January 7, 2019

FTV: Jerry Shirley


    One of my favorite pastimes is reading books and articles about drummers.  Of particular interest to me are three basics bits of information: 1) How old were they when they became obsessed with drumming, 2) When and how did they acquire their first proper drum kit, and 3) What path did they follow before they became a ‘professional drummer’ – in other words, when did they join a gigging band that was actually getting paid to play.  I am sure there are some who are born with a natural sense of rhythm just as there are people who seem to have a natural ability to sing, skate, or bounce a ball, but nobody is actually born with ‘drummer’ tattooed on their forehead. At some point, one must make the conscious decision that they are going to play the drums. This information leads to the inevitable comparisons of where our stories match up.  Of course, if they have written or co-written an autobiography about themselves, it stands to reason that they eventually made a career out of drumming. Nonetheless, I find a certain amount of affinity with drummers, famous or not, because our early histories are usually similar.

     It is always interesting to find out that someone else out there played the identical silver sparkle Ludwig drum set that I have had since April of 1966.  Ludwig was THE major drum brand in the United States in no small part due to Ringo Starr’s insistence on having the Ludwig logo put on the front of his bass drum.  Ringo wanted everyone to know he was doing well enough that he could afford American drums, not just the Premier brand preferred by most English drummers. Nobody put company logos on the front of  bass drums until Ringo did it, and as a consequence, Ludwig Company president William F. Ludwig avoided meeting Ringo face to face for many years. He feared Ringo would ask for something in return for his little contribution to the massive number of Ludwig Classic drum kits that were sold due to The Beatles’ TV and concert appearances.  The truth be told, Ringo didn’t do it to wrangle an endorsement deal, but his high profile gig certainly inspired a lot of drummers to seek out ‘the Ringo set’, therefore making Ludwig a very busy company.

    I recently watched a special by former Saturday Night Live player Fred Armisen (and  formerly a drummer in the band Trenchmouth and with the Blue Man Group). He had a bunch of drum kits set up and walked the audience through the history of drums from early trap sets to the present day.  Sure enough, when he got to the Ludwig set that matched mine, he referred to it as the ‘Ringo set’. Even when Starr embarks on his ‘Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band’ tours these days, Ringo sports a new Ludwig kit with the companies logo embossed on the front, right next to the iconic star that he uses as his personal identifier.  

    In reading Jerry Shirley’s autobiography (Best Seat in the House – Drumming in the ‘70s with Marriott, Frampton, and Humble Pie (2011 – Rebeats Books), one of the first photos I noticed thumbing through it was of a young Shirley playing ‘our set’ in one of his first bands, The Valkyrie.  In that Shirley is a year older than I am, I did the math and figured out that he got his Ludwig kit about the same place in his life that I did, thus we must have had a similar story arc to the beginning of our drum story.  It turns out that acquiring a silver sparkle Ludwig set at about the same age was pretty much the only place our drummer paths crossed. Oh, we still both play Ludwig drums to this day, but I am still playing my original set with new hardware whereas every clip I see of Shirley playing, he has a new set, but they still all say ‘Ludwig’ on them.

    Jerry Shirley’s interest in the drums started at about age 9.  His father and mother encouraged him to the point of putting together what Jerry termed his ‘Bitzar’ kit – meaning ‘bits of this and bits of that’.  He had already been playing the drums with other musicians who would come for open jams at the pub that his family owned and operated for a while. Eventually, his brother Angus and some buddies put together enough of their own band to start playing out.  Name recognition wasn’t big to them as they seemed to change their name with each outing, the aforementioned The Valkyrie being one of them. When they settled on the nom de plume The Little People (more or less an homage to their favorite band, The Small Faces), they began getting better gigs.  At the ripe old age of 15, Jerry Shirley had already been a gigging musician for a number of years. He is very unabashed about the fact that one of the biggest connections he and his bandmates had was ‘being dopers’. When adding up the number of references Shirley gives about the drug fill antics he witnessed or was part of during his career, it is a bit of a wonder that he lived long enough to write about it.  This was most certainly a big derivation from the path I took to become a gigging drummer.

    Jerry had built a strong enough relation with The Small Faces’ guitarist/vocalist Steve Marriott that he got an insider’s view of what was happening to what was the biggest pop band happening at that time in London.  He was inside Marriott’s circle deep enough that Marriott worked with The Little People in the recording studio, helping them record their first (and last) single. Marriott also took to bringing in other artists to see the then fourteen year old play.  Shirley recounts, “I used to play with my head down, and one day I looked up to see Steve and Jimi Hendrix watching me play. Hendrix said, ‘That was cool man’”. So while I was at home playing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Experience records, Jerry Shirley was playing the drums with Jimi Hendrix watching in person.  Marriott also introduced Shirley to another big pop star of the day, Peter Frampton of The Herd. Like Marriott, Frampton was getting tired of being a pop star and wanted to form a new band that would pack more rock’n’roll punch. He asked if Shirley would be interested in joining him in a new band. Shirley wasn’t sure what this meant in terms of his current band, but he said ‘yes’ only for Frampton to tell him, “Don’t tell anyone, and I will get back to you.”  What he didn’t mention was it would be months, by which time Shirley concluded it had just been a courtesy offer and no such new band would ever be formed.

