Sometimes it seems as if people have more regard for classic “things” than they do for classic people. An antique Radio King snare drum, an antique K. Zildjian cymbal and a Billy Glad stone drumset would illicit floods of adulation from any half-informed drummer. Yet when it comes to appreciating and respecting, the genius, the ideas, the craftsmanship and the pioneering spirit of the founding fathers of the instrument, most people couldn’t care less.
That’s so backwards! Any drum, any cymbal and any collection of drumsets is only so much handcrafted wood, metal, calfskin and/or plastic. Period. Take the world’s best drumset and cymbals, assemble them onstage and sit back in your chair. What happens? Nothing. You could rival Rip Van Winkle’s nap waiting for magic to happen and it never would. Why? Because people are the magic makers. The evolution of equipment was based on sounds that people heard in their minds, and they wanted to create those sounds. When we recall the genius of Gene Krupa do we say, “Oh yeah, Gene Krupa! Man, that guy had a great set of Slingerland’s!”? No. We remember the sounds, we remember the music and we remember the magic of Gene.
Fred Below was a magic maker, and I’m sure he still is. Back in the ’50s, Fred stepped into the middle of a music that had no drumset players per se and had to make up his own rules for playing. In essence he created a drumset language for Chicago blues, a musical frontrunner to what be came rhythm & blues and then rock ‘n’ roll. We hear of and read about the musical genius of Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. And who would argue that without the input of their bandmembers we might not today be recognizing their musical genius? Below helped shape the music of all those musicians. And if people like Fred Below hadn’t done what they did, we might never have had drummers like John Bonham and Neil Peart.
As recently as 1978, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi put together a skit for Saturday Night Live called The Blues Brothers, playing almost duplicate arrangements of the original blues tunes. The Blues Brothers became so popular that they filled stadiums all over the world, released three albums and a major motion picture.
On the first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, Ackroyd introduces the show: “Well, here it is, ” he says, “the late 1970s going on 1985. Y’know, so much of the music we hear today is pre-programmed electronic disco. We never get a chance to hear master bluesmen practicing their craft anymore. By the year 2006, the music known today as the blues will exist only in the classical record departments of your local public libraries. “
As tongue-in-cheek as that statement probably was, there’s still a grain of truth to it. Many of the old blues records are disregarded as no longer having relevance. Some people won’t listen to them simply because the fidelity wasn’t up to 1983 standards. And the swing and dynamics of the blues don’t seem to be a necessary commodity in today’s pop market. “Don’t worry about playing with dynamics, man. We can correct that at the soundboard. Don’t worry about being tasteful. We can drop fills in later on with an overdub.”
Even though there have been some fantastic innovations in drumming, when compared to the magic of players like Fred Below, it’s like comparing a Van Gogh with one of those bullfight scenes, painted in shocking colors on black velure, that everyone’s seen sold on a roadside or at a gas station. Yeah, it’s still a painting, and yeah, it lakes a level of humanity to paint it, but…
Drummers like Casey Jones, Dino Alvarez, Ike Davis and Ray Allison are still carrying the blues torch in Chicago. Record companies like Alligator are recording blues bands today that would make you dance—the groove is so strong and magical—even if you were wearing cement shoes. While so many people are worrying about becoming “slick,” these guys are playing with heart. Fred Below always played with heart. Like yesterday’s innovators, tomorrow’s innovators will play with heart, because the heart is the center of the soul and the degree of soul a person has is in direct proportion to the degree of magic he creates.
FB: I started back when I was going t o DuSable High School in the early ’40s. Two of my friends were Johnny Griffin and Eugene Wright. We all went to school at the same time. At that time I started playing trombone. Trombone wasn’t my cup of tea, so I switched over to drums.
During my early life—much before that— I grew up around nothing but music. In the early ’30s I used to go to the Vendome and the Regal Theater, the Metropolitan and places like that when I was a kid. I saw the best of the big black bands. They used to come through Chicago all the time. I saw Chick Webb and Gene Krupa. When I was going to high school and really getting interested in drums, I used to go to the Regal Theater and see Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine and his big band. That band really turned me on.
SF: That was Art Blakey playing drums, right?
FB: Yeah, Art Blakey. Eckstine had all the big dudes then. Listening to them really enthused me and got me interested in it. I had a chance to see and hear all these different bands in person. Today you can’t see some of the great bands. We used to go to the theater and sometimes sit through two or three different shows at the Regal. I can remember back just before I graduated seeing the Billy Eckstine Big Band just before they disbanded and Billy Eckstine went on his own. It was their last day in Chicago and all the kids from DuSable, Phillips and Englewood High Schools were in the theater. When Billy Eckstine got on the stage they stopped the performance. With the light turned on you could see that the theater was just full of kids. They even had the different teachers there from all the three different schools getting the kids out! That was one heck of a thing, man. This was just before bebop came out.
SF: How old were you when you saw Chick Webb?
FB: I’d say no more than 10.
SF: Did he impress you?
FB: Well, I wasn’t interested in playing music, but I liked it. Billy Eckstine really impressed me and dawned on me what was happening.
