Sammy Davis Jr. proclaimed during a high-profile concert at Carnegie Hall that Del Blake, at age twenty-seven, was “the greatest drummer in the world.” This, while the famous entertainer was on tour with Buddy Rich. Friend, coworker, and fellow drummer Stephen Boudreaux tells his tale.
I’m not certain which trait fascinated me most about Del Blake, his brilliant command of rudimental and set drumming or his tenacious and tireless work ethic. I met Blake around 1997, when I hired him to train network engineers at a regional tech firm. It was nearly two years that we had worked together before I even knew he had any background in drumming. His fiancé at the time said to me, knowing I was a moderately successful regional drummer myself, “Did you know Del plays drums, too?”
At first I was taken aback. When I asked him about it, he told me, “Oh, I used to play drums, but it was dominating my life. I went through too many relationships that always took a back seat to my practice time. I would practice six to eight hours each day, and people just didn’t understand. So I gave it up about fifteen years ago, sold all my stuff, and here I am in the technology business.”
Del’s fiancé quickly interjected, “Del played with Sammy Davis Jr.!” That was it for me. I knew at that moment that if Del had been hired by Sammy Davis Jr.—a fine drummer himself—then he had to be one of the top players in the world at the time. Right then and there I challenged Del to pick up the instrument again and come play with me. He refused at first, and his fiancé agreed. Del, although most likely not properly diagnosed, suffered from some form of extreme obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Selfishly, the only thing that mattered to me was hearing Del play the drums.
Del Blake was born in a Japanese internment camp in central Idaho in 1942, and by the time of the family’s release in 1944, his mother, Lorraine King, had become single, and she moved her and her son back to Spokane, Washington. Lorraine had been a blues singer in the late Vaudeville days through the 1930s, and had always encouraged her son to appreciate music. When Del was four years old, his mother had noticed he had artistic qualities and thought it would be a good experiment to have Santa Claus bring him a drumset for Christmas that year. Young Delbert was beside himself and took to the instrument right away. Unfortunately for him and his mother, the drums were cheaply made of card paper, and Del accidentally fell into them and “smashed the whole lot!” as he recalled.
By the time Blake had turned fourteen in 1956, he was working three paper routes, from which he earned nearly $1,000 to pay for lessons, sticks, and a new drumkit. Practicing in an apartment was difficult, so he would set up his drums at a local rock quarry to get the full effect. By 1959, Blake had discovered rudimental drumming and picked up lessons with local Spokane drum guru Howard E. Robbins, who at one time was the drummer for swing legend Stan Kenton. Robbins would go on to teach Eddie Money drummer Glenn Symmonds as well as found the Percussion Naut Patriots fife and drum corps.
That year, the local VFW sponsored an annual State Rudimental Drumming Competition in Yakima, Washington, and Blake entered and took the title in his first try. While there, he met Mike Stefanowicz, who was a former National Snare Drum Champion from Connecticut. Stefanowicz had relocated to Washington and introduced Blake to the Eastern method of rudimental drumming. Having caught the bug, Blake was in hot pursuit to compete for a National title. He would become a relentless correspondent with Stefanowicz and others, including John Dowlan of Philadelphia, who was a five-time National Snare Drum Champion himself and considered by many at the time to be the best in the world at the craft.
Dowlan became a member of the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 1987 and is unofficially credited with having institutionalized the backsticking technique in 1938 as a way of improving left-hand strength and coordination. Blake would send dozens of taped recordings of his playing to Dowlan and ultimately prepared a Dowlan-penned piece for his own National Championship run. Keep in mind, Blake was still a high school student at the time.
By the time he graduated from high school, Blake had won two State Rudimental Snare Drum Championships along with a number of local titles and earned a full-ride music scholarship to Gonzaga University. By 1963 he’d entered the National Rudimental Snare Drum Championships and become the first entry ever from west of the Mississippi to win the title.
Blake forwent the remainder of his university studies to pursue a music career in New York City. Landing a job as a page at NBC, he was lucky enough to bump into Robert “Bob” Rosengarden, who was a successful studio drummer and with NBC from 1949 to 1968, drumming for Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and The Dick Cavett Show on ABC, where he also served as bandleader. Rosengarden recommended Blake for the house drummer job at the famed Concord Resort in the Catskills, where he was able to drum for the legions of stars that frequented the place.
It was Bob Rosengarden too that later recommended Blake for the opening in Buddy Greco’s band, which moved him out to Las Vegas. Greco was part of the famed Rat Pack, along with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and others. After touring the world with Blake behind the kit, Greco accepted a residency at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas alongside Davis Jr. When part of Sammy’s band—including his drummer—quit to return to L.A. after a musician’s strike, Blake was offered the job to drum for both him and Buddy Greco. When Sammy opted to go on a world tour, Blake had to choose. He chose to go with Sammy, and when he told Greco of his decision, he was cussed out and nearly beaten by him in the lobby of the Sands!
The twenty-seven-year-old Blake provided the highlight moment of each show, even according to Sammy himself. Sammy was so fond of Blake’s playing that he gave him a lengthy drum solo section along with a vocal/drum duet medley. In the 1969 Zildjian guide to the cymbal setups of the most famous drummers in the world, Blake appears alongside all the greats of the day.
After a few years of touring, Blake left for L.A. to pursue studio and freelance work, which included a world and South African tour with Tom Jones in 1976, as well as performances with Englebert Humperdink, Connie Stevens, Connie Francis, and others. Through his tours, Blake began to collect all sorts of world percussion pieces and developed a proficiency in all of them, including mallet instruments. Blake landed gigs for television show soundtracks popular during the early 1970s, including The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, The Tonight Show, Mission: Impossible, TJ Hooker, and The Bing Crosby Show. When back in L.A., Blake was never out of work and more driven than ever. He picked up gigs with Mel Tormé, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the Woody Herman band. He supported such diverse stars as Rich Little, Ann-Margret, Barry Manilow, Mitzi Gaynor, Jack Benny, Pearl Bailey, Vikki Carr, Shirley MacLaine, Milton Berle, the Osmonds, the Lennon Sisters, Burt Bacharach, Don Rickles, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Maye, Jim Stafford, and Debbie Reynolds, to name just a few. Blake was literally a drummer to the stars.
After Blake had been coaxed out of retirement, his obsessive ways led him to relentlessly pursue a chance at becoming a World Champion Pipe Band Snare Drummer. He practiced as much as six hours per day and even flew to Scotland and England to study with renowned champion Jim Kilpatrick and follow the lineage of legend Alex Duthart. Blake was hoping to accomplish this within three years, until he fell ill. Finding it easier to sit, he decided to pursue mastery of the piano, and covered material in over 200 books in the two years prior to his passing on November 4, 2019, at the age of seventy-six.