Around the Horn with a Master Horn Man
Around the Horn with a Master Horn Man
A Q&A with Tom “Bones” Malone
By Geoff Gehman
Tom “Bones” Malone was a true-blue, bona-fide ringer on April 22, 1978, the night the Blues Brothers debuted on “Saturday Night Live.” The master of many horns—trombone, trumpet, sax etc. et al.–played up a storm as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd sang, strutted and shimmied to his arrangement of “Hey Bartender,” the Floyd Dixon R&B rave. An original member of and charter arranger for the “SNL” band, Malone was extra satisfied for he knew something very few knew: Aykroyd and Belushi would not have introduced Jake and Elwood to the world that evening if the show hadn’t been three minutes short.
Malone continued to back up the Blues Brothers as a skit became a hit act, tour, album and movie. Three decades later, he remains an honorary Brother of sorts as a special guest with the Blues Brotherhood, a Pennsylvania-rooted tribute group that will perform “Soul Man,” “Rubber Biscuit” and, yes, “Hey Bartender” on April 29 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Get ready for a tsunami of soul; Malone swears that Paul Miller and Aaron Hetrick play Jake and Elwood better than Belushi and Aykroyd did, heavenly praise indeed.
Malone is a horn man who has been around and around and around the horn. He was already a go-to guy before joining the “SNL” band, having accompanied the likes of Peggy Lee, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Frank Zappa. He directed the “SNL” band from 1981 to 1985 while performing in the band of Gil Evans, the legendary pianist and revolutionary arranger. His Olympian credits range from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony to the Olympics closing ceremonies, “The Last Waltz” to “Late Night with David Letterman.” He wrote over 1,600 arrangements for the Letterman show’s CBS Orchestra, which was directed by keyboardist/sidekick Paul Shaffer, Malone’s former “SNL” comrade. Today, he tours regularly with Shaffer’s group and the Lieutenant Dan Band, which is led by actor/humanitarian Gary Sinise, who played the cranky, ultimately good-hearted Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump.”
Simply put, Malone is an M-G-M musician; like the musical mecca of studios used to crow about itself, he’s his own constellation. Below, in a conversation from his home/office in Randolph, N.J., he surfs a galaxy of memories of Tchaikovsky, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Gov. Jerry Brown and his father, a Navy pilot who survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an epic event his son commemorated in a very emotional concert 75 years later.
Q: What was the first tune you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat? When you were a kid you evidently had a great time playing war with your tin soldiers to the “1812 Overture.”
A: My parents got a record player when I was 4 and they played it using the amplification of this big, jukebox-size radio; that was the style back then, around 1950. One of the first records my mother bought was Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”; she thought it would be a nice album for us kids to listen to. Of course, I found the “1812 Overture” on the other side and I played it over and over. I just loved the sound of brass and strings; I can still hear all those parts.
There was a lot of stuff that really made a big impression on me as I got older. Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced”–the first time I heard that album, it made an amazing impact on me. I will never forget the first time I heard Blood, Sweat & Tears or Chicago or the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles. I guess we’re going in the horn band direction; that kind of music just grabbed my imagination. Oh, and there was “Up on Cripple Creek” by the Band; that made a huge impression on me, not knowing that I would play with them later in life. Same thing with Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Q: Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the groups you shared with your old friend “Blue” Lou Marini, the saxophonist, composer and arranger. You two first hit it off at North Texas State University in the One O’Clock Lab Band, then you teamed up in the original “Saturday Night Live” group and the Blue Brothers’ touring ensemble. Why is it so special to gig with Lou; why is he one of your favorite cats?
A: Lou and I actually met at the Mobile [Ala.] Jazz Festival in 1967. He was playing with the North Texas State big band and I was playing with the Mississippi All-Stars Band. I had written some charts and solos for them and he liked what he heard and he said: You really should come over to North Texas State, which I did.
