To the Beat of a Different Drummer
(This Is A Work In Progress)
"It would be a long while before I gave my heart to another drummer,
but this one would definitely bring a different beat into my life."
Buddy. Keith. Don. Carl. Neil.
Common enough first names - but put a pair of sticks into any of their hands and common had nothing left to do but drop its jaw, stare dumbstruck at the ferocity of hands, arms, and legs moving across and around the kit like no other mere mortal could possibly accomplish, and realize that what they were seeing and hearing was no simple wind-up toy or banging around on pots and pans.
Little drummer boy? How 'bout BIG DRUMMING MAN!
With the passing of Neil Peart in early 2020 - drummer and main lyricist for the Canadian rock trio, Rush - I found myself taken back in time to the age of 12 (for historical purposes that would be the year of 1974). This retrospective is going to focus on how I came to love drumming and drummers, especially a diverse class of traps masters: big band and jazz legend Buddy Rich; the whirling dervish of Mod Rock, Keith Moon of The Who; the wild man behind the locomotive of Grand Funk Railroad, Don Brewer; prog-rock virtuoso in Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Carl Palmer; and The Professor himself, Neil Peart of Rush.
But, as all good stories go, it most logically begins with a small boy (me) growing up in the Bronx of New York City in the early 60's. That could only mean one name: Ringo.
The Liverpool Beat
He always seemed a lot fucking happier than he should be, you know - playing the drums and all. I mean, after all, it's just a couple of sticks, wood shells and steel rims, and some animal skins, come on am I right?
Sittin' up there, right on his throne, I'd be keyed on that guy in the back kickin' those cans like he was the King of England or somebody special. The Beatles were royalty, an invading army of four that mowed 'em down wherever they took the fight to. And it was Peter Starkey - aka Ringo Starr - that lined up the shots.
I mean, who didn't know a Beatles tune...one they could hum or strum air guitar to or, like me, tap out with anything in my hands on top of anything in front of me. Drove my mother crazy, as the saying goes. And here's this guy, just bouncin' up and down on the throne..."yeah, yeah, yeah..." and chicks were just losing it. He was definitely marching to the beat of a different drummer.
This guy was definitely not some mid-level brush swiveler looking for a steady gig on the weekends. I think it physically had to hurt to play drums dressed in Brian Epstein's branding suits but man, did Ringo kick the shit outta those cans!
I couldn't turn on a transistor radio (my musical weapon of choice from the age of 5 until 9) without hearing a Beatles song on some radio station up or down the dial. Everywhere and all the time. Yes, mania, hysteria, whatever the fuck I wanted to call it - it was infectious and I didn't care for nor want the cure. My oldest brother, Mickey, was in a rock band of his own - made up of a few close cousins from New Jersey and local boys from the Bronx. This was the same brother who made it to Woodstock and who also witnessed the madness of Shea Stadium.
Not being a rock critic or properly credentialed historian of music, I don't have a dog in the fight of whether or not Ringo - technically - is counted by others as one of the best or may be the lighter end of the drummers I'll highlight here for this discourse. You always remember your first love...and I loved this smiling mop-top from Liverpool. By the time Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was mainlined into the veins of humankind, Ringo had become the epitome of too cool for school with me. With The Beatles, Abbey Road, and Let It Be, he - along with John, Paul, and George - became more important to me than God, girls, or giving a fuck if any other music ever got made.
It was sometime in the Spring of 1970 when I first cried in front of someone I would consider a stranger. Nearly eight years old and precocious as fuck, I was sitting in the throne of pain that belonged to our family dentist, Dr. Brittan. He was a burly, balding man with strong hands, stale breath, and smelled of Old Spice. I was under the white hot light of the dental chair, getting some torture done on my crooked teeth when suddenly the drilling stopped. I looked up into Dr. Brittan's face and saw tears begin to well up in his eyes and stream down his cheeks. His dental hygienist pulled up in her seat next to me, and I heard her gasp for breath.
"I don't believe it," she said. "Oh, no..." Her voice trailed off into empty silence.
"What happened?" I mumbled through Novocaine lips and curiosity.
As always, Dr. Brittan had a radio playing loud in the background while he did his work. Trying to connect the dots with this man and his tears, I watched as he struggled with the words that kept trying to come out of his open mouth.
"The Beatles," he said at first, as if that were a complete sentence. "They broke up."
In the background, "Come Together" began thumping out of the office radio. My tears didn't need any permission to come together as Dr. Brittan picked up the drill, resumed road work inside my mouth, and the three of us cried silently together.
It would be a long while before I gave my heart to another drummer, but this one would definitely bring a different beat into my life.
The Big Band Swing
From the ages of 9 until 14, I began to listen to music through a totally different filter. What was the drummer up to? The youngest of six children - and with parents who had their own diverse musical interests, I began to discover new frontiers beyond the Fab Four. One such vista intersected with my father and mother's affinity for the Big Band, Jazz and Swing bands of their courtship days.
One force of nature, in particular, began to catch my eyes and ears - oddly enough, I didn't discover him through listening to their old vinyl records but by his appearances on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.
