This is not the definitive statement on drums, drumming and drummers in the Fifties. I hope that the readers will take it upon themselves to search out the records I’ve used in this article. Most of them are out of print in the form I used, but they’ve been reissued enough times that serious drummers can find them. It’s worth it. Music should be heard and experienced more than it should be written about.
I feel fortunate that I was able to speak with as many of the musicians as I did. I thank them for their time and knowledge and the readers will know who these musicians are as they read through the article.
I would also like to thank a few behind-the-scenes people who helped tremendously in this project: Hal Blaine, Buddy Harman, Jim and Cynthia Keltner, Honest Tom Pomposello, Sharkey Hall, and Jesse Sailes. Thank you for putting up with all of my questions and odd-hour phone calls! And special thanks for two gentlemen for tying up loose ends that would’ve been impossible to figure out: Willie Dixon and Fred Below.
Rock drumming was born of the culmination of two musical styles: blues and country/western. When historians discuss musical eras, rock for example, they refer to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, etc. What made the music of those individuals unique was the rhythmic aspect of the music. Far too little attention has been paid and credit given to the drummers that paved the way for each succeeding generation of musicians.
The purpose of this study is to highlight the styles, personalities, and contributions of the “key” drummers in rock: the “pioneers.” There have been many good bands in rock without exceptional drummers. There have been exceptional, creative and unique drummers in less than exceptional bands.
Guitarist B. B. King once referred to blues music as a “battery” that rock always ended up going back to for a recharge. To get a firm grasp of the roots of rock drumming, one must study the blues drummers.
There were many classic blues drummers including Elgie Edmonds, Baby Face Foster, Fred Below, Odie Payne, S. P. Leary, Francis Clay, and Al Duncan. Let’s take a look at the classic recordings of the blues artists that shaped rock and roll and study the evolution and contribution of the drummers and drumming.
Muddy Waters, a guitarist/singer/songwriter, migrated from Mississippi to Chicago. He was an acoustic guitarist and a slide player, influenced by Son House and the legendary Robert Johnson, who wrote some of the classic blues songs that are still being performed and recorded today. Muddy tried to perform in bars with just his acoustic guitar, but he soon found that playing in a noisy Chicago bar was much different than playing for people in the quiet of the Mississippi country life. So, Muddy began using an amplified guitar.
On “Kind Hearted Woman,” recorded in 1948, there are no drums at all. Muddy is playing an electric “slide” guitar, and Ernest “Big” Crawford is preparing the way for what would become “backbeat” drums. The bassist hits a note on beats one and three, and slaps the bass on beats two and four occasionally, while walking through the chord changes of the song. That same year, on “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” the bassist is deliberately slapping on beats two and four. Electric bass guitars were not being used at this time.
Baby Face Foster was added as a guitarist/drummer to Muddy’s band. In “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” (a song recorded by many British bands in the Sixties), the bass plays a minimal role, and there is a percussive clicking playing. Possibly this was Foster playing on the rim of a drum with sticks.
In June 1950, Muddy recorded “Louisiana Blues” with Little Walter on harp (a giant talent who was almost solely responsi ble for forming what would become the standard rock-band format), Crawford on bass, and Elgie Edmonds on drums. Edmonds wasn’t a spectacular drummer on these records but in all fairness, he had no role models.
Fred Below, a major drumming influence after Edmonds, told me that at the time of these recordings, Elgie was in his late 50s or early 60s. “See, Elgie had a style of playing for himself . . . and I had a more modern style. A lot of the things he was doing was from the old school of drumming. He kept his style and it didn’t change, and that’s why his style got kind of dated. He taught me a lot; showed me a lot of brushwork. He was a hell of a good brush player.” Below said that Edmonds was a better jazz drummer than a blues drummer.
The most important aspects of his playing, and of the whole Waters’ band at this time, was the feel of the music, which was laid back to the extreme! Sometimes, bars of music were left out. There wasn’t the now familiar four and eight bar phrases. The melodic phrasing of the singers and the instrumentalists created a sound that was, at times, difficult to follow, if one were accustomed to standard song structure.
Willie Dixon, a genius who wrote most of the classic blues songs, and both played bass and arranged many of the Chess sessions, told me, “A lot of those guys back in those days wasn’t even keeping time themselves. They didn’t go by the drummer no way, because if the drummer didn’t follow them—why it wouldn’t be no record! Because they wouldn’t follow the drummer no way.”
For example, it is impossible to snap your fingers on the two and four beats to “Louisiana Blues” because the position of beat one varies so often. Musicians have been trying to copy the feel of records like these since the Fifties without success. Muddy was asked about that feeling in a down beat interview. He said, basically, that feel was a result of social conditions that don’t exist anymore. “I came up through this scene that one day I eat, the next day I don’t. Ain’t got them kind of blues today.”
