Nighthawks at the Diner is a 1975 album by Tom Waits, released on Asylum Records. The name is inspired by a 1942 painting by American Edward Hopper that is commonly called Nighthawks at the Diner but is actually just titled Nighthawks.
The album’s working title had been “Nighthawk Postcards from Easy Street” but they shortened it to Nighthawks at the Diner.
The album was recorded “live” in Record Plant Studios, in front of a small invited audience. This gives the record an intimate feeling as Waits spends time telling stories, jokes and explaining the stories behind his songs through seven separate introductions.
- Pete Christlieb – tenor sax
- Bill Goodwin – drums
- Jim Hughart – upright bass
- Mike Melvoin – piano, electric piano
- Tom Waits – vocals, piano, guitar
Bones Howe, the album’s producer, on the recording of the album:
“We did it as a live recording, which was unusual for an artist so new [...] Herb Cohen and I both had a sense that we needed to bring out the jazz in Waits more clearly. Tom was a great performer on stage [...] So we started talking about where we could do an album that would have a live feel to it. We thought about clubs, but the well-known ones like The Troubadour were toilets in those days. Then I remembered that Barbra Streisand had made a record at the old Record Plant Studios, when they were on 3rd Street near Cahuenga Boulevard [...] There was a room there that she got an entire orchestra into. Back in those days they would just roll the consoles around to where they needed them. So Herb and I said let’s see if we can put tables and chairs in there and get an audience in and record a show.”
Howe was mostly responsible for organising the band for the “live show”, and creating the right atmosphere for the record:
“I got Mike Melvoin on piano, and he was one of the greatest jazz arrangers ever; I had Jim Hughart on upright bass, Bill Goodwin on drums and Pete Christlieb on sax. It was a totally jazz rhythm section. Herb gave out tickets to all his friends, we set up a bar, put potato chips on the tables and we had a sell-out, two nights, two shows a night, July 30 and 31, 1975. I remember that the opening act was a stripper. Her name was Dewana and her husband was a taxi driver. So for her the band played bump-and-grind music – and there’s no jazz player who has never played a strip joint, so they knew exactly what to do. But it put the room in exactly the right mood. Then Waits came out and sang ‘Emotional Weather Report’. Then he turned around to face the band and read the classified section of the paper while they played. It was like Allen Ginsberg with a really, really good band.”
Dewana was an old-time burlesque queen whom Tom had met on one of his jaunts to the Hollywood underworld. She warmed up the crowd – which was largely made up of friends and acquaintances of Waits and crew – and everyone was primed for a drunken voyage into an Edmund Hopper painting or a Charles Bukowski poem. Waits didn’t plan on disappointing them. Bones had put together a live band from the session musicians who had worked on The Heart of Saturday Night.
Jim Hughart, who played upright bass on the recordings recalled the experience of preparing for and recording the album:
“Preparing for this thing, we had to memorize all this stuff, ’cause Waits had nothing on paper. So ultimately, we spent four or five days in a rehearsal studio going over this stuff. And that was drudgery. But when we did actually get it all prepared and go and record, that was the fastest two days of recording I’ve ever spent in my life. It was so fun. Some of the tunes were not what you’d call jazz tunes, but for the most part that was like a jazz record. This was a jazz band. Bill Goodwin was a drummer who was associated with Phil Woods for years. Pete Christlieb is one of the best jazz tenor players who ever lived. And my old friend, Mike Melvoin, played piano. There’s a good reason why it was accepted as a jazz record.”
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