Bernard "Buddy" Rich was a Brooklyn raconteur, establishing himself in the 1930's with such legendary bands led by Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Harry James. He was a known virtuoso of drum technique that combined both speed and power that made me sweat just watching him behind the kit, bent over like some Ludwig Quasimodo, hands and feet a blur while he grunted and smiled as if you'd never get the fucking joke so don't even try.
As a young boy and teenager, I first laid eyes on this whirling dervish of a drummer when I would stay up late during summer vacations from elementary and junior high school while living in upstate New York in the village of Coxsackie. If confessions are ultimately true, I would gravitate towards watching Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show on NBC for the chicks - those captivating female television and film stars that would show up and flirt with The King of Late Night. For some reason, the likes of Elke Sommer, Connie Stevens, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, and Angie Dickinson come to mind.
Yet it was the times that Buddy appeared on The Tonight Show that started something akin to a paradiddle in my heart, bones, and balls to want to play the drums. Now, to be fair, the Tonight Show band had a kick-ass drummer of its own under the leadership of Doc Severinsen. Ed Shaughnessy had this massive kit perched high atop the band stand. Whenever they would pan the cameras to him while playing, something inside of me said, "Yeah, I wanna play like that!"
Not many knew that Johnny had received a drum set as a gift from Buddy, and was not too shabby a stick man himself. Buddy made the most appearances of any jazz musician on the show, and every time he appeared he would either do a number with the Tonight Show band or engage in a solo for the audience's pleasure. Transfixed is the perfect word to describe how I would sit, watching my old black and white television as he literally made those cans his bitch. His cross-hand techniques alone would render me stupefied, mystified, and lead me to believe that only God could see how fast those hands actually moved.
Around the age of 13 (1975), I began to pester my parents to buy me something cheap to kick the shit out of myself. My oldest brother, Mickey, had gifted me with an old Kent snare drum that I would practice on with a pair of borrowed sticks from my elementary school band room. During those days, I was taking piano lessons in town from Christine Kuiper, the sweet and talented wife of a local Unitarian church pastor who everyone suspected of being in the closet. Some more truth be told, I had a crush on Chris and couldn't wait each week to go with my sister, Amy, to the Kuiper house on Washington Boulevard for our lessons. We had a piano at our house that was available to practice and perform on, but sitting next to Chris each week, feeling her leg tight against mine, the delicious aroma of her body, her smile and kindness, well...I digress. I was also second chair trombone with the elementary and junior high bands at Coxsackie-Athens school for a number of years, and it was through this affiliation that I began to meet other peers my age who loved to drum, play other instruments, and encouraged me to join them in a band.
I'm not sure where Kenny Vetter is today. I know my other drumming compadre, Julian Starr (absolutely no relation to Ringo), died way too early in life. These two cats were also beginning drummers - and it was an elementary school talent show where I saw Kenny on his own kit on stage playing his ass off to the Theme from S.W.A.T. that literally made me want to drum on my own. I would go over to his house and just stare at his Ludwig kit, adult sized and with those gleaming Zildjian cymbals that made my mouth water. I had little to no rudimentary skills, no formal drum training, but I've always been able to keep the beat and play by ear to music I loved listening to, so Kenny would let me sit on the throne and we'd put records on his turntable, blast the volume, and just take turns having fun with it. Oh, he had twin older sisters (Vicky and Veronica) that were to die for - so maybe, like a lot of wannabe drummers I was in it for the girls.
At the age of 14, my parents relented and purchased a no-brand, used, red-sparkle shelled drum kit from a friend at C-A school. With no throne (I just used an old, kitchen chair), it was mine - bass drum and pedal, hi-hat, snare and stand, one ride tom, one floor tom, a cowbell, and a set of generic cymbals and stands.
With school buddies Mark Gustavson (keyboards), Greg Musial (guitar), and Wayne West (bass), we formed Glass Star. Of course, just knowing a few standard covers (Smoke on the Water among others) and the noodling arrangements of our own instrumental jams, we were going to be - of course - the next big thing.
1976 saw my family move from upstate New York to Louisville, KY. It was in 1977 that I purchased two Buddy Rich albums: Speak No Evil and Class of '78. Both were jazz and big band themed (with Rich's impeccable group of young touring musicians called "The Big Band Machine"). I wore fucking grooves inside the grooves of both records, playing by ear to them in novice heaven and being a willing apprentice to The Master.
In my story around drums, the opportunity to see Buddy play live twice has no comparison. The first time was at a local convention center with Rich touring behind Class of '78. I actually attended the event with my father (a rare occurrence to share such an outing together, especially around my creative interests). As the show was wrapping up, I told my father I was going to go down by the stage to see if I could score an autograph from Buddy.
The stage set up had an adjacent, cordoned off and privacy curtained walkway leading off to the wings. My timing was impeccable, just arriving as Rich was taking his final bows to the adoring audience and their applause. Moving down parallel to the walkway (which led to an exit door and Rich's tour bus), I ducked ahead and behind one of the privacy curtains and looked back towards the stage. Lo and fucking behold, I was all by my lonesome and the man, myth, and legend himself was walking towards me, white towel wrapped around his neck to soak up his sweat from the final show-stopping solo he had just performed.
