Nashville Session KingLarrie Londin

Nashville USA – a virtual beehive of recording activity. Literally tons of recorded music pour from its boundaries each and every year. The mainstay of this fast paced, multi-million dollar musical mecca is the recording session musician, and drummer Larrie Londin is one of the busiest of the unsung musical heroes in the industry; rated as one of the most in demand session drummers of the elite Nashville studio scene. Larrie may well be one of the most recorded drummers in all music, heard by every person who’s ever listened to any form of popular music.

A heavy-set, yet gentle and personable man, Larrie at age 34, has made more than a comfortable living sitting confidently behind his multiple tom, double bass drum set-up, backing a mind boggling array of musical personalities; Boots Randolph, Chet Atkins. Jerry Reed, Glen Campbell, Perry Como, Elvis Presley, Mac Davis, Trini Lopez, Johnny Mathis, Roy Clark, Eddy Arnold, Isaac Hayes, Howard Roberts, Olivia Newton-John, Mel Tilles and Bobby Goldsboro to name a few. He’s performed on the Dinah Shore, Glen Campbell, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Tony Orlando and Captain & Tennille TV shows, and his articulate rhythmic pulsations have been heard by anyone who’s ever turned on a radio or TV via the catchy commercial jingles of Double Mint Gum, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Pizza Hut, Ford, Mercury, Colgate and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Catching Larrie in a moment of musical inactivity is no easy task, yet Joe Buerger – MD’s correspondent in St. Louis – managed to slow him down long enough to get our story immediately following an informative three hour drum clinic for Pearl Drums at the Fred Pierce Studio Drum Shop in St. Louis. Larrie Londin is one of the most proficient professionals on the music scene today; a drummer who has truly learned the importance of versatility and restraint, earning himself the title of undisputed Nashville session king.

MD: How does the Larrie Londin story begin?

LL: Well, I was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1943, but I was raised in Miami, Florida until I was fifteen. At fifteen, I went on the road with a group called the “Tornadoes”. Out of the “Tornadoes” came a group known as the “Headliners”. We were artists and studio staff players for Motown in Detroit, and a lounge act working opposite Louie Prima, “Gaylord and the Holidays”, and people who were real big in Nevada at the time. From the Motown thing, we tried to get records out. When the group was formed, I played guitar. My brother told me what a bad guitar player I was, and said I had to do something else. I liked drums, so I started playing them. The guitar player in the group was also a drummer, and he showed me where to kick the band. The more involved I got, the more practicing and listening I did. We worked many resort areas, along with sessions for Motown.

MD: Who was your earliest drumming influence?

LL: The first drum clinic I ever attended was a Gene Krupa clinic. He gave such a great, great clinic. Naturally, he played his famous, Sing, Sing, Sing tom-tom solo. But then, he went into a thing I still can’t do to this day. He played his hi-hat and his ride at the same tempo, then he played a paradiddle between his left hand and bass drum very slow and open while the time stayed the same on his ride cymbal and hi-hat. He would gradually speed up the paradiddle until it surpassed the time on the ride cymbal, and then he’d slow the paradiddle back down. He played the paradiddle between his hand and foot as fast as you or I would with our hands. Everyone went crazy and ran to him for his autograph. Here was this distinguished looking man, salt and pepper hair, immaculate suit, talking to all those people. All I could do was sit there. I couldn’t believe I actually got to see the man. Eventually, I got to meet and talk with him. He was such a great, great man! Gene Krupa was the man who pushed me over the edge! I knew what I had to do. There was nothing else for me.

MD: Who were some of your other influences besides Gene?

