Just because Larrie Londin lives in Nashville, doesn’t mean he’s a country drummer. Oh, he doesn’t mind being considered a country drummer, but he minds being looked upon as just a country drummer. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, he does play country music, but he also plays so much more! Indeed there are some studio drummers who become identified with one style of music and there are some whose mastery of a multitude of styles paves the way for a varied studio career. For some unknown reason, Larrie has often been looked upon as the former, when, in fact, he is of the latter description.
There really doesn’t seem to be a kind of musical project that Larrie hasn’t executed. His career began with R&B recordings of the early Motown days. Since then, he has recorded with artists of diverse styles, including country, bluegrass, pop, rock and all possible combinations of those styles. Londin has recorded with such noted artists as Roy Clark, Charlie Rich, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Hank Williams, Jr., Crystal Gayle, Lester Flan, Burt Reynolds, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Dan Hill, England Dan and John Ford Coley, the Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, Dr. Hook, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Albert Lee, Rosanne Cash and Linda Ronstadt.
Recently, Larrie managed to still surprise many when he recorded and toured with Adrian Belew, performing jazz fusion at its best. However, all you really have to do to see this drummer’s capabilities is be present at one of his clinics. With dynamic solos combining rock, blues, jazz and country elements, he manages to dispel any preconceived ideas of what a Nashville studio player is and is not.
RF: How is it that you do such a variety of recording, yet you are considered a country drummer?
LL: Well, I don’t mind being considered a country drummer.
RF: But that’s not totally accurate.
LL: If the hit records you appear on are all of the same style, often you will be labeled and that will be all you’ll get called for. It bothers me in the sense that I don’t like to be labeled that way. I just want to be known as a drummer. I never looked at playing rock ‘n’ roll as being different from playing country.
RF: Is there a stigma attached to playing country music?
LL: Of course. There’s a stigma attached to someone being labeled a jazz drummer too.
RF: But isn’t country taken less seriously than other styles?
LL: Yes. It’s taken less seriously and there’s less respect, because people think it’s very simple to play, and that anybody can play it. It’s not easy to keep great time and play as simple as you can play for three minutes. I was told once that it’s the art of playing without playing, and I did that a lot with Chet [Atkins].
RF: Can you explain that?
LL: Sometimes it’s as important to lay out—not to play—as it is to play on something like a nice country ballad. Maybe you sit there and play a couple of little bell notes or maybe you play little figures on the cymbals without playing steady time. Yet, you’re keeping time. You’re keeping a whole band of maybe five or seven players in the studio all hitting downbeats together. Your job is to keep the time without playing the time, and make it obvious to everybody there. When I first did that, it was as much a challenge to me as doing this intricate and involved thing with Adrian Belew is now. That’s an art in itself, just like it is for those who go out and play everything they know in four bars.
RF: Do you think that part of the stigma comes from the fact that, at one time, the Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums?
LL: That’s a big part of it. When I first moved to Nashville, there was no such thing as heavy drumming on a session. “Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” and songs like that where there are heavy drums started changing things within the country record scene.
RF: How did that change?
LL: I was very fortunate, and I say “I,” because through the people in the music business in Nashville, I have been given credit for helping to change things, although I don’t always agree with that. There were great drummers doing really heavy things at the time in their own right. Things did seem to change during that period, and I feel like I did have some sort of input into that, but it was just my style of playing. I play too heavy to sit back there and just play chick-a-boom all the way through a track when there’s more to play than that.
RF: What’s interesting is that they hired you in the first place, knowing where they were coming from.
LL: It was interesting to me that they hired me. They—meaning people like Chet Atkins, who was my biggest supporter, and Jerry Reed, who really took a big liking to my style of playing—gave me a chance to open up. I played things people hadn’t played or wouldn’t take the chance to play. It’s not that they couldn’t. It’s just that they didn’t take the chance. And I, in a sense, didn’t know any better. I figured, “Hey, this is the way you make records. They say play drums, so you play drums.” I didn’t try to play drum licks or fills just for the sake of hearing myself on tape. I played them because I thought it contributed to the part. Chet and these people really encouraged me to be myself, and I was very lucky to be given that chance. It was like anything else—being in the right place at the right time, and being really lucky. That’s been my whole life. I wouldn’t know how to go out and get a “regular” job. I never planned on being a studio drummer. I never thought I’d be with Jerry Reed or Elvis Presley. It was just a sequence of events and I feel very fortunate to have done those things. I still couldn’t be any different than I was. People would ask me to play like Buddy Harman or Hal Blaine, but man, if you want those guys, hire them, because there’s nobody who can play like either one of them, or like any of the drummers I know. I can’t copy them. I couldn’t play like Jim Keltner, although I love Jim Keltner and I’d love to be able to play like him. I’d give anything to be able to play like Johnny Guerin, but I can’t. Johnny Guerin is a mold all his own, just like Jim Keltner is a mold all his own, and I hope I am too. Chet was the first one who thought that I really had something different. I started to go back to Miami after one of my gigs fell apart and Chet said, “No Larrie. You ought to stay here. Everything’s going to be alright.” He made me stay in Nashville and it was the best thing I ever did.
RF: How did he know you?
LL: Through a group I worked with for years called The Headliners. We used to work a lot of golf tournaments and Chet was a big golf fan. I worked with him at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth when our group, Boots Randolph and Chet were all there, and they sat in with us. When I moved to Nashville, I was hired by Chet, but I ended up working for Boots Randolph. Then I decided to leave, but Chet made me an offer to stay in town and work his concerts with symphonies. I stayed and worked for Chet most of the time, and then I did odds-and-ends sessions. But basically, I worked a club downtown called the Carousel. Next I had a job with Jerry Reed for a year, with Glen Campbell. But Jerry wanted to retire, so I ended up back at the Carousel. I kept that gig for about two years, because I was so afraid of letting it go. I worked all day doing demo sessions, and I worked at the club all night. It was Chet, though, who really made me stay. He made me feel like I was wanted. There were many other people who really helped that come about, but he was the first. The producers and people I started out with were just as loyal, and they still are today.
RF: What kind of music did the Headliners play?
