November 8, 2019

From the Vaults: Learn from the Best


     My sister had one of those cloth covered boxes with a hinged lid (the lid was red and the bottom was off white) that served as her record player.  It had a lever so you could switch between 33 ? and 45 RPM records. The tone arm and needle weighed enough that it probably could have been used to punch leather.  The tiny, tinny sounding speaker somewhere behind a little cloth covered opening sounded exactly how you think a ‘tiny, tinny’ speaker would sound. With the resurgence of vinyl, the new turntables on the market today look similar but have much better electronics, tone arms, and speakers.  One could definitely play records on sis’s player, but one absolutely could not play the drums along with them because it had no volume to speak of. That meant I had to either play quietly or else listen to the record a couple of times, then turn it off and play the drum part for the song I just heard while the music played back inside my head.  I will be forever grateful that my father and mother decided that if I was going to learn to play a drum set by playing along with records, they would need to upgrade to a newer sound system.

     Imagine my surprise when I came home after school one day in the spring of my seventh grade year and found a new Magnavox stereo console nestled in the corner of our living room.  My mother was playing the demo album that came with it. The variety of musical styles presented on this complimentary LP were designed to demonstrate just how great the new fangled Hi-Fi stereo recordings and equipment sounded.  I was floored, but at the time I didn’t own any albums, just a few 45 RPM singles. Mom showed me how to load a stack of 45s on the spindle and said, “Why don’t you run downstairs and take a look in the basement where your drums are set up.”  I can’t remember which record was playing when I hit the basement, but I didn’t even make it to the end of the hall that opened to the rec room downstairs before I figured out what she had sent me to see (and hear)! Right behind my drums was a small, two speaker extension unit blasting away at a volume more suitable for playing the drums with than my sister’s little squawk box.  By the time dad came home after work, I had run through my meager stack of 45s a couple of times.  

     Top Forty radio ruled the AM airwaves back then and the 45s I picked up were on imprints such as ABC/Dunhill, Capitol, Colgems, Reprise, Philips, RCA, and the like.  If it had a beat and it was played on the radio, I added it to my collection. Stacked on the Magnavox spindle, these records were my daily practice routine. When I played through the ten records that would fit on the 45 spindle, I would have to run upstairs and flip them over or give a yell to my mother to flip them over for me.  Records tend to crackle and pop a bit as the needle circles into the first groove of the track. I got pretty adept at recognizing exactly where the drums came in on any particular song by the unique ‘code’ of clicks and pops that announced the needle touching down when the next 45 dropped into place. My neighbor was a huge Beach Boys fan so songs like Little Deuce Coupe and Surin’ USA made it into my playlist.  Another neighbor’s sister was into The Dave Clark Five so Glad All Over, Catch Us if You Can, and Over and Over (featuring Dave Clark, a singing drummer, I might add) took their place in my practice routine.  I didn’t own a microphone until the earliest jamming days of The Twig, but I found singing along with the songs helped me remember the turnarounds and breaks.  It didn’t dawn on me that I would end up to be a singing drummer, but the act of singing while practicing the drums made it easy for me to transition to the role when I began playing live with other musicians.  By the time I was in a gigging band, I found that I could mimic many vocal styles and my voice held up well from hours of practice.

     Looking back now, the variety of styles that became hit songs in the mid to late 1960s still amazes me.  I would find myself drumming along with The Electric Prunes (I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night), the Music Explosion (A Little Bit of Soul), Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (Young Girl,  Woman Woman, Lady Will Power), The Arrows (Blues Theme from the movie The Wild Angels), The Grass Roots (Live for Today), and The Monkees (A Little Bit of Me, A Little Bit of You).  Without giving too much thought about the drummers I was playing along with and learning from, I just assumed every band had a great drummer.  It took sometime for me to realize that many of the singles in my practice stack were recorded with session drummers.  

     I had to really kick it up a notch when a band like The Who with Keith Moon (I Can See for Miles) or a drummer like John Whaley of Blue Cheer (Summertime Blues) came along.  The hits were fun to play along with, but what really pushed me to learn more styles were the ‘B-Sides’ of the 45s.  Occasionally these B-sides would be another hit but more often they were tracks that may or may not have made it on to the group’s LPs (the ubiquitous ‘Long Players’ otherwise known as ‘albums’).  These were fun to learn because they represented new tracks that were probably not getting radio airplay; one had to learn them without previously knowing anything about them.  

     Some of my earliest attempts at playing with other musicians resulted in a different kind of learning curve:  learning a song that I may have heard on the radio but never practiced. Summer in the City by the Lovin’ Spoonful was a big hit and it featured both organ and drums.  When church buddy Jeff Lewis discovered I played the drums, he brought over his little electronic organ and he taught me the song.  Like my sister’s record player, the organ was just not loud enough but without mics to sing into, I toned it down a bit and we warbled along loud enough to think it sounded pretty good.  When I would bring my drums to Jeff’s house, he usually played their grand piano because it was actually louder than his organ. It was Jeff who got me into buying albums and when I began playing along with them, I graduated from Rock Drumming 101 to RD 102.

     At the time Jeff talked me into casting my shekels in with him to share The Doors eponymous first album, I owned all of one album, The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville.  Watching the TV show and seeing the screwy way his drums were set up, it dawned on me that Micky Dolenz might not actually be a drummer.  He later admitted that he didn’t even know how to set up the drums when they played their first concert. Over time he did his homework and learned to be a real drummer instead of just acting like a drummer.  

