William “Sonny” Greer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey on December 13, 1903. “I wasn’t no rich kid.” He remembers, “but I was always comfortable. We were a happy family. My mother and father were very religious. My mother was strict with us. My old man was a ‘glorified reprobate!’ My father could make wine, beer or whiskey out of a door knob! I had two sisters and one brother, and the love was spread equally among all of us.”
Sonny was the heartbeat of one of America’s greatest orchestras, the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1923 to 1951. Certainly one of the best big-band drummers in jazz, Sonny played a huge set of drums for that era, always in a musical and often comical manner. His replacement in the Ellington Orchestra was Louis Bellson! Sonny lives with his wife Millie, who he met at The Cotton Club in the ’20s. They are both charming, funny and sharp people with a keen memory of their past, and Sonny is still active. He spends time away from his Manhattan apartment to play gigs with his friend, pianist Brooks Kerr. Kerr is virtually a walking encyclopedia of Ellingtonia and was present for part of this interview.
I had been listening to some 1920s Ellington music the night before and began the interview by asking Sonny how it was different playing with a tuba player and then with a bassist.
SG: There’s only so much a tuba player can do. He can’t cover a lot of things like a string bass player. Impossible! We didn’t use tuba too much. We used two bass players. See, a bass player can cover more ground than a tuba player. So there was a lot of things that he could do. A tuba player could only do so much. A string bass player can cover a whole lot of stuff—like a piano.
SF: What was the difference between playing with bassist Wellman Braud and Jimmy Blanton?
SG: Like night and day. Jimmy Blanton was a bass virtuoso. He was so good, that when we played in Boston, the Boston Symphony’s bass player, Koussevitzky would come to see Jimmy. He was one of the head bassists of the Symphony, and he’d heard so much about Jimmy. Duke could always smell the powerful guys. Koussevitzky was a good bass player, but Jimmy Blanton was the King! Duke was slick. Duke would put Blanton up front early. Koussevitzky had come backstage and got a chair and had the man put the chair right on the stage next to Blanton! He never heard anybody play bass like that. Nobody!
See, Braud played different and Jimmy played different, but together they were a powerhouse! They only turned each of them loose when they wanted solos or something. Then in the forties it was just Blanton playing bass. Braud left in 1935.
SF: How did you first get interested in drums?
SG: When I was a kid I saw this vaudeville act named J. Rosmond Johnson. It was just a piano and drum. They had a very good act, and the drummer was tall and very, very debonair. He could sing like a mockingbird and I’d never seen nobody play drums like that. I’d sit in a trance. Everything this guy did was effortless and with so much grace. They were at the theater for a week and I’d see them every night I could.
About the same time, I use to sneak into a pool room and practice pool because it fascinated me. I was only 14 years old. The same man who was playing drums was in there and I beat him at pool. He said, “Hey kid! Where’d you learn to play like that?” I said “Oh. nothing to it. It’s a lot of concentration.” He said, “You show me how to play like you play, and I’ll teach you how to play the drum!” This man was my idol. I said, “You got a deal.” I had about five or six lessons with the guy to get the fundamentals of it.
SF: Were you listening to much music as a kid?
SG: I was so busy getting into the devil that I didn’t have a chance to listen to music. It wasn’t like it is now. I always loved music. We had a pianola in the house, where you’d put in a piano roll. I thought that thing was the end of the world.
When I was in high school, we had a big orchestra for assemblies and things. All the kids had violins and the drummer was the worst guy in the band. I didn’t pay him no mind. He was the dumbest guy! He wasn’t smart in classes. He used to use an excuse to get out of classes, “I got to practice.” He’d always tell the teacher, “I got to practice music,” and he’d get out of classes in high school. I knew I could beat him. He was horrible. He couldn’t do nothing. So the music teacher, the woman who had started the orchestra, decided to give me a shot at the band. She was also our language teacher, and I was one of her good pupils. Out of a completely integrated school, I was the only colored boy in the band. I never in my life played with a colored band until I moved to Washington, D.C.
