For those who grew up in the ’60s, Sandy Nelson needs little introduction. Those who are not familiar with him should find someone who has one or 35 of Sandy’s albums and start listening! One of the few drummers to have a hit with a drum record, some 20 years later, Sandy’s style is still talked about, analyzed, and emulated.
RF: You once mentioned that you had a smattering of lessons and “fell” into rock ‘n’ roll. How does somebody fall into rock ‘n’ roll?
SN: We have to go back to 1947 or so. You’ve heard the old cliche, “Yes, when he was old enough to stand up, he would grab the knobs of the radio and jump up and down.” My parents would relate that about me years later. I guess I was jumping up and down to Benny Goodman or bands of the ’40s.
When I was about five or six, I had a small phonograph of my own in my room. At three or four in the morning, I’d get a cold sweat and would have to listen to something. I’d take records out of the front room and put them on low level in my room so I wouldn’t get caught. There was a tune called “Rose Room” that I remember. Spike Jones’ records really made an impact on me. Other kids in the neighborhood always made fun of me because I was in the garage banging on pots and pans to Spike Jones records, while they were out playing baseball. Those same kids grew up to be accountants, and although I’m no longer banging on pots and pans, drumming is an extension of that. I think what you do as a youngster really has a lot to do with what you are going to do when you grow up.
RF: Who were some of your drumming influences?
SN: Well, technically speaking, Spike Jones was a drummer, and my parents took me to see him at the Orpheum in downtown Las Vegas. I was so impressed in Las Vegas that, after the curtains closed, I chased Spike backstage through the kitchen and my mother had to chase after me. I remember being at the Orpheum with all the spotlights and the drum shadows on the curtains, and everybody standing up in the aisles yelling, “Gene Krupa!” That must have been around 1947. I remember dancing in the aisle, seeing Gene’s silver sparkle set, and the shadows of his hands and sticks on the curtains were incredible. That made an impression on me. I got a set of drums for Christmas when I was seven. Bebop was starting to come in.
RF: Did you take lessons?
SN: Well, the siege with the drums when I was real small didn’t last too long. I just lost interest. Actually, I started to play boogie on the piano when I was about nine, but from there on up to when I was 16, I wasn’t interested in the drums. All through high school, I was in stage crew. One afternoon there was going to be a drum battle. There were three sets of drums on stage. No one was in the auditorium except myself and another fellow up in the lights. There were no sticks, so I got two wooden coat hangers and used them. While I sat there at the middle set and started to thump along, the guy started focusing the lights. I visualized 800 people out there, with me doing a drum solo like the one I saw Gene Krupa doing. I thought, “This is it. I am going to be a drummer.”
In a way, Ben Pollack was one of my first influences. What he would do was take a brush and whisk along on the bass drum while he was playing with his left hand on the snare. That influenced my recording of “Teen Beat” years later. The last minute or so, I had a stick on the bass drum. First lessons. When I was still at the Bruin Theatre, down on Westwood Blvd., there was a little music store where one of the drum teachers was Bob Winslow. He had taken from Murray Spivak, who I had heard about from my father since I was real small. When I heard that Bob Winslow had taken from Murray, I thought he had to be okay. I started taking lessons from him in 1956 when I was 17.
RF: Were you interested in learning how to read?
SN: No. Number one, I was intimidated by my own mental blocks. I was terrible at math, so when they started talking about 8th notes or 16th notes, they lost me. Bob Winslow started me on a book which involved open rolls with five- and sevenstroke rolls, and the up and down strokes. However, like a lot of young fellows, I wanted to boogie.
RF: Had you already decided you were going to be a professional?
SN: Yeah, what I wanted to do was get into rock ‘n’ roll drumming because it was exciting at the time with Buddy Holly and, well…actually, there wasn’t a lot else. There wasn’t really much competition either. Bruce Johnson [Beach Boys] and I started a band while we were still in high school. In those days, admittedly, there were no rock ‘n’ roll bands. In high school, anybody who could play “Happy Birthday Pretty Baby” or “Tequila” was good. The only piano player that was good was Bruce. He is basically a terrific musician.
