Jazz Professional               



The British drummer much in demand tells how he broke into the world of best paid gigs, what demands are imposed by red light playing, and what the cost is to nerves and family life.

Talking to Tony Brown in 1969

Session King
Kenny & Jake Hanna Parts 1 2 3
Drum School
Every night a first night
Atmosphere and adaptability
Louie Bellson—Fabulous

When I was on Johnny Dankworth's band some years ago it never occurred to me that I'd ever be doing anything different. I was very happy all the time and I didn't even think about getting on sessions.

I was with John for five years in all and I never looked ahead. I might have still been there now had not the band broken up for six weeks. All of a sudden I had no money in the bank and I was out of work.

Then Perry Como came here for some dates and one of those odd quirks of fate put me on a new course. He was to appear with one of the TV orchestras—one of the more straight outfits—and it was decided that he needed something a bit more stomping behind him. So Joe Muddel was brought in on bass, Alan Metcalfe on guitar, and yours truly on drums.

It was a whole week's work as it turned out—but it paid enough for four weeks. The pressure was off. Through that one booking, I got another couple of TV dates—one with Jack Parnell over at Wood Green. I had been on the road with Jack some years before. I suppose the word got around somehow and I started doing a few things.

Worth thinking about this. Session work is supposed to come about according to some people—through pressure and influence. I wasn't even trying.

When the Dankworth band finally got together again, I was really doing all right on my own. But I went back, anyway. Derrick Abbott had pulled out and I didn't want to embarrass anyone. I stayed on with the band for six months. There were auditions for a drummer to replace me. Ginger Baker did one—I think, marvellously. But they still had to hear Ronnie Stephenson, who was known to a few of the lads. In the event Ron got the job.

You couldn't exactly say that I'd pushed to get into the session world. But it has worked out well. Mainly studio work—and some of it has been very nice. A couple of TV shows with Nelson Riddle, things with Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Sammy Davis and Marty Paich, Johnny Mathis a few times. I simply can't recall them all.

I've never worked yet with Sinatra. I've been booked to play albums with him three times and they have been thrice cancelled. But I did record with him—without our meeting. We did the backing here in England and he added the voice part in Hollywood.

Peggy Lee is another I'd very much like to play with. All the arrangements are so good. The Jack Jones thing was very enjoyable. I did an album with Judy Garland at the Palladium, part of an album with Barbra Streisand. I've worked with Mel Tormé a lot of times. Marvellous performer. Yes—and he did his drum bit on one of the shows. Just did a TV series with Vikki Carr. Very fine artist. Emotional singer; she just happens to be like that.

Quite a lot of the work I do derives, oddly enough, from just one record I was on. A single, at that: Ella Fitzgerald's "You Can't Buy Me Love", with an orchestra directed by ]ohnnie Spence. That was five years ago, but it certainly seems to have stood me in good stead. All over the place. Lots of people who heard the record apparently—wanted to know who the drummer was. Which is very nice and lucky for me, The Clarke/Boland band connection may have come about partly through that record. I never did find out who recommended me for the job. Could have been Derek Humble or Jimmy Deuchar I guess—they're both in Cologne, working in the Kurt Edelhagen radio band. They must have mentioned that record to Gigi Campi. I've been with the band now for two years.

I've done a few things overseas, the most recent being a Jazz Workshop in Vienna last October. There was a whole stack of people and two rhythm sections. I worked with Idrees Sulieman and Slide Hampton.

Strangely, I haven't played all that much at the Ronnie Scott Club. The only one I've worked regularly there with was Johnny Griffin. I had a week there with Ronnie's own band, too.

My only working trip to America was with the Dankworth band. Which was a very good band to go with. We did all the best places—a week opposite Ellington, the Newport Jazz Festival, Birdland; places like that. It really was good. An ordeal in a way, but we went on there and played. It's the only way.

The Americans have a very disturbing habit. When they want to hear something, they come and sit in the front seat. It was terrifying for me at Newport. There was a committee of four in the front there, staring me in the face. Sonny Igoe—who's one of my hot favourites, anyway—Louie Bellson, Ed Thigpen and Ben Riley. And that was our first job.

At first you get a bit of panic feeling. What are they doing there? Then you think: It's no good: don't be an idiot. They are not going to make me play any better—or any worse. I pushed them out of my mind and concentrated on what I was doing. But it can destroy you if you're not careful. Or it can make you overplay and show off.

I visited the States again a couple of years ago on the way back from a trip to Japan with Stanley Black. That was more like a kind of holiday. I went for a break more than anything else. Playing with the red light on becomes a strain on the nerves—even though I'm not a nervous type of person.

