One On One with Lou Pomanti – Part One
One On One with Lou Pomanti – Part One
FYI Interview – By Lisa McDonald – January 7, 2010
You can read Part Two of this interview here.
Having discovered the piano in his parents basement at the age of 12, a young Lou Pomanti not only became the first musician of his family, but knew by the time he reached his teens he’d be playing the keyboards for the rest of his life. Paying his dues Lou Pomanti throughout the 70s in every dive from Scarborough to Charlottetown, Mr Pomanti was more than ready when he got the call from David Clayton Thomas to join Blood, Sweat and Tears for a tour; a two-year tour and experience of a lifetime for a young twenty-something Canadian keyboard player.
Following the tour, Pomanti continued honing his craft by playing six-nights-a-week at Toronto’s infamous Club Bluenote where he was quickly recognized by all the industry types that hung out there. Pomanti soon had a telephone that never stopped ringing with calls coming in from Metalworks and Phase One studios wanting him for full-time session work. Lou Pomanti soon settled in as a studio musician playing with artists ranging from Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray to Triumph and David Wilcox. From 1994 to 2004, Pomanti spent every Saturday night at Toronto’s Orbit Room as the resident Hammond B3 organist with R&B house band The Dexters, while at the same time composing extensively for television and film, as well as conducting numerous broadcasts of the Juno, Genie and Gemini Awards. More recently, Pomanti provided the arrangement of the new Hockey Night in Canada theme song following a nationwide contest on CBC Radio.
Every year since 2003, Mr Pomanti has served as musical director for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and considers the 2007 inductee show of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen as one of the highlights of his career. Currently Mr Pomanti’s music can be heard on the Ron James Show airing Friday nights on CBC Television and with achievements such as these and many more listed at his website, it’s no wonder Lou Pomanti has become a highly respected Canadian artist and three-time Gemini award winner. Lou joins me now to talk about his achievements, his latest work on the new Michael Bublé release, Crazy Love and why the City of Toronto recently came knocking on his door.
Tell me about the session work you did at Metalworks and Phase One studios.
I was the top keyboard session guy in Toronto between the years 1983 and 1990. I’d get calls to play a jingle in the morning, a CBC television show in the afternoon, and in the evening I’d be at Metalworks working on a Platinum Blonde record. I would do 15 sessions a week. As opposed to my career now, I didn’t do much more than wait for the phone to ring. It was fun.
Were you a fan of the artists you were working with?
Well, not all of them. But I didn’t have to go on the road or live with them either. All I had to do was spend three to six hours playing on their records. I loved playing on their records!
So you enjoy working in the studio?
I loved it. Most of the records were done at Phase One. Phase One was the premiere rock studio. You never knew who’d be there. I remember Anvil coming by and they brought their whole Anvil into the studio! (laughs)
But studios aren’t necessary anymore, are they?
Well, not as much. Musicians with their midi studios and their writing studios are one thing, but if you want to record a whole band, you still need a studio.
Variety recently interviewed Devo about performing albums in their entirety. It doesn’t seem like music fans listen to albums the way they were released anymore so Devo, like many other bands, are now performing their albums live. At the same time, Blue Rodeo released not only a new cd, but a number of units on vinyl. What do you think of the current way music is being made and distributed?
It’s a good thing. And I’ll tell you why.
Because the old model of the major record label was an evil empire.
I agree the old way was corrupt and all, but the market is saturated and tougher for good artists to make a decent living.
Along with payola and cocaine, the old guys who signed Loverboy thirty years ago, are still getting a free pass! The old days were all about the mainstream; “What can we do to make a trillion dollars?” If an act in Canada sold a hundred thousand copies, it was deadsville. You couldn’t even recoup your money. Now it’s all about niche. Now, if an act can sell ten thousand units and keep ten dollars for each record, they’re doing great. They may just have a career.
And that’s just it. Everybody wants to make a decent living, right?
Yes! But why should artists be at the mercy of a major record label? I remember when I was in my early twenties, trying to get signed. It never happened. I wasn’t deemed worthy.
Well the way your bio’s looking now, you’ve achieved more success than most have ever dreamed!
I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seen ‘em go.
(Laughs) I hear you’ll be celebrating Motown by directing a 13-piece band for a CBC Radio program. Can you tell me more about that and where it will be held?
It was my partner Malcolm (Blasford)’s idea to pitch a Motown special to CBC Radio. And the CBC thought it would be a good fit with their new series, Canada Raves. The format is like most CBC radio shows in that we’ll do a live taping at the Glenn Gould Theatre, two 45 minute sets which will be edited for broadcast later. I got a nine piece backing band and four featured singers to perform the golden era of Motown, 1965-1975.
Just last October, Michael Bublé released a new cd which debuted at the top of the Billboard chart. What was your role in this?