     What I didn’t know was the name of THE session drummer I was playing along with:  the fabled Hal Blaine. Name a hit song of the late 1960s and you have probably heard Blaine’s drumming.  He is credited with building the first big multiple tom tom set (he called it ‘The Monster’). Dig up and listen to Paul Revere and the Raiders’ hit Indian Reservation and you will hear the best example of what Blaines’ Monster set sounded like as he plays the tom tom rolls around the set featured in the song (it was also one of the first Top 40 songs about the plight of Native American tribes, but that is a different topic for a different day).

     With The Doors, the teacher was a different kind of rock drummer.  John Densmore started in the school marching band, but his musical tastes leaned more toward jazz.  He played with a swinging beat that sounded a bit like Ringo meets Gene Krupa. Densmore could play straight ahead rock, but he also taught me a lot about the dynamics of songs by adding soft passages and cracking accents to accentuate Jim Morrison’s song/poems.

     The second drummer that lit a fire under my playing was Mitch Mitchell’s work on the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album.  Purple Haze, Manic Depression, Foxey Lady, Third Stone from the Sun:  all of these tracks were propelled by Mitchell’s jazzy style (much like Densmore’s) but he was also capable of taking off with wild, rolling patterns closer to Keith Moon than to jazz.  No matter how wild his playing got (Mitchell was sometimes forced to go off on a tangent playing with Hendrix), he could still come back and land in the right spot at the right tempo. When I learned the syncopated cymbal dings and tom rolls for Manic Depression, it was a red letter day that I couldn’t share because it wasn’t a song anyone was going to hear played live by the local dance bands.

       During my freshman year in high school, I called a number my dad had found on a bulletin board on the NMU campus advertising the need for a ‘practice drummer’.   Larry the guitar player and his bass playing roommate showed up to see if I would be the guy to help them keep their chops up until they went home to Detroit for the summer.  They asked me what kind of stuff I played. When Manic Depression came up in conversation, they both looked at each other and told me to que up the record and play it for them.  Their look said, “Ain’t no way you can play that,” but by the time the song was done, they asked what day of the week would work for us to practice in our basement.  It turns out they loved the song but as Larry put it, “We never could find a drummer who could play it right. How on earth did you learn that?” The answer was simple:   “I listened to the album for a long time and I practiced it . . . a lot!” It was a blast pretending to be Mitch Mitchell and play Experience songs live, but playing with the two Detroit boys also gave me a healthy dose of Aretha (Respect), Otis (Land of a Thousand Dances) and British wave bands like The Kinks (You Really Got Me and All The Day and All The Night).   

     We were eventually joined by a keyboard player/vocalist named Brad who added another layer to what we were playing.  When he asked if I knew Respect, I said, “I have heard it on the radio but I have never learned it.”  We played it and he declared that what I was doing sounded suitably ‘funky’ for an Aretha song.  Long before The Black Keys or The White Stripes pioneered two person bands, The Stan and Jeff Band got a lot of the frat party gigs at NMU.  They stopped by our rehearsal one day and Jeff took over my drums for a few tunes (or was it Stan?  I never could figure out which was which). He had incredible foot speed on the bass drum pedal that I never have been able to replicate.  I did like the way he road the high-hat cymbals: he would loosen up the nut holding the top cymbal and not press the hat completely shut. I had an epiphany when I saw how he did this because it produced the same type of sound previously heard on many of The Beatles hits.  Admittedly, it was quite a thrill when Jeff (or was it Stan?) stood up and said, “Nice kit.”  

     After The Beatles hit America, bands popped up like flowers in a field.  There were a lot of local drummers I got to listen to and borrow from. Don Kuhli from NMU’s Jazz band ended up playing for one of Marquette’s more successful bands, Walrus.  He was so good that hearing Don play always made me practice more. Warren McDonald (The French Church) was always solid. Neil Coolman (Self Winding Grapefruit), Ted Thomas (Sweat Equity), Randy Seppala (who played with the band that would eventually become Walrus but I can’t remember the name), Les Ross, Jr (East of Orange, Conga se Menna, he also preceded Kuhli’s tenure in the early days of Walrus) and Tom Lyons (Sunstone) are all names from the loose affiliation of drummers that I grew up with in the Marquette music scene.  Certainly there were more that belonged to the club before and after my time playing there, but the ones listed above are the ones I recall the most. Like all aspiring rock musicians, we kept and eye on each other and borrowed tricks of the trade from each other. Of course, we borrowed from the pros on record first, but there is nothing like seeing a live drummer play to inspire one to try new things! 

     Former Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos (his real name is Brad Peterson) was learning to play the drums in Rockford, Illinois when he traveled to Chicago to see The Beatles.  Watching Ringo play his ‘floating hi-hat’ cymbals, he had the same epiphany I had watching Jeff (or was it Stan?) play my kit: “Oh, so THAT is how you get that sound.” Makes me wonder how many aspiring drummers learned this same trick by watching Carlos play?  So it goes in the world of drummers: you get better by learning from the best and then practicing… a lot!

Top Piece Video:  I couldn’t find a live cut of Mitch Mitchell playing Manic Depression, so Red House will have to do!