LL: We were together for about ten years. We were basically a lounge act and a warm-up act for certain people. We worked Vegas, Tahoe, Reno, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. It was a $2,500- to $4,000-a-week act, which was unheard of for four people in the ’60s. The group was signed to Motown for a number of years on a label called VIP, which was the label for their white acts; we were the first white act they had. I was the lead singer in the group and they were trying to make us like a white Temptations. I never thought about being a drummer at that time because I was putting all my efforts into being a singer. My wife really helped me a lot. She had taken vocal lessons and she taught me how to sing correctly. As the group started recording, we all did bits and pieces at Motown, and it was quite interesting.
RF: What was it like working with Boots and Chet?
LL: When I took the job with Boots, Floyd [Cramer] and Chet, I told them I could read because I wanted the job. It took them about three months to figure out that I couldn’t. Some of the guest artists we had would need drummers who could read. We had one particular show with the Goldiggers which was all reading. I knew the show was coming up, so two weeks in advance, I told the conductor to get these people a reading drummer, because I couldn’t read. We got to Atlanta and I saw a trap case so I thought they had a drummer with them, but it was just their music. The guy handed out the music and I was trying to get the conductor’s attention. He finally stopped and said, “Yes, can I help you?” I said, “I don’t read,” and his mouth dropped to his knees. I had to play the show and they were very pleased with our ability, but it was nerve-wracking for me and I didn’t appreciate it.
About four years ago, a drummer by the name of Kenny Malone taught me how to read basic studio drum parts that show what they would like you to play or what would fit the arrangement. Certain things might be written out, but it’s not concert or symphony snare drum type parts. I don’t read those things. It depends on how intricate it is. I couldn’t read a Frank Zappa part or a heavy movie score, but I do a lot of jingles where some of the parts are written out that I don’t consider all that heavy. I’ve seen some heavy music parts from Los Angeles.
RF: You mentioned to me the other day that you taught yourself the rudiments.
LL: Yes. I bought this Frank Arsenault 26 standard rudiments record. I had always idolized Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, and Sonny Payne—the great technicians. I could play some rolls, but I had a lot of bad habits. So I’d sit in a room, play the record, listen to how it sounded, and then I’d look at the sheet to see what the sticking was. I’d practice eight to twelve hours a day on just one rudiment or sometimes two or three. I did that for years and I still do it because I like to practice. I’m not a great rudiment player by any means, but at least I have 13 or so that I’m capable of playing decently.
RF: Do you still practice?
LL: I usually practice on weekends. I wasn’t really able to practice as much as I would have liked during the time I was with Adrian, but I practiced in the hotel room on the bed or something. At home, I have a Regal Tip practice set that I use. Sometimes I’ll get records that I like, and I’ll sit there and practice with the groove. With somebody like Roger Hawkins, who makes a groove so deep you trip over it, I try to play it, just to see how he’s approaching it. Nigel Olsson did an Elton John record once called “Honky Cat.” The record felt so great that I’d sit and practice with it for hours just to try to figure out what was making it feel so great. I wanted to find out what he was playing that helped make the record feel so good. So I’ll usually practice eight to twelve hours a day doing everything from rudiments, to practicing with a record, to reading out of a drum book that I really like. I love to practice. It’s always been a real big outlet for me to keep from getting bored and to keep fresh. I’ll find new groove licks that way.
RF: Adrian was a big challenge for you. You had mentioned to me that you felt he had chosen you for the gig because you could get a commercial drum sound. Can you explain to me what you mean by a “commercial” drum sound?
LL: Adrian plays these off-the-wall, guitartype sounds and rhythms, and odd time signatures. Naturally, I’m not known for any of this. Basically, I am known for playing commercial drums. A lot of drummers do not like being called commercial, but I’m very proud to be considered a good commercial drummer. Commercial drumming, in my eyes, is knowing what to play and where to play it. With Adrian, there were all these strange guitar parts. What he needed was a bass and drums that would play more or less straight ahead and make his music sound commercial. By “commercial” I mean something that is accepted on AM stations.
RF: What makes your drum sound more commercial than Adrian’s, who played drums himself on his first album?
LL: The difference is basically the tuning, the muffling, the choice of drumheads, the choice of snare drums, the choice of cymbals, and the basic all-around setup of a drumkit in the studio. Live, the idea is that I still play commercial but I just change my sound a little bit to fit the live situation. That means that the drum sounds are a little brighter sounding, they resonate a little more, and the cymbals might be a little heavier.
RF: What do drummers who normally play live have to know about studio tuning?
LL: Well, for instance, I’ve worked with a lot of bands that have drummers who aren’t used to playing in the studio, and they bring in stage kits. Yet, they bring me in to basically play the tracks. The problem is a drummer will come in who doesn’t understand what to do when, say, a 12″ tom is making the snares rattle. What I generally do in a case like that is detune the tom just a hair—one lug. If that doesn’t stop the rattling, then I detune one lug on each side of the snare strainer. That makes the bottom head vibrate less and I have to adjust the rest of the lugs on the drum to make it playable. Loosening those four lugs, one on each side of the snare strainer, helps stop those snares from rattling. But stage drummers will be so used to hearing this rattle that they won’t even notice it. When I tune my toms, I put headphones on because that’s how I’m normally playing. I start listening to what drums and overtones are bothering me. As I hear that with ‘phones on, I start tuning and messing with the drum that’s giving me the problem. Therefore I have a tighter, more controlled sound for that situation. Most engineers tell me I have a good, tight drum sound. I can hit something and everything doesn’t just roar, which I like.
RF: What about muffling live versus studio?