Muddy’s band recorded “Still a Fool” with Edmonds on bass drum only. This is a tough sounding record. The bass drum is stuffed or muffled, yet it retains a round, meaty sound. The song has a feel similar to some of the songs off the first Led Zeppelin album. It’s amazing how Elgie Edmonds was able to pull that off using just a bass drum.
Muddy again recorded without a drummer in 1951, but in February of ’52 we hear the full drumset being used on “Standing Around Crying.” Edmonds plays some interesting fills which are sloppy and sound uneasy. Several explanations as to why the full drumset hadn’t been used in Muddy’s records until 1952 can only be guessed at. The recording facilities were certainly available—although Chess might not have had such facilities—but more than likely, Elgie Edmonds was a drummer who had to fit in with musicians who’d never worked with a drummer before. Some of them had probably never really worked with a band before. So the drums entered into the picture slowly, a little at a time. On some recordings, Edmonds only used a snare drum.
One of the best writers on blues, Pete Welding, described the Waters band of this period: “The characteristic sound Waters and his band projected was loud and brutal, with all the instruments save drums electrically amplified almost to the threshold of pain. The beat was slowed down and heavily emphasized, particularly at first, when Waters utilized such naive drummers as Baby Face Foster and Elgie Edmonds. The music was hard, mean and magnificent, and the band generated a blistering undertow of rhythmic power that swept all before it in a tumbling rush of sound.”
While Muddy Waters’ band was growing strong, three young musicians were performing together in Chicago for three to four years. They were Louis and David Meyers on guitars, and Junior Wells on harmonica. One day, after they’d been performing for years without a drummer, using foot-stomping as a substitute. Elgie Edmonds (who was still with Waters’ hand) told Louis Meyers, “The way y’all play, y’all don’t need no drummer, but y’all do need a drummer so you won’t have to be stompin’ your feet. I know a boy just out the Army, he’d be a good drummer for y’all.” Enter Fred Below, a drummer who almost singlehandedly invented the book on Chicago-style blues drumming and was a major innovator in rock drumming.
I spoke to Fred Below at his home in Chicago and asked him about his drumming in the Fifties. “I began to work with Little Walter in the early Fifties. By working with Little Walter I was able to meet other blues artists. When I entered into the blues I wasn’t familiar with the tunes they were doing. I was coming strictly from jazz. I had to learn what they were doing by going around and meeting some of the players like Junior Wells, David and Louis Meyer. David and Louis was the ones who taught me how to play the blues.
“I went to school with (jazz musicians) Gene Ammons, Benny Green, and Johnny Griffin. I went into the Army and got out in 1950. All the fellows that I knew like Johnny Griffin, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson—they was so far out it was gone! I had to get back on the scene. All the players I knew weren’t in Chicago no more. They was on the scene with big white bands. There was no way for me to get in touch with anybody.
“I happened to run across drummer Elgie Edmonds who used to be with Muddy Waters. He introduced me to some of the players like Memphis Slim and T-Bone Walker. I really didn’t understand the kind of music that Muddy was playing then, but I was willing to learn, because at that time it was selling in the city. So, I just paid attention and learned how to play it! I established my way of playing it and it caught on with all the other blues guys. I had established a style that was from a jazz musician interpreting the blues in a different way. I established the backbeat.”
Louis Meyers described Fred Below’s first experience playing the blues in an interview in Bines Unlimited. “Below . . . tried to play with us but he couldn’t. He said, ‘I can’t play with y’all, tonight is my last night.’ I said, ‘Man, it’s funny you can’t learn to play blues and you say you can play jazz and all be-bop and stuff, it’s mighty funny you can’t play blues. I can play jazz and you can’t even play blues. You know there’s something wrong about that.’ So Below said, ‘Well I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna try it another two weeks. You talkin’ about I can’t play no blues and you can play jazz. I’m gonna learn to play the blues.’ Shoot. Man, it didn’t take Below two weeks to learn, but see, he had to get in there and create his own beat.”
To dispel the image of “uneducated” drummers. Fred Below was a graduate of the Roy C. Knapp School of Drumming in Chicago. Another graduate of that school, Hal Blaine, told me a little bit about the Knapp School: “You studied music appreciation and all the aspects of it like any other business. You were in the heart of Chicago which was Polka country. South Chicago was black stuff. The West side was Polish stuff and different ethnic groups. There was some Puerto Rican stuff and Mexican stuff. There was a lot of music around, and most of the guys that went to that school were interested in all of it. It was an eight hour-a-day school, five days a week. You had classes in sight reading, sight singing, and music appreciation. There was a band, and there was a get-together in a classroom that had a long table entirely covered in felt. The guys would sit with their sticks, side by side, and there would be twenty or thirty guys and everybody would be trading fours.”