SF: When did you decide you were going to be a professional?
FB: I was 14. My father supported me, but I was doing it on my own because all my friends like Eugene Wright and Johnny Griffin were already playing. I was hanging around with them at that time. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to hang around with them, I’ve got to do what they do!” So, I picked up an instrument too! Then I got interested in it.
SF: Were you able to practice drums in your house?
FB: Not so much. At that time you didn’t practice on drums until you was able to play! I practiced on a practice pad. I didn’t have a set of drums until I graduated DuSable in ’44. I went into the Army in ’45. When I went in the Army I was in the infantry and I couldn’t continue my music. I practiced on helmet liners, helmets, boxes and things like that. When you’re in the infantry there’s no way to get in the band. While I was at Fort McClellan, Alabama, I saw Tommy Potter the bass player, and then Prez [Lester Young]. I had an opportunity to sit in and play with them.
I went overseas to the South Pacific and came back to Chicago in ’46. All of the guys that I knew were gone out of town, man. I went to the Roy C. Knapp School.
SF: Did you have a music teacher when you were in high school who taught you how to read?
FB: Oh yeah. DuSable High School had one of the best teachers. That was Capt. Walter Dyer. That’s where I learned my music. At the Knapp School I met Wilbur Campbell, Marshall Thompson, Elgie Edmonds and Odie Payne. There were drummers down there by the dozens.
SF: Can you tell me about the Roy Knapp School?
FB: That was a school where, even though you knew the rudiments when you went in, they taught them to you again to make sure that you knew what you were doing. They had sightreading and music appreciation. You had to listen to and pay attention to all different types of music. You didn’t just play all jazz. You played jazz, concerts, marches, Latin music and everything. You had to write. To me it was just like a refresher course of what I took in high school, but this time it was on a much higher plane. It was almost like a college attitude. Then they refined a lot of your playing techniques.
They had some hell-of-a good teachers down there. Then a lot of the bands like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Hampton—all of the big bands at that time—they’d come to town and a lot of them would come by the school. They would give us tips and things. We used to go where Gene Krupa used to play at—places where they’d invite the drummers from the different schools to come down and hear what the other musicians were playing. It would give you an idea of what you learned in school so you could put it to practical purpose. Man, that really set you off. It was not you just going to school and then you had no practical application. You used what you learned.
Then, they taught technique—how to play different things and how to count without really counting. You could hear eight bars without even thinking about it. You could hear four bars without counting, or two bars. When a lot of people write drum music, they don’t put all the parts in there. If you’re a drummer, you should know enough about drumming to improvise.
SF: Did they teach brush technique?
FB: They taught every technique. How to use mallets and brushes. You were not only taught drums. Every drummer had to have a second instrument which was the vibes. That gives you a feeling and an idea of what chord construction is. You might want to switch from vibes to drums. I was still young and there was a lot of the nightclubs that I was still not able to go to. So I re-enlisted in the Army in 1948. I graduated from the Roy Knapp School and went overseas to Germany. While I was in Germany I got in the Special Services and got in the 427th Army Band. I spent about four years there. During that time I went to college. In that band I was again studying more music. But, this time I had the technique I learned from Roy Knapp and when I was home in Chicago from 1946 to ’48 I had learned how to play bebop. When I got over to Germany the band wasn’t playing it. We had a 28-piece swing band over there in Germany. Then we had five different small combos in the band and a large marching band. We were with the 7777th Honor Guard. And we had special uniforms—chrome helmets and uniforms like the troops at West Point. In order to get into the band, you had to read music. There was no shucking and jiving now. You read or you couldn’t get in this band because we didn’t play for nothing but big shot statesmen from the United States, ambassadors, kings and queens. Whatever big shot dignitaries came to Europe at that particular time, we were there.
SF: When did you get out of the Army for the final time?
FB: In 1951. I came back to Chicago looking to get back into my music. I had switched from drums and was playing a little vibes. I learned vibes when I was in Germany. I thought I’d do a switch and play more vibes than drums. When I came back I looked around for a lot of the guys I knew like Gene Ammons but they was gone. I think Ammons was with Woody Herman. Johnny Griffin was somewhere else and gone!
I knew Elgie Edmonds from 1946. I happened to run into him because he stayed in the neighborhood where my father was. He turned me on to the blues. He introduced me to David and Louis Myers. I said, “Well, I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s where I got in to play the blues. But, on the side I was playing jazz too. I didn’t just donate all my time to playing blues.
SF: You said that Elgie was older than you.
FB: Oh, Elgie was much older than me. Elgie used to play with a lot of the swing bands before he even knew anything about blues. From my early childhood, man, I never did know anything about no guitars and harmonicas. The only time I ever heard anything about harmonica stuff was when I used to see the Harmonicats in the movies. I might see them with some of those cowboy pictures with Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Other than that I never knew nothing about no harmonicas. I knew about Larry Adler! He came by the high school one time. The blues was one thing, but that wasn’t what I was raised on. I was raised on all other kinds of music. It gave me much more of an appreciation of what music sounded like.