What makes playing with Lou special is that it’s just so effortless. We can do obscure jazz tunes just for the fun of it and it’s always magical because we have the same interpretation and so much common background. We were in Doc Severinsen’s weekend band together. We played every Saturday and Sunday somewhere in the U.S. with eight to 10 boy and girl singer/dancers and a 10-piece band. There were four horns, including [saxophonist] Lew Tabackin and [trumpeter] Snooky Young, who goes all the way back to [band leader] Fletcher Henderson. Talk about trumpets: we played with that band every weekend for a year and Snooky never missed a note. An amazing player and an amazingly nice guy, too
I went off to LA in ’72 to play for Frank Zappa, then joined Lou in Blood, Sweat & Tears. I suggested him for the “SNL” band [in 1975] when the original tenor player didn’t work out.
You know, the Blues Brothers almost didn’t get off the ground. I was called into the first meeting [in 1978], when Howard Shore was the music director [of the “SNL” band] and I was the arranger. We were asked: Can you meet with Danny [Aykroyd] and John [Belushi] in John’s office at 2 o’clock on Monday? We had been off the week before and Danny and Johnny were coming back from San Francisco, where they had stayed up all night listening to blues records with a guy named Curtis Salgado, who played [harmonica] in Robert Cray’s band [For more on Salgado’s influence on Belushi, check out his 2016 Mauch Chunk Q&A at http://mcohjt.com/2016/06/maximum-hardcore-rb-man/]. Danny knew a little bit about the blues scene; he had played harmonica in blues clubs in Toronto. John was from Chicago but he didn’t know about the Chicago blues, which I consider Mississippi blues; he was kind of a garage rock ’n’ roll drummer.
Anyway, after staying up all night listening to this music, John and Danny started coming up with these characters: one guy wears a suit that’s too big for him and the other guy wears a suit that’s too small; they never take off their sunglasses, even in the dark, and they call themselves orphans, so they don’t have too much emotion about anything. Danny said: I want an arrangement of [Ike Turner’s] “Rocket 88” [as interpreted] by [harmonica player] Jimmy Cotton [who died last month]. I found it on an old Cotton record I tracked down. John says to [original “SNL” producer] Lorne [Michaels]: “You think we can warm up the audience?” Lorne said yes, so we played this little “Rocket 88” song and the audience liked it. The next week we played my arrangement of “Hey Bartender” for Lorne and he said: “Frankly, I don’t see anything funny about the Blues Brothers.” Not to put down Lorne–he’s a visionary comedy guy and he’s always been nice to me—but the act just wasn’t his thing.
The following week Dan and Johnny thought [the Blues Brothers were] a dead issue After a read-through Lorne comes out of a meeting and says the show is three minutes short. Now he’s desperate for something to fill the gap, and Danny and John ask him: Can we do the Blues Brothers? Lorne agreed and we played “Hey Bartender” [as well as “I Don’t Know”] and it went over big. The switchboard lit up; the show got all sorts of calls and letters.
The next thing you know, the “SNL” band becomes a formal Blues Brothers band with Lou Marini and myself and [drummer] Steve Jordan. On my recommendation we got [guitarist] Steve Cropper. John’s blues guitar guy recommended Matt “Guitar” Murphy. John said “I need an extra horn player” and I recommended [trumpeter] Al “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin.
For our first gig as the Blues Brothers we opened for Steve Martin at Carnegie Hall [Martin hosted the Blues Brothers’ debut on “SNL”]. Who says nobody starts at the top? [laughs] Then there was a live album [“Briefcase of Blues,” 1978] recorded over nine nights at the Universal Amphitheater, with us once again opening for Steve Martin. That sold two million copies initially, helped along by the hit single “Soul Man.” Then, before we knew it, Danny was writing a movie script about the Blues Brothers and he interviewed us about our experiences on the road and we told him about all those sleazy bars in Mississippi with chicken wire. We ended up playing in the movie, which was a big hit. The rest is history
Q: The first “SNL” casts were legendary for letting off steam after shows. What after-show routines and rituals did you have as a charter member of the band? Did you spend a lot of time hanging out and gigging at Aykroyd’s Holland Blues Bar?
A: The bar was on Hudson and Dominick streets, literally over the Holland Tunnel. It was originally called the Sailor Bar because it was frequented by sailors. Dan and John rented it as a place to relax after a high-pressure week. They both had keys to it and they opened it up when they felt like it. Did they fix it up? No, they left it as funky as possible. Oh my god, you should have seen the trough in the bathroom; it was horrible.