Below said he found playing blues “very illuminating. What made blues fascinating with me was it was a type of music that I wasn’t familiar with and they didn’t teach it in school. I don’t think they do now! It’s an all together different style. I had to play it in a way that would make sense to me. I went to school to learn how to play well. A lot of drummers out here just pick it up and don’t really know what they’re doing. I’m able to adjust myself and play in all types of bands and music because, not only do I play it, I can read it. That’s where my musical experience is different from the average blues drummer. They don’t have any musical background. I brought a background of reading, writing, and a musical understanding into a blues music that didn’t really have any form to it.
“In the ’50s they used to play three bars or six bars. I came in and stretched the three bars to four bars. Where they played six I made it eight. I adjusted the music from the 1950s up to today.”
In the latter part of 1952. Muddy Waters added Willie Dixon on acoustic bass and Below on drums. On “She’s Alright” we hear the drumset recorded with heavy reverb. Below sounds uncomfortable, but the 12/8 ride-cymbal beat that became a trademark for slow to medium tempo blues songs can be heard here. In 1953 Muddy finally had the great band with Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Little Walter on harmonica. Otis Spann on piano. Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums. Every member was a major contributor to the evolution of blues. “I Want You To Love Me” displays a tight band that’s obviously been together a while. Below is playing sparingly here, and this is a great example of the drummer as a team player, so that the whole sound is near perfect.
The same band recorded “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (later re-recorded by The Rolling Stones) featuring a Muddy Waters trademark: stop time. In 1954, on “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready,” this band has crystalized the Chicago blues sound. “I’m Ready” gives us the first use of the ride cymbal and a heavy snare backbeat on two and four. Prior to this, time keeping had been left to brushes on a snare drum, or playing on a closed hi-hat, similar to Below’s technique on “Hoochie.” which is a stop time song using neither crash nor ride cymbals.
By 1956, the same band recorded again for Chess with a much looser feeling, probably from developing confidence. Below is adding more fills than ever before. On “Just To Be With You” we’re given the first taste of tom-tom fills, and Below is using his ride cymbal more than the hi-hat.
“I consider Odie Payne [who’ll be discussed later] and Below as the best two drummers we had in that time,” said Willie Dixon. “The early blues guys at that particular time—most of them was accustomed to just plain old backbeat drums. When a drummer go to putting in extra phrases in there—they didn’t feel it. At that time, when Fred was trying to get it together himself, he wasn’t always putting (the phrases) in as smooth. But, when you can put them in there smooth, then you don’t have any complications. Below and Payne both had a lot of experience. [Payne had also attended the Knapp School] We had plenty of discussions all the time (about what to play in a song). Sometimes some guy wanted an upbeat or a downbeat: a lick like this or a lick like that in certain places. They’d be carrying along the rhythm in one pattern, then all of a sudden you’d get a turnaround or an emphasis on certain things. We’d try to get something of emphasis in various patterns. These are the things that kept the songs smooth, because (the drummers) would always be trying to get the pattern to where the music would blend with it enough to make the words stick out.”
In 1952, Little Walter was recording under his own name for Chess with Muddy Waters on guitar, Jimmy Rogers, and Elgie Edmonds on drums. His recordings “completely revolutionized the role of the harmonica in the blues and added a new tonal dimension to the genre.” Edmonds plays quite a bit different than he did with Muddy Waters, adding some unusual hi-hat licks that possibly could’ve been the result of being recorded heavily with reverb. On “Juke,” Walter’s first commercial success, Edmonds plays a jazz-style ride on the hi-hat. He’s also accenting on the one and three beats with his snare drum, which gives the song a strange, out-of-time feeling. The phrase lengths are uneven, and the one beat doesn’t always fall in the same place.
On “Mean Old World” and “Sad Hours.” Edmonds is playing brushes without the accents on beats one and three. Instead, he maintains a straight quarter note feel, crashing a cymbal with the brush infrequently, and always on a one beat.
In 1953, Little Walter left Muddy Waters and joined up with Louis and David Meyers and Fred Below, and formed The Jukes, who later became The Aces.
This band with Below, Little Walter, and the Meyers brothers is thought by many people to be the band that paved the way for what would become rock and roll. At any rate, this band turned the heads of many, many people. Louis Meyers recalls: “We toured for years all over the U.S. playing auditoriums, dance halls, road houses, night clubs. Here we were with amplified music with a different thing altogether. We was playing out of big amplifiers and (the other bands) are sitting there playing horns and things with one or two mic’s, a ten-, twelve- or fifteen-piece band, but the people had to get up close to hear that. In the meantime, we had big amplifiers. Do you realize how strong an amplifier is just blowing an instrument out of if?