LL: Louie Bellson, Sonny Payne, Joe Morello, and Ed Shaughnessy were big influences on me. When I was working with the “Headliners”, backing Vaughn Monroe in Nevada,
Louie Bellson was playing right up the street. I used to beg Vaughn to let me off early so I could go see him. Finally, one night we got off early, and I ran up the street as fast as I could. My wife and I went into the club and actually got to talk to Louie. When Louie got back on stage, he announced that he was going to play a solo for Larrie Londin and his wife. This was another whole trip for me. Everything he played was so smooth. Everything was open. It sounded like single strokes, but he wasn’t working hard. After the show, I asked him how he could play singles that fast and make it look so easy. His reply was, “I’m not playing singles, Larrie.” (LAUGHTER) You see, he was using combinations of doubles and singles. Louie sat down and showed me some of his patterns, and this changed my thinking about so-called “chop exercises”. Much of it goes back to the rudiments. I would have to say, though, that the main ingredient I admire in Gene, Louie, Sonny Payne, Joe Morello, and Ed Shaughnessy is the feel they give the band. You can be a fantastic soloist, and not do a thing for the band. You have to give the band that FEEL! It goes back to that old saying, “It’s not how MUCH you play, but what you DON’T play.” Louie is the world’s greatest time-keeper!

MD: How did you break into the Nashville recording scene?

LL: We were working as a group in Fort Worth, Texas at the Colonial Country Club playing promotions for golf tournaments. Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, and people like that would come up to play the Pro-Am’s. When I was getting ready to leave Motown in ’69, Chet and Boots made me an offer to move to Nashville. I went, not thinking of studio work, but just to do road jobs. I played the “Festival of Music” show for about 2 years. When I left the show, I went to work for Jerry Reed making tape copies for about $100 per week. Then he decided to put a group together. We had a record out called “Amos Moses”, followed by “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”. We started working the “Glen Campbell Show” every week. We went on the road with Glen playing between his shows with a trio. It was such a strong trio, that Glen had a rough time following us. So, he’d come out and join the group for awhile, then we’d take an intermission, and Glen would finish the show with his band. Then Jerry started getting his own concerts, using other bands for his warm-up act, and he got his own TV show. Then, he decided to retire from the music business and do movies, so there I was – out of a job – sitting in Nashville without a gig! I started playing at the Carousel Club, and stayed there for a year and a half, doing one or two-day sessions a week. This club gave me the security I needed. Staying in town, I made $200 per week not counting the sessions. I’d go out on the road with Chet Atkins once in awhile, but the club would still pay me my $200. Once I started doing a lot of recording sessions, I had to quit the club. It was too much, physically, getting to bed at 3 or 4 a.m., then getting up at 8 a.m. I couldn’t take it. Now, I do the same thing, (LAUGHTER), except I’m doing sessions. I am at the point now where I don’t have to take night sessions. I’m able to do clinics and work with kids. I love to work with kids. Being able to give. I don’t know if I have anything to give or not, all I know is that I wish I could have seen things like this (clinics) to give me a sounding board. Someone I could throw a question at, and maybe the guy would have known the answer. How many drummers have you seen in your local town that you ask, “How did you do that?”, and he won’t tell you because he’s afraid you’ll steal his lick and make a million dollars. (LAUGHTER) A good clinician is here to answer your questions. I try to get people to ask questions. I don’t like to follow a typed out clinic plan. Many times, my clinics get very loose because sometimes it’s difficult to get people to ask questions.

MD: What does your practice routine consist of?

LL: I’ve always practiced rudiments. When I first started, I bought a Frank Arsenault recording of the 26 Drum Rudiments. Today, I practice many of the same things. I practice an open long roll for 20 minutes with the metronome setting on 200. Another pattern I use that warms up the hands quickly is LLR-LLR/RRL-RRL. My wife, Debbie, helps me a great deal also. Whenever I get into a slump, she’ll push the practice pad and sticks in front of me and says, “You’re not THAT good!” (LAUGHTER) I practice all the rudiments every day because much of my playing is physical, due to the size concerts I do. Kenny Malone of Nashville is helping me a great deal with my reading. I wasn’t able to read music for a long, long time. I now spend as much time on my reading as I do on my technique. Tommy Thomas – who used to play drums on the “Breakfast Club Show“, showed me many travelling patterns. Tommy calls them “travelling patterns” because they are rhythmic patterns moving from drum to drum.