One of the acts that played there occasionally was the Stink Band. It was led by [comedian/comic writer] Tom Davis from Franken & Davis and Peter Aykroyd, Dan’s brother. Both of them played funny songs with humorous lyrics. One of the background singers was Judy Belushi, John’s wife. Sometimes John would play drums, sometimes [“SNL” keyboardist/band leader Paul] Shaffer would play drums, sometimes Shaffer would play bass, sometimes I would play bass. The vibe was: Let’s get together and have a party. There was always a last-minute excuse to have fun.
When we were filming “The Blues Brothers” in Chicago we used to hang out and play in a blues bar in an alley off Wells Street, across from [the comedy club] Second City. At this point John couldn’t hang out without a hassle, so the bar became his hometown refuge, a place he could play after work without being bothered by anybody. After John passed away, our place to play was the House of Blues in LA.
Q: The “SNL” band gave you the rare chance to play with, and write charts for, a who’s who’s hall of fame of musicians. What were some of your favorite moments with your favorite performers?
A: Ray Charles comes to mind; he’s one of my heroes. At the time he had a big band album out, so I rewrote some of the charts for a combination of our horn players and horn players from Ray’s old big band. We reconstructed his old big band with [saxophonist] Fathead Newman and—wow—Marcus Belgrave and Philip Guilbeau on trumpet and Leroy Cooper on baritone sax. We played “What’d I Say” and “It Should’ve Been Me” from the old big band days, with 10 horns instead of 13, and we played “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Be My Love” off the new album,
Working with Ray really was a great experience. I remember we were rehearsing and Ray cuts off the band and says: “Tenor sax in bar 37: that should be a B flat instead of a B natural.” And I’m thinking to myself: First of all, he’s right, and second of all, how did he know that, being completely blind? That just shows you what a genius he was and why he’s one of my all-time heroes.
Another favorite musician was Stevie Wonder. I had played with him live in the late ’60s, when he was 16 years old. He was such a ball of energy and so much fun. On the show we did “Fingertips” and he wanted to sound like Little Stevie, so he sang into a vocoder; he was in a different key, a fourth or fifth higher. It was amazing that he could pull that off.
Playing with James Brown [on “SNL”] was a really wonderful experience. Sam & Dave were a lot of fun. Boz Scaggs with Jeff Porcaro on drums—that was an interesting combination of New York and Los Angeles. And I loved playing with the Band. I met those guys in the spring of ’76. I did a couple of horn charts and they loved me. They took me on tour that summer and, of course, we all did “The Last Waltz” that Thanksgiving.
Putting that concert together and filming it was a real seat-of-the-pants production; [Band leader/producer] Robbie Robertson, [director] Martin Scorsese and [cinematographer[ Laszlo Kovacs just pulled it off. It was just a lot of fun being in the band behind The Band, playing with [tuba player] Howard Johnson, who played with me for 15 years in the Gil Evans band, and [trumpeter/flugelhornist] Jerry Hey, who played trumpet with me in the Woody Herman band. I remember being in the Band dressing room and Bob Dylan was over in the corner; as usual, he was out of the spotlight. Jerry Brown walks into the room; he’s dating Linda Ronstadt and he’s governor of California at the time. He’s also a big rock and roll guy and he says to Dylan: “Next time we’ll go out on my boat” and Bob is nodding, “Yeah, man.” You had to be there [laughs].
Q: Who was the most difficult guest musician on “SNL,” someone who argued with you about your charts up, down and all around?
A: I never had any trouble. First of all, a professional arranger doesn’t argue. You do what somebody wants you to do; you have to give them what they want, and satisfy them, no matter how long it takes. I never tell people my idea is better than theirs. If I did that, I wouldn’t last very long in this business; there’s always someone at the door waiting to do your job in New York. Our guest musician one time was Olivia Newton-John, who had a big hit with “Physical.” I said: “Oh great, what time is the band loading in?” “She doesn’t have a band.” So I wrote out all the parts for all the instruments on the record and wrote an arrangement for a band I put together. It was lot of work, but it turned out really great and Olivia was really pleased. It was the same MO for Robert Plant and the Honeydrippers. Again, I said: “Oh great, what time do they load in?” And, again, it was: “He doesn’t have a band.” Once again, I had to write out all the parts and put a band together. Jon Faddis and myself played trumpet. The sax section included Lou Marini and Randy Brecker. Elliott Randall was on guitar and Paul Shaffer was on keyboards. And it all worked out really well.
