Eight times a week from 1978 to 1981, an extraordinary feat of drumming took place at a Broadway theater. A Broadway show drummer sat behind an elevated drumset up on stage and re-created the artistry, excitement, and magic of Gene Krupa’s solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Simply playing a fiery, swinging 15-minute solo every night would have been challenge enough for anyone. But there was a great deal more going on. First, to satisfy the director, the drummer had to memorize all 700 bars of the music. And every night, he had to crack accents in precisely the same places throughout the solo in order that the dancers—who included superstars like Ann Reinking—could perform their choreographed moves exactly the same way in every show. But this particular drummer did not even find these tasks sufficiently challenging. So he went to the ultimate level: He became Gene Krupa. He took from the movie The Gene Krupa Story the action of chewing a piece of gum before going on stage, which had figured in the film’s romantic subplot. The drummer methodically chomped on a piece of gum every night on stage. Next, he put on the facial expressions that Sal Mineo had used in portraying Krupa. Finally, he actually incorporated Krupa’s raw, self-taught style into his own virtuosic technique, which was the product of dedicated study with Joe Morello. The show was Dancin’, directed by the legendary Bob Fosse. And the drummer was Allen Herman, a legendary Broadway musician.
Herman’s remarkable career has been filled with enough strange turns of fate and luck to provide a sequel to the Krupa film. At 37, Allen is at one of the major turning points of his life. He is a wonderfully down-to-earth, sincere, and unpretentious man. Secure about his own talent and achievements, he readily praises the play- ing of other musicians.
Herman sees his life as marked by three major shifts. The first came when he abandoned his obsession with jazz to become a steadily working rock ‘n’ roll pro. Next came a call out of the blue that transported him from top-flight rock to Broadway shows. And finally, he is now turning back to rock ‘n’ roll, his great love, to be a player/producer of new rock talent.
As with many American stories of talent, ambition, and success, it all began in Brooklyn. “I was taking bar mitzvah lessons when I was 12,” Allen recalls with a laugh. “One of the neighbor’s kids was taking lessons too, and his father would pick us up. I asked the kid what his father did, and he said his father worked in the garment district as a pattern cutter, but on the weekend, he played weddings and bar mitzvahs. He was a drummer.” Allen started taking lessons from his neighbor at the pre-inflationary rate of three dollar a session. He began with the traditional rudiments and basic books. A natural reader, he devoured the lessons.
He didn’t have a drumset and practiced only on a pad. That changed on the day of his bar mitzvah, when he received exactly $125 in gift money, which was enough to allow him to purchase his teacher’s well-worn Slingerland set.
His first real band playing came in high school, when he joined all the bands— orchestra, marching band, and dance band. By this time, Allen had progressed beyond the range of his first teacher. So he went to his high school bandleader, a jazz musician on the side, who advised him to try out for the Juilliard School’s prep division. This program provided college-level training for high schoolers on a once-a-week basis. He was admitted and given a scholarship.
Herman studied with Juilliard’s Morris Goldenberg, pursuing both advanced drum technique as well as musical theory. Goldenberg was so impressed with his student that he offered to get him into the college with a continuation of the scholarship. “I declined to do it,” Allen explains, “because I realized I didn’t want to be a classical percussionist. I wanted to be a drummer. I told Moe [Goldenberg] that I wanted to study drums. I was really into Joe Morello at the time. So Moe gave me Morello’s home phone number and said, ‘Well, I taught Joe briefly when he was at Juilliard. Call him up and tell him I told you to call.’ “Herman, now about 15, was thrilled to have this connection to his idol Morello. Up to this point, his great influences were Gene Krupa and Morello. “I discovered Gene Krupa when I was about 14. The Gene Krupa Story with Sal Mineo had come out. I remember cutting out of school to see it a second time. And I would sit in my garage and try to make faces like Gene Krupa.”
Not long after, he found out about Joe Morello. “And then I discovered Joe, who was really a technician. I saw the difference between just a natural player [Krupa] who was a showman and a person who really knew the instrument. He [Morello] was probably the most musical drummer I ever met in my life, and one of the best technicians—a tremendous human being and very modest about himself.”