With all of these exercises, my practice time will run from 4 to 8 hours. With my schedule, the way it is now, I’m not able to practice as much as before, but I carry a practice pad with me and practice between sessions, or sometimes when they’re running down songs, I’m sitting back there running off my doubles. My practice time is spent more on rhythmic patterns than on chop exercises. If you play relaxed and even, it will sound better than if you’re tense and straining. My solos are based on rhythmic-feel things. I don’t just sit there and dazzle you with single-stroke rolls and 18-inch biceps.
(LAUGHTER) Louie can take something and play it very soft, but even, and it sounds, twice as fast as someone straining to play it. Every one of Louie’s notes are even and in their right place. It’s just perfect.

MD: You use different equipment for recording and live work. Can you elaborate on this for us?

LL: My Pearl drum set consists of a 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″, and 16″ tom-toms. For live work, I use two 24″ bass drums with a hole in the front heads about the size of a 33-1/3 rpm record, and a piece of foam rubber approximately 3″ thick lying in the bottom of both bass drums. For recording, I use two 20″ bass drums with no heads on the front. The
20″ bass drums seem to record a little better. For live work, I use Remo Emperor drum hearts because most of the shows I play require power. When I was backing Elvis, I was using 3S sticks. I would have gone through any other heads like water. Today – for the clinic – I’m using a 5 x 14 Pearl Jupiter brass shell snare drum. That’s a really cutting snare. It will cut through anything. For studio work, I have 5 or 6 snare drums I use, depending on the session: a 5 x 14 brass shell, a 5 x 14 wood shell, a 6-1/2 x 14 brass shell, an 8 x 15 wood shell, and a 10 x 14 phenollic shell, which is my favorite for recording.

The cymbal set-up is all Avedis Zildjian. Starting from my left, I use a 17″ paper-thin, a 15″ thin, two 14″ rock hi-hats on a stand sitting in front of my set, a 20″ ping ride given to me by Louie Bellson, a 16″ thin crash, a 20″ swish, and my regular hi-hat cymbals are 15″ rock hi-hats. I also carry 16″, 17″, and 18″ flat-top ride cymbals, for various live and recording jobs.

MD: How do you tune your drums for recording?

LLondin2LL: First of all, my drum set in the studio has no coverings on the drums. I had heard that if you took the pearl covering off the drums, you would get more of a Hal Blaine type of sound. The pure fiberglass with no covering records well for me. When I tune my concert toms, I think a tone in my head – either the highest or the lowest – and then tune the rest to approximately a minor third apart. I don’t start with a definite note – just the tone I’m thinking. For muffling, I use air duct tape, putting small pieces on the toms until I get the sound I want. Lately, I’ve been using the REMO pin-stripe heads on the concert toms, and I’ve found that I don’t need tape for muffling with these new heads. On my snare drums, I use Emperors on the snare side because of power strokes. The concussion of air in the snare drum has actually broken many of my snare heads when I used a thinner head on the bottom. On my 6-1/2″ brass shell, I use an Ambassador batter head. My 5″ brass has a Cana-Sonic batter. The 8 x 1 5 inch, has a Fiberskin batter head, and on my 10 x 14 inch, I use Emperors on both sides. I also have a C & C telescopic snare drum with a Fiberskin batter. You can change the size of this drum in just minutes because the shell telescopes. My studio drum set is actually tuned one or two whole tones lower than the set I use for live work.

MD: How are your drums miked?

LL: For live playing, they’ll usually put a mike in each bass drum, one on the snare, and 2 or 3 overhead. Sometimes they’ll mike the hi-hat, and sometimes they set the overhead mikes behind me. For recording, the mikes are usually set right at the bottom edge of each concert tom. The mikes on the bass drums are set right at the front edge of the drums, with no heads on the front, and then a cloth is draped over them.

MD: Are you required to do a lot of reading in the type of studio work you do?

