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Tom Scott: Blues Brothers, L.A. Express, Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston and More…

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen

Tom Scott is a legendary saxophone player who founded L.A. Express while leading the house band at The Baked Potato in North Hollywood. He worked with Joni Mitchell on several of her albums. He composed the theme song for Starsky and Hutch. Whitney Houston called him in person to say Thank You for playing Sax on her song “Saving All My Love for You”. Tom is currently working on a new album with The L.A. Express called “Back on Track”. A Must Check Out when it is released!

KB: Did you always want to be a musician growing up? Your dad was a film and television composer.

Dad spent many years composing and conducting music for films & television. Beginning in 1952, he arranged and orchestrated for “Dragnet” theme composer Walter Schumann, later taking over as composer on that Jack Webb series. He later joined the roster at CBS-TV composers along with Lalo Schifrin and others, scoring episodes of “Laramie” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun-Will Travel”, “Rawhide,” “The Untouchables,” “My Three Sons” and other television series of the 50’s and 60’s. He scored two “Twilight Zones,” including the classic 1960 episode “A Stop at Willoughby”. He began working on “Lassie” in 1963 and scored all of its episodes until the show ended in 1973. In total, Nathan Scott amassed more than 700 credits as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor in television and 100 more in films. Clearly, I was born into a very musical household. My Dad never pushed me–but once I started playing clarinet at age 8, I was hooked!

KB: What is so special about the saxophone?

I was simply drawn to the sound of the saxophone–people like John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan all helped inspire me to want to play that instrument. In 7th grade I joined the school big band on Baritone Sax–and gradually acquired the other instruments in the saxophone family.

KB: You were a member of The Blues Brothers? Tell me the story.

I was not a founding member – more accurately an “added” member. The first official Blues Brothers gig was as opening act for Steve Martin in 1978 at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles for a week. I got a call from horn player Tom “Bones” Malone who asked if I could substitute for him in the horn section of the Blues Brothers band for the first 2 days until his wife delivered their baby in New York. I said sure, so I filled in for him until Wednesday of that week. However, I must have impressed John Belushi – instead of thanking me and sending me on my way, “Uncle Johnny” asked me to join the band as a regular! “We’ll have four horns instead of three!” And with that–I became an ‘official’ Blues Brother!

KB: You founded L. A. Express and recorded several albums and worked with Joni Mitchell. Tell me the story.

In 1972, I led the house band on Tuesday night at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood, CA. At that time, the personnel consisted of Mike Wofford (later to become pianist for Sarah Vaughn), Chuck Domanico (the #1 L.A.studio bassist) on bass, and John Guerin (another L.A. session heavy) on drums. We were a ‘straight ahead’ jazz band for several months (reminder: the term ‘jazz fusion’ was yet to be coined). Mike & Chuck, for unrelated reasons, left the band around the same time. John suggested Max Bennett as a replacement bassist. On Fender Rhodes we asked someone who had been listening at the bar on many Tuesday nights—Joe Sample, of the Crusaders. We then added a young guitar player, Larry Carlton. Max wrote the first tunes that helped shape the sound of this new band. They were jazzy melodies with a distinct R+B or Rock feel—and, at the time, quite revolutionary. Max and I began to expand the bands’ library with more of these ‘hybrid’ tunes. The audience grew quickly—and in a matter of months it was ‘standing room only’ on Tuesday nights at the Baked Potato. Clearly, this new sound had great appeal and set us apart from other local bands of that era. Producer/guitarist and friend Louie Shelton came in the club to hear us one night, and casually suggested we call our band “The L. A. Express”—we thought it was a great idea! I had performed on many studio sessions with A&M Studios recording engineer Hank Cicalo at the controls. Hank was one of the busiest, having recorded all of Lou Adler’s projects (Carole King, Cheech & Chong, etc.).

When he heard our new band, he wanted to record it right away. He suggested we record on weekends at A&M—when the studio would otherwise be empty. So that’s what we did—over the course of several consecutive weekends. When we finished, Hank played the record for Lou Adler—as a result, Lou wanted to sign me to a record deal. I had worked on Joni’s album “For the Roses” in 1972 and had a fantastic working relationship with her. She described our sessions as being “like a ping pong match” where her idea would spark an idea from me, and vice versa. She came into the Baked Potato one night and told me she was starting a new album soon. She wanted to know if the L.A. Express would be her back-up band for the project. I tried to be cool, saying, “Well, I think it will be Ok”, knowing full well it would be a great move and I was going to make it happen no matter what! As it turned out, our joint venture “Court & Spark” became a huge hit, resulting in a tour that went 10 months! “Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott & the L. A. Express” toured from January to October of 1974 in the U.S., Canada and England. Joni was an inspirational live performer—I never heard her screw up a lyric or flub a chord once in over 70 shows!

