Longtime Los Angeles studio and jazz drummer Frank Capp passed away yesterday, September 12, 2017. Read all about his distinguished career in this interview, which was originally published in the November 1994 issue of Modern Drummer magazine.
by Woody Thompson
Frank Capp is a man short on name recognition but long on accomplishment and influence. As a player with an extensive list of prestige gigs—Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, and André Previn, for starters—and as a businessman who has, for many years, acted as a link between players and producers in the high-pressure L.A. recording scene, Capp has earned the right to be called an important man.
Capp got his professional start at age nineteen, when he joined Stan Kenton’s big band. This auspicious beginning was followed by a career as one of the hardest-working studio players in Los Angeles and as a drummer sought after by some of the world’s biggest singing stars and bandleaders—accomplishments that have almost been eclipsed by his success as a musical contractor. As a man who is often called upon to pair musicians with recording dates, Capp can be regarded as a powerful (“I prefer to think of it as ‘popular,’” he says) presence in the world of recorded music. As if all this weren’t enough, Frank also has led his own big band for seventeen years and continues to be active as a live player.
Capp’s career has been characterized by hard work, an ability to find his place in a shifting and sometimes fickle music scene, and a devotion to playing his instrument that has not diminished with the years. Perhaps most importantly, when responsibility has called, Frank Capp has always been there to accept it.
MD: How did you get started in drumming?
Frank: I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. My uncles worked at Walberg and Auge, a percussion accessory manufacturer. One of them brought a pair of drumsticks home to me when I was four or five years old. I started banging on the furniture with the sticks, and I ultimately became a drummer. I’m sixty-one years old now and I’ve been playing all my life.
MD: Who were your drum heroes?
Frank: When I was a kid I listened to people like Papa Jo Jones and Buddy Rich. I have a set of Buddy’s Radio King drums that I’m very proud of. I used to listen to—but not pattern myself after—guys like Sonny Greer. The big band drummers were the guys who were around when I was young. Gene Krupa, Papa Jo, Buddy—those were my idols, like the kids of today look up to Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta. It was a whole different era—but just as important.
MD: Did you ever have formal musical training?
Frank: I went to Boston University, but I didn’t major in percussion or performance; I majored in music education, because I thought I was going to be a teacher. I used to write but I gave that up because I was so slow. I wrote a chart for Stan Kenton’s band once, and I wrote a couple of things when I was with Neal Hefti. But I can’t say that I’m an arranger or writer.
MD: You got your first taste of professional drumming with Stan Kenton’s band. Where did your career take you after that?
Frank: After I left Kenton I went with the Neal Hefti/Frances Wayne Band for about eight months. This was in the early 1950s; it was at the tail end of the days of traveling big bands. When that band broke up I went back home and had my own quartet at a club called the Moors in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Then I went down to New York and ran into Pete Candoli, who asked me if I wanted to go out with Peggy Lee. I worked with Peggy for several years. That gig ultimately brought me to California in late 1953.
When I first got here, Remo Belli was drumming for the Billy May band. He would go out on the road and I would stay in his garage apartment. But then he and Roy Harte got together and started their Drum City store. Remo didn’t want to go back out on the road, so he got me on the Billy May band. When I came back to L.A. I was freelancing and working at strip joints. Meanwhile, Remo had taken a gig with Betty Hutton because she would only go out for a couple of weeks at a time. But he was also starting to mess around with plastic heads along with a chemical engineer named Sam Muchnick. So he got me the gig with Betty.
MD: Did you ever get involved with Remo in the head business?
Frank: No, but at one point in the late ’50s Bob Yeager, Tommy Sheppard, and I tried to develop plastic drumsticks. There were unbreakable sticks on the market but they weren’t good; they didn’t feel right. We wanted to incorporate the wood feel and still make an unbreakable drumstick. We got together with Sam Muchnick and invested a few thousand dollars each. Sam made a few pairs of sticks out of Kevlar. They felt pretty good—but we couldn’t come up with a way to mass-produce them without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for special machinery. I have a couple of those sticks as mementos to remind me of our folly.
MD: How did you get into the studios?