LL: In Nashville, as well as other parts of the country where I’ve played, the reading has not been very demanding. I’m sure it’s demanding for Steve Gadd and people like that, but for the things I’ve done, I’ve usually written my own charts. When I first started working with Jerry Reed, I realized I would have to come up with a quick way for writing my own charts. Many times, in the studio, they will run down a tune and then record it. Often, that’s it! I’ve devised a system where I write a “1” for each measure. And I write in four-measure phrases. So, I’ll have, for example, four “1’s”, and then a few more groups of four “1’s”, depending on the length of the song. I then look back to see whether an extra bar was added at the end of one of the phrases, add a dash (—) and another “1”. I then fill in the dynamics. If there’s an accented note or rhythm pattern, I put an “X” by the measure. Then to the side, I will write what accented rhythmic pattern the “X” stands for. If I come to a measure where the tune has a rest or break, I circle the “I” and write slash marks in the circle to let me know what count the break or rest comes on. During my early years in Nashville, they didn’t write charts for me because they knew I didn’t read. After I learned to read, I was once handed a drum chart, and I told the guy who wrote it that he had written it wrong. He said to me, “After eight years of not reading, you’re going to complain about my drum chart!” (LAUGHTER) The point is that after I learned to read, I wanted to see some good charts. It’s fun to read charts now because I can see the trouble spots before I get there. When I do have to write my own charts, I still use my own system because it’s quick, accurate, and I’m ready to go when everybody else is.

MD: What advice would you give a drummer on his first studio job?

LL: TIME! If you play good time, you’ll make a good record. The next thing is sound. Make sure your drums are tuned without a lot of overtones. Be solid, and don’t over-play.

MD: How can a young drummer prepare for the pressures in the studio?

LL: The pressure never really bothered me, but I do know some players who go right up the wall! Be prepared to do the unnatural. Forget you’re a drummer. Think like a producer, engineer, or an inventor. Look for a sound. If you’re looking for a “boxy” sound – being a drummer – the obvious escapes you … playing a box! This is the type of pressure that DID bother me. It was degrading as a drummer to play a box, or a chair, or some other object. After 17 years of playing, I had to play a crummy box! (LAUGHTER) I had to learn to let this go by.

Another pressure is when some turkey walks up and tries to tell you how to play, and he doesn’t know an eighth note from a quarter note, or a bass drum from a hi-hat. But this man knows what sound he wants. He just can’t explain it. This same man is paying you to play what he wants and has the right to put this demand on you. Most better producers will let you play what you feel the first time around. If they’re good producers, they’ll make their point clear, or even show you what they want.

One of the hardest things is doing so many takes on a tune. You look at the chart over and over, and it starts to run together. Some people think that country music is the easiest music to play. Sit down and play a simple country rhythm pattern for three minutes, BUT – keep it even and solid, with every note in the right place. It’s hard to do. Louie Bellson would vouch for that! It takes control NOT to play practically everything you know. I can’t let go in a studio. I have to do that somewhere else. That’s what was so nice about playing the Elvis show. Jobs like that are a real release for me.

MD: What advice would you give a drummer who wants to get his foot in the door of the recording business?

LL: We have many players who come to Nashville looking for recording jobs. The only thing that would come close to an answer would be to have enough money saved to last him 6 to 8 months while he looks for a hotel, club, or road gig. It’s good to come into town with a gig already lined up. If not, try to get a road gig with a known artist so you can meet other artists and producers who could eventually help you. By the time you’ve been in or around town for approximately two years, you go to publishing houses and tell them you’re interested in doing demo’s. This will put you in contact with more artists and producers. By doing demo’s you get the feel of what’s expected of you. By this time, you may get a call to do a session which turns out to be a master for a good record. Then you’ll start getting calls to do other sessions, and then you can come off the road. It’s a long process. It took me five years to get into the studios. Two of those years, I was really trying to do the hard sessions. I’ve had a lot of good people help me out. I feel as though I’ve been very fortunate. Almost everything good a drummer dreams of has happened to me. I feel like I’m standing outside myself, looking at another person. Someone in the right place, at the right time, heard my playing and liked it. I only hope I can give back as much as I’ve taken from this business.

by Joe Buerger