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An interview by Douglas Payne

Keyboardist Tom Coster (b. 1941) originally came to music in his native Michigan by studying the accordion. While living in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s, he performed as part of the jazz/rock group the Loading Zone.

That's where guitarist Gabor Szabo heard him perform in 1971. Szabo, whose band was becoming more electrified at this point, invited Coster to join his group, which performed frequently throughout the West Coast during 1971-72.

Carlos Santana, a regular attendee of Szabo's Bay area concerts, was changing musical directions in 1972, having disbanded his famed rock group. Santana invited Coster to join his new group. The two played and toured together regularly and recorded often, beginning with Santana's 1972's album, CARAVANSERAI, through 1979's ONENESS, which prominently featured Coster's playing as well as a sleeve note dedication to Gabor Szabo.

Coster contributed several strong songs to Santana's band book, including the haunting "Europa (Earth's Cry, Heaven's Smile)," which the guitarist still plays to this day. Coster also began doing session work at this point and can be heard on albums by Labelle, Geoff Muldaur and Pete & Shiela Escovedo.

During the 1980s, Coster started recording under his name, recording albums for the Fantasy, Headfirst and JVC labels. He was also heard in a pivotal role as part of Steve Smith's fusion band Vital Information.

Coster has since reunited with Santana on several occasions, recorded the engrossing CAUSE AND EFFECT (1998) with Larry Coryell and contributed outstanding organ work to guitarist Paul Hahn's impressive debut, PRESIDIO EPILOGUE (2002).

Clearly, Coster's best and best-known work is done in collaboration with authoritive guitarists. This interview, conducted by e-mail during August 2002, focuses solely on Mr. Coster's recollections and remembrances of the time he spent as part of Gabor Szabo's band. 

Tom Coster: Playing and knowing Gabor was truly a wonderful experience and an important step forward in my musical career. At the same time it was painful to see and experience the power that drugs had on an absolutely wonderful and talented man and how it effected both him and his family and eventually caused his death.

Douglas Payne: How did you first hook up with Gabor?

Tom Coster: This question is the one that I really don't quite remember.  At the time I was playing with a Bay Area band called the Loading Zone.  Both Doug Rauch (electric bass) and myself were in the band. along with Linda Tillery (vocals/flute) and Wendy Haas (Rhodes/vocals). My recollection is that Doug Rauch and Wendy told me about Gabor putting together a new band with electric instruments as opposed to the more acoustic band he had been playing with. and that I would be a good candidate since I was playing Hammond B-3. clavinet and Rhodes. I told them I was interested and was soon called by Gabor's manager to come to L.A. and rehearse with Gabor.
Douglas Payne: How long did you actually play with Gabor's band?  The only information I have is that you appeared in a Szabo quintet performance at The Walrus club in Seattle in June 1972.

Tom Coster: I played with Gabor for about one and a half years to the best of my knowledge. We rehearsed at his home in the Beverly Hills just above Sunset Blvd. and our first gigs were at Donte's Jazz Club in Hollywood. We actually played at Donte's quite a few times. It seemed to be a stomping ground for Gabor. I loved the band and I felt like I was finally in a band that was going somewhere.  I was 30 years old at the time and I felt time was running out for me as far as ever making it in the music industry. I was also married with two small children.

This band was unique for Gabor since it was all electric and he had to change his guitar set up since he had to keep up with us volume wise. He got a Fender Twin I believe and also had a wa-wa pedal and a Mu-tron Univibe for his electric Ovation guitar.  There were some new things happening for him with this set up and he seemed to be digging the fact they he was being inspired and creative in a different way.

We also played at the famous "Shelly's Manne Hole" in L.A. (owned by the famous jazz drummer Shelly Manne) and we were told we had to turn down since our music was bleeding into the "Wally Heider" recording studio located just above "Shelly's." We also played at the "El Matador" in San Francisco several times. This is where Carlos Santana would come to check us out. He of course loved Gabor and his music. We played the "Lighthouse" in Hermosa Beach for 3 or 4 nights which was
awesome also. We played other concerts and clubs in the Bay Area as I recall as well as the "Walrus" in Seattle before I left the band.

