History of Rock Drumming


In The History of Rock Drumming: Parts I and II, I skimmed the surface on most of the drummers in blues and country music of the ’50s who shaped rock and roll. Many of the names of those players were probably new to most MD readers, but the drummers are extremely important in the evolution of this music, and I feel it’s extremely important that they be studied and listened to.


Towards the late ’50s, rock and roll made a transition from being the product of a handful of independent labels to becoming a major marketing music for the larger record companies. The “stars” of rock and roll at that time also went through a transition period. Little Richard stopped performing and concentrated on spiritual studies. Elvis Presley went into the Army. Jerry Lee Lewis married his fourteen-year-old cousin and that shattered his career. Chuck Berry was in jail for a while on charges that seemed questionable. Some performers like Bo Diddley and Fats Domino never progressed into new areas of music, and although their music was still great rock and roll, it became somewhat dated.

hord 1 The VenturesThe larger record companies took the rawness and the musical innocence of the great rock performers and, in many ways, reduced it to its lowest common denominator. A slick formula was created and the energy was focused on creating artists that would appeal to the teen market. From 1959 to 1963 the songwriters became the fuel for the rock/pop industry. Teams like Carole King and Gerry Coffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Well, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield wrote some great songs. But, between ’59 and ’63, artists emerged who probably sold as much for their image as for their musical ability. Bobby Rydell, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and Fabian were a few of the “big” artists…or perhaps “talents” would be a more correct title.

The ’60s could be called the “coming out” decade for drummers. From about 1956 until 1965, there was the phenomenon of instrumental rock groups. Much of this style of music has been carried over into the New Wave bands of the ’80s. The record that really brought drummers out front in the rock field was “Topsy II” by Cozy Cole in 1958. Cole had been primarily a swing jazz ‘ drummer since the late ’30s and for a time had a drum school with Gene Krupa in New York. “Topsy II” begins with the Cole/Krupa I tom-tom sound, into a cowbell rhythm, an organ solo, and some I classic big-band brass that sounds like the soundtrack to an Italian spy movie. Cozy moves from tom-toms to snare, shifting dynamics I from loud to soft. I doubt if anyone could’ve guessed the significance of this song, especially since it was originally the flip side of “Topsy I.” But, we’ll see how this sound carried through the ’60s.

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The year 1959 gave us groups like Duane Eddy and Johnny and The Hurricanes. Duane Eddy was a tremendous influence in guitar circles, and Johnny and The Hurricanes were a bunch of guys from Ohio that Rolling Stone called “some missing link between the great jazz combos of the ’30s and the Rolling Stones.” The drummer was Bo Savitch from Detroit, an extremely rocking player with a crisp drum sound. Bo and the rest of The Hurricanes released “Crossfire,” “Red River Rock,” Reveille Rock,” and “The Beatnik Fly.” The instrumentation was drums, electric bass, electric guitar, organ and tenor sax.

1959 produced an off-the-wall record called “Teen Beat” that went to number four on the charts. The artist was Sandy Nelson, a drummer who would go on to record almost forty albums in his career, and to this day, he remains the only artist to consistently have records that were drum features in the Top 40. Sandy Nelson is forty-three years old and lives in West Los Angeles. “I saw everybody around me making records,” Sandy told me, “and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do one myself?’ Cozy Cole did a great job and I thought there could be room for one more drum record. So I tried to make a beat that was danceable and, believe it or not, I got the idea for the ‘feel’ of the beat from ‘Battle of New Orleans’ by Johnny Horton. (Editor’s Note: The drummer on “Battle of New Orleans” was Buddy Harman.) That was for ‘Teen Beat.’ If you listen to both records, they each have the same feel. I thought of the title from looking at record charts. I saw Teen Angel’ and I thought, ‘How can I work that into drum or tom-tom’!’ Then I thought of beat. Most of the companies turned the idea down. I remember Preston Epps (Editor’s Note: Epps had a hit with “Bongo Rock” in 1959) coming into the control room and saying to the producer, ‘Well, that’s just a march.” Art said, ‘I don’t care what it is as long as it sounds good.’ That was my first lesson in the record business: Just follow your heart. Whatever sounds good.”

In 1960 a band called The Ventures had a number two hit with “Walk—Don’t Run” that “was a model for thousands of high school bands.” The Ventures were four musicians who played two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. The original drummer was Howie Johnson, who injured his neck in a car accident, was replaced temporarily by Sandy Nelson, and then permanently by Mel Taylor. Again in 1960 the Ventures released “Perfidia,” and then “Ram-Bunk-Shun” in 1961. There was nothing complex about The Ventures’ music. I think the magic and the appeal was that they played simple enough for kids to copy them, but they also played sophisticated enough so that kids had to stretch their technique to learn the songs.

Sandy Nelson returned to the charts in 1961 with a record that has become one of the most famous rock and roll drum records: ”Let There Be Drums.”” I went on the road with The Ventures for a few months,” Nelson said, “and got real depressed. I thought, ‘Dammit, I want another hit record.’ I thought, ‘Gee, this is a lot of work getting out here on the road trying to earn a buck. If I just had one more hit.’ After ‘Teen Beat’ was a hit, all the fellows in the recording industry out here would sort of kid me and say, ‘Well, you were lucky. It was a fluke. It could never happen again.’ Imperial Records gave me one more chance on ‘Let There Be Drums’ and I fooled everybody and had another hit! And that one I got paid on!

