A Tribute to Billy Gladstone
by Ted Reed
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Billy Gladstone. To those unfamiliar with the name, suffice it to say that Billy Gladstone was one of the percussion world’s most legendary figures; a masterful snare drum virtuoso, teacher, inventor and drumming theoretician.
When we first planned this tribute, many months ago, we were quickly made aware of the fact that little had ever been documented on this rather remarkable gentleman. But it wasn’t long before our early research led us directly to drummer/ author Ted Reed, well known for his widely accepted Progressive Steps to Syncopation. Now living in Florida, Ted Reed was one of Billy’s closest friends and colleagues from the early ’40s up to the time of Billy’s death in 1961. There could be no better way to honor Billy Gladstone than through the words of one of his dearest admirers. And Ted was more than happy to assist. Here then are Ted Reed’s reminiscences of the life and legend of Billy Gladstone in MD’s tribute to an artist who made lasting contributions to the art of drumming, and who will long be remembered.
William David Goldstein was born in Rumania on December 15, 1892. His father, an Englishman, was supervisor of the Rumanian government orchestra. By seven, Billy began learning the baritone horn, but soon became interested in seriously studying percussion. He made his first pair of drumsticks at age nine.
Billy came to the United States with an aunt when he was eleven years old. On his arrival at Ellis Island, an officer mistakenly referred to him as David Gladstone. He decided from that point on to take the name William David Gladstone. In 1924 Billy’s second career as an inventor was about to begin. On September 16th he and an associate named Emil Kun applied to the U.S. Government Patent Office with a five page description of a double action bass drum pedal, operable by heel or toe and complete with sketches and drawings. Though the patent was approved, the pedal was never manufactured. Billy played for Major Edward Bowes during the late ’20s and early ’30s, and with conductor Erno Rapee at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway and the Roxy on 7th Avenue. In 1932 he opened with Rapee at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall. It was the beginning of an association that would last until Mr. Rapee’s death in 1945.
During his stay at the Music Hall, Billy became very well known in drumming circles. He often memorized the shows he had played so many times and at first, musicians who came to see him believed he couldn’t read music. Of course, this was untrue. Billy was an excellent reader who was not only proficient on snare drum, but on all the percussion instruments as well. He could make a set of drums sound more musical than anyone I’d ever heard. He was a perfectionist in everything he did and conductor Erno Rapee would have no one but Billy. Drummers came from around the world to see and hear Billy Gladstone perform at Radio City Music Hall.
When Erno Rapee died in 1945, Raymond Paige became the conductor. Billy was told he’d be kept on, but it proved to be untrue. It was not too long before Paige let all of the excellent orchestra players go, replacing them with younger musicians. The quality was gone. The orchestra was never the same.
I opened my drum studio on 47th Street in February of 1954 and Billy was a frequent visitor. I can clearly remember how Billy went to pieces when Dorothy passed away in September of that year. He wouldn’t eat and he wouldn’t play. I finally got him to do both after a great deal of persuasion. Shortly after Dorothy’s death, Billy sold his home and moved into a one room apartment on West 48th; an apartment he never let me see always claiming, “It’s too messed up.”
During the mid-fifties Billy kept busy playing Broadway’s Plain and Fancy, and making his now famous snare drums, vibe and xylophone mallets and practice pads. He later told me that he’d made fifty custom-made snare drums, six of them with complete drum sets.
In 1954 I talked him into making me a snare drum. The price was $250 and I asked him to cover it with white pearl but he flatly refused claiming, “they put pearl on toilet seats.” I decided on birdseye maple and Billy delivered the drum at Christmastime of ’54. Several weeks later he gave me the gold snare drum stand he had used for so many years at the Music Hall. The drum and stand are both pictured on the cover of my book Progressive Steps to Syncopation. It made Billy very happy.
In January of 1956, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was playing Roseland Ballroom on Broadway and Billy and I went up to hear the band and see our friend Louie Bellson who was with them at the time. That night I let Louie use the drum Billy had made for me. But as soon as Lou spotted Billy, he told him he had played one of his drums at NBC. He asked Billy to make him one just like mine. We delivered Louie’s drum to the Terrace Room of the Hotel New Yorker in February of ’56 while he was still with the Dorsey Brothers. After Louie had played a set using the drum, Jimmy Dorsey approached us. “Billy,” he said, “I don’t know too much about drums, but my ear tells me that’s a good drum.”