I remember telling you at the Mancini session that I felt tired. I had just flown back overnight from dates with the Clarke/Boland band. Luckily, it doesn't get as bad as that all the time. I've done touring, and that can be tiring. The kind of work I do is considerably more wearing, I'd say.

As a matter of fact, I found touring quite easy. Just occasionally you get widely spread dates and a hard schedule, or whatever. Difficult to give you a typical day, because it varies so much. But a few weeks ago, I did have a terrible spell. It ought to be enough to show you how wearing it can be.

I finished the stint with the Clarke/ Boland band at the Scott club, got home and into bed by about 4.30 a.m. Left the house at 7.30 and at 9 a.m. I was back at Chappell's rehearsing the Rolf Harris show. I finished that at one, grabbed a bite to eat and was at a record date in the afternoon from 2.30 to 5.30. Then another in the evening from seven until ten. Then on at the Scott club at 10.30.

Finished at three a.m. and was recording at the C.T.S. Studio from nine to twelve. Then on to Golders Green in the afternoon to do the Rolf Harris show. Finished at 8.30 and got on at Ronnie's until 10.30. Easy day, that.

Two hours off. But I have to eat and travel between dates, don't forget.

We finished again at three a.m. but being the last night, we got together for a little celebration. I finally packed up the drums and left there at about a quarter to five. I was on at eight a.m. until eleven, recording, Then I had a TV show at Wembley—Vikki Carr, I think—from twelve until nine or ten.

The next day, I actually went to bed early. I was in bed by twelve.

Then I was on the following morning from ten to one, then from 2.30 to 5.30, then from eight until nine. That was easy. The next day I was on from 9.30 until 12.30 and I was then off until Thursday. I went home and collapsed. I had been playing fine. I was okay. When I started again on Thursday morning, I couldn't play at all. I hadn't practised or thought about music. Just that short break and I was rusty.

It's continually playing where you mustn't goof. Every time I play something, it's like it was important. How can I explain it? Some people on a run-through, they're not giving the full performance. They're conserving themselves for the big effort, coasting around, finding out what goes with it.

When the red light comes on they're going to play it. Unfortunately, I can't do this. I have to play every time through as though the red light is on. This helps me to get to know the number better. But paradoxically, the more times I play it, the worse I get! Because I'm trying to do new things. I'm already bored with what I'm doing. This makes it, I think, a bit more pressure than it normally would be. Then the driving from one session to another, with the traffic being what it is, all adds to the strain.

My wife naturally gets upset about it from time to time. I don't see too much of the kids. And the funny thing is, while you're working you can keep going. But as soon as you stop, you really fall over. And it always seems that I'm home when I fall over.

Which is not really fair. Just when you should be doing something with your own family, you sag. But you get hung up with commitments and the winter's always busy.

Last winter I was doing four or five TV shows a week—plus all the recording sessions between. And with all that TV there are a lot of dates that have to be turned down. So naturally, when you have a short break and find you can fit them in, this is precisely what you do. I mean, if people keep ringing and asking and you can't make it, there's going to come a time when they won't ring. They'll be thinking: "No use 'phoning him—he's busy all the time". Whereas you're sitting at home starving.

The 'phone can be a problem. My wife acts as my secretary. It's better nowadays, because people ring mostly at night. Which is all right except when you've just got in bed early for a change and the 'phone rings. "Didn't ring before. Didn't think you'd be in."

Still, it can't be helped. You need the work, and the only way you get it is on the 'phone.

Copyright ©1969 Tony Brown. All rights reserved

Louie BellsonFabulous
Talking of clinics—I'll be doing some on this trip. I did one last year with my great friend Kenny Clare, who is one of the giant players.

Buddy and I always talk about Kenny.

Before I had a chance to meet him, he did a record with Ella Fitzgerald: the minute it came out in the States, everybody said: "Wow—who is that playing drums?" They could detect that it wasn't Buddy, and it wasn't me, but they knew it was a fabulous, great player. As a result of that, Kenny Clare immediately became a name in the States. Then, of course, later on they heard him not only with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, but also with the Francy Boland band.

Kenny really did some things with Buddy and me on that tribute concert for Frank King. Kenny kept saying: "Me—play with Buddy and Louie?", but we said: "Wait a minute—let's check him out." I don't know if a lot of people know, but when it came time for Kenny to play his solo, he broke his bass drum head almost immediately—and he finished the solo with that broken head. And he sounded great. Buddy and I felt that he did just a super job on that concert; we love him. It's always a joy for me to do a clinic with Kenny, because I learn something from it—just being with him. Like Buddy says; you always learn something from another player. Especially a great player like that—you really learn. Louie Bellson