I first met Shelly Manne in the late ’50s in New York City, when he was performing at the Village Vanguard with his own group. I introduced myself on a break between sets, and Shelly instantly treated me as a friend. He just included me in that special fraternity of drummers. I was over-whelmed by his warmth and his kindness. Shelly spent most of the break talking with me. He was very encouraging and I will never forget that evening.
The next time I ran into Shelly was on a Benny Goodman TV special. This was my second big TV show as a member of Benny’s band. There were many guest artists including Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Andre Previn, Red Norvo, Harry James and Shelly. To be honest, being in my early 20’s, I was a bit apprehensive to be playing with so many famous artists. But once again, Shelly was super. He came over, said hello and was again warm, at ease and very friendly. We had some really good moments together during that week.
When I was a very young drummer in Kansas, Shelly was one of the drummers that I listened to on recordings. He was one of the first drummers to play fills with the left hand and bass drum while continuing to play the jazz ride cymbal rhythm with the right hand. Although drummers today do this routinely, it was revolutionary in those days.
Shelly was also a master of brushes, which today is somewhat of a lost art. He always achieved a perfect balance of sound between the brushes and the hi-hat, and his bass drum accents were just the right volume. He could generate tremendous energy and intensity while playing brushes.
Shelly had a way of playing in a big band with a sort of small-group approach. He never really seemed to play all that loudly, but you could hear each and every beat he played—and he never overplayed. He’d play just what seemed to be needed. He generated strength without great volume.
Born in New York, Shelly moved to California in the early ’50s and is considered one of the founding fathers of the West Coast school of jazz. He was also one of the first jazz drummers to make the successful transition to studio work. He performed on any number of commercial recordings, movie soundtracks and television shows. He even acted in a couple of movies. He became known as a composer, and wrote music for TV shows, his own groups and commercials. But even though he was busy in studio work, Shelly never stopped performing with other jazz musicians and his own group. He even found time to open his own nightclub in the early ’60s: The Manne-Hole in Los Angeles. He booked the top jazz groups of the day and performed at the club regularly with his own group.
Shelly was a sensitive and subtle player—truly a musical drummer in every sense of the word. He never produced an ugly sound from his drums—they were always tuned beautifully—and his cymbals always seemed just right for the music he was playing. He had a special right-hand technique on the ride cymbal that was astounding. In very fast tempos, he would play a sort of shuffle rhythm. I can remember Joe Morello saying, “Shelly really has such control over the ride cymbal. When he plays that sort of fast shuffle, the volume and the tempo never vary.”
Shelly also had a great sense of humor. He would spin a half-dollar on the head of the floor tom during a four-bar break. When I first heard that sound on a record, a friend of mine and I spent the day trying to figure out what it was.
It is difficult to imagine a drummer being at the top of his craft for almost five decades. Shelly performed with virtually all of the top artists in the jazz and studio fields. He was extremely versatile and adaptable, and played well in every size ensemble.
On September 9, 1984, Shelly was honored by the Hollywood Arts Council with a five-hour concert. Shelly also performed with many of his friends on that day, and they said he never sounded better. Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed it Shelly Manne Day.
On September 26, he was struck down by a heart attack. Conte Candoli, the great jazz trumpeter who had performed in many of Shelly’s groups said, “I’m thankful we had the chance to honor Shelly. At the time, I thought it was a great idea to pay tribute to someone who was at his prime. Death never even crossed our minds.”
The Hollywood music community was in shock. I heard about it on the radio, and I was shattered for the entire day and then some. Bob Yeager, owner of the Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood, simply said, “We are all bummed out. What a drag.” That statement summed up the feelings of all of us on the West Coast.
Fortunately, Shelly left his imprint on any number of fine recordings with his own group and others. No matter what style of music you are into, if you are a drummer, you should have some Shelly Manne recordings in your collection. He was one of the leaders and giants of the modern drumset. He was also the premiere example of the multifaceted professional musician of today; he did so many things well in so many parts of the music industry. Shelly also set a great example for us all with his warmth, humor and professional attitude. We will all miss him greatly.