Ed Shaughnessy


As the most visible drummer on network TV for three decades, he helped America understand what big band drumming was all about. But there was more to his story—much more.

by Rick Mattingly

Roy Burns remembers sitting with longtime Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy at a Percussive Arts Society convention (PASIC) a few years ago, when a young man approached them and asked for autographs. As they were signing, the man asked, incredulously, “Are you two friends?” Shaughnessy replied, “Roy and I have been friends for over thirty years. We’re not competitors—we just happen to be in the same business. Just remember, the guys who are a pain in the neck are the guys who only play pretty good. The really good players are usually nice guys.”

“Ed was certainly a nice guy,” Burns says, a few days after Shaughnessy’s death from a heart attack on May 24, 2013. “I first met him in New York in the 1950s when we were both teaching in Henry Adler’s studios. One day I told him I was having trouble with a fast tempo, so he showed me how to play a fast beat on the ride cymbal without getting tense or tired. He didn’t ask me to pay him for the lesson; he just did it out of the goodness of his heart. That’s the kind of guy Ed was. If someone had a question, he was happy to answer it. He was very free with his information.”

Edwin Thomas Shaughnessy was born on January 29, 1929, in Jersey City, New Jersey. He began learning piano at age nine. “Everyone on my mother’s side of the family played piano,” he recalled in his 2012 autobiography, Lucky Drummer. “In those days there wasn’t television, so listening to the radio and playing piano and singing songs with the family were big parts of the social interaction.”

When Shaughnessy was fourteen, his father was given a bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal as payment for a debt. “As soon as the drums came into the house,” Ed said in his book, “I got fired up. I started listening to late-night radio broadcasts of Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington. I really got the jazz bug. I would play my funny little drums along with the music.” During his teenage years Shaughnessy would take the subway to New York City, where he was able to see such legendary drummers as Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, Max Roach, Specs Powell, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich, and “Big Sid” Catlett.

Shaughnessy’s first lessons came from his scoutmaster, whom he remembered as being a good marching drummer. Ed then joined the school orchestra, and the director let him have a key to the music room so he could practice whenever he wanted. The young timekeeper also began lessons with the famed Bill West in New York. “Studying with Bill West wasn’t just hooking up with a fine drum teacher,” Shaughnessy said in Lucky Drummer. “It was hooking up with the New York scene, because everybody knew Bill West, and Bill West knew everybody.”

Shaughnessy had skipped second and seventh grades, so he graduated from high school when he was sixteen. In order to get a union card in New York City, you had to live there, so Ed moved to New York and got a job as a messenger for the phone company. By age seventeen he was working professionally as a drummer. But very soon he took a job with Bobby Byrne, who led a show band in New Orleans. “If you had a show band and there was a stack of music and no time to rehearse—you were going to do it with a talk-through—Ed would be the guy to have,” Roy Burns says. “He was the best show drummer I ever heard. He could read anything, and he was very flexible. A lot of guys specialize, but he could cover the gamut.”

After four months with Byrne, Shaughnessy returned to New York and landed gigs with trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist George Shearing. He also played a lot of jam sessions with such greats as Bud Powell, Gerry Mulligan, and Phil Woods.

Shaughnessy’s biggest break came in 1948, when he joined Charlie Ventura’s band, the top small group in the country. That led to his first endorsement with Slingerland drums. Ed said his drumset was based on Louie Bellson’s kit, but it included a set of bongos, and the two bass drums were of different sizes in order to get two different sounds.

After leaving Ventura in 1950, Shaughnessy was invited to do a European tour with Benny Goodman. Upon returning to New York, Ed worked with Lucky Millinder in a rhythm-and-blues band. He also worked with Charles Mingus and Tommy Dorsey. In 1952, when Louie Bellson needed to take some time off from Duke Ellington’s group, he asked Shaughnessy to sub for him for two months. That same year, the drummer played with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in a piece by Teo Macero called “Fusion,” which blended jazz with symphonic music. He also played with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet.

