In 1981, the idea of writing a History of Rock Drumming for Modern Drummer seemed as if it would be mostly combing existing books and magazines for biographical details, and weaving all that into a narrative. Boy, was I surprised!
To a large extent, except for a handful of high profile drummers, the history of rock drumming was ignored in authoritative books of that time such as Rolling Stone magazine’s Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.
In the year it took me to research and write that MD rock drumming series, I discovered several wonderful drummers I didn’t know about beforehand. Also, I found out after-the-fact about drummers I didn’t mention in the series.
One of those was Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section drummer extraordinaire Roger Hawkins. And leaving out Roger from that history was a simple blunder, an oversight. I was very familiar with Roger and his stellar musical career. When someone – an MD reader? – told me I had left him out of the series, I telephoned Roger and said, “I’m sorry.” He was a real gentleman about it.
I also received a letter from a wife in upstate New York. She liked my History of Rock Drumming, she wrote, but thought her husband should have been included. His name, she said, is Gary Chester. And Mrs. Chester included, as I recall, some of the well-known artists Gary had worked with, and some of the well-known songs with Gary on drums.
One thing led to another and I drove to the Chester home upstate New York and interviewed Gary. It was an interesting day with Gary, his wife, and his two daughters. Wonderful people.
My favorite parts of the interview/visit? Gary, talking about first hearing Steve Gadd play, said, “You could tell he wasn’t guessing.” A subtle, to-the-point, assessment.
There exists a photo of a young Gary Chester playing a drumset at a Gene Krupa drum contest – which Gary won. Krupa is standing behind Gary in the photo. Gary said, “Gene was a nice man, but a lousy drummer.” And when I gave Gary a look of disbelief at that comment, he very calmly explained why he thought Gene Krupa was a lousy drummer. I don’t remember the specifics of what Gary said, but…fair enough.
Gary had interesting stories of sessions he played: Using a bean bag ashtray for a shaker sound. Or hitting a balloon with a timpani mallet for a bass drum sound. On a Laura Nyro recording session he rented a large sheet of glass and smashed it as part of a Nyro song.
He also spoke of a method he had for overdubbing drums behind or ahead of the beat, a way to fix songs where the drum parts were rushing ahead of or dragging behind the beat, without having to scrap an otherwise great music take. I also think Gary used a click track when doing this kind of corrective playing.
Let’s use an example where a beat is subdivided into 16th notes counted, “1-e-an-uh”. Let’s say Gary wanted to overdub an eight-measure drum part beginning on the “1” beat of the first measure.
If his goal was to overdub behind the beat, Gary would use the “e” as the “1,” as his starting point, all through the eight-measures. Presto! The rushed drum part was gone. Maybe some Gary Chester students can confirm or correct my understanding of this technique.
I still have my audio-cassette of my interview with Gary. One of these days I would like to digitize it and make it available to the public, or at least get a copy to his family.
Gary’s feature interview appeared in the April 1983 MD. Six months later I was gone from MD, working for Gretsch. So I was not on hand for Gary’s method book, “New Breed,” and his subsequent, very well-deserved recognition by drummers worldwide. But I am glad to have known Gary Chester and to have helped others know him. One of my favorite writing career serendipities.