SF: When you were in the Knapp School did you play in symphony orchestras using straight classical drumming?
FB: I played everything! That’s what I said. When I was in the Knapp School you didn’t just get yourself some drumsticks and sit up there and play snare drum. Uh huh. You had to know how to play snare drum, bongos, kettle drums, how to tune it, notes. You didn’t just sit up there and “tit tat tit tat.” You had to perform and play the notes, and you had to know what you was playing because then you got to a point . . . just like going to school to be a doctor. They want to know whether you want to be an eye doctor or whatever kind of doctor you want to be. The same way with the drums. If you wanted to be a Latin drummer, then you specialized in the Latin part of the music. If you wanted to be a jazz or swing drummer—which is what they called it at that time—then you had to learn all the things about the swing. If you wanted to play marches and things like that or play in concert, then you specialized in that. This is the way the courses were laid out. They taught you all of it, but then they had another part where you specialized. It was the most wonderful thing I ever entered.
SF: Would the drummers from the big name bands come to the school and talk to the students?
FB: Oh sure. That’s where we really got the feeling. Then when we came down to the clubs from the school, the drummers would be onstage and say, ‘Now ladies and gentleman, we have some students here from the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion. Let’s give them a nice round of applause.” We’d have about 25 or 30 students all sitting there.
SF: You came out of a well-schooled background. When you started playing with the blues musicians, you said they were playing three-bar phrases and seven-bar phrases. Did that drive you crazy?
FB: No, not really. Here’s a funny thing. I thought I knew enough about music that I was able to play anything. But, here was a type of music I’d never heard of! Man, it was really something that I wanted to get to. I said to myself, “Wow! Here’s something that I can’t play and I think I know music! I’d better learn this.” When I
found out what they were doing, I found a way that I could straighten it out and help it along. I used my technique to play what they were playing. I improvised some of my own playing and then I was able to do it. Boy, that really knocked me out.
SF: And you really didn’t have any drummer role models for the blues.
FB: There was not a lot of drummers playing what I was playing at all!
SF: Would you say that Elgie Edmonds was the first “blues drummer” that you ran into?
FB: Yeah. Elgie was the first blues drummer I knew that was playing the stuff. There was a lot of drummers out there, but the jazz drummers weren’t hitting on the type of music that I was playing. When I got into it, it was a little different. The Myers brothers were the first guys I ever hooked up with playing blues.
SF: Did they have a rounded knowledge of all different types of music too?
FB: No. They were playing just strictly blues. Country blues is what they knew, see? That was a lot different. The blues weren’t written down. There wasn’t no stuff like you’d write it out on paper and play it. You can’t play blues by the paper. Blues is a feeling. There’s no way in the world that you can put your feeling into no sheet music and say, “This is the way it’s supposed to be played,” because it’s not going to be coming out right. The blues the Myers brothers were playing was carried from one person to another. When it comes right down to it, it came all the way from slavery and everywhere else. The people at that time didn’t know anything about writing no music because they couldn’t read and write, period! So, there ain’t no way in the world that you could write your music down.
SF: When you started playing blues did you listen to a lot of blues records?
FB: No. I was around so much with the different musicians that I just picked up on what they was doing. That was all. And then I got with the Chess Recording Company and everything was coming through there so fast. After I learned how to play with Dave and Louis, the other blues musicians started accepting what I was doing. I was making recordings just like pancakes!
SF: Were you a staff drummer?
SF: Was that a salaried position?
FB: No. I was getting paid union scale.
SF: What was it like recording for Chess? What were the sessions like?
FB: Oh man! We had lots of fun. I recorded with so many musicians down there. I’ve recorded with just about every blues musician that came through Chess.
SF: Weren’t there bands like Muddy Waters and Little Walter where you not only recorded with them, but you were also in the bands and toured with them?
FB: At that time I only played with Little Walter. But I recorded with Elmore James, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. I recorded an album with Dinah Washington. I recorded with The Moonglows and The Platters. The Drifters. I made commercials for 7- Up. I knew jazz and I was playing blues, so, I was able to play just about anything that I wanted to play. I played with Red Holloway.
SF: What kind of a bandleader was Little Walter?
FB: Little Walter was about one of the best harp players I ever knew. I’m telling you. He made it possible for the harp players to really get recognized in my time. He was a very good bandleader. We toured all over the United States. North, South, East and West.
SF: How were the songs written? Would Little Walter tell everyone what to play?
FB: No, it was more of a cooperative thing. I had to play something, then Little Walter had to play something, then the guitar players would have to play something. We’d have to have a meeting of the minds. We’d kick it around and play and if it didn’t fit we wouldn’t use it. We’d throw this out and put something else in. The guitar player would say, “Well, how about this run? Riff this off.” Then we’d try it with the harp. If the harp couldn’t fit in there right and the drums wouldn’t be able to phrase it right, then we’d say, “No, no. We don’t do it that way. Let’s try it another way.” A very cooperative thing.
