On November 24th, a comedy legend will be in Ottawa, giving a moderated talk and taking questions from Ottawans. Tommy Chong became an indelible part of American counter-culture as part of the iconic comedy duo Cheech & Chong.
In this interview we talk about Tommy’s pre-comedy life as a musician, being kicked out of Calgary, performing with Jimi Hendrix, meeting Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones, Lenny Bruce and being blacklisted from Saturday Night Live. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tommy, I completely forgot that you were Canadian! What was Edmonton like in the 60’s? Or were you in Vancouver at the time?
I was in Vancouver. I got out of Calgary in 1958, we got kicked out of Calgary. I had a band in Calgary; it was the first blues band in Canada. And we were actually kicked out of Calgary by the Mayor, because our dances were attracting a “rough” element.
That’s so cool, how old were you at the time?
20. I was 20 years old.
Jesus, and you were already kind of a rebel at 20 years old?
Oh, absolutely, I was a rebel at 16, when I learned how to drive. Back in the day, in the 50’s, there were the jocks at school and then there were the greasers, and I was in the greasers category, and you know in Canada fighting is how you keep warm in the winter.
Did that toughness come from being in a white neighborhood? Because you’re half Chinese.
Yeah that was Calgary, a redneck and cowboy city, so there was a lot of racial hate going on. My brother and I grew up in the country. And the thing about the country is you’re tough, you know? Because you’ve been working out since you were 8 years old, carrying water, chopping wood, just trying to survive Calgary winters, and then just playing hockey as a sport. You know? When you play hockey, there’s no sissies in hockey.
I can’t believe you’re 78! I heard a rumor that you met Jimi Hendrix.
Played with him!
You played with Jimi Hendrix!?
Yeah I was in a band, a Motown band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. And the reason we’re called that is because we were a club band. And we never really had a name. It was my club, or my family-owned club.
We got discovered by Barry Gordy and so when went to Detroit to do our record they named us Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. We never really had a name, but we were good, we were really good. And by that time Bobby Taylor was in the States, and then I wrote a song called “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” And it was the first racially enlightened song, attacking domestic problems, the intermarriage situation and then it sprung a lot of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Love Child” and all those songs.
That sprung those songs?
Yeah, and we had quite a reputation in Vancouver as being a really good band, so Jimi Hendrix had heard of us, you know? Because he was in Seattle, I think he had even seen us in our After Hours club and then when we went to England, he heard that we were there, and then he showed up and sat in. He played bass and we never had a left handed guitar for him so he played right handed bass, so yeah, it was great.
I was in a legendary band long before I became Chong from Cheech and Chong.
So always having the artistic background, and having a rebellious form to you, were you a leader back then?
I was a weird leader; I would always play with people that were really good. Like Bobby Taylor for instance, he was an extraordinary singer, we always had a tough crew. When you play R&B in Calgary, you better be tough! Because we had a lot of cowboys, a lot of racist idiots, ready to take us on. Because you know Canada? You’re bored, there’s going to be a fight breaking out somewhere, because there’s a lot of alcohol, cold weather and idiots, that’s all it takes.
Yeah, it’s not like America doesn’t know about that!
No! I’ve sucker punched a lot of guys back in my day, because Americans. They do not know when to stay away. I remember one time I had a little altercation with a guy and he came right at my face. Next thing you know he’s right on the ground, you don’t get that close to anyone without expecting, you know?
Yeah, I cannot believe that you were a fighter back then. And sorry, could you go back to Jimi Hendrix, because I cannot believe that that’s true, what was he like?
Oh he was good! He was very quiet, He loved our band, I don’t think he said three words the whole time we were together. “Hey Tommy, mind if I sit in?” and that was it.
And then after the gig they pulled the plug on us, because we were having so much fun and the club owner didn’t want to be there all night. So they pulled the plug, shut off the electricity, so we go up to our hotel room and we had a pretty nice hotel room, and that was the first time I saw the power of Hendrix! Because the girls were crawling up elevator shafts to get to our room where the party was at. They were doing crazy things to get to Hendrix and Hendrix at the party, AGAIN never said two words, he spent most of his time of the party in washroom. Shooting up, I imagine.
Oh, you didn’t suspect anything back in the day?
No we knew, are you kidding? We knew what was going on. We had been in Vancouver, we had been in junkie city. We knew every type of hint, and you didn’t have to take a hint. Well, you could hear him play, very heroin induced, everything he did.
Was there any drug you tried that you didn’t like?
Myself? Oh I was a body builder and so I, the only, well… I tried cocaine. Which worked really well to write “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” First time I did coke, I wrote a song. But then I did coke, and I didn’t like the smell. I didn’t like what it did to my nose and my brain, you know?
