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.”
It’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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