”I stole a lot of licks from Cozy Cole on ‘Let There Be Drums.’ I was listening to an album of his that had a version of ‘Let There Be Drums’ on it and Cozy was trying to copy me copying him!”

“Let There Be Drums” begins with a tom-tom solo right out of the Cozy Cole bag. A sinister guitar comes in with a short riff and disappears leaving Sandy to go crazy. The drums were recorded beautifully and Nelson’s playing is very melodic. There are no cymbals except an occasional crash and the constant hi-hat.

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“I think the greatest influence on me was Earl Palmer,” Nelson continued. “In the ’40s when I was pretty small, I listened to Benny Goodman, Illinois Jacquet and Duke Ellington. I think that music was more or less implanted in my soul over my lifetime because that’s now the kind of stuff I’m playing.

hord 2 The Surfaries“I only basically had one set in those days. I had a Ludwig silver sparkle set that I’m still using now, but I’ve painted it black. I bought them in 1962. But, I have to admit—the drum world would understand this—that I’m not using a Ludwig bass drum. I’m using

a Gretsch. It punches through a lot better. Primarily on ‘Let There Be Drums’ there were two small tom-toms, the regular 16” floor tom, and a regular Ludwig snare about 1962 vintage. I don’t have that snare anymore. I wish I did.

“I bump into young drummers once in a while who say they want to get my old sound. They miss the boat most of the time because they feel it’s the heaviness of the sticks or the microphones. Most rock drummers, when they solo, they get so excited that they overplay and they play fast and one volume—LOUD. Then they wonder why they can’t get that old ‘Birth of The Beat’ sound on the tom-toms. You’ve got to treat a drum like a woman.”

The phenomenon of “surf music” came out of this era. Artists like Dick Dale and the Del-Tones had a hit with “Let’s Go Trip pin’,” but the record that warmed every drummer’s heart and frustrated many players was a record made by a bunch of kids who were fifteen and sixteen years old, except for the drummer. He was eighteen at best, a kid named Ron Wilson, on a record called “Wipe Out” in 1963, by The Surfaris.

The Surfaris’ rhythm guitarist, Bob Berryhill, took some time to tell me a little bit about Ron Wilson and the origin of “Wipe Out.” “Ronnie got his start, I guess, making drum cadences for his high school marching band. So, ‘Wipe Out’ is essentially a drum cadence that he never gave to a band to use. I don’t know if he worked on it or not, but I know that he just came up with the cadence right there in the studio.

“We went into record ‘Surfer Joe’ and we needed a B side for the record. We said, ‘Let’s come up with an instrumental.’ We just started kicking it around and came up with ‘Wipe Out’ in ten or fifteen minutes. It was a group effort. I said, ‘Why don’t we make it like “Bongo Rock” with a little bit of breaking so Ronnie can solo?’ That was the key to surf bands in those days—have lots of drum solos! Ronnie was a perfect showman or a ham. We said, ‘Well, let’s just make a drum solo out of it and we’ll just throw a few break chords in there.’ Dale Small, our original manager, was producing the record. He used to do witch’s laughs for his own documentary films. He came up with the laugh after we decided on having ‘Wipe Out’ as the title. We broke some old cement plasterboard over a microphone and he let out with his witch’s laugh and it became ‘Wipe Out.’ We recorded that somewhere around December of ’62 and it was a number-one hit in June of ’63. We’d only been playing since October of ’62 as a group. I don’t know if Ronnie had ever played in a band before.

“The guys came over to my house and we all plugged into my one Bandmaster amplifier and played for about four hours. They said, ‘Hey, there’s a dance tonight. We’re going to meet a drummer at Tomona Catholic High School.’ We got together and played our first dance and had never even been with Ronnie. We played a whole four hour dance with four guys that had hardly ever seen each other before. We played things like ‘Ramrod,’ ‘Bulldog’ …the stuff that The Champs and The Ventures had written. It was a lot of simple blues. Just hard-driving kind of a guitar sound. Just basically three-chord blues in a rock fashion.

“One of the disc jockeys here on KROQ calls ‘Wipe Out’ the ‘garage anthem.’ It’s just one of those songs where a bunch of guys got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s come up with a song’ and it comes out to be a classic that’s remembered forever.”

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The concept of self-contained bands became almost non-existent for a while in the ’50s. On the positive side, this phenomenon brought us some of the greatest studio drummers of the ’60s. The four major studio drummers—particularly in the early ’60s—were Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Jesse Sailes, and Sharkey Hall. Both Jesse and Sharkey were forerunners to Hal and Earl. Hal Blaine told me, “Sharkey Hall was one of the biggest influences in my life; one of the nicest gentlemen in the world. I met him when I was about fifteen. Jesse Sailes kind of taught me a lot of stuff too. Between Sharkey, Jesse Sailes, and Earl Palmer… they were one of the big black influences in rock and roll. As a kid I played with all black people until I got into the service at sixteen or seventeen. I first started working with white guys in the Army.

hord 3 Sandy Nelson“I used to hang out with Sharkey a little bit. We’d go to jam sessions and things. Sharkey was doing a lot of records then. The only thing that kept Jesse and Sharkey from staying in the studios was that they weren’t tremendous readers. When rock started happening, Sharkey and Jesse were the guys that were doing garage demos and stuff like that. They were the guys that were happening. Earl, too. The early rock and roll of the studios was not out of the studios! It was out of garages. Those tunes were so baby-like at the beginning that the average jazz or learned musician scoffed and laughed and said, ‘What kind of bullshit is that?’ They forget that it’s evolution and you’ve got to go with it.

