Recorded on August 18, 2004
Interviewer: Salvador Güereña
Güereña: Could you tell me something about yourself?
London: I'll have to go back and start by my coming to Palm Springs in 1957. I went on the air as the morning disk jockey at the CBS station there. I was on the air from 1957-1979. In those years they were golden years of Palm Springs. You knew everybody and everybody was your peer. Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley . . . everybody. And these people would all be walking down the street. A case in point, I stopped on the corner of Taqhuitz and Palm Canyon Drive one time to talk to Red Skelton who was walking down the street. And as we stood there talking, everybody came up and asked, "May we have your autograph? May we have your autograph?" And Skelton hands me the pen, "Go ahead and give them your autograph." But in the meantime, that's the way my time has been here; it was very interesting. I couldn't have been here at a better time. I met Don, around 1961, when he came here. He did a couple of things. He took a person to see Louie at the Biltmore with Marco Antonio the piano player. And it was Marco and Tosti and they just entertained down here for years. And they were a tremendous favorite down there.
Güereña: What was the format of their music?
London: Oh, just strictly middle of the road stuff, a lot of ballads. They played for dancing, they played for listening. They played for a lot of saloon singers.
Güereña: Did they play Latino music or popular American music?
London: No, not necessarily. They played everything from "Georgia on My Mind" to "Pachuco Boogie" and everything in between.
Güereña: Pretty eclectic.
London: It was very eclectic, especially for two really adept Latino musicians who were so well grounded in Hispanic music. Yet, of course Don had been a bassist with Les Brown and Charlie Barnett, and with everybody. So, his background was there. But Marco, who could not read or write a note of music, was probably one of the best piano players you every heard. He had a tremendous touch. He really did. So they were a great favorite. And I know I've done a lot of writing in my career, either radio commercials or television commercials, whatever. Customized greeting cards, things like that. And it kind of evolved. And by Don asking me one time, "how would you like to write some English lyrics for me?" That started it. We must have written 15-20 songs together and I wrote another dozen with Marco. And it was just a pleasant association because it was the ability to sit with somebody and keep bouncing things off of each other to find something that worked. Don would put things on tape for me. He would put the melody on tape and I would take it home and start listening to it, and listen to it again, and then start putting lyrics to it, using like, what is a good example, he wrote a thing called "Envidioso" and I called that "Our Envious Moon" and I used the basic Spanish title as a stepping stone to get into an English lyric, and that's how it was with most of our things.
Güereña: What was the process Don Tosti used for creating his music?
London: The process he used was really "inspiration." He never really sat down, at least to my knowledge, and said "O.K., I'm going to write a song today." It was more like some tune was still running around in his head. And he kept playing the bass down at the Biltmore, and during a set he might have played two notes of a tune still running around in his head. And he'd come home and Don, he was a tireless worker. He'd got through and come home at 2 in the morning and he was still ready. And then he'd call me up and say "I've got something for you. Come over, I have something for you." And we'd get together. Don started out . . . Lyle Newman told me one time in an interview I did with him that a good piece of music was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. That's what it amounted to. And Don was that way. His inspiration would come and it would come quickly. The perspiration came in putting it all together and put a melodic line down and he would arrange in his head while he was doing a melody line. He'd be thinking of all the point, and counter-point and all that would go with it to make a piece of music work. Yes, I'd say that it was inspiration that was the biggest thing, just to get him started because he loved it so. He never really looked upon it as a business, at least not down here. You mentioned before, the transition he made from the big bands to the Mexican bands to the society music down here. I think that if I had to describe Don Tosti in one word that captures who he was or what he was I have to say it is "adaptable". In other words, you've heard the expression, "do whatever it takes, and that's what he did. Whatever he was, whatever the moment was, he could adapt to it. He didn't stonewall, he didn't have to stand there and say "I 'm not going to play that, it's against my feeling, I'm not going to do it." Whatever it was, and he felt he could make money and it was commercial, he could do it."
Güereña: Manuel Peña says in his book, The Mexican American Orquesta, that the years following Honolulu, for Tosti, were in a way challenging, maybe disappointing, because of the changes in popular music in general, and the public's desire to hear the music of Elvis Presley and the other rockers. Tosti was a musical genius and he moved to a desert resort with predominantly Anglo audiences in the clubs, so he had to make compromises so he'd be able to make a living. And there was a good living to be made, and he was very successful at it.
London: While you're talking about most of the Anglo's, you met a good friend of mine last night who was also a good friend of Don. He is Russell Rodriguez. He was in a wheelchair, a double amputee. And Russell, he was a hell of a dancer, when he still had legs. And I heard him tell me yesterday that he spent his days off at the Biltmore listening to Marco and Tosti because he was crazy about their music and crazy about everything else. As a matter of fact, the very first song that he ever fell in love with was "Vine por Ti" O.K.? And he was, I think, an example of a lot of others like Rudy Garcia, a bunch of other friends of mine like landscapers, and people like that, who would go down there and enjoy the music, not because they were playing Mexican music but because they were two guys who played damn good music and everybody loved them. But he had as big a following in the Hispanic community as he had in the Anglo community, or I should think, "they had" because they worked so well together, they were marvelous together, absolutely marvelous together. Really, really, sensational.
Güereña: That's a helpful counter-balance to Peña's closing chapter on Tosti's music in his book, so you give a more complete understanding.
