Mike Rimmer talked at length to legendary piano player, conductor and arranger TOM HOWARD
The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music describes Tom Howard as "a pioneer of Christian New Age (or ambient) music." Larry Norman aficionados remember Tom for the classic Jesus music songs "One More Reason" and "All Through The Day" for Norman's Solid Rock label. And the Web's Christian Music Archive suggests first and foremost Tom is a "well known string arranger for many artists." However incomplete these summaries are, meeting up with Tom makes one thing soon become clear. Tom is very comfortable with the position the music industry has handed him, as a highly respected behind-the-scenes figure. In a hotel room in Nashville we met up to talk about his four decades in music.
Tom was raised in the Twin Cities, which is the Minneapolis-St Paul area and describes how he spent his youth as "just kind of knocking around there getting into little rock bands." He remembers that time and says, "There was a fledgling music thing going on in Minneapolis, which is a very artistic town, and I wound up hooking up with guys that were more of the jazz ilk. There were players that went on to be Flim & The BBs, and some of your jazz listener aficionado guys will recognise them as kind of a seminal group back then. Jimmy Johnson, the bass player who played on my debut album, has been with James Taylor now forever. But there was great, great instrumentally oriented music coming out of Minneapolis and St Paul at that time. I still check in with friends from back there."
Tom took piano lessons when he was young and that became his main instrument. "My sister was taking lessons," he recalls, "and I started whining about, 'When can I do it?!' I think I was seven years old when I started taking lessons with this very, very sweet lady, very patient, and she gave very formal, traditional instruction as far as that goes. That continued probably into junior high where I became too 'cool' to take piano lessons. I have memories of putting a footstool in the middle of our living room as a little kid and conducting some orchestra thing on the radio, and pretending I was the conductor. So I've always had an affinity for classical music. I got a degree in music theory and composition so I guess I fleshed it out when I was in college."
In the late '70s, Christian music legend Larry Norman gathered around himself a collection of artists who worked as a community together. Randy Stonehill, rock band Daniel Amos, Mark Heard and Tom Howard played on each other's albums, toured together and shared life together in California. Some of them recorded for Norman's Solid Rock record label.
Here in the UK, a release on Solid Rock was always a moment to be celebrated. The albums were well produced affairs and represented the peak of creativity for Christian music in the era. The vinyl albums were always well presented with gatefold sleeves, full liner notes, artist interviews and everything! I still remember buying Tom Howard's debut album "A View From The Bridge" in the autumn of 1978 and reading all the liner notes on the bus on the way home. 30 years after that bus journey, Tom tells me how a 26 year old singer/songwriter/pianist connected up with Larry. "I moved out to California and just started pestering Larry Norman with demo tapes!" He laughs, "I was living up in Santa Cruz, which is up in the Bay area; Larry of course was in Los Angeles. Finally I just got this bee in my bonnet and I got in my car and drove to Los Angeles and I called Solid Rock though it was called Street Level at that point. I got Larry on the phone and said, 'I've driven to Los Angeles and I would like to take you out to lunch.'"
The year was 1975 and Howard confesses, "I was just dumb enough to be dangerous and not know that you just don't do that with rock stars. But we sat down and had lunch and I was thinking that I would have 45 minutes in which to tell him what I'm about. Then, about five or six hours later we'd just talked about everything. We went up to his office, right there in Hollywood Boulevard, and I played him a few songs and he said, 'I want to do a record with you.' That day!"
Tom laughs at the memory of it all. "Larry was a very intuitive guy and he knew whether he wanted to work with somebody or not. I think it was very much a God's timing kind of thing. I mean even the fact that I was prompted to just drive down there and go for it, because I'm not that bold a person normally."
