His students know he’s experienced, but it’s doubtful that many realize just how experienced drummer Johnny Blowers is. In a career that spans six decades, Blowers has recorded with jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, Red Norvo, Yank Lawson, and Bob Haggart. He’s also drummed with big bands led by Bunny Berigan, Ben Bernie, Woody Herman, Jan Savitt, Billy Butterfield, Artie Shaw, and Sy Oliver. For five years, he was staff musician at CBS. He also spent seven-and-a-half years at NBC and two-and-a-half years at ABC.
Blowers was on the date when Billie Holliday recorded her classic “Lover Man,” when Ella Fitzgerald did “Try A Little Tenderness,” and when Louis Armstrong cut “Blueberry Hill” and “La Vie En Rose.” Ask Frank Sinatra about Johnny Blowers. Their association on recordings, broadcasts, and concert dates lasted for ten years.
Kenny Davern, the great soprano sax and clarinet player, recently introduced Blowers as the drummer who has probably played and recorded with more jazz and pop notables than any other living drummer in the East.
Blowers started drumming before movies could talk. And he was there when the first stereo jazz album was cut. But when he ripped into his solo on “Caravan” at last year’s Kool Jazz Festival—a number he had first performed with Bunny Berigan 45 years earlier—he seemed ageless.
“I never wanted to do anything but play music. My mother insisted, ‘If you’re going to be a drummer, you’ve got to know more than that.’ She insisted that I study piano, and I studied for five years. I was glad for the simple reason that, when you study piano, you study both clefs. That was a great help to me.”
Blowers came by the drums naturally. There were no teachers in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he was born in 1911, but his father played drums in the pit orchestra of the local theater, accompanying touring vaudeville artists, dramatic companies, and minstrel shows. Blowers watched his father play, and began drumming at age eight. In his teens, he began filling in from time to time in the orchestra.
“My father sure wasn’t going to teach me. He’d say, ‘The student never pays any attention to the parent.’ But there weren’t any teachers in Spartanburg. However, I knew everything that Red Nichols and the Five Pennies played. And I knew everything the Dorsey Brothers played. I could sit down with a set of drums and play right along. I knew everything. That’s the way I learned those things. Also, I got all the books on drumming that I could.
“The drum is recognized now as one of the most difficult instruments to perform on, for the simple reason that you must be coordinated in all four limbs. You don’t have to be in order to play trumpet or saxophone. But with drums, you’re using both feet and both hands, and they have to coordinate with one another. That’s why you can study drumming for a long time before you find out that you just can’t do it. Some people are just not coordinated. When I get new students, I tell the parents right off, ‘It will take between two and three months to find out just how coordinated they are.”
In 1934 and ’35, Blowers free-lanced in Atlanta, Georgia. Then he joined Bob Pope’s Orchestra, and toured the South and Midwest. Pope’s was good enough as a territory band for RCA Bluebird to record it. In 1935, Blowers got to meet Dave Tough and Gene Krupa, when the bands they were in hit the South.
“I was greatly impressed with Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Ray McKinley. Jo Jones with Count Basie also impressed me. I also liked a small band with Zutty Singleton and Roy Eldridge that used to perform at a little place called The Three Deuces in Chicago. I used to hear them on the radio about 1:00 in the morning.”
Blowers knew that, if he really wanted to make it as a musician, he had to go to New York. He can still empathize with the plight of the musician trying to get established in New York.
“My mother used to write, ‘How are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m doing great…” I used to eat three bowls of soup a day when I first got to New York. That was my menu morning, noon, and night. We found an old German restaurant over on 10th Avenue. For 15 cents, you’d get a large bowl of vegetable soup, along with a big basket filled with bread and plenty of butter.
“I used to go to the dime-a-dance halls. They had a lot of them on Broadway, and I’d buy a dollar’s worth of tickets. All I wanted to do was edge up to the bands and watch them play. When they’d take an intermission, I’d try to talk to the drummers. I’d say, ‘You know, I’m in town, and it’s really tough. I can play everything, and I was wondering if I could sit in.’ They’d say, ‘No way. The best thing you can do with those tickets is use them to dance.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t want to dance,’ but they would still insist that there was no sitting in.” However, knowing someone who knew someone made all the difference. A piano player named Fred DeLand who was Blower’s friend from Atlanta, came up to New York and stayed with him. The two headed down to Nick’s in the Village, a celebrated musicians’ hangout.
“The band got up on the stand and DeLand said, ‘John, I think I know that trombone player. His name is George Brunies.’ Later Brunies asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t get myself arrested.’ He said, ‘Well the guy drumming here will let anybody sit in, as long as he gets the money.’ So he introduced me, and I sat in. It was the thrill of my life. Bobby Hackett and Bud Freeman walked in. Charlie Barnett came in to have a drink, and Jimmy Dorsey came in. There was also a singer by the name of Red McKenzie. Well, after we finished the set, McKenzie walked over and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘Nothing. I’m just living from hand to mouth.’ He said, ‘Well you’re not going to be out of work long!”
