“Day by Day,” the gargantuan hit single from the Grammy-winning musical Godspell, gets by with some tasteful cymbal swells and tambourine shaking—until drummer Rick Shutter blasts the ride-out with a driving rock groove. It’s a classic moment on a timeless soundtrack, and Shutter goes on to bring serious rock power to rest of the set. With a recent Blu-ray release of the film version, we wanted to find out more about the drummer, who’s remained busy for the nearly fifty years since Godspell took the world by storm.
Rick Shutter can clearly recall listening to the AM radio in his parents’ car as far back as age five. “I remember everything about it,” he says, “the sound of drums on the Everly Brothers records…. And in my hometown of Malverne, New York, the Memorial Day parade when I saw the marching drumline—forget about it, I was mesmerized! I said to myself, If I could do this for a living, that would be amazing.”
Shutter has not only accomplished that feat but is still going strong in his sixth decade as a professional. As a jobbing drummer in and around New York City, he has become an exception in a business that has changed drastically since it was the epicenter of the music world in the ’60s and ’70s. According to Shutter, 2019 was among his busiest for on-call work: sessions, demos, off-Broadway productions, and the odd club date here and there. “My relationship with New York City goes back to 1965, when my band, the Executives, was popular,” he says. “We were playing in the city and out at Long Island resorts like the Barge [where the Rascals were discovered]. I thought we were going to be managed by the Scene’s owner, Steve Paul, but it didn’t work out.”
What did work out, however, was Shutter’s chance affiliation with the breakthrough Broadway show Godspell. Musical Svengali Stephen Schwartz had been auditioning several drummers from the Local 802 union but couldn’t find what he was looking for. As chance would have it, one of the actresses in the play, Joanne Jonas, was a friend of Rick’s, and she got him an audition in the most unlikely place: his parents’ living room.
“Stephen had some piano music that I glanced at,” Shutter remembers, “but most of my audition came via my ears. I played along following his piano leads.” In 1971, Shutter began playing drums and percussion in the original Broadway and L.A. productions of the show, followed by a national tour. That year, Godspell garnered a Grammy for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album, as well as a top-10 hit with “Day by Day.” Rick also played on the soundtrack for the film. At nineteen, Shutter had hit the big time, but was far too busy to notice. “I was doing eight shows a week, plus afternoon and late-night session work,” he recalls. “Back then everyone was utilizing live musicians for publishing demos, spec deals for labels, singer-songwriter projects—you name it.”
The original Godspell band consisted of Jesse Cutler on guitar, Rich LaBonte on bass, and Shutter on drums. Paul Shaffer, noted conductor, keyboardist, and former musical director of Late Night with David Letterman, describes Rick’s “big drums” as being the defining sound of the cast album.
“Rick’s drumming in Godspell was a huge part of the sound of the original cast album. His sound was and still is contemporary. It made such a difference, live and on record.”—Paul Shaffer
I met Paul after he was hired from the Toronto company as an accompanist,” Shutter remembers. “He came to New York to do the movie soundtrack. We met at one of the rehearsal studios in the city.” “It was my first time in New York,” Shaffer tells Modern Drummer. “I went right from the airport to Bill’s rehearsal studio on 52nd St. Rick was there early, setting up his kit, and we hit it off. He was immediately both confirming and reaffirming. I knew his name from the album cover. We bonded right away, and we’ve been friends ever since. His enthusiasm was infectious.”
Broadway is tricky, and reviews can kill a show, but right from the get-go Shutter knew Godspell was special. “There was a vibe around the show, and the actors put everything they had into their performances,” he recalls. “Both the actors and musicians created their own parts, which embellished the original scripts and music. It was luck of the draw back then!”
Regarding his drumming influences at the time, Shutter says they came from every genre: “World music, jazz, rock—everything really,” he recalls. “Players? Ringo, Dino Danelli, Nigel Olsson, Ginger Baker…I learned from them all.”
Post Godspell, Shutter went on to work with artists including Beatlemania’s Mitch Weissman, and the Hello People, who were part of Todd Rundgren’s stable. He also did television and radio commercial jingles, was staff session drummer for Advantage, CBS, and Ultrasonic studios, and even rejoined the Godspell cast for the show’s thirtieth- and fortieth-anniversary reunions. “As far as opportunities now, it’s rough,” he admits. “But there is work out there. You have to do everything today.”
His advice to those hoping to be a successful working drummer on today’s scene? “Be good at what you do. Either specialize or be versatile, the latter being the better of the two.”
Rick Shutter plays DW drums and uses Promark sticks and Evans heads.