When I was first learning the craft of rock and roll drumming, I absorbed as much as I could by playing along with records. I also made it a point to see as many live bands as I could. There were times when I would watch other drummers and think, “Yeah, I can do that!” There were other times when I would think “What? How can anyone do that?” Don Kuhli was one of the yardsticks I used to measure my improvement as a drummer because every time I saw him play with NMU’s jazz band or the fabled Marquette band Walrus, I would walk away scratching my head. I was not kidding when I would tell people “Don Kuhli can play more with one hand than I can flailing two arms and two legs at the same time.” Some drummers seem to have more “fast twitch” muscles that allow them to play a lot of notes with either hand (or with their feet, for that matter). I was never one of those “fast” drummers, but Kuhli surely was. After Walrus broke up, I kind of lost track of Kuhli and he did not resurface for me until I got acquainted with Lindsay Tomasic and her band Trees.
I had seen a short article in the Marquette Monthly paper about a one-off Walrus reunion show in Big Bay. I hadn’t given them much thought since the early 1970s, so I did a web search for some of the band members by name just to see what I could find. One Walrus lead dead ended on a web page by a guitar player from Detroit that contained a section called “people I have played with” and one of the drummers listed was Don Kuhli. A list there linked Kuhli’s musical associations and among them was a band called Trees who recorded for Datolite Records. Beyond that link, I couldn’t find any more recent news about Kuhli, so I decided to check out Datolite Records on the assumption that the mineral datolite is often associated with copper. I wondered if there would be any local tie in to Datolite Records and the Copper Country. It turns out the connection was Lindsay Tomasic who had formed Trees along with Jessie Fitzpatrick in Houghton when she was in her teens. They eventually relocated to Ann Arbor where Trees soon included former Walrus members Kuhli on drums and Randy Tessier on bass. I fired her an e-mail to request a CD which she gladly sent along.
Lindsay and I corresponded via e-mail for the better part of a year before Trees was booked at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival where we finally met face to face. Coming to PMMF from LA is no small feat, but as luck would have it, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams had a flight delay coming from the other coast so Trees ended up playing two sets back to back. The Slambovians missed Friday altogether and Trees picked up another paying slot to help cover the air fare from LA to Michigan. In one of our conversations, Lindsay mentioned what a great band they had in Ann Arbor and that she still runs into Don Kuhli occasionally in California. She was pretty sure he was working in San Diego. I stored this nugget of info away for a future round of ‘where are they now?’ research.
Whenever I would make an inspection tour to the WOAS West Coast Bureau in LA, I would e-mail Lindsay and ask if she had time to “do lunch” as they say on the left coast. Being a stone that gathers no moss, she would usually be on the road or in the middle of a project, but she would always promise me a tour of her studio the next time I got to LA. It had become a running joke where I would remind her that every time she got back to Dodgeville to visit the Pasty Queen (Lindsey’s mom won the Copper Country Pasty making competition not that many years ago), we would manage to get her to perform here or we would go to one of her gigs somewhere in the Copper Country. I used to tease her that, “It is kind of a one way street, isn’t it?” She took it all in stride and we kept this up for several years.
Eventually, I arrived on an early fall visit, e-mailed Lindsay and she said, “Hey, I have to bring some equipment into the city to be repaired, can you guys meet me for lunch at The Newsroom?” Todd couldn’t make it on that occasion but Elizabeth and I took her up on the invitation and we had a wonderful time discussing a host of subjects. I asked if she had seen Don Kuhli lately and she admitted that it had been a while, but she still thought he was in San Diego.
When we got back to the WCB, I did a search for Kuhli’s name in the San Diego area and the first site I clicked on took me to website for the San Diego paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. There on the front page of that day’s edition was a color photograph of Don Kuhli surveying the damage done to his apartment by a freak storm that had rolled through San Diego the day before. Considering the only previous information I had found on Kuhli was the brief mention of his association with Trees, the odds of me clicking on the first website that popped up and find him in a front page news story was pretty remarkable! Searching for his name these days leads to multiple entries.
