By Michael Aubrecht (Originally published in DRUMHEAD Magazine)
There is an old cliché that goes, “You won’t know where you are going until you know where you have been.” This adage certainly reads true for all creative artists, especially musicians. As changes in both taste and technology push music’s creative boundaries, the primary structure that holds it together remains the same. This principle of influence means that everything that was created today can likely be attributed to something that was created yesterday. Therefore, maintaining a proper historical perspective is essential to the appreciation and progression of music.
In a new book titled “The Roots of Rock Drumming: Interviews with the Drummers Who Shaped Rock’n’Roll Music” two of the instrument’s most storied players, Steve Smith and Daniel Glass, preserve and present the stories of rock drumming’s pioneers. Twelve years in the making, this book pulls back the curtain to reveal the origins of rock drumming from 1948 to 1965. Through a series of intimate behind-the-scenes interviews, twenty-two drummers shared their insights and the experiences that helped to produce some of music’s most recognized rhythms. With interviews conducted by Smith and Hudson Music founders Rob Wallis and Paul Siegel and with editing by Glass, a noted historian himself, “The Roots of Rock Drumming” captures the essence of what it meant to be a rock drummer before anyone called it “rock’n’roll.”
The result of this project is a two-fold contribution. First, from a methodical perspective, the groundbreaking techniques of some of rock’s most popular and effective beats are explained by the very players who developed them. (One example is the two-handed shuffle.) Second, from a historical standpoint, credit is finally given to revolutionary players who were previously relegated to history only as session players or sidemen. This exceptionally well-produced guide is virtually overflowing with inspiring photographs and in-depth interviews that will appeal to both musicians and listeners alike.
Featured drumming pioneers include Bobby Morris, Dick Richards, Earl Palmer, D.J. Fontana, J.M. Van Eaton, Buddy Harman, Jerry Allison, Hal Blaine, Idris Muhammad, Sam Lay, Bernard Purdie, Roger Hawkins, Sandy Nelson, Smokey Johnson, John Boudreaux, Brian Bennett, Bobby Graham and Clem Cattini. Additional commentary is provided by Jaimoe, Carmine Appice, Steve Gadd and Jim Keltner, who collectively share their perceptions as to how these pivotal drummers influenced their own playing styles.
The complimentary DVD (nearly 3 hours in length) includes videotaped interviews, which in some cases, are the last of their kind, as Earl Palmer, Buddy Harman and Bobby Graham have since passed away. Thankfully this book remains as a testament to their tremendous character and influence. In an exclusive interview with Drumhead, the editors discussed the origins, evolution and impact of this unique project.
MA: Cover to cover this book is wonderful. As a drummer and a fan of early rock music, I think “The Roots of Rock Drumming” appeals to both musicians and non-musicians alike. Can you gentlemen tell us about how the two of you came together to produce this book?
SS: Actually the initial idea for this project did not start out as a book. The original concept was to do a documentary with Hudson Music. I was getting ready to do my video “Drumset Technique/History of the U.S. Beat.” While conducting my own research, I came upon the names of all these great players who I was not that familiar with. I asked Rob and Paul from Hudson if they would be interested in filming some interviews with these guys to put together an interesting documentary focusing on the roots of rock drumming. They loved the idea and the three of us conducted interviews throughout the early 2000’s. Unfortunately, we later came to the realization that the cost of licensing the rights to the music and film footage was far too expensive. We literally would have required a PBS budget to pull that off. So, at that point the project was shelved. Coincidentally, Daniel was doing similar research at that time.
DG: I was over on the West Coast and had always been very interested in the evolution of drumming. I started interviewing historic drummers around 1999 and continued that process until about 2004. When I moved to New York in 2010, I participated in the Modern Drummer Festival, which Hudson Music was filming. I had lunch with Paul and we discussed how Steve and I had been in touch about historically-related topics from time to time. Paul told me that they had these wonderful interviews sitting on the shelf and that they were interested in transcribing them for a book. Both Steve and Hudson knew that I had historical knowledge, so I was brought on as an editor to take the raw interviews, compile them, and perhaps more importantly, find some common threads throughout. I also contributed a few of the interviews that I had done, and as we started writing the introductions we were all struck by the commonalities that started to reveal themselves. The overall theme of the book came down to the one pivotal question that was asked at all the interviews “How do you identify yourself?” That helped us to define everyone and place them in the appropriate category.
SS: I do want to quickly add that we had wanted to turn this into a book for about five years, but we never had the right editor to pull it together for us. It had to be someone who understood both the history and the genre. When Daniel came on scene, we knew that he was the right guy for the job.
MA: One thing that strikes me about the drummers in this book is that each one had a distinct style that ultimately helped to shape the sound of the artist they supported. How did you select which drummers to include in the book and how did you go about reaching out to them?