Frank: I got into the studios through André Previn. I was working at the Sahara in Vegas with Dorothy Dandridge. André was working in the lounge, and we’d hang out together. In those days every studio in Los Angeles had its own contract orchestra. That means that they had between sixty and seventy-five musicians who had signed contracts to play for the studio. At the time I got back to L.A. from Vegas, someone had just retired from the Warner Brothers orchestra. André called Ray Heindorf—who was the conductor of the orchestra—and said, “I’ve got a drummer for you.”
Being in a contract orchestra meant that when the studio had a picture going, you had to be there. You could freelance too, but even if you had a record date planned for the next day, if they suddenly called you, you had to dump that record date. We were salaried; I think we were making around nine or ten thousand a year. That wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a hell of a lot more than everybody else was getting. The studio would send us a check each week—even though we would sometimes go three or four weeks without doing a call.
I worked on contract for Warner Brothers for two years. But by 1958 contract orchestras no longer existed; the scene became all freelance. So I started freelancing. I did all of André Previn’s pictures, including My Fair Lady, The Apartment, and The Old Man and the Sea, which was scored by Dimitri Tiomkin.
MD: You’ve had a long association with André Previn.
Frank: I worked with André—and Red Mitchell—as part of the André Previn trio for about eight years. I must have done forty albums with André and Red. Ironically, the album that created the André Previn trio was not really André’s album, it was Shelly Manne’s album. It was on Contemporary and the group was called Shelly Manne & Friends. It was Shelly, Leroy Vinnegar, and André. They did jazz versions of songs from My Fair Lady, and for those days it was a smash hit. Then André got calls to travel. Shelly didn’t travel because he was ensconced in the studios, so I became part of the trio.
MD: Did you work in television as well as movies?
Frank: In one period of time I had Green Acres, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Steve Allen Show—and they were showing reruns of The Pat Boone Show, which I was also on. The Steve Allen Show was taped; we’d go in two days a week and tape six shows. The Joey Bishop Show was done live. I’d do whatever TV film shows—dramatic shows—that I could squeeze in between; I’d be on the soundtrack. I also did damn near everything that came out of Hanna-Barbera: The Flintstones and The Jetsons and all those. I don’t even know what all I played on because I was too busy working to watch TV. But if you were watching TV during the ’60s, you were hearing a lot of me.
MD: What was it that made you so in-demand for this type of work?
Frank: Well, of course reading was never a problem for me. But I think it was mainly just a strong desire to do it. It was what I wanted to do, and when I want to do something, I just go after it and get it. I don’t sit back and wait for it to come to me.
MD: With as many years in the studio as you have to your credit, you must have been called on to do rock music at some time in your career.
Frank: There’s another side of me that I don’t talk about much—because I don’t like to talk about it. I played on all of Phil Spector’s productions—but not drumset; Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer did that. I played percussion on all that stuff—like the tambourine parts. I also invented a sound for Phil Spector using a castanet board. I’d play triplets on those to get a clackety-clackety-clack that would sound like a herd of wild horses. Phil liked that stuff! I played on the Righteous Brothers’ stuff and on all the Beach Boys stuff too.
The only thing I can say I played drums on was “I Got You Babe,” by Sonny and Cher. And you know what I played? Boom, boom-boom, bam—with the backbeat on the snare and floor tom together. To me that was tantamount to getting some kid off the street and saying, “Here, do this.” This was in the era of the garage band. Little Johnny down the street got a guitar for Christmas and Tommy next door has got a set of drums. They get in the garage and bang around and then two weeks later they’re recording.
MD: Through all this, were you continuing to play what you considered “good” music?
Frank: Absolutely. I did all that early rock stuff as a way of getting financial security. I would go into the studio and make whatever scale was for that time, say, $400 a day. Then that night I’d go over to Dante’s and work from 8:00 until 1:00 for $30 playing jazz. That’s what I liked doing most.
MD: Considering the amount of work you’ve done, it’s surprising that you’re not a well-known name among drummers.
Frank: The thing is, I got buried in the studios. After I came to California in 1953, I did nothing but play drums for a living until around 1980. By that time all the studio gigs were being given to drummers who played rock or had electronic drums. I wanted to stay in the music business—I didn’t want to start selling insurance—so I started contracting for a lot of the leaders I worked for.