“Most of the guys I know from my era played shows, dances, Bar Mitzvahs… whatever! When the rock and roll thing started happening, you had to learn to play ‘oom dah dah oom dah.’ Even that beat was ancient history. Every time you saw a camel movie they were playing that beat.”

One of the most disheartening aspects of researching this article was that drummers like Sharkey Hall and Jesse Sailes had almost no specific recollection of records they’d been on. I asked Jesse Sailes if he could recall some of the records he was involved with. He said, “That’s really hard to do. Offhand I couldn’t tell you. One of my big things was ‘The In Crowd’ with Dobie Gray. It’s just hard to think of everything right now. I wasn’t into no one thing. I was studying all of it. In fact, when I started playing, it was mostly swing. Then when the trend changed, I went on with the change. It was very interesting. Once you’ve studied it’s not hard to get into what’s happening. The whole thing was getting that beat going, because that’s what made the thing go. The rhythm. The drummer. That was really what made the rock deal go.

“When I was coming up, there was quite a few of us. Sharkey Hall, Dave Mills, Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer… those are the main ones. We were doing nearly all of the stuff. They’d call me into the studio to do a session. I really didn’t know who the group was. I’d just do the session and that was it. It started changing because a lot of groups started coming in with their own rhythm section.”

Sharkey Hall is sixty years old now, but to hear him speak, you’d think he was twenty-five. “Earl and Hal were kind of like pioneers in the business. They did many things. In my case, I did a lot of ghost drumming for different outfits like The Ventures, The Beach Boys, The Diamonds.” The Ventures? “Of course, that was when they were real young. They had a kind of a ‘time’ problem. It took a little while for them to get the experience to be steady. I guess the biggest thing that I was on was Ernie Freeman’s ‘Raunchy’ and Jewel Aiken’s ‘Birds and The Bees.’ They’re about the only two that come to mind, that were like gold records.

“I was raised in show business. After I got out of the service I was primarily a jazz drummer. I ended up working in a club with Ernie Freeman out here about the same time Earl Palmer came to town with Fats Domino. He used to come in where I worked and I let him sit in. At the time—because Earl was working with Fats Domino—a lot of the jazz fellows didn’t think that he could play jazz. Come to find out that he had been expressly brought out here by Aladdin Records to be their staff drummer. The next thing I know, my phone started ringing with referrals from Earl because he’d gotten quite busy. Between that and ‘Raunchy’ being a hit, I ended up about third man on call in the studios out here for about ten years.

“I got out of the service about 1945 and I really wanted to be a bebop drummer, but I couldn’t make a living at it. So, I had to play a more commercial style. In the early ’50s the kids found the rock thing, so I stepped from jazz right on over into that.”

I asked Sharkey if that was a tough transition. “Psychologically it was for a while. For a while I wondered about the appeal and I thought for a while that it was kind of like a step backward. But, as the thing began to get a little more sophisticated, it became a challenge. Some of the guys out here with the ‘heavy’ reputations thought it was a passing fancy. As a matter of fact, a lot of the guys actually refused to do rock dates. Consequently, that gave me a clear shot at the number-three slot.”

Of all the studio drummers in the ’60s, Hal Blaine was, in his own estimation, recorded most. He’s probably right. “I guess there’s no question that I was the most recorded drummer in the ’60s. I stopped counting at 35,000 singles. Now, those are logged. Every song I ever recorded got written down.”

Hal became interested in drums at nine years of age, and was influenced by Baby Dodds, Sonny Greer, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. In the April ’81 MD, Blaine told Robyn Flans: “I came along at a time when drummers tuned their drums real high in pitch, real tight. A lot of that was for technique so they could play those high notes and get a lot of bounce to the ounce, as it were. I came along and I tuned drums down to normal, mid-range.”

Hal’s greatest opportunity came from working with Phil Spector in the ’60s. Phil Spector was called’ ‘The First Tycoon of Teen” by author Tom Wolfe. The Encyclopedia of Rock called him “one of the single most enigmatic figures in rock history while also being among the most seminal of pioneers in the genre.” Spector was the most successful record producer from the late ’50s until the arrival of the Beatles. His first hit was with his own band, The Teddy Bears, called “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” followed by a co-writing of “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, and The Drifter’s “On Broadway.” He produced “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” by The Shirelles, “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals, plus “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Then He Kissed Me.” He signed The Righteous Brothers in ’64, and had a couple of smash hits. One was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” (with Earl Palmer on drums) where “his genius for production truly blossomed to create a single of epic proportion, the zenith of his so-called ‘wall-of-sound’ technique.” Later on, Spector would produce “Instant Karma” by John Lennon, Let It Be by The Beatles, and the All Things Must Pass and Bangla Desh albums for George Harrison.

“Phil Spector, God bless him, used to let me just go nuts on records,” Hal told Robyn Flans. “None of that has ever been duplicated. People have hired the same musicians, the same studio, the same engineer to get the same thing, but it could never be duplicated. To this day, only Phil Spector can get that sound.”

