Bill Lombardo has had an interesting career already, and he hasn’t hit 35 yet. Beginning in the early ’60s as a rock drummer, Bill participated in the San Francisco psychedelic scene. He went on to play funk, country, and top-40 bands. He’s played in clubs, on concert stages, at debutante balls and corporate functions. Along with all of that, Bill spent several years, first as drummer and later as leader, with the orchestra of his famous uncle, Guy Lombardo. Bill is now a successful bandleader/performer in his own right. In this interview, he outlines his highly diversified career, and the unique outlook on the musical profession it has given him.
BL: Being a member of the Lombardo family, I was always around music. When we lived in New York, where I was born, my older brother Peter was taking lessons at the school that Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole set up there. One of my early treasures is a picture signed “To Bill From Cozy” that I still have to this day. When we moved to California, my brother continued playing and 1 was always just fooling around on the drums. Every summer, I’d go back to New York to visit my father, who was Guy Lombardo’s brother and played trumpet in Guy’s orchestra, The Royal Canadians. One summer he had a set of drums hanging around in an attic. I was into buying 45s at the time, and I remember having Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time.” So I set up the drums and just started playing along to that. The rest of that summer, all my time was occupied on the drums.
I returned to San Francisco for school that year, and one day, I went to a friend’s home, where a band called the Status Seekers was playing. I walked in, saw the drums, and it clicked in my head that I’d been playing all summer. So I just jumped on them—I didn’t ask anybody—and started playing. Two days later, the band called me and asked if I’d like to join them. From that point on . . . I have a saying now that I really have no one else to blame but myself. My falling into the drums and being into music is totally my own direction. Even though I’m from a musical family, I was never really coerced or inspired even to pick up an instrument.
RVH: About what year was this?
BL: About 1962.
RVH: So you didn’t start after seeing Ringo on the Ed Sullivan Show, like so many other drummers of our generation?
BL: Oh no, I predate Ringo on the Ed Sullivan Show. I found myself playing to all kinds of records, using my brother’s old kit. I just came home every day and didn’t do anything else but play. I was in and out of several bands, either as drummer or lead singer, or both. I’d get into a band as a lead singer and something would happen to the drummer, so I’d go right to the drums.
RVH: Did you become a professional musician right out of high school?
BL: Exactly. And I started putting my own groups together. I can remember being really brash in those days. Anytime there was a set of drums, anyplace, I’d just go up and say, “Listen, I play the drums. Can I play with you?” I wouldn’t do that now! I’d say, “My uncle is Guy Lombardo, I know what the music is about, and I’d like to play.” I would be invited to debutante parties as a guest, and wind up sitting in with the entertainers. Then a friend’s mother started booking bands I put together to play debutante parties opposite a bigger orchestra. Our group would pro- vide the “young” music, and there would be an orchestra for the “adults.”
RVH: So you were into the “society” aspect of playing long before your association with the Guy Lombardo orchestra?
BL: Absolutely. I started out in rock ‘n’ roll, but often performed alongside society bands. At that time, I was cognizant of the fact that my father was a musician with a famous orchestra, but I was so into the rock scene that I never really thought about it very much. But as I began to play for these debutante parties, I started to see how it worked with the bigger bands. It was also about this time that I started checking out the club scene as a pro.
RVH: Were you part of the San Francisco “psychedelic scene” in the mid-’60s?