“Now you imagine we gone all amplifiers and here’s these cats still playing the old style, just sitting up there playing drive along- jimmy no amplifiers. I realized this at the time. We ran into quite a few bands out there with names that didn’t have a chance. If they played their set before we played, just call themselves lucky because the next set they go back on them peoples just boo them off the bandstand; wouldn’t let them play no more.
“Anything we play is gonna be heard whether it’s right or wrong. Walter was playing like forty horns, man. His amplifier would sound like that sometimes. It was an altogether new different type of stuff that the people was accepting because we was whippin’ it on ’em strong and sure. We was k i l l i n ‘ ’em, man. One time I read in a paper that Little Walter was the baddest band in the land and it wasn’t but us four. But we had something new and something different. And had we been men amongst ourselves we’d be strong right today; still be in a new bag with all the youngsters coming on—we’d still be playing something that the people would be enjoying from now on. But whatever we brought here, we wasn’t men enough to handle. We wasn’t men with ourselves.”
I asked Fred Below if he felt The Aces were more influential on rock and roll than Muddy Waters’ band. His answer, different from what many people believe, is enlightening because it makes sense: “The Aces had nothing to do with i t . Not no rock and roll. The group with Little Walter was kind of unique. The first group was with David and Louis and then they quit. The next group was with Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker. Rock and roll didn’t even come out until after the Little Walter group almost busted up. So that didn’t have nothing to do with it. It was rhythm and blues. At that time we were playing rock and roll with Luther Tucker and Robert Jr. in 1952 or ’53, not knowing what we was doing, ‘ t i l what we was doing became very popular. That was Little Walter, Robert Jr., and Luther Tucker. The Aces, with Louis and David Meyers, were playing altogether blues in a different style. And Robert Jr. and Tucker came in and changed a little style there and we was playing something else.”
I asked Below when he noticed the change to a straight-eighth note feel on drums. “That was back in 1953. A lot of places that we used to travel, the people was catching on to what we was doing. Then where there used to be places where it was very segregated, they started changing it over where the whites and blacks would be able to mix. And all this was back in 1953. “The drums really had a lot to play in the evolution of the music. It’s just like in a modern jazz band. The better the drummer is, the more he knows, the better the music sounds. See, you’ve got headliners like Gene Krupa. Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, and Kenny Clarke—that’s in the jazz. Those are the heavy guys that other drummers in that type of music look up to. Well, in the blues it’s the same way. It’s just never been to a point where anybody really took a look. Everybody thought they was doing it right but they weren’t. When I first started with Little Walter and we used to travel and were making records, every tune that we put out was a hit! And it was a hit because nobody at that time that was playing blues was really no headliner. They never thought that a harp and some guitars and a drum would sound and do the kind of music we was doing. We was playing the big auditoriums, man. stadiums and things like that, just with the three amps. That’s all. And they was small, not no great big room-size amps. Small amps!
“We used to go into very segregated white towns in the South and in the North, too. We’d be just surrounded with white youngsters and they’d be sitting right there trying to learn, and see, and watch, and do everything that we was doing, and try to understand the music. Because a lot of the stuff that we was doing was just plain old country stuff but we’d what you call ‘jazzed’ it up. And the only reason we jazzed it up is because a lot of the little things I used to stick into the music to change it! I was doing that because I knew jazz myself—and that’s what was happening.”
In 1953 this band recorded “You’re So Fine.” This is the first time we hear a shuffle rhythm. On “Blues With a Feeling,” an exceptional piece of music and a perfect example of a slow, 12-bar blues, Below’s ride cymbal is carrying the music. His bass drum is usually in unison with the cymbal. Below gets a chance to display some of his jazz roots in “Off The Wall.” He uses a lot of tom-tom fills, plays busier than in most other tunes, and uses dynamics very well. “Tell Me Mama” features more Below ingenuity, striking a woodblock with his right hand and the snare with his left.
The sound of “Too Late” will be of interest to fans of The Doors, particularly around the Morrison Hotel era.
Willie Dixon started recording with the band in 1954, and his authoritative bass playing freed up the whole band. The song “Blue Lights” is an exemplary blues record. Dixon is the anchor that allows Fred Below to be more explorative. By 1955, Below had his own style well under control, and he knew exactly when to lay into a backbeat and when he could be looser and play with a jazz feel. “I Got To Go” has Fred playing with a very fast-tempo ride beat on a closed hi-hat; the two beat on snare while the four and the and of four is played on the same tom-tom.
