Interview and photos by Miguel Monroy
After his time in the military, Belli moved to Hollywood and began touring with different acts. He also partnered with a friend and opened Drum City. The shop would serve the needs of the booming Hollywood music scene, including drum greats Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, and Jack Sperling. But then something happened that would forever change Remo Belli’s life: the invention of the synthetic resin known as Mylar. Belli, now eighty-eight, recently sat down with Modern Drummer to tell his story.
MD: When did your love for music begin?
Belli: I grew up in Mishawaka, Indiana, and I had an uncle that played trumpet at an Italian club. My parents went to the club, and I would hang out and listen to the drummer. The drums attracted me, so I told my dad I wanted to play them. You wouldn’t believe the drumset my uncle helped my parents buy me. I think it was a 26” bass drum with a hanging Chinese tom and cymbal. My first snare was a Gretsch, and we paid fifty cents a week for it.
My first experience playing in a collective group was in school, when I was twelve years old. When I went into high school, World War II broke out. All the local musicians were drafted, so our high school jazz band was the only group left. We entertained the workers. Sometimes we’d play from seven o’clock in the morning until we went to school. We played victory shifts when they were done, too. By age sixteen, I was already gigging.
There was a local drummer named Ralph Kester. He played at the two spaghetti joints in town. My mom worked at one, and my aunt worked at the other. So I used to go to the window and watch him play the drumset. He taught me the spang-a-lang brush pattern.
By the time I was a senior, I would frequently hang in Chicago for the weekend. My friends and I would sleep at a dumpy hotel and go listen to jazz.
MD: You spent some time in the Navy, right?
Belli: That’s an interesting story. The Great Lakes naval station was in Chicago. One of the guys I used to gig with in South Bend joined the Navy and was in charge of the band in Chicago. He told me, “Join the Navy, because you’re going to get drafted anyway. Then you can be in the band with me.” So I went to Indianapolis to take the physical and joined the Navy. Everything went great, with one exception: Great Lakes was quarantined. So I went to the naval training station in New York. The first thing I did was find the band barracks and introduce myself.
They couldn’t get me in the band, but they got me doing other things for them. When I finished with boot camp, I was sent to Newport, Rhode Island. I found the band barracks there, and introduced myself to them. There was a gig that night, so they said that if I could get there they would give me a chance to try out. The next day, I was peeling potatoes in the kitchen when they walked in with papers that said I was transferred to the band.
The war ended while I was in boot camp. During my stay in the band, I literally did everything. I was the principal drummer, and we played at all the bases. I played bass drum in the marching band, and I played timpani in the concert band. I eventually went to my chief band director and asked if I could get out to pursue music. About a month later, I was served with papers for an honorable discharge. The director wrote me a check for twenty-five dollars and told me to go to New York to pursue my dream.
MD: It sounds like you’ve been around drums nearly your entire life.
Belli: I’ve been a drummer for seventy-six years. And in those seventy-six years, I’ve been privileged to do a lot in the field of drums, including being a professional since the age of sixteen, serving in the Navy, coming out to Los Angeles and establishing a professional career, and then getting involved with a drum shop. I toured with Billy May, Anita O’Day, and Nelson Riddle. My life was complete up to that point, and then came along the development of the synthetic drumhead. That changed things completely.
MD: What prompted you to get into the drum shop business and then transition into making drumheads?
Belli: I was living in Hollywood and working at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. I was the original drummer there. I used to shop with Roy Harp, who had a little drum shop in town, and there were about five other shops where we could buy sticks, cymbals, and so forth. In those days, everyone was making the transition from 26” and 24” bass drums to 22” bass drums. Roy and I decided to start Drum City. We opened about three doors away from the Lighthouse, on Santa Monica Boulevard.
The motivation at the time was to serve the drummers in the musicians union, which had about 1,200 members. I really enjoyed running the shop because it wasn’t unusual to have Shelly Manne, Buddy Rich, Jack Sperling, and any number of Hollywood studio musicians in the room. And when Count Basie’s band came through, Sonny Payne stopped by.
Roy and I started off with almost nothing, and within three years we were the predominant supplier in the area. It had nothing to do with discounts; it had to do with ambiance.
We became the main dealer for the American Rawhide Company. I became an expert in rawhide drumheads. The San Francisco Symphony would send down its timpani, and I would put new heads on them. Drum City was a great hang and a meeting spot for drummers.
Dupont developed Mylar in 1953. They went to Slingerland, Ludwig, and Gretsch and showed the resin to them because within their patent was an application for Mylar to be used as a drumhead. Bob Slingerland didn’t know what to do with it, Bill Ludwig didn’t know what to do with it, and Fred Gretsch didn’t know what to do with it. At that time, I toured through Chicago with a Hollywood act named Betty Hutton. I went to the drum factories of those companies during the day, and Bob Slingerland showed me the piece of Mylar and asked my opinion on it. I said, “I wouldn’t know what to do with it!”