The first big gig we had we went up to New York City and played at the Apollo Theater. We only had the four pieces. Everybody wondered how it would be accepted. Man, we went there and we tore that theater up!
SF: Who else was on the bill?
FB: Nappy Brown, The Moonglows, The Drifters, Slappy White and Buddy Johnson’s Big Band.
SF: So Little Walter’s band was the only band—other than Muddy Waters—that was starting to bring in electric instruments?
FB: No, not really. Muddy Waters was out way before us. We got on the road first with the electric band. Muddy didn’t start when we started. We started traveling first through the Billy Shaw Booking Agency all across the country, and right behind us came Muddy Waters. Then Eddie Boyd. And I made some records with Eddie Boyd.
SF: Little Walter’s band is credited with being the forerunner of the standard format of rock ‘n’ roll bands.
FB: Well, there was another little thing too. Actually, the very first rock ‘n’ roll show—what you’d call rock—we was rhythm & blues. This was before rock ‘n’ roll was even thought about! We played for Alan Freed in Cleveland, Ohio, in the first show he come out with. The first rock ‘n’ roll show. We traveled the whole East Coast with that show. We were in on that with The Drifters, The Moonglows and all that kind of stuff. But, they don’t publicize that. They publicize the ones when all the white groups got in. But, Alan Freed didn’t start out with them guys first. He started with stuff like Little Walter was doing.
SF: How did you get in touch with Alan Freed?
FB: We didn’t get in touch with him, he got in touch with us! There was so much music going on then. They talk about a big rock ‘n’ roll show. Uh uh! It wasn’t even coming out then. Our music was there first but it just didn’t sell like the other stuff, I guess. Then the other white bands started coming in and then that turned them on, I guess. They went to New York and it really got on. Freed was a big disc jockey down in Cleveland. The first big show wasn’t as big as the later shows. But, the first show that I know about when they talk about rock ‘n’ roll coming out was with Little Walter, The Moonglows, Buddy Johnson and all them kind of groups.
SF: How long was Little Walter’s band onstage during those shows?
FB: Each group wouldn’t play no more than a half an hour or 40 minutes because they had so many people on the show. You play your three or four numbers and that’s it.
SF: Did you have to back up the other groups?
FB: I backed up The Moonglows because I made the record with them. Remember this big hit they had, “Sincerely”?
SF: When I listen to the Chess records, it seems like you were able to experiment more with your drumming when Willie Dixon started playing bass.
FB: In some instances. A lot of the beats that we used on a lot of these recordings was something that I had to improvise and make up. These were not just straight 1-2-3-4. You remember a tune called “The Watusi”? That’s another something that I had to make up. Incidentally, when we did the tune the group that recorded it had to make up a new dance to go with the tune! They were getting ready to start doing some roadwork, playing at these different theaters and the people wanted to know the dance. The beat had to be made up. Then the Watusi dance came out.
SF: It sounds like before Willie Dixon, you were having to work harder to hold the band together. Then when Willie came in, it sounds like he took a lot of that responsibility himself.
FB: Maybe so. He wrote a lot of the tunes. Probably it was his own tunes that he played a lot of bass on. But, I don’t think that he was holding it together so much. He’s just a hell of a bass player. That was all. He helped tremendously! He did a lot of arranging. He’s a hell of a good arranger. He could sit there and hear something and go, “No, no, no. Wait. You do this and do that. Let’s try it that way.” We’d switch it around. He and I worked together on a lot of things, like a little tune I made with him called “Walkin’ The Blues.” Here I go to the studio with a set of drums and I wind up didn’t use drums at all. I put a flat wood board on the floor and I had to go out and get some taps put on my shoes. And I walked! They put the microphone close to the floor and we went over it a couple of times to get the effect. We was doing the effect on the drums and the drums didn’t sound like nobody walking. Willie Dixon was doing the voice saying, “Oh man, I’m getting so tired. But I’m just walking on down.” I was playing the drums but I said, “No, man. That don’t sound like nobody walking. It sounds like some drumming! Wait just a minute.” I went down to the shoe shop and got some taps put on my shoes. This was an idea I had myself. I’d done a little tap dancing sometime back, but I never did get to it too good. But, we did it. I walked: clump, clump, clump. Right in time with the music. When we got through with it every body just fell out and laughed. I didn’t even need no drums at all. That was literally walking the blues! Just me and my shoes, walking the blues.
SF: Is there a difference in approach to playing drums in a blues band, a jazz band or a swing band?
FB: No, not really. I think a drummer—if you call yourself a drummer—you should have a knowledge of all types of music. Don’t just stick yourself into one type and not play nothing else. That limits you. Then when you want to do something, you can’t because you don’t know how. By traveling and going different places I learned more.
I spent time over in Africa in 1967. I went with Junior Wells and a blues band. I picked up on a lot of the African beats. I went to some of the African schools and played with the talking drummers.
SF: Would you like to go back to Africa?