Bruce and myself, with a guy named Dave Schostac on saxophone, got together. In those days, all Dave did was honk on the saxophone. For that day and age, though, we had a fair rock ‘n’ roll band. In the meantime, the records I was listening to included an Ernie Freeman 78 called “Jivin’ Around” and the other side was “Funny Face.” There was something that was so solid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a carry-over from bebop. In my wildest imagination, little did I dream that one day I would be recording under my own name, and using Ernie Freeman as the arranger and piano player. I used to take that record to parties, and that’s the kind of group I wanted to have. Bruce was able to play “Jivin’ Around.” He could actually play a VII chord. It was really something in those days. I must say, I didn’t even know what a backbeat was until I heard Little Richard and Fats Domino records.
RF: You’ve said that Earl Palmer was your biggest influence.
SN: That’s right. In fact, when I heard Little Richard records, it never occurred to me that they were black musicians in New Orleans. In my mind, in those days in 1957, you’d hear people play on a record, and think of them with coats and ties in a big studio on Sunset Blvd.
In the meantime, Bruce, Dave, and I had this band. One day I got a call from Bruce saying that Kip Tyler was going to call. At that time, Kip Tyler had a band, the Flips, and they would back up the Art Laboe rock ‘n’ roll shows. Sure enough, Kip called. “Hello Sammy,” he said. My name was Sammy then because I didn’t like Sandy. I guess it was too feminine. He said we could start work immediately backing up the Art Laboe shows, and we did. That was really the big time in those days. Kip told us that he had to fire his present band, which was hysterical because he didn’t fire them. They quit him to join Duane Eddy. When we went down to watch the band to get some ideas, I felt bad that these guys were going to be fired. The truth was that they were happy as anything to go on the road with Duane Eddy.
That summer we did the Art Laboe TV show. It was so strange, because going from the dressing room into the studio, all these girls would be screaming for our autographs and I didn’t know how to handle that. I gained a lot of good experience backing up acts in those days.
Somewhere along there, before Kip Tyler, Bruce and I did some things with Jan and Arnie. [Arnie was replaced by Dean.] We did it in Jan’s parents’ garage. Jan could have anything he wanted, such as a real Ampex tape recorder and any record he wanted to buy. So we made a record, they took it to Arwin Records, and that was “Jenny Lee.”
RF: Then you worked with Kip Tyler.
SN: That was over the summer of ’58. When we quit Kip, Bruce somehow managed to land us a job in a small dive out in the Valley called Rocky’s, along with a saxophone player named Bobby Ray. It was kind of fun playing my first nightclub job. Then Bobby Ray got a gig for us at $10 apiece at a recording studio. From that one session, I picked up a few other $10 or $12 sessions doing demos and records. One was “A Thousand Stars” with Cathy Young. I did one with Marvin and Johnny, and one with Sonny Knight. I did an album with Gene Vincent, but I was more or less on the bottom of the list of session men. I could have worked my way up if I had been more responsible and didn’t have a hit record of my own, which spoiled me.
RF: How old were you when you did those first sessions?
SN: At that time I was 18 going on 19. Bruce, Dave and I still did gigs around Southern California. Sometimes we’d use a guitar player who sang some Buddy Holly tunes kind of badly and his guitar was real loud. If the people at the gig would ask him to turn his guitar down, he’d say, “Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be loud,” and he’d cuss them out, so we didn’t use him anymore. That was Phil Spector. As a matter of fact, going back a bit, while we were still with Kip, we knew Phil and Phil hired me to do a demo session at Gold Star recording studios. That was “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which was actually the first record I was on that was a hit.
RF: What was it like hearing yourself on the radio?
SN: It was really fun. When Phil heard his record on the radio at the beach, he’d stand up on the blanket and yell, “That’s me!”
RF: When did you start getting the idea to do your own thing.
SN: Well, actually, the idea to do a drum record came from a lot of different areas, like the strip drummer at the New Follies Burlesque and of course Cozy Cole’s having a drum record. Another influence was a record called “Caravan.” I think that was in the ’40s because the drummer played a small tom, snare, and a floor tom. We used to play gigs, and I’d be doing the little Ralph Marterie-type beat mixed in with a beat that I heard on the back side of a hit record called “The Swag.” I was playing this beat and the kids were dancing. I thought it was great just to play the drums and have them dance. That’s where I wanted to go with drums, since I couldn’t play anything like a solo in “Jumping At the Woodside” by Buddy Rich, which I used to listen to for hours on end. I thought I wanted to play drums people could dance to, rock ‘n’ roll.