SS: I decided who to interview based upon who I felt were key players in the development of rock drumming. Of course then I had to find them, which was a challenge in itself. It was much more difficult back in those days, without Internet resources, than it would probably be now. It was also based on who was still alive and who was willing to do it. Ironically, some of the people I had wanted to interview but couldn’t were interviewed by Daniel so that worked out nicely. The guys that did participate were all enthusiastic and that really helped us with the interview process. Most of the interviews that they had done previously were not about them, they were about the artist. DJ [Fontana] for instance, would always be asked about Elvis, so I made it very clear that it was going to be about them. Once they saw our intent, they were excited.
DG: Both Steve and I, without consulting each other, were both trying to get to the nuts and bolts of early rock drumming. We weren’t asking these guys to share anecdotes about life on the road. We wanted to know why they played a particular beat on the record; why did they use or not use backbeats; and how did the recording studio affect what they did? Those were the kinds of questions we thought drummers would want to know about. I’ve listened to and played roots music so I understand it a little better than most. Part of my goal with this book was to demystify the music from the drummer’s perspective by removing the filters of time. I also wanted to reinforce why those early rock records are important and why they should be listened to. Many of the answers we received will surprise readers.
MA: Much like the efforts to capture the recollections of WWII veterans, this project is now a historic record and in some cases, the final record of great players who are not with us anymore. Has this, in some regards, become a time capsule?
SS: Yes. Some of the drummers are still active and playing, but certainly not like they once were. Some of them have passed on so it is important to keep their memory alive. We were very fortunate to have caught them in time to get their stories down. Many of these first-hand accounts had never been shared with the public before now. Their work lives on, in some cases anonymously, through their music and we are hoping to reconnect that music with a name.
MA: History books tend to be academic and, in many cases, dry. You guys found a way to produce an informative history book that is both educational and entertaining. Was that a challenge for you?
SS: This was a team effort, and Hudson was always behind us, so creating an enlightening and enjoyable book was not really a challenge. The challenge is really to promote the book, especially beyond the obvious “drummer audience.” The production value is beautiful and the interviews are really captivating. I have a friend, who is not a musician, and he loved the book and was amazed by how much information we fit in there. Hudson spared no expense on the finished product and it shows.
DG: I first started researching the evolution of drumming back in ’99. At that time, most historical studies on rock’n’roll drumming only ventured back to the British Invasion era. Today that is changing. There is more of an awareness I think, thanks to Steve’s stuff and Stanton Moore’s stuff, as well as Zoro and myself, to get people to appreciate their musical heritage. Drummers want to know where they come from. This book is taking us all the way back to the very genesis of the rock genre.
[We highly recommend Daniel’s award-winning drum documentary DVDs “The Century Project” and “TRAPS.”]
SS: One of the key points that we made in this book is that these guys were not in any way influenced to become rock’n’roll musicians. They had no idea what that was and it was happening through them organically. They evolved into rock drummers, but they grew up with various influences like jazz, gospel, country and blues music. There is definitely something to be said for looking back at one’s roots, so if you make music today, you can have the same kind of inspiration that those original guys had. That historic perspective gives you a more well-rounded and grounded approach to the creative process. I also don’t think people realize how young some of these guys were. You’re talking about teenagers in the studio and on the stage, backing some of the biggest names in music history. They were creating their own style and improvising…literally making it up as they went along.
MA: This book and the music that it showcases is really a testament to these guys as players. Limitations on studio time, primitive recording technology and lack of post-production resources did nothing to deter them from contributing to a catalog of timeless songs that we still listen to. In addition, the drum techniques that they came up with, on the fly in some cases, are still copped today. Was there a particular player whose story stands out in your mind?
SS: For me, a real key character is Jerry Allison. When I was doing these interviews, the one question I would always ask is, “How do you perceive yourself as a drummer?” More often than not the answer was the same: “A jazz drummer.” DJ Fontana, Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine all used that self-identifier. The very first guy to say that he wanted to play rock’n’roll was Jerry. When I asked him what was different between playing something with a rock or swing feel to it, he said, “Nothing.” It was what was going on around the drums, how it was shaped, and what his intent was in playing that made the difference. He didn’t want to be a jazz drummer and he didn’t even know what to call himself because the term “rock’n’roll” hadn’t been invented yet. All he knew was that it wasn’t jazz. So he was one of the very first, if not the first rock drummer, because of his mindset. Plus, the fact that he was part of an actual band set him apart from the sidemen. The Crickets were a cooperative unit, unlike the backing musicians who had supported the majority of artists. You could say they were the blueprint for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
DG: The other thing about Jerry Allison that I would add is, unlike the other drummers who were essentially playing grooves behind the artist, Jerry had the luxury of coming up with actual studio parts. He created really innovative drum parts that were highly unusual for the time. As an equal contributing member of a band, he had a voice in the creative process. Usually when you would go into the studio in those days, whether it was Little Richard in New Orleans or Chuck Berry in Chicago, those guys would have two or three hours to pump out as many tunes as they could. Somebody like Jerry had days to experiment and craft drum parts, much like today. The Beatles would later use that approach at Abby Road for composing tracks in the studio, so in that regard, Jerry Allison is really unique.