MD: How did you get into contracting?
Frank: When I was playing for Pat Boone in the ’60s we did a show for Filmways, and Pat said that we needed a contractor. Pat’s manager asked if I wanted to contract the show, and I said sure. So I hired the rest of the musicians and played drums. I never stopped being a serious drummer. I did contracting mainly because it increased my financial position. Most jazz drummers wonder where their next meal is coming from; contracting gave me a little bit of security.
MD: In the ensuing years, you’ve become known as one of the most successful contractors in Los Angeles. What exactly does a contractor do?
Frank: The contractor hires the musicians for a recording session, whether it be a motion picture, a television show, or a commercial jingle. Contractors work hand-in-hand with composers to pick the right musicians for the music. Before the session starts, the contractor must make sure that everything is legally correct with the production company—in terms of contracts and so on. After the session starts, the contractor also has to see that union rules are adhered to. So the contractor is responsible to everybody: the musicians, the producer, the composer, and the union.
MD: What criteria do you use in picking musicians for a session?
Frank: The criteria are different for each date because each date is different. I like to find musicians who are talented on their instruments and who have experience. It goes without saying that they must be good readers. You’re going to go in and sight-read stuff you’ve never seen before, and you have to play it like you wrote it.
One place I can start is with musicians who the composer asks for specifically. For example, I’m doing a picture soon for Lee Holdridge. He wouldn’t ask for somebody who couldn’t play well. On the other hand, occasionally I’ll suggest someone else if I know that the composer’s choice isn’t strong in the style that the session calls for. But really, ninety percent of the players out here are good musicians who can do almost anything; there might be ten percent getting along on bullshit.
MD: Do you also play on dates that you’ve contracted?
Frank: I can be a non-playing contractor or a playing contractor; I’ve done both. For example, I’m the orchestra manager for the Glendale Symphony Orchestra. Two weeks ago we did a pops concert with Rosemary Clooney. She needed a drummer because her music is pop-oriented, so I played.
Usually, though, I feel that a contractor cannot do his best in either area when he has to split himself. A contractor needs to know what’s going on in the booth with the producers as well as what’s happening outside. If I’m playing, I’m thinking about reading the part or concentrating on the brass figures or trying to get the right sound on the drums. I can’t be thinking about, Oh, the producer wants to redo this particular take. The contractor has a lot of responsibility above and beyond the musical aspects of the date. So if it’s a big date, I usually choose not to play. If it’s a small date where there aren’t likely to be any problems, then I’ll play and contract.
MD: What is it about your playing that has kept you in demand all these years?
Frank: The kind of music I play best is straight-ahead, mainstream jazz. I have nowhere near the technique that guys like Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and nine million other young whippersnappers have. But when I play, I have a feeling.
There’s a good band out here in L.A.—a hot band with a lot of good, modern charts. I would give my eyeteeth to have their drummer’s chops and technique. He plays all the tricky things, and he tunes his drums the way the young drummers do now—with that flat sound. Well, I played with that band and the lead trumpet player came over and said, “You know, this is the first time the band really felt good. It was easy to play.” It was because I didn’t do all the stuff that this kid did. I’m making music, not making like a drum solo.
MD: At sixty-one, are you still an active player?
Frank: I’m still very active. I was with Sinatra for a short while just three years ago. I took Sol Gubin’s place until heart surgery knocked me off the road. My band, Juggernaut, has been around for seventeen years; it’s a sixteen-piece group, like the Count Basie Band. We do festivals like the Playboy Jazz Festival, the Mt. Hood Festival, and the Monterey Festival. We have a lot of Basie and Woody Herman charts in our book. In fact, Woody Herman used to hire Juggernaut to do holiday shows with him when his own band was off. Just last week we did a series of performances at various places around L.A. I also have a small group with Rickey Woodard on tenor, Tom Ranier on piano, and Chuck Berghofer on bass.
Playing drums is my main love. I’m trying to taper off my payroll business because I don’t need to do that anymore. What I want to do now is to play. I came in swinging, and that’s how I want to go out. As long as I can still play good time and musicians still want to work with me and I still get a pat on the back from them from time to time, I’ll still play my drums.