INTERVIEW WITH WALLY AMOS
Wallace “Wally” Amos, founder of Famous Amos Cookies and Uncle Wally’s Muffins, was close friends with Wilson during the 1960s. He was interviewed by phone at his Hawaiian home by Irwin Chusid on May 28, 2013, and shared affectionate recollections of his old buddy.
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IC: The comments you made about Tom Wilson to Eric Olsen about ten years ago were fascinating, having less to do with the music and more to do with Tom Wilson as a man.
WA: Well, we met because of music.
IC: You were working at the William Morris Agency at the time?
WA: I was, yes. I started working at William Morris around 1962. I got out of the Air Force in ’57, and Saks Fifth Avenue was my first job. I worked there for four years, so that would be from ’57 to ’61. I was in the mailroom for a very long time, and after that I started fooling around. I met Tom in 1962 or so.
IC: This was after Transition Records, after he had worked for Savoy, but before he went to Columbia.
WA: When we met he was with Columbia and recording Bob Dylan.
IC: That would be ’63.
WA:: Okay, then ’63. Things become fuzzy; I’m old enough to start forgetting stuff. We met and became friends, and we would hang out every now and then. We didn’t do any business right away. After a while, he kept telling me about these two singers that he had started working with, Simon and Garfunkel. They sounded really interesting, and he said, “I want you to meet ‘em.” They were managed by a guy who was also my friend, Marv Lagunoff, and I think Marv had introduced them to Tom Wilson.
So Tom kept telling me about these two guys, it was fascinating, but our schedules didn’t gel. One evening he was recording them at the studio at 53rd and 7th Avenue, I believe. He said, “I’m recording these two guys!” and he invited me to come by, so I said, “Fine.” As an agent, you’re always on the lookout for new performers, new acts, new clients. I remember walking in the studio and these guys had such an interesting look, a different look. And, man!—the music, the blending of their voices, the lyrics—it was just absolutely magical. I ultimately signed them. It was a magical moment for me, and I was able to sign them to the William Morris Agency. I was the first agent to work with Simon and Garfunkel, and that was because of Tom Wilson. We were really good friends. It was a solid friendship, based as much on fun as anything else. Interestingly enough, I can’t necessarily recall a time when we talked that much about music. We talked about life—life issues. We talked a lot about girls. We probably talked about girls more than anything else. I have those kind of memories of Tom.
IC: You met him long after he graduated from Harvard.
IC: Did he have a business degree from Harvard?
WA: I don’t remember.
IC: He graduated cum laude, and he was president of the Young Republicans Club. I’m curious—you had said to Eric Olsen, “He lived his life unapologetically as a human being, not as a black man.”
WA: Absolutely. I related to that, because I live my life the same way. Black is the color of my skin, but it’s not who I am. Tom Wilson was this very proud guy, and because he was so incredibly bright—he really knew who he was. He didn’t flaunt it, he wasn’t bragging about anything. He just demanded that people respect him. I remember one night we were looking for a cab on 7th Avenue, downtown Manhattan. Back in those days many white cab drivers would not stop for black passengers. This one cab almost stopped, and then drove off. Tom was infuriated. He yelled at the cabbie, “I’m smarter than you, better-looking than you, and I can buy and sell you. So get the hell out of here!” *
IC: Regarding his presidency of the Harvard Young Republicans, in black culture, tracing back from Frederick Douglass through Booker T. Washington, George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston—there’s many people today—Niger Innis, Thomas Sowell—who believe in self-help, getting an education, working hard, being proudly independent. I read a lot of Zora Neale Hurston and she said that she never felt handicapped by the color of her skin. No one was going to stop her from doing what she wanted to do. It seems that Tom Wilson refused to self-identify as a racial victim. He had ideas and initiative …
WA: No question.
IC: … and he wouldn’t assume a position of inferiority on the basis of his skin color. He wouldn’t let others hold him back from pursuing his ambitions.
WA: He and I had that in common. That’s my attitude even today. When I started Famous Amos—the color of my skin is obvious, so what’s next? The color of my skin has never been an issue for me in accomplishing things, in doing what I wanted to do, and I’ve never allowed it to be a hindrance or an issue with someone else. When I started Famous Amos—I’m a high school dropout—and that’s interesting too. I could have very easily been intimidated by Tom Wilson, because he was so much more intellectually brighter than I was. But we connected on a human level. Our personalities and attitudes were similar, so we had all these connections. Being African-American or black—whatever the common phrase is today—was not even a part of our conversation. We didn’t philosophize about life. We were just friends. We had a great time together. I was just so saddened when he died.
