A Harmonica Convergence : Tommy Morgan Brings His Session-Work Talents to Live Performance
“I tell people I play harmonica, and they say, ‘Yeah, but what do you really do for a living?’ ”
Tommy Morgan may have trouble persuading some folks that he earns his keep with the humble mouth harp, but that’s what he does, and most people have heard him doing it.
Since first entering a Los Angeles recording studio in 1950, Morgan, 59, has played his harmonicas on about 5,000 sessions. Those dates include 400 feature film scores such as “Dances With Wolves,” TV shows including “The Rockford Files,” “China Beach” and Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, commercials for Mervyn’s and Great Western Savings and records with the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and hundreds of others.
This morning Morgan is performing with the Pacific Symphony for the orchestra’s family concert series. The program includes a selection of film and TV music he’s recorded, appropriately titled “Harmonicas! Harmonicas! Harmonicas!”
That and his two other featured numbers, David Guion’s “The Harmonica Player” and Hernandez’s “El Cumbanchero,” were picked to give kids a memorable display of the sound and capabilities of the instrument.
In the “Harmonicas!” segment, he’ll introduce listeners to the various members of the harmonica family--from a one-inch piccolo model to the two-foot-long chord harmonica. His material ranges from music from the 1963 Sidney Poitier film “Lilies of the Field” to the identifying motif for Arnold the Pig from “Green Acres.” For the flashy “El Cumbanchero,” Morgan will make 11 instrument changes over the course of two minutes.
Morgan expects he’ll enjoy the performance at least as much as he hopes the kids will.
“I have hidden out in recording studios for a lot of years and am only now re-entering the world of live performances,” he said. “I love doing studio work. It’s the most interesting job I know of. But you miss the peaks of a live performance, and the experience of having an audience.”
He had considered filling his urge for live performance by playing on cruise ships, since he also wanted to travel. A performance with the Pacific Symphony in a pops concert last March made him decide otherwise.
“After doing that I decided to work up a package of pops material, because I realized on stage there that I’d certainly rather perform with a very good orchestra than with a semi-inebriated Italian band on a boat,” he said.
So many members of the Pacific Symphony also work in the Los Angeles studios that for Morgan, a performance with the orchestra “is like old home week for me. All the first-chair players are old friends of mine.”
In the world of self-contained rock bands, session players are sometimes referred to disparagingly as “studio hacks,” to which Morgan replies, “Wrong.”
“That image may be true in some sections where people sit in the back row and just saw their way through life. But the studio has some of the greatest players in the world, on the cutting edge of their instruments. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’ll go into the studios and give up.’ You’re faced with new challenges every day in there.”
Music first caught Morgan when he was a child.
“My older brother was taking piano lessons, and I was taking naps. But I’d hear it and after he’d go out after the lesson, I’d go over and play what he played during his lesson, because it turned out I have perfect pitch,” he said. “Music is very natural to me.”
He fell in love with the harmonica, and in his teens practiced three to eight hours every day. He began doing recording dates when he was 17 in 1950, and has continued most of the time since, taking time off to play with the U.S. Air Force Symphony for a year and half. He picked up a master’s degree in composition from UCLA and scored several episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Gunsmoke.”
He loves all types of harmonica playing, from the refined jazz of Toots Thielemans to the raw blues of Little Walter Jacobs. In his work he’s done the gamut, from sight-reading demanding movie scores to answering 1 a.m. calls to come down to an all-night Jan & Dean session.
Among his more memorable sessions was one in which he once showed up, wrote down a part, transcribed it, recorded it and filled out his payment paperwork in a span of 20 minutes. The song he was featured on, the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” became a No. 2 hit.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Morgan wound up working nine separate sessions for perfectionist Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, in recording the four-minute single “Good Vibrations.”
Though such protracted efforts could be exasperating, Morgan said, “Brian was great in those days, great. You’d go in to a session and there would be a blank piece of paper on the stand. You might sit there two or three hours before he’d finally get around to you and give you the notes he wanted you to play.
“He’d show everyone that way. You might ask, ‘Brian, do you want us to adjust or expand this in any way?’ And he’d say ‘No.’ He had everything in his head and he knew exactly what he wanted. He just couldn’t write it down. He was brilliant.”
The most challenging session Morgan ever played must have looked a bit like his instrument-changing act in “El Cumbanchero.” John Williams had him fly to New York to play on the soundtrack for the 1976 Marlon Brando-Jack Nicholson feature “The Missouri Breaks.”
“What always goes through the back of your mind before a session like that is ‘OK, here’s the big guy who comes in from Hollywood, sits down and can’t play the piece.’ Sure enough, I showed up 15 minutes early for the session, opened up the book and just stared at the first tune, and I wasn’t sure it could be played. I stared longer and realized, ‘It can be played, but I’m not sure I could play it now . Maybe after a week of practice.’
“He’d written things that were possible, but barely. I worked out a way I might do it by changing between five harmonicas. We went right through it, and I’d be picking up the next instrument while still playing another one. And it came out fine and went into the can.”
The Pacific Symphony, along with harmonica player Tommy Morgan, presents family concerts of music by Copland, John Williams and others today at 10 and 11:30 a.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $7 to $10. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).