Shaughnessy then got a call to be the drummer for a daytime TV show hosted by Steve Allen. The show lasted only six months, but Ed became a staff musician at CBS, which led to some other shows, including Your Hit Parade, as well as recording opportunities. After about four years, however, he gave his notice, as many of the other staff musicians seemed to care more about golf than about music.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Shaughnessy worked with a variety of artists, including Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Mundell Lowe, Count Basie, Oliver Nelson, Etta Jones, Jimmy Smith, Clark Terry, and Jack Teagarden. “Ed could play great brushes at fast tempos,” Burns recalls. “Very few people knew that, because he didn’t get to play brushes much on The Tonight Show. But he made a number of jazz albums where brushes were a big part of it.”

In 1963, Shaughnessy was asked to sub for Bobby Rosengarden on The Tonight Show, which had a big band led by Skitch Henderson. At first he turned the job down because he had not previously enjoyed being a staff musician, but he agreed to take the gig for two weeks while the contractor looked for another drummer. “I started playing with the band,” Shaughnessy recalled in Lucky Drummer. “There were all these wonderful players, and the band sounded so good that I went home and said to my wife, ‘This is really a fun job.’” Shaughnessy told the contractor that he would like to take the gig, providing the contractor hadn’t already called someone else. The contractor replied that he had not made a single call.

“When a job has a specific group of demands,” Shaughnessy explained in a 1986 Modern Drummer cover story, “they usually know the person they want. On The Tonight Show, they needed a drummer who could play all styles well and convincingly, who was an excellent sight-reader and wouldn’t waste time, and, like on all jobs, who had a good attitude. I’d already had ten years in New York of all kinds of recording, and I had already made a couple of hundred albums. I was playing a lot of different kinds of music, but basically I was known as a creative drummer.”

In 1966 Shaughnessy began studying tabla with Alla Rakha. “Indian rhythms are a real trip for your head,” he told MD in a 1978 cover story. “It isn’t something a drummer would need in the workaday world, but it is immensely helpful.” When he played with Don Ellis, whose big band featured many unusual time signatures, Shaughnessy credited his Indian music knowledge with giving him the ability to sight-read the charts. And several years later, when Shaughnessy and Buddy Rich were scheduled to trade fours on The Tonight Show, they struck a deal: Ed made Buddy promise not to do a lot of crossovers, and Buddy made Ed promise not to play “that Indian ticky-tocky-ticky stuff in 25/4 that I don’t understand.”

In 1972, The Tonight Show relocated to Los Angeles. Shaughnessy was one of only four musicians in the show’s band, led by Doc Severinsen since 1967, to be invited to make the move. He remained the drummer on the program until host Johnny Carson retired in 1992. “Johnny is a wonderful man,” Ed told MD in 1992. “Many times he argued to keep that big band when NBC wanted to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by cutting it down to five pieces. He said, ‘No way—I stay, they stay.’ He was always so supportive.”

Shaughnessy said he was very grateful to be able to play with a high-class big band for twenty-nine years without having to go on the road and be away from his family. He was also grateful that in addition to all the great music the band played—mostly during commercial breaks when the TV audience didn’t hear it—he had the chance to accompany a wide variety of artists who appeared on the show. In his 1992 MD feature, he recalled playing with Louis Armstrong as a particular highlight, and also remembered the night he played with Jimi Hendrix. “His drummer, Mitch Mitchell, had gotten sick at the last minute,” Ed explained. “Instead of shopping around, Jimi asked if I would play with his trio.” Hendrix had two requests: “Play loud as hell, and give me a lot of cymbals.” Shaughnessy also cited B.B. King, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald as being enjoyable to play with.

When Shaughnessy needed time off from The Tonight Show, he would send in a sub, and in the early years in L.A. Colin Bailey and Louie Bellson often filled in. In later years Ed gave some younger drummers a chance to play, including Joe La Barbera, Jeff Hamilton, and Vinnie Colaiuta. “Ed had his ear to the ground,” La Barbera says. “He knew who was playing and kept track of the younger players.”

