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Tom Scott Makes the Sajak Connection

April 09, 1989|LEONARD FEATHER

By the time he reached the age of 20, Tom Scott was already a near-veteran of the studio and club scenes in Hollywood. He had two Impulse albums to his credit, had mastered a dozen instruments (saxes, clarinets, flutes), played with Roger Kellaway, Oliver Nelson and Don Ellis, and was a regular on such TV series as "Ironsides" and "Good Morning World." Like his father, the veteran studio composer Nathan Scott ("Dragnet," "Wagon Train," "Twilight Zone"), he had also embarked on a composing career.

At age 40, with a 1,000 credits as a writer for films and TV shows, winner of seven Grammy nominations and one Grammy (for his arrangements on Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark"), Scott had a busy and rewarding life in music. It seemed like the wrong time for an abrupt change; yet that is what happened late last year, when he was approached to lead the band on the new Pat Sajak Show.

"It's odd," he said the other morning before leaving for a rehearsal at CBS, "a year ago my wife and I saw Pat Sajak hosting 'A.M. America,' and we noticed what a witty job he did; we thought he'd make the ideal host for an evening talk show."

Approached late last year by the producer of the projected new series, Scott arranged to meet Sajak, "so that we could see if the chemistry would be right between us. Well, for a week I asked around about him, to get an idea of what he was like. On the basis of what I heard, I decided how to handle the meeting.

"I said, 'It's nice to meet you. I must tell you I've been spending the last week, in anticipation of this meeting, trying to find someone who would tell me that Pat Sajak is an ass, but I couldn't find anyone to say that.' He laughed and said: 'Obviously you didn't speak to my ex-wife.' Anyhow, we hit it off right away and became buddies."

Once assigned the job and told he could use seven sidemen, Scott had to decide on an instrumentation. "I could have had four horns, but so much contemporary music, like country and rock, doesn't use horns much; so along with Jerry Peters, who's a very versatile pianist, composer and producer, I got a second keyboard player, Barnaby Finch, who can cover various horn or string parts on the synthesizers.

"My drummer, Art Rodriguez, and bassist, Tim Landers, both toured Europe last year with me and Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour. They were happy to take a job that would keep them in town.

"Eric Gale, a great guitarist, had just moved here from New York, so he was a natural choice; and to cover some kinds of contemporary and rock things I got Carlos Rios, who's played guitar with Chick Corea and was Lionel Richie's musical director."

With one chair still open, Scott decided to use a second horn. "A friend at CBS told me about David Koz, a young fellow who plays saxes, flute and the EWI--electronic wind instrument. I didn't know him, just called him out of the blue, and he's worked out great. Besides, he's about 26, and most of us in the band are around the 40 mark, so it's nice to have a young, good-looking guy in there."

Using quality as his only criterion, Scott was pleased that he wound up with "a sort of Noah's Ark--a couple of black guys, a couple of Latinos, a couple of Jewish guys; I'm sorry we don't have a lady in the band, but I approached Patrice Rushen and she was too busy."

The program is building up a fair track record for musical guests; sometimes Scott is consulted for ideas. It was he who was responsible for the appearance of Take 6, the phenomenal a cappella vocal group. "They were on the show, as it turned out, the night after their big Grammy sweep, so I became a hero for recommending them.

"We've had Chick Corea; George Duke has been booked. Milt Hinton was a wonderful guest, playing the bass with us and talking about his autobiography."

The schedule, as for any five-days-a-week show involving musical guests, is sometimes hectic. "Depending on how many numbers I have to arrange or rearrange, I'll be busy from at least noon, then start rehearsal around two, and we tape the shows from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

"Editing down some of the charts can be challenging and fun. When George Burns was on, they gave me a full orchestral chart that must have been decades old, with all kinds of pencil scratches; I had to adapt it to our small group," Scott said.

Among his chores is the assembling of "playon" music for guests associated with a particular theme. This is where Scott's state-of-the-art computer comes in handly. "I've compiled, via the computer, about 70 'playons' for specific people; like, if it's someone from 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas,' we'll use the thing they're best known for," Scott said.

Like his sidemen, Scott is happy to be working steadily in town, the more so since (as Sajak's viewers learned from his bulletins over the preceding and subsequent days) Scott became the father of a daughter, Owen, born just two weeks ago.

Another advantage of this milieu, he says, is the respect accorded him. "Unlike some areas, such as motion picture composing, you don't have people looking over your shoulder, scrutinizing and questioning every move you make. The people I'm working with now trust my instincts."

Inevitably, the time-consuming schedule has necessitated his turning down lucrative offers from what used to be his main sources of income. The other day, he said, his agent had called to report an offer for a TV pilot.

"Actually he was just as happy I turned it down, even though he's getting no commission on the Sajak show. As he put it, 'Listen, this show is doing more for your image, your recognition factor, than anything you could possible do elsewhere. Later on, it will be even easier for us to get jobs for you, on the strength of the reputation you're building now."

And when might "later on" be?

Scott smiled. "Frankly, I think I'm going to stay with this show as long as it lasts. I'm having a great time."

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