Cubby O'Brien

The fact that show drummers receive comparatively little recognition is an enigma to me considering that they are some of the hardest working musicians. Their ability to play a variety of styles must be masterful; their sense of theatrics and dynamics must be total. Cubby O’Brien is one such accomplished musician. Listening to a sampling of his work is indeed impressive, for he covers the span from a huge 1940s production with Juliet Prowse to the more sedate music of Andy Williams.

Working a show from the ground up often entails rigorous rehearsals with the star, the choreographer, a rehearsal pianist and dancers. Working with a choreographer is an art in itself, and one in which Cubby specializes.

“Working with dancers is a totally different thing from working with musicians. Choreographers don’t count things in fours. A choreographer who thinks of a movement to get from A to B which takes seven counts doesn’t care if it works musically or not. He wants seven counts from A to B. It’s up to us to make those seven counts musical so that when you give it to the arranger, or when you get the final product, it doesn’t sound like seven counts, but it sounds musical. Sometimes it’s not easy to do that, but it can be done. If you’re in 4/4 and the normal accents would be on “2” and “4” and the choreographer has got it somewhere else, sometimes you can put the accents somewhere else and still hit “2” and “4”. The choreographer still gets those accents, but in a different way. However, if it just isn’t going to work, you can usually convince the choreographer that it’s not going to sound right. That’s why the rehearsal pianist and the drummer are there, because we can show the choreographer what it’s going to sound like. You have to be a little bit of a psychologist when working with choreographers because they’re very emotional people. They’re usually under a tremendous strain, time-wise. You have a whole room of 50 dancers sitting around making X amount of dollars an hour and budgets are going sky high, so you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to get things done and get it to the arranger. There are 18-million bars of music, copyists going crazy trying to get things done, people dropping in and out, and the stars are saying, ‘I can’t make it today; I don’t feel good today…’ But it’s a fun part of the business that a lot of drummers don’t like. I really like it because it gives me a chance to be pretty creative. I can actually have a lot to say about what the arrangement is going to be, where the accents are going to be, and what the accents should be. A lot of times, the pianist and I will decide that these should be trumpet accents, or this should be woodwinds, or this should be percussion, so we’re actually laying out the arrangement. By the time we give it to the arranger, he follows our sketch pretty closely because that’s what the choreographer wants to hear. We usually make a tape in which the pianist and I will play the whole thing down with all the accents in it, and then we both submit our detailed piano and drum sketches. The pianist will have everything down there, including woodwind lines or trumpet lines and I’ll have all the drum accents, all the big band accents, and everything that should be there. Then it’s up to the arranger to figure out how to make it work.

“There’s an African number with Juliet Prowse that took hours and hours of planning. The choreographer, myself, the piano player, Juliet and the dancers went into the studio and it took hours of working these moves out. If Juliet is doing lifts with a guy, and she’s being thrown around over this guy’s shoulders and all over the place, we have to figure out musically how to accent those moves at exactly the right times every night. It takes timing for those bars and those counts to come out that way every night. We’re behind a screen and don’t even see what’s going on out front. I have a TV monitor and can see her, but the rest of the orchestra can’t. They’re totally blind, so those moves have to be worked out perfectly.

“It’s an amazing amount of work putting a show together. After I did the Academy Awards, I went to San Francisco where we did two shows with Bernadette Peters, and it was like a vacation. I had been working 12 hours a day on the Academy Awards, with no days off for six weeks. There are tons of music in those big dance numbers, and all that has to be set, choreographed and arranged. Then going with Bernadette was like a vacation just to play in a band again. I like doing a lot of different things. I like working with the choreographer and the piano player, and doing that creative thing for a while, but then I miss playing in a band, so it’s a kick for me to get out and do Andy’s show with a band and string section again. Recently we did two symphony dates, which was different from the trip we took to Australia in the summer. That was more of a jazz band thing. Then I’m doing the Chaplin thing [Anthony Newley’s theatrical production of Charlie Chaplin] which is rehearsal drums again. I just like doing different things. My career has been that way. I don’t consider myself a jazz player or a show player. I’ll do a Bar Mitzvah if I like the people who are playing. I don’t care. It’s fun.”

Cubby O'BrienAnd it’s been fun since day one. Most people remember Cubby O’Brien from his auspicious debut with the Mickey Mouse Club. Born in 1946, the youngest of three sons, five-year-old Carl began taking drum lessons from his father. Cubby would come home from the kindergarten across the street every day for lunch, spend a half hour eating, and the remaining time was spent learning the instrument. After four years of study and playing in a junior Dixieland band around the San Francisco Valley, it was no surprise that he was fully prepared to land the gig on the historical Mickey Mouse Club. He immediately began to take vocal and dance lessons in addition to the continuous drum lessons with his dad, and later with Jack Sperling and Murray Spivak.