    Things tend to move fast in the world of pop music and after months of not hearing any more about a new band, several events transpired in a short period of time toward that end.  One was Steve Marriott’s exit from The Small Faces. Marriott’s first call was to his old friend Peter Frampton to ask if he and Spooky Tooth bassist Greg Ridley could join Frampton’s new band.  Frampton tried to talk him out of leaving The Small Faces, but was told it was too late. Marriott then called Shirley to tell him about the potential new band with Frampton, only to hear Shirley try and talk him out of leaving The Small Faces.  One more call, this one between Frampton and Shirley, confirmed that they both thought Marriott should stay with The Small Faces, but if he wasn’t going to, then they would indeed form a new band together. Again, legal wranglings needed to be worked out so they began a kind of cloak and dagger existence so no one would break the news of this potential new supergroup.  They also wanted to make sure that the words ‘pop’ and ‘supergroup’ would not be used to describe the new band.

     The band’s decision to ride the new wave of Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and avoid releasing singles (as another way to avoid being labeled as another ‘pop’ act) was pushed by both Frampton and Marriott.  Owing that the two guitarists were both major league pop stars coming out of the biggest bands of the day, this would be a hard sell. Greg Ridley was also well known from his days with Spooky Tooth, so the only real newbie in the mix was the now sixteen year old Jerry Shirley.  At sixteen, my future gigging band The Twig had played at some parties for tips and were just getting to the teen dance/frat party level of gigging. Jerry Shirley was plopped down in the middle of the next big thing. They named the band Humble Pie after dropping a bunch of ideas in a hat and drawing them out one at a time.  Marriott is given credit with suggesting Humble Pie, but as soon as it was pulled out of the hat and said out loud, everyone said, “Oh yeah! That is it!” The next step was to write enough songs for an album before word leaked that there was a major new band taking shape.

    Shirley is very concise in his anecdotes about the band.  The inclusion of a very detailed gig history proves his research and memories of events related in his book are spot on.  The sheer number of tours Humble Pie took in Europe, the United States, and Japan had to be mind numbing to a large degree.  The young and single Shirley had a habit he describes as “picking up my next future ex-wife” and pulls no punches in giving himself due credit for the difficulties he heaped on his personal relationships.  Steve Marriott may have grown to be the loose cannon in the band as his drug use escalated, but Shirley doesn’t lay all of the blame on him for the band’s demise. Being the one band member who kept notes on where they went, how much they made, and how much they spent as a band, Shirley was the first to raise the alarm when they completed a major tour behind their highly successful “Live at the Fillmore East” album, only to come off the road $100,000 in debt.  Certainly Marriott had sunk a lot of band money into the home studio he was building back in England, but high living and an escalating use of what Shirley colorfully calls “Peruvian love dust” was taking a fair share of the profits.  Even their management team was operating in drug fueled haze and no one seemed to know when to get off the merry-go-round.

    The band was at their performing peak and this should have been their most lucrative period, but poor decisions on many fronts began to chip away at the band’s foundation.  The first pillars fell when they hired a 130 passenger 707 jumbo jet to take them from some major dates in the U.S. to Japan. The tour was supposed to be filmed in a similar fashion to Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.  Unfortunately, the American leg was never filmed.  The film crew was finally hired for Japan leg of the tour.  The massive roving press pool invited to come on their triumphant Japanese swing turned out to be three journalists.  With band and family members in tow, there were all of 35 people flying on the massive 707. Shirley points out that they had the jet outfitted as a flying party for 130, but the 35 who actually went still drank the plane dry before they were halfway to Japan!  The last gig in this expensive venture was at Madison Square Garden and Shirley went on stage knowing that he was going to have to break the news to everyone that they were now massively in debt.

    Shirley does not look back at these events with any bitterness.  His tone is more of wonder that they were the biggest band on the planet at one time (selling 125,000 tickets for a Summerfest gig in Milwaukee shortly after Led Zeppelin had taken out full page music trade ads bragging about selling 75,000 tickets for a show in Miami) and then let it slip away.  He and Marriott remained on friendly terms up until Marriott’s untimely death in a house fire in 1991. They were able to work together on some smaller Humble Pie projects later and with Marriott’s blessings, he even put together a band featuring Michigan’s own Charlie Huhn (ex-Ted Nugent band and currently with Foghat) to tour as Humble Pie.  His latest musical venture has been drumming with Debbie Bonham, the sister of the late John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin who was also a Ludwig drummer).

    The one enduring question that took Shirley forty years to find an answer to was the reason The Small Faces’ Marriott and (drummer) Kenney Jones took an interest in him.  It turns out his father had simply asked them to check out his 14 year old son who wanted to be a drummer. I guess that is the other thing Jerry Shirley and I share – we both had the unconditional support of our parents to chase the dream of playing the drums, which helped both of us to find our own level of success.  I wonder if he knows where his original Ringo set is?

Top Piece Video:  A young Jerry Shirley shows his chops with Humble Pie