Six weeks later, McKenzie invited Blowers to join the new band being formed to play at Nick’s. Led by trumpeter Bobby Hackett, it also included George Brunies, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, and Dave Bowman. Blowers made his first recordings in New York, and soon afterwards, he cut sides with Teddy Wilson. The Hackett band made guest shots on the Saturday Night Swing Session, a major CBS radio show, and also appeared in a 1938 motion picture based on that show.
“God, it’s amazing when I look at it. I came to New York in 1937, and what happened to me happened so fast that it was like a whirlwind. Gene Krupa was writing for Metronome, and he mentioned me several times in there. People were asking questions like, ‘How do you keep the hi-hat cymbal from moving like that?’ And he said, ‘Well, Johnny Blowers, down at Nick’s in the Village, puts an ice pick either in front of it or in back of it to hold it still.’ I began to get mail on that. All these things were greatly helpful. In one year, all kinds of things happened. When I went into Nick’s, I didn’t know anyone. Six months later I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. I became friends with all of them. Then I was being written up in down beat, and in Metronome. It’s amazing how that carries.
“Around March of 1938, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa had a disagreement. Gene left Benny’s band to organize his own. Dave Tough was working with Bunny Berigan. Benny Goodman liked Dave, so he immediately offered Dave enough money to get him out of the Berigan band and into his own. Well, this left Berigan wide open. Red McKenzie knew about it and called Bunny. He came down one night and listened to us without saying anything. About three days later, McKenzie called me and said, ‘Bunny Berigan is going to offer you the job.’ ”
If McKenzie hadn’t pushed him, Blowers might never have made the move. He found that he was just a touch frightened about hitting the big time so quickly. “Replacing Dave Tough was a dream. I said, ‘Red, I can’t take the job, because I don’t have the confidence. I can’t play with that big band.’ McKenzie said, ‘You can play with that band. It will do you a lot of good, because you’re not going to hang around here and stay with a jazz band like this all your life.’ So, I went with the band. My first recording date with Bunny was April 21, 1938.”
Berigan was considered the premier white jazz trumpeter of his generation, and he always had great drummers. In 1937-38, Berigan had George Wettling, Dave Tough, Blowers, and Buddy Rich. “It was a good band and a whole new environment for me. I practiced during the day. I studied the arrangements, and I seemed to fit into the band fine.
“I’m glad I did go. I learned another kind of playing—a different approach. In a small band, you do more fill-ins, because you’re making up for the brass and saxophone sections. In the big bands, you don’t have as much leeway. You can’t improvise as much; you’ve got to read the chart. But I enjoyed it very much. I had good time, which is very important, because without that you haven’t got anything.
“I also got a chance to practice with the other great big band drummers. I practiced with Dave Tough, Cozy Cole, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, and Gene Krupa. We practiced rudiments. I learned a great deal from all of them. Cozy was with Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theater. We’d get a chair or a bench, and put a pillow on it. I’d sit on one side, he’d sit on the other, and we’d practice like mad between shows.
“At that time, drums were being featured more. They were coming out of the background. Krupa’s record ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ took drummers out from behind the bands and put them in the limelight. From then on, every leader was looking for something good for a drummer to do as a solo. I did ‘Caravan’ with Bunny Berigan. Ray McKinley did ‘Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.’ Dave Tough did some solos. Dave didn’t like solos at all. He just detested them, but naturally, he had to do them. He did some with Tommy Dorsey, and he did some with other small bands that he worked with. But the drummer was becoming more and more prominent.
“I stayed with Bunny until the situation began to get kind of bad. I mean his drinking problem got worse, and a lot of things were going on in the band. Bunny was never really a leader. He was delightful to work for, but when you’re running an organization, you’ve got to tend to business. Business was getting out of hand, because his drinking was getting in the way. There were a lot of disagreements with management over finances and things like that. There were little shady deals here and there, so I left.”
Ben Bernie was coming out of retirement to form a young swing band, and Blowers went with Bernie for a year and a half. One of his first recordings was a feature called “Drummer’s Day.”
“It’s a little easier drumming for a big band than it is with a small band, because the chart is written. Your work is done for you. Sometimes it gets a little bit sticky if the band begins to drag when you want it to move. You’ve got to have a good, strong rhythm section. But you find out when you play that the big band will have a tendency to lay back a bit on the beat, and you’ve got to push them a little harder. Other bands will play right up on top of the beat. You can’t tell until you’re in the band. If you have the experience, you’ll know which way to go.”
Blowers next stayed with Jan Savitt’s big band for six weeks. “I was going to stay longer, but I didn’t want to travel anymore.” When Savitt left New York City for a road tour, Blowers stayed behind, accepting an offer to become a CBS staff musician. He didn’t mind the studio work because his colleagues at CBS included sidemen from various top big bands, such as Will Bradley, Pee Wee Erwin, Hymie Schertzer, Chris Griffin, and Lou McGar- ity. In the meantime, he continued to do jazz work in clubs, concerts, and on recording dates.
