What Do You Know About…

Frank De Vito

by Jeff Potter

Frank DeVittoHis story—which includes work with some of the most iconic artists of all time—is a timeless lesson in providing exactly what’s needed, and being open to whatever fate sends your way.

Perhaps in the ’60s you were waxing down your surfboard and seeking summer love while the transistor radio blared the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.” Or maybe you were a tad older, reminiscing about strolling “that golden sand” with a lost summer love, to the swinging strains of Frank Sinatra’s “The Summer Wind.” In either scenario, the vibrant pulse of drummer Frank De Vito was imprinted on the soundtrack of your life.

Recalling those hits and other top-shelf gigs, De Vito humbly claims today that he was often “just filling in” for the regular first-calls. Still, his filling in made for one impressive résumé. In a long, diverse, and successful career, the drummer excelled with artists from Sinatra to Charlie Parker to Elvis Presley.

At fourteen, De Vito began gigging in his native Utica, New York, with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose. Upon moving to New York City in his late teens, he studied at the Brooklyn School of Music with the great Jim Chapin. De Vito holds the honor of being the first student to master Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer. He still owns the worn copy in which his mentor inscribed, “To my first star pupil.”

The fledgling pro frequented the jazz clubs in Manhattan, eventually landing a gig replacing Shelly Manne in Bob Astor’s popular dance band. Months later, he joined saxophonist Benny Ventura’s group. “One of our first gigs, in 1948, was backing Billie Holiday in Baltimore,” De Vito recalls. “I was about nineteen years old, and believe me, it was intimidating. I did learn one thing through her, regarding playing with brushes on ballads: not to ‘chop.’ I learned to play legato. I’ve worked with all the great singers through the years—Mel Tormé, Billy Eckstine, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Jones, Andy Williams—and I always remembered that: Suggest the time. Even Buddy Rich told me, ‘You’ve got a good bass player—let him lead the time on ballads; you just make that beautiful legato sound with the brush.’”

In 1949 De Vito joined a new sextet led by his friend Buddy DeFranco, with whom he played the top New York jazz clubs. But while touring the Midwest with the rising clarinetist, everything collapsed. “We were scuffling,” De Vito recalls. “I had a broken-down old set of Slingerlands. Buddy got on the phone to Louie Bellson and said, ‘I’ve got a young drummer here, and he needs some drums!’ We got to the next gig in Memphis, and there were big cardboard boxes on the bandstand from Gretsch. That was because of Louie.”

DeFranco later formed a big band with De Vito at the helm. This time, the tour succeeded. De Vito’s name was now getting around, and during downtime Frank worked with jazz greats such as Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, and Lennie Tristano. The drummer hit the road with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra in 1951, and the band backed the Mills Brothers on their classic number-one hit “Glow-Worm.” “That was my first big recording,” De Vito remembers.

Frank DeVittoIn 1953 De Vito took the chair with the Terry Gibbs Quartet, and for the next two years he toured the country with the vibraphonist. Their frequent residence at New York City’s Birdland led to a rare experience. Gibbs’ band shared the bill with the Birdland All-Stars, which included the formidable Roy Haynes. The famed drummer couldn’t make a first set due to a record date. Impressed with De Vito’s talents, Haynes offered a dream opportunity. “You want to cover for me?” he asked. De Vito leaped at the chance and found himself bopping with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, he was invited to cover rehearsals with Parker for the legendary Bird With Strings sessions.

A chance street encounter with bass great Oscar Pettiford found De Vito as part of another dream team, for a seven-week stint. “Oscar told me, ‘Be at Snookie’s tomorrow night,’” Frank remembers. “I arrived, and it was an all-star band including Kenny Dorham, Lee Konitz, Kai Winding, and Horace Silver. I lucked out!”

When an auto accident during Gibbs’ tour waylaid the band in L.A., De Vito put down stakes. A six-month gig with Georgie Auld ensued, followed by dates with the Pete Jolly Trio, the Dave Pell Octet, and movie star/vocalist Betty Hutton.

Another “right timing” encounter unfolded when De Vito ran into ace studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco at a favorite Italian restaurant. Tedesco knew De Vito’s drumming and handed him a dime. “Put that in the phone and call this contractor’s number,” Tedesco said. “Sinatra’s looking for a drummer.” “Yeah, right!” De Vito replied. But with Tedesco’s endorsement, De Vito was hired right over the phone.

De Vito toured with Sinatra over a three-year period. In addition, he recorded several singles in 1957 and four tracks on the 1966 LP Strangers in the Night, and he’s featured on Sinatra ’57: In Concert, a recording released for the first time on CD in 1999.

