Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Left Banke's Tom Finn

In 1965, a new rock group emerged from New York City called The Left Banke. Less than a year later, they scored a huge hit with "Walk Away Renee" and secured their place in pop history. Other hits followed but never reached the heights of "Walk Away Renee". Tom Finn is the original founding member and bass player in the band, which has recently reunited to the thrill of it's longtime fans. I recently had the great pleasure to speak with Tom about his amazing career in the Left Banke and his work as one of the top DJs in the world...

MICK: How did the band get it's name "The Left Banke"?
TOM: Michael Brown was an assistant working at his father's recording studio on Broadway and he would let us in. We used to go into the studio and we would plug in and jam there almost every night. There was an office downstairs and I was sleeping on the couch in the office. Steve Martin and Mike Brown came in and said "We've got the name!". I was half asleep and asked what it was. They said "The Left Banke". I remember after hearing that I had a picture in my mind of a bunch of guys dressed in Edwardian suits with hair parted in the middle, much like the Kinks. I thought that was a good name and very classy! They had gone out to eat with a guy named Scott English, who was a song writer ("Bend Me, Shape Me", "Mandy"). He thought the band should have an exotic name and suggested The Left Banke and they both went for it. We were playing Baroque music and just put an "E" on the end of "Bank". That worked out great because today, with the Internet, if was
just "Bank", it wouldn't be special. But the the "E" added for 'Banke", we get millions of hits online!

MICK: Is it true that "Walk Away Renee" was about your girlfriend Renee Fladen?
TOM: Yes, that is true. Renee was my girlfriend at the time and I'd bring her over to the studio. Michael Brown did have feelings for her and did write a few songs with her in mind.

MICK: Have you had any contact with Renee after all these years?
TOM: No, she doesn't like any attention to her because of the song. Renee is a very successful opera company leader in San Fransisco. She has her own opera company and became very successful with it. She doesn't want have anything to do with anyone from the past. But whenever she does something, they always throw in that she is the person that "Walk Away Renee" was written about. I think she got some mileage out of it but will not admit it!

MICK: What was it like for the band when "Walk Away Renee" became a big hit?
TOM: We were driving to Ohio in a station wagon with our road manager. When we left New York, we were starving and flat broke. I didn't even have a home at that time, sleeping in the office or at a friend's house. After about eight hours arriving in Ohio, I heard the song on the radio and they said "Tomorrow night, appearing live, with their top 5 hit "Walk away Renee", The Left Banke!" When we got arrived, there were girls waiting for us for autographs. It was a big deal! From nothing to famous!