Douglas Payne: What feelings do you have about Gabor's music?

Tom Coster: I loved his music, but more importantly I loved the way he approached each tune. I do not recall playing any of his own tunes. It seemed he was into playing cover tunes. I loved writing for the band and he liked my writing so we played several of my tunes each night. Gabor had a special and unique approach to his playing that brought to us a "gypsy" type sound that made him different which is very important to being successful. He also had a deep approach when playing a melody. His improvisation was very melody and he used a lot of scales and harmony that I believe was a big part of his European culture.

The tunes we played were simple for the most part, but Gabor would take them into a place where know one else could take them and seemed to hypnotize his audience.

One day at rehearsal he handed me a chart of a "standard tune" that he had re-harmonized.  I was amazed at his awareness of harmony and how deep he was musically. Evidently Gabor went to Berklee College in Boston where he studied and I believe eventually graduated. He was a wonderful and gifted musician.

Douglas Payne: Did Gabor's "personal problems" affect or interfere at all with the music?

Tom Coster: Yes!!!  He was always a little messed up since he was always on some kind of medication given to him by his doctors to help get him off his heroin addiction.  It was sad!

One night during a gig in the Bay Area, the club owner got Gabor totally stoned and he was so stoned he lost all comprehension.  He called and we played the same tune three times without him realizing we had just finished playing it. It was "Sombrero Sam."  The band was horrified!

Gabor was staying at my home at that time and on the way home he fell asleep smoking a cigarette in the car I was driving. I smelled flesh burning and turned to see his cigarette burning between his fingers. I aroused him and he put out the cigarette, but over time this wound would not heal which was
an indication that his body was not responding as it should.  It was the beginning if the end!    
Douglas Payne: Around this time (in 1972) Gabor and Carlos Santana discussed forming a band together. But Carlos opted instead to proceed with John McLaughlin and Larry Young for "Love Devotion and Surrender." Were you aware of any of this?

Tom Coster: As I mentioned earlier, Carlos always showed up at the El Matador gigs.  In fact, he was usually the first one there. I always got to the gig early so we chatted until Gabor showed up. Carlos loved the band and he also mentioned how much he loved my playing. He was inspired by the band and asked if we could get together and record. Gabor was in L.A. at the time so he flew out to San Francisco and we prepared to go to where ever Carlos suggested recording. Unfortunately, Carlos was talked out of it by his associates and it never happened. It was a very political time for Santana. The band was about to change and new people were about to join and change the direction into a more
jazzy sound. This new band eventually included both Doug Rauch and myself. 

Douglas Payne: I'm curious about any of your feelings about Gabor, his music, his style or
any other insights or recollections that you'd be willing to share with me.

Tom Coster: Gabor was an awesome person. He loved to cook and often cooked for all of us both at his home and mine when we were in the Bay Area. He loved the food of his homeland and he really was a wonderful cook. He would cook all day while telling us stories of his life. You could smell the wonderful aroma of his cooking while enjoying his tales.  

Gabor was an awesome musician with a very special and unique approach to playing which made him who he was. He was also a very attractive man and when he played he totally was engrossed with his playing which took you on this wonderful musical journey both visually and spiritually.

He unfortunately was a victim of his peers in thinking that you had to get "fucked up" to play and be cool. He was one of a kind and he passed away far to early in his life. He was a victim of his musical environment which caused him to lose all control of reality for both him and his family. A real tragedy of life.

Douglas Payne: What songs of yours do you recall performing with Gabor - and have any of these songs been recorded?

Tom Coster: I don't remember all the names at this time. One was called "LA Bound," another "Barney's Beanery" and the last which was the most powerful of the three I can't remember at the time. We did some recording, but nothing was ever released which was always a disappointment to me. I do have some 2 track tapes somewhere in my home that has us playing, but I would have to look far and wide to find the tapes and then maybe they may be in bad shape.

August 25-27, 2002