BL: Yes. I did a lot of playing at the Haight Theatre in Haight-Ashbury. My band— called Pyewacket—played at free concerts in the park with Jefferson Airplane. We worked with Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield and Spirit, too. We eventually ended up playing at Fillmore West, opening a show for Lee Michaels; that was sort of the pinnacle of our participation in the “San Francisco Era.” We actually did wrangle a record contract from Columbia, but at the last minute, our contact there changed positions and the thing kind of fell through. I continued playing in the San Francisco area for the next three years, until I had a call to join the Guy Lombardo orchestra. In that three-year period, I decided that music was what I was going to do as a career. I became more aware of my association with the Lombardo family— not for their type of music but the heritage of being in the music business. So I really wanted to find out what I was doing. There were things that I had heard that I wanted to do, so I decided to take lessons. In ’69 or ’70, I studied with Gene Bardolli at Kenny Williams’ Drumland in San Francisco. Then I heard about a teacher named Chuck Brown, who is really the guy that I think about almost every day of my life, as far as helping me with the drums. At the time, I had decided that I wanted to go to the Berklee School of Music. Chuck had a most beautiful teaching technique, and things became crystal clear for me. I was ready for Berklee and had been accepted.
But at that point, my dad called me and said, “Our drummer is retiring. Would you like to play drums with us?” I told him, “Well, I’ve been accepted at Berklee for the fall, so I’m not sure that I want to take the gig.” He suggested I come back to Long Island, where they did a big outdoor gig at Jones Beach. So I told him I’d play for the summer. Then I went back to Chuck and told him about the gig. He showed me a couple of rhumba beats, and I’d been working with brushes and basic jazz time anyway. So I went back and played with the Guy Lombardo Royal Canadians, and pretty much stepped all over the place when I first got with them. It was a little difficult at first.
RVH: You went directly from playing San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll to the Guy Lombardo orchestra?
BL: Cold turkey.
RVH: What prompted your father to call you for the gig in the first place?
BL: Two years earlier, I had been visiting my father, and he had a piano player over. There was a snare there, and all of a sudden my father asked me to play. I became very paranoid about playing for my father and this piano player. Anyway, the guy was playing a Dixieland piano, and we had a little jam session. Two years later, when my dad asked me to play drums for the orchestra, I said, “Gee, I’ve been playing all this rock ‘n’ roll. Do you think I’ll be able to do the orchestra thing?” My father replied, “I heard you play two years ago, and I could tell right away that you had a beat. I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do it.” The Lombardo thing was always the beat. My dad used to claim that most drummers had a bass drum only to mount cymbals on—that they never really used the bass drum for what it was for. Of course, the Royal Canadians’ music was steeped in the tradition of the ’20s, where everything was very simple. Anyway, I went back, played and had enough command of the instrument to be able to listen to what my dad told me (he sat right next to me playing first trumpet), and to listen to Guy and cut the gig. Then they offered me the big money to go on the road in September, and I opted to do that instead of going to Berklee. So I never made it there.
RVH: So what was it like to drum for Guy Lombardo?
BL: Well, the big joke within the Guy Lombardo orchestra is always that you don’t know the drummer is there until the end of the song where he punches the little signature phrase: “Boom-chick, boom- chick . . . boom-pa-boom-chick.” That was the ending that they claim to have invented. There is also a story about a recording session where George Gowans, the original drummer, was late. Guy started the session anyway, and George walked in just in time to go “splash” at the end of the song. Guy never knew the difference. George wasn’t even on the first cut of the record. These are jokes that used to circulate within the band. My father always used to tell me that the drummer takes the beat from the bass player . . . and they were a tuba band! So you’re talking about a very specialized type of music, where the drummer was to be felt and not heard. The main emphasis of the beat really came from the tuba—that “poomp . . . poomp . . . poomp”—and the bass drum would kind of melt into that. There was no syncopation at all, and just a light backbeat. That’s not to say that they didn’t do up-tempo things, but it was strictly beat. They did a couple of “rock” songs—like “Winchester Cathedral”—in their own inimitable style. That’s where I’d say, “Okay, this is where I’m going to shine.” I’d start playing a syncopated bass drum and a heavy backbeat. All the heads would just kind of turn in the band. In their style of rock, it was still just 8th-note rhythm and the light backbeat. I was trying a lot of different things, but I slowly learned to do what was called for, because there were a lot of musicians on the band who were steeped in jazz and Dixieland, and they really opened my ears quite a bit. It was one of the first real growth things for me—trying to listen to a sound and be able to adapt to it. That’s really why I took the job in the first place—because it was a challenge.