FB: Oh man, I would. We toured all of West Africa. We were on tour for about three months with the State Department. We toured all of the new African nations that were going into the U.N. That was right after the MauMau scourge. The United States sent an envoy over there that we were part of. The Junior Wells Blues Band. It was the most exhilarating experience I ever had in my whole life. I was in drumming country and I had my eyes, ears and lingers all ready to learn any kind of thing that I could pick up.
SF: After you’d been playing 10 or 15 years, was the music business what you expected it was going to be?
FB: Well, no. The music business has been changing all the time. Learn to change with it and when you are doing good, save some money. Everything is not going to be the same always. You try to be smart about it. Then there are a lot of other things you’re going to run into. You’re either going to be a whiskey head, a dope head or whatever. You run into different people with that kind of stuff going on and you can see the results of a lot of this stuff. I don’t smoke. That would’ve been my downfall. I never did smoke anything. I don’t drink. I used to drink but stopped that. I haven’t drunk anything in over 10 years.
SF: I never knew Little Walter, of course, but from the history that’s written there seems to have been a lot of drinking going on.
FB: Most musicians did a lot of drinking. They did it for different reasons. But, I don’t mean to get to the point where the drinking becomes all consuming and you can’t live without it. There’s no such thing as you’ve got to have this to do your job. You don’t have to have anything! If you know your job well enough, you don’t need no crutch.
SF: How did you feel about being in bands with musicians who drank too much?
FB: It didn’t bother me. That’s the point. It don’t bother me what you do as long as I know what I’m not supposed to do.
SF: It never had an effect on the total sound of the band?
FB: Yeah. I was able to mix with all different types and it didn’t bother me. I’m just going to do what I’m going to do and that’s it. I treat everybody alright. I don’t try to be overbearing. I don’t try to push you down because of what you want to do. That’s your business. I can see you today and say, “Hi, man! How are you?” I’m not going to dwell on what you do. I’m a drummer and I know my job. Just like you’re a mechanic and you know how to fix that car. You can have all different types of cars and as long as you know how to work on cars, you can work on cars. Well, I’m a drummer. I know how to play my drums and so that’s what I do. A lot of guys I’d see, it would hurt me to see them go down the drain. If there’s any way I could help them not to do it I would. Other than that, there’s nothing else I can do.
Here’s another thing that was taught to me when I was in the Army Band in Germany. We had great teachers over there. One of the teachers had been playing concert for I don’t know how many years. But, he told me that one of the frustrating things about music is to play music 24 hours a day and not know anything else. In order to relieve the pressure, you must take up another thing. Learn another trade. Learn some way other than music to relax yourself, because if you don’t relax yourself, you’ll be too tight.
SF: What trade did you learn?
FB: Art. Drawing pictures. Camera work. Photography. That’s what I do. I’ve been doing photography since about 1949. I shoot anything. I’ve got volumes! I just like to go out and shoot pictures. I used to take pictures at parties and sell little pictures here and there. We’d get on a gig and during the intermission I’d take pictures and sell them. Then I’d go overseas and at different places I’d take either moving pictures or still pictures. I also paint by numbers. It’s important to do something else; to not think about music 24 hours a day because it ties you up. The tension is too high, and you don’t have no way to release the pressure. A lot of the guys have a lot of pressure and don’t have no way to release it. You’ve got to have a release valve.
SF: What was the toughest part of surviving when you were doing a lot of roadwork? How did you stay sane?
FB: Well, I read books. Took pictures. That’s about it. I’d go to the movies. I never did just sit and twiddle my thumbs. I’d practice to keep my wrists up.
SF: Were you married when you were on the road?
FB: No. I married in ’64. Then I got divorced. Then I remarried. My present wife and I are just in love and we just have lots of fun. I don’t travel as much now as I did back in the early days. In the early days I used to be gone all the time. I traveled all over the United States and overseas.
SF: Do you work on the spiritual part of your life? Is that important to you?
FB: Well, yeah. I believe in God. I say my prayers every night. I bless my food every meal. I don’t belong to no church that I go to regularly because with the kind of work that I do, I keep moving all the time.
SF: You have a new jazz band now.
FB: I’ve got a jazz group that I work off and on with. Then I work singles by myself with whoever calls me. The band I work with is drums, piano or organ, bass and saxophone.
SF: Do you have any drum students?
FB: No. I used to teach a little bit. I showed a lot of the blues drummers a lot of little tricks. But I never had time to teach for the simple reason that I stayed gone and working all the time. I wouldn’t mind teaching but I don’t have the time.
SF: How about clinics?
FB: There’s no reason for me to do clinics because I don’t have the time. I’m doing other things. Today I might be going over here to take some pictures or going to play ball. I keep myself busy. I never could just sit around and do nothing. You’ve got to keep your mind active.
SF: It’s a shame you don’t do clinics to pass on the tremendous amount of knowledge that you have.
FB: I’ve sat down a lot of times during concert tours. I’d get in a corner and a lot of the kids would come around and I’d talk with them. I’ve talked with kids overseas and down South. I went on the road with Charlie Musselwhite one time. We were down in Tennessee playing a big TV and radio show. There was about 35 or 40 kids there and we got into a conversation. They were asking me questions like, “What do you think about holding the sticks this way? ” I was giving them my opinion about different things.
