by Tom Redmond
An interview with Tony Migliore
Tony Migliore began his musical studies as a child and enrolled in the renowned Julliard School of music where he studied piano, theory and composition. He continued his musical studies at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Tony later went on to serve as pianist and arranger for the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. During this period he also worked on several Broadway and off Broadway performances including “Oh Calcutta and “Promises, Promises”. After finishing his military service commitment he moved to Nashville, Tennessee where his musical experience expanded greatly. As a pianist, Tony Migliore has performed on hundreds of hit record albums earning him numerous awards. In 1978 Tony began to work for Chet Atkins as his piano player after the departure of Randy Goodrum. As Chet Atkins performance changed to include more symphony concerts, Tony was tapped to begin writing the musical arrangements for Chet. Over a twenty year period, Tony wrote over 50 arrangements for Chet Atkins. Starting in 1992, Tony became pianist for pop/folk songwriter Don McLean (“American Pie”, “Vincent”, “Castles in the Air” and many others). Tony lives in Nashville and continues to tour with Don McLean as well as record and produce music at the Chelsea Music Group studio in Brentwood, TN. This interview was conducted in June of 2008, following Don McLean’s sold out performance at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach, VA.
TR: When did you start to work with Chet?
TM: The first time I ever worked with Chet was in 1978. I was his substitute piano player. Randy Goodrum was playing piano with him, and Randy had some other things going on at that time. He suddenly had three hit records all at once -- huge, huge songs, and he started getting busy doing other things, so he asked me if I would go and substitute with Chet's band, and I said, "Okay."
TR: So Randy knew you, but Chet didn't?
TM: Yes, Randy knew me. Chet knew who I was - I had subbed with them at the Music Masters festival once or twice playing with Boots Randolph, and he knew who I was, but we never really spent any time together. And when Randy asked me to do it, he just sent me over some tapes. We had no rehearsal, I just got the soundtracks and played a couple of things.
TR: You learned from just listening to the tapes?
TM: I listened to the tapes, and made a few little chord charts with things that I wasn't familiar with, and so it was very laid back and so easy -- not in terms of the music, but just easy in terms of getting along with Chet and the guys.
TR: Do you remember what some of those early songs were?
TM: Well, he did the stuff that he was most known for, cuts like "Windy and Warm" and "Snowbird" - those things, plus he did what he called "The Medley of My Hit", which was a bunch of things that he produced on other artists. One was Perry Como's version of Don McLean’s song, "And I Love You So." Don Gibson’s "Oh, Lonesome Me." And "Dream" by the Everly Brothers. I remember also that Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go." was in there too.
There were some classic songs. Everyone in Nashville knew Chet - if not personally, by his reputation. He was on this lofty throne somewhere way up above the rest of us. Come to know the man, and he was the most humble, self-deprecating person you'd ever meet.
He couldn't believe people actually paid money to come hear him play. He said, "I'm just a guitar player. I don't do anything - I don't sing, I don't jump around." So he was always humble.
He'd look out at the people in a theater – just full of people - all adoring fans. They were backstage, and they were looking for autographs and they were everywhere.
When I first started playing with him, I honestly didn't know a lot about Chet. Of course, I knew he was one of the head honchos at RCA, a well-reputed producer and he was this famous guitar player. But, being a keyboard player, I didn't pay too much attention to guitars.
However, when you move to Nashville you can't NOT pay attention to guitars.
Early on I had a tendency to play a little busy. He would tell me, "Play a little something, but don't get carried away, just relax." His drummer at the time was Randy Hauser who had just replaced Larrie Londin. Randy and I became friends, and they played so simple on the backbeat and so much more expressive -- something we all learned when we moved to a place like Nashville, and I moved here to become studio musician, and I learned from some of the best, including Chet, Pig Robbins, who could say more with three notes than most people can say with a hundred. So that was a good learning experience from a kid who had gone through some of the finest music schools and had all the technical chops in the world at the time. I realized I didn't have to run up and down the keyboard like Van Cliburn to make a statement.
TR: Van Cliburn, was he the pianist who also did jokes?
TM: That was Victor Borge, who I absolutely loved.
TR: You told me earlier you had “lay out” at some points.
TM: Yeah, the saying was, "Know when to lay out." You sometimes say more musically when you lay out. You actually say more.
TR: I've always believed just from my own experience that when I'm enjoying music, I'm deeply feeling something.
TM: If you're not feeling it, you're dead. You're not really hearing and experiencing the music.
In a case like Don McLean, I noticed when I first started working with him that his breathing becomes part of the song. It's not just taking a breath because you're out of air, but it becomes part of the song and he places his breaths in strategic places to make it effective.
This is a pretty smart thing to do, and sometimes he'll elongate a note and then take an extra large breath and when you listen back to that, that works.
I work with a lot of singers in the studio, and many of them don't really know how to emote (half of them don't know how to sing), but I have to teach them expression and I tell them too that breathing is part of the song.
You shouldn’t be afraid to take a breath and have it be audible. We all breathe, we all have to breathe. It’s okay as a singer to breathe and sigh while singing. And as I said it can be an important component of the song.
Chet “breathed” in his guitar music with his style of playing. There was a beauty in the playing, the pauses and the phrasing of notes.
We did a show one time back in '78 or '79 in New York with Les Paul, who's half of the Chester and Lester albums that came out, and we went up there and played at The Bottom Line. And here was Chet sitting on a stool with his legs crossed, just calmly playing as he did, and when it came to be Les Paul’s turn he had every knob on the amp cranked up to 10, and then he jumped around and did all this stuff, and the contrast -- and I mean no disrespect to Les Paul because he was a genius for what he did. But the contrast between the two was incredible. Chet was like John Wayne in the movie “The Quiet Man".