A native of Brookline and best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, Tony Levin began playing the double bass at age 10 with an ear toward performing classical music. In high school he learned to play the tuba, another formidable bass instrument yet of the brass variety. It must have been either those lower decibels that attracted him or a quest to master the biggest musical instruments he could manage. Either way, during that time he also started a barbershop quartet—I’m venturing a wild guess here that he sang bass. Brookline High School had excellent band and orchestra directors with whom Tony got to travel on-the-road throughout New England with and solo on the tuba. Tony remains on-the-road to this day. Growing up with his older brother and musician Peter constantly opened the doors of what could be done and Tony would often follow him.
Among his early teachers were bassists from the Boston Symphony, one of whom, Leslie “Tiny” Martin, was his main teacher through high school who prepared and nurtured his musical advancement. Tony also became active for several years with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the great Marvin Rabin and he got to play at Carnegie Hall and at the White House where JFK gave a speech about music and the arts being “good for our youth.” The Boston cultural scene has fostered many impressionable youth on becoming musicians and it was after seeing classical double bass virtuoso Gary Karr at the Isabella Gardener Museum that significantly influenced Tony’s desire to become a bass soloist.
Tony and his brother Peter work as a duo these days, inspired by the “cool jazz of the 50s” they shared together as kids along with dressing up in old school style. According to Tony, “You’ll see us in suits in the session photos – that was an effort to help be immersed in the genre of the music. Back in the 50’s, everyone put on a suit and tie to go to work, even jazz players. It took a while to get used to but it was fun.”
Post high school, Tony attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. While at Eastman, he met and studied with drummer Steve Gadd. He eventually traded his Ampeg upright Baby Bass for a Fender Precision Bass and so began his migration toward smaller and more transportable instruments. In 1968, Rochester native Gap Mangione released his first solo album, Diana in the Autumn Wind, featuring both Levin and Steve Gadd both in their first recordings.
After a move to New York City in 1970, Tony joined a band called Aha with keyboardist Don Preston from the Mothers of Invention and began working as a session musician for an array of artists including Buddy Rich and Paul Simon. Further into the seventies, Tony worked with Gary Burton and Herbie Mann, the latter playing alongside drummer Steve Gadd where Tony also began to emerge as a songwriter, contributing two early compositions “Daffodil” and “Music is a Game We Play” to the Mann album titled First Light. Levin’s creative talents contributed to an album by another native Boston artist Andy Pratt on his 1976 release Resolution.
It was in 1977 that Tony joined as bassist with Peter Gabriel’s band and, on Peter’s first album, not only did he contribute his bass skills but he also stretched out a bit and brought back his tuba and barbershop quartet talents into play on the song Excuse Me. For a more recent and fun example of Tony’s vocal skills, take a listen to his tribute video On The Drums in admiration to all the drummers he’s worked with over the years, including Brookline native drummer, and former bandmate Richard “Shtix” Adelman that dates back to when they were both in a combo in grammar school called The Cavaliers.
Levin has been the bassist on all of Gabriel’s studio sessions and on his many tours around the world. During his time with Gabriel, Levin further expanded his musical horizons and ingenuity along with his guitar tech Andy Moore by creating what’s called funk fingers—two cut off drumsticks that when attached to his fingers produced a percussive and hence funky sound on the strings. Levin can be seen playing them on the 1993 Peter Gabriel video and DVD release of Secret World Live which also featured another native New Englander, singer-songwriter, Paula Cole.
Further exploring new musical horizons, Levin can also be seen in that video playing the Chapman Stick, an 8 to 12 string fretboard instrument played unlike any guitar or bass instrument where the player hammers the strings with the fingertips in the same way that one would strike the keys of a piano. Typically, one hand plays the melody on the treble strings and the other plays rhythm on the bass strings. Levin was an early adopter of the instrument and would go on to use it extensively during his years with King Crimson as well as session work with Pink Floyd and Yes.
After a move to Woodstock New York in 1978, Levin became acquainted with guitarist Robert Fripp which led to his becoming a member of the 1981-1984 incarnation of King Crimson and recording three albums with them. Levin was off and on again as part of King Crimson and has played on a total of 25 King Crimson albums.
Perhaps lesser known is Levin’s extensive session work, having played on over 500 albums as a session musician or a guest artist including notable contributions to John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy album and Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason plus an exhaustive list of other diverse artists such as Carly Simon, Don McLean, Ringo Starr, Joan Armatrading, Natalie Cole, Alice Cooper, James Taylor, Bryan Ferry, Paul Simon, and Lou Reed among others. There have been several incarnations of progressive bands featuring Tony Levin from the late nineties to the present.
Even lesser know is Levin’s penchant for archival photography and book writing. In 1984 Levin released Road Photos, a collection of black and white photos taken during his travels with Crimson, Gabriel, Simon, and others. Another book of photos focusing on King Crimson’s travels in the 1980s, The Crimson Chronicles volume 1, was released in 2004. Levin has also authored a book of career anecdotes and road stories called Beyond the Bass Clef. For more about Tony’s photographic archives and writing, check out Tony Levin’s Website and Road Diary.
In 2006, Levin released Resonator, The first album to feature him as a lyricist and lead vocalist. In 2007 he recorded the album Stick Man, an album of pieces recorded on the Chapman Stick that highlights Levin’s skills on the instrument as well as the electric bass and upright bass. This concept continued onward with the formation of the band Stick Men formed in 2007 with drummer Pat Mastelotto as a vehicle for progressive rock music performed almost exclusively with Chapman Sticks and drums. Levin has recorded a total of fourteen albums with Stick Men.
In 2013, Levin officially rejoined as a member of the eighth incarnation of King Crimson, alongside founder Robert Fripp, guitarist Michael “Jakko” Jakszyk, the returning original sax player Mel Collins, and drummers Pat Mastelotto, and Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree). The 50-year plus legacy of King Crimson continues to this day with Levin in the current lineup playing bass, Chapman stick, synthesizers, and adding vocals.
Since 2014, Tony has also performed with his jazz group The Levin Brothers, featuring his brother Peter on piano, guitarist Jeff Ciampa, and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel. Check out their live performance The Levin Brothers @ Daryl’s House from January 2020. Also take a listen to this jazzy performance of Tony in The Bucket List with guitarist Phil Keaggy and drummer Jerry Marotta live from Daryl’s House. Sometimes We Up | Phil Keaggy, Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta (The Bucket List Live at Daryl’s House)
From the very start, Tony Levin was and continues to be a phenomenally gifted musician whose talents shine through, regardless of whichever band or incarnation he performs. It’s a privilege here in New England to be able to claim Tony Levin as one of our more prolific and premier musical native sons.
(By Karl Sharicz)