RVH: It was a chance to research history right on the gig.
BL: Absolutely. I was only 21 then, and a lot of the older guys shrunk my head a lot. We had many all-night sessions in the rooms, talking and listening to music. They really wanted to help me and give it to me straight.
RVH: How long did you stay on the band?
BL: Through the ’71-’72 tour, including the network TV broadcast on New Year’s Eve. Then I left the band and went back to San Francisco. My wife had a baby, and I wanted to stay home for a while. I continued working in clubs there, but doing it a little more aggressively in terms of career advancement. I was beginning to get more into the business end of it all.
I did go back with the Royal Canadians one more time for a period of about a year, when there wasn’t much happening at home. I thought I’d give it another try. I left again in ’72 or ’73, returned to San Francisco and got into a band doing R&B cover material. I was studying again and working on the funk things to get that good R&B sound. Then one day, a guy came along and said, “We need a drummer for this country band in Mill Valley.” So I went over and discovered that it was very easy. Playing had always been fun, but the kind of music we were doing in the R&B band wasn’t quite as easy as this country thing seemed to be. I rehearsed with the band, and we did the gig that night. All of a sudden, I was playing in a club where people were going “Wa-Hoo,” clapping their hands, and really getting into the spirit of the thing we were doing. I was just amazed at how it brought my playing into a different vein; I got a lot simpler. Up until that point, I had been trying to be more complicated, and I was probably trying to make things more difficult than they should have been.
At any rate, the bandleader liked the way I played and offered me the gig. He had more dates that paid better than the band I was in, and the music was fun, so I took the gig. I found it interesting that it sort of reiterated the old Guy Lombardo thing about the beat. I’m more of a groove drummer than a Buddy Rich-style drummer; I’m into keeping things simple and being the conduit for the rest of the band. If I can make it simple for them, that’s what I figure my job is. That’s what country music had for me: strictly beat—hot beat. So I got on the country bandwagon from ’73 to ’75. Then I got into another club band that was doing primarily pop music, playing with a bass player named Rod Ellicot. Rod had been a member of Cold Blood for several years and was one of San Francisco’s top players. He opened my ears up tremendously. I really respected him and what he had done. I played with that group until I got the call to come back and lead the Royal Canadians when Guy died in 1978.
RVH: Did you lead from the drums?
BL: No, I was fronting. I had always been a singer, so at that point, after playing drums with the Royal Canadians twice, I had the desire to be up front. Whether my father knew that at the time, I don’t know, but he did know that I had been studying voice. He told me, “You’re the obvious choice; you know the band in and out, you’ve played drums with us, you saw Uncle Guy work and you know what needs to be done. And people are still asking for you.” I was desirous of making it in the music business and not closing any doors, but I still had to think about it. It scared me, because I didn’t want to be labeled as this or that. But my experiences had been pretty varied already, and I’m obstinate enough not to let anything tie me down too much, so I said I’d do it. I got a shot at not only leading the orchestra, but singing with them also.
RVH: Besides singing, what did leading entail?
BL: Emceeing, choosing the material, and digging up some of the old arrangements that weren’t often done. The band had gotten to a point where they had to do this song or that song; you always have to do a few songs that people expect. But I saw a chance to really dig into the band’s library—which is extensive—and to get some of those vintage arrangements. They have some Dixieland charts from the ’30s that are just beautiful, laid-back-but-swinging arrangements. So I brought some of those back to light.
I led the band for two years. My biggest thrill as a leader was the ’78-’79 New Year’s Eve broadcast on CBS. CBS was doing the show live from the Waldorf, and I wasn’t just the drummer this time. I was the leader, out in front, emceeing the band. It really felt good. But then the next year, CBS dropped the show! So I put a show together. I opened up on the drums doing “South Rampart Street Parade,” and then went out front. We sold the package to a TV syndication group, and it did well on the ’79-’80 New Year’s Eve broadcast they produced.