He also continued to take lessons. For young professionals, he stresses that one is never too old to learn. One of his best teachers, he recalls, was Al Brummel. “Al was with the Metropolitan Opera, and he was a fine drummer. I studied timpani with him. Then I went over to Fred Albright, and studied vibes and xylophone so I could do the studio work I was called to do. I worked under Howard Barlow with the Columbia Symphony. They just put me on the schedule; they didn’t ask. And you know, those things scare you to death. I went to the contractor and said, ‘Look, I’m not a symphony drummer. I’m just an ordinary jazz drummer.’ He said, ‘You’re better than that. You can do it.’ And it worked out very well.”
Blowers states that young drummers can learn and practice by themselves, if need be, although he strongly recommends that they find the best teachers they can. “Get a good teacher that you like and can get along with. It is very important to like your teacher’s approach, to have faith in your teacher, and to like the things you do together. It’s also important to practice everyday.”
Blowers tells a story to illustrate the importance of picking a teacher with care. “I had a student who enrolled in The Manhattan School of Music, and he was playing the drumset very well. He was working with a very brilliant and wonderful teacher on the snare. But he wanted to work on the set and constantly kept asking the teacher, ‘When are we going to do something on the set?’ The teacher kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about the set.’ Well finally, near the end of the semester, he pinned the teacher down and said, ‘When we go into the second semester, are we going to be working on the set?’ He backed the teacher up against the wall until the teacher finally said, ‘I don’t play the set.’ ”
Blowers also did many radio shows. He had a medical exemption from the service, but he played hospital gigs, accompanying Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor as they sang for servicemen. He recorded a slew of V-Discs (recordings made for distribution to members of the armed forces) with Red Norvo’s Band, and appeared in a motion picture with that band.
“I made V-Discs with Yank Lawson and Billy Butterfield. I was making V-Discs with everybody in the world. I made V-Discs with Lionel Hampton, Woody Her- man, and so many different guys. We were making them all during the night. I made V-Discs at dates that started at 2:00 in the morning. All the top musicians in the country made these V-Discs.”
After the war, the big bands began to fade as public attractions. Blowers made many commercial record dates with Dick Haymes, Jo Stafford, Margaret Whiting, and other vocal stars of the period. But he always made time for the small band jazz he loved, playing everywhere from Town Hall to Eddie Condon’s Club. However, the money was in playing softly behind pop singers and working under conductors like Axel Stordahl and Nelson Riddle.
The one singer with whom Blowers was most closely associated was Frank Sinatra. Blowers was the drummer on Sinatra’s first solo radio show, which CBS presented in 1942. Over the next ten years, Blowers worked on all of Sinatra’s radio programs.
“My association with Frank was one of the best that I probably will ever have with any other human being. I don’t think I could have had a brother that I would have gotten along with better. He’s a perfectionist, and he pulls no punches. He makes himself plain. If you play, you stay with him. If you can’t play, you don’t last 15 minutes. But we had some great times together. In between the radio shows, we’d go off and do three days at a theater in places like Atlantic City or Miami. That was great fun. I enjoyed working with Sinatra very much. In 1952, he left New York to act in From Here To Eternity. The movie spurred a renewed interest in his career, and he relocated out West. Irv Cottier then became his regular drummer.”
For several years, Blowers was associated with Eddie Fisher, whose singing career in the early ’50s was hotter than Sinatra’s. Fisher’s TV shows were broad- cast from New York, though Blowers made some trips with Fisher for concert dates.
At one time or another Blowers played all of the top shows: Ed Sullivan, The Kraft Music Hall, and he drummed on Nat King Cole’s pioneering TV variety show. He taught Dave Garroway how to play the drums, and he sat in with many top name bands on ABC’s Bandstand, which was something of a last hurrah for big bands on television.
Gradually, the people running the net- works changed, and Blowers found that the work was going to new drummers. More and more he found his livelihood coming from the work he had always enjoyed, which was playing with smaller jazz bands in clubs and concerts.
He toured with Sy Oliver in 1970, and from 1970 to ’73, he worked on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, appearing in an onstage quartet with fellow jazzmen Taft Jordan, Aaron Bell, and Bob Curtis. In 1976 to ’77, he played with The World’s Greatest Jazz band and moved into the 1980s by heading to Holland with trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin. He’s also done many dates with his own Giants Of Jazz.
Blowers noted that anyone intending to make a career of drumming had better be flexible, and must learn the drums inside and out. His own career is a testimonial to that.
In his career, Blowers has seen the creation and disappearance of job category after job category. Today, one can no more expect to find work as a network staff musician than as a player in a pit orchestra for traveling vaudeville units and minstrel shows. Blowers saw the rise and fall of big bands. He saw radio boom and then all but vanish as a source of employment for musicians. He successfully made the switch into television, playing many top shows emanating from New York, and then he saw TV all but leave New York.
Today, he teaches young people how to become better drummers, and advises young drummers to be ready to play every kind of music, whether it’s music they like or music they don’t like, as well as to expect the industry to keep changing in ways no one can possibly predict.
“Participate in everything that goes on in school. Play the shows, the football games, play in a jazz band, play in a rock band—whatever. You’ve got to get the exposure. As well as I played in New York City in 1937, for God’s sakes, if I didn’t get any exposure, I would have remained unknown for the rest of my life.”