I banged around in my head to have a hit record, thinking, “Gee, everybody is having a hit record. Why don’t I have one too? Then I won’t have to do these recording sessions all over town.” I had started do ing more demo sessions and small sessions at Podlor’s studio, which was actually, called American Recording Company. I was sort of their house drummer.
Bruce, Richie, and I did some records for American International Pictures. They had just started, and their gimmick was these teenage pictures like “Diary of a High School Bride.” Matter of fact, I was on the title tune. I remember I got a nice drum sound. It was a good studio, and it was sort of like an Elvis Presley sound at that time. Bruce, Richie, and I went under the name of the Renegades and cut some records for American International. One was called “Geronimo” and one was “Charge,” which got a little airplay in Bakersfield and Fresno.
One afternoon I was fiddling with the drums at Podlor’s studio, and Kip came in. We were still friends, even though I wasn’t working for him anymore. I remember playing this slowed-down Ralph Marterie beat. Kip started dancing around while I was playing, saying, “That’s good, do that again.” I did it and that’s where the “Teen Beat” pattern started.
Ironically, when I really wanted to make up a track of “Teen Beat,” Podlor’s studio was booked, so I went to Western Recorders and made a little demo on acetate. I was happy with the sound. It was danceable and simple, a lot of open rolls and no guitar, just drums.
RF: So you built the song around the drums?
SN: Yes. I remember playing it for some publishers and some people that hung around Podlor’s, and it didn’t interest them to hear just drums. They thought it was boring. I thought of going to Art Laboe since he had had “Bongo Rock” by Preston Epps, and he liked the idea immediately. By that time, I had the title and he loved that too. He said we’d record it and two weeks later, we did at Podlor’s studio with Richie on guitar, Bruce on piano, and myself. That’s when Art had the genius idea to bring the record of “Battle of New Orleans” along so we could get the same feel and tempo.
After all these years, I can say now that the session would have ended up a big grotesque mess if it wasn’t for Art’s strong personality. Otherwise, Bruce and Richie would have taken over, and it would have ended up with a lot of guitar licks, real busy. It would have just turned into another bunch of guys renting a studio and going nowhere, with everybody wanting a piece of the pie.
You might say the actual guitar licks were written by Art. Art wanted a guitar passage similar to “Bongo Rock.” He just wanted some kind of 12-bar rock ‘n’ roll twangy guitar sound. Art would hum the 12-bar change to Richie and Richie would be all over the place. Art had to get him to play down. You might say that Art wrote the lick, but I imagine that Richie created the actual melody line. To this day, Richie has it in for me because he didn’t get part songwriter’s credit for “Teen Beat.” At that point, though, I thought it would be another Renegades record, but a few weeks after we recorded it, I called Art about it and he said, “It’s going to be Sandy Nelson. I said, “I don’t want it to be Sandy. For one thing, a lot of people know me as Sam from playing around the L.A. area.” He said that didn’t mean anything, and if I had a national hit, that would wipe it all out. So, that was it.
RF: When did you get an album deal?
SN: Kip took me to Imperial Records. Due to the fact that I used to listen to Ernie Freeman records on Imperial, I thought I would like the label and that was my first artist’s contract. We put out a few singles and one terrible album that Ernie Freeman actually played on. I was so nervous playing with him because I was playing some of his tunes. I really admired that man. That was a terrible album called Teen Beat. It’s a collector’s item. In fact, I make it more of a collector’s item because I go out, buy copies, and destroy them. There are a few good cuts on there that were used in repackages years and years later though.
RF: When did you tour with the Ventures?
SN: That was in ’61. I had already signed with Imperial and had several singles that didn’t sell very well at all. The Ventures needed a drummer because their drummer, Howie Johnson, had had an accident. I thought, “Why not? I’ll go on the road.” We toured the Northwest and part of Nebraska. Bless their hearts, they’re good guys, but they had counted on part of the gate and they lost their shirts on the tour. Then halfway through the tour, they decided to advertise me and that helped a little. One of the reasons it didn’t work out for me and the Ventures, though, is because I was so into the New Orleans influenced drumming of Earl Palmer and how he plays his bass drum. They wanted a more white, what they called a “Susie-Q” beat, just a light 4/4 bass drum, and I wanted to really crack that downbeat. So that was one thing in disfavor of my being with the Ventures. Of course, it wasn’t agreed that I would be their regular drummer anyway from the start.