SF: Do you have a preference between matched grip and traditional grip?
FB: I use traditional myself because it works good. But, I’ve seen guys use the drumsticks like mallets. To me, that gives off a different sound and a different beat. It’s harder. It’s not soft enough. I like my way best—the traditional—because of the technique and the pressure. You’re not so much “slamming-bang, slamming-bang.” The drum is a beautiful instrument if you play it correctly; you can get beautiful sounds. And your drums should be tuned so that you can hear different tones coming out of all the different sizes. You can be playing in a band and all of a sudden you hear that their tones are going up. You can’t reach it up if your drums are flat. You just have a “plop” sound that don’t have no tone. But if you’ve got tone—if the band goes up you can go right up with it!
SF: How do you like to tune your drums?
FB: I tune my drums left to right, so that the two tom-toms have different tones. My floor tom has the lowest tone. My hardest, flat tone would be my bass drum. My snare drum has an intermediate tone. It’s between the two tom-toms on the top, so that when you flick the snares off you’ve got three tones. The two tom-tom tones and the snare drum in the middle of both of them.
I never put anything inside the drums. I never understood why drummers want to stack all that stuff in there. It’s okay for recording purposes—putting padding in the drums—but not for when you’re playing! That just kills all the tone. You don’t know what you’re playing. I don’t put no foreign matter whatsoever in there. The only thing I have on my bass drum is a Dr. Scholl’s pad right there where the beater hits so it don’t kick a hole in the drum. When it wears out you put another one on there.
SF: Are you using a wood beater on your bass drum?
FB: Hard felt.
SF: Obviously you were using calfskin heads when you first started playing and recording. Did you mind switching to plastic heads?
FB: No. I think I liked it better. It’s a different tone. The calfskin gave a little sharper tone. The plastic heads are better for different weather conditions. That’s the main thing. When it got damp and muggy and bad weather, them calfskin heads would go up and down—they’d be flabby and all other kind of stuff. With the plastic heads you don’t have that problem. Then it was the way you had them tuned. The part that you beat on is the only part of the drum that you tune. The part that you do not beat on, you do not tune it. Like on the bass drum you loosen the part that you’re playing on and that’s all. Tighten the bottom head of all the drums. Just tune from the top. You never tune from the bottom. The bottom stays like it is. Once you tighten it up then it stays. The top head is what you tune. You can loosen it or tighten it.
SF: Do you ever think that people listen to blues drummers and think that they’re not good drummers?
FB: Yes I do. I played a show at McCormick Place one time. It was a big show and I was rehearsing for it. I was known as a blues drummer. I came in for rehearsal one time and the guy gave me a sheet of music and the music was wrong. I sat there with my pen and said, “What a minute, man. This is not right.” He said, “What do you mean it’s not right?” I said, “Well, here. You don’t have enough bars here. You’ve got five bars.” He looked at me and said, “Do you read music?” I said, “Damn right I read music!” He said, “Well, I didn’t think you could read. You play all them blues.” I said, “Well, that’s just as much as you know. I don’t have to have a sign that says ‘I Am A Drummer Who Plays Everything!’ I know how to read and write music.”
SF: Weren’t all those blues drummers in your era—like Odie Payne—all-around drummers?
FB: Oh my God! Odie Payne is my buddy. We went to the Roy Knapp School together. Marshall Thompson. All of us! Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur Campbell plays as much xylophone as anybody out there—Lionel Hampton and all the rest of them. Wilbur Campbell can play! You get some vibes and Wilbur Campbell will eat you up!
SF: In the ’60s, when the English bands like The Rolling Stones came over, did you meet any of those guys?
FB: Yeah, I met them before they came here. I met the Beatle guys, The Rolling Stones and all of them.
SF: Did they come around to watch you play?
FB: They weren’t no Beatles then. They weren’t no well-known bands. They were just guys coming around. They heard what we was playing and they couldn’t play what we was playing, but, they tried it. And they played it in their English-style way. Next thing that happened a couple of years later, them guys come here and made a million dollars doing some of our same stuff. They just changed the music around.
SF: How did you feel about that?
FB: It didn’t bother me at that time. I was just wondering why they could come here and make a killing, and we could go there and make bacon and eggs. It’s just the way our type of music and our people were accepted at that particular time, doing our stuff. We were playing the stuff but we weren’t getting the credit and getting that recognition like The Beatles and so forth. We didn’t get on no great big show like The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan didn’t look at us. But, when The Beatles came here playing the same thing, they said, “Ah, here’s a band coming from England playing something.” They give them all kinds of recognition. The money makers jumped right on top of the Beatles and now the Beatles are billionaires. And we’re still out here trying to make bacon and beans.
SF: Why do you think that is?
FB : It’s just the music and the way people accept our music. That’s all. You’ve got some of the greatest musicians—who are black—that be trying to do a good job. Once we make the initiation, then the other people get the credit.
SF: In the beginning, you were playing almost strictly for black audiences?