LL: In the studio, I’ll take, say, a 12″ tom and put an Emperor clear head on the top, and a Fiberskyn 2 thin on the bottom. I usually put three pieces of duct tape which are about 2 ó ” or 3 ” long on the top head. I fix it up in a triangular shape. If it sounds a little dead as I hit it, I’ll take the bottom piece of tape off and then I’ll see how that sounds. The purpose of the duct tape is to match all of the drumheads up so they will sound like they’re the same and I won’t have one thinsounding head and one thick-sounding head. Sometimes I’ll have one head that’s very deep sounding, and I won’t put any tape on that at all. That’s my muffling, studio-wise. I don’t like putting paper, napkins or mufflers inside the drums. For the bass drum, I have a pillow which is held down with a cord inside the drum. It covers maybe four inches of the head. Most engineers like to shove a pillow about halfway up against the head, and then put a rock in there. It really ticks me off when they do that. I don’t like stuff put in the shell of my drum. They don’t care if it messes up the shell or what it does to the drum. That’s fine if they want to do it to their drums. This is not their equipment. On the bass drum, I have the pressure on the head and everything to where I can play it comfortably. I understand what they’re doing and why, but if I can’t play it, what good is it?
Then I have this thing made by Spectrasound. People think it’s a tire cover, but it’s an elastic cover that goes over the front of the bass drum and you stick a mic’ through it. It’s really great. It keeps the snare drum out of the bass drum mic’ and all that stuff. I usually use a Diplomat on the bass drum, although lately I’ve tried some Duraline heads called Magnums that record real well, but it’s a different feel and you sort of have to get used to them. The Diplomat has always gotten a good sound for me.
On the snare drum, I usually use CS, Pinstripes or an Emperor clear—something real heavy. Lately I’ve been trying the Magnums again, and they have a different type of sound. I got the idea from Steve Gadd to cut a ring of plastic out of an old drumhead, about an inch to an inch and a half wide, and just lay it on the drum inside the hoop. You can put some tape on it to hold it down if you want, but that usually takes out all the overtones and ring. If I still have too much ring, I detune the two or three lugs furthest from me, and I let the head wrinkle a little bit. I sometimes tighten some lugs close to me just a hair, and that gets a nice, thick studio snare drum sound.
RF: As I was listening to you in the studio today one of the guys mentioned your heavy cross-stick snare sound. It’s so pronounced.
LL: That’s due to the stuff I use. You can only hit a cross stick so hard because your hand is still on the drum. You’re not hitting a regular backbeat. I think the cross-stick sound is a combination of how the drum is tuned, what the rim is that you’re using—I use a die-cast rim—and the sticks. I use Max Sticks made by D&F. They’ve got graphite, nylon and a whole slew of stuff in them. These particular sticks tend to have a lot of impact and cracking ability to them, whether you play on the backbeat or a click.
RF: What do you use for live playing?
LL: I basically use the same setup live that I use in the studio with the addition of one other bass drum, one other tom, and a 16″ floor tom instead of the 14″. My tom setup is 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″ and 16″ live, and in the studio it’s 8″, 10″, 12″ and 14″. In the studio, my bass drum ranges from 20″ to 24″. Live, the two are 24″. The drums are all Yamaha. I use Emperors or Pinstripes on the bass drum—any of the double-thick heads that Remo has. On toms I use Remo Emperor clears on top and Fiberskyn thins on the bottom. I don’t put any tape on them at all, unless a particular head is giving me some problems. I prefer having them wide open. The snare drum varies. I’ll use an Emperor white, although recently I’ve been using the Duraline Magnums. They don’t last very long playing as hard as I play live, but they sound real good.
RF: What is your cymbal setup?
LL: It varies. They’re Zildjians and my studio setup is a 20″ thin crash-ride with a good size bell on it, because in country music, I use a lot of bell sounds. I have an 18″ paper thin crash, a 16″ K. crash, 13″ heavy hi-hats, and an 18″ swish cymbal that has about 22 to 26 rivets in it, depending on how many fall out at one time. Live I use 14″ Quick Beat hi-hats which are pretty heavy. Those are the actual playing set, and then I use 13″ Quick Beats that are permanently closed, so when I play double bass drums, I have a hi-hat I can play. They have this brilliant finish. Then I have an 18″ rock crash right over that, and it’s pretty heavy. Next to that, from left to right, I have a low China Boy, my 20″ brilliant rock ride, and an 18″ rock crash, also brilliant, which is just a little lower pitched. On this tour with Adrian, I’m using a Chinese wind gong which is underneath the crash cymbal.
RF: Why do you wear gloves?
LL: Originally that started when I was with Elvis. I was perspiring a lot and I was using 3S marching sticks. I had a tremendously hard time trying to hold onto these lacquered sticks. It came about out of necessity. I was designing a stick for Pearl which became the Larrie Londin model. It’s 17″ long and the butt end is about a 5B, or maybe a little larger, which tapers down to the tip which is a 5A. They were trying different lacquers on it and the lacquer kind of blistered my hand. Once, in the middle of a Dr. Hook session, my hand was getting really raw and it was hurting like crazy. I was wrapping it with gauze and putting this gunk on my hands which made it impossible to hold a stick. So I bought a golf glove and realized it felt pretty good. Even though my hand was sore, you couldn’t even pull the stick out of it. So I got another glove for my other hand. I started playing with them and found out that perspiration made it even better, because the wetter the glove got, the tighter it got. When disco was happening, and a track might be 17 or 23 minutes long, it could get pretty incredible trying to hold onto a pair of sticks. Maxfli is the glove I use, although they’re getting harder to get. The white ones and the other colored ones don’t seem to last as long, but the black ones last. Footjoy also has a good glove. It’s a little thicker but it also lasts longer. When I first buy them, I can hardly bend my fingers, but if you just put them on and flex your hands a little bit—even wet them a little bit if you have to—they’ll stretch out. They fit almost like a surgical glove and you can feel the stick. These gloves won’t let anything fly out of your hand.
RF: I must ask about your pedal. The beater is almost all the way back on the pedal. Doesn’t it take an awful lot of pressure to move it?