RF: Didn’t “Let There Be Drums” happen in ’61?
SN: Yes. You see, while I was on tour with the Ventures, I thought, “This isn’t for me”—the snow, the chains, and the trailer rotting from the salt on the highway. I thought, “I’ve got to have one more hit record. Save me from this!” So, miraculously, the summer after the Ventures, I went into Podlor’s studio with just the engineer, a guy named Tommy Coe. We fooled around with miking drums, a mic’ on the bottom of the floor tom and a mic’ on the top. We made a lot of wild tracks. I pieced them together and took it to Imperial. That was “Birth of the Beat” and “Let There Be Drums.” I overdubbed Richie a few days later. He helped write the turnaround and, of course, put his unique type of musicianship on it. He got half writer’s credit.
RF: To this day, I hear drummers say, “I’m trying to get a Sandy Nelson sound.” What was that sound and what do you perceive as different about your sound?
SN: I didn’t know about this “Sandy Nelson sound” at the time, consciously, but what I think it is is playing, say tom-toms. It is a matter of nuances or dynamics. I always tried to grab it on the first take, because you are loose and you can play with these dynamics, meaning loud and soft notes. The minute you tighten up mentally and physically, everything is going to be tight and loud.
RF: Were you muffling your drums any?
SN: Oh no. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to record. I’ve had nightmares sitting there behind the drums and having some little 25-year-old engineer come out with a roll of duct tape. When I play now, I have a strip of dust cloth taped on the side of the drums that I can just flip off or on. To give it a little bit of weight, I put a little piece of duct tape on the strip of dust cloth. In just an instant, I can flip that off and get a nice open tom-tom sound.
RF: Did you just tune your drums by ear?
SN: Just instinctively. A lot of drummers even now tune them so they are not too high, and they sound like coffee cans. If it’s too loose, it’s just for the flap. I like the snare drum pretty tight. There again, I like the same muffler system to get that old 1930s ring, the rick-tick stuff, 8th notes played in triplet style or whatever. When I took lessons from Murray Spivak, I thought I invented some of that stuff, but it’s the old saying, “the same old soup warmed over.”
RF: When did you actually take lessons from Murray Spivak?
SN: In 1976, I spent a year with him. I had always wanted to take lessons from him ever since my father told me about him back in the ’40s when Murray worked at Fox. One of the things that kept me from studying all those years was my drinking problems and the intimidation of being bad at math. In ’76, I thought I was getting older. I wanted to study with him and get my hands loosened up. He said the same thing he said to a lot of drummers: “You guys kill me. You play for 20 or 25 years and then you come to me to get your hands in shape. I have to spend six months correcting your bad habits.”
I have a little bit of a gripe with some drummers, where the school of thought is to not study and never practice; either you’ve got it or you don’t. Maybe they can go through the rudiments kind of mechanically, but the actual playing of music, that’s another story. I suspect that my figures are wrong, but I suspect that maybe 95% of the drummers that say they know the rudiments don’t know how to play them.
RF: What had changed though? All your life you really didn’t want to study and you didn’t want to read. What did you get out of the learning experience that you hadn’t had up to then?
SN: I would say that even going back to 1961, deep down in my mind I thought, “Some day I’m going to settle down, really learn this instrument, and really become a good musician.” I had worked around and seen good studio players, which of course would intimidate me. I thought, “I’m going to be a good musician some day.” It’s never too late. It seemed that it happened right after all those years of making a lot of albums and being told what tunes to record, which I resented. I don’t feel sour grapes about it. I’m very thankful for being in the recording business in the way that I have been. However, in ’75 into ’76, I bought this little house and I thought, “There is no reason not to study under Murray.” I went down and introduced myself, and I’ve learned to love to practice. It’s very soothing. I almost get into a form of meditation and go into a fantasy world. Studying and practicing are wonderful. This has probably been written up a thousand times in your magazine, but you’ve got to learn to separate that from the actual playing of music. You can’t be thinking of exercises or “I’m going to wow them with this,” because then you’re really not playing. Half the time I’m holding the sticks all wrong with the fingers curled way under on the left hand, matched grip style. I never thought I would be playing any kind of jazz or big band type things.