FB: Yeah. When we went on the first tour of the South we were playing mainly for blacks. But, they had some big shot white promoters down there and we were drawing such a big crowd in some of the black places that we were playing at, that the white promoters got us and we started playing in the auditoriums instead of just these little halls. When we played those places, the seating arrangements were that the main floor was for the whites and the upper floors and the balconies were for the blacks.
SF: How did that make you feel?
FB: Well, it was the first time I’d ever been down South to do anything, so I really had a mixed reaction. I didn’t know what to think and a lot of the times we played we were scared. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were in a place where, since we were black, we had to stay in our place. You had to watch what you do and all these different things when you played these big stadiums. They made it so that when we got through playing, we never mixed with the crowd except for the ones that they had come back and say “hi.” There were certain people that were allowed backstage. We stayed backstage all the time.
All this was in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas. We even played for Gene Autrey one time out at his ranch. We played down in Louisiana for big white and black audiences. This is the way it was during the ’50s. Anybody that says it wasn’t going on, they’re lying, because this is what we went through. We played in big places. Not no little places. We didn’t have but four pieces in the band. Then we added on a piano player. Then we added a saxophone player. A guy named Fat Jackson used to play sax with us.
SF: Can I ask how much the band made for one night’s performance?
FB: Well, we was on salary with Little Walter. What Little Walter got I didn’t know. But, at that time we was making $75 a night, plus we paid all our own expenses. Things weren’t expensive down there then. You could get a room for two or three dollars a night that you’d pay $50 or $60 a night for now.
SF: Did they record that band in concert ever?
FB: No. We did all our recording in the studio. We had five uniforms that we dressed in. From the shoes up to the hat. Wasn’t no such thing of everybody getting different colored bluejeans like they do nowadays.
SF: Did you know the guys in the Butterfield Blues Band?
FB: Yeah, in the ’60s I knew all of them because I recorded with them. I made the first recordings with the Seigel/Schwall Blues Band. Butterfield, Bloomfield, Charlie Musslewhite—I recorded with all kinds of different white bands.
SF: Did you like those bands?
FB: Sure. I still know them today. Whenever they’re around they stop by and say, “Hey, Below. How are you doing?” I hear from Charlie Musslewhite every once in a while.
SF: Did you ever have a chance to play drum solos in blues bands?
FB: Well, you wouldn’t consider them drum solos, but I did some nice breaks
which really got tattooed to me. Have you heard the record “Off The Wall”? That’s the first one that I ever made and the only one that I really ever had the opportunity to do some work on.
SF: Do you like to play drum solos?
FB: I like to solo if the opportunity arises.
SF: You’ve always been an excellent accompanist to singers. Can you name some things that are important in backing up singers?
FB: The main thing with the different groups I played with was to learn what they were doing, listen to what they were doing and try to work with them. A lot of times group singers have an idea of doing their stuff when they’re singing by themselves. Then when you go into the studio it’s a lot different. They have to understand that you’re backing them up and they’re doing the singing. Certain breaks don’t come out right unless both of you get together. A group that rehearses with itself is different than a group that rehearses with a small trio or something like that.
In the ’60s, groups started putting rhythm sections with the bands. Before that groups would just sing by themselves, like the Mills Brothers. When r&b groups started coming out, the singers had to learn how to play with a rhythm section. Singing by themselves is just like singing in a church choir. You don’t have no backup. In the studio you’ve got to change it because the drummer—or whoever’s backing you—has got to learn how to phrase and do what you’re doing. That’s a hard one. So a lot of groups used to carry a good strong guitar player with them and they’d have to tell the drummer what to do all the time. Then the singing groups started coming up with rhythm sections, a little small group behind them. That’s when the rock ‘n’ roll groups started coming out. Five guys singing with a three-piece rhythm section backing them.
SF: One thing that’s missing from rock today that was always in blues was the use of dynamics.
FB: Yeah. The r&b brought on a little change which was the format for rock ‘n’ roll. It’s gotten to the point right now where the individuals like to play loud. They want to be heard, which is incorrect. You have five pieces and that means if everybody’s playing too loud, there’s no music coming out. In order to play the music you’ve got to play soft to blend. It’s like when you start to bake a cake. You put a little ingredients here and a little ingredients there and you stir it up. Then when you stir it up and mix it up it comes out a beautiful cake. It’s the same way with music. That’s why a lot of guys don’t understand why, if you’ve got an amplifier as big as this house, you don’t have to play that loud. When I was traveling with Junior Wells, we’d go to California and we used to see the Jefferson Airplane and a lot of the different rock groups. They used to play so loud the walls would shatter. A lot of the rock groups were playing so loud in California that the doctors were running full time business, because a lot of people were coming to them with earaches. They’re still doing it. When you’ve got a big instrument, it’s not to be played loud in a small place. See, if you’re in a baseball field or something and the man back there wants to be heard, then you have to turn it up a little. But, you’re not supposed to blast if you’re in a small area where the sound’s got no way to dissipate. You’re just killing everybody.