Sinatra famously kept his few favorite drummers close at hand. “If he liked you,” De Vito says, “you were there. If he didn’t like you, you weren’t there. There was no in between.” Sinatra’s regular drummers Alvin Stoller and Irv Cottler didn’t tour due to busy recording schedules. As the newcomer, De Vito had to quickly master the key to keeping the vocalist happy.

“He had such impeccable time,” De Vito says of Sinatra. “I just zeroed in on him. He had a little shoulder movement he would do when he wanted to fool with the time a bit. I would watch and go right with him. When recording, Frank was about six feet from us. He liked to have it set up almost like a big band gig; he didn’t like all that isolation.

“On ‘Witchcraft,’ we were standing in front of speakers listening to the playback. Frank was standing next to me. There’s a phrase at the top followed by a space. During that space, Frank looked over at me and moved his hands up and down, like, ‘Fill in there! Play something!’ I didn’t want to overdo it, because I noticed when Alvin and Irv played on his dates, they didn’t play a lot, didn’t get in the way. So I did the same. But later on, as I worked with him, I loosened up a little and I noticed he didn’t give me any looks, so I figured, That’s cool! The fills you hear on the record were from his suggestion; he knew his stuff.”

During these years De Vito also worked with Stan Kenton and with Benny Goodman, and he did a summer tour with Ella Fitzgerald. He eventually amassed an impressive jazz discography with artists such as DeFranco, Gibbs, Kenton, Howard Roberts, and, later, Joe Pass.

But L.A. offered De Vito a new horizon of possibility when the studio kingpins Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine began recommending him for dates and employing him as a top sub on their own pop sessions. “The late ’50s into the ’60s was a golden era,” De Vito says. “There was so much work. We would work eight, ten, fifteen times a week. I wasn’t ‘number one,’ but I worked a lot.”

Although he was jazz-based, De Vito was keen to ride the rising wave of studio work for rock and pop records. His goal was born of both business savvy and open-mindedness. “This was in the early age of rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “A lot of real good drummers did not care for the new music. They looked down on it, didn’t think it was going to ‘make it.’ They didn’t want to get it. And a lot of the guys a little older than I was didn’t have a concept for the straight-8th-note grooves. I didn’t slough it off; I wanted to do it. If Hal or Earl were in a studio in the next room, I’d go in there and listen to them, keep my ears open and learn.

“Also, the new producers were young. Weird-looking guys! Some of the older guys resented being told what to do by the new producers. But Earl and Hal were great with these producers—very patient and open to everything. I recognized that besides having great talent, they approached it like a business.”

De Vito became a successful hired gun, laying down tracks for the Ventures, the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Dick Dale, and the Monkees. And a late-night, last-minute session that the drummer “didn’t predict as a hit,” yielded the track “I Got You Babe” by a shaggy-dog duo named Sonny and Cher.

The title track on the now-multiplatinum album Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was sparked by De Vito’s infectious beat. A spin-off group of studio musicians from Alpert’s sessions became the Baja Marimba Band. Over a busy five-year period, De Vito toured with the group and recorded six LPs. The band injected wacky comedy routines into its act—including De Vito’s haywire drum solo—which paid off on television. “We started to clown around,” Frank recalls, “and people loved it. We were very visual, and we did about ten Tonight Show appearances alone.”

Again, “just filling in” for Blaine, De Vito was called to play rehearsals and help develop arrangements for a television special with none other than Elvis. “He was always nice to us, always smoking these little cigars and passing them out,” Frank recalls. “I didn’t really smoke, but…what the hell! Elvis was offering me a cigar, so I lit up!”

De Vito ended up being asked to play percussion, along with Blaine on drums, for the live broadcast. It turned out to be a rock-history television landmark, Elvis’s “1968 Comeback Special,” which was also released as an RCA album.

De Vito even saw his spare-time hobby become a productive business. During a long Phil Spector session, his mounted castanets broke repeatedly. Always the garage-workshop tinkerer, Frank hurried home and created an improved model. Fellow percussionists encouraged him to market it, and that was the genesis of Danmar Percussion Products. De Vito remains involved with the company’s popular line of accessories today.

In more recent years, De Vito has gigged with artists such as Ken Peplowski, Tom Rainier, John Altman, and his old pal Buddy DeFranco, and he maintains a steady gig with the Tracy Wells Big Swing Band. He also teaches advanced students. His choice of drum book? The cherished Jim Chapin volume.

De Vito’s youthful energy and continued enthusiasm for music, past and present, remains inspiring. Asked for the secret to his long success with some of history’s highest-profile artists, Frank answers, “It was simple: I wanted to make them happy.”