What was it like for the drummer on those classics?

“It was all magic. We were all new people in the studios in the early ’60s. I guess we were the ‘stars’ to be. There was so much spirit and so much vitality. The adrenalin was unbelievable. Every producer in the world used to hang out at [the Spector] sessions just to touch Phil; just to try and hear something that would rub off on them. Those sessions were agony and ecstasy. We worked for many hours at a clip—without breaks generally—and we made the biggest records in the world.

“From the nucleus of the Phil Spector records came The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Johnny Rivers, and everybody that happened after that. It all happened because Phil Spector had his ‘wall of sound.’ That was the new sound. That was the new drum thing that happened. I was still just playing a four-piece Ludwig set and Phil used to let me go nuts on the fades! I had a bass drum that was a killer. It had a front head. Everybody liked that ‘four-on-thefloor’ bass drum, and that was another reason why people always called me. ‘Be sure and bring that bass drum.’ I had two of them— identical—and they didn’t know that. It was impossible to have it at every date for four, five, six dates a day.

“We all had rhythm charts that Jack Nitzche used to write for everybody. He worked with Phil on it, but Phil would also hum parts that he wanted or tell guys what to play. Phil was a guitarist; the first guy to use four rhythm guitars at the same time! And two basses. It was only one set of drums in those days, but we had ten guys shaking shakers, noisemakers, jingle bells… anything! The famous castanets started with Phil Spector. I pulled them out one day, laid them down and I said to Frank Capp, ‘Beat the heck out of these.’ And I gave him two more castanets to play on them. Everybody said, ‘You’re nuts. You can’t do that.’ Phil said, ‘What is that? Leave it!’ It really became a very integral part of the Phil Spector sound: castanets on a rock and roll record!”

Hal sent me a copy of his resume which devastated a big part of my life in the ’60s. Bruce Gary summed it up best: “One of my biggest disappointments in life was finding out that a dozen of my favorite drummers were Hal Blaine.” What the resume pointed out, in effect, was that many, many of the groups that had big hits were not even on their own records, particularly on the hit singles. Groups like The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Buckinghams, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Paul Revere & The Raiders were almost all done by studio musicians, and Hal Blaine played on a lot of them.

“I don’t even think they mentioned me on any of the albums,” Blaine said. “In those days they didn’t do that. The shit hit the fan with The Monkees. It was considered a scandal that The Monkees didn’t make their own records. It broke to the world in all the trades and movie magazines that not only didn’t The Monkees— nobody did! We did everybody’s records from pop to rock because of superstition; because we had the hit sound. We were the hitmakers. Some people called us ‘The Wrecking Crew.’ We were the first guys to come in to the studios wearing Levis, and smoke cigarettes during the session and leave dirty ashtrays. Studios were never that way. They were very, very ‘Victorian,’ if you will. We were another breed! Rock and roll had just started in the ’50s. We were sophisticating rock a little bit. People really started writing songs and it changed. Studios were getting more efficient electronically. More tracks were coming along and you could do more. The whole thing evolved with the same gang of musicians as the technology got better. It was myself, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Glenn Campbell, Bill Pittman, Steve Douglas, Ray Pullman, Billy Strange, Lyle Ritz and Larry Knechtel. We used to call ourselves ‘The Dirty Dozen.’

“That’s when my big set of drums happened,” Hal told Flans. “My set of drums always had twelve drums, which no one had ever heard of, and it really was a major change, which makes me very proud. In those days, a drummer only used a small tom and a big tom, and once in a while, two small toms and two big toms, but never over four toms. I wanted a full, bigger spectrum of sound to be able to do more with drums.”

Ludwig still retains the Octaplus outfit. Hal’s kit is and was a blue-sparkle set with seven toms: 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″. The bass is 22″ and he alternates between a 6″ and a 5″ metal snare. His bass drum heads are calfskin and he uses Remo Diplomats on the toms.

Frank Capp was also involved with the Spector sessions and deserves mention. Although he contributed to the “wall-of-sound,” Capp more or less shrugged it all off. “I hate to say this,” he said, “but, I was sort of the rock and roll percussion player out here in the ’60s. I invented all kinds of strange sounds; effects that Phil Spector would ask for. I never really got into playing rock drums until I did Sonny & Cher’s stuff. I did ‘I Got You Babe’ but I’m primarily a jazz drummer. I’m not a rock drummer. I made the transition out of necessity and out of a challenge just to do it. I was like a studio rock percussion player: tympani, xylophone, but mainly hand percussion.

“I was with Stan Kenton when I was nineteen. I’m fifty now. I’ve done literally thousands of record dates but I can’t remember them. I may have saved 200 or 250 albums I’ve done that I particularly liked.

“The Spector dates could be anywhere from a minimum of two to three hours, to a maximum of two weeks. I recall a date where we went in for like six sessions over a two week period for one song! Eighteen hours of recording. It was like the Chinese water torture, but who can criticize it? Whether Phil knew what he was doing or not is not the point. He made himself a fortune.”