I had an accountant who knew a chemist named Sam Muchnick. Each year at Drum City, we would have a percussion fair. There was no NAMM on the West Coast at the time, so the manufacturers would send us their latest products so we could show them to everyone. One year I decided to staple some Mylar to a flesh hoop to get people to try it. But eventually it was Sam Muchnick who developed the technique of creating the synthetic drumhead, on which we received a patent. This included the bending of the Mylar and the holes in the Mylar. Now every drumhead is made in that style.
MD: What kind of impact did the synthetic drumhead have on the music industry?
Belli: If Dupont had not developed Mylar to accommodate the social things that happened, like the arrival of the Beatles and Elvis, the industry would not have grown as it did. The advent of the synthetic drumhead could accommodate the growing demand for drums. Out of a hundred animal-skin heads, you might find twenty that are really good and about fifty that are passable, but the rest just won’t make it. The synthetic drumhead made everything possible.
MD: What was it like pursuing a new idea like the synthetic drumhead?
Belli: It was myself, a drum shop owner, a chemist, and an accountant. We had to invent from day one. I went to my neighbor and asked if he wanted to come work for me. He knew how to pound a nail and make things happen. We also had a secretary at Drum City that was going steady with a Hungarian, so then we hired him and some Hungarian refugees. We lasted in that first facility for a year, and then we moved down the block to a 3,000-square-foot place. We lasted there for a few years, and then we went to a 6,000-square-foot facility. We started buying the properties next door, and eventually added seven buildings for a total of over 144,000 square feet. That’s where we stayed for a long time before moving to our new facility in Valencia, California.
MD: How did the product evolve in those first years?
Belli: For those who haven’t used animal-skin drumheads…the availability and selection of them was a challenge. And playing in outside venues was hard on animal skin. Dupont only offered Mylar in limited thicknesses at the time, and a thin head wouldn’t last after being subjected to a marching drummer. So we had to put together different combinations of the head.
The center dot, which is now black, started off as a clear dot for Buddy Rich’s bass drum. He was always breaking his head because he played with a wooden beater. Then we decided to try it on a smaller head. The dot took off the high frequencies, and we liked that. We made it black, and all of a sudden all these drumsets had heads with black dots on them. That all started with us helping Buddy Rich. If you can’t improvise, you’ve got a problem.
MD: What kind of changes have you observed in the world of drumming?
Belli: We’re an industry that’s socially motivated. So when people say, “I want to play drums,” the question we have to ask is, “Why?” What are you going to do with it? Where are we going as a group of drummers? I think we’re on a plateau now. There are always going to be drummers, but at this point the supply is much more than the demand.
MD: How has your company evolved in light of these changes?
Belli: I’ve spent the last twenty-five years and a considerable amount of money investigating. What else is there? Where are we going to go from here, and what’s it going to take to get there? I’m really pleased that science is willing to support that music, and rhythm, more specifically, is a part of the human condition. Our target demographic is everyone that’s alive. The drum can be used everywhere. You just have to think in terms of which drum works best. I think the message to everyone who’s interested in drums is that the uses for rhythm, whether it’s on drumset, world percussion, or anything else, are going to continue to grow. Our company uses the slogan “We want you to use the drum.”
MD: What made you think of promoting the use of the drum, as opposed to playing the drums?
Belli: I’m married to a physician, so I was privileged to attend many medical conventions. I was very intrigued with the papers that were delivered and the discoveries that were made. It opened my mind to say, “What else?” I began to notice that the drum circle is social. And group activities that involve drums can be effective in many different areas.
What we’re talking about is general music making for fun. It works because it gets over the initial concern of people saying, “I can’t do it.” One source told me that there were twenty-five million tennis rackets sold in the United States. Why do you buy a tennis racket? You probably aren’t going to want to play at Wimbledon. Yet you buy a tennis racket because at some point you heard that playing tennis can be fun. You don’t buy one to become a professional tennis player. Drumming is another healthy thing that you can get involved in.
MD: What does the company do to promote the use of the drum?
Belli: We go into schools with behavioral modification programs that are designed to create an ambiance that allows general teaching to happen more easily. We’re not interested in interfering with music education. We go in and take care of the entire population of the school. We have one program that’s in 24,000 schools at the secondary level. We also deal with a lot of special needs students.
We’ve also developed an instrument that sounds like amniotic fluid that goes in the NICU wards for premature babies. And we have options for military veterans that are coming back with trauma.
We have people that run schools that deal with people affected by autism, and we work closely with the care-giving community that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. There’s a lot that can be done with group experiences, and there are a lot of things that can be done in school systems everywhere.
MD: Has this focus on science redefined the purpose of Remo, Inc.?
Belli: I believe that purpose supersedes money, and my life has been spent in the care-giving business. We have a great company because we’re not totally motivated by money. We know that if we do what we want to do, and do it well, money is automatic. That’s what keeps us motivated—knowing that we’re doing good work.