Q: How did the Blues Brotherhood recruit you and what do you do with the Brotherhood?
A: My friend Paul [Miller, the band’s leader] asked me to join the band on Facebook. I play baritone sax and sometimes I come out front and play a trombone solo. The guys who do Jake and Elwood [Miller and Aaron Hetrick] are phenomenal. They can sing, dance and act. I have to say they’re better than the original guys [Belushi and Aykroyd].
Q: What did you think of Belushi as a Blues Brother?
A: John wasn’t really a singer but his acting ability was amazing. He could listen to somebody and imitate them, whether it was Joe Cocker or Sam in Sam & Dave. He was just a phenomenal mimic. Aykroyd didn’t do much real singing in the show; he was basically the straight man who played harmonica and did novelty songs such as “Rubber Biscuit.” John was really the leader of the group. He really took charge; he had an almost Donald Trump personality in making it all happen. I remember when we had a meeting at John’s house on Morton Street in Greenwich Village and he said that everybody has to have a middle name, and that if you can’t come up with one, we’ll come up with one for you. He came up with Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Donald “Duck” Dunn and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin. Lou Marini came up with “Blue” for himself. I was lucky; I already had “Bones” from high school.
Q: So, Tom, what tops your Bucket List?
A: There are a few symphony/pops gigs I’d like to do. I’ve gotten to play with just about everybody in the business except Frank Sinatra. I was called to play with him in Atlantic City late in his career but I had another engagement. I recently started playing fairly regularly with Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band, doing benefits for the Navy. The first gig I did [marked] the 75th anniversary of [the bombing of] Pearl Harbor and it was hard for me because my dad was a Navy pilot who survived Pearl Harbor. We were always asking him questions but he didn’t talk about it until he was on his deathbed.
It was a very emotional experience. The afternoon before we played we went out to the airfield where Dad worked and we watched a new movie. Guys who were 100, 102 and who were in the movie were sitting there. It was so moving to me. Of course I didn’t come along until six years later, in ’47, but I was born in Honolulu and my little brother was born there too. So there’s a lot of family history in Hawaii.
We’re a hot, swinging band. We played “Uptown Funk” and “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Long Train Running” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and of course “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” People were dancing away. It turned out to be a very positive thing and not sad at all.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I’d like to see less war and more care. Our government has to take more care of its people through education and universal health care. A government should take care of all its citizens, not just the one percent of one percent. The rich should not get richer while everyone else loses their health insurance and Social Security.
Q: And if you write your memoir, which you absolutely, positively should do, what title would you pick?
A: First of all, let me tell you that the book is happening. The title might be “Hitchhiking to Success” because for my first professional gigs, with Peggy Lee, I had to hitchhike 80 miles from college to the club and then hitchhike 80 miles back at night, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. I never got a ride until the sun came up. I had a lot of time to think about the music business.
Q: And you still decided, despite having to catch a ride back at sun up, to stick around the biz.
A: Yes, I took a chance and it’s paid off. I’ve made moves on a dime many times in my career. I think you have to do that sometimes; you can’t expect everything to be on a silver plate. There are easier, more secure ways of making a living but I love the living I’m making.
Tom “Bones” Malone: The Scoop
His first instruments were violin and marching-band tuba.
John Belushi vowed that he would make Malone the most famous trombone player since Jimmy Dorsey; Malone didn’t have the heart to tell Belushi that Dorsey played saxophone.
He played with Earth, Wind & Fire during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and with James Brown at the Cheetah Club.
His credits include the film “Blues Brothers 2000,” over 3,000 commercials and 4,000-plus live TV shows.
He guests with the Fab Faux, one of the most popular Beatles tribute bands.
His former home state of Mississippi gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2016 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts ceremony.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Tom Malone’s fondness for the “1812 Overture” and “Are You Experienced.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.