DG: I would say that I have a soft spot for Bobby Morris, the first interview. He is still very much alive at 84 or 85. Both Steve and I have had the pleasure of hanging out with him a lot lately, and we have become fairly tight with him. Bobby is probably one of the least known guys in the book, but also somebody who is perhaps one of the most influential guys in the book. So many of the other drummers we interviewed credited Bobby’s work with Louis Prima as what they were listening to at the time. What is so great about his story, which is very different from the others, is that he literally came from playing Bebop on 52nd street, to Las Vegas where he helped establish the lounge scene as part of Prima’s band, which later became ground zero for so much music. He then goes on to become one of the first and most in-demand studio rock drummers who was specifically hired and flown in by Capitol Records to play on countless rock sessions. Bobby is in my mind, the “Forrest Gump of drumming” because he showed up in all of these historic and pivotal moments in the evolution of rock music.
MA: The vast scope of these session guys’ work is astounding. I wonder if they are even aware of the number of songs that they performed. Did you find, in the course of conducting these interviews, that some of them were not fully aware of the influence or mark that they left on the music scene?
SS: I would say so. I don’t think many of them fully realize that they truly made history. Some are still active players so they are not slowing down to reminisce about their legacy.
MA: Staying with that thought for a moment, let me briefly turn the focus inward. Do either of you, since working on this project, look at your own careers in a different way? Were there stories that you could relate to?
SS: It definitely changed the perspective of my own career. I grew up playing mainly jazz and big band music. Then I played fusion. When I was asked to join Journey it seemed like a big detour because I had never played with professional rock musicians, or even a singer for that matter. I now realize that my experience was exactly the same as DJ Fontana’s; most of those guys really; and that it isn’t uncommon at all. One thing about being a jazz drummer is that you are highly trained and you possess musical versatility. That means your technique is more advanced than what you would typically use in rock. Then it simply becomes a matter of concept. How do you use those jazz skills within the framework of rock music? That’s how you define a versatile drummer. They can bridge that gap.
DG: I had a similar revelation when I met Ian Paice. I met Ian at a millennia event hosted by PETA back in 1999. Royal Crown Revue was on the bill with the B52’s and a special band that Paul McCartney had put together to perform his own “roots” music. Ian – my first drum hero – was part of Paul’s all-star band. In fact, he is the reason I set-up left-handed. After I met Ian, I realized that he was a guy who grew up playing big band music, and then became a rock drummer. I grew up a rock fan listening to Ian Paice, and later became a big band drummer. It’s this circle of influence that we acknowledge in the book; jazz drummers – influencing rock drummers – influencing jazz drummers.
MA: I can’t think of anyone more qualified to produce this book than the two of you. You truly represent the next generation of innovators and your continued dedication to producing educational media, both technical and historical, is second to none. So in closing, what do each of you want the readers of “The Roots of Rock Drumming” to come away with after reading this book?
SS: I would say a new appreciation for the groundbreaking drummers, and an understanding that what they did to help shape the music back then, still resonates today. These stories really show how they embraced the opportunities that they were given and did a remarkable job creating something that has stood the test of time. I would like to add that now we see these drummers as older men, but it is important to keep in mind that when they were doing these things, they were very young men. We must remember that they were the youth of their time. They created music for their peers which resulted in a blueprint for the decades of music that came later.
DG: That is spot on. I do want to add that we really went out of our way to include photos of these guys in their prime because we wanted them to be remembered both as they were and as they are. I am incredibly proud of the results of our collective efforts. Everyone involved with this project did exceptional work. This book looks, feels and reads like something with real substance and it was a privilege for me to be part of it. The stories that these guys shared with us are extraordinary, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to pass them on to our readers.
MA: Thank you both for your time and for producing this amazing book that reveals the insights and experiences of the architects of Rock ‘n’ Roll drumming. It provides the readers with an intimate look at an amazing group of players, and most importantly, gives proper credit where it is far overdue.
Roots of Rock Drumming: www.hudsonmusic.com/product/the-roots-of-rock-drumming
Full video interviews can be found at: www.rootsofrockdrumming.com
Steve Smith: www.vitalinformation.com
Daniel Glass: www.danielglass.com