LL: No. The concept of this came from Sonny Payne, who was Count Basie’s drummer in the ’60s. Sonny Payne was a little tiny black dude who made his drums sound like cannons. The Headliners played some gigs with Basie. I watched Sonny and thought, “How can he make that bass drum sound like a cannon—especially a Gretsch?” because they were always very tight, confined sounding drums. He played my drums one night but couldn’t play my foot pedals because they were so loose, so I asked him what was wrong. He said, “A pedal as loose as your’s just kind of does whatever it wants to do. When you have it tensioned correctly, you have to play it. But when the pedal is loose, it is playing you.” His pedal was about four times tighter than any pedal I have ever had—even the pedals I designed myself. Sonny’s concept was that the quicker it comes back, the quicker you can get it down again. With a certain amount of tension, depending on the person, you can play intricate patterns with tremendous power. Of course, he was more involved with the live aspect than the studio aspect. In the studio you don’t need so much power, so my pedals live and in the studio have basically been different. More recently, though, I started using the same pedal for both situations only because the pedals I originally hand made don’t travel well. It’s hard to get parts and find a welding place and all that, so the pedal I now have is a Premier 252 and it works really well. It’s not as tight as I would like, but it’s reasonably tight. You mentioned that the beater is all the way back. I adjust the pedal so the beater is back and then I start moving the beater forward and tightening the spring until I get the tension that is right, but I also want the arch that’s right. So if I want power, the beater will come all the way back on my instep, and then I can lay it down and really play it hard. It’s just another outlook on how to play a bass drum pedal. Louie Bellson tap dances on his bass drum pedals. It’s incredible to watch him play them, and how can you argue with that? But this is right for me and fits what I do very well. People in Nashville have all kinds of names for me—Big Foot, Lead Foot—and it’s all because the bass drum in general will be at the same volume every time. I think that comes from the fact that the pedal is a little tight. I have to hit it with the same force every time. With a loose pedal, each beat will be different. The beaters, by the way, are solid wood. The rod goes up into the beater, but does not go through. They’re made by Chuck Molinari at Spectrasound.
RF: You talk about hitting the drum at the same tension. What are some of the requirements of the studio situation that are not required in the live situation?
LL: I would just label it as studio awareness. You have to be aware of how you’re playing your equipment; hitting the drum in one area will make it sound different than hitting it in another, so you have to hit it in the same place with the same pressure every time. You also have to be aware that first and foremost, the most important thing is your time. Most people who play live gigs are not really that concerned with time. If it picks up a little bit or it takes off, so what? I try to be totally aware of the time in both situations. If it wants to take off, whether it’s in the studio or live, I allow it to do that unless I’m told not to. Sometimes it’s nice for things to kind of move a little bit, but I have a lot of clients and accounts who say we’re going to play to a click track, a Linn machine or a metronome. You just get used to doing that. A lot of people take it as a shot against their ability to keep time, but the way I look at it is that it gives me a chance to free up. I look at the click track, or the Linn, or whatever, as another part of my drum part—as an extension of me—and I play around it. Sometimes it gives me so much freedom that I freak out because now all of a sudden, in the holes where I would normally play things, I don’t play. Without it I would have to play something to keep everybody together, but that click track is going on and everybody can hear it, so I don’t have to play anything. I can be a little tastier, so I don’t mind using it. As a matter of fact, live, I use a metronome for all the songs. We get the settings for what we do on record and then we boost it one or two notches, because live there has to be a little more energy involved. I don’t follow it on stage, but I use it to count the songs off. In general, when you count the songs off at a certain spot every night, you’ll end up at the same place—the same tempo and everything. It won’t necessarily be at the same tempo you started out with, but the end result will be the same. So we’ll find the happy medium that everybody likes and I’ll count the tempo off there. But if it moves a little bit from there, it doesn’t bother me. For the young drummers who are trying to be studio conscious, though, the biggest thing they can think about is their time. People ask, “How do you get good time?” Nobody can teach you feel, but you can at least learn to keep time. If you have normal drum fills that are second nature to you, play them with a metronome sometime and see where you come out. If you come out behind or ahead of the metronome, work with it until you’re playing right with it naturally. Then your time, even without the metronome, will be good. Probably one of the greatest timekeepers of all time is Roger Hawkins. He has impeccable time. And the feel! First he plays with feel, and then just so happens to play impeccable time. It’s frightening sometimes.
RF: The last Modern Drummer article on you indicated that you were playing double bass all the time—live and in the studio.
LL: I do on certain dates. There are not many Nashville country dates that call for double bass drums. I have done it for Jerry Reed, a rock group called Jackson Hawke, Dan Hill, Adrian, and a number of artists. I would prefer having a different setup for each artist, but it’s really hard to do that because a lot of times they’re hiring me because of what I played on another record, or the songs are so similar that I’ve got to stick with the standards of the record business. So, in a sense, I’ve conformed to that setup and that’s what I do, but with Adrian, it’s not that way. As a matter of fact, we’re working on a new drum setup now for both of us. We’re both going to have a drum setup, and I’ll also have timpani, timbales, Rototoms and a whole slew of different things.
RF: Watching you with Adrian, it impressed me that you used the double bass drums within the songs instead of just during solo time. Can you explain your approach to and application of the double bass?
LL: I utilize both bass drums for rhythm. It’s like having a conga player or a percussion section play with me. I hear this rhythm that’s within what we’re already playing, and I put my left foot on the left bass drum and play this pattern opposite what I’m playing with my right bass drum. It’s got to be something that’s rhythmic, and that’s within the pattern we’re already playing. I’m not trying to be a double bass drum flash; I’m trying to find this roll rhythm that will just keep it moving. I’ll play a pattern on my right bass drum, and I’ll take my left foot, which I would normally use on my hi-hat, move it over to the other bass drum, and play that same thing on the bass drum. All of a sudden these patterns start working together and it sounds like I’m doing double bass drum parts when I’m really not. I’m just playing a pattern. It sounds like I really know what I’m doing double bass drum-wise.
RF: You could have fooled me.
LL: Well, it fools a lot of people—a lot of double bass drum players. Within solos I can do little ruffs and triplets and things like that, but in a song, I think there’s more than just playing quarter notes and just one bass drum pattern. I think you can make up a double pattern that will absolutely drive a band off a stage. That’s what I attempt to do with Adrian. It sounds like I’m doing more than I’m doing. I can’t play them like a Steve Smith or a Louie Bellson. I don’t play like that, but even as a drummer, I consider myself a rhythm player. Nothing excites me more than driving a band—just hitting a pocket over and over until I’ve got everyone on that stage grinning. That’s really exciting for me. When you make the band sound good, you obviously make yourself sound good, no matter what kind of music you’re playing. That’s what I want to be able to do. It’s a great feeling to just kick them all off the stage—just really play so good, time-wise, drive-wise, everything.