Billy was in rehearsal for the road show of My Fair Lady in early 1957. After the show left New York, Billy would write at least three times a week. Later I found out that drummers in the various cities where the show played had gone to see the show, but couldn’t take their eyes off Billy. They had to go a second time to see the show.
Another little-known fact about Billy Gladstone was his productivity as an inventor. In addition to his remarkable drums, Billy also invented the electrically lighted orchestra baton which glowed in the dark when the theatre lights dimmed, an illuminated tongue depressor, an orange juice extractor and a trick keycase. He had roughly forty inventions to his credit. But his finest ideas were in the area of drums and drum equipment: A glass drum used for special lighting effects, hollow mallets for xylophone, a device for brushes which maintained the wire span at a specific setting, and of course, the marvelous Billy Gladstone handmade drums.
One of Billy’s greatest ideas involved a snare drum which could tension both the top and bottom head from the top. A three way key was used with one key activating the screw for the top head and a second activating the screw for the bottom. A hexagon rod went through the lug and inserted into the screw rod for the bottom head. The threads on the top and bottom rods ran opposite to each other. Billy got the idea from the roller skate screw mechanism while playing at the Music Hall. Shortly before the pit went up, he’d reach in and tap the drum to check the tension. When the pit went up and 6000 people were in the theatre, the humidity would immediately affect the calfskin heads. Billy would tighten the top head but didn’t care to turn the drum upside-down in front of 6000 people to tighten the bottom. The new invention solved the problem.
Billy liked wood shells and would often say, “they don’t put pearl on violins do they? It would kill the sound.” He also used thin flesh hoops which floated and did not touch the shell. He was a firm believer in “the less that touched the shell, the better the sound would be.” The insides of his drum shells were finished just as smoothly as the outside which he felt was extremely important in obtaining a good sound. Some of his drums were covered with pearl, but he’d only do it to please a customer. He used 12-strand snares, inserting the end of the wire into pieces of gut at each end. The strainer had 12 holes and set screws so that each snare could be individually adjusted. He would supply all gut snares at the customer’s request. Billy had a loom on which he’d string the snares and tighten them to a certain pitch. Then he’d cover them with shellac. He’d sand them with fine sandpaper when they dried, tune them again and then apply another coat of shellac. The process would continue until he was absolutely certain no moisture could penetrate. The snares would never curl, and the sound was incredible.
Perhaps the circular rubber practice pad was one of his very best ideas. When the pad was placed on a snare drum, a starshaped hole under the center of the pad would cause a vacuum. It could not be lifted off the drum, but was peeled off. It was an excellent device for quiet practice while maintaining the sound and feel of a snare drum. The item is still quite popular today. Billy was also a very fine pianist. He once asked me if I knew that he could play piano. When I told him I didn’t, he rented a studio at Nola’s on Broadway and taped his version of The Minute Waltz. I still have that tape and it’s an absolutely perfect performance of the piece. One time he purchased a piano in Chicago, had it delivered to his hotel room and proceeded to rebuild it. I saw the piano in 1960 and he had done a fantastic job.
A great deal of Billy’s drumming concepts were gathered from his observations of the workings of the piano. The finger system, which he ultimately perfected, came about as a result of careful study of the piano action. One had to study quite some time with Billy to fully understand his technical concepts, but basically the action of the arm, wrist, hand and fingers in Billy’s drumming system closely related to the action of the piano key striking the rod, which strikes the hammer, which in turn strikes the string. He believed it was impossible to drum with just arms and wrists. He felt the fingers had to be involved. He acquired a great finger technique during his career which enabled him to execute fast, delicate drum parts with great ease.
I also clearly recall the last year of Billy’s life. He was in New York on a break from the My Fair Lady road show and decided to have a much needed hernia operation. Cancer was discovered. Billy continued with the show but was failing fast by the time they reached Boston in August of ’61. Finally, the orchestra leader convinced Billy to return to New York for a rest. I knew he was in serious trouble the day he walked into my studio. He was as brown as a coffee bean.
Billy was in and out of Flower of Fifth Avenue Hospital in New York several times before he finally died in October. He had requested his ashes be spread around the Statue of Liberty. I don’t know if that request was ever carried out, but I do know that the legend lives on. Billy Gladstone was one of the greatest drummers of all time and a beautiful person with a heart as big as New York City itself. I’m very proud to be able to say I knew him, and that he was my friend.