”I mainly went to Jack because I wanted to be a big band studio drummer. I had been sitting around NBC watching Jack play big band drums on the Andy Williams Show and all the shows he did there. He taught me some things about playing in big bands and reading and how important it was to read, but he also said something that was very interesting: ‘There are only so many figures that an arranger can write in a big band, so you don’t really have to be a concert, classical reader to play in a big band.’ I took lessons from Jack for about six months and one night he called my dad and said, ‘Look, you’re wasting your money. Don’t send him here anymore. I can’t show him anything else,’ which was really a tremendous compliment. So I went to Murray because I had been talking to Louie Bellson, who was one of Murray’s students too. I learned the finger thing and Murray’s style and I use a combination of wrist and fingers—and elbows and whatever else,” he laughs.

When the filming of the Mickey Mouse Club ended after four years, due to exorbitant production costs, Cubby almost im mediately landed a position with one of Lawrence Welk’s two shows. On the Wednesday night show, Welk had instituted a junior 12-piece band for which O’Brien played drums. He also sang duets with the youngest Lennon Sister, Janet. After the junior band fizzled, Cubby was moved to the Saturday night show. He continued to play drums in the big band in specialty numbers and whatever else.

“It was show-biz time for a couple of years,” he smiles. “One night I’d conduct the orchestra; another night I’d play a bongo solo, I’d sing with Janet and I’d tap dance.”

During junior high, Cubby continued to play, act and do commercials. In his senior year of high school, he traveled with Spike Jones for the last two years of Jones’ life, doing school work by day and sending it back to the professional school in which he was enrolled, while performing three shows each night.

“I learned a lot from Spike. He loved show business. I had this big drum number in the show with the sticks and the black light. I was sitting high on a riser and he would sit down below me, and every night he would turn around and watch this drum solo—every night! He just loved drummers.”

The drummers Cubby loved from the beginning were Buddy Rich, for his soloing prowess, and Louie Bellson, who along with Jack Sperling influenced Cubby’s use of double bass drums from the very beginning. He endorses Ludwig and possesses two sets from which he interchanges drums to suit a gig’s specific requirements.

“I was reading Steve Gadd’s article about how he never went into the job trying to become a star or personality, but always went in trying to please the person he was working with and trying to play the music that was required. So if you’re working with a dancer like Juliet Prowse, who has eleven dancers, it’s a big cast and a big show and a lot of percussion, so there are certain things that you need. I use Syndrums, because I have them set for some African sounds, and I use the double bass drums and all the concert toms. There are a lot of drums in that show. Working with a dancer is totally different from working with an Andy Williams. There’s a basic concept for an act when you get started and you basically know what you’re going to try to do, like we knew there was going to be a 14-to 16-minute African suite number. Another number we do is a big 1940s number, so I know we’re going to be playing Gene Krupa tom-toms. It’s kind of like being an impressionist. If you really listen closely, an impressionist doesn’t really sound like the people he’s doing, he’s just giving you enough of a leaning in that direction so if you hear it, it sounds like, say, Jimmy Stewart. If the concert toms are put in the right context, my big tom sounds just like Gene Krupa’s. If you play it that way, it will give you the idea of that era. It’s a suggestion of the feeling. You can get a rock sound out of that same drum.

“With a singer, it’s a little different. Singers are tricky. Working with a singer is more subtle because the voice is right out in front and that person is really exposed, so it’s really more of a matter of taste. I can cut my drumset way back with Andy. I’ll just use the regular basic two little toms, a floor tom, a snare drum, three cymbals, and a hi-hat, and there’s more brush work involved. There are more ballads and it’s a little more tasteful. It’s a totally different thing, but again, that’s what I enjoy most—playing different styles. I think it keeps music fresh for me.

“The drums are such an important part of every band. There is usually only one drummer in a band and that’s who sets the feeling for the whole evening. I watch the conductor just for downbeats. I don’t mean to say I don’t follow the conductor, but I know what the tempos are and when Andy’s conductor gives the downbeats, I set the tempos and the band goes with me. If I want to push it a little bit, they’d better come with me. If Andy feels like singing something a little bit slower, I can feel it. I’ve got my monitor back there and he does that. Bernadette also does that—changes the times and tempos. So you have a lot of things to control, and you have to lead the band in the right direction.”

At 18, Cubby worked with Ann-Margret for a year and a half, playing in her live shows as well as T.V. specials, and then he landed the gig with the Carol Burnette Show. During that time, he also conducted and played for John Davidson and Debbie Reynolds, worked on the theatrical presentation, Your Own Thing, and was Hair‘s, musical director and drummer, working seven days a week, day and night, and loving it. He left the Carol Burnette Show after six years when he was offered a job with the Carpenters. He stayed with them for six years, until they quit touring in 1979, but he enjoyed playing in a successful pop group and would like very much to do that again in the future.