When Allen called him at Moe Goldenberg’s suggestion, Morello immediately offered to take him on. Unfortunately, it did not work out. Morello’s heavy schedule with the Brubeck quartet was too hectic to allow the lessons to actually begin. Ultimately, however, Herman would both study with Morello and re-create one of Krupa’s greatest moments.
After Juilliard prep, he studied briefly with Joel Rothman. He left high school at 16 to hit the rock ‘n’ roll market. It was a major transition for him, artistically and professionally. “I played a lot of jazz in high school. I wanted to be a jazz player. When I got out of high school there was no money to be made at jazz. I was a white Jewish kid from Canarsie.” However, he soon found his niche in the rock scene.
Allen’s first regular rock gig was as the house drummer at a club called The Gold Bug in New York’s Greenwich Village. After his involvement with jazz, the new position provided a crash course in rock ‘n’ roll. He was with a band, Mike Scott and the Night Riders. “We got the gig as the house band. What that entailed was playing five nights a week from nine o’clock in the evening until three o’clock in the morning.” On weekends, the club brought in rock acts from the early ’50s such as Gary U.S. Bonds, The Times, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It was a lot of James Brown stuff. So I learned rock ‘n’ roll from the ground up.”
During his year and a half at the Gold Bug, Herman changed his playing to meet the grueling demands of the job. He gave up the traditional grip to play with the butt end of the stick. Greenwich Village rock clubs did not subsidize sensitive percussionists.
After 18 months at The Gold Bug and a total conversion to rock, Herman realized that he wasn’t going to go any further in that situation. He left the club, joined another band with better players, and started to tour the region doing tough one-nighters.
He soon found himself caught in another professional rut. The grueling life of one-night rock stands was taking its toll. At this point, fate stepped in with a call from Genya Ravan, a singer he’d worked with at The Gold Bug. Ravan was now teamed up with songwriters Michael Zager and Aram Schefren. She remembered Allen from the club and asked him to join their new band, Ten Wheel Drive. They had a recording contract with Polydor, so Herman, now about 22, finally broke into a band with some future.
One of the band’s songs, “Morning Much Better,” became a hit in several southern states. In the New York area, the group was modestly successful, but in the South they were treated like stars. It was a good time for Herman: money, fun, and hard-hitting rock drumming. “I used logo on stage with my shirt off,” he recalls with a huge smile.
Despite the joys of bare-chested percussion, the limitations of the professional situation began to emerge. He was still only an employee and would never get more than his weekly salary. He had also gotten married to his high school sweetheart. Allen brought his wife with him on the band’s trips out of town. He needed another break; he needed to become a member of a band that would offer him a stake. That’s when another important call came. This one was from guitarist Elliot Randall.
Randall knew Herman from the early days and was now being managed by Rick Gunnel of the Stigwood Organization in the U.S. Gunnel handled John Mayall and was in a position to develop a new hot group. That hot group was Randall’s Island, with which Allen played for a demo record. When the demo led to an album and a European tour, he quit Ten Wheel Drive.
Randall’s Island toured Europe as the opening act for John Mayall in major concert halls. It was a fabulous experience for the 24-year-old Herman. “We were treated like royalty in Europe,” Allen roars with pleasure. The record didn’t sell too well, but audiences found the eclectic group exciting. After the European trip, the band returned to the U.S. to open for Mayall on an American tour. Allen was getting a huge kick out of being a rock star when another fateful call reached the band’s hotel in the Midwest.
Rick Gunnel was calling to ask if the band would like to do a Broadway show. The musicians roared with laughter at the idea. However, the next morning the idea seemed a little more appealing. They were, after all, obligated to do another record in New York. And it was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll show. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, especially if it caught on. They said yes to the musical, which had the unusual name Jesus Christ Superstar. And thus began the second major transition in Allen Herman’s career.
The 1970 show was to begin with a concert tour followed by a Broadway run. The composer of Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber, was worried about using regular Broadway musicians for his rock work. He wanted a real rock band in the pit along with the 32-piece orchestra. Webber’s connections to the Stigwood Organization led to Rick Gunnel and Randall’s Island.
Just before the concert tour, Allen briefly caught up with Morello again. He was able to squeeze in a few lessons with Brubeck’s obsessively modest drummer. At the first lesson, they had this conversation. “What do you want to study with me for?” Morello asked. “Obviously you can play.”
