiences.

B.K: You recommended either Jack Parr or Ernie Kovacs as your replacement. How do you think Ernie Kovacs would have fared as host?

S.A: Actually, NBC probably made the right decision between those two because I think Ernie would have felt constrained by a talk show. What he really wanted to do is what he eventually did: camera tricks, unusual uses of cameras and visual gimmicks.

B.K: He was certainly innovative.

S.A: That he was. He did not do wit, which Jack Parr did. The few times I met him, he rarely said funny things. But that isn’t rare even among professional comedians, and that is not a put-down of him, he had his own scene going and in that regard he was very original.

B.K: This Could be The Start of Something Big?

S.A: The classic example is the tune was dreamed. Since we don’t deserve either the blame or praise for what we dream, the question is whether I deserve all that money.

One morning I woke up, I dreamed the first several lines of the melody with lyric. As I awaken I reached over and scribbled a few lines of the lyric. I couldn’t write it out because I can’t read music. It’s a weird part of my brain. Maybe the same sort of mystery as idiot savants.

B.K: You starred in The Benny Goodman Story. Any thoughts on that experience?

S.A: The real kick, and like the point I made about the original Tonight Show, was hanging around with Gene Krupa. Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, and Harry James. Those guys, except for Stan who was in my age bracket, were my idols since I was a kid. It was nice acting with Donna Reed and being a movie star, but I regret to report my relations with Benny left something to be desired.

B.K: How did he react to all of this?

S.A: It was kind of a disappointment. A little bit like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. I still think he was a great clarinet player. Maybe everybody else’s best record is as good as his best, but he did like 800 and they did 20. On that basis, you’d have to give him the crown, I guess. As everybody who worked for him reported, he was not in the running for Mr. Nice Guy.

His real problem was he was in a fog and didn’t seem to get other people in focus. This has led to a lot of funny stories from guys who have worked in his band.

The classic, I guess you’ve probably heard, is when he stopped by a New York club and saw Frank Capp and Mel Powell. He said to them, “hey, if you guys have nothing to do over the weekend, you want to come up to my house in the country and relax and play a little.” Of course, being invited by the “King of Swing” was something. So they said yes. After they finished their gig, they took this long drive out to Goodman’s house. It was in the middle of winter and as cold as could be. He met them there and took them up the driveway. But they never got in his house. Instead, he took them around the back by the pool to this little house that you’d use to change into your swim trunks. He had a studio set up there. There was a piano and I think maybe a drum set. He welcomed them and was making small talk while they’re blowing on their hands, shivering and shuddering from the terrible cold. There was no heat on. As guest, they didn’t want to complain, but finally they couldn’t take it anymore. One of them said, “Benny, we don’t like to complain, but don’t you think its awful cold in here?” He disappeared and came back in about five minutes with a big thick wool sweater on and says, “OK, let’s go.” He related to himself and forgot about others. That’s how he was.

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