RF: How often do you get a chance to really do that in the studio? How often do you record live versus overdubbing?
LL: A lot of times there’s a lot of overdubbing. I’ve gone in where everything was done prior to my being there—where they had another drummer or no drummer—and I’d go in and overdub the whole thing. Then it just gets to technicalities. You hope to God you can make something feel good, but generally it gets so technical that you’re just trying to get from one point to the other point without screwing up. In a lot of cases where there are bands and the musicians are there, that same feeling occurs when you’re hitting a pocket. A pocket is a pocket, no matter whether it’s a bebop swing, an 8th-note thing or whatever. When you hit it and everybody’s smiling and getting off, that’s the same feeling as on stage. You just don’t hear anybody applauding. Nobody walks up and pats you on the back, which is why I went out on the road. Everybody would like to think they don’t have an ego, but after a while, I don’t care how nice a person you are, or how much your family tells you how good you are, or how big a bank account you’ve got, you like to have somebody say, “Man, you really play great.” It’s more important that you know that you played great, but it’s great to have somebody applaud and get all of that feedback instantly.
RF: Is there a fair amount of live recording done in Nashville?
LL: Oh yeah, that’s practically all it is. You might have an instance where you’re overdubbing, like I’ve done for a number of people like Jim Reeves, Elvis and people who just keep the vocal and replace the rest of the band. So I’ve added to those things, and then on some tapes, there have been people who have said, “Well, I don’t like the drum sound. Can we replace the drummer and put you on?” There are those kinds of situations, but I would say a good 90% of my stuff is all live playing with musicians. Nashville recording is unlike any recording anywhere. It’s really a lot of fun. They don’t bring in someone one day and someone else the next day like they do here in L.A. When you go in, you’ve got a rhythm section, and generally you have a singer.
I did an album recently for Tom Jones and I was so excited that I was going to get to play with him. That was one of the things I always wanted to do, and I mentioned it at a Chicago Zildjian Day clinic. They asked me who, out of all the people I hadn’t done, would I like to do, so I mentioned Tom Jones. I got home and got a call for a Tom Jones album. I got there and came to find out he wasn’t going to be there. It was all tracks. In that situation, it’s not any fun and all the other musicians felt the same way. We all wanted to meet Tom Jones. He’s so funky and sings so great that it would have been fun. Certain things you have to overdub on and certain things you don’t, but at home, most of the stuff is live. Everything there is based on feel. How can you create feel without the people there? They say the records here feel great, but I disagree when the records have been done with a Linn machine. They’re just mechanical. They don’t go anywhere. They have a groove that’s the same from beginning to end and there’s no heart. Music started out having a heart and a soul. The minute there is no heart or soul, something is wrong somewhere. Sure, I’ll play it just the way they want it, with their machines or without their machines, but it doesn’t necessarily make it good.
I did an album with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, which Chet was producing. I was so excited about doing it. It was the last album they ever did together. When I got the album, not only did I not get credit on it, I wasn’t even on the album. They just used me to keep the band together and then they took the drums off, but I wasn’t told that. And I had tried to be real inventive in doing this album too, with all these creative little sounds. I used a practice pad on top of the snare drum to get a very high pitched sound and stay out of the way of the register of the guitars. I used that practice pad a lot with Chet Atkins when he played classical or acoustic guitar. Playing regular snare drum you get in the same register, so I used nylon brushes and all these things that would get me in a higher register. A lot of drummers will turn their snare drum over and play on the snare side to create a higher pitched sound.
RF: You were a forerunner with the Simmons and actually one of the first three people in the United States to respond to them. I wondered why, and what kind of reaction you had in the Nashville studio?
LL: I heard them, saw them, and got excited about them. I was in London where the TV music shows are all live. I was watching a show when I heard an incredible drum sound from this group called Money. I saw that the drummer was playing Simmons, and then I saw him in a music store and asked him about the kit. He said it was taken directly from the drumkit to the board and that was the sound I heard when I heard them perform. It took me a year to track them down at a trade show and I made Glynn Thomas [U.S. representative for Simmons] sell me the set he had there. I got them back home and kept them in my basement for about six months, just trying to find out what I could get them to sound like. 1 worked with them, and kept calling Glynn and bugging him. I used them on a session for Merle Haggard and the producer was Ray Baker, who is not a drum freak anyway. I think the Simmons were just too much for him and he preferred to have traditional drums, but the record was a smash. I used them on that one date, because I already had them there and the engineer had gotten a sound. He was really into it. I used the bass drum, the toms, the electric cymbal, and the electric hi-hat cymbal. I also used my acoustic snare triggered by a Clap Trap pick-up which, in turn, triggered the Simmons snare, so we had two snares that blended together. I used the traditional snare just to get a click.
There are a lot of people in town who do a lot of pop stuff too and I’ve used the Simmons on all other things. It got to a point where my work was consisting of about 75% Simmons and 25% regular acoustic drums. That’s saying a lot. I was the first one to have Syndrums in town too. I find things like a Syndrum or a Pearl Syncussion, and I’ve used electronic stuff on a lot of hit records long before the Simmons or the Syndrums. I use whatever it takes to make a hit record. If it takes playing on a cardboard box, then I’ll play on a cardboard box.
RF: With all that you’ve done, can you think of some sessions that might have been magical?
LL: Yeah, there have been quite a few that have been magical. I don’t know if anybody can pin down the reason why something is magical. Probably one of my highlights was a B.B. King album [Love Me Tender] I did in Nashville that sadly didn’t do as well as we thought it would do. If there is such a thing as something magical, B.B. King is a magical person. He wanted to come to Nashville but he didn’t want to work with all these new people. I was told that, once he found out I would be there, he felt better because we had done some clinics and shows at the NAMM show together. He came in very uptight. He was just about to lose his voice from nerves, which is amazing. Here’s a legend. There ain’t no bigger blues man in the world! If you want to learn to play a shuffle, play it with B.B. King. I’d just sit there and listen to him play and I’d forget to play. He got his guitar out, and of course, we were all asking for the songs he’d already recorded. We all wanted to play “The Thrill Is Gone” just once, and we did. I have it on tape, as a matter of fact. We did this album and he relaxed more and more every day. The tracks just happened. They were first takes. He literally screamed at the end of every track we did, and he said it was the greatest album he had cut since he started recording.