So my drug of choice has always been marijuana, and after that I didn’t need anything.
I wasn’t a big drinker, if at all. You know, when you play music that’s your drug.
I was never good enough to play in someone else’s band. I wasn’t good at reading music. Our first band, we were punks, we never knew how to count a tune in, we took a gig away from the standard dance band in a park in Calgary, Bowness Park. They had shows and when the guy heard our band, he hired us on the spot and fired the other band, but we never knew how to tune in. We would just look around at each other like… ready? Alright, let’s go!? And then I started hiring really good musicians and I would get music lessons from all the people we would hire.
Isn’t it funny? I could hire some of the best conservatory trained classical musicians. They came up to play with us because we had such a good grove and audience following. So they would teach us different chord changes and music on the spot as we played.
Were you ever afraid? What kept you moving?
Yeah, there were times. The time we got kicked out of Calgary. We drove across the mountains in the middle of winter, all of us stuck in a little Buick, with all our instruments, you know? We went across the mountains going to Vancouver and I was so excited I couldn’t sleep, I stayed up all night and helped the guys drive.
And then when we got to Vancouver, the night life there was incredible. We never had it in Calgary, but in Vancouver it went on every night of the week. Then when we ran out of gigs, and the band broke up, our singer went one way and we went our way for a while, and then Bernie the piano player and I went back to Calgary for a year.
And I worked as a truck driver for a year, and then we got offered to put the band together back, so we quit our jobs and went back to Vancouver. We would drive down to LA, and we just, left what we had to leave and did what we had to do. It was just a beautiful experience, never worried about food, steady income, we always paid out. I don’t know how, we did it but. Uh, usually girls.
Girls would save musicians; you know that old joke? What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.
I also heard you met Robert Plant?
Yeah, outside of the Roxy, just one time. He saw me riding a Citroen, a French car and we had a little conversation about that. But that’s all, but I bet- Cheech and I played with the Stones, we opened for the Rolling Stones at the Forum in Los Angeles. They did a benefit, and that’s how Cheech and I we broke into the rock ‘n’ roll market. We played in front of 17’000 people, which was pretty exciting.
Jesus, you are a great musician then? You had to have been to accomplish that.
Yeah, you know I played with the best, and the thing is with me, I’m always learning. When we played with the fiddle player, we’d play the same song but I would make it my own depending on my mood. I wasn’t a trained musician, so you know what you do when you play for money? You learn what you need to learn. It’s like Dancing with The Stars, I never learned how to dance. But I learned how to dance the routines that they showed me and I could do that real easy.
Oh, you learned the rhythm?
Yeah, and I got that from music, when you listen to a tune over and over and over again, the next thing you know it becomes part of you. So I learned how to learn with music.
You learned how to learn, that’s a cool skill. What were the Rolling Stones like?
They were quiet, they were a weird bunch, they’re really quite not loud. I’m used to football players and the Stones were quiet. Keith was very [self-]deprecating and he – I never bonded with him because we were comedians and not musicians.
But I remember one time, I never told the Stones this but before they were really big, they were struggling, like every other band. Motown got really big, James Brown was really big in Vancouver. We ended up in an after-hours club called the Elegant Parlor, one night there was a ballroom on top that wasn’t doing great business.
The Stones played upstairs, and they had a very small crowd. James Brown was in town and James had all the crowd. All of James Brown’s musicians came by and sat down at the parlor of our little club. The Stones, after they finished their set, they came down to our club, but we couldn’t get them in because there was no room! Literally, it could only fit 75 people,
That night, we had so many people in there that we could not physically get another body in there. So I saw Ronnie Woods in the back breathing at me on stage, and they’re waving at me and I couldn’t do anything about it, it was too crowded!
That’s so cool! I’m so shocked that these talented musicians are so quiet. What do you think that was about? Was it just a social norm at the time?
Well, with music, your instrument is your voice. And when you’re singing, you don’t waste your voice for no reason. And you gotta remember that these guys were always stoned. Heroin sucks you up, makes you very quiet.
Like, I saw John Coltrane, and that was an experience I’ll never forget. We used to hear stories of people hearing Coltrane play and they would run out of the club yelling “Okay I quit, that’s it, I’m giving it up!”
So I heard these stories and when I saw him myself in San Francisco, he played one song for a 45 minute set. One song. And it was so left tempo that the bass player was playing in a pool of sweat, it looked like he was melting. The drummer was, also! The tempo was so fast and they played nonstop for 45 minutes. And the only way it ended was John Coltrane walked off stage, still playing, walking to the bathroom, still playing, while they changed the crowd.
So when I went outside, here comes the guy screaming “I can’t! I quit! I’m going to give it up!”
A photo posted by Tommy Chong (@heytommychong) on
Oh my god, that’s crazy!