1955 was also the year Walter had a hit with “My Babe,” which has been recorded many times since. Below is on brushes, keeping time on the snare with accents on the two and four. Background singers are used on this great record, and we begin to hear the transition from blues to rock and roll. Other songs during this time period that Below stands out on are “Boom Boom, (Out Go The Lights),” “Little Girl,” “Who,” and “Fast Large One.”
In 1955, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, and Fred Below recorded with the predecessor to Little Walter in harmonica development, Sonny Boy Williamson. Below actually recorded with Sonny Boy intermittently until 1961. “Don’t Lose Your Eye” in ’55 features Below with some high-tuned drums, playing very loose. The band includes Willie Dixon on bass.
In 1957, Williamson, Below, Dixon, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker recorded “I Don’t Know.” This is an excellent example of tight blues ensemble playing. Nothing fancy—-just playing the right things at the right time! Later that year, with Otis Spann added on piano, the group recorded “Born Blind.” The lyrics “You’ve been talkin’ about your woman. I sure wish that you could see mine. Everytime the little girl start to lovin’, she brings eyesight to the blind,” were rewritten and used in “Eyesight To The Blind” in Tommy, The Who’s rock opera.
Below displays some excellent brushwork on a medium tempo blues “Sad To Be Alone” recorded in 1959.
Odie Payne does brushwork on “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” also in 1959.
While Willie Dixon was expounding on the merits of Below and Payne, he added, “You couldn’t skip out Al Duncan because Al Duncan was raising hell in those days. He came in way after Below and Payne because he came out of Kansas City.” Al Duncan is presently living in Los Angeles. “My era started around 1958 or ’59 when I came to Chicago from Kansas City. I came there with Jay McShann’s Orchestra. We had just put out a hit called ‘Hands Off,’ in 1955.” After speaking with some people at some of the record companies that were just starting, Duncan decided to stay in Chicago. “I got in on practically all the beginning Vee Jay rock records, and most of Chess’s beginning stuff. Then I just freelanced all the way with just about every company you could name.
“A lot of them people that I was recording with—I didn’t even know their names. I was pretty busy. I’d go in the sessions, do the session, leave out of one studio into another. A lot of the people I recorded with didn’t quite make it big. Then, a lot of them didn’t make it at all! I worked with Chuck Berry, but I didn’t do too much recording with him.”
Like most of his contemporaries. Al Duncan was coming from a jazz background. “I prefer jazz. I got off on the rock thing and it was paying off, so I stuck with it. I worked with Basie and Duke for a short while, but most of the stuff I did around Chicago was all with rock cats. I wound up in the Regal Theater with Red Saunders Orchestra as house drummer for two and a half to three years. Back in those days they had black theaters for the black artists who had to work the black circuit. By being the house drummer I got to play with just about everybody you can name back in those days: The Miracles. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye. Everybody came through there.”
Howling Wolf—born Chester Burned—has had great impact upon the course of blues in the years following World War II. His early recordings—often derived from the work of older musicians of the Mississippi delta region—possessed an almost overwhelming power. He established himself as an individual and powerful performer in the modern rhythmand-blues style. His music has worn well. It seems less affected by the exigencies of the commercial record world than that of any of his peers, and it retains to this day much of the dark, burning force of his early recordings.
That proceeded an interview by Pete Welding in down beat magazine in the Sixties when Howlin’ Wolf was still alive. Wolf came from a rural background and it wasn’t until 1948 that he formed his first band with two guitars, a harp player, a piano player and a drummer named Willie Steele. This band recorded in Memphis for Sun Records when it was primarily a blues label, and those sessions were leased and later sold to Chess records in Chicago.
Chess signed Wolf to a contract and in the winter of 1952. He moved up from the south to The Windy City. “I left the other guys back in West Memphis and came up to Chicago by myself—they was afraid to take the chance. I sent for Willie Steele but he had to go into the Army, and he decided to make a career of it. He’s still in the Army.”
Howlin’ Wolf was active from 1953 until the mid-Sixties and recorded songs that were covered many times in the Fifties. Sixties, and are still being done today. Some of the more familiar titles are “Smokestack Lightning,” “How Many More Years,” “Little Red Rooster.” “I Ain’t Supersitious.” “Do The Do,” “Built For Comfort.” “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy,” “Killin’ Floor,” “Forty-Four,” “Evil,” and “Sittin” On Top Of The World.”
