Barrett Deems was known as “the world’s fastest drummer.” With a reputation like that he earned premier billing at Chicago’s Randolph Square in the 1940s and accolades from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Beyond speed, it was Deems’s impeccable swing and bandstand drive that enabled him to maintain a career over seven decades. Deems was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1914. He started out backing famed jazz violinist Joe Venuti from 1937 to 1945. He achieved his greatest acclaim as a member of Louis Armstrong’s prestigious All-Stars band. Between 1953 and 1961, Deems played on classic albums such as Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and appeared in films like High Society with Armstrong and Bing Crosby and Satchmo The Great.
Deems travelled the world with Armstrong on tours sponsored by the US State Department. At a concert in Ghana, Deems’s drum feature “Mop Mop” so excited the 100,000 crowd that a riot broke out. After leaving Armstrong, Deems performed with Joe Kelly’s Gaslight Band, and made periodic appearances with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band. In 1976 Deems toured Europe with Benny Goodman, in ’81 he traveled to South America with Bill Davison, and in ’86 he spent six weeks in Europe for the filming of The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong.
He continued to remain a big presence in Chicago and continuously fronted his own bands, including the Barrett Deems 18-Piece Big Band. According to an article in the Independent: “Researching for a programme on Armstrong a few years ago, the radio presenter and producer called at Deems’s home. It reflected the drummer’s personality. By now he collected drums and one bedroom was jammed to the ceiling with them. One of the largest was a bass drum that had been used in John Philip Sousa’s original brass band.”
Deems nearly died from a collapsed lung in 1993 but determinedly rose from his bed and continued to lead and play with the band each week until his death. You can hear Deems discuss Jazz Drumming on the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.