London: You talk about his disappointment according to him as he came back from Hawaii and he found the music changed and they were going for Elvis and that kind of thing . . . you can't forget the Beatles . . . but in the meantime, let's take it down to its natural conclusion, where we are right now at the moment, with the rap. You've got rap music going on and a lot of people sitting upstairs saying "that's not music." It's just somebody talking a lyric, you know, we're talking, but in the meantime, it's a reflection of ecumenical tastes. You can go back to Beethoven and Brahms, o.k., and then all of sudden guys like Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók came along with this totally discordant sound that changed everything and from that then it progressed to guys like Ferd Grofé and the guys who got lyrical and descriptive with their music. And that gave away to almost . . . what? jazz, now that was an entirely American art form, but all of these things that came down the line had an influence on everything else that came after them. And we say, jazz, and then you look at Bosanova. And Bosanova of course is a combination of jazz and the Samba rhythms. And one thing always plays off another. I don't know if you ever saw the show, I'm trying to think of the guy's name, an Englishman. It's educational television, and they did this whole thing about how this metal was invented, and the next thing that followed, they made coins, and the next thing they did, they tied all these inventions together and the effect that they had on them, and what came afterwards. And music is the same way--it's no different. Everything that's come along in music has been a reflection in some way of what's happened in the past. Do you know what they say about a great jazz musician? A great musician is totally grounded in the classics, because that's really where it all started. What do you have, about eight different scales, or twelve different scales, and with classical music, you can really go crazy with this stuff.
But, Don, if I say any one thing about him, is that he was adaptable. If there are two things, besides being adaptable, he was a tremendous student. He had a tremendous thirst to learn about everything. You can see it in the books. Two days before he passed away he got a phone call from somebody who wanted vocal lessons. He said, "I don't do that anymore." But he became a vocal coach, and a damn good one, and a much sought-after vocal coach strictly by reading and researching, and then he realized that the most important thing was breathing and that's they way he did everything. He didn't do anything that he didn't want to know everything from soups to nuts about it. If he got into something, he wanted to be an expert on it. At least he wanted to be able to sound like an expert on it, and for the most part, he did become an expert on it. He developed an expertise just because he wanted to, nobody said he had to, not because he needed a resume to get a job some place and had to know these things. He had to know just for his own satisfaction, just for himself. He was a hell of a guy.
Güereña: It's said that Don Tosti ghostwrote for music greats like Hoagy Carmichael and Henry Mancini who lived here in Palm Springs. Can you elaborate on that?
London: I've got to be honest, I've heard reference to that, and I don't know if it was actual melodic line writing or it was just arrangements or what, and I reiterate that I heard reference to it, but I never heard that. If it was ghost writing and if it was in secret, Don Tosti was a hell of a secret-keeper, because he never mentioned a thing.
Güereña: How do you define ghost-writing?
London: Well ghost writing, I would define in two ways, really. One is "My life history, of Sandy Koufax as written by, or as told to . . ." as you see a lot of books right now, alright? And the other one is, and a lot of it, is like Don Tosti writing "Moon River" and Henry Mancini putting his name on it, and that would have been the ultimate in ghost-writing. And again, he's always been very secretive. If it did happen he's a hell of a secret-keeper because he never said anything to me. I've heard other people allude to it, but he never broke that confidence, and he wouldn't break it.
Güereña: A group of us were talking last night and Johnny Meza pointed out to me that "Breakfast at Tiffany's" had a mambo part that appeared all of a sudden, and one would think, where did that come from? It seems like one would ask, where would Mancini pull that out from? What background did he have in mambo music? Meza said, someone did it and so he asked Tosti, "Could you say that you did it? And somehow Tosti managed not to divulge that in any way shape or form, but one could be lead to that conclusion. Tosti said something like "I ghost wrote for people like Hoagy Carmichael and Henry Mancini; mambo's in the music. Reach your own conclusion." And he put a big smile on his face.
London: That smile, we were talking about it last night, that Tosti smile.
Güereña: Tosti did tell me that he did work for hire, and that he wasn't credited and it didn't seem to bother him, he had a job. He got a paycheck. They were happy, he was happy. Case closed.
London: You know who Richard Crenna was, right? The actor? He was asked one time, what's with these crappy movies? And his answer was, "I'm an actor and I get paid to act. Give me something and I don't care what it is, give me something and if you're going to pay me, and I'll act." And that's how Don was as a musician. And he wasn't a musician on an altruistic level; he was a musician to make money, to make a living. Whatever endowment he left to the college or to anybody else, is based upon the fact that he was an astute business man and when he came to say, "these are my talents, and here's what I'm going to do with my talents, and I am sure, by knowing him, in making money that it wasn't just for survival for he and his wife, or until she passed away; he always had an eye for leaving money to help kids. He always had that on his mind. We would talk about it, he would talk about it, and it was one of his favorite subjects. And I think that probably what influenced that was help that he got along the line when he was a kid. That somebody came along and said, "here's how to do this, or I'm going to help you to do this," or whatever the case might be. And he was very, very much caught up on that. You can almost say that the endowment is a definitive aspect of Don Tosti. Really, that's what he wanted to do.
Güereña: Thank you Jerry so very much.
London: My pleasure. And I reiterate, as I've said before, I think what you're doing is great. Not just for Don but for Lalo and for everybody else in this field that should be recognized and remembered.