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George, Joni and Paul: An Interview with Tom Scott

“It was suggested to me during Covid that I start a podcast,” Tom Scott says. “I know a great deal of directors, writers, and people outside of show business; a couple of political commentators. It’s Tom Scott’s Podcast Express. That’s a continuing series.”

Scott certainly has stories to tell and might just be the only person who has played with Paul McCartney and John Belushi. During our chat, Scott talks about his experiences with Joni Mitchell and George Harrison, having toured with both artists in 1974 (“A very busy year,” Scott chuckles.) He’s best known for his saxophone work, but there’s more to his arsenal, which is fitting because he’s currently writing the score to a film about Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews.

No one was more surprised than Scott when he heard his contributions to “Listen To What The Man Said”, an instrumental passage Scott unwittingly improvised. “I just thought I was warming up. I just got in the groove of it and took some chances; they worked out OK. I had my eyes closed and didn’t realize I was being recorded, but when it got to the fade, I stopped and everybody in the booth was applauding. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I have no idea what I have just played, but now that I know the song, could I try one more take? So, I did, but what ended up on the record was the original one. I had it in one take, not even knowing the song.”

“This is Rolling Stone magazine in 1975, and Paul McCartney says, ‘We thought it would be great to have a very technical musician come in and do a great lyrical solo. Someone said Tom Scott lived very near, and to give him a ring. He turned up in half an hour. Meanwhile, the engineer was recording it. No one could believe it; he had all the feel on his first take.’”

A watershed album for McCartney, Venus and Mars demonstrated the full extent of Wings’ ambition. Scott witnessed the band in mid-process. “Paul’s a very likable guy. He’s got social skills, whereas George in his heart of hearts is very much a shy person. Paul’s much more outgoing and gregarious, and when I went into the studio and did that solo, Linda was practicing the piano. She befriended me, and said, ‘I really don’t sing or play that well, but Paul really wants me to be in the band, so I try to get better.’ She played a section of a song; was it “Hey Jude”? Anyway, she played a section of it and said she was getting better. That’s very sweet.” Scott shakes his head as he recalls the tape that was released of her singing in isolation; “It’s tough to hear because she’s not singing well, but I admire her candor.”

“Paul wanted her to be in the band,” he says, the annoyance growing more evident, “and what the fuck is wrong with that?” There’s no denying the wrath of headlines that McCartney and Harrison faced at different points during the 1970s. Some of the reviews leveled at the Dark Horse tour were especially vicious.

“George took a big hit for not doing Beatle tunes,” Scott agrees. “I remember [Rolling Stone writer] Ben Fong Torres just pasted George because he didn’t do Beatle songs. Everyone wanted him to reform The Beatles!” By 1974, Harrison had no interest in nostalgia, focusing instead on the present moment. “He told me: ‘I was a Beatle, but I’m not a Beatle anymore, and I’m doing what I love to do.'”

Scott, like Harrison, harbored a tremendous love for Indian music: “The way George and I met was that I had become acquainted with a friend of Ravi Shankar’s, through my Indian music studies back in high school. I took private lessons and wanted to study Indian rhythm and apply it to my jazz playing. I was a jazz guy: Miles Davis, Tom Coltrane, Bill Evans. When I found out about Indian rhythms, I wanted to know more about it.”

How did Harrison come into the picture? “Then, Ravi Shankar came to L.A. to do the score for a movie called Charly, starring Cliff Robertson. Ravi called Harihar Rao and said to him he wanted some musicians who were aware of Indian music, and I was on the list. The first year I met George was in 1971, or 1972, and it was the year he established Dark Horse Records, as an outlet for his productions. He couldn’t be an artist on his own label, as he was still obligated to Capitol, which he did not like at all. He was very pissed off with the deal they had made. George established Dark Horse, and the first record on Dark Horse was Shankar Family & Friends; I was one of ‘The Friends’. The first day of that session, on the break George went up to me, ‘Are you the one who studied with Harihar Rao?’ When I said ‘yes,’ he said: ‘Come with me.’ After that, I kind of became his sidekick and best friend for the best part of three years. I made several trips to Friar Park, went with him on tour, and played on three of his solo albums.”

Harrison and Scott collaborated together on the deliciously funny “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentleman)”, a jaunty number that mixed the comedic with the soulful, and by doing so, anticipated Dan Aykroyd’s work with The Blues Brothers. Scott pulls himself up; there’s a story to be told here.

“I originally came on as a sub for Tom Malone, the trombone player,” he begins. “Their first in-person appearance was on Saturday Night Live, where they did the blues thing. Later that summer, they were signed on as the opening act with Steve Martin. Steve was the hottest American comic on the scene in 1978, I had a couple of friends in the band: Lou Marini, the saxophone player, and Tom Malone. I thought maybe I could go backstage, but I didn’t have to do that because a couple of weeks before the engagement Tom called me to say that as his wife was due to deliver a baby right in the middle of the week, could I sub for him? So, that Monday of that week at the Universal Amphitheatre, I met John and Danny, who were very nice, and we rehearsed, which went really well. Tom flew in from New York on Wednesday, and I thought I was just going to drive to the gig and say to Tom Malone ‘Thank you, I had a great time.’”

“I got there, and John Belushi says to me: ‘Listen, Tom, we’re just going to make it four horns instead of three. From now on, you’re a Blues Brother.’”