Crazy Love debuted at the top of the American 200 Billboard album chart and stayed there for two weeks. I contributed six horn and string arrangements, 4 of which made it to the North American release, 5 made it to the European release and the 6th track will be on a subsequent release in early 2010. I did this recording with Bublé last December through my connection with the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I’m the musical director. When we inducted Joni Mitchell and needed someone to sing How About You, we got Michael Bublé, and I provided the big band string arrangement on it. Bublé fell in love with the arrangement and asked, “Why aren’t you doing arrangements for me?” I was like, “uh, call me.” Well, a year went by, and when the CBC lost the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada anthem, there was a contest to find a new one. I was head of the so-called expert panel and put in charge of overseeing the 15,000 entries that were submitted. Bob Rock, (famed rock producer of Metallica records) is a big hockey nut and called the CBC to say he wanted to be involved. Rock, who was working with Michael Bublé at the time called Bublé and said, “Michael, I almost never work in Toronto. Who can I get to help me do arrangements and orchestrations?” Bublé said, “call Lou Pomanti.” Bob Rock and I really hit it off and it wasn’t long before I was invited to work on the new Bublé record.
Were you excited about this?
I’m a big fan of Michael Bublé, so I was thrilled. Bryan Adams and Bublé share the same manager, Bruce Allen, so we did the recording at The Warehouse in Vancouver. I said to the engineer, “This studio is gorgeous. We don’t have anything like this in Toronto.” The engineer said, “If it wasn’t for our benefactor, we wouldn’t have a place like this either.” I guess you need a Bryan Adams-type guy to keep the doors open on a place like that. I even had a 34-piece string section from the Vancouver Symphony to work with. At the end of the sessions, Bob shook my hand and said, “Great job! Now cross your fingers that at least one of these songs makes it to the record”.
Considering there’s been a rapid decline in cd sales, this is an enormous success.
Debuting at the top of the Billboard charts is still a very big deal.
Do you think cds will be available in five years time?
No. Personally, I buy most of my music from iTunes.
Do you like the idea of purchasing single songs like 45s of old, rather than full length records?
You know, on my drive over here I listened to the Stevie Wonder record, Hotter than July.
Oh, I love that song Master Blaster!
I hadn’t heard the record in so long and while I listened, I realized I knew every note. I’m an album guy! My favourite songs were never the singles. I typically liked the third song on the second side of an album. If you look at Billboard, there’s a singles chart and there’s a cd chart. Michael Bublé was number one on the cd chart. The singles chart, to tell you the truth, has a bunch of artists on it I’ve never heard of.
Well it could be just cyclical and it will all come back round to vinyl.
But when you think about it, our generations were railroaded into buying the whole record. It wasn’t always a good deal. A lot of times the albums sucked and weren’t as good as Hotter than July.
Tell me about your early years and working with Blood Sweat and Tears.
I’d been gigging professionally in the Toronto area since I was eighteen. I was in blues bands and lousy show bands, but my first really good gig was with disco diva Patsy Gallant in 1978. However, after the Gallant gig I took this really horrible job as a rehearsal pianist at the Charlottetown Theatre Festival in Prince Edward Island.
Why so horrible?
It may have been okay if I was in the pit orchestra or something but, musical theatre has never been my bag. I’ve been asked in the past to conduct musical theatre in Toronto, but conducting the same show every night for a year is not what I aspire to. And rehearsal piano in a dark Charlottetown theatre was a long, gruelling and thankless job with lousy pay. But while I was out there, I got a call from my dad saying David Clayton Thomas was looking for me!
Now how did this come to be?
A couple guys I knew were in Clayton’s band and the call came from a gig they were doing in Caracas, Venezula. The voice over the phone said (in a gruff David Clayton Thomas voice), “You come highly recommended. Can you meet us in Portland within a week?” I didn’t have a current passport but I immediately said yes. I went to the director of the Charlottetown Theatre Festival and his response was, “Go. It’s a great opportunity.” So I joined Blood, Sweat &Tears in June of 1980, which is 29 years ago already!
For two years I travelled around the world three times with Blood, Sweat and Tears. And for a twenty two year old kid, it was awesome.
I love bands like Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago. I love all the horns!
Did you know Blood Sweat and Tears pre-dated Chicago by a year?
Did they? I just assumed Chicago was around longer.
Their first record was late ’67, early ’68, so Blood Sweat and Tears were really the creators of the jazz rock, pop, horn bands.
You say you toured with Blood Sweat and Tears for two years. Did the band stop performing after that?
We split up when the band returned to Toronto but David put together another band and went on to tour with them. David’s around 66 now, and still sounds great. And he’s back living in Toronto, so I do the odd date with him. But after the Blood Sweat and Tears tour, I joined Ian Thomas’ band as well as the house band at the Club Bluenote with George Olliver. I don’t know if you were part of the scene at that time, but Club Bluenote was a smash!
I remember hearing it advertised on the radio all the time.