He used many drummers during those years: Fred Below. Earl Phillips, Sammy Lewis, S. P. Leary, Sam Lay, Junior Blackman, and Clifton James. We know a great deal about Fred Below, Clifton James will be discussed later in this article, and I was unable to contact or get any information on Earl Phillips. Junior Blackman. and Sammy Lewis. Sam Lay might be better known to MD readers as the first drummer with the Butterfield Blues Band, and we’ll discuss him further in the Sixties.
Of his own music, Wolf told Pete Welding: “I went to school for my chords and positions on guitar after I got (to Chicago). See, I didn’t know my positions when I was playing those slow blues, but over the last few years I went to the Chicago Music School and they taught me my positions. Some of those numbers are just on one chord. There’s no changes to them: that’s something I got from the old music.”
P. Leary played drums with Wolf (among most of the other blues musicians at that time) and recorded with him from 1957 to 1959. “I played jazz when I first started off but mostly on blues tunes. Most of the jazz I played was when I was in the Army with Cannonball Adderly and his brother Nathaniel. Junior Mance and those guys. But since I’ve been back out on the streets I’ve been playing the blues most all my life. I’m just a blues drummer. Period. That’s it.
“I worked with Muddy Waters for about fourteen years, and I played with Wolf for about nine years. I was with one to the other. They kept me in a crisscross. I always had a style of my own. Either they liked it or they didn’t like i t . A bandleader’s going to let you know what they want you to do. All you have to do is do the job they want you to do. I never had too much trouble with either one of those fellows.”
When asked what drummers influenced him. S. P. said. “Art Blakey, Louie Bellson, and Gene Krupa. Art Blakey is my favorite drummer then and now. I want you to understand that very clear. Blakey gave me my first pair of drumsticks, man, when he was playing with Billy Eckstine. I think I was fourteen or fifteen.” As for a preference between blues and jazz, Leary said this: “I like them both, man. I like them all. I can go all the way back from hillbilly music and Dixieland stuff. Playing the blues is complicated for some fellows. I didn’t have no trouble. Art Blakey saw to that. Do your thing. Do your thing. In other words, you’re not supposed to lay up there and be Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich or Max Roach! The main thing that you have to thrive on is to drive a band. See, I’m a driving drummer. A driving blues drummer. I play things that the jazz drummers cannot play. Take “Hoochie Coochie Man.” I don’t believe you could take Max Roach and put him up there to play that. Or Buddy Rich!
“I don’t think I had a real tough time because of T-Bone Walker. He was my godfather. He used to come pick me up when I was fourteen years old and take me with him to play. I listened to things that Art Blakey or Louie Bellson would tell me. I was raised up by guys that was older than I am. so it wasn’t no sweat.”
Howlin’ Wolf’s best recorded works were from 1953 until 1964 on Chess records. On “Forty-Four” and “Spoonful” the drummer is playing a shuffle rhythm on a closed hi-hat and accent on the snare. There was a noticeable lack of ride cymbal use in Wolfs music. On “Killin’Floor,” Clifton James seems to be playing a cowbell and tom-toms simultaneously.
“Back Door Man” will be of interest to those who are familiar with the version recorded by The Doors.
The sound of the whole band on “Three Hundred Pounds” is a much more polished sound than most of Wolfs other records. “Three Hundred Pounds” is one of those recordings with tight horn arrangements, a crisp Latinish beat, that foreshadowed the rock and roll to follow. Sam Lay was on drums.
Bo Diddley came along as a contemporary of Chuck Berry. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock called him “One of the key figures in the development of rock music. His first single, ‘Bo Diddley,’ a self-composed anthem to himself, released at the same time as Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene.’ was a major U.S. hit in 1955 and introduced one of the most basic and famous rift’s in rock music.” That riff came to be known as “The Bo Diddley Beat.” It is an infectious rhythm that has been used over and over again. The drummer that recorded some with Diddley and toured most of the time with him was Frank Kirkland, who is now dead. But, to find the drummer on the original Bo Diddley records was a detective mystery.
I asked Willie Dixon, who answered: “That was Clifton James. When Bo Diddley first came to the Chess studios he was with Clifton James, and they had been working in the street together. That was in the early ’50s. I was on all those sessions for Bo Diddley on Chess. That actually was Clifton James’ idea of a beat more than it was Bo Diddley’s at that time. But, after Bo Diddley got strung out with it and got named with it, why, he just had to keep it up. Out of all the different drummers that Bo Diddley ever had. He never had one that pleased him more than Clifton James.
“See, when they first came to the studio to record, Bo was more interested in selling himself with his particular style of playing an instrument. But. when we went to recording it—by mixing the two of them together, they had such a beautiful thing that one was actually no good without the other. Cliff had this beautiful style. They had been working all up and down the street, passing the hat. and they just had it down together. And Clifton James would insist on putting a lot of things in there that I don’t think Bo was accustomed to at that particular time. But it set in there so beautiful that we started featuring that drumming. And that drumming, along with the lick that Bo Diddley had, made it a beautiful beat. It was a working thing together, but Cliff, I think, was the instigator of that particular beat.
