Ross Tompkins was one of my greatest friends in life. More than that, he was a great pianist and teacher to me. Ross knew every tune ever written, although he used to say to me, “Jack, nobody knows every tune ever written.” He was close though. He just about knew every tune and he showed me the end of “Can’t Get Started,” which I didn’t know and also he corrected me a lot with music. And I corrected him one time on Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town”; when it goes major on the last half, he didn’t know that. That’s about the only time I ever corrected Ross. But he was a fantastic piano player with a great harmonic sense and a great accompanist. I heard him one time with Sarah Vaughan. They played “If You Could See Me Now” and it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. I loved Ross.
We were both from Florida. I was born in Jacksonville and I know he lived in St. Augustine (which is real close to Jacksonville). We both had experience living in Detroit too, ’cause I went to school there. I was older than Ross, but I remember meeting him in Jacksonville and I played with him one time, and he was always immaculate. He dressed to the nines and he was just a kid then…maybe 14 or something, but he was all dressed. Ross looked good. He’d show up sometimes in a tuxedo. Very supportive of me, too. When I’d have different bands he would always be there to support me.
We’d go work anywhere. One time we worked in La Jolla. We drove down there in my little Honda, and on the way down there Ross would never say a word. We’d go all the way just listening to the radio, listening to the music. Then we’d get to the job, and work the job, just the two of us, and Ross would have a few drinks. Then on the way back he would give me a music lesson…never shut up. He talked the whole way back.
One time we went to work at the Sheraton Hotel in Vancouver and stayed there, too. And Ross was immaculate. He had the bed made up like the maid would make it up. And he had his pants folded on the hanger with the crease in them and everything. He was a very neat guy. He played that way too…very neat…very immaculate. Now I, on the other hand, was filthy and would have everything all over the room and everything; old plates from room service…I’d order fish…the meat would be gone off it, but just the fish bone would be on the plate and it would be lying on the floor. And we had a maid there, a Chinese maid, and she would go in to fix Ross’ room and she would say, “Oh beautiful, very nice, very nice.” Then she came in my room and said, “What happened here!”
Ross was a character. We called him “The Phantom.” He was known as “The Phantom” ’cause if he was at a job and he didn’t like it he would just leave. He would disappear, just the same as “The Phantom” did. Also, sometimes the next morning he’d look kind of purple. And he would never tell you anything about his life or anything. He’d never tell me anything. I’ve talked to girls that he knew though and he talked to them on the phone like five or six times a day. Now, if I called him on the phone I’d say, “How ya doin’ Ross?” He’d say, “Well, ummm…” I’d say we’re going to do this job and he’d say, “OK, good, well, see you there, good-bye.”
One time, Ross got drunk and he went to his apartment, but it was the wrong apartment. All the apartments looked the same, and he thought he’d been locked out so he broke the door down and it was the wrong apartment. He got arrested that night. And we were doing a commercial the next day and he came to the commercial. Well, his wife Annie called me and said, “He’s in jail, you gotta do something,” and I said, “OK,” but he got out on his own. And he came to the commercial and I asked, “Ross, how you doing? Is everything alright?” and he said, “Yeah, fine.” And never said a word about being in jail or breaking a door down or anything. Most of the time he never got in trouble. I don’t think he was ever arrested or anything…except for that one time. But, you know, it could have happened to anybody! I’ve certainly broken a few doors down myself.
When I was in the hospital he came every day and sat there. He’d go outside to smoke. He was a heavy smoker. He never thought of quitting. I finally quit in 1986 and I haven’t smoked since. But we worked at Hamilton’s, a cigar club, and that was just like smoking so I didn’t have to. We worked there, just the two of us. We worked a lot of jobs just the duet.
Ross was just a sensational piano player. Never made a mistake. I loved him and I’ll miss him. I miss him now.