Interview: Sonny Rollins


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I have two articles in today's Wall Street Journal—a “House Call" column for the Mansion section on Sonny Rollins (link soon) and an “Anatomy of a Song" column for the Arena section on the Four Tops' Reach Out I'll Be There (go here).

Sonny first. Two weeks ago Sonny invited me to up to his house in Woodstock, N.Y. Sonny recently moved there from Germantown, N.Y., where he had lived since the 1970s. Sonny made the move because his former home, a late 19th-century farmhouse, was becoming a bit dangerous and uncomfortable. Too many steep stairs and plenty of cold drafts. His new house is more linear in design and has plenty of heat as well as a swift new gas fireplace that gives him all the heat he needs. Sonny rehearses in there and the room is quite cozy.

As we sat in his living room, we talked about the move, about the house, about the saxophone note that sounds best in the space, about the trees and the moon, about being recognized in town and about his home's distance from New York. Said Sonny: “Up here you're too far for people to drop by. I'm a very private person and I'm able to express that part of my desire as a human being here."

We also talked about his two Earl Coleman tracks on Tour de Force (1957) and then listened to Art Tatum. Why Tatum? As Sonny said...

“I don't know why. Maybe I'm longing to get grounded. I used to listen to a lot of music, including Art Tatum. But I stopped listening to music. Maybe I don't want to get too untethered, to make sure I'm back to what I know a little bit. That's not something I'm into—trying to do what I did in 1957. I'm tyring to avoid that 90% of the time. So I think it might be trying to get back to something I know well, maybe. I love stride piano. It's familiar but it's uncharted territory with Tatum. It's enjoyable but it's also a lesson."

My last Wall Street Journal article on Sonny was in 2010, when we drove up to Harlem to visit his old neighborhood (go here).

As for the Four Tops, I've always loved Reach Out I'll Be There. Before conducting interviews for the drill-down column, I listened to the 1966 hit roughly 30 times. The more I listened, the more something sounded familiar. Then I put on Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone. And there it was, the influence. When I spoke to songwriter Lamont Dozier, he laughed and talked about how he and Brian and Eddie Holland were listening to Dylan then and wanted to create an unusual song for Four Tops' lead singer Levi Stubbs that had Dylan's shout-singing style of delivery.

I also interviewed the legendary Paul Riser, Motown's strings arranger, and the great Duke Fakir, the last surviving member of the Four Tops. [Pictured above: Lamont Dozier]

Here's Sonny and Earl Coleman on Two Different Worlds...

And here are the Four Tops singing Reach Out I'll Be There...

And here's Gloria Gaynor's version...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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