But then I started looking ahead. 1980 was starting, and I had to figure out if I wanted to be showcasing the Royal Canadians the rest of my life. My father was getting ready to retire. Also, the organization that held the lease on the band wanted me to take it over, and be responsible for booking the band, the transportation, and all that. I figured that was a good time for me to get out, because I had other ideas of what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring my own career more to the forefront, and explore more of what 1 could do musically, after all these years of studying drums and voice in all the different styles that I’d been in.
So I left the orchestra in 1980, and had a sort of backlash period where I just wanted to get back into the clubs and bang on the drums for four hours. I did that for a while, but soon saw that I was not really going anyplace. I had to face the question of “What do you do after doing a show on CBS, New Year’s Eve, from the Waldorf, televised around the world?” I mean, where do you go from there? So I put a band together and started approaching other markets. I figured that if I got into the corporate and society scene, I could make a decent living. I had a concept of doing music from everything I’d been exposed to—from the ’20s right up to the current day. I finally put together a roster of people that I had played with, started approaching different corporations and people like that and started bringing that sort of tight, club-band sound to them. I started doing parties for People Magazine, Rockefeller Inc., Estee Lauder—a lot of corporate work. That’s where I am now. I’m not doing clubs anymore.
RVH: So at this moment, you are a contemporary society performer. But these aren’t casuals like a backyard pool party or the local VFW dinner dance.
BL: Right. The New York area is heavy with corporate gigs, major social functions, weddings and things like that—the money jobs. I’m trying to cut out a career for myself. I’m flying out to San Diego next year to do a job for the American Cancer Society. As a leader, it’s my business to find the good-paying jobs and keep the bookings steady. It’s doing reasonably well. It’s not great, but it’s a lot more than I’d be doing in clubs. I also teach on the side. I’ve got a good name, I’ve worked hard, and I work a lot.
RVH: Having been both the drummer behind a leader and the leader in front of a drummer, how do you relate to the drummers on your bands? Are you a little harder on them because you know what should happen, or easier because you’ve been there and can appreciate a drummer’s problems?
BL: I think I’m a little bit of both; I think I relate very well to my drummers. As a drummer, I know what it’s like to have people turn around and beat time in the air, or say they want more or less of something. As a leader, I have a very distinct idea of how I want things to go, and I can tell when a drummer is playing too much. One thing that I think was a good aspect about my own drumming career was the fact that I was also a singer, and I always was able to play very well for bands that had singers, because I knew when and when not to play. Of course, this came after many years of being yelled at: “The roll doesn’t go there!” I try to be easy on drummers who play with me, yet at the same time, I’m very specific about what I want. I try not to come off sounding egotistical when I’m talking to a drummer, but I’ll try to show that I know where it’s at. A lot of drummers feel that, once they get the time thing down, they can start throwing in embellishments just to keep themselves interested. In jazz that’s fine, but in a lot of dance music, or where there is any kind of a vocal thing going, you’ve got to know when, and when not, to play. That’s the biggest problem I run across with drummers, because a lot of them are jazz and free-lance players who are into a lot of different types of music.
RVH: Do you miss drumming behind the band now that you’re out front?
BL: I haven’t forsaken the drums. In future special shows, I’ll probably do something on the drums, as well as fronting the band.
I also think that being a drummer has helped me in being a vocalist too. I sing more rhythmically. A lot of great vocalists are or were drummers, from Mel Torme to Phil Collins.
RVH: Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to achieving success in the music business?
BL: We’re all given a certain amount of gifts, and the one thing that I’d like to pass on, as it was impressed on me, is that if you work for it, you can reach your goal. It doesn’t have to be on an arena concert stage or on the cover of every magazine. It just needs to be utilizing your talents and not wasting them—not getting caught up in a lot of things that could sap your energy. If I can be any kind of example that helps other people, I’m really happy.