“I want to play like you,” Herman replied. “What do you want to play like me for? I can’t play.” “Okay, I just want your hands. Give me your hands and I’ll play like me.”
So Morello began teaching him the fundamentals of his remarkable style. On the secret of Joe Morello’s hands, Allen says, “The secret of Joe Morello’s hands . . . there’s no secret. It’s a matter of work. It’s a matter of doing it the right way, rudimentally. It’s a rebound method. It’s a relaxed, open-hand rebound method using as much of the natural rebound energy as possible, and not gripping the sticks—projecting. First you build your wrists, and then your arms. After that if you want to build your fingers, you can do that. I already knew the material [the books Morello used]. I just didn’t do it his way. So after playing drums for 12 years, I went back to playing with the metronome set at 40. I couldn’t believe it. He gave me the first lesson, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make one stroke cleanly.”
The Superstar concert tour was a smash hit across the country, even drawing Baptist protestors at the theaters, a sure sign of a successful theatrical venture. The rock musicians were plucked from the road tour to play on Broadway. The Broadway show was panned by the critics, but on the strength of the tour and album sales, the production ran 22 months in New York beginning in 1971. So on his first Broadway outing, Herman landed in a long-running hit. However, he remembers the tension at the first rehearsal between the Broadway pros and the young rockers. “They were all legit players,” he recalls. “After the first hour, we took a break and one of them came over to me. ‘Hey we were really worried, man,’ he said. ‘We didn’t think you guys would be able to read or play or blend with an orchestra. But you guys can play! You sound great with the band!’” And so, Allen Herman became a member of the Broadway elite.
Comfortably settled in a Broadway show, the members of Randall’s Island made their second album. It was released, but did not receive the backing and promotion which the musicians expected. After a while, they discovered that they were caught in one of those strange financial- artistic binds so common to the music industry. “We kept on bugging Elliot [Randall]. ‘Alright, how are we going to sell the album being in a Broadway show? You have got to get us out on tour.’ What we didn’t realize was that we were more valuable to Stigwood if we stayed in the pit doing Superstar. They didn’t want to spend all kinds of money trying to promote our album. So they never even took us out of the pit.” The band stayed with Superstar and the album languished. It meant that Randall’s Island never really worked again as a unit.
Not that Broadway was such a bad life. Allen and the other musicians from the rock group were being paid generously above scale (about $380/week then), and Herman had the chance to renew his studies with Morello. Indeed, he made up for lost time with fanatical practicing. But it made for a difficult playing period. During the day, he would try to rebuild his technique along the principles of Morello’s instruction. Then at night, he had to blast away on a rock score, virtually contradicting everything he had practiced earlier in the day. For several months, he was in a no-man’s land of drum technique: He hadn’t yet mastered Morello’s concepts, but he was no longer practicing his hard-earned rock styles. Slowly, however, his control returned, and he found he had power and ability that he had never before possessed. “I began playing correctly. I was getting more sound. I was playing louder. I was using less energy. I was losing my callouses. I wasn’t bleeding,” he adds with a laugh.
Two Broadway veterans who worked with Allen on his first show were drummer Hank Jaramillo and conductor Gordon Harrell. Jaramillo, who has worked constantly on Broadway since 1957, was impressed with Herman from the start. “He was very powerful—very energetic. And he had the ability to play in such different styles.” Harrell was equally taken with the new drummer’s drive and technique. In the next decade, Harrell called Herman for a number of shows which he conducted, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On the Road, Rockabye Hamlet, and Dancin’.
Both Harrell and Jaramillo second Herman’s own opinion that he hit Broadway at just the right time with just the right skills. Hair had revolutionized musicals in 1969. Then with such innovative productions as Superstar, Let My People Come, Sgt. Pepper, and Inner City, the early ’70s became a mad scramble on Broadway for rock- and blues-oriented shows. And here was Allen Herman right in the middle of it, with a Juilliard background, superb reading, ten years of heavy-duty rock gigs, and dynamite chops all under his belt. It was simple: Allen was an ideal drummer for Broadway for a whole decade.
