‘The World’s Greatest Drummer is Louis Bellson’

My Uncle Bob on the far left. Scott K Fish on far right.

My Uncle Bob on the far left. Scott K Fish on far right.

SKF NOTE: My Uncle Bob, older brother Craig, and I are standing in the dirt driveway at Charles R. Fish Nurseries, 39 School Street, Auburn, Massachusetts. I’m maybe 10 years old. Craig is one-and-a-half years older. The sun is shining on everything, including the chrome and blue sparkle Ludwig snare drum Uncle Bob is holding in his hands. Bob tells us he paid $75.00 for the drum.

He then asks Craig and I, “Do you know who’s the world’s greatest drummer?”

I say nothing. I have no idea.

Craig offers, “Gene Krupa?”

“No,” says Uncle Bob, “The world’s greatest drummer is Louis Bellson.”

ludwig_snareIt’s curious how Louis Bellson appears at key places throughout my life. In the early 1970’s, while living in Davenport, Iowa, I found out Louis grew up right across the Mississippi River in Moline, Illinois. Local musicians and jazz lovers talked of hearing Louis in clubs when Moline was a happening place.

Louis’s name would also often prompt the same people to rave about another Illinois drummer, Gaetan Caviola. Some said Gaetan was a better drummer than Louis. I never saw Mr. Caviola play. I only heard him on two albums: “The Sotos Brothers Quartet – On Stage“, and also, “Introducing Sue Childs.”

I saw Louis play once in Illinois. I stood to his right so I could watch his feet and hands. He was, of course, great.

In another blog post I write about an embarrasing teachable moment of sitting in at a Davenport jam session and stepping all over the group leader — on a drumset custom made by Bob Grauso for Louis Bellson.

Then there was my correspondence with Louis, and his consenting to be a part of the “Who Reads Modern Drummer?” ad series.

The first time I remember hearing Louis was on his “Concerto for Drums” album. This was before hearing his more famous “Skin Deep” with Duke Ellington. Louis introduces his “jingle sticks” – a set of tambourine cymbals attached to drumsticks – on “Concerto.” And his calfskin head drums sound wonderful. It’s a great solo. Especially impressive to an up-and-coming drummer.

Once in conversation with Joe Morello, Joe was wishing Louis’s playing was more spontaneous, less pre-planned. Joe and Louis were friends and, in my conversation with Joe, Joe was not being unkind about Louis. We were simply having a candid talk about drummers. My impression was Joe couldn’t understand why Louis, with his drumming ability, wasn’t playing more spontaneous. As if Joe was looking at the math equation 2 + 2 = 5, knowing it should be 2 + 2 = 4.

As I listened, and still listen, to Bellson, I understand Morello’s point. And I have seen times when Louis seems to let loose. His performance here on The Tonight Show with Buddy Rich is one example. I can’t help laughing whenever I watch it.

Sometimes Louis’s playing is exactly what I need to hear. His measured, clean, supportive and swinging accompaniment; his solos in which, as with all great players, I hear familiar phrases. And everytime I hear Louis I recall my first, and perhaps greatest drumming influence, my Uncle Bob, standing on a sunny day holding his blue sparkle Ludwig snare drum telling me, “The world’s greatest drummer is Louis Bellson.”

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