We are thrilled to present Part Two of the JBB Exclusive Interview with Tom Austin! In Part Two, Tom reflects on his post-Royal Teens life, his career and passion as an artist, his inspiration for his incredible â€œShort Shorts Seasonâ€ painting, and his thoughts on the Jersey Boys experience!
JBB: What career path did you decide to follow after music?
TA: Well, I had to get a job. All I ever studied was music. A friend of mine managed a hotel chain and since I had always been able to draw very well, he helped me become a draftsman. I could do rendering, but I never took any higher math classes, so I didnâ€™t always know if the buildings I was drawing would stand up or fall down. Wouldnâ€™t you know, I ended up dating and marrying a math teacher?! (laughs)
After marrying Lorraine, she told me I could do anything, so life turned around and I sold real estate and became an appraiser for 38 years and became very successful. I took every course in the world and eventually became the state director of real estate education.
JBB: What inspired you to become an artist? Had you been painting since childhood or did you discover your artistic talents later in life?
TA: Ever since I was a child, I loved to draw pictures. I can actually remember being in first grade and learning how to draw the front of a simple house. Art was always something that fascinated me. I was always very lucky when it came to my art teachers; they always encouraged me to have a career as an artist. After the Royal Teens, I studied art with Paul Ortlip who told me that I had my own style and I should stick to it. I took his advice and like in music, I had to be original. Maybe that is something Bobby taught me. He would always say, â€œNever copy someone elseâ€™s work.â€
JBB: Your â€œShort Shorts Seasonâ€ painting is phenomenal! Itâ€™s incredible to see such a beautiful interpretation of 52nd Street! What inspired you?
TA: You know, Bobby and I had always kept in contact, but we hadnâ€™t seen each other in 35 years! I was invited to Jersey Boysâ€™ Opening Night. My wife and I had a wonderful time in the city. We were sitting with Charlie Calello and Bob Crewe. At the party following the show, Bobby looked over at me. I knew it was himâ€”everyone was interviewing him. He stared at me and looked backâ€”it had been 35 years since we had seen each otherâ€”so we had both really changed! Then, we gave each other a big hug. It was very emotional; I really loved him all these years.
Seeing the show and seeing Bobby, I was so moved. I was trying to think of anything I could do to memorialize the experience. I went back to work, sold houses, but I kept thinking about what I could do to capture the experience. So I went back to New York to take a picture of 52nd Streetâ€”the theatre, the restaurants, and the buildings that were on the street. So, I did the painting and presented one to Bobby and one for Frankie Valli. While painting it, I knew that I wanted to link The Four Seasonsâ€™ past to the present and the future and felt it was like having a hit record in a picture. If you look at the painting, youâ€™ll notice that I positioned the cars not in the limelight, but they were in the background. I also included a green canopy that says â€œRomansâ€ on it, along with the Jersey Boysâ€™ theatre. If you look closely, youâ€™ll see that I included Lindsay Lohan, who was on a billboard on the street the day I took the picture.
JBB: What was your first reaction to seeing Jersey Boys?
TA: My first reaction was to tear up a bit as I sat in the August Wilson with my wife as I stared at the two ticket stubs that Bobby sent me for the premier. He didnâ€™t forget me, I thought, even though it had been over thirty years since I saw him, he didnâ€™t forget me. He wanted me to be there on this night to see that one of the original Royals had made it all the way to Broadway. The funny part is that back in the day, we used to rehearse at the CBS Studio rehearsal hall only two doors away from the August Wilson Theatre. Who would have guessed back then that the day would come when Bobbyâ€™s life story would open on Broadway?
Before the show started, Frankie Avalon came walking down the aisle with his wife Kay and when he saw me he began climbing over people to shake my hand and give me a hug. At that moment my thoughts went immediately back to those old buses and road tours when he would climb into the luggage rack to sleep. I looked at the couple seated next to us and it was Bob Crewe along with a beautiful young woman. Wow! I thought, Bobby arranged to have us sit with his song writing associates. I think I popped a button on my tux with pride. I glanced behind us and there was Charlie Calello and his wife. Yes indeed, my wife and I were sitting among greatness on this night. I was so moved by all of this I knew I needed to memorialize all of this in a painting.
JBB: Your painting has really touched an emotional chord with Jersey Boys’ fans!
TA: Thanks–I was talking with an art expert a while ago who said that beautiful paintings, such as, letâ€™s say, a picture of a beautiful bowl of flowers is commercial artâ€”while fine art has a story and emits an emotion.
JBB: Besides â€œShort Shorts Season,â€ your other artwork featured at your show at Fieldstone Fine Art Gallery is spectacular! What inspired you to create some of those pieces?
TA: Well, when I was a kid, my Dad worked at Bill Millers Riviera. He worked back stage as year round security. In fact, he was the only guy in the whole place that took care of any problems that needed attention. He was on assignment from the Fort Lee Police Department, but would be paid by the owner, Bill Miller. The Riviera was where Sinatra and Sammy Davis with the Will Masten Trio played. Only the best played at the Riviera. I met my first drum teacher there. Anyway, there were no photo remembrances of this great night club, so I needed to remember it through a painting. That is why painting is so interesting to me. The artist can research the era and reconstruct everything as if it were still alive. That is what separates fine art from a photograph. A photo can only capture what the lens sees. In fine art, the artist can capture what his mind sees. Therefore, the artist can insert into his paintings events and things that are long gone from view. That is why I did a painting of the Riviera.
I did the same thing in a painting called â€œGasoline Alley,â€ which depicts the site where NASCAR in the east probably began back in the 1930â€™s. That was on E-29th Street in Paterson, NJ.
I am so lucky that Rick Laurenzo and Mariana Maldonado of the Fieldstone Gallery in Ramsey, New Jersey gave me the opportunity to have a one man show featuring 16 of my paintings in their gallery.
Iâ€™m also especially excited that I am a resident artist in the Salmagundi Art Club, thatâ€™s in Greenwich Village and I have won four awards from the U.S. Coast Guard â€œShips in Actionâ€ art program.
JBB: Do you still perform and play gigs?
TA: Yes, we still play gigs around because we love to do it. The band has some great players in it like Joe Donato on guitar and Pete Larosa on keyboards and sax great Charlie Frommer on sax. Over the years the sax players have made their indelible marks on the Royal Teens, sax men like Larry Qualiano, Frankie Coppola, Frankie Natalie and now Charlie Frommer. Maybe the time has come to try and get some more gigs.
JBB: Although itâ€™s been 50 years since â€œShort Shortsâ€ was on the charts, there seems to be an incredible loyalty and appreciation between you and Bobby, along with the other performers that were on the concert tours back in the late â€˜50s.
TA: I like that you said â€˜loyalty.â€™ Yes, there is definitely a sense of loyalty, respect, and a true brotherhood from those days that we all shared.
Interviewing Tom Austin was truly an extraordinary experience and privilege! I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Tom for sharing his amazing memories and reflections from his early days as a musician; his incredible experiences in the late 1950s as a member of The Royal Teens; and his thoughts on Jersey Boys! Also a special thank you to Tom for sharing his thoughts, inspirations, and samples of his magnificent artistic talent!