“He had a way of getting the proper sound. Most people get on a bunch of drums and they don’t tune their drums. This guy came up tuning his drums. I remember a couple of sessions where we wondered what he was doing. But, after he got it together, he could play around the drums with the sticks and play certain tunes. That’s when we really realized that he had something cooking for him. One drum would go high, the other low, and the other was medium. They had beautiful tones to them.”
Mr. Dixon gave me a number where he thought I could reach Clifton. I called the Ace Hose & Rubber Company in Chicago, left the MD phone number, and the next morning Clifton James called. He was a beautiful person over the phone and was kind enough to spend some time from his work to talk about his association with Bo Diddley.
“I’m his original drummer. We started out together. I’m the one that gave him that beat.” How did that beat develop? “I don’t know. It just came to me. I met Bo and we started playing together in clubs here in Chicago for little or nothing. Matter of fact it was nothing! Five and six dollars. Crap like that.”
Sometimes Clifton wouldn’t use a hi-hat cymbal in the studio and concentrated more on his tom-tom work. He was influenced at that time by “Max Roach, Gene Krupa, and Cozy Cole. But, I had my own ideas.”
Clifton has been performing recently in Chicago with Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Wolf, Jr. “I had really stopped playing,” he said. “I don’t play no more really. They’re trying to ease me back into it, but I don’t think I’ll go. The money’s not right. There’s been a couple of tunes I recorded with Bo that I got my session money, but I didn’t get any royalty money from the records that I wrote. So, this is what kind of turned me off too.”
Jerome Green, the maraca player with Bo. was an integral and important part of his sound. It’s interesting to see and hear how he and the drummers used to work off each other rhythmically. “Jerome was playing with us the whole time when we was making them little four and five dollars a night. That was the original band. We called ourselves Ellis McDaniel and The Hipsters.” Clifton recalled.
Fred Below spoke with me shortly after the conversation with Clifton James and made this statement: “You know the tune called ‘Bo Diddley?’ Well, the beat was mine. But I didn’t make the record. We used to work around with Bo over there at the 708 Club when Bo Diddley first started playing. We used to get on the bandstand and play i t . Then it got so good that Bo Diddley said, “Well, let’s (record) it.’ A lot of the guys got most of that (tom-tom) work from me because I played the tom-tom all the time.”
I’d asked Clifton James if he’d associated with other blues drummers in Chicago at the time. “Yeah, I did. The only ones would talk most would be me and Below. He was my favorite. That’s my partner, man, all the way. When we would talk and trade licks mostly is when I’d meet him. like up in a club or something where he’d be playing. Then we would exchange questions. And sometimes in the studio.” When asked to describe his style of drumming. Clifton said. “I never really did want to play like nobody else. Because if I did that then that wouldn’t be me! If you play like somebody else then it’s not you. I wanted my own thing; my own style of playing.”
The classic Bo Diddley songs are “Bo Diddley.” “I’m a Man,” “Mona,” “Who Do You Love?” “You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover,” and “Road Runner.” According to the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock: “Both (Bo Diddley’s) songs and sound were covered extensively, and in the British beat boom, with many going to R&B sources for their material, his work was extensively plundered. The Rolling Stones put “Mona” on their first album. The Yardbirds recorded “I’m A Man,” and Eric Burdon & The Animals revived “The Story of Bo Diddley.”
On “Bo Diddley,” notice Clifton James’ tom-tom work with Jerome Green on maracas. In “I’m A Man” the maracas are sometimes in unison, sometimes counter to what the drummer is doing. Quarter notes on bass drum. On “Pretty Thing” there’s a variation on the Bo Diddley beat. “You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At The Cover,” is a standard blues beat. Maracas and cymbals are playing opposite each other. It works. On “Who Do You Love,” Bo had a very raunchy sound. A classic rock beat.
Chuck Berry has often been overlooked, especially in recent years, for his contribution to rock and roll. In 1953, Berry was leading a blues band in St. Louis. “His gimmick was to cut the blues with country-influenced humorous narrative songs.” In describing Berry’s music and influence, Robert Christgau wrote “…Berry’s limited but brilliant vocabulary of guitar rift’s quickly came to epitomize rock ‘n’ roll. Ultimately, every great white guitar group of the early Sixties imitated Berry’s style. Berry was the first blues-based performer to successfully reclaim guitar licks that country and western innovators had appropriated from black people and adapted to their own uses twenty-five or fifty years before. By adding blues tone to some fast country runs, and yoking them to a rhythm and blues beat and some unembarrassed electrification, he created an instrumental style with bi-racial appeal.”