MICK: Did The Left Banke ever do the American Bandstand TV show?
TOM: Yes, we did it once. We also did "Where The Action Is". That video is all over the Internet. I remember doing the one with Dick Clark as clear as day but I've never seen a copy of it.
MICK: After the Left Banke, you worked as an engineer at the Bell Sound Studio in NYC. Who were some of the great artists you worked with?
TOM: Wow, there were a lot. In the 50's and 60's, Bell Sound Studio was probably the most famous NY recording studio. Even Buddy Holley recorded there. I got there at the end of 1969. When I started there, I got to work with people like Roberta Flack, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Kiss before they were wearing makeup. There were so many famous people and hit records made there in the early 70's. I was the fly on the wall as I was learning to be an engineer as an assistant.
MICK: You also worked closely with the legendary Buddy Rich.
TOM: I met Buddy at Bell Sound. I was doing some horn overdubs with him in the studio and his manager, Stanley Kaye, asked me if I could come over to Buddy's Place Nightclub and help them set up their sound system as Buddy was unhappy with the sound on stage. I went over there as a onetime thing to show them how to run it and ended up staying there for about 5 years! He closed that club after about a year and opened up a new club. I designed the sound system and the lighting. While I was working with Buddy, we became close. I was also the master of ceremonies there and worked with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Stan Getz, etc... This was on a weekly basis as they were booked into the club.
MICK: How did you get into becoming a DJ?
TOM: I was really disappointed after The Left Banke reunion in 1978 when we did our third album called "Strangers On A Train". We broke up and I was disappointed in the way the group members behaved. I remember I was invited to a party and some of Elvis Presley's musicians were guests at this party. I stood by and watched these guys jam and it hit me like a ton of lead what The Left Banke was missing. They were missing that rugged individual thing that the Beatles knew about, the Stones knew about. It was that roots of American rock that you stand on your own and play your instrument as an individual with other people too. That's what The Left Banke was missing. Everything had to be a group decision and it had to be politically this and that. I realized that you had to stand on your own two feet and then you talk about playing with other people. So I studied this 50's style of music. I bought records by the truckload of 50's music because I felt that I
missed it all. I would play this music day and night, blasting it in my apartment. I would also be playing guitar to learn all these songs. One day my neighbor knocks on the wall and says "Hey man, all my friends over here in my apartment tell me that you are playing the best music. My name is Pavese and I work at Studio 54. I'm opening a new club and want you to come down and talk to the DJ about the music you play". I said "You like my guitar?". He said "No we don't like the guitar, we like the records you play!". I go down to this club and spoke to this DJ, who was a female. I told her she should be playing 50's music. This new place was going to be a Disco. I told the owners to leave it just the way it is. It was a diner with a sword fish on the wall, neon clock, coke machine. It was perfect! This was 1982 and before the retro-craze hit. They listened to me. We created a night at this club called "Heartbreak" and was attended by every celebrity
you can imagine. I was responsible for the music format and ended up being the DJ there just playing 50's music. The line of limos was three blocks long with celebrities..Diana Ross, David Bowie, tennis stars and movie stars. The place was packed almost every night of the week. Steve Rubell from Studio 54 came in and asked me to stop by Studio 54 and talk to his DJ. I did stop by and did a few guest spots. Steve wanted me to be the DJ at his new club called The Palladium. I took the DJ job and the Palladium was the biggest nightclub in NYC in the mid 80's. They packed in 5000 people a night! I was playing the new stuff by Madonna and Prince and also 60's music. It was perfect timing because all of the yuppies were going to the clubs now. I was the perfect DJ in the right place at the right time. Steve Rubell started to send me out to his wealthy, superstar friends for their parties on their yachts, in Europe, wherever. I became what you would call a
celebrity DJ working these amazing parties all over the world but mainly here in NYC. I was on the front cover of The New York Times Saturday edition in 2006 in a 1000 word article called "The DJ That Moves The Movers and Shakers". I had arrived!
MICK: Is it true that you found your band mate George Cameron on Facebook and that's how this reunion got started?
TOM: Yes, that's exactly right. I had just opened a Facebook account and I started getting hundreds of requests from people I didn't know from all over the world. They were all asking me about The Left Banke. I kept refusing their friendship because I didn't know them. I did this for almost a year. Then I started feeling guilty about it because these people were really nice. I decided to get someone who know a lot about the Internet and opened the official Left Banke fan page. Now I was able to answer questions that a lot of people were asking by making a post. I was telling George Cameron about how many people were asking about the group and how many stars were saying how the Left Banke influenced them. So George put a group together and it was like a heavy metal Left Banke. I went to one rehearsal that he invited me to and said "Good luck George but I'm not interested in playing in this type of band". He wanted me to produce the band but I only wanted
to do it if we sounded like the record.
So I brought in a lead singer and some other key people. That was in 2010. Now two years later, we have this big band together. Two other original members are coming back too..Michael Brown and Steve Martin.
MICK: Is The Left Banke recording anything new?
TOM: Yes. I've written 4-5 new songs that are damn good. Michael Brown has some great songs too. We are doing an album, a new Left Banke album, and hopefully it will be out by this time next year. It's not going to be an oldies thing at all. We were always an original band writing original music and we weren't into the entertainment aspect of it. We modeled ourselves after the Beatles and a few other bands back then. Today our show is pumped up. Now at least we can play because back then, we were only 17-18 years old when we first started.
MICK: I see on your itinerary that there's only a few shows coming up. Will there be more?
TOM: Yes, definitely! There's only a few shows on the schedule now because nobody can pay us because the band is too big. We just can't afford it. Right now we are planning on doing a TV show on PBS. We are trying to do some selected gigs.
MICK: As a bass guitar player, which bass players do you admire?
TOM: My favorite is James Jamerson, the famous Motown bass player. I like Paul McCartney and John Entwisle. There's a lot of unknown bass players that I like. There's a guy named Anthony Jackson who is a killer bass player.
MICK: In your illustrious career, what would you consider you greatest moment?
TOM: The most touching thing that ever happened to me was when I was invited by President and Mrs. Clinton to The White House to do their millennium gala on New Year's Eve 1999. I was the only entertainment at The White House that evening. I just kept thinking if my parents were alive, they would have been very proud. I remember calling my sister from the Oval Office. They had a phone out on the chaise lounge just outside the door and asked if I could use it. They said "Sure, you are a guest here!". Also, as a DJ, I did Whitney Houston's wedding to Bobby Brown. I did the first half of that party. I've done so many major things as a DJ that were just over the top. You can see some of them on my website. There were some special shows with the Left Banke. We did one show with The Mamas and Papas that was very nice. We did a Beach Boy tour that was great. Leonard Bernstein did a TV special called "The Rock Revolution" and he played "Pretty Ballerina" on the
piano and said 'This is an example of how good pop music can be". He said The Left Banke was one of the best music groups that he had heard! That was nice!
MICK: Did you ever meet any of the Beatles?
TOM: John Lennon was a neighbor of mine. I still live about five blocks away from The Dakota. I had heard on the news that fateful night that there was a shooting outside the Dakota. I decided to high tail it up there to see what was going on. There was blood all over the sidewalk and not many people were there yet. I heard it was him that was shot and heard later that he died at Roosevelt Hospital. I used to see him around the neighborhood. He used to go to this one bakery called "Café La Fortuna" and saw he there quite a few times. I wouldn't go up to him because I had been around celebrities and they don't want you to come up to them. They get that all the time. I never actually met Lennon. I did parties with Princess Diana as a DJ and had a chance to meet her on the greeting line but didn't want to do it. I could have met the Queen of England if I wanted to but choose not to.