The sound of “surf music” continued in popularity and The Beach Boys took the “surf” sound of bands like The Ventures and added some group vocal harmonization they took from pop groups like The Four Freshman and The Hi-Lo’s. The first hit was “Surfin* Safari” in 1962 followed by “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in ’63, “Surfer Girl” and then “Little Deuce Coupe.” This song was the first of many recordings about cars and racing. Dennis Wilson was the official drummer for the band, but appeared very infrequently, if at all, on any of The Beach Boys records—certainly not on very many of their hits. This has been verified by Hal Blaine who played on most of the hits, and by other studio musicians, like Carol Kaye, who played guitar and bass on The Beach Boys’ hits.

From ’63 until ’66, the hits just kept oncoming, like “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around,” “Little Honda,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls,” and “Barbara Ann.” The drumming on most of these records is pretty basic. There were no real major innovations in drumming. Much of the first Beach Boys records—”Surfin’ Safari,” for example—borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry, rhythmically, lyrically, and chordally. Most of the drumming is basic two and four backbeat drumming. The major change for the group came in 1966 with “Good Vibrations.” The song was totally unique at the time and included drums that were used only to accent parts of the tune, and used at other times to keep time. The song went through a few time changes and mood swings. Studio musician Carol Kaye said: ” ‘Good Vibrations’ took twelve record dates. It took us a long time to groove. But, everything on that record came out of Brian’s head.” [Brian Wilson was the songwriter/arranger for The Beach Boys.] “Heroes and Villains” was their last hit in’67, similar in approach to “Good Vibrations,” and then the group was off the scene until the ’70s. It’s also important to point out that, influenced by the Spector sound, Brian Wilson would include odd percussion sounds, like sleigh bells and castanets, on his records, particularly toward the end of the ’60s. Around 1962 a group emerged, made up of all New York and New Jersey musicians, called The Four Seasons. Their first hit was “Sherry” followed by “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man.” The Four Seasons became one of the biggest groups of the ’60s and the drummer was Buddy Saltzman. The conga drums were prominent in this music and Saltzman’s drum parts were very unique. His sound was very open, melodic and rock solid. His introduction to “Walk Like a Man” sounds like a fill Max Roach might play. The Four Seasons songs were also accompanied by heavy handclapping that gave the music a subtle “march music” effect. In 1964, the group hit with “Candy Girl” that featured scrapers, Latin hand drums, strings, and a clave drum beat, plus tympani. From ’64 through ’68 they had several hits: “Stay,” “Rag Doll,” “Dawn Go Away,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Big Man In Town,” “Working My Way Back To You,” “Tell It To The Rain” and “C’Mon Marianne” among others.

Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, two singers named Jan & Dean started cranking out hit after hit, backed by either Earl Palmer or Hal Blaine on drums. “Linda” was the first hit in 1961, and then “Surf City” really hit big in 1963.

All of Jan & Dean’s records were involved with racing, surfing, or skateboarding. The drumming was precise and right for the music, and the songs were hits.

The ’60s was also a decade where black musicians were able to cross over into the white market on a grand scale. For example, James Brown from the mid-’50s to the ’60s sold millions of records in the U.S., but was almost unknown to white people. Brown used several drummers throughout his career, often times using anywhere from two to five drummers in concert. Attempts to correlate specific drummers with specific songs proved unfruitful. But, the drumming on James Brown’s records was some of the most innovative in the ’60s. David Garibaldi, who turned many heads with his drumming for Tower of Power in the ’70s, told me that his conception of drumming did a complete turnaround when he saw James Brown in 1965.

Brown took the rawest element of the blues, slicked it up with horns that sounded like whip cracks they were so tight, and the drummers would groove you into a frenzy. Listen to “Please, Please, Please” from 1956. The critics complained of the “sameness” in Brown’s music—but it was the same kind of complaint that could be leveled at Howlin’ Wolf. What the critics missed was that the sameness of the music, the repetition, the groove playing—all that was precisely the heart of Brown’s songs. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” was released in 1965. The drummer plays backbeats with a rim click on the snare, the bass drum is locked in tight with the bass player, and the hi-hat swish accents augment the horns perfectly. Early tunes like “Mashed Potatoes” were a strange blend of jazz and r&b that became the inspiration for Miles Davis Bitch’s Brew album that turned the jazz world right around. “Cold Sweat” came out in 1967, followed by “Lickin’ Stick- Lickin’ Stick (Part 1)” in ’68, and then “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” 1969 produced “Mother Popcorn,” “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” and Brown continued to groove well into the ’70s.

Perhaps the most famous black-owned record company to emerge in the ’60s was Motown, out of Detroit. The drumming on Motown records could be a major study in itself. I had quite a time trying to put the pieces together on which drummers did what songs for Motown, and after several weeks’ worth of research, I still haven’t been able to put all the pieces together.

The premise of The History of Rock Drumming was to put the spotlight on the drummers who were responsible for the evolution of the music. In researching Motown I heard stories that not all of the Motown music was recorded in Detroit. Some was recorded in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles using musicians from each of those areas. I think the best thing to do is present the different stories and let the reader make up his or her own mind. This is not to slight Motown or any of the players who may or may not have performed on the recordings. In fairness to the musicians—in this case specifically the drummers—I think it’s important to know who was responsible for creating the drumming on those classic rock records.

Motown did begin in Detroit, founded by Berry Gordy, an exboxer who failed in the retail record business and went into making his own records. Motown was the result. The writing team of Holland, Dozier, Holland was responsible for the great majority of Motown hits. I spoke with Brian Holland at his office in L.A., and he spoke about two drummers who recorded in Detroit for Motown: Richard Henry Allen (a.k.a. “Pistol”), and Benny Ben jamin. I asked Mr. Holland if he could tell me who the drummers were on the Motown records.