We had a little group out of that orchestra, eight guys. They could play and read. We had two girl singers. I used to do everything I could to make some money then. I also worked for a Chinaman delivering laundry. I had a paper route. Fishing boats used to come into the New Jersey shore and everyday after school I’d be down there running errands for the fishermen. They’d load my little homemade wagon with fish and I became the fish man of the neighborhood. I also used to run errands for the grocery store! I was never afraid to work. I was never lazy. I was always on the go. Obsessed. I always wanted to make money to give to my mother and father.
I also used to caddy. They rated the caddies, and I was a number one caddy at a very private club. I used to caddy for one of the daughters of Krueger—the biggest brewery concern in the East at that time. One day we was out on the course; I was carrying a heavy bag. They didn’t have no golf carts. So we’re walking along and we got to the 8th hole in the rough! This girl couldn’t play golf anyway. You know how them rich people are. They had a water hazard on the 8th hole and she knocked the ball in there. She said, “Caddy! Go get my ball.” It was one of those golf balls that floated. So I took off my shoes and I was getting ready to step in the water when I saw a snake! He was in the water with the golf ball in his mouth! I’m deathly afraid of snakes. She said. “Caddy! Go get my ball!” I said, “No. You go get it.” I quit right there on the 8th hole. Threw them heavy bags down and walked back to the golf club.
The same woman saw me years later playing with Duke at Carnegie Hall. She came back to say hello. She told everybody, “He was my caddy.” People would say, “Aw, you’re crazy. He ain’t caddied for you.”
After my father saw that I was dedicated to music, and that I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps as an electrician for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he said. “I don’t care what you be—but be the best! Don’t let nobody suppress you.” As I progressed playing the drums I began to get better and better.
SF: When did you move to Washington, and how did that come about?
SG: When I was a kid, one summer I got a job with four kid musicians working as the pit band at the Red Bank Theater in New Jersey. I grew up with Count Basie and Cozy Cole. Basie always wanted to be a drummer. He and Cozy used to get into the theater for free by saying they were my helpers. They’d sit in the pit with me. I had about three pieces. Count would take one of my drums, Cozy would take one, I’d take one, and they wouldn’t have to pay. Then I had a job at the Plaza Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The Conway Brothers—who were famous then—invited me to Washington for a weekend after the season. So I went down there. The second day there, I was playing pool (my first love) in a poolroom next to the Howard Theater. All of a sudden the manager from the theater came in saying, “Man, I’ve got to have me a drummer. My drummer has been run out of town by his wife. He’s back on his alimony.” The drummer was a fancy drummer named Tootie Perkins—playing with an all Puerto Rican band. I went in there and that was the first time I saw Juan Tizol. I stayed there for three years playing shows in the pit. We would play until I 1 : 0 0 PM. Then I got a second exclusive gig from 12:00 to 2:00 AM and that’s when I met Duke. When I was headlining at the Plaza Hotel with the Swanee Sernaders, Duke was a dishwasher there. I didn’t know he was a piano player! I didn’t come in contact with no dishwasher! I was a star! He never lived that down. I used to kid him all the time.
SF: Let’s go back for a minute. When you were in school did you study percussion and reading?
SG: We had a very strict teacher. She taught everything exact—the basics and rudiments. She was very fine. She taught everybody how to read music. It wasn’t nothing difficult, just an average thing. It wasn’t difficult music. Very simple.
SF: So after high school, that was the end of your formal studies’?
SG: That was it. I knew what direction I was going. Nobody could tell me nothing. Kids in my time were more interested in playing the right way. The kids now don’t take it like we did. I never practiced out of school when I was home. Man, ne-ver! I’d have gotten killed if I’d banged on some drums around the house. I had it down and I’d practice on the job. I’d try something, and if I liked it I’d keep it. If I didn’t like it I’d forget it. I never played mechanical in my life.
SF: When did you first really get to know Duke?
SG: I was standing on the corner one day with Duke. Toby Hardwick, Claude Hopkins, Peter Miller and his two brothers. We were standing out there and I was outlying everybody! Lying like a dog! But they’d never seen nobody like me. Duke was always quiet and shy, but they had a little guy there, one of the Miller brothers. He was like Jo Jones, always at the head of the stage. So I blew him down, man. He ain’t never been out of Washington, but I was talking about New York and Fats Waller, Willie The Lion, James P. Johnson. I say, “Man, they’re my bosom pals!” Lying like a dog, I say, “Man, we hang out all the time.” Their mouths flew open and I did spread it on real good. You know how Duke is. I took to him, and after that whenever you saw me—you saw Duke, and Toby. We were not a band, but if Duke got a gig I was on it. If Toby got a gig I was on it. And I still had the other two jobs.