So what was Tom like at that period in his life? "I was driving a delivery truck in Santa Cruz and I was playing organ at a Catholic church," he remembers. "I was making demos on a four-track. I actually got quite aggressive in the demos and brought in a string quartet from UC Santa Cruz and brought in instrumentalists and stuff. That's the stuff I sent to Larry and he's kind of going, 'What's this guy doing with a string quartet on a demo?!'" Tom laughs and muses, "I wish I still had those because actually they were pretty interesting little pieces of music but I have no idea where they are now."
Things then began to gather pace as Larry Norman and Tom Howard started thinking about recording his debut album. Tom was back in Santa Cruz and when Larry visited his parents nearby they got together. Tom remembers how they started talking about one of the album's standout cuts, "One More Reason". He recalls, "I remember him sitting at his kitchen table and doing that little piano riff on the table. He could actually suss out exactly what I was doing and I kind of sang it and he goes, 'Man, we gotta record that!' I'm just going, 'Duh da, duh-da duh duh. . .' And he caught the vision right there because he's a musical guy. That was one of the songs that we had the most fun with. That song was actually written as I was walking home from the beach in Santa Cruz. It says, 'Blue Pacific on a summer's day, rushing in to meet the yellow sand/The view's terrific, I can see Monterey. . .' And I could see it!"
Recording a first album is always a memorable experience though for Tom it wasn't always for good reasons. "It was gruelling," he says simply. "The engineer had an agreement with the guy who had just built this studio and it was state-of-the-art, but the only way that we could get into the studio was to show up at midnight and work till eight in the morning. So that's why it was gruelling. Once I got used to that it was a very exciting process because all of a sudden I'm in there with really great players doing MY music! The first time out, it's just exciting I think for anybody."
Reflecting back from the 21st century, Howard has added musical arrangements to albums and created film and television scores so perhaps it isn't surprising that even his debut album has a certain cinematic feel. "I've always thought in cinematic terms when I write music; even some of the story songs and stuff. With my instrumental records for instance, one of the main comments I get is that it's kind of picturesque; that images do come from the music. That kind of stuff started more from a very recognisable vibe that I wanted to just put into a musical setting. For instance, 'She Likes To Look At Pictures'."
The song is one of the most moving moments on Howard's debut album. He shares the inspiration for the song. "I was working in a hospital and this elevator went up and down from the psych ward and there was this beautiful young girl, maybe 18 or 19 years old, and she was in this psych ward. She had her own little world that she was trapped in for whatever horrible reason and I remember her holding some celebrity magazine or something. But with the vibe that came off that girl as she was riding up the elevator with some doctor or something, I went home and wrote "She Likes to Look at Pictures". That's what that's about."
For me, living in England and buying this music, there was something about those records that stood out from the crowd. I can remember that they were pretty luxurious in terms of the way that they were presented. It was all kind of part of a bigger package and there was something very artistic about it. Was Tom aware of that? "Yeah," he responds, "there was a very conscious effort to present a bigger picture than a piece of plastic that has music on it. So for instance each artist did the interview section and the reason for that was to bring the listener in on the conversations that were going on within Solid Rock. There were a lot of readers; Mark Heard was a great intellectual as well as a fabulous songwriter and really, some of those interviews almost bounced right out of us sitting around drinking coffee and talking about this and that. So what we were trying to do was to portray an entire artistic community and what was going on there at that particular time."
Solid Rock in the late '70s was a very special place for the artists involved. It was a community of shared ideas and discussion. Artists would work on each other's projects and even tour together. It seems to have been a place where they were trying to create art that would cross over. Larry Norman in particular had a desire to not simply create Christian music but music that was from a Christian worldview that would stand up in the mainstream and that people could accept and be challenged by. Was Tom part of that debate? He remembers, "Well that was certainly a conscious thing going on and there were gentlemen's disagreements even within Solid Rock on that very issue. Some people thought you didn't have to say anything about Christianity to make an important statement of faith. And others felt that the name of Jesus had to be exalted. Even within the Solid Rock stable there were varying opinions. But I think the overall thrust of it was that it was better to be able to stand up at least on some level in the real marketplace."