Chuck Berry came to the attention of Chess Records through Muddy Waters, and Berry recorded his classic material from 1955 to 1958 at Chess. The first session included drummer Jaspar Thomas and Bo Diddley’s maracca man. Jerome Green. Not much is known about Thomas other than that he was from St. Louis (the same as Chuck Berry) and a few of the heavy Chicago blues drummers remember him. “Maybelline” has Thomas playing basic backbeat drums and Green playing maraccas on top in the same manner he played on Bo Diddley’s records. Likewise on “Thirty Days.” In 1956 Fred Below shows up on “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”
Below adds a touch of sophistication to the drumming. His sound is cleaner than Thomas’, and he adds more fills (tastefully) to complement what the rest of the band is playing, and to add more color to the music.
In 1957, Below is still listed as being the drummer on “Rock And Roll Music.” “Johnny B. Goode.” “Oh. Baby Doll,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” In searching for who-played what on the Chuck Berry records, I ran into a few conflicting reports. Willie Dixon was the bass player on these sessions and he said: “Well, on the first session I’m practically sure it was Below, and I think Al Duncan got in on a couple of Chuck Berry sessions, too.” So I asked Al Duncan, and he told me this: “I didn’t do too much for Chuck. I worked with Chuck but I didn’t do too much recording with him. I can’t remember who Chuck’s drummer was. I did a couple of things with him but I’m not sure what they was.” And Fred Below said: “I think I was on the first session. But, ‘Johnny B. Goode’—I didn’t do that one.”
Odie Payne said, “I only played with Chuck Berry on two sessions. Personally, I think I know you better than I do Chuck (and this was the first time Odie and I had ever spoken). When I came into the studio I never met the man before. I was on “School Days” and then a year or two after that he made a session. I know they had a couple of drummers. I was on one of them, but I forgot the name of that tune.”
So with that mixed bit of information, the sound of those varied drummers, and my ears, I put on Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits to try to come to a conclusion. Al Duncan admitted, “I did so many things at that time that I can’t remember none from the other” and I think it’s safe to assume that most of these other drummers have similar memories. Also, they didn’t realize at the time that they were recording music that was destined to become classic rock and roll. To them it was just another session.
But in 1957, Below plays some amazingly musical drums. The sound of his drums (if it is Below) is much “fatter” and deep sounding on “Rock And Roll Music” than on any other Chuck Berry record. Actually, it’s “fatter” and more deep sounding than on any of the blues records he played on. During the B section he does some nice cymbal and/or cowbell work.
“Johnny B. Goode” is the first Berry recording where the cymbal is used throughout the whole song. There’s no riding on the hi-hat. According to the discography supplied by Chess records, the drummer is Fred Below, but according to Below it isn’t him! Sound-wise it could easily be Fred, and since he was the drummer on those other four hits (plus other recordings with Berry) during 1957, it may be a session that Below forgot about.
On the Rolling Stones’ last tour, guitarist/songwriter Keith Richards was interviewed in Creem magazine. The writer asked him if he still listened to Chuck Berry. Richards said, “Yeah, sure. I’ve got everything great that he’s done with me now. I carry it with me.” To which the writer replied. “Somebody told me the other day ‘How is it possible that after twenty years (Keith) still listens to Chuck Berry for new ideas?'” Keith Richards said, “That’s answered by ‘Why do a certain number of new young bands wanna play and sound like the old Stones?’ The reason is the same. It’s something that you’re brought up with and lived with…it’s part of your life. There is no reason to get rid of it. It’s not something that you get sick of after a few hearings. That stuff is timeless.”
On “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Below drops in a fill around his drumset that became a standard fill for drummers in the Sixties. This song was lyrically rewritten and recorded as “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys in the Sixties, and I believe the drummer used the same fill as is on this record.
“Memphis” was recorded in 1958 and it gives us the first chance to hear the tom-tom work of Below. This entire song is played without cymbals and it’s interesting to hear it and consider the cross influence between Below and Bo Diddley’s drummer, Clifton James.
That wraps up the blues influence to this point. We’ve seen how drummers progressed from being jazz drummers fitting into blues, and then developed a concept and style of blues drumming that had a tremendous impact on rock and roll.
In “The History of Rock Drumming: Part II” we’ll see how country music influenced rock. From the 1935 band of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys up until the Sixties we’ll follow the drummers who played with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other artists at Sun Records in Memphis. And we’ll also see how blues and country blended into rock and set the stage for the explosion of music and drumming in the Sixties.