BR: My mother was a pianist in a silent movie theatre so there was music in our home constantly. We had a baby grand piano in the house and I thought everyone had a piano in their home! This was during the Depression years, and though we didn’t have much money for food, we did have a piano.
JB: What kind of formal training did you have?
BR: I started taking lessons when I was five years old. Fortunately, I’m from the midwest, which is very good drum territory. My first teacher was a guy named Russ Gatey and he gave me a good start. When I was twelve we moved to Chicago. That’s where I heard Duke Ellington with Sonny Greer and decided that this was what I wanted to do. Duke was a big influence on me, and still is.
In 1938 I studied with Oliver Coleman, the drummer with the Earl Mines band. He took me as far as he could and then sent me to Roy Knapp. There were about eight of us studying with Roy at the time and we all turned out to be professional musicians, which says a lot for Roy Knapp’s teaching. Louie Bellson, Sam Denoff from the Chicago Symphony, the Anderson brothers with the L.A. Symphony; we all studied with Roy at the time. After the lessons, we’d all go out to hear the great big-bands that were appearing in Chicago. You could go out and hear Jimmy Lunceford. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey—they were all there.
Later, I won the Raleigh Talent Contest and appeared with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra at the Chicago Theatre. That band had some great musicians: Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Erwin, Bud Freeman—all the guys I work with today.
I remember hearing the Chick Webb band. With all due respect to Buddy, though I think Buddy would be the first to say it, Chick was the most exciting soloist in the world. He knew how to set up a band. He could lay it right in their lap. I learned so much from him, and I’m still using what I learned. I play for the band. You have to learn this. I’ve had my head handed to me on a platter many times, until I finally learned to play musically.
When the War broke out, I moved back to Illinois. I soon got drafted and I realized that you could get hurt shooting guns, so I got into the Air Force band. When I came out of service I played with several midwest dance bands, and finally got a job with the Henry Busse band. I overplayed at the time, as most young drummers do. We all go through that stage.
JB: How did you get into studio work?
BR: My dream was to get into a staff radio orchestra. Television hadn’t started up yet. I wanted to play in New York or Los Angeles. I finally chose New York and moved in with my sister and brother-in-law who is Ray Charles of the Ray Charles Singers. Our combined incomes came to about $35 a week. Ray was doing radio spots and I was doing club dates. But in any new town, if you show up on time, have a decent set of drums, play musically and at a reasonable volume—you’ll eventually develop a good reputation.
JB: How did you finally break into T.V.?
BR: The soundtrack for the first Cinerama movie was cut in New York, and Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the music. They used about 14 or 15 percussionists, and all the good players were called for the date. I wasn’t very well known so I wasn’t called. But fortunately, all the busy guys at NBC got called which left a lot of holes at NBC. Skitch Henderson, who was very big at NBC at the time, heard me play at the Copa Cabana and liked my playing. He told Dr. Roy Shields, head of the music department at NBC, about me. When Kate Smith’s TV show began in New York with a live orchestra, Dr. Shields called me for the xylophone part on the show. I went up to a friend’s house and recorded the theme to Kate’s show and I stayed up all night and memorized my part. I really wanted that job! That band had some great players like Doc Severinson, Will Bradley, Stan Getz, and many more. I played my part flawlessly, of course—I had memorized it! Consequently, I worked at NBC from that point on as a sub, and when the first vacancy occurred, they put me on the regular staff. I stayed twenty years. I played in the NBC Symphony with Toscanini and did all the shows that originated out of New York. It was incredible. I did the Tonight Show, the Dick Cavett Show, and Ernie Kovacs. Doc and I played in the Tonight Show orchestra, and I learned how to conduct from watching Skitch. A first-chair trumpet player and a drummer can make or break a band and Doc Severinson is the best first-chair trumpet player that ever lived. I learned a great deal from him. Eventually I quit NBC and went to the Dick Cavett Show as conductor. I had all the great players in New York in that band. It was a wonderful jazz band. I got to know Gerry Mulligan and worked with his sextet, and I’ve worked with Benny Goodman a lot.
JB: What advice would you give to young drummers who may want to do what you’ve done as a career?
BR: First of all, go home and practice. Learn all styles of playing. I think Steve Gadd and Peter Erskine are two fine examples of the importance of that. As far as recording goes, you’ll end up in one of several places. Film recording is done in California: records and jingles are done in New York, Dallas. Memphis and Nashville. Reading is very important. You don’t have to be able to read violin parts, but you must have a good working knowledge. Play with as many different bands as possible.
Second, keep your mouth shut and play! If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. And finally, try to play with bass players who are better than you are—and learn to pick their brains.