“There wasn’t about but three main drummers that we used,” he said. “Benny Benjamin was probably the most frequently used on most of those songs, and a guy named ‘ Pistol’ was another one. ‘Pistol’ was more of a ‘shuffle’ kind of drummer. He was best at the ‘shuffles.’ Benny Benjamin was the best at the 4/4 and the 2/4 beat. We used a couple more but those are the premier drummers we used back then.

“I don’t know too much about Benny’s background. He used to play with a lot of big bands before he got with Motown. We kept him on as a studio musician. He could read music, but you’d basically not have a real drum chart per se. It was more or less just a rhythm chart. The producer would basically tell him what he wanted. Sometimes they’d write out a few drum parts on a few breaks, but mainly they felt their way through most of that stuff. Sometimes those guys would go out on the road with an act and that’s when we’d call the other three or four percent of the drummers. They were fantastic, believe me. We never really realized how great those guys were back then. Looking back in retrospect, it was really amazing and phenomenal how that stuff came out. Benny was a great drummer. I could play some things back now and listen to his pickups. The timing that he had was just unbeatable. Really unbeatable. He always felt the music as he went along. He would hum the music and sing along with the music just as happy as he could be. And he would always say, ‘Man, that’s a hit.’ Most of the time he was right.”

What was interesting to learn was the discipline involved with the Motown musicians. For instance, the rhythm section were on salary in a literal nine to five job as studio musicians at Motown. One of the most difficult things about finding out who played on what, was that the musicians never knew what songs they were working on. Michael Carvin, a well respected drummer now living in New York City, was a studio drummer at Motown in the later years. He gave a great description of what it was like to be in that position.

“Motown was a funny place. It was like working in a factory. We had I.D. cards and they had heavy security and all that. I don’t know what records I played on because we cut rhythm tracks like the guy whose job it is to put fenders on a car. I don’t know what color the cat is painting the car because it’s painted further down the line! We would just make the fenders. Then when they got the fenders the way they wanted them to be…then they would decide what car this fender would go on. It might be Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder… then they would put that fender on that particular car. Now they would paint it. It might be a thirty-two piece orchestra when it was finished. That’s why they always had a ‘feeling.’

“I was there with Harvey Fuquar and Smokey Robinson. Harvey was doing all the arranging then. We would go in at nine in the morning. We’d come out about five-thirty or six o’clock. Harvey would say, ‘Okay, lay this groove down.’ We would finally get it. Then he’d say, ‘Okay. Now lay this down.’ It would be in layers. This is going to be the bridge. Now, the name of the tune? We don’t know. Who is singing it? We don’t know. We’d just do that all day, man. It wasn’t that they were keeping any secrets. It’s just that they didn’t know. ‘Heat Wave’ wasn’t written for Martha and The Vandellas. It was written for Marvin Gaye but it was too high for his range the way they were hearing it. It was the company, man. That’s why they were successful. There weren’t any egos. Harvey would listen to it and say, ‘Man, this sounds like something that The Four Tops would eat up. This sounds like their kind of beat.’ So that’s who they would give it to.

“I remember when The Spinners used to rehearse everyday, man, for two years on salary. Motown worked like this with an artist: Until you get a rhythm section, you know you’re not going anywhere. Once you get a rhythm section you go upstairs to the third or fourth floor…I don’t remember now. Then you could say, ‘Well, we’ll be going out soon.’ Then, once you get a rhythm section and a choreographer, you know you’re on your way. It was business. That’s why everytime you saw an act…it was polished.

“See, you could be a helluva reader and you couldn’t play the Motown music. It was a school within itself. It was a school about putting the beat in the pocket and it was good experience for me because it was nothing like you would encounter in Western music. A lot of the cats can read all of the notes and all that—and that’s great—but that has nothing to do with playing Motown music. Motown music messed up most drummers because it was written with four-way coordination. What he wanted you to play on bass drum was written. What he wanted you to play with your left hand was written. What he wanted you to play with your right hand—it was written. You had to coordinate that stuff and that’s what messed up most cats.

“Pistol and Benny Benjamin invented the sound. Then Harvey Fuquar translated the sound. The standard was set when I showed. I never met Pistol or Benny but I knew their names because I was constantly reminded of them. Motown is the bebop of rock. Now you have fusion and all of that. It came from Motown and bebop. That’s what fusion is. If you really listen to the bass drum of the Motown drummers, it’s playing the melody. That’s why I call it the bebop of rock, because the bebop drummers played the melody.”

Brian Holland verified Michael Carvin’s story that the rhythm section never knew what songs they were playing. “That’s what we did 98% of the time,” he said. “We’d go in and record the track with maybe four or five pieces at most, and then go back and dub in the lead and the group. Then you maybe, or maybe not, dub the strings in. But, we did do the rhythm track first back then. Basically, that’s what they do now, but we were doing that then. That was unusual at the time. They had no idea what songs they were going to be playing on at all.

“And we never heard of a click track. There was no such thing back then. Back then, there was just a few guys around and always we found the best ones. That’s the reason we just mainly used those two or three guys. They were straight and they knew how to keep the time and tempo right.”