Kuhli hailed from Chicago and after his Michigan band days, ended up graduating with a music degree from San Diego State. He remains active in the music business as an elementary music teacher, a member of the San Diego Symphony and various big band and combos including one called High Society. In short, he may not be playing rock and roll at this point, but he is certainly playing a variety of styles. I always thought it was his jazz band background that made him a unique and exceptional rock drummer in the same vein as The Doors John Densmore or Journey’s Steve Smith. Learning that he plays big band music was not a shock because it meshes perfectly with my memories of seeing him play with NMU’s jazz band.
I never actually talked to Don Kuhli in the days that he was in Marquette. I watched him play, absorbed what I could, but being a high school kid just getting started with a working band, I don’t know what kind of conversation I would have had with him. You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I got a little tongue tied around people I did not know well. I did, however, get a second hand message from him after an afternoon gig we played at The Wildcat Den at NMU’s University Center.
I do not remember the occasion but it was Mike Kesti booked the job. The thought of playing in the Wildcat Den in broad daylight made us a little nervous. We were used to playing dances and frat parties with our meagher set of stage lights (in reality, one green and one red fluorescent light tube in portable frames on either side of the drums). To top it all off, we had a set list that we followed with only a few modifications from job to job. We would normally start with some of our lighter tunes and crank up the heavy duty songs as the gig wore on. In that we were only going to play one hour long set, Mike decided to play Wine, Wine, Wine by the Fireballs for our opening number. This was a great frat party anthem that usually got dusted off much later in most gigs, but Mike insisted we should start big. He was a little pumped up so with his adrenalin flowing, he counted the song off at close to double the speed we usually played it. As he was trying to spit out the lyrics, I found my right forearm was cramping up because I didn’t get the normal set of warm up numbers to play before we blasted into a rocker like Wine, Wine, Wine.
To get through the first song, I tried a bunch of tricks like changing my grip and cutting the number of strokes I was playing with my right hand. Mercifully the song ran its course before my arm clinched up totally. I rubbed and shook my arm out like mad to loosen it up and while doing so, I happened to look up. At the back of the room sat none other than Don Kuhli. He had a head of white blond hair that was hard to miss so there was no doubt in my mind that it was him. I prayed that he had just wandered in and did not see me trying to not totally cramp up on the first song. We cherry picked our best “college crowd” tunes for the rest of the set and once Mike got a grip on the speed, it went fine. All I could think was, “I hope Kuhli didn’t see me floundering on the opening number.”
When we started to pack up our gear, another drummer I knew in passing came over to chat drums a bit. I about hit the floor when he said, “Hey, Don Kuhli said to tell you that you are a good drummer.” I gave him a good looking over because I didn’t know him all that well and I figured he was yanking my chain. I said, “He didn’t say that!” “Yeah, he did,” he said, “Kuhli told me to tell you he liked what you were playing and that you are a good drummer.” Maybe he was being kind. Maybe my drummer friend misheard him. All I knew was I had played the drums in front of someone who I respected as a great drummer and hadn’t laid an egg. Hearing someone say he actually liked my playing put me on cloud nine for a long time.
The truth is, I never could play drums like Don Kuhli. He definitely has the “fast twitch” hands and feet to play intricate jazz and big band patterns. Same goes for Chicago’s first superlative drummer, Daniel Seraphine. Don’t even get me started on Shiela E.! I appreciate their playing a lot because it isn’t a style that I can play. As the old movie line goes, “A man has got to know his limitations.” What watching drummers like Kuhli did for me was improve my feel for the drums. I never elevated my game to that level, but I improved a lot trying to play in ways that sounded like the drummers I heard. So I have to say a belated “thank you” to Don Kuhli for inspiring me those many years ago. He would have no reason to remember seeing my band play part of one afternoon gig at the Wildcat Den, but I certainly remember everything his drumming and kind words did for me.
Top Piece Video – Videos of Don Kuhli at work are hard to come by so we will fall back on our old friend Lindsay Tomasic as they tackle one of my favorite Turtles hits Happy Together.