One night we had an amateur contest at the theater. The prize was something like 25 dollars. Duke knew two songs, “Soda Fountain Rag” and “Carolina Shout” that he had down pat from a piano roll. I went over to the pool room and told all the guys that I wanted them at the theater as a cheering section. I said. “When Duke goes on he’s got to win that prize because we need that money!” So Duke comes on and plays his “Carolina Shout” and those guys stood up, stood up, and cheered, and scared Duke to death. Duke said, “I got the money.” I said, “Give me mine.” He said, “For what?” I said, “Didn’t you hear all that noise? That was me back there, man.” So we had a big spread in a restaurant, and a jug of corn whiskey. So everytime they had a contest. Duke’d say, “Hey! You going to bring on the cheering section?” I said, “Yeah.”
One night at a different theater they didn’t have no money. The prize was luggage. I said, “What’re we going to do with all this luggage? Ain’t nobody going nowhere.” So we brought the cheering section down and Duke won the luggage. We took it and pawned it. Duke used to look at me in amazement.
Toby used to have this raggedy jalopy that you had to push a half block to get it started. There’s a big park in Washing ton called Rock Creek Park. President Wilson was in there, in one of those long Pierce-Arrows. We had the car rolling down a hill to get it started and the brakes go out! We’re rolling down and I say, “Man, roll into a tree or something. Stop this damn thing.” We’re going down the hill and we see all these Pierce-Arrows going somewhere. But we can’t stop the car! All the FBI and everybody jump out of their cars. They didn’t know what was happening. The FBI had the whole convoy stopped, the President and everybody. Toby run the car into a tree, and we get out and the FBI says, “What you kids doing?” Now we’re scared! I say, “Mister, the brakes failed. That’s why we come down the hill that way.” “DON’T YOU KNOW THAT’S THE PRESIDENT?” “Yes sir.” Oh, you talk about somebody Uncle Tomming. Man, I went right into my routine. It was a classic. I told Toby, “I ain’t never riding with you no more.” The next day I was in the same raggedy automobile riding again.
SF: Then the nucleus of what was to be the Ellington Orchestra moved to New York?
SG: Fats Waller came to see me. He had a band at that time, but the musicians got to feuding amongst themselves and pulled out from him. Fats had to leave there and open in New York. I was the only one in Washington that he knew. He said, “Sonny, I’ve been in Washington long enough. How’d you like to go to New York?” I said, “Yeah, I’m ready to go back.” He said, “Can you get me a bar band?” I said, “Yeah man. How many do you want?” He said, “Five or six.” So I got Duke, Arthur Whetsol, Elmer Snowden. Four. Me and Duke went on ahead to New York. Toby came later. His auntie lived in New York and we slept at her place. The first night I took Duke down to the Capitol Palace Cafe. Willie The Lion was playing. Willie The Lion had seen me, but I wasn’t no close associate. So I fall in on The Lion and lay some heavy jive on him. I said, “Lion, my man, I want you to meet my number one man from Washington, Duke.” He said, “Sit down, kid.” I said, “He’s a piano player, Lion.” Duke had never seen nobody like that. He had heard about him. So Lion got to playing. He had a rough band and they could play, man. After awhile Lion said, “Hey kid. Play one for me. Let me hear you.” Duke got up and played “Carolina Shout” just like James P. Johnson. Lion said, “I like that.” One night James P. came into the cafe. Lion said to Duke. “Play that thing again.” So Duke played the same thing that James P. had played on the piano roll! And James P. said, “Oh yeah. I like that.” From then on we were all close.
SF: When I listen to the early records with you and Elmer Snowden, a lot of what you were playing with brushes is in unison with the banjo rhythm. Was that something you did consciously?