Tony Bongiovi, one of the owners of The Power Station Recording Studio in New York City, worked with the producers at Motown from 1967 until 1970. He remembered working with Benny Benjamin, a drummer named Euriel Jones, and Pistol. “The drummer who did the main stuff, most of The Supremes hits and the records that they were famous for like “Reach Out,” and Smokey Robinson records, “Ooh Baby, Baby’ and “Can’t Hurry Love”…the guy’s name was Benny Benjamin. He’s dead. My stay at Motown was rather brief because I was working mostly on the production of the records. I didn’t attend that many sessions. But, I know there was Benny Benjamin, and then there was Euriel Jones who played the stuff from the later ’60s. We did “Love Child” with Euriel, and a fellow named Pistol. He played on “Uptight.”

“When they played, they used the traditional grip. One thing that was interesting about Benjamin…if you listen to the records, the drums have a pretty amazing sound, and it wasn’t be cause of the engineering at Motown. It was because of the way the drummers played. If you walked about ten feet away from Benny you couldn’t hear him anymore. He played accents, and he knew all of his rudiments. He applied all that knowledge and he could read music. All of them could read music. All of them played with the Detroit Symphony at some point. They all had an amazing feel and Benjamin had an amazing foot. He was the best around. He played sort of backwards. He was a right-handed drummer and instead of leading with his right hand, he’d lead with his left hand. That’s why all the fills and stuff sound like they came in at weird times. He didn’t play very loud. None of them played real loud, but they played with a certain snap. When they used to hit the backbeat they would crack it in there. And they weren’t loud. None of them played overhand like today’s guys do. They bounced more. Today’s guys, from what I’ve seen in the studio, they lay into the beat more. They just whack it real hard. But, those guys sort of snapped it in. You could tell the difference.

“Buddy Saltzman, who played all The Four Seasons records, played the same way as the Motown drummers. They didn’t have the muffling like they do today, and the drummers controlled the way it sounded. We just stuck the mic’ right in front of the bass drum and depending on how the drummer hit it, that’s what gave it that sound.”

I asked Bongiovi about Motown sessions in L.A., New York, and Chicago. He said, “All the records that were done, the majority of the hits, we know were all cut in Detroit. The musicians in Detroit were on some kind of a retainer. Most of the hits like ‘Mr. Postman’ and all those early records that were smashes were all cut in Detroit, even ‘Cool Jerk,’ ‘Agent Double-O Soul’ and the Platters’ record ‘With This Ring.’ What the California guys did were special album projects like The Temptations’ In A Mellow Mood. I used to go into the tape library at Motown and pull the tapes and I knew where the stuff was cut because it was written all over the tape. It would say ‘Universal Recordings. Detroit. Three Track’ right on the box. Sometimes it would be four track.

“I’d be very skeptical about what they tell you in California. Even in New York for that matter, but New York, I would think, would be a little more honest about it. There wasn’t too much done here that I remember other than The Supremes overdubbing in New York, and we did a Gladys Knight and The Pips record in New York live.”

Earl Palmer was one of the drummers on the West Coast who arguably played on many of the Motown hits of the early ’60s. He said, “I was doing a lot of it until we realized that they were doing illegal tracks and sending them back to Detroit and putting The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and all these people on the things. It was illegal to do tracks at that time, so they’d come into the studio with a couple of girls, The Lewis sisters. We used to always say, ‘Boy, the Lewis sisters record a lot and never had an album out!’ Then we’d recognize that they were coming back with The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes…then we started paying attention and we started hearing all the music we were doing back there. Eventually Motown paid us a lot of back money that the Union had them pay because of all this illegal tracking. But, fortunately for me, when they started doing it legally, I still was doing all of their stuff out here. Then they started using different guys.”

Frankie Capp is now a music contractor in California; he was among the elite group of musicians who were on the Phil Spector sessions. This is what Mr. Capp had to add: “I did a lot of early Motown stuff like Marvin Gaye before Motown moved to L. A. We used to record in Armin Steiner’s garage apartment where he had a lot of electronic recording gear. We used to do dates there that they called ‘two for thirty-five.’ They were demo dates. For thirty-five bucks you’d do two tracks within an hour and a half. Motown did a lot of dates there. Earl Palmer was on a lot of those dates. There were other drummers at that time like Sharkey Hall, Jesse Sailes…he did a lot of early Motown stuff for Gene Paige. I played drums on some of the Motown stuff for Gene Paige. Somehow those demos would wind up being released. That was before we had a union that really policed things. You can’t get away with that anymore. I can remember back in the mid-’60s, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, Diana Ross, The Temptations. A lot of times you’d go in to do a date and you wouldn’t be doing the date with the singers. We’d just be making the track. Then they’d overdub the voices.

“Armin Steiner was just the mix engineer. He didn’t have anything to do with the bootlegging part of it. He just did what he was being paid for: recording and sending the tapes.”

Carol Kaye, a premier West Coast studio musician, told me “We recorded in a studio above Armin Steiner’s garage. We did an awful lot of records there for about two or three years, and the first drummer I worked with was Jesse Sailes. He told Motown about me because I’d worked a few other kind of record dates with Jesse. He’d done an awful lot of Motown. After that came Earl Palmer and they used Paul Humphrey on a few tunes. It was mostly Jesse Sailes first and then Earl Palmer. Earl played on some biggies like ‘Love Child’ and ‘Bernadette.’