Six nights a week, there’d be a line-up from the club all the way down Avenue Rd. A lot of industry people and advertising people made the Bluenote their hangout. From that Doug Riley Cationedgig, I started getting session calls. Doug Reilly called me, Jimmy Dale called me, Moe Kauffman and all these people in the session scene would call. I found myself so immersed in session work that I stopped playing live. And after playing live for six or seven years straight, I was quite happy to settle down in the studio. For the next nine years or so, I spent all my time in the studio. And I gotta tell ya, the money is ten times better in the studio than playing live ever was. And I got these other groovy things too like, a pension. A pension seemed like an abstract concept at 25 but now that I’m 51, it’s not so abstract! Moving into session work was a whole other level. People treated me differently. I was treated like gold. At twenty five years old, it was fantastic. Going in, you never knew who you’d be playing with, but you knew it would be good. It was an honour to play with all the best guys. And I made the money to buy my first house.
Whatever happened to Club Bluenote?
It closed and was torn down for a condo. But you know, playing there in 1982 I made $225 for six nights a week. God, what does that work out to, $40 a gig? No wonder I was happier in the studio!
Your work in television has you writing scores for movies, dramatic series, documentaries, and reality shows. How do you find the time to do all this and wear the hat of Musical Director for the Junos, the Genies, the Geminis and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame?
When I direct a 15-piece band for the Gemini Awards on a live to air situation on nationwide television, it does get pretty hairy. I got headsets, multiple monitors, cues, bumpers to commercials, bumpers back from commercials, themes, intros/outros and walk ons. It’s hairy!
How did you get there? What was the experience that led to getting a gig like that?
Do you remember the Junos when Tina Turner came up to play with Bryan Adams?
It was the Junos back when they were still a cute local thing, 1983ish. Now it’s a concert that moves around but, back then the Junos consisted of industry people having dinner on white table cloths at the Harbour Castle. Jimmy Dale was the musical director and I was in his orchestra. It was a good introduction for me to watch Jimmy do it.
Do you enjoy the live to air experience of such a large event?
It’s a buzz! When you go on air, you focus, then there’s this big adrenaline rush and then it’s over. And when it’s over, it’s over. You don’t have to mix it or auto-tune the vocals or edit it, or anything. You do it and then it’s over.
And no one will ever watch it again.
That’s right. Award shows never air again because of music clearances. It’s too expensive.
In 2007 you were awarded your own Gemini for the arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now as sung by opera star Measha Breuggergosman on the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame broadcast. Can you tell us something about Measha?
Measha Breuggergosman is currently Canada’s most celebrated opera diva; a young black girl who hasn’t even hit 30 yet. Measha has big hair, big costumes, big presence and a big voice. And she likes popular music too, so we got her to sing Both Sides Now. The first half of the song has Measha singing along with the orchestra in her normal pop voice but as the arrangement builds, she goes up the octave into her full operatic voice. Measha gave everyone chills. She sang directly to Joni Mitchell who was sitting with Herbie Hancock in the front row. You could tell they were mesmerized by her. The performance can be watched at my website.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen the film Agnes of God, but I remember being quite moved by it. What was your role in the making of this film?
It was a great movie. That was back in the mid-80s when the dollar was low and Hollywood started going outside of California to record scores. Hollywood came to Toronto’s Manta studio at Sherbourne and Adelaide. But I didn’t write the score, I was the piano player on that.
Did you get to meet any of the actors in the film?
You’ll never find an actor at a scoring session.
(laughter) When it comes to live performance, you’ve shared the stage with a number of greats. One of which was Leonard Cohen.
The same year we inducted Joni Mitchell into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, we inducted Leonard Cohen. After the show, Cohen contacted me to see if I’d be interested in going on tour with him. So yes, I went! We did some Canadian dates and even played outside at the corner of Bay and Bloor in front of Indigo Books.
Yes, in 2006. We were invited to play an outside summer concert and it was jam packed!
I guess it would be. Do you have a Leonard Cohen story?
Leonard Cohen is a funny guy. He’s one of these guys where, if it’s a noisy room he won’t say a word. But if there’s a lull and it grows quiet, all of a sudden he’ll speak. Leonard 1Forexample, we were out for dinner in a restaurant after playing the Montreal Jazz Festival and there were about 13 of us yacking and yacking. Leonard was sitting at the end of the table and hadn’t said a word in over an hour. But when the appetizers arrived, everyone got quiet. I wish I could remember the details, but Leonard began a story that took literally 30 minutes to tell and we all hung off his every word. He’s got a certain gravitas about him. When we were in Oslo, we were on what they told us was the biggest talk show in Oslo; the Oprah of Oslo. Besides us, the other guests were, the Prime Minister of Sweden, Al Gore and the most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. We’re all in the green room, and I’m sitting between Al Gore and the Prime Minister of Sweden, who’s a woman, and we’re all talking to the moderator at the same time. But when Leonard started to speak, everyone shut up. Al Gore was rapt. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was rapt. Whenever Leonard speaks, people hang off his every word.
You can read Part Two of this interview here.
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