Tubist of Note by Steven Maxwell
Biffing Around with Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson is an American actor, comedian, writer, and painter best know for his role at Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future trilogy. What many people don’t know is that Mr. Wilson is also a life-long tubist and musician. This is evidenced by his stand-up comedy routines early in his career in which a sousaphone was a part of the show. He is one of very few people ever to play the tuba on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Steve Maxwell: From using a sousaphone in your early stand-up routines to labeling your current entertainment company Dusty Tuba Entertainment, you seem to have a great connection with the tuba. Can you tell us about your connection with the instrument?
Tom Wilson: I’ve played the tuba since the 6th grade, and have always loved it. I played jazz tuba in high school, and did a tour of Austria with a jazz band in 1976. I played percussion on our first gig there, because my tuba was sent to India. But I’m a tuba player. Always have been, and always will be.
SM: How did you get started playing tuba?
TW: I wanted to play drums or trumpet in the band, but my parents inspired the iconoclast in me and suggested I try something that very few people play or understand. I took a tuba home and never looked back. I’ll never forget the confused look the band director gave me when I told him I wanted to play the tuba. “Well,” he said, “Every band director you ever run across from now on is going to kiss you!” It’s a beautiful instrument, and I fell in love with it quickly.
SM: How do you feel like your time in band (I notice you were also the drum major!) influenced you throughout your life?
TW: Music was an integral part of my family’s life, and music was being played or sung at almost every minute of every day. Playing music was a logical extension of my upbringing, and-as with so many others-music has been the foundation of my life as an artist. Music is such a part of me that I don’t have words for it, really. And my memories of playing music in the band are some of the most precious memories I have. To begin playing music, and then to add other players into the mix and make something beautiful? I still feel the power of that, and can’t believe that I’ve had the opportunity to do it. And being the drum major of the band? Trust me on this – that’s way, way cooler than anything that Hollywood has ever come up with. Tom Cruise is celebrated and has a lot of money, but has he ever blown a whistle really loudly and had a giant band rip into “The Stars and
Stripes Forever”? I don’t think so.
SM: I got a chance to see a recording of you on The Tonight Show with Johnny
Carson when you performed using a sousaphone. When did you consider using tuba in your stand-up routines?
TW: I’d been singing and playing the guitar at coffee houses and started doing stand up comedy, and, well, there was this sousaphone sitting in the middle of the floor of my room. Why not use it onstage? I ended up playing tuba on The Tonight Show. I’m one of three tuba players who ever played The
Tonight Show . Johnny congratulated me on being the ONLY tuba player ever on the show, and I corrected him. No, there was Roger Bobo, of course, and there was one more. A tuba player from a military band in Alaska was on The
Tonight Show . In Alaska, a whale had swum into a small inlet and became trapped and upset, and nothing the townspeople did could lead it out to sea.
The tuba player got in a rowboat with his horn and played in the middle of the water. The upset whale calmed down and began swimming in a circle around the boat, and the guy led the whale out to sea. He came on The Tonight Show and played a solo with The Tonight Show Band, and I taped it from the TV with my Dad’s cassette recorder.
Johnny Carson’s eyes lit up. “I remember that!”
SM: Did you use the instrument regularly in your stand-up or was that special for The Tonight Show?
TW: I used the tuba extensively onstage for ten years, traveling all over the English speaking world with it and arguing with airlines about the size of the case and weight, etc. Things were getting tough; I was also traveling alone with a guitar and suitcase-yes, only me, with suitcase, guitar, and tuba! So one day in Cleveland the baggage had to be taken back off the plane and we had to carry the bags across the airport to buses, and I put down the huge case. “My friend,” I said, patting the ravaged case, “I think our time has come.” When I stopped playing tuba onstage, there were two other comedians playing the tuba in their acts. They have since vanished but I have an airtight alibi.
SM: Music has continued to be a part of your life. What are your musical tastes today?
TW: My musical tastes are so eclectic that I hesitate to get into “favorites.” I love classical, jazz, singer-songwriter acoustic music, and I have plenty of good old rock and roll on my iPod. I, of course, also love Howard Johnson and Gravity, Sotto Voce, and lots of tuba music, including that crazy “Zarathustra’s Reincarnation” by Heavy Tuba. They also do a great version of “Get It On.”
SM: How often do you use music in your performances?
TW: When I act in movies I don’t use music, but in every other instance of performing in front of people, I use music always and extensively. Why not?
Life should be joyful and talk is cheap. Make music. I write songs and perform them all over the place and a bunch of them are on YouTube.
Now hear this box:
Check out Tom Wilson on The Tonight Show playing up some funny tuba sterotypes.