SG: No. We both listened to the piano. Piano was predominant. We always listened to him. The bass player? We never had to listen to him. He listened to the piano, too, because piano players make so many different changes. The piano player was in the middle of everything. All piano players are crazy. You know that. You give me one thousand dollars and I couldn’t tell you what Brooks is going to play. He don’t know what he’s going to play himself. No piano player knows. They play how they feel. No piano player in the world goes by a set pattern. I don’t care who he is. They don’t play the same thing twice. The best in the world don’t do it.
SF: Well, the best drummers don’t either, right? You weren’t playing anything the same.
SG: No. You just have to be alert all the time. When me, Brooks and Russell Procope were playing down at Gregory’s in New York City, man, we use to play so much stuff. The kids didn’t believe it! They thought it was brand new. The average kid thought it was brand new, man. It wasn’t nothing new! Same things we played many years ago. We went down to play there for two weeks and we stayed down there near four years. That little old place was packed and jammed. You couldn’t even walk in there, from Monday to Sunday, rain or shine. Man, that place has never been like that again.
SF: It must still feel great to be playing, doesn’t it?
SG: Oh yeah. You know a funny thing? Up at the West End Cafe on Monday night that damn place gets bigger and bigger. That’s the worst night of the week. No club is doing business on Monday. You turn around and the first thing you see is a whole lot of people, and it’s just me and Brooks. That’s hard. We got a terrific bass player sometimes. Aaron Bell. He’s sharp. He teaches school at some college in New Jersey.
SF: What drummers did you listen to when you were coming up? Did you ever go out and watch certain drummers that turned you on?
SF: Never? You never saw Chick Webb play or…
SG: Chick was a good friend of me and Duke. I love him. All them guys could play. At that time you put up or shut up. There wasn’t no in-between. You either was good or forgot it. There was so many good drummers that could play. Real craftsmen. Kaiser Marshall was a great drummer. Walter Johnson was a good friend of mine. He was a nice guy. He used to come down to Gregory’s before he got real sick.
Man, we didn’t have no nights off! We didn’t have time to go visit nobody. If I ran into them…alright. If I didn’t run into them…forget it. We were so busy we didn’t have no time. We were working every night including Monday and Sunday. No nights off. Man, the Cotton Club would take the whole show and the band to a hotel to play a benefit. We’d do one a night or at least every other night. The Cotton Club was the place. High class. All the rich people from downtown just used to live at the Cotton Club. You come to New York and didn’t go to the Cotton Club, you ain’t seen New York. They thought Harlem was heaven. It was! Everybody from downtown came up and you could walk anywhere, any hour of the night. You never heard of mugging and all that stuff. It was beautiful.
SF: Sonny, can you give me an idea of the way the speak-easys were?
SG: Oh, yeah. I was singing with the band. Man, Leo Bernstein, our manager, would make so much money and get real drunk that he would damn near want to give me the cash register. I knew when he was drunk. All I had to do was sing “My Buddy” and I could get anything in the world! So Fats Waller was playing piano for the master of ceremonies at the show, Bert Howell. Duke ain’t going to go out on the floor and play no piano. So me and Fats would go around and entertain, singing those risque songs. We made so much money in tips down there that Duke’s eyes popped open! He told Fats, “Hey man, I’ll take the piano.” I said, “No, no. Me and Fats got this.” We had 7 or 8 girls that Leo Bernstein hired as hostesses, but they would sit with stag parties. So man, they wasn’t going to sit with nobody if their pockets wasn’t straight, you know? So we’d swing around on the piano to where they would be sitting. That’d be the first place we’d hit. Man, the guy wants to give us 2 dollars. The girl starts hollering, “What’re they going to do with 2 dollars? They can’t do nothing with 2 dollars!” So the guy would try to impress the girls, he would dig, and we’d lay one of them good ones on him. But when Leo Bernstein got drunk I’d say, “Man, he’s drunk.” I’d sing “My Buddy,” because he was a war veteran. I’d sing, “The nights are long since you went away, my Buddy.” Man, he would start crying and throw his hands in his pockets. Me and Fats would say, “We got it! We got it!” It was prohibition and you ain’t supposed to sell no whiskey. People couldn’t get no whiskey until they’d see me, because I remembered faces and people from all over. He’d say, “Sonny, the party over there wants some whiskey. Should I serve them?” I’d say, “Yeah, he’s alright.”
