Tom Malone began his ascension to becoming one of the most important trombone players of his generation in the most unlikely of locales – on a farm near the community of Sumrall in rural south Mississippi.
Best known for his work with The Blues Brothers, and as a member of the house band at Late Night with David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live, Malone has appeared on nearly 5,000 television shows, more than 3,000 radio and television commercials, some 1,250 albums, and he has thousands of live performances under his belt with most of the absolute biggest names in the music business including Miles Davis, Count Basie, Ray Charles, James Brown, Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, and countless others.
And it all began on a farm in Sumrall.
Malone sat down for an interview with Signature Magazine on his recent trip back to the Pine Belt for a headlining appearance at the 6th Annual Piney Woods Picnic.
During the two-hour interview, Malone talked about his Lamar County roots, his time at the University of Southern Mississippi, his incredible career in music, and much, much more.
The following excerpts are just a few of the highlights from the interview:
LIFE ON THE FARM:
My parents were mostly rednecks from George County, but they were good people. My father (Odie) was in the military. He was a Navy pilot and survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
We pretty much lived in a different place each year until 1958 when he retired after 22 years and bought a farm near Sumrall.
I was 11 years old at the time and I was not used to the farm lifestyle or even the Mississippi lifestyle, for that matter.
I was in the sixth grade when we moved there and I wasn’t accustomed to things like riding a school bus. It was a big shock.
Music was already important to me by then. I just didn’t know much about it.
My mother (Frances) had a lot of musical talent, but no formal training. She went to USM and graduated in 1937 when it was called the State Teacher's College. She got her degree in education and became a schoolteacher. My grandmother, Pearl Hester, started the first cafeteria on the campus in 1936 and later became a dietitian at Forrest General Hospital.
I knew from a pretty early age that I wanted to make music. On the farm, I was picking corn and milking cows. We raised cattle and raised hay and corn to feed the cattle. It was hot work under the sun.
There's nothing wrong with farming, by the way. But I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of there.
When I had the opportunity to join the school band in the sixth grade, I took it pretty seriously. I remember we got the call that anyone interested in playing in the band, should report to the band hall.
I was one of the first students there and immediately picked up a trombone, but there were two problems: My parents couldn't afford to buy me a trombone, and the school’s two tuba players were graduating and the school owned two tubas. And that’s how my brother and I became tuba players.
The next year, we got a new band director, who also happened to be a trombone player so he loaned me his horn to practice at home. Then my grandmother gave me $100 out of her Social Security check to buy my own.
My father always taught us that you had to work hard to get anywhere. So that’s what I did – even at a young age.
By the time I was 13, I was practicing four hours a day and music was all I knew, but I still didn’t know much.
Where we lived, you could only pick up a couple of AM radio stations at night. Well, three stations, I guess.
There was WWL in New Orleans that played a variety of music – including Dixieland jazz and especially New Orleans rock-and-roll. There were also stations in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Memphis. At a pretty early age, I started listening to rhythm and blues music, especially the newer stuff coming out of Memphis. There was a little bit of an evolution of the music from New Orleans and the Delta blues from the Arkansas station so I became familiar with all of it.
But I had no idea what any of those musicians looked like. I had no idea that most of my favorite artists were black. You didn't really see this kind of music on TV back then.
I guess I didn’t know any better.
I was 14 or 15 when some friends and I formed a rock ‘n’ roll band. We played sock hops and teen parties and even some sleazy white clubs that wanted live music.
Of course, pretty much everything was segregated in those days – whether it was official or not – including nightclubs. White clubs hired white bands and black clubs hired black bands.
When I was 17 years old, my father and one of his buddies let me tag along to the Magnolia Club to hear this black rhythm and blues band: Terry Leggett and the Jewels of Swing. It was the first time I had ever seen a black band perform and I was shocked at how much better they were than any band that I'd ever played with. It made a huge impression on me.
A couple of weeks later, I went into Hattiesburg to Johnson’s Music to get my trombone repaired. Turns out, they had a new repairman and it was non other than Terry Leggett. We started talking about music and it turned out we liked all the same type of stuff. I mentioned to him that I knew how to arrange music
He said, ‘You know what? The band could learn new songs a lot faster if you’d write us little arrangements for them.’ At the time, “Summertime” by Billy Stewart was a big hit so I wrote up an arrangement and showed up at their rehearsal and I hit it off with all the guys so I ended up writing a few more arrangements for them.
Later, Terry called me up and told me that one of his horn players was going to be out and he invited me to play some gigs them. He said he’d just meet me at the gas station over on Highway 49 and we could all ride to the gig together in his Cadillac.
Of course we get there and I’m the only white person in the club. Fortunately, every place we played was so far into the hood that there weren’t any white people around to cause any trouble.
I learned an awful lot from those guys and it really helped mold the way I looked at things. I was fortunate that my parents never steered me the wrong direction about any of that stuff, but Terry and the guys made it all make sense.
I knew I had to get out of Mississippi. I wanted to play with Ray Charles. I wanted to play with James Brown. I wanted to play with Stevie Wonder. At that point, it was just a pipe dream.
Who could have guessed I would actually get to play with every last one of them?
Certainly not me.
TO THE TOP:
I made a name for myself pretty quickly at Southern Miss because of my ability to read and write musical charts. I was there on a tuba scholarship, but still played quite a bit of trumpet and trombone when I could get the side work.