When we did Adrian’s album, I think there was only one track on there that wasn’t a first take. We did one track three times and I think he kept the first one. There was an album with Les Paul and Chet Atkins called Lester And Chester, and an album I did with Olivia Newton-John. She was petrified of being in Nashville. Here’s Olivia Newton-John afraid of being in Nashville! It felt magical. There were great songs and she’s an incredible singer. She sang as great for the rundowns we had as she did on the album. B.J. Thomas is another one. He can sing as great the first time as he can the last time. Dan Hill is another one. There have been a number of wonderful sessions in my life, and I feel real lucky about that. When they’re that good, there has to be something a little magical about them. No one can say, “This is a hit,” but you know there is something special about it because everybody is not in the control room jumping around for no reason.
RF: What was it like working with Elvis?
LL: Up until recently it was probably the hardest show I’d ever done, physically and mentally. When I played the show, I had to play it cold. We had these rehearsals set up at Graceland, but they ended up not happening. He came down one night and sang two or three bars of different songs. Then he went back up to bed. That was supposed to be our rehearsal for the tour. The next day we found ourselves in Johnson City, Tennessee, and there was supposed to be a rehearsal. He wasn’t going to be there anyway, but the rehearsal was called off because of a bomb threat. I kept saying to Felton Jarvis, his producer who was helping out on the road, “When are we rehearsing?” And he said “Well, we’re going to have to do the show.” So I walked out there with no rehearsal other than two weeks of listening to tapes that were voice and drums with Ronnie Tutt. I listened to these tapes and made my own charts. Originally, I was told by other people that Elvis might put me down. I said, “Well, I worked it out with Felton ahead of time. If he puts me down, I have a plane ticket and I will go home.” I had enough session work that I didn’t really have to worry about that. And as much as I idolized the man, I wasn’t about to be put in that position. What I had been told ended up being false, though.
So the show started and I was petrified. I felt as though my world was coming to an end. We did the introduction and started “See See Rider.” He came on stage, we got about eight bars into it, and he did this little thing that he used to do, but I didn’t know. I was reading my chart. It wasn’t on the tape. He stopped the song, looked back at me and said, “What’s the matter Larrie?” I said, “I don’t know.” So he said to start it over and we went back into the top of “See See Rider.” He stopped at the same place again. I thought, “What is going on? What is the man stopping the show for?” There were 20,000 people out there screaming and again he asked what was the matter. I said, “Man, I don’t know!” He asked what I was doing and I said I was reading my part. He said just to follow him—not to worry about my part. So I took all of those charts I wrote, just threw them on the floor and kept going. We started the song again, and when we got to that part, he said, “Play toms.” He was doing this stuff with his legs and so I just played a bunch of toms. After the song, he came back and said, “Anytime I do something, just play a lot of drums and don’t worry about it.” So we kept doing more and more of the show. I was still petrified because I didn’t know what was coming next. I didn’t know the tempos. I didn’t know anything! There were times he’d just go into a song without a count-off. Sometimes I was supposed to start a song and I’d say, “Start what?” This went on all night. After the show I told Fenton, “Something is wrong here. This isn’t the way a show is supposed to be.” And he said, “No man, everything went great. He loves you.” Then Elvis talked to us and said, “Hey, I dig what you’re doing. When I’m doing things, just play a lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s on beat or off beat—just play.” He was under the impression that he could pick musicians right off the street and they would know his stuff. Basically he was right, but the arrangements weren’t the same as the records. He did medleys of things and it was very difficult. But Shane Keister and myself were the only new members, and it worked out fine. Normally I like to use five toms, but he specified that he wanted eight toms, so I set up all the other toms I had, but just didn’t play them. I didn’t even bother tuning them. He did have a problem with the bass drums when he felt they were real loud and they kept pushing him off the stage. But it was a lot of fun, and it was a big challenge for me at that time to be able to play with the person who was, and is still, considered the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He was one of a kind. I feel real fortunate that circumstances were what they were and I got to play with him. I also got to do the last two concerts with him. Ron Tutt was on the last tour, but someone in his family was sick or died. They called me up and asked if I would work the last few concerts for that tour. We worked it out, and it was Cincinnati and Indianapolis, which were the last two he ever did.
Originally I was supposed to do the ’76 tour. Just as an example of what kind of person Elvis really was, before that tour, Ronnie Tutt quit and I had the gig. They offered me a year contract with great money. The tour was coming up and I got a call from Felton Jarvis telling me that Ronnie Tutt had called. He wanted the gig back so Elvis agreed to give it to him. He said, “Elvis will gladly talk to you about it to decide what you want to do. Elvis just felt that Ronnie had put in six years and he owed him another chance.” And I said to Felton, “You tell Elvis that if it were me in that same position, I’d want the same amount of respect and the same chances. I deeply appreciate the fact that he’s doing what he’s doing.” They made me an offer of going out on the road with double drummers, or they would pay me for a year without even going out. I just left it at, if he needed me, he should call me. I was the first one he called when Ronnie had to leave. That was the kind of person Elvis was. He never did put me down on stage. Anytime Elvis Presley would ever mention your name in front of 20,000 people, it would just bring attention to you. He was just a real prankster and would always play jokes on you. He was never putting anyone down. There are people who would disagree with that, but I never took it as a putdown. He called me his “own little mountain,” and every time he said my name, it meant a great deal to me because I idolized him as a kid. I won contests singing like him, so to be a fan and play drums for him was an honor. And on top of it, I got paid for it!
It was a very physically difficult show, because from beginning to end, it was built around drums. A lot of people got to lay out in different spots while he’d do karate stuff with just the drums going on. I had freedom of what I played, but I physically had to be playing from beginning to end. It took a lot out of me, but it was a challenge because he was also a drummer and he got very excited about drummers and people who, as he called it, “take care of business.” He really liked people who did that.
