Tom Mendel – Chicago’s Pit Bass Boss
Tom Mendel has dug himself a deep pit, and spends much of his time down there, playing bass. As one of Chicago’s top-call theatre and studio bassists, Tom has played for a long list of musical productions in Chicago’s orchestra pits, as well as on Broadway, and on tour across the country. His credits include productions of Rent, The Lion King, Les Miserables, The Full Monty, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, West Side Story, Cats, Grease, Dreamgirls, Peter Pan, Kiss Me Kate, and Love, Janis, among many others.
Currently, Tom is playing for the smash hit Wicked at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. As a jingle session player, Tom has laid tracks for many big name clients like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, Budweiser, Michelob, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Allstate, and many more. He has also performed on the soundtracks for The Flintstones movie, David Mamet’s House Of Games, as well as CDs with Harry Chapin, June Shellene, and Hollis Resnik.
Tom also acts as contractor for many shows, is President of the Chicago area chapter of the Theatre Musicians Association, and is the owner of Oasis recording studios. Away from the world of music, Tom is a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Master Instructor with a wide range of specialties. He has been diving since 1978, and teaching since 1995.
EF: When did you start playing bass?
TM: I was a late bloomer. I started playing bass in July of 1973, a month before I turned 20.
EF: Have you done much live work besides the theatre?
TM: Yes, quite a bit over the years. I was originally a rock & roller from Louisiana. I moved to Chicago in ’74 and have played everything from nightclubs to jobbing dates (weddings, etc.) to jazz, R&B, orchestral work, festivals, etc.
EF: Are you currently doing any other live work besides theatre?
TM: I don’t sub out much, but yes, whenever I feel it’s a ‘cool’ gig. It not only keeps your chops up, but also gives you the ‘immediate gratification’ of having an audience that is there to listen to you instead of being one of the unsung heroes supporting a theatrical production.
EF: How did you get into the theatre scene?
TM: I was playing in a jazzy, R&B fusion band at a club in Chicago called the Jazz Bulls with a guitar player named Rob Tomarrow. He asked me if I wanted to do a show tour. My first response was, “Are you kidding me? A @#$%^&* show?” But when he told me it paid about double what I was making in town, I immediately said “yes”. My first show was a U.S. and Canadian tour of Godspell beginning in Dec. of 1978. The tour ended with a booking at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater in 1979. The Lincolnshire has shows 52 weeks a year, and they liked my playing—so I became their house bass player through 1983. My son, Ashley (currently another Lakland endorser), was born in ’82 and the steady income of theater playing seemed to be the responsible thing to do. I played my first downtown show in 1983 and was then asked to play six weeks of Dreamgirls at the Shubert and have been “downtown” since. I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing theater work steady since ’78.
EF: What kind of skill set is required for that type of work?
TM: If you want longevity, you must be a VERY GOOD doubler. You must be able to play acoustic and electric bass well (that includes fretless). I call myself a “jack all styles”. You have to be comfortable playing rock, jazz, funk, R&B, Dixieland, legit (classical), two beats, Latin, etc. Your reading must very good. But I think that “feel” and “pocket” are two of the main things that keep you working.
EF: Is it still possible for someone to break in to that scene, or is it "all sewn up".
TM: Since the decline of studio work, which seems to have begun in the 90’s, theater work has in many ways, become the most sought after work in New York and Chicago. This is because it not only pays well, but you’re allowed to sub out a percentage of the time to do other work.
In reality, there are very few shows and most of the time, only one bass player per production. In New York, new people are tried out quite often as subs. Since there are less shows in Chicago, there is less sub work here.
I would strongly recommend trying to play for community theaters (like I did at the Marriott Lincolnshire) and hone your ‘theater chops’ there. Because of the paucity of work downtown, you really need to do well the first time you sub. Having said this, I feel that there is always room at the top. If you do well, are reliable and have a good attitude, eventually you’ll get in.
EF: Has pit work changed much since you started?
TM: Yes, quite a bit. Shows have become much more demanding of bass players. Composers and arrangers have put a lot more emphasis on rhythm sections. The size of the orchestra has become smaller for many shows, with less big sections like brass, woodwinds & strings. It’s much more like chamber music with an equal emphasis on all the instruments in the ensemble instead of ‘section’ leaders.
I’m currently playing Wicked in Chicago. Conrad Adderly originated the bass part in New York and it sounds fantastic. The part calls for upright bass with a low-C extension (arco and pizz), 5-string fretted and fretless electric basses. The styles represented range from legit to rock to fusion (one of the song directions says: “get your Jaco on”) to R&B to typical show-type music.
Before Wicked, I played The Lion King, which also called for acoustic, fretless and fretted 5-string electric. Styles included legit to R&B to rock to African to reggae, etc.
EF: How do you balance doing tours with staying active in town, do you lose any momentum going on the road?
TM: I choose to limit my touring. The term “out of sight, out of mind” really applies. Once you become established as one of the guys, it’s easier to go out for a “minute”. I played on Broadway 3 times in the 90’s, but I would continually fly home for jingle sessions and occasional “cool” gigs. I made sure not to become forgotten at home (in Chicago).
EF: What does being a contractor entail?
TM: The contractor is a liaison between the players, the union and management. You really need to know the local talent and make choices based on the orchestration of the show, the abilities of the players and their personalities. I believe in rewarding players that have played well for me on previous shows with hiring them for a current show that I’m contracting, but ONLY if they’re the right person for the chair. No one wins by hiring based purely on friendship or favors. The player has to ‘fit’ into the ensemble or it can be disastrous.
EF: Are you still doing jingle and film dates?
TM: Very few jingles and almost no film dates. The age of synths, samplers and home studios has really changed that line of work.
EF: Is Oasis a full service studio? What type of work gets done there?
TM: I had Oasis built in 1988. Oasis has recorded jingles, film, voice-over, song demos, etc. Currently, I’ve limited the amount of outside projects in order to selfishly take advantage of it.
EF: You've been with Lakland for many years, when did you first start playing them?
TM: Yes, I’m one of the original endorsers. Hugh McFarland (the “land” of Lakland) was a luthier that had learned a lot of his craft from Ed Reynolds who was the main repairman and builder in Chicago until he moved to Austin almost 15 years ago. Hugh had me trying out basses that he’d make. He hooked up with Dan Lakin (the “Lak” of Lakland) around ’92 or ’93 and they really got it right.
EF: What models do you use?
TM: My first Lakland was 55-94 which recently I had set-up with a high c string. It’s killin’. I was fortunate enough to be around when Lakland first got together with Joe Osborn and designed their 4-string “Osborn” model based on his ’62 Jazz. He is from Shreveport and I’m from Monroe, La. It was amazing talking to him about his illustrious career. I played and conducted a show called Love, Janis, which was based on the music of Janice Joplin. Dan loaned me his personal Osborn 4 and I immediately ordered one. It’s everything you think a great Jazz bass should be and more. I’m using a Joe Osborn 5 string fretted on Wicked. The soundmen love it.
EF: What do you like about your Laklands?
TM: The necks are incredible. They feel great, and they sound great. I’ve never had an engineer or soundman not dig them. They also look great!
EF: Are there any new projects on the horizon?
TM: Carey Deadman, who is one of the first call trumpet players and arrangers in Chicago, and I are threatening to put together a Tower of Power type horn band. We’re talking five horns, guitar, keys, bass and drums. I’m really looking forward to it. I just try to keep myself open to possibilities. Sometimes they come true!