KB: You wrote the theme songs for Starsky & Hutch and The Streets of San Francisco. Tell me how and what inspired you?

First, a correction: I didn’t compose the theme for “Streets of S.F.” although I played solo sax on the opening credits and later wrote underscore for several episodes. Regarding the “Starsky & Hutch” theme: In 1975, I gave a talk about my life as a composer/saxophone player in Hollywood studios to an audience of pre-teen girls at a private school in Bel Air. I played a reel-to reel tape of Carole King singing ‘Jazzman’ without any sax, then played along ‘live’ the second time. The girls seemed to enjoy my talk. I had done several ‘Career Day’ lectures like this one, and afterwards pretty much forgot about it. In The Meantime: “Starsky & Hutch” was first aired in April 1975 as a ‘Made-for-Television’ Movie on ABC. It was a ratings winner, and so the following fall it was slated to return to the air as a weekly series. The first year of the show had a main title theme edited down from the chase climax cue in Lalo Schifrin’s score for the original TV Movie. It was rhythm-based and had no melody. However, once the show was picked up for a second season in the summer of 1976, the producers (Aaron Spelling & Leonard Goldberg) decided to have a new, more recognizable theme for the opening title sequence.

Right around that time I got a call from my film-scoring agent Al Bart. He had just spoken to producer Joe Narr at Spelling-Goldberg Productions. It was an unusual call, Bart recalled. “My 12-year-old daughter saw one of your clients give a career lecture at her school”, Narr said. “She suggested to me that he compose the new theme music for Starsky & Hutch—his name is Tom Scott.” And with that left-field endorsement, I was hired to do a demo session of three different tunes—hopefully one of them would be chosen. I was thrilled to learn the producers had chosen demo song #1—and it became the ‘Starsky & Hutch Theme’!

KB: You worked with many artists. From Frank Sinatra to Whitney Houston. Do you have a favorite fond memory?

I have many fond memories–working with Joni, Carole King, Steely Dan (‘Aja’ & ‘Gaucho’). George Harrison was a delightful friend–I spent the better part of three years as his companion and musical associate. It’s really hard to pick any one in particular—but this one comes to mind: I recorded Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” with songwriter Michael Masser. He called one day and said he was producing this amazing new singer and would I come and play on a track. When I arrived, Whitney was not there. She had already completed her vocals. I heard the song and pretty much decided what I was going to play. Michael, as he was known for, had me record many many takes until I said: “Michael I’m done! You’ve already got my best ideas on tape!” and I left. Several months go by. The phone rings. “Hello, is this Tom?”. “Yes”. “You don’t know me, but my name is Whitney Houston. You played on my record.” “Oh Yes, I remember. How are you?”. She said “I just called to say Thank you for the wonderful job you did. I really appreciate it”. It’s not that I ever expect it, but rarely has anyone called me and thanked me for the work I did on their records. She got my number, picked up the phone, went to the trouble of making that call. I thought it was very sweet. I’ve been So fortunate!

KB: If you were to make an album with your most favorite songs (not your own): What would you choose?

That’s a difficult question–having recorded over 30 solo albums, I’ve already recorded many of my favorite songs by others. They include (in no particular order):

Maybe I’m Amazed (McCartney)
You’re the Biggest Part of Me (Ambrosia)
Pick Up the Pieces (Average White Band)
Serpentine Fire (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry)
Sarah, Sarah (Jonathan Butler)
Anytime, Anyplace (Janet Jackson)
His Eyes, Her Eyes (Michel Legrand)
Tones for Joan’s Bones (Chick Corea)

KB: Are there currently any artists you would love to collaborate with?

Current recording artists whose work I admire and would love to work with are, among others: John Mayer, Dua Lipa, Bruno Mars, Adele……

KB: Tell me about your shows “Hang Time with Tom Scott” and “Podcast Express”. Why should people tune in?

“Hang Time” is a show I host on KJAZZ-FM (also streaming). We try to feature some lesser-known tracks from the past & present. I think listeners appreciate great jazz and jazz-inspired music they might not otherwise be exposed to. “Tom Scott’s Podcast Express” is a series (available wherever you get your podcasts) of conversations with friends I have met over the years–musicians, producers, actors, directors, people in politics, the military, science and more. This eclectic group includes Malcolm McDowell, Anjelica Houston, Billy Bob Thornton, Herb Alpert, Christian McBride, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Church, Sheila E., Donald Fagan, Lt. General H.R. Mc Master, Former Lt. Governor Michael Steele, TV commentator Chris Matthews–and more.

KB: What are you currently up to?

At the moment, I’m preparing a new Tom Scott & the L.A. Express album entitled “Back on Track”. I’ve also been commissioned to compose a piece for big band celebrating Northern California wine country: “The Napa Valley Suite”. In addition, I still contribute to other people’s solo projects on a fairly regular basis.

Check out Tom’s website: HERE
Find him on TikTok: HERE

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