IC: Were you friends with him up until his death?
WA: He moved to California. I was already living in California, but we didn’t see a hell of a lot of each other.
IC: He was quite the ladies’ man.
WA: Well, I told you, it’s one thing he and I had in common. That was a stronger connection for us than music. [laughter]
IC: I’ve read anecdotes from musicians who were in the studio with Tom, recording an album, and they said Tom spent most of the time on the phone talking to women.
WA: [laughter] That was a weak spot. It was a weak spot for both of us during those years.
IC: Did it get you both in a lot of trouble?
WA: Probably did. It always does.
IC: Do you know Clarence Avant?
WA: Yes, very well.
IC: He was reportedly the one who recommended that Wilson leave Columbia because he could make better money elsewhere. And that’s what happened. Wilson was involved with so many interesting projects. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, buying these records and seeing his name listed as Producer, but there were no pictures of him. I’m not even sure I knew what a Producer did in those days, except I kept seeing this name on Bob Dylan albums, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Simon and Garfunkel, Soft Machine, the Blues Project, and I’d think, “Wow, this guy’s busy!”
WA: Yeah, he was. I was just reminded—his connection with Dylan, how that became an influence when he produced Simon and Garfunkel. Not on the first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. — they were a traditional folk group. The album was released, and it was just doing okay. There was a radio station, I think in Miami, Florida, that began to play “Sounds of Silence” heavily. There was a lot of exposure in that region. But it was just an acoustic album track; it was not a single. Tom decided—because he was producing Dylan at the same time, and folk-rock was what he had done with Dylan—he decided to go back in the studio and add a folk-rock soundtrack on Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of “Sounds of Silence.” Columbia released it as a single, and as they say, the rest is history. That was really the beginning of Simon and Garfunkel.
IC: From what I understand, they had already broken up and didn’t know what Tom was doing. They found out later and got back together. They might not have done anything else as a duo if Tom had not decided to add the rock backing to that song. It’s amazing.
WA: He was very bright, very ingenious—and he was different. We’re all different and we all have our special genius, but he was one of those guys. Very, very unique. And his stature—he was so damn tall, just this tall, gangly guy. [laughter] But he was a no-nonsense person, too.
IC: Took no bullshit.
WA: No, from nobody. And he didn’t give any either. [laughter] He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.
IC: He was very successful, but everyone who is successful has to deal with failure. How did Tom react to, say, not getting his way or not achieving what he wanted?
WA: I don’t recall seeing him with a negative perspective, regarding failure. He was so self-confident, so strong in who he was. He was so grounded in his own presence and his own intellect, that I don’t think that that was a hindrance because he kept doing things he wanted to do.
IC: He was a businessman, in addition to being a producer.
IC: Eventually he had his own production companies, signed a lot of artists and did management. Would you say he had to be a good salesman to do what he did?
WA: He was, but his skills and his talent spoke for itself. When you are that strong and really know who you are, then—I think it was Emerson who said, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” That was Tom Wilson. His talent and his record kept getting stronger. His legacy kept getting stronger ’cause he kept adding to that. His talent spoke for itself, and his history spoke for itself. He didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. That was never part of his psyche. He knew who he was, and he knew what his strengths and talents were. I don’t think failure was an issue for him.
IC: He started with his brains, his talent, his ambition, his ideas, and his charisma, and after a while he had the accomplishments.
IC: From that point on people were drawn to him and wanted to work with him and accepted his ideas, because he had a successful track record.
WA: That’s the way it happens. Success breeds success.
IC: He was doing less in the ‘70s. He went to England at some point?
WA: I don’t know. When I moved to California, he and I kinda lost touch. We did not communicate a lot. It was because of the distance, and our lives took different paths. In his final months, final years, we were not in close contact, but we were still friends and we’d talk every now and then. I felt a sense of loss when he died. I wanted to have more Tom Wilson in my life. I was sorry about not having continued our relationship, but things happen. People go their separate ways, they follow their dreams, and they do what they’re called to do. That’s just the way life is.
* Amos could not recall exactly what Wilson had yelled; when I read him what he’d told Olsen in 2003, he affirmed the quote.
Transcribed by Bronwyn Bishop; edited by I.C.