RF: Watching you with Adrian, I was thinking that, in the studio situation, you don’t have to deal with an hour and a half of frenetic playing. How do you prepare yourself for something like that when you do have to do it?
LL: As you can tell from looking at me, I’m not real prepared. I would like to be in better physical shape to do it. 1 don’t think it would necessarily change my playing if I were in better physical shape, but I think it would give me the stamina to maybe do two-and-a-half hours. I watch younger drummers and drummers who work out a lot, and I don’t see that they put out any more than 1 do or that they give any more. It’s just that they don’t look as tired afterwards as I do. I’m almost 40. I don’t feel like it’s any harder, but I am tired at the end of an hour-and-a-half show.
RF: But you’re not used to it either.
LL: Well, I watch Louie Bellson and he’s 60 years old.
RF: But he goes out on the road all the time. You sit in the studio, you cut three tracks, you listen to the playback, you grab something to eat, and then you go back in.
LL: That’s part of it. When I first started doing this tour with Adrian, it was real difficult. We did some outdoor gigs where it was real hot, but I’ve learned tricks to keep myself cool with a fan or ice towels around my neck. Even smaller drummers have that same problem. When you’re in the heat of the sun and it’s 90-some degrees out there and you’re playing, it’s not intelligent to sit up there without taking care of yourself. My road crew guys towel me down by putting ice towels around my neck. You can make it through a hot gig by keeping the base of your skull cool. Sitting in a place where there are real heavy lights on you in an auditorium or a club gig is not good either. It’s not good for the top of your head to have all that heat. I have a fan that blows all that stuff away. And like you said, in the studio, I don’t have that problem. I do a three-minute song, maybe three or four times, and then go in and listen to it back. Very seldom am I playing with this amount of energy for an hour and a half. Before I went out with Adrian, I practiced as much as I could to build my stamina up. The rest of it is learning how to breathe and not fall apart that way.
RF: What makes a session negative for you?
LL: A negative session usually starts out for me when there are people who don’t know how to tell you what they want. You start out playing a particular pattern. An hour and a half later, or three hours later, you’ve played every variation of that feel. Now you’re back playing the exact same thing you started out playing and they love it. “That’s it! That’s the thing that will make the record!” Another negative part is people who constantly watch the clock. Negative is an engineer who sits in a control room all night manufacturing sounds and it has nothing to do with what you’re doing. It kind of bums you out sometimes when you really want it to be good, but the harder you work, the worse it gets. People who belittle you are another thing. I just won’t put up with a lot of these things. It’s not that I feel that I’m better than anybody else, but I’ll just leave. First of all, I’m a human being. People have said, “Well, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. You’re a studio man and you hire out.” There’s a term that I use in my clinic that’s not always very tasteful, but it’s very true. A friend of mine, Joe Osborn, once said, “Studio musicians are basically whores. You hire out for three hours to do whatever you’re told to do. And in those three hours, you’re not being paid for your opinion. You are being paid for being an extension of these people—their puppet. If they could be playing this instrument, they’d be playing it, but since they can’t, they’re going to make you play it the way they would if they could.” It took me a long time to really feel that I could handle that. I love music and I love playing it from my heart. And Joe is not a hard person. He is an incredibly warm, sensitive person who plays his heart out every time he plays. But he’s had to play under those circumstances in Los Angeles, New York—all over the world. I realized he’s right. But there are people who hire me as a person, not just for my ability to play a number of different rhythms with a number of different arms and legs. They want my total person—my mind, my heart, my soul, everything—and that’s one thing a whore won’t give. I feel good about that and it’s fun to do it with people who really want that. I’ll do the negative ones because it’s going to pay for my house. You have to do it in certain circumstances as a professional. I think that, for any young musician out there who really wants to work in the studios, it’s a good learning experience to do one negative session. Go in and play the gig for the money. You don’t have to like it. Just play it. Learn what that feels like, because you don’t ever want to do it again if you can help it. I’m very thankful that I’m in a position, as I get older, where I can pick and choose more of my dates. I won’t ever work for the people who are like that again.
RF: You mentioned once that you were getting a group together in Nashville.
LL: Well, we’re going into the studio. It’s David Hungate [bass], Shane Keister [synthesizer], Reggie Young [guitar] and myself. We’ve got some interest from different small labels and we have some producers in Nashville who are quite interested. It’s kind of jazz/rock fusion stuff. It’s just a release and an outlet for us. Although right now I don’t particularly need that release because I have one, they still do and I’m looking forward to doing it. There was a thing called Larrie Londin Day in Memphis at Strings And Things where I did a clinic and the band did a mini-concert. We played all these songs we had rehearsed for about two days—which was about all the time we had to get together— and it came off real well.
RF: Could you perhaps give an example of your approach to styles of rock, jazz, bluegrass and country? Are there specific elements inherent in each one of those styles that you can speak of?
LL: The particular approach to jazz is the looseness. Taking a swing pattern, I would approach it like Sonny Payne approached it when he played with Count Basie. He didn’t play on the downbeat. He accented the end of the bar which opened it up. This gave it that real relaxed feeling, no matter what tempo it was. My approach to jazz is to make it swing a little more, hopefully.
I approach rock according to what the song is telling me. Sometimes the person who wrote the song was involved with the Chuck Berry kind of feel. I was brought up with Chuck Berry and I can play Johnny B. Goode-type rhythms. That is built around a snare drum, basically, with a nice syncopated bass drum pattern. Some songwriters were brought up listening to the Beatles, so I try to put myself into the Ringo Starr syndrome and actually try to play it like Ringo Starr would play it, which is impossible. For example, I did some stuff not long ago which the fellow insisted was new wave. What I basically played was 1950s rockabilly or ’60s rock which consisted of 8th-notes on the toms and a specific snare drum pattern. They could consider that new wave now, but it was early rock ‘n’ roll when I learned it. When I approach the rock I’m doing today, my approach is basically a quarter-note pattern on the bass drum, with a real heavy 2 and 4 on the snare drum. The hi-hat could be anything from a quarter note/ two 8th-note pattern, to just straight 8th notes, and as few fills as possible—more like a drum machine would play it.