“The Lewis sisters were two white girls who couldn’t really sing and we spent a lot of time trying to get tracks for them. Come to find out it was The Supremes, The Temptations and all that other stuff.

“I met Stevie Wonder there when he was a kid because I played on ‘I Was Made To Love Her.’ Jamie Jamerson was in contention with that. [Jamerson was one of the salaried studio musicians—the bassist—at Motown in Detroit.] So I listened to the record again and said, ‘No, that’s me because I can remember the mistakes I was making!’

“They did so many wrong things according to the Union back then. They really kept it quiet about what they did. Nobody really knew the inside workings on it. Benny Benjamin did the stuff back in Detroit. I don’t know anything about the Detroit gang. They used all the best players. I worked for Motown from ’62 through ’69 and played guitar on a lot of that stuff, like ‘Come On Do The Jerk.’ I didn’t play bass until the first of ’64. I played six string bass on Martha and The Vandella’s ‘Dancing In The Street.’ It was either Sharkey Hall or Earl Palmer on that. Jesse Sailes played all the stuff at the Steiner garage things. I think it was Jesse playing on ‘I Was Made To Love Her.’ I’m not trying to take away from the guys in Detroit, but I don’t think they knew about the West Coast guys. Jesse Sailes was playing for Motown from about ’62 to ’64 and then they used Earl after that. Certain tunes like ‘Bernadette,’ ‘I Second That Emotion,’ ‘Dancing In The Streets,’ ‘Can’t Help Myself,’ ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’…those were biggies that I know were all West Coast.”

Lee Young, Sr. used to work in the creative department at Motown. Prior to that he was one of the original drummers on the Norman Granz Jazz At The Philharmonic tours. In checking out the situation of Motown illegally releasing demos, I called Local 47, The American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles. They had no record of a settlement of that nature, although they did say that they were always involved with Motown for something back then. But, Lee Young made a lot of sense. “I can give you this much information,” he said. “The reason Motown got away with something like that is because they were in Detroit. The same rules didn’t apply in Detroit as they did in New York or Los Angeles because in a city like that, they’re so glad to have people record. They used to put musicians on salary and let them record all week long. You’re not allowed to do that, really, because you pay with three-hour sessions. Three hours constitutes a session. You couldn’t do it in any other place, but Motown could do it in Detroit because they were bringing something to Detroit. They were bringing employment to people, I guess. So, I think the Union looked the other way.

“Each jurisdiction will let things go on in their area that, if the National office ever found out about it, they’d come down on them. But, nobody ever really found out about this until after they became successful. Sure, many musicians have really squawked about it, but they made the deal at the time because they didn’t have anything better to do. It was a steady gig. They were paying them like $125.00 a week, but they would record every day. It was great for them because they were getting this bread. But, see, you wouldn’t have been able to do that here, or New York, or Chicago. So, I think it was like one hand washes the other. They were fortunate enough, because they would not have been able to get started, really, if they had not been able to do that. They just stayed in the studio around the clock, seven days a week. The musicians knew what they were doing because they got their bread. Everybody knew what they were doing. It wasn’t a vicious thing.”

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of good drumming on Motown records. Brian Holland, in reminiscing about Benny Benjamin who died in the late ’60s said, “There’s no Benny Benjamin around. The drummers played a premier, emotional part in the creation of Motown’s music. A couple of these guys like Benny and Pistol always were emotionally into it; not like a mechanical guy just up there playing drums. They were unique. These guys today just want to get a paycheck.

“It’s almost like the guy was saying on TV. He said, ‘Are there any more great baseball players?’ No. You can’t find no Joe Di- Maggio no more; no Jackie Robinson, no Babe Ruth. All these guys out there want to hit the ball for big paychecks. They’re not really in the game of baseball like the guys were back then. And I can understand that, and I can relate to what he was saying. The same thing goes for these musicians back then. Even the producers, like a Phil Spector, man. You don’t find them kind of producers who, night and day, get into it. They are just not the same. Believe me. Benny had to play at least 75% of the songs. He was a great one, man, I’m telling you.”

As for the recordings being done on the two coasts, Brian Hol land said: “Well, very infrequent. Once in a while my music partner, Lamont Dozier, we would come out to cut a session. Most of those things were basically mechanical type things. We might’ve got a hit once or twice out of it, but we stayed in Detroit because they didn’t have the same kind of feelings back then like they did in Detroit. New York was pretty good. But, we did a few things in both places. True enough.

“It was almost like I’d say, ‘Hey, let’s go on a vacation. And while we’re on vacation…let’s cut a few things.’ That’s basically what it was.”

I like Michael Carvin’s description of Motown as the “bebop of rock.” There are some excellent albums available; anthologies of people like The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Jr. Walker and The All Stars, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. I suggest they be studied. Or, if you’re budget conscious, go out and buy The Temptations Greatest Hits. The drumming is incredible. Like most of the Motown drumming, it’s musical, inventive, creative, the drums are tuned beautifully, and it serves as a model for tasty rock drumming. In a world where so much of the drumming is mechanized to the point where the listener doesn’t know if it’s a human being or not—Motown drumming is like the end of the rainbow.

hord music 4

In Part 4, we’ll take a look at the British invasion, the Woodstock generation, more Soul music, and go all the way up to the ’70s.