I’m anxious to hear about Joni Mitchell and how he encountered her. “Quincy Jones,” is the simple reply. “And he may not even know it,” Scott cackles loudly over the Zoom.

Jones founded a record company in 1970 (“doomed to fail,”) with bassist Ray Brown and novelist Harry Robins. “I was the first person Quincy signed because I was the young kid in the studios,” Scott explains. “I had worked for Quincy as a player, and an arranger, so he signed me. We did a couple of sessions, and prior to that I went to talk to him about material.” Jones asked Scott if he was familiar with the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young standard “Woodstock”? Scott confirmed that he’d heard the track, although he was surprised to hear it was a cover. “Quincy said I should get the Joni Mitchell album, which was Ladies of The Canyon. I listened to it, and I was very, very impressed with the ethereal approach, and the beauty of her singing. The whole vibe I thought was great, and because Quincy had suggested it, I did a version on a couple of sessions that we did, on the soon to become defunct record company. We did ‘Woodstock’, and I played soprano recorder instead of the singing.”

“A year or two later, I signed with A&M Records, and I thought it was a good track, so we re-did the track for A&M Records. A couple of years later, Joni heard the A&M version, and Henry Lewy, a recording engineer at A&M, told me that Joni had heard my version. He said, ‘She’s wondering if you’d like to play on her album?’” No prizes for guessing Scott’s answer.

“At the time I had pretty much put her in the category of folk singer; in my ignorance.  So, I get to the studio, and this was for For the Roses, and she played me a tune called “Ludwig’s Tune”, a song about what it must have been like for Beethoven to become deaf later in his life. What that must have been like for a great musician to become deaf.”

The surprise is evident from Scott, five decades after hearing the song for the first time. “This is no ordinary folk singer because this is not a subject that would normally be dealt with. So, then we started to work together, and I found her to be marvelous; we had a marvelous working relationship. She described it in the press as a ping-pong match.”

“I will give you an example. She would have background vocals that were three or four-part harmonies, and all the vibrato would match exactly. And every part would be exactly the same. She said: ‘Could you double that with something?’ I ended up putting flutes and clarinets with those voices, but I had her put each part very loud up in my headphones, so I doubled not only the note but the vibrato as well.

“She would approach things in color. She would say, ‘I want it more yellow?’ Now, what the hell does she mean? How can I make it yellow? A very interesting challenge for me; a joyous experience.”

Concurrent with his work with Mitchell, Scott’s band L.A. Express was growing more popular. “One night, we were playing the Baked Potato, and Joni showed up. I went to say hello, and she said, ‘I’ve never recorded with a full band before at once.’ She used to record piano and voice, or guitar and voice, and then she’d bring in a bass player to overdub, and a drummer to overdub. It was all one person at a time, and she had never recorded with a live band. She said: ‘I’d like to do that, and do you think your band would be interested?’ So, she gave me some tapes for Court and Spark.”

They toured together, which snowballed into a live album: Miles of Aisles. “Those three albums I’m very, very proud of,” Scott smiles. “We had a very good professional relationship, and the concerts, L.A. Express would play for thirty minutes, and then she would come on and sing alone. And then we would join her for the rest of the concert. The thirty-five, forty concerts we did were done immediately after the George Harrison tour. In all those shows, I never heard her screw up a lyric, a song; she was perfect.”

What are his memories of the Dark Horse tour? Scott pauses to reflect. “It was a great time. George was very generous in the way he treated the band because we were all flown out in a private jet painted with an Om sign. In all respects, it was as good as it could be. The problem was that George was ill-prepared to sing solo for an entire performance, night after night. I love Bill Graham the promoter, but in his enthusiasm to do a tour, he booked George unrealistically. George didn’t have the vocal skills to maintain the kind of strength he needed for a tour like that and lost his voice early in the tour. It was very unfortunate.”

Acting as a “liaison” between the Beatle and Bill Graham, Scott was tasked with relaying messages to men with noticeably different philosophies on the music industry.

“The tour had sold out, and Bill told me that he was worried that people were going to be disappointed that George wasn’t doing more Beatle songs. I went back to George and told him that. George said: ‘Listen, if people don’t like what’s going to be on in the concert, they can have their money back.'”

Scott relayed the message back to a “noticeably unenthusiastic” Graham and the tour proceeded as planned. “George had vocal problems and took some hits from the press, but in all other respects, the tour was a joy,” Scott admits. “George Harrison was one of the dearest people I’ve ever known.”

Like Linda McCartney, Scott found George Harrison to be “self-depreciating.” “George Harrison said to me: ‘You know, Tom, I’m not a very good guitar player; Eric Clapton’s much better. I said, ‘When you put that slide on your finger and you play two or three notes, we know who it is. That is a rare gift.'”

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: Tom Scott, 1974 (public domain)


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3 comments on “George, Joni and Paul: An Interview with Tom Scott

  1. John Smistad

    VERY cool interview opportunity, splendidly conducted, sir.

    Scott is a treasure. His lively and upbeat solo on “Heart Hotels” by one of my all-time favorites, Dan Fogelberg, seems incongruous with the wistful tenor of the tune. Still, somehow Scott makes his sax wizardry essential to the song.

    Such is the case with genuine genius, one supposes, yeah?

  2. Thank you for reading!

  3. Jeana Marie Baron

    Thanks for this interesting piece. A most enjoyable read!

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