Once Herman had the chance to build a new technique through his studies with Morello, he made a discovery about drum technique: “Nobody really knows. The only person who knows is me. Sometimes in the show I felt absolutely horrible. I was dead tired, hardly got any sleep, didn’t practice at all, didn’t warm up, went in, played the show, and people came up and said, ‘Wow, you sound great!’ There were other times when I did six hours in the house, and my hands were red hot. And I’d come into the show and I’d be burning. I’d be waiting for someone to come over to me, and no one would say a thing. Then I realized that the technique has nothing to do with playing.”
He now understood what Joe Morello had been telling him all along. “Whatever I had, I walked into his [Morello’s] room with it. He told me he didn’t give me anything that was going to make any money for me or make me any better a player. All he was going to do was allow me to do what I do more comfortably and get more out of what I have already—just teach me how to translate what was in my head to my hands. And it was what was in my head that people were listening to, not what was in my hands.”
He remembers discussing technique with a young drummer he met at a session in New York. The other guy impressed him quite a bit with his musicality and sensitivity. His name was Steve Gadd. Allen recalls thinking, “If this kid stays in New York, I’m in trouble.” Gadd did stay, but so did Herman, who remains a great admirer of Gadd’s.
After 22 months with Jesus Christ Superstar, Allen moved on to a series of rock ‘n’ roll or otherwise untraditional shows. Two of them were Let My People Come, a sexual musical, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On the Road. The latter show allowed Herman to develop a very personal side of his playing—what he calls “method drumming.”
He immersed himself in the Beatles: “I went out and bought every Beatles record I could. I literally copied Ringo’s stuff note for note off the records. I had become Ringo Starr. I was a method drummer.”
Thus, like a “method” actor, Herman internalized his part so it became personal and natural. He also gained considerable admiration for Ringo. “I thought Ringo was a great player, but he wasn’t a drummer. He played great stuff for the music, which is what I eventually had to learn to do. You have to play what fits the band, and Ringo was the master at that. He played exactly what was supposed to be played, and he didn’t have one ounce of chops.”
Gordon Harrell, who conducted and arranged Sgt. Pepper, was delighted with Allen’s duplication of Ringo’s style. Harrell found this particularly intriguing given Herman’s own highly sophisticated technique. The show ran seven weeks in New York at the Beacon Theater, and both Harrell and Herman view the show as one of their best Broadway experiences. Indeed, Lennon and McCartney themselves were happy with the results.
A change in Herman’s Broadway direction occurred in 1975, when he joined A Chorus Line one week before its Off-Broadway opening. Suddenly, he had jumped from the new rock-oriented trend of musicals and landed in the Broadway mainstream. When the show opened, it was an immediate smash. Allen played on the original cast recording and moved with the production to the Broadway house where it is still playing today.
Although the musical was filled with glitter and excitement, the drum part made only minimal demands on Herman’s skills and imagination. He found himself in the odd position of being in a long-running hit but wishing he were elsewhere. So, he departed the show after three months on Broadway.
Fortunately, a great experience was waiting in the wings. This was Rockabye Hamlet, a rock version of Hamlet directed by Gower Champion. Allen was called by Gordon Harrell for this, and it was just what he wanted. He worked in a rehearsal/ development process for five months, an extraordinarily long experimental period by Broadway standards. “For Broadway, that was one of the best experiences I’ve had, because that was the longest preproduction period. I like the creative process more than just playing the show. To me the best part of the show is when you rehearse it.” The production allowed him to play in an onstage rock band and also gave him the chance to use a ten-piece drumset with eight tom-toms. (Normally he uses one or two tom-toms in the pit. His personal set consists of a Ludwig 5 x 14 chrome snare, a Pearl 20″ bass, and Pearl tom-toms ranging from 10″ to 14″ mounted on racks. His cymbals are Zildjians: a 22″ ride, 20″ crash, and 14″ hi-hats on a Slingerland stand.) Regrettably, Rockabye’s rich creative period led to a run of only one week. Following that, Herman subbed at other shows, played Off-Broadway musicals, and did a few showcases. And then came Dancin’.
