The Wisdom of Buddy Rich Outfit No. 80 N

SKF NOTE: This Slingerland ad brings back memories. Pre-internet, when magazine drum ads were a key source for studying drummers’ sets, this ad was among the best. To begin with, this is a back end look at Buddy Rich‘s drum setup. How cool was that back in 1969 (possibly earlier) when Slingerland first ran with this advertisement in Down Beat magazine..

In retrospect, it’s interesting to see the rectangular moleskin pad affixed to the bass drum batter head in addition to the felt strip visible on the left inside of the batter head. Moleskin was used to protect the batter head against repeated bass drum pedal beaters striking against the head. Cheaper to use moleskin than to buy a new bass drum head.

I don’t think all the other drummers pictured in this ad used two floor toms. But, then again, this ad is showing Slingerland‘s “Buddy Rich Outfit No. 80 N.”

Buddy’s positioning of his bass drum mounted ride cymbal always puzzled me. Of course, I tried doing that with my ride cymbal, but it was uncomfortable for playing certain kinds of music. That was a bit of conflict. Yes, the great Buddy Rich positions his 20-inch ride cymbal this way. Why can’t I? What’s my problem?

As I matured, as I studied other favorite drummers’ setups, I understood drum and cymbal positioning is really a personal matter. I should use what’s comfortable for me.

I was never comfortable using drum thrones as pictured in this ad. Drum stools always worked better; were always more flexible.

At some point after this ad appeared, drum companies reversed their message. This ad tells us the world’s great drummers play great Slingerland drums. Later, ads were telling us we couldn’t be great drummers without playing a certain brand of drum.

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Ron Spagnardi – Taking a Chance on Fish

The April 1978 Modern Drummer with my first two feature interviews and cover story.

SKF NOTE: This post was first published November 30, 2018. It was my 99th Piscataquis Observer newspaper column.

Looking back almost forty years I can’t imagine not crossing paths with Ron Spagnardi, founder and publisher of Modern Drummer magazine. We were both drummers, entrepreneurs. Ron in New Jersey, me in New York. At about age 34, Spagnardi saw the success of a ten-year old magazine devoted to guitarists, Guitar Player, and wondered, Why not publish a magazine devoted to drummers?

Next, Ron bought two small subscription ads. One in Down Beat magazine, and one ad in the New York Musician Union Local 802 newspaper. Spagnardi’s ad copy was pretty basic, something like: Interested in subscribing to a new quarterly magazine exclusively for drummers? Send $10 to: Modern Drummer, 47 Harrison St, Nutley, NJ. (I don’t remember the exact amount for a subscription.)

These ads were Ron testing the waters. He told me he had a separate bank account for subscriber’s money. If at least 2,000 people subscribed, Ron said, he could afford to publish the magazine. He didn’t know what he was doing was illegal. Without a Modern Drummer product, soliciting paid subscriptions was a no-no.

Spagnardi’s said his plan was, “If I don’t get at least 2,000 subscribers, I’ll send back their money.”

I was excited to subscribe to this new magazine for drummers. More than 1,999 other drummers and drum enthusiasts felt the same. Ron’s next task was figuring out how to publish a magazine — which he did.

Fish and Spagnardi crossed paths about a year later after Ron published an in-house ad seeking drummers interested in freelance writing for MD.

I submitted my letter and resume and — to my surprise and joy — was hired as a freelancer. Ron told me later he received plenty of requests from drummers with no writing experience, and writers with no drumming experience. I was the magic combination of drummer/writer.

Freelancing for MD opened for me a door to meet my drum heroes face-to-face. It was an opportunity far beyond seeing drum heroes in concert, asking them a question or two at drum clinics. I felt as if I was holding the key to a treasure chest. And in many ways I was.

My March 8, 2015 blog entry describes my first in-person meeting with Ron.

“I first met…Ron Spagnardi probably in the summer of 1978. MD‘s office was the basement of the Spagnardi home…. MD was still a quarterly publication. Nothing fancy about the basement. I remember it as an unfinished basement with desks, tables, and lighting sufficient to produce and ship a magazine. MD Features Editor Karen Larcombe was there. Ron’s father, Leo Spagnardi, handling shipping and receiving. Carol Padner and Jean Mazza were responsible for MD‘s circulation.”

By then, Ron had published my first two freelance MD interviews, using my Carmine Appice interview as MD’s October 1978 cover story.

“Ron seemed a bit apprehensive about what I might be thinking of MD‘s office/basement. But, I thought it was all great and exciting,” I wrote in my blog.

My first freelance MD drummer interview with Mel Lewis turned inside out everything I believed about becoming a pro drummer. It literally prompted a total reassessment of my lifelong goal. Depressing, frightening, and necessary.

In October 1980 Ron Spagnardi’s hired me as MD’s Managing Editor.

The job was fun, full of opportunities, lousy pay, living in a rooming house. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

I left MD, October 1983, having written 48-percent of MD’s feature stories plus my managing editor tasks. And MD grew to 12 issues a year, from 9 issues when I was hired.

Ron, I think, would say I earned my keep. We remained friends. I am forever grateful to Ron Spagnardi, for taking two chances: One on publishing a drummer magazine, and one on hiring me to help him.

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Down Beat Readers’ Best Drummers 1969

SKF NOTE: When I was a high schooler, Down Beat was about the only available music magazine, with its focus on jazz. But that was okay. Jazz drummers were still the standard by which all popular music drummers were measured.