You can’t play dynamics if you’re playing too loud. You have no way to go up because you’re already up. It’s the same way with playing brushes. How can you play brushes if you have always learned by playing sticks? You don’t even know what a brush is. A drummer can’t hear himself that soft if he’s always played with sticks. He can’t have no touch if he’s never played with a mallet. A mallet has a muffled sound. You can’t play it if you’ve never heard the sound before. You’ve got to know what each sound is and how to muffle it and tone it down. That’s what tone is. You’ve got to hear the sounds and the beats and different things and make the music blend. You don’t just sit up there and get some sticks and “bang-bing-bang-bang.” That don’t mean nothing. A blending drummer is a hell of a drummer. That’s why Max and Blakey and all them cats sound so beautiful when they play their stuff. They blend what they’re playing. I appreciate good drummers. I’ve seen Art Blakey, Max Roach, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich—the big drummers that I know—and I’ve seen them work and I notice what they do. They don’t just sit up there just to be kicking and playing. They be playing and kicking, but they be blending. Jo Jones! My God! All them. Cozy Cole and Slam Stewart. They don’t sit there like they’re kicking on a box or something.
SF: When you’re playing, are you thinking both rhythmically and melodically?
FB: Melodically all the time. If you have a more rounded idea of music and you’re not always listening to one type, you have a better idea or conception of sounds. You’ve heard soft, loud, different rhythm patterns, beats. You’ve got a much greater store of music in you. Then you can adapt what you learned if you are well provisioned enough to whatever you be playing. If you hear some blues or some jazz tune and all of a sudden the drummer comes out of a real bag, you say, “Wow, man. Ain’t that great. I don’t know where that comes from.” Then you start learning that that came from “Sheik of Araby” or whatever. But you can use it because you know what you’re doing and you know how to put it in.
A drummer never gets out front. If you’re playing in a band, the drummer stays behind everybody. Just like if you’re in the Army, you’ve got somebody to back you up all the time. The scouts go out in the front. Well they’ve got to have some rear guard. The rear guard is your drummer. When the rear guard gets up front, that fouls up the whole thing. You get back there and you kick! If you’re a good drummer you should always be respected and recognized. He has one of the hardest jobs in the band because he’s got to keep everybody together; to pull everything together to tighten it up. Then push it out there so it sounds nice.
SF: Now that you’re leading your own band, do you find that you’re using anything that you’ve learned from the great band leaders you’ve worked with?
FB: I got a little something from everybody I had the opportunity to work with. I worked with Memphis Slim, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy . . . with all this experience I’ve learned how to do different things. And they taught me something. Then I wanted to do something on my own for myself.
SF: What made those guys great bandleaders?
FB: A lot of bandleaders are made by the musicians around them. A lot of bandleaders are not great unless they’ve got somebody behind them good. When you’ve got good people behind you, that makes you great. All singers have to be strong by themselves. But, a bandleader—if you’re not singing and you’re just playing, you’ve got to be strong for yourself, or you’ve got to know how to get good people to work behind you and make you sound good. This is what makes you great, when you can get people to help make that sound. Teamwork. You know how to keep a team together. You only keep a team together if everybody cooperates. If you can get that type of cooperation from the musicians, they play better. You’ve got an easy-going band and everybody feels relaxed, you’ve got a damn good band. If your band’s uptight, you can’t put the music out. You can feel it. You can hear it. You’ve got to know how to relax when you play or it’ll blow you up. You’ll blow your mind, man. Every time you come to work you’ll come to work with a headache. You’ve got to work easy and relaxed and you’ll have more fun.
Then, know how to compliment people you work with. Know how to say, “Hey man, that was a great thing you did on so-and-so. Man, that was good.” Do these things. These help. Even if they’re playing wrong and you know it’s wrong, never criticize. The same man that you’re criticizing today might be a hell of a man tomorrow. So learn how to keep your mouth shut when you’re supposed to and open it when you should.
SF: Attitude is very important.
FB: That’s right. There ain’t no harm in complimenting somebody. Maybe the next time he’ll do it a little bit better. The better he do the better you’re going to sound. Remember: You’re playing in the same group. When he plays good, that makes you play a little better. It’s supposed to. It won’t sound like a band if he’s mad at you when you come to work. Or if you’re thinking, “When he gets ready to do his thing, I’m going to mess him up.” That’s frustration. That’s no good.
SF: For someone that has never heard you play, could you recommend some albums that would be representative of your drumming?
FB: A lot of my playing, you won’t know it, because I play so many different styles with so many different people. I did some of my best work with Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and The Moonglows. I did the record with Dinah Washington. The last big record I did was the Golden Hits of Louis Jordan. It was recorded in Europe. But, they didn’t put my name on it. They put somebody else’s name on it.
SF: So what’s ahead for Fred Below over the next five years?
FB: Any and everything. I really don’t have no chart. I never liked to pin myself down, and now that I’m able to do everything that I want, I want to just have my fun and just play everything. Whatever job comes along, I’m able to play it.
I’ve been able to play what I want to play and I play my style: relaxed and happy. I’m happy when I play. I smile all the time. I just enjoy playing.