“Billy Gladstone’s concept was totally legitimate. He was a great snare drum artist. I used to listen to him at Radio City…I heard him play Ravel’s Bolero one time and he was phenomenal. I used to sit in the last seat in the last row of the balcony at Radio City Music Hall and listen to him articulate off the snare drum. Every stroke was like an arrow…without the slightest bit of motion he could almost shatter your eardrum. He had that kind of technique. When he played a roll, you couldn’t tell if it was a roll or if he had only one stick on the drum. It was that pure. He had his drums very high and flat because he was a showman, and he would raise his hands, but the actual playing was done more from a forearm and wrist motion rather than the whole arm… He built a great snare drum which I owned at one time. He presented me with one which was quite an honor.”
“Billy’s drums were the greatest drums that were ever made. Everything about his drums was perfect. They’re all collector’s items today. The man was a master craftsman. If he had ever decided to pursue drum making only, on a full-time basis, there wouldn’t have been another drum company around that could have touched him.”
“I first heard about Billy Gladstone while I was studying with Murray Spivack. Guys have always associated that finger technique with me because they’ve seen me do it. But actually, I got it from Murray and Billy Gladstone, who in turn got their concepts of finger technique from the French and Swiss drummers. But Murray always used to say that Billy was the real master and the leading exponant of the finger system. Billy also made me a snare drum when I was with the Dorsey band. I was deeply honored to think that this master musician would make a drum especially for me. The first night I used that drum, Tommy Dorsey, and all the guys in the band turned around and said, ‘Wow, what’s that you’re playing on?’ The drum sounded that good. I can recall one time going to hear Billy at Radio City and he did something I never saw a drummer do and probably will never see again. The Rockettes were onstage, when suddenly Billy did one of those great sforzando rolls that was so magnificient that the attention of the entire theatre audience was literally drawn from the stage over to Billy’s corner of the orchestra pit. Something like that happens once in a hundred years and it demonstrates the kind of drumming magic this guy had. I was very fortunate to have known the man. He was the epitome of a snare drum player. I only wish that all the kids today had had a chance to hear Billy Gladstone play.”
“Billy was one of the most thorough and articulate rudimental drummers on record. He had not only speed, but grace and balance as well. Billy’s many inventions for the drummer made possible the vital place that drums occupy today in modern music; inventions which broadened the scope of the true musician. Drummers owe much to Billy Gladstone.”
Radio City Music Hall
“Billy could play a roll that was so clean, it sounded like sand pouring out of a pitcher. You could be sitting 200 feet back at the Music Hall and you’d hear him all over the theatre. Billy Gladstone was one helluva drummer…one of the greatest drummers that ever lived.”
“I was Billy’s drum mechanic and I helped him with a great many of his drums. Billy was very fussy about everything that went into his drums. Everything had to be like a jewel. He’d get the shells from Gretsch, I’d drill them for him, he’d get the hardware and assemble the drums right in his apartment. Billy strongly believed that a drum was a lot like a violin. So much so that he didn’t believe in putting the reinforcement in the top rim. He felt that would be comparable to the skin going over the bridge of a violin. Billy also had a fantastic finger technique. He pioneered it, along with his concepts of how to best use the potential of the natural rebound of the drumstick. He could get as many as four clean rebounds off of one downstroke by way of this incredible finger technique. It was amazing. He’d make paradiddles sound like a closed long roll with accents in them, all controlled by the fingers. Billy was a great drummer—and a great guy as well.”
“I met Billy when he was in Boston with My Fair Lady. He gave me a lesson on his technique. I never met anyone who’s been that helpful. Billy was a zen master with drumsticks. He knew how to go with nature.”
“It was my privilege to meet Billy Gladstone once. I was an avid fan of his when I was a teenager and looked forward to hearing him play at Radio City Music Hall with great enthusiasm. His masterful, flowing playing, combined with great showmanship, was a treat to ear and eye. Billy was as early exponent of the graceful, smooth and flowing style of drumming that I also heard and saw later in Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Buddy Rich and Dave Tough on the full drum set. He drew the sound from the drum and used a relaxed and open grip which resulted in the beautiful, full sound for which he was famous. Billy was a class man with a class style who left a legacy that enriched us all.”
“I’m proud to say that I was fortunate enough to have studied with Billy Gladstone. He was an extremely gentle, sensitive and unassuming man. As a player, Billy was totally relaxed, almost motionless, and just so graceful. He could do single stroke rolls at an incredible speed, and stay relaxed. Frankly, I’ve never heard a snare drummer who had the control and speed that Billy had. The man was just about the greatest snare drummer I’ve ever heard.”