BK: Sonny was the spotter.
SG: And I never made a mistake.
BK: And when the Fed’s would come busting in there the place would flip flop into a church and Sonny’d come out and say, “We don’t serve nothing but wine. This is a church.”
SF: How would you know when the Fed’s were going to come?
BK: The buzzer. It was a basement joint.
SG: We had a doorman called Slim and he could smell one of them a mile. Slim would step on the buzzer. As soon as the buzzer comes it was a different joint, man. In about a minute all the panels would turn around and the whole place would take on a different atmosphere.
SF: During the big-band days, the bands played for the dancers, right? There wasn’t any playing for “musicians”?
SG: We never featured playing for the musicians. If they happened to be there…they was there! But to play directly for them? We never did that. When Fletcher Henderson was at the Roseland Ballroom, he played for dancers. Benny Goodman did too. I remember they’d feature a guest band every week at the Savoy Ballroom. All the big-bands would go up there but Chick Webb’s band would cut them. So one day it was our turn to go up there.
Chick had such strong men. We played the Apollo Theater the week before we went up there to play against Chick. So everybody was running out of the Apollo saying, “Man, ain’t nobody ever cut The Duke. But Chick can do it because he’s been rehearsing all week.” Duke just laughed. Duke paid it no mind. We didn’t rehearse, we just played the show. We didn’t have time to rehearse no band. Chick opened up. The place was packed, because the Savoy was Chick’s home ground. His cats got a big ovation. We sat back and listened to it.
BK: If a band ended on a C7 chord. Duke knew enough to resolve to the next higher chord, for the beginning of their first tune. Like, if Chick ended on a C major chord, Duke would take if from a C major to a C7 to an F chord. He’d not only resolve it—he’d bring it up. So, it had an effect that would lift the listener.
SG: We went up there and Duke played a little piano—-just me and him until it got down to the last four bars—until he played the tonic and we know what we was going to play! We opened up with “Rockin’ In Rhythm.” The people in the place stood up and cheered. People wouldn’t dance! They just stood around the bandstand. We picked up where Chick left off and kept going higher. Chick shook his head. “Why you got to play all that music up there?” The guy that booked us there said, “Chick, I guess you’d better play the waltzes now.”
But Duke and I were crazy about Chick. He was crazy about Duke. Chick asked, “Duke, what did you do that to me for?” Duke said, “Man, we’re just playing a gig, that’s all.” Then we had to go back to The Cotton Club where we tore them up again.
Sonny Greer conjures up a picture of a massive drumset. The set was so impressive that special mention was made in Jim Haskin’s book The Cotton Club: “Greer and his drums provided the focus of the band’s (Ellington’s) music. He had an incredible battery of percussion equipment, everything from tom-toms to snares to kettle drums, and once he realized the band was at the club to stay awhile, he brought in the really good stuff. Sonny later recalled: ‘ When we got into the Cotton Club, presentation became very important. I was a designer for the Leedy Manufacturing Company of Elkhart, Indiana, and the president of the company had a fabulous set of drums made for me, with timpani, chimes, vibraphone, everything. Musicians used to come to the Cotton Club just to see it. The value of it was three thousand dollars, a lot of money at that time, but it became an obsession with the racketeers, and they would pressure bands to have drums like mine, and would often advance money for them.’ With such equipment, Greer could make every possible drum sound, and at the Cotton Club he awed the customers, conjuring up tribal warriors and man-eating tigers and war dancers. But his rhythms were only the focus of the band’s sound.”
SG: My valet had my drums shine like gold. They were chrome plated on the rims and hardware except for the cymbals and the gongs, which were gold plated. The valet kept them sparkling like diamonds. Very expensive.
SF: Did you design that set?
SG: Yeah. The average drummer didn’t use all them drums. I had everything. Timpani, vibraphone, chimes and the other drums. I only used the vibraphone for chords to back up singers. I’m no Lionel Hampton. Duke used to like to come there and play them all the time. I designed a lot of drums for Leedy. When the first timpani pedal came out I helped design that. A lot of snare drums, tomtoms, and different ideas about brushes, and a line of cymbals.