For today’s country music, the approach is the same as for three-year-old pop. That means you play a lot more drum fills where you’ve got four or five tom-toms and you utilize them extensively. You play a real heavy 2 and 4, and usually half notes or quarter notes on the bass drum with a nice 8th-note pattern or disco pattern on the hi-hat, taking for granted that it is an 8th-note feel. Traditionally, you would use a stick and a brush, with a click on the snare and the brush playing a shuffle or an 8th-note pattern on the snare, with the hi-hat playing on 2 and 4, and the bass drum playing a real simple straight-ahead pattern. Currently in the country field though, the snare drum sound is deeper and the tom sounds are lower, like an older pop sound.
There are no drums in bluegrass, traditionally. But you basically approach bluegrass as what I call a train feel, which is usually done extremely fast. I play the train feel two different ways, depending on the feel that the person playing the fiddle or banjo is playing.
RF: On the less technical side of things, I know you feel very strongly about the topic of drugs.
LL: Yes. When I was playing with Adrian, someone asked me, “What kind of drugs do you take to play like you play?” And I said, “Well, I don’t take any drugs and I have yet to meet a musician who could play with drugs.” A lot of them think they can play, but with music such as Adrian’s with strange time signatures, how could everyone be stoned and come down on downbeats together? Personally I don’t take drugs. I did when I was younger, but it wasn’t good for me. It hurt my heart, it hurt me physically, and it sure didn’t do anything for my playing. I can’t even have a glass of wine and play. So many of these people get stoned, and they go out and play thinking that’s what everybody who is “happening” is doing. If they would just tape themselves sometime and listen back straight, they’d realize how lousy they sound. Some people take the stand of, “Okay, if you want to take drugs, fine, you do them,” but it’s not alright when it starts affecting me and my livelihood. I do have a stand on that and that’s one thing about Nashville that’s so great. That doesn’t go on. I’ve worked dates in other parts of the country where I actually had to cancel the sessions because either they wanted me to cancel or I had to because I couldn’t take the drug scene they were into. Naturally, I couldn’t play with them because we were on totally different planes. One time I even bought a bottle of wine and got drunk so I could play the gig. I felt like I was lowering myself to their standards, which was no good. It’s best that I just say, “Hey, I don’t fit with your routine. I’m not going to put you down for it, but I’d rather not do it.”
RF: You’re a very sensitive man—musically and personally. Is there room for a sensitive person in what can be a cutthroat business?
LL: Yes. I think you have to learn how to control that sensitivity. I don’t mean you must learn how to turn it off and on to suit the situation, but in a sense you have to. Like I said, sometimes I work for people I really shouldn’t be working for, but the dollar is good and I’ll work for them to do what I need to do for my family. That’s when I turn off that sensitivity. I’m not going to give them my heart and soul. I’m not going to let them tear a piece of me away. The American Indians have a belief that, when you take a picture of them, you take a piece of their soul away from them. For years I felt that every time I played, a piece of my soul was being torn apart from me. This sounds too depressing maybe, but I really felt like that was happening, especially when I worked for people like that. So I gave those people less and less of myself. With people I know who love the work I do and really care about me, my sensitivity switches on and I open up to them—sometimes too much. I got scared one time when I started thinking along the terms of, “How much do I have left?” I wondered if it was going to run out. I’ll hear tracks from years ago, and I’ll know that it is my playing, because it is so much a piece of me. And it’s sometimes frightening to me. I guess it sounds a little silly, but that’s just my feeling. I take my hat off to people like Joe Osborn and those musicians who work in situations out in L.A. and such. I’m glad I don’t have to do it. I don’t think I could do it because I would end up in a nut house, and I may not be the person I am. Even though I’m not everything I would like to be, I reasonably like myself.
RF: You happen to be a very giving man, and when you are constantly giving, sometimes you sit back and wonder what’s left for you.
LL: There are times when my wife gets very upset at me and says, “When are you going to start doing things for you? You keep doing all these things for other people.” Like right now I’m here in L.A. recording because two friends wanted me here. And I’m very happy that I am here, but there are times when my wife lets me know that I’m overdoing it.
RF: What is D.O.G. Percussion?
LL: D.O.G. are my wife’s initials. My real name is Ralph Gallant. Larrie Londin is a stage name and my wife’s name is Deborah Otolo Gallant. I was working very hard and naturally not paying too much attention to my family. I came back from Los Angeles one day and she was really teed off at me. “I never get any attention…” The youngest of my two children, who are now 17 and 13, had been in school for about six months, and my wife was extremely bored. She said she wanted to start a drum shop, so I loaned her $2,000. She’s had the business six years and she’s run the inventory up to an enormous amount. She’s considered to be one of the best in the retail business. She knows as much about cymbals, drums, heads and sticks as most percussionists. She makes all of Kenny Rogers’ tambourines—literally, physically makes them from scratch. She runs the business, she orders, she sells, and she knows how to repair foot pedals, cymbal and hi-hat stands and all that. She’s a very hardworking and talented lady who works from about 5:30 in the morning to 11:00 at night.
RF: Don’t you feel neglected?
LL: Not as long as she’s happy. I would feel bad if I were doing all I’m doing and she felt unhappy. She takes care of the family, she takes care of the house and she takes care of me, so how could I feel neglected? She’s basically doing this to ensure our future. A couple of friends of ours are studio players and they have to work a certain amount of sessions a week to afford the house and all the stuff they have. She doesn’t want to see us end up like that, so we invest our money. This is a business where, as she said, “No matter what, you can always teach in the store, or we would have this to fall back on, or we could just sell it out and have a nice retirement.” Well, she’s right and I would suggest that everybody try to do something other than just play. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t know what to do because playing drums is all I know. I know how to box because I boxed in high school. I was a carpenter and I know how to do that, but that’s work and I don’t want to do it. So she’s trying to make it so we don’t have to do that. She’s a very intelligent lady. I love my wife and I love my family. Without them, I couldn’t do what I’m doing.