RF: Is that what you’re doing now?
SN: Not with the big bands, but with a marvelous piano player who I’ve learned to really appreciate and have become close to, Dick Leslie. It’s opened up a whole new world of colors, because I thought I would be sentenced to a life of being a mediocre rock player and beating some good licks on a tom-tom for the rest of my life.
RF: You’ve been using a Ludwig set with a Gretsch bass drum, is that right?
SN: That’s what I do now when I play with Dick.
RF: What were you using back then?
SN: Actually, the same set I’m using now. A Ludwig 13″ and 16″ with heads on both sides. I’ve gone to a Yamaha snare, steel shelled.
RF: Why do you use a Gretsch bass drum and Ludwig toms?
SN: The situations I’ve been playing in have been either rectangular or half round piano bars, and you’ve got to have something with punch to get out from there. I like the Gretsch. I’m not too much into the technical, mechanical aspects of drums. I learned something about cymbals from my old friend, Bob Yeager. It was ignorant bliss on my part. About 20 years ago, I went in and said, “I want a medium ride, about 19″ or so.” He said, “You don’t want to try it out?” I said, “What would I want to try it out for? I’ll trust you. Just give me a medium that doesn’t have too gongy or too ticky of a sound.” He said, “You know something? You’re smart. Most of these guys come in here behind the counter, put the glove on, try out cymbals all day long, and drive me crazy.” He said it’s like trying out speakers which are going to sound different in every room. I still have those cymbals.
RF: Which cymbals do you use?
SN: Zildjian. I use two 17″ for ride and crash, a 19″ medium ride, a 15″ or 16″ Chinese, and a small splash about 14″, high up on the same stand as the Chinese cymbal.
RF: Did you ever take your own group out on the road?
SN: I used to go out on the road with just a guitar player, Don Miller, and myself. We’d do exciting gigs in places like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Oxnard. That was in ’61. In ’63 I had a nice little band. We did some Ray Charles and James Brown things. At that time, the kids in the Midwest hadn’t really heard of any black music to speak of, so with our little crew cuts and tight pants, we had a good tour. It was a very rough tour, though, and it made me never want to tour again. My car blew up three times, and that gave me grey hair when I was only 24 years old. Strangely enough, I had a nice band in 1968 and ’69, but being in my own band interfered with my drinking, so I quit my own band.
RF: When was your accident, Sandy?
SN: That was in April of ’63. I was on a small motorcycle. I tangled with a school bus and lost my right foot. I’ve trained my left foot, over the last years, into a better bass drum technique. Of course, during the accident, in the hospital, I never thought I’d play again.
RF: What made you play again? A lot of people would have felt defeated at that point.
SN: When I got out of the hospital, I still had a lot of record royalties coming in on “Let There Be Drums” and some other albums. I was, you might say, semi-rich. I bought a house and a boat in Marina del Rey. I was still doing albums, but I have to admit, it was a sluff-off deal. I didn’t enjoy the music they were handing me. There were some good moments, though, on some of those sessions, but I even had some hate mail, like “How dare you put out such vomit! It’s not even good enough for Muzak.” I’d always say to myself, “It’s the last album I’m going to do like this. From now on, I’m just going to do the old home-spun Sandy Nelson stuff.” However, due to the waving under my nose of advances from the company, I’d say, “Well, I’ll just do this one more time.” I did bring drum solos down from my garage studio on the old three track and put them in the albums, which appeared quite frequently. I brought one of those drum solos to a mastering session after we completed an album, but the producer from Liberty said, “We don’t want to bother putting that in. Let’s just put out an 11-tune album. I want to go home.” He started putting on his coat. I pushed him up against the wall, made a fist, said, “This is going in the album,” and it went in the album.
RF: What gave you the optimism to continue playing after your accident?
SN: I don’t think I ever really thought about it that much, to be honest. I thought I might have to have a special house with handrails, never dreaming that I would be handling a little cabin cruiser all by myself one or two years later. I guess that’s human nature. When something traumatic happens, you don’t see any way out of it. It doesn’t take as long as people think to train your other hand or foot. Like when you go into a kitchen, you reach for that handle on the cupboard with that same hand. Reverse it and it only takes a few days to get used to that. That wasn’t really too much of a problem switching to the left foot on the bass drum.
