Show And Studio

Irv Cottler: Keeper of the Time

by Tracy Borst

Irv CottlerIrv Cottler’s recording, radio, television and motion picture credits would stagger anyone’s belief. Since 1955, Irv has done most of the drumming for Frank Sinatra, an association which places him among the most recorded drummers in musical history.


TB: You’ve travelled all over the world with Frank Sinatra. How do you deal with the problem of keeping your equipment in working order. I’m sure it’s not very practical to run down to the local drum shop for repairs.

IC: It really isn’t too much of a problem. I still use the basic four piece set, and I carry many spare parts; screws, nuts, plus extra pedals and heads. The problem lies in having to adjust to different stages. Each place sounds different. There are a few stages that are great to play on, and many that are horrible.

TB: Which are the great ones?

IC: The Sunrise Theater in Florida is excellent. London is great, no matter where you play. Most of the halls are old and all wood. Festival Hall has a beautiful sound. One of the finest places is the Opera House in Amsterdam. It’s a circular theater about one hundred years old. You don’t need any microphones. People come from all over the world to emulate the gorgeous sound of that theater.

TB: What key men travel with Frank, and how much rehearsal time is involved?

IC: We carry a rhythm section, lead trumpet and a conductor. The full orchestra is usually 36 players. Two rehearsals is about it. The Las Vegas and New York bands have worked the show before.

TB: What kind of a reception do you get on these world trips?

IC: It’s amazing. When we get off the plane, we’re met by musicians who can tell you your life history. London is on the schedule again and possibly the Philippines.

TB: What subjects do you deal with in your clinics?

IC: How to play with a musical approach, with a bass player. I leave technique to the individual. Tuning the drums, and picking cymbals that match the sound of the band. These are so important. I’ve heard drummers tune drums, that even if they played well, they wouldn’t sound good.

Tuning is a matter of experience, and learning from the right people. If you don’t have good ears, nothing is going to help you.

Several years ago I was working the Sinatra show in Vegas. The NAMM convention (National Association of Music Merchants) was there at the same time and I received a new batch of cymbals. I tried the complete set that night. Just to show you what ears Frank has, he turned around and said, “What’s wrong?” He knew!

Personally I think cymbals made today are far inferior to what they used to make. I’ve still got cymbals I used with Thornhill and Dorsey, and I still use them. In those days, even if you picked a bad cymbal, I would say it would be superior to today’s cymbals.

Like today’s music, most of it is a bunch of garbage. Music has gone back 50 years. I’m not a rock fan. I’m sure a drummer brought up in my era would rather play with a big band. That’s the main reason I’ve decided to travel with Frank. He’s bigger and better than ever. Musically, it’s just tremendous.

TB: How about recording problems?

IC: Recording techniques today are quite different. I think recording live is the best way, rather than recording the rhythm section, then putting the brass on and then adding strings. I hear the difference. I don’t know if anybody else does, but I do. It’s not natural. Frank still records mostly live. He digs it and it sounds so much better.

Recording in so many studios in L.A., I found I had to use different cymbals and drums due to the way the studios were set up. It took quite a while to learn which drums to use. Until I worked it out, I used four sets for different studios.

TB: How did you get started in this business?

IC: I auditioned for Red Norvo in 1938 at the Famous Door in New York with about 25 other drummers. I started that night. Red really taught me to play.

Then there was this jazz club in Brooklyn in a black neighborhood. I used to sit in every night with this swinging eight piece band. If you were white and you didn’t know the people, you couldn’t get in. Many nights I was the only white kid there. The players were capable of becoming stars, but they were family men and they didn’t want to travel. They were happy just working there.

TB: What kind of study had you done?

IC: I’d go down to Radio City Music Hall and watch that great orchestra. Billy Gladstone played snare drum, and he was the Heifetz of snare drummers. He took me on as a student. When I couldn’t pay him, I’d bring him a five cent cigar. Irving Torgman was also in the percussion section and he’d come out to my house to give me lessons. Shelly Manne’s dad played timpani in that orchestra also. When the job at the Famous Door ended, I joined Van Alexander. I went with Claude Thornhill in ’42 and stayed until he entered the service. Raymond Scott, who had seen me with Thornhill, called and asked me to join the CBS Radio staff. I was 22, and the youngest drummer to hold that job. But after four months I couldn’t stand it any more. I wanted to have more fun. Over the next few years I worked with Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Jerry Wald, and Thornhill again when he reorganized after World War II.

TB: What brought you to the west coast?

IC: I got tired of the bad winters in New York. I wanted to raise my family in California. Fortunately, I quickly got work with Billy May and Nelson Riddle, and I did some trio albums with Paul Smith and Andre Previn. Mel Torme’s California Suite album came along about 1950. Then I joined the Club 15 radio show with Jerry Gray conducting, and later Bob Crosby. The Dinah Shore Chevy Show started in 1951 and that lasted until 1964.

TB: That was a great studio band.

IC: It had to be. Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and just about every other great vocalist was on that show. We did transcriptions, records and even a radio station logo.

TB: Does working with vocalists demand special skills from a drummer?

IC: The most difficult thing to do is to play simply. Harry “Sweets” Edison can play one note on trumpet and swing the roof right off your head. I’ve made hundreds of recordings with “Sweets” and it’s most gratifying to work with him.

Davey Tough was a good example of an exceptionally fine drummer who wasn’t a technician, but who had a beautiful feeling for drums. He never got in anybody’s way and that was his secret. Everything he did was right.

I’ve gotten along with every singer I ever worked with. I learned one very important thing working with big bands, and it applies to singers as well. Never get in anybody’s way. That’s the secret. Especially with a singer. The singer is the star and you play for him.