In addition to his Tonight Show gig, Shaughnessy led his own big band from 1974 to 1979. He also led a quintet and a medium-size band, Energy Force, and released the album Jazz in the Pocket in 1990.

Education was important to Shaughnessy, who first gave drum lessons in New York in 1952. For twenty consecutive summers Ed was artistic director at the Skidmore Jazz Institute in upstate New York, and he was a popular clinician. He wrote instructional articles for The Ludwig Drummer, Percussive Notes, DownBeat, and Modern Drummer; authored two instructional books; released an instructional video on big band drumming; and coauthored, with Clem DeRosa, a book/CD package titled Show Drumming: The Essential Guide to Playing Drumset for Live Shows and Musicals.

Shaughnessy sponsored a variety of scholarships to help young musicians advance their careers, including ones at North Texas State (Steve Houghton was the first recipient), Kansas State University, and the Skidmore Jazz Institute. In 2004 he was elected to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

“Ed had such a big heart; he would go out of his way to help people—especially young people,” Joe La Barbera says. “The last couple of phone calls I had from Ed involved doing something for somebody else. Ed heard that a drummer friend of ours was suffering from multiple sclerosis and had also lost his favorite Ludwig snare drum. Ed called Ludwig and said he wanted to buy a snare drum for this guy. Ed was with Ludwig for years and got all his stuff free, but he told Ludwig that this wasn’t for him—he wanted to buy it for someone else.

“The last phone call we had, Ed was looking for a student he could give a scholarship award to so the student could go to PASIC, because Ed felt that PASIC was a good experience for a young drummer. So I gave him a couple of names, and one of those students will be at PASIC, thanks to Ed.

“Ed used to refer to people he really cared about as being a mile wide,” La Barbera adds. “In other words, they had a big heart and were very generous. Ed Shaughnessy was also a mile wide.”

“We’re All In This Together”

Jeff Hamilton remembers the big sound—and even bigger heart—of Ed Shaughnessy.

I first met Ed when I was a student at Indiana University in the early 1970s. He had come in to do a homecoming show with Doc Severinsen. He was a guest of our marching band, which I was in, so I took the opportunity to ask him questions about some things I was having trouble with on drumset—during the football game! He and I went under the bleachers, and he taught me how to play a fast cymbal beat. I immediately was a better drummer. I thought, This guy is a genius!

I moved to Los Angeles in 1978. I went to The Tonight Show a couple of times just so I could hear the band. Later on, Louie Bellson reintroduced me to Ed, and Louie had talked me up quite a bit. Ed asked me if I played tennis and I said yes, so we started playing two or three days a week, and then he would tape The Tonight Show in the afternoon. The next thing I knew, he asked me to sub for him on The Tonight Show. That was a dream come true!

In recent years we had drummer lunches that often involved Jake Hanna, Louie Bellson, Frank Capp, Joe La Barbera, Paul Kreibich, Stan Keyawa at Pro Drum Shop, and the gentleman that puts it together, Bill Selditz. We still meet and reminisce about Ed, Jake, and Louie.

One of the things that knocked me out about Ed was that he was so willing to share information. He’d talk about how nice guys like “Big Sid” Catlett and Dave Tough were to him. The fraternity of drummers from that period was really something, and guys like Ed, Shelly [Manne], and Louie were trying to keep that going with the younger generation, like, “We’re all in this together.”

The main thing I think of when I think of Ed Shaughnessy is that he was so versatile, from being featured with Charlie Ventura when he was a very young man to the later things with Oliver Nelson, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Smith. He was very flexible in any situation, and that’s why he was so much in demand in the early days in New York. He played great small group with Teddy Charles and great big band with Count Basie.

He had a big sound, and I don’t mean in terms of volume, and he was identifiable, which is the best compliment you can give any jazz drummer. A lot of people just think of him as the Tonight Show drummer, but those who haven’t checked out what he did early on owe it to themselves to find out what kind of drummer he really was. He was a lot deeper than The Tonight Show.