SF: Leedy manufactured their own cymbals?
SG: No. Zildjian up in Boston. I gave them a lot of ideas. The average drummer— very few of them know—you can tell a good cymbal by the cup. If the cup is not too pointed—more flat—you’ll get a better sound.
SF: You used to use a lot of cymbal chokes for accents.
SG: Oh yeah. Man, that’s so long ago I’d forgotten all about it. It’s just something that I done, that’s all.
SF: Were you able to use your Leedy set in the recording studio?
SG: No. They always have a set of drums at the recording studio. If I want some special thing I take my own stuff. But they always had a technician who was very exact. He wanted everything perfect. It ain’t like you hear now. Some of these people that’s doing it now don’t play. You hear them country cats, man, they ain’t playing! Can’t sing. Can’t play. They’re pathetic.
BK: Sonny had a valet named Jonesy who always tuned Sonny’s bass drum to a “G.”
SG: Always. He knew more about my drums than I did. Boy, he was something else. Him and Ivy Anderson didn’t hit it off at all. They weren’t enemies—they were friends. Everytime she wanted something she wouldn’t let nobody go for it but Jonesy, and Jonesy never gave her no change. She’d give Jonesy a twenty-dollar bill for some barbecued chicken or something, and she’d say, “Jonesy, give me my change.” He’s say, “Ain’t no change.” She’d blow her top! Ivy was fiery, man. Jonesy would never give Duke no change, never give me no change.
One time a guy gave Duke one of the prettiest accordions as a present. They kept it in the baggage car. We always traveled with our own Pullman. Jonesy saw the accordion and sold it! Some weeks later Duke said, “Jonesy, get my accordion.” Jonesy says, “Man, I can’t find it nowhere.” He had sold it! He was a character. He’d been a bellboy at the Cotton Club and he was so nice that Duke asked him, “How’d you like to come on the road with us?” He said, “Yeah.” So we took him. He was great. He’d do anything to try to be at a certain place at a certain time. He and I were the first ones in the theaters. When the band come we had the whole stage set up. Everything. All the dressing rooms were put out. You could trust Jonesy with your life. He wouldn’t let nobody touch my drums. He knew them backwards.
SF: Is it true that you used to use timpani heads on your bass drum?
BK: That was so he’d be in tune with the bass player. The bass player would hit a “B” and Sonny would hit a “G” on the bass drum and they’d be in harmony. Or a “D” in harmony with “G.” Blanton always hit a “D.”
SG: It was my idea to use the timpani heads, and Duke and I thought of the tuning idea. I was the first one that tried the hi-hat. Leedy made the first hi-hat and they sent me one of the originals. I used it at the Kentucky Club.
BK: They sent it to Chick Webb the same day and Chick didn’t like it! Sonny, who was the first drummer you ever heard play the jazz ride cymbal rhythm?
SG: I think it was Kaiser Marshall when he was with Fletcher Henderson’s band.
SF: Was there a closeness between the drummers in the thirties and forties?
SG: We were all friends. Close friends. We all socialized. The musicians were closer together at that particular time. Everybody visited everybody and they hung out together. Today it’s a different atmosphere. The kids? You can’t tell them nothing now. You either put up then or shut up. If you were lame you had a hard time. But if you could play, they would come to see you. They’d tell you if you could play. It was a pleasure being around guys like that because they were close together. I used to be called “The Sweet Singing Drummer.” Boy, I had more people that hated me.
SG: Because we used to broadcast over the radio from coast to coast every week. I was singing with the band and we had a few of the best announcers in the business. Man, we played all the best of our numbers for an hour. If you were a guy who worked past 7:00 PM…well, nobody would cook dinner for their husbands! The husbands would be working all day and they hated our band. From 6:00 to 7:00 everything stopped. If you hadn’t ate before our radio show come on you were out of luck.
SF: When the Ellington Orchestra would work out tunes, how did you handle the arrangements? Was there much rehearsal prior to performing the songs?