Early on, I picked up a job playing with Brenda Lee at the Silver Spur in Jackson. Problem was, I didn’t have a car. Well, I didn’t have a car that my father would let me use. He discouraged my music career and not having a car made it pretty difficult to get out-of-town work, but I was persistent.
The Silver Spur had a house band, but Brenda needed a horn section and I was the only guy who could hit the high note on trumpet so I got the job. It paid $16 a night for six nights.
So I hitchhiked back and forth to Jackson every night and went to school during the day. Nobody would pick me up until the sun came up, which meant I stood on the side of the road for at least four hours every night, which was plenty of time for me to think about a career in the music business.
In the spring of 1967, the USM band played at the Mobile Jazz Festival and it was there I first met Lou Marini, who encouraged me to transfer to North Texas State, which had an excellent jazz program.
By then, I was ready to leave Mississippi so off I went.
LIFE WITH LETTERMAN:
In 1982, NBC executives came calling on me for suggestions on who they could hire to be band leader on a new late-night talk show hosted by this comedian named David Letterman.
They knew me from Saturday Night Live and they knew I was connected to lots of people. I had worked with Paul Shaffer at SNL and some early Blues Brothers work and I knew he would be a great fit.
Years later, when Dave moved his show to CBS, Paul wanted to add a horn section and needed a trombone player so he called me up.
I never told Paul I was the guy who recommended him for the Letterman job until after he had already hired me as part of the CBS Orchestra. I didn’t want him to give me a job because he felt like I owed him a favor.
I joined the band originally on a temporary basis and eventually was given an actual contract. Dave always took really good care of us. Paul, too.
It was a really incredible band. We played together five nights a week for 22 years. Before the show. After the show. In and out of commercial breaks. Often times, we were asked to perform with the musical guests, too.
I first met these guys in early 1976 when they reached out to me and asked me to write some horn arrangements for their upcoming appearance on Saturday Night Live.
I instantly hit it off with them. They loved the horn section. They loved the horn arrangements and so they took me on the road in the summer of ‘76 on their tour.
The horn section didn't play every gig on the tour, but we came in for the big festival shows.
I was also involved with their final concert (and accompanying movie) they called The Last Waltz, which was recorded on Thanksgiving Day 1976.
I was part of a terrific horn section that played on several songs and I also arranged a few of the tunes.
I loved those guys, especially Levon. Those Canadians looked at him like he was from Mars or something.
I was in college at Texas State when their ‘Music from Big Pink’ album came out and it really got my attention. I really, really liked that group and I had no idea that I’d end up playing with them years later.
After they broke up, Levon formed a new band called the RCO All-Stars and asked me to join them along with several guys who would be in The Blues Brothers band including Alan Rubin, Lou Marini, Steve Cropper, and Donald Dunn.
It was just an amazing band. We did a few gigs around the states put out a couple of albums and then did a tour in Japan.
THE ORIGIN OF THE (BLUES) BROTHERS
I was at the meeting where the idea of The Blues Brothers was first discussed. It was March or April of 1978 and at the time, I was a member of the house band at Saturday Night Live and was doing a lot of the musical arrangement for the show.
Howard Shore, the SNL musical director, called me up and asked me to attend a meeting to hear an idea that John (Belushi) and Danny (Akroyd) had about these two new characters they were working on for a sketch.
They were blues musicians in Chicago, wore the same black suite that was too big for one on them and two small for the other. They wore sunglasses day and night. They were orphans and that was pretty much all they had at that point.
It was Howard that suggested they call themselves The Blues Brothers.
So I wrote an arrangement for a song called “Rocket 88” by James Cotton and we rehearsed it a few times and then performed it for Lorne Michaels, the producer. He wasn’t impressed so it didn’t make the show.
John and Danny were disappointed, of course, and asked Lorne if he would at least let them use the number to warm up the studio audience before the show and he agreed. So we played that little song and it seemed people seemed to like it.
The following week, John and Danny are still hot on the idea of the Blues Brothers so I wrote an arrangement for a song called “Hey Bartender.”
We did it for Lorne and once again, it didn’t make the show. In fact, he told us he didn’t see anything funny about it.
We did this for a few weeks and then everybody decided that if Lorne didn’t the bit, then we would have to move on.
But after read through one week, (Lorne) comes out of the read through looking at his watch and realizing that the show was three minutes short. That was all John and Danny needed to hear.
They pitched the idea again and Lorne said, “We don’t have anything else worthwhile to put in there so you guys might as well make fools of yourself.”
The number made the show, the switchboard lit up Monday morning and letters and cards began pouring in. Obviously, somebody was entertained.
So we ended up playing a couple more Blues Brothers bits on the show. We decided to form a band that was separate from the Saturday Night Live band and the next thing you know, our first official gig was opening up for Steve Martin during a run of nine shows in Los Angeles when we recorded the first album, Briefcase Full of Blues for Atlantic Records. It went on to sell three million copies. Our next show was another opening gig for Steve – at Carnegie Hall. Who says you can’t start at the top?
Pretty soon thereafter, Dan began writing a script for a movie about the characters and was interviewing the guys in the band while looking for material for the movie.
I told him a story about me playing in a nightclub back in Mississippi where they had chicken wire across the stage. Of course, I never saw a fight or bottles being hurled like the scene from the movie, but it was the same idea.
On the movie set, they had these specially-made brown longneck beer bottles made out of sugar so they would disintegrate if you threw them against anything.
They had cases and cases of these breakable bottles so during breaks in filming, we would take pictures of each other smashing them over our heads.
Oh, what memories.