This list is from the 34th Annual DB Readers Poll of December 25, 1969. That banner year for rock music introduced classic albums by Led Zeppelin, Santana, The Rolling Stones, The Who, King Crimson, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Beatles, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. We start to see a few rock drummers emerging among DB readers’ favorite drummers at the close of 1969.

In 1969 I’m sure I was listening to Ginger Baker, Bobby Colomby, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Tony Williams, and Max Roach. I’m not sure how familiar I was in 1969 with the other drummers on this list. I knew many of their names. It’s likely, without knowing it, I heard some of them on NYC jazz radio stations. But I didn’t have much money for collecting albums in 1969.

All that changed very soon. Discovering all these drummers, playing in many musical genres, has been a pleasurable part of my life.

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Buddy Rich’s Perfect Snare Drum

SKF NOTE: This excerpt is from one of the best drum interviews I’ve ever read. It was a two-part Down Beat interview of Buddy Rich by his long-time friend and fellow musician, Mel Torme. Both interview parts were published in February 1978.

So good was this interview, I was let down by Torme’s biography of Buddy, Traps, The Boy Wonder, published years later in 1991. The book I had long hoped would offer more of the insight displayed in this interview, instead never rose to the exceptionalism of this interview.

If you can get your hands on the original interview — do so. Meanwhile, here’s Buddy Rich talking with Torme about what makes a great drum, and Buddy’s once in career perfect snare drum. The original interview refers to a “Slingerland Rail King.” I’m betting that was a interview transcriber’s boo-boo, and it should be “Slingerland Radio King.”

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Torme: You used to say that all drums were alike, exactly.

Rich: There’s no difference.

Torme: You’re an endorser of Slingerland Drums.

Rich: I like ’em because I play ’em. And they feel good. But if I were to use Vingerland tomorrow, or fried boots, I would take the heads and I would put heads on. I use a Diplomat head. And so I would take whatever drum I’m using and put that head on, and I would tension the drum to where I feel comfortable, and that would be my sound. I mean, it’s no big deal, you know.

Torme: You mean to say there’s no difference in construction?

Rich: I suppose all construction is different. Some is good, some is bad, but unless a drum is totally unplayable, it can be playable.

Torme: What about this quest that is rivaling the search for the Holy Grail, the search for the perfect snare drum? I have never known you yet to like a snare drum.

Rich. I only played on one snare drum in my whole career that I really loved and that was an old Slingerland Rail [sic] King. And I’m not saying that because of the Slingerland title. Whether it was the aging of the wood, or the processing, or the shellacking, or the density of the wood or whatever, it was the finest drum I have ever played. Why I don’t have it today is something I’ll never understand. It’s gone down the deep with several hundred sets of drums that I’ve had.

Torme: Are you saying that specific snare drum, or that model, the old Buddy Rich rail [sic] model? Maybe it was an old Gene Krupa.

Rich: Listen, it could have been a Gene Tierney, for all I know. The construction of that drum was perfect for the kind of drum sound that I’m looking for.

Torme: Have you ever asked Slingerland if they’ve got any of the old Slingerland snare drums?

Rich: The die was thrown away or it was destroyed or whatever. And they come up with some cockamamie excuses that are unreal to me. They simply….

Torme: You may have been right about the fact that the age of the wood in those days….

Rich: For ten grand you can recapture all that. You can make the die again, get some engineers, spend a little more bread for some aged wood, and you make a more expensive drum — but you make the best drum. It’s just that simple. If you want to make the best in anything, you’ve got to spend some bread. If you don’t, it’s going to be good for six months, and the lugs will drop off, or be good for a year and you’ll find out that it’s warped. I just don’t think there’s good workmanship today.

Torme: You know the snares used to constantly fall off, and you had to continually re-tighten the snare control.

Rich: Yeah, but you do the same with a $400 drum today. When you play the drums as hard as I play them, it’s bound to loosen up. So I’m constantly turning the wheel to pull the snares up. I don’t like loose snares. But the perfect snare drum means more involvement in the making of it: a little more money, a little more aging of the wood, the correct density — so the drum just sings. You don’t have to play hard on a good drum because it will project itself. And this is what’s lacking today.

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Remembering ‘The World’s Greatest Drummer’

SKF NOTE – My Uncle Bob sparked my lifelong love of all things drums. And one vivid recollection of Uncle Bob, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s (he died when I was age 14) is him telling my brother Craig and me, “The world’s greatest drummer is Louis Bellson.”

Yeah, I know “the world’s greatest drummer” designation is arguable, but I remembered Louie’s name. In the early 70s, living in Davenport, IA, I was excited to learn Louie’s hometown of Moline, IL was just across the Mississippi River. I met several people who knew Louie and had seen him play at area nightclubs.

Louie’s dad’s music store, where Louie studied drums, was still in business. And one afternoon I had a chance to see Louie in person at a local high school gymnasium, I believe.

This 1969 Rogers Drum ad featuring Bellson is one of my favorite photos of the drummer. During his long career Louie endorsed several drum brands. Pearl, Gretsch, Slingerland, and Remo come to mind. And whether or not he was “the world’s greatest drummer,” Louie Bellson was certainly one of them.

Fortunately for drummer alive today, and for drummers yet born, Bellson made a bunch of records with other bandleaders and under his own name. And there are several worthwhile Bellson videos available.

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