See, I was in San Francisco during the 60’s and that’s when EVERYTHING was happening. You could see Lenny Bruce and John Coltrane-
You watched Lenny Bruce LIVE?!
I didn’t see him, but I heard him. I couldn’t afford to get in the club. So what I did was I went around in the kitchen and sat in the back door, and I heard Lenny Bruce do a set.
Do you remember the energy in the room?
It was sparse, it was like a dance club. The one thing about Lenny, you know it wasn’t like today when you get a lot of comedy nuts in there and they laugh at everything you do.
No, Lenny was such a shock jock that he would talk in between jokes, basically, until he got on a riff and then he would go take a risk, and sometimes a riff would be funny! And it just be educational, and that’s what we were listening, to you know? Because he’d get so outrageous that the audience would start talking back to him, and that’s what I heard that night. Getting outrageous, but you know, he never had a set; he would go up there and he would riff on different things. That’s what I heard that night, he was riffing on drugs and being busted that night, basically.
And was he at the time, controversial?
Oh yeah, he had been arrested for obscenity.
See, back in the day the cops ruled. If the cops didn’t like what you were doing in your club, they would shut you down. They had the power, they would arrest you right off the stage. They did that a few times. They had no respect for Black people. And if they could do anything to fuck with them, they would do it, and that’s how it was in the 50-60’s. And then, people like the Stones were playing shows in front of thousands of people, so the act became bigger than the law enforcement.
I didn’t know you guys were in the same timeline. How did Lenny Bruce inspire you in comedy?
Well when I first got turned onto weed, I was still in high school. It was my second try at high school, I started in grade 10 and I bit off more than I could chew. So I quit, and I went working for a year and I went back, finished grade 10.
And then I started grade 11, it was during grade 11 that I got turned on to weed and Lenny Bruce. And by that time I was older, 18 years old and I just immediately knew that I wouldn’t learn anything in school. Everything I needed to learn was in the streets and in the clubs, so I went on and did what I had to do. I became a musician but I always had a goal in mind, I knew I was going to be famous, I didn’t know how, I didn’t know why, when, but I knew it was ordained. I knew it was in the stars.
What happened with you and Saturday Night Live? Was there a controversy?
You know the weird thing is, we were kind of black balled because back in the day when SNL started in the 70’s, [John] Belushi was in Second City, and the community at Second City hated Cheech and Chong.
Well, when I was going to San Francisco and Chicago, I would go to their show ,and they would do funny bits so when we started Cheech and Chong the Improv group, I would do comedy bits that I remembered, just like I would do with music. We would re-learn a Chuck Berry song or a Little Richard song. And I thought nothing of it, so I approached comedy the same way, especially improvisational comedy, because they would do situations and we would think part of what they did and we would add our own stuff to it.
But anybody that was a fan of Second City knew exactly what we were doing, they knew the bits because they did them every night. So Belushi loved us because he was sort of an outlaw too, and when he was going to Second City, he kind of had a career already going on. He wasn’t a disciple of improvisational acting like the other guys were.
So Belushi loved us but the rest of them, they were kind of like snobs. Especially Lorne Michaels, he was the king of the snobs. They had an anti-drug thing going, and we encouraged Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd and them to go that route. Lorne Michaels hated that because Belushi and them would do whatever the hell they wanted to do.
But the minute Lorne Michaels got a hold of SNL, he shut it down. Cheech and Chong were such outlaws that we weren’t fit for television.
The only show we were on was Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. We were such outlaws. I told Dick Clark, we’re going to tear up the set, so just be ready for that. And so he was game for it. I came in like a biker, and Cheech was hitting on chicks, so we really had that bad boy reputation.
Second City really wanted nothing to do with Cheech and Chong. So when Cheech and Chong got back together again, we were so popular that SNL did a skit where the actors play Cheech and Chong. But they still to this day won’t have us on the show, we’ve had different people try to get us on and still it’s a no. They just won’t do it.
Because you were outlaws.
Yeah, because we influenced Belushi and the boys and Aykroyd.
That’s interesting, because that means in their heads there’s like a hierarchy in comedy.
Oh yeah, yeah! In television, it was called working clean, and if you could work clean, man, you could be on television. But I’ll tell ya, on That 70’s Show the producers were big fans of Cheech and Chong so when they asked me to do the show, it was a very honorable request. If I hadn’t done That 70’s Show I wouldn’t have a career today. And that’s why we’re talking today.
Wow, thank you so much Tommy, it was great talking to you!
Okay, have fun, man! Take care!
Tommy Chong will be at the Algonquin Commons Theatre, November 24th, at 8pm, as part of the ACT Comedy Series. Tickets are $30, or $15 for Algonquin College students, and are available online. For more details, see the event page.