Reaching into my pocket, my heart sank as I realized that I'd left my pen and small autograph book back in my empty seat next to my father. Going quickly to Plan B, I smiled as Buddy walked right up to me, smiling that huge, toothy smile of his, not recognizing me from Adam but still moving onwards toward his bus.
"Great show, Mr. Rich," I said, bravely offering my hand to shake his. I was shocked that he stopped, took my hand in his legendary, powerful right one, and shook it back. "I'm just starting to play drums and that was fantastic to see," I said, referring to his show and skills.
"Good for you, kid," he said, diminutive in size compared to my six-foot plus adolescent frame hovering over him but standing taller than a sequoia in front of me in my mind's eye.
"Hey," I said, not quite stammering but not really sure where my question came from, "can I get your towel?" Even as it came from my mouth, I understood the odd look that suddenly crossed Buddy's creased face, a wry smile cracking up across it.
"No, man," he said all cool and big band ballsy, "I need it." He began wiping the dripping sweat from his face and neck to prove his point.
The door was now open. "How 'bout a pair of your drumsticks?"
Nodding his head in instant approval, he replied, "Now that I can do." Turning to shout back down the walkway, he screamed to his drum tech (who was already taking apart his kit), "Hey, Dale!!" Getting the tech's attention, he waved at him and then - to my utter fucking amazement - stood right next to me, reached up and wrapped his ferocious, lighting fast left hand around my shoulder and shouted, "Give this kid a pair!!"
The tech waved back in recognition. Buddy turned, shook my hand again, and said nonchalantly, "Gotta go, kid. Keep drumming!"
Walking back outside the privacy curtain, I approached the front of the stage area. A small cadre of fans, both young and old, had gathered, about two dozen strong and a few rows deep. The drum tech, walking towards the edge of the stage above us, waved at me and signaled for me to come closer. I'll never forget it - those people parted like the Red fucking Sea, incredulous amazement plastered on their dumbfounded faces as the tech reached down and handed me the pair of drumsticks that Buddy had used for the closing solo.
As I took them in my hands, I heard several people behind me begin to clap, some mumbling and murmuring under their breaths as I turned on a cloud and floated past them, heading back to where my father was still seated and waiting for me. As I approached him, I secreted the sticks behind my back.
"Well," he said to me, "did you get one?"
I shook my head, and it was actually touching to see the look of disappointment cross my father's face.
"I got two," I said. He looked puzzled. When I flashed the pair of drumsticks from behind my back, I leapt towards my Dad and shouted, "I got Buddy Rich's fucking drumsticks!!"
His jaw gaped open. He grasped me close and offered a bear hug.
"Way to go!" he shouted. "That's my boy!
The Locomotion Funk
In those early days of adolescence, a lot of my musical influences came from listening to whatever my older brothers and sisters were blaring out of their stereo systems. One band that one of my older brothers, Jeff, adored was the arena rock, hard core rock trio from Flint, Michigan known as Grand Funk Railroad.
Consisting of Mark Farner (guitars, vocals), Mel Schacher (bass), and the Afro-styled dynamo behind the drum kit (as well as vocals), Don Brewer, it was a clandestine mission to borrow one of Jeff's albums while he was at work that introduced me to this powerhouse drummer, most aptly displayed on their double-LP Live Album (released in 1970).
Ears mesmerized by the tight rhythm section, along with the wailing guitar and vocals from both Farner and Brewer (who knew a drummer could also be a singer?), eyes feasting on the sparse but powerful black-and-white concert photos and the double-album gateway, I spent that day of brother album piracy playing all four sides of the double-LP over and over.
Born in 1948 in Flint, Michigan, Donald George Brewer, began his first band (The Red Devils) at the age of 12. At the age of 20, he left Terry Knight and the Pack in 1968 with fellow bandmate Farner, recruiting bassist Schacher (from ? and the Mysterians) to form Grand Funk Railroad. Their first album, On Time, was released in 1969 and sold over 1 million copies. In those days (...ah, the 60's and 70's...), arena rock was all the rage - after all, Grand Funk would easily sell out Shea Stadium in New York in 1971.
To the budding, young, inexperienced drummer I was, listening to Live Album felt like a christening - never having been to a rock concert in my life, feeling the excitement build to the roaring chants of, "We want Grand Funk! We want Grand Funk!! WE WANT GRAND FUNK!!!" followed by the thunderous applause of the crowd when they took the stage.
From the opening salvo of "Are You Ready," and that pounding backbeat of Brewer, I was hooked, in love, tapping feet and slamming my hands against the tops of my legs in unison. With a small kit (snare, bass drum, one ride & one floor tom, with a few cymbals), Brewer kicked the shit out of them with a ferocity that smoked the vinyl I was listening to at a volume level that had my mother screaming at me to turn down.
After multiple secret listening sessions, Live Album became my go-to practice album to play my own small drum kit while plugged into my stereo with headphones on. The driving rock beats, various roll combinations from Brewer, along with his amazing bass drum and cymbal work became a master lesson for my rookie sticks.