RF: What about the hi-hat?
SN: Until seven years ago, I was just using a closed hi-hat. I was looking at the hi-hat, though, and thought, “God, I’ve got an artificial foot here. I can move it up and down.” So I put a board under the floor tom, taped it to the hi-hat foot pedal, and for the last six or seven years, I’ve been developing a technique with that. It’s working out great.
RF: I take it then, from what you’ve been saying, that there really wasn’t any bitterness after the accident.
SN: I don’t know if this is the place to get into it, but I think the way it works is your subconscious doesn’t accept losing a foot or limb, but finally the subconscious catches us. What I’m leading up to is just one simple word: acceptance. With anything traumatic in your life, you go through certain stages. The first is denial and the final one is acceptance.
RF: Why do you think that drum records were and are so scarce? Why do you think yours were so successful?
SN: There certainly was a scarcity. I don’t know, but a lot of companies don’t like drum solos. They think they’re boring. They sound so medicinal in an office in a recording company. It would be nice to think it’s what I was saying earlier about the dynamics and nuances on the tom-toms, the loud and soft beats. It would be a nice neat package for me to say that’s why my records sold better than others, but that may be a little too egocentric or oversimplified. With “Teen Beat,” I hit it just right. I had a good title and it was something of a novelty. Of course right after it was on the charts, people in the recording business said, “You had a lot of luck. It could never happen again.” Then it happened again with “Let There Be Drums.” “Let There Be Drums” was a lot like Cozy Cole’s playing, which is ironic because he tried to do “Let There Be Drums.” He should have done an imitation of his “Topsy.” It would have come off better. He was trying to do an imitation of Sandy Nelson, which is like 10 sheets of carbon paper.
RF: You’re teaching now. What kinds of things do you stress?
SN: Like a lot of teachers, I try to go through curriculum similar to Murray Spivak’s. I think sometimes I learn more teaching than my students learn from me. Say it’s a fairly young person. I have to decide whether to give him what I call the “bartender filling in for the drummer who didn’t show up” type lessons or start with good technique with the sticks and the open roll, the up and down stroke, etc. I have to figure out how much of both to give him. It’s really an art to try to give him both. It depends a lot on the experience and the age. There’s a little five-year-old kid named Josh who I’ve been coaching, and he shows a lot of promise because he started out with a little toy set. It’s so cute, because he was really listening to the music and knew what he was after. He plays with his mother who plays piano, and at five years old, he actually is starting to understand the difference between a swing rhythm and a rock beat. The one thing I learned from him is that, with a youngster like that, you’ve got to make the lessons fun. About a half hour into the last time I saw him, I started kidding around with him and making jokes. He said to his mother in the kitchen, “Can I keep on going with this? It’s getting to be fun.” That really taught me a lot. Of course, that is the problem with reaching kids.
RF: So tell me, after 35 some-odd albums, what now?
SN: For the first time in a long, long time, I’ve felt in control of my life. I love to study and practice. By some miracle, I actually set out to accomplish a few things in drumming in succession, and I have to admit, it’s working out. For the first time in my life, I’ve actually started something that I’m continuing with. Of course, you don’t know where the finish is. For example, in ’76, I studied with Murray to become a better reader, get the hands in good shape, and learn what the rudiments are all about really. The next step was to just sort of casually practice those things for a year, start to more and more get on the set, and develop the playing between the bass drum, snare drum, etc., as opposed to just sitting there playing exercises with 1,2,3,4 on the bass drum. Instead of buying books on what to practice, I like to invent things myself.
This phase I’m in now is just really understanding the set of drums, and the actual playing of independence and such, as for example, in the article in your magazine on using the book Stick Control between the bass drum, snare drum, and the ride cymbal. What this is leading up to is improving my musicianship, and it’s fun. It’s invigorating. I don’t know where it’s all going to lead to. Maybe I’ll just end up playing in Plummer Park when I’m 70 years old with some people in an orchestra or something, or maybe I’ll end up with my own little jazz club or something, with orange crates on the walls and oysters on the half shell. I don’t really know where it’s going to go, but it’s fun becoming a better musician.