SG: We were the only band that never played the same concert at Carnegie Hall twice. Duke would write special music for it. Every concert we played we played different tunes. You didn’t come there to hear “Oh, Susanna” or one of those songs over and over. We had brand new music for every Carnegie Hall concert and we played there every year. For us everyday was a new day and a new challenge.
SF: Were you using drum charts for the floor shows at the clubs?
SG: Man, no. We just played it like we feel, just like we play right now.
SF: When did you first meet Jo Jones?
SG: Jo was out West in 1936. He’s my number one man. He’s something else. I saw him with Basie out in Kansas City somewhere, with the Bennie Moten band. I liked Jo right away. He’s the same Jo Jones that you know now. He calls me “Mr. Empire State Building.” One Christmas he found the oldest pair of shoes that he could find, gift wrapped them and said, “Here’s your Christmas present. It cost me a lot of money.” Man, he must’ve had those shoes a thousand years! They were all wrapped up nice, man. I threw them in the garbage can. Next time you see him tell him, “Sonny told me about the Christmas present you gave him!”
SF: As drums progressed through the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with people like Jo Jones and then on up, did you dig what was happening?
SG: Well, Jo Jones played then like he does now. He never changed his way of playing. Not that I know of, and I’ve seen him many times.
BK: How about Davey Tough?
SG: Well, when Davey got out of the Navy, we was playing the Chicago Theater and he stopped in Chicago and found out the hotel I was staying in. The manager called and said, “There’s a boy here that just got out of the Navy, his name is Davey Tough. He said that he’s a good friend of yours. Should I let him go up to the room?” I said, “Yeah. Give him anything he wants.” He was half sick then. That was the last time I saw him. A beautiful guy. Good drummer. He was one of the good ones. Not only playing, I mean personally. He was great. I didn’t think he was that sick. He died shortly after he got home.
SF: Did you get a chance to see people like Kenny Clarke at Minton’s, and Max, and Art Blakey?
SG: No, you see when I get through work I never hang out any place afterwards. People would always say, “Come on by.” But they were mostly horn players that went to those places. Real drummers and bass players, they duck those places because everytime they go in there, somebody wants them to sit down and play, accompany somebody.
BK: And you’ve got to play 99 million choruses of “I’ve Got Rhythm” to accompany somebody.
SG: I never went.
One time we were playing the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh. I come off the stage and this little kid was out there. He say, “Mister, you got a drum head?” I say, “Yeah.” I always liked kids. I took him backstage and I gave him a whole drum. I forgot all about it. Years later a bunch of drummers were all talking down on Broadway and one drummer says, “You remember the time you gave me the drum? I’m the little kid who came backstage and you gave him the drum.” It was Art Blakey.
SF: What’s ahead for you and Brooks? Sheila was talking about a record.
BK: Not only that, but she’s trying to put together two or three weeks for Sonny and I. Exclusive.
SF: Is Sonny’s book a definite?
BK: Yeah. That won’t be until 1982. Sonny’s writing it. The working title is I Wax There.
SG: It’s just the opposite to Duke’s Music Is My Mistress. So many pleasant things happened.
SF: Are your still listening to music, Sonny?
SG: I went down to see Sophisticated Ladies. The band was very good. They got the stage sort of like the cafe was in the Cotton Club. Beautiful lighting. The singing and dancing is the last word. Duke would’ve been proud of that.
SF: Do you listen much to drummers anymore?
SG: I don’t pay drummers no mind.
SF: What’s that set you’re playing down at the West End?
SG: Leedy. Those drums are from the last bunch before Leedy sold out to Ludwig. I’ve got to have them done over because a lot of the glass mirrors are peeling off.
SF: How did you learn how to play brushes?
SG: No matter how much money they offered me, that’s one question I can’t answer. It was easier to play brushes than sticks. Much easier!
SF: Do you have any closing thoughts?
SG: I never let the guys in the band down. We could get a sub for a saxophone, trumpet or trombone, but Duke and I were indispensible. My mother passed away when I was working at the Layfette Theater. I said, “Duke, I don’t want to go.” He said “You got to go.” Duke used to call my mother “mama.” You know who subbed for me? Kaiser Marshall. But it wasn’t the same thing. My only regret is that my mother and father never saw me play.