Revisiting My Life in Music: Early Days at Modern Drummer

The job offer came at a perfect time. In the wake of a failed, intense relationship; a series of part-time typing jobs for a government agency, an insurance company and others; when my future looked bleak and it was all I could do to keep body and soul together – a letter arrived from Modern Drummer magazine. This was 1980.

Ron Spagnardi

Ron Spagnardi

MD Founder Ron Spagnardi was offering me a job as MD‘s first Managing Editor. MD had grown from its original four issues a year to six issues. Now, explained Ron in his letter, MD was expanding to nine issues a year. It was a full-time job with an annual salary of $12,000.

The one time I visited Ron at MD he was still operating out of his home basement. When I joined the staff Ron had moved MD‘s headquarters to Clifton Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey. The editorial staff was Ron, Features Editor Karen Larcombe, and Art Director David Creamer.

In MD‘s early years, to give the impression it was a bigger enterprise, Ron had several fake “editors” on the masthead. Examples: Managing Editor Michael Cramer; Associate Editor Mark Hurley.

I lived near the MD office in a Nutley, NJ rooming house. It was all I could afford. There were no cooking facilities, no refrigerator. Tenants shared bathrooms on each floor. I paid for the phone in my room. There was also a payphone in the hallway. This was pre-cell phones.

Rick Mattingly

Rick Mattingly

MD was the biggest part of my life. Outside of the magazine I knew no one in New Jersey. I looked forward to work everyday. Truly. It was a great crew.

At first, I shared an office with Karen Larcombe. Karen left MD not long after my hiring. Rick Mattingly was new Features Editor. He and I shared the same office, but it wasn’t long before Rick was given his own office.

All magazine content and correspondence was typed on electric or manual typewriters. Photos were generally 8×10 or 5×7 prints. There were no computers, no digital photos. No digital anything. All the Editors and the Art Director met to determine the contents of each issue, working in rotation on three issues at once, each in a different phase of publishing.

We also planned out, to the extent possible, a full year of MD‘s, filling in the blanks as we moved on.

Using the December 1982 Modern Drummer as an example, here’s how each issue was built:

David Creamer

David Creamer

We’d start with content we had in office. Columns submitted (solicited or not) and feature stories. My recollection is we often had an inventory of columns, but rarely did we have unused feature stories.

Then the editors would start kicking around ideas for feature interviews or stories. There was never a shortage of good feature ideas. The December ’82 issue has four full-length interviews – Elvin Jones, John Densmore, James Black, and Sheila Escovedo – and one feature story: Drummer Mark Stevens’s conversations with key audio engineers on “Miking & Recording Drums.”

There could have been some discussion about giving the magazine cover to Elvin or John Densmore. The cover story was always a balance between who deserved the cover and who could sell the most magazines – especially on newsstands. Had Sheila Escovedo at that time been Sheila E with her hit song, “Glamorous Life,” she would definitely have been a cover contender. But that was two years away.

Then we decided who was going to conduct the interviews. Elvin and James Black were written by MD editors. Freelance writers would call or write us with story ideas, usually about interviewing drummers. Sometimes we would call freelance writers asking if they would like to interview specific drummers.

Robyn Flans

Robyn Flans

In any event, two respected MD freelancers – Robyn Flans and Robin Tolleson – produced the John Densmore and Sheila Escovedo interviews.

Once feature stories were assigned it fell to me to make sure we had photos for them. When I left MD in 1983, Ron cited my work in improving MD‘s photography as a highlight of my time at MD. And that was one of my key goals. Part of MD‘s challenge when I arrived was the caliber of photographers. Another part was the inability of the magazine printer to reproduce photos well.

In the 1982 issue, Tom Copi – a first-class photographer and great guy to work with – took several of the Elvin Jones photos. Rick Mattingly, also an excellent photographer, took one photo. Rick Malkin did most of the John Densmore photography. Malkin was also great to work with. I am still in touch with him. Several photographers contributed to the Sheila Escovedo piece, including Tom Copi. Pat Jolly, a New Orleans photographer, supplied the James Black pics.

Paul T. Riddle with Scott K Fish

Paul T. Riddle with Scott K Fish

It was a similar process for each issue’s columns. Was the content in order? Did we have all the necessary column photos and/or art work?

Now and then MD would have to make arrangements for freelance writers and photographers to connect with drummers they were interviewing. But as MD became better known, and MD freelancers became better known, freelancers were able to make their own arrangements.

In my next “Revisiting My Life in Music” post I will talk about the actual putting together of an MD issue once all of the content was in hand.


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3 Responses to Revisiting My Life in Music: Early Days at Modern Drummer

  1. Pingback: Revisiting My Life In Music: Early Days at Modern Drummer Pt. 2 | Scott K Fish

  2. scottkfish says:

    Thank you, Chris. // Best, skf

  3. Chris Ford says:

    This is great stuff. I remember the issue mentioned very well. Living in England, MD was an exotic publication that was packed with everything I couldn’t get hold of here, and it’s with some amusement that I read how basic the production was early on. However it was done it was gratefully received and absorbed.
    Love the blog. Very thought provoking.

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