“When I joined the Carpenters, I had three days to learn the show with no music—only a tape. I walked around A&M Records with the tape to my ear, rehearsing and learning all the drum fills because Richard wanted to reproduce everything that either Karen or Hal Blaine had done,” he laughs, imitating a Hal Blaine fill in the air. “I was going crazy trying to learn all these fills and what song they went in and where. At that time Karen was playing too, and we were playing exactly the same fills on the same drums. We did that for a year or two with Karen still playing. She gradually got away from the drums, which was like pulling teeth. She loved to play, and at first, she hated being out front. When she came out front, her drumset disappeared and I more or less played everything. We did do one big Gershwin medley together where she had all the Hal Blaine tom-toms, timpani and bells, and we did a big drum number, trading fours and eights and such. I enjoyed playing their music and never got tired of it. As time went by and I played the show more and more, I changed a lot, but nobody even noticed it. I still did the fills that were important. If there was an obvious thing, like in ‘Close to You,’ where the drum fill was an obvious drum fill, it would stay that way because that was part of the record, and you don’t want to mess with that. But there’s always this thing in my blood—I’m a show-biz person and I don’t care who I work with. My object is to make that show better. They’re out there in front and I’m playing the music. If I can add anything to it that is going to make it flashy or more exciting, I do. Andy Williams’ show is real laid back with the ‘Godfather’ and ‘Moon River’ and such, but there are times in his show where I can play the things a little bit rockier, a little younger in style, and do some fills and flashy things that make it a little more exciting. I can lay back and play just like a bebop book, but I don’t like to do it that way. It’s a show and it should be played like a show.

“I think probably the most important thing about playing a show is to be able to play all kinds of music. Don’t put anything down. I’ve played everything from country/ western, to jazz, to rock ‘n’ roll, to easy listening Carpenters stuff, to piano and drums in a rehearsal hall. If you play good music, no matter what it is, what’s wrong with it? I don’t put anybody’s musicdown. I don’t particularly l i ke heavy metal music, but there are some good heavy metal bands. So when you play shows, you really have to have an open mind about music and about playing all kinds of music. Music is such an intangible thing. One person’s idea of the way something should be is not always your idea of the way it should be. The way Tony Newley writes and performs a song is totally different from the way Andy Williams would sing the same song, or that arrangement might be totally different.

“Reading is also important, but not as important as you might think. It’s like what Jack Sperling said: ‘There are only so many ways an orchestrator can write something, and after you’ve seen it a million times, it’s second nature. You just glance at it and automatically know what it says.’

“Knowing how to work with a click track is also important. I work with click tracks all the time and it’s tricky. The main thing about a click track is to relax, I think, and just kind of let it go along with you, because once you start tensing up, then you’re all up and down, up and down. Just lay on it and once your ear is accustomed to it, it doesn’t have to be all that loud. I keep bringing up the Juliet Prowse thing, but it’s a good example. If there’s a tempo change, there’s usually a warning to let you know that you’re in a new tempo. We know ahead of time that there are two clicks before the new tempo comes, or in this particular show, there’s a blank space where there’s a whole section of just violins. Coming out of that, there’s a build back into a tempo and we build the tempo and accelerate until we just about get it to that point. When we get it to that point, the conductor hits a button, we get four clicks in the new tempo and then we’re in it. It just takes time to get accustomed to it. Somebody who really wants to play shows should practice playing with a click. The way shows are today, a lot of people use click tracks.”

At 37, it’s evident Cubby hasn’t been hurt any by having been entrenched in show business all his life. That is not al ways the case, however, for success at a young age is not always easy to handle. Was he always so responsible and down to earth? How did he manage to maintain the balance of being a young “star” and a normal nine-year-old kid?

“My parents and older brothers kept everything in perspective for me and didn’t let me get a big head or out of line. When I was doing the Mickey Mouse Club, we’d get done at the studio about 5:30 or 6:00, and in the summer, I could still get home and go to the park across the street and play baseball. I had my close buddies and friends and nobody in the neighborhood treated me different from anybody else.

“When I was rehearsing for Newley’s show Chaplin, one night I was walking to my car and this lady called my name. I turned around and it was a mother of one of the kids in the show. She came up to me and asked, ‘Do you think it’s okay that my kid is in show business? Do you think it hurts any or they lose their childhood?’ I told her, ‘No, I don’t think so at all. I think it helped me. I matured faster, I think. I saw a lot of things, I worked with a lot of adults, but I don’t think I missed anything.’

“When I got the Mickey Mouse Club job, my parents told me I would be leaving my friends at school and I would be going to school at Disney Studios. I might not have as much time to see them or play ball, and they asked if I really wanted to do this. I said ‘Yes.’ The decision was mine. If I had said ‘No,’ that would have been the way it would have been. And I’m sure that at any point while I was at Disney, if I had been down, or decided I didn’t want to do the show anymore, contract or no con tract, they would have marched up to Walt’s office and told him that I didn’t want to do it anymore; ‘Sue us if you want, but he’s not going to do it.’

“I think it’s up to the parents to make sure it’s done right. As long as it’s fun for the child, great. If it becomes a hassle and he’s got a long face and he’s in a bad mood all the time, then it’s not worth it. Then why do it? I don’t want to work with peo ple I don’t like now that I’m an adult, so why would I want to do it as a kid? The bottom line is that it should be fun.”