Director-choreographer Bob Fosse wanted to create a show that would be the summation of his long Broadway career. One point was clear: It would have lots of percussion. Gordon Harrell developed the show with Fosse, and called Allen in when the previous drummer left during rehearsals. Here at last was the perfect musical for Allen Herman. The diverse score ranged from Melissa Manchester rock ‘n’ roll to Edgar Varese’s lonisation and finally to Goodman/Krupa’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Harrell regards the score of Dancin’ as the most demanding and exciting Broadway project he’s had. He needed an entire orchestra of crack players. “Every chair was crucial to the show,” he says.
Harrell is quick to acknowledge that the drum part was a supreme challenge for a Broadway player. Just the memorization of 700 bars was a virtually unheard of requirement. The other four “Sing, Sing, Sing” soloists, who included trumpeter Lew Soloff, also memorized their parts. But to Harrell the greatest achievement by far was that Herman and the others so totally merged with the music that “the spirit of the Muse could visit them and let them reincarnate the original.”
For “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Herman once again became a “method drummer,” taking Krupa as his model instead of Ringo Starr. He studied Krupa’s unschooled technique and then used it within his own virtuosic abilities. His total involvement with the show extended to doing warm-up stretching exercises with the dancers before each performance. It all paid off. Harrell and Fosse were simply thrilled with what he did with the Krupa number, and so were the audiences.
So complex was the drum book for Dancin ‘ that it took three months to break in a new sub. One of Allen’s former students, Michael Epstein, describes the Dancin’ drum part as “the hardest music I’ve ever seen.” Epstein studied with Allen for several years beginning in the early ’70s. Eventually, he broke into Broadway through his teacher, subbing for Herman in Sgt. Pepper. Epstein, now a steadily working Broadway player himself, is full of praise for Herman as a teacher, a player, and a person. “He’s the most talented, most dynamic drummer I know,” said Michael. “He impressed discipline on me—the importance of playing with a band.”
In many ways, Dancin’ was the culmination of Allen Herman’s decade on Broadway. It ran for four years and three months, closing on June 27, 1982, which happened to be Allen’s 35th birthday. “I hadn’t realized it. That was the peak. I wasn’t going to get another show that used me the way Dancin’ could or gave me such a spot.”
After the show closed, he immediately joined Chita Rivera’s nightclub act, an experience he savors for the association with Rivera. He found her one of the warmest and most generous people he’s ever met in the business. But Herman’s main focus became moving his career to a new level. What he now wanted was to get back to the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll, but on his own terms. This meant becoming a producer. He took his savings from Dancin’ and put together a project he wanted to pursue—a rock version of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. At the very least, this would let him master the techniques of the studio and give him a sample to show the record companies what he could do as a producer.
He hired Peter Phillips to orchestrate the work for a rock quintet. He has known Phillips, a pianist, since they worked together in Superstar. Three other Broadway players filled out the group: Jeff Ganz on bass, Don Rebic on Prophet V synthesizer, and Bernard Grobman on guitar. They did the first six minutes of the work, which would ultimately be 38 minutes on an album.
The tape is exquisitely produced and brought generous compliments from the several dozen A&R men to whom Herman sent it. RCA Red Seal, the classical label, was interested in the idea. Unfortunately, they could not afford the cost of producing a full-scale rock album, so the project came to a halt. However, Allen’s plans and determination continue unabated. One of those plans is developing new rock talent. To this end, he has a contract with singer Liza Hillyer, whose demo he is producing and playing on. He is also working with singers Denise Mim and Wayne Formica.
He finds that producing offers a wider range of expression, control, and creative satisfaction. He will play on the sessions if it feels right, but if someone else would sound better, he’ll use the other person. For instance, he would not mind a bit using that fellow named Gadd he met years ago. Another drummer he now admires is Phil Collins, who also extends his creative range through producing.
So here stands Allen Herman at 37. He is reaching back to his rock ‘n’ roll roots and looking forward to new directions in producing. And in between those boundaries lies a decade of outstanding Broadway experience from which he can draw. “What I hope for is that I become so successful as a producer that I won’t have time to play for anybody else but myself.” Viewing the whole of his diverse experience, he concludes, “I’ve now learned something about life that I learned a long time ago about drumming: There’s no standing still. You either keep getting better or you get worse. You’re always in motion.”