Sandy Nelson Interview: Just Follow Your Heart

SKF NOTE: I recently found transcripts of a group of short interviews I did in the early 1980’s when I was gathering data for my five-part Modern Drummer series, The History of Rock Drumming. It is probably hard to believe today, but back in the early 1980’s there was precious little written about the history of Rock drummers. The good news? Most of the drummers were still living and willing to talk.

This is a phone interview with Sandy Nelson done on May 13, 1982. I was in my MD office. Sandy was at home in California. My recollection is Sandy was reluctant to be interviewed, that he was a private person who wasn’t thrilled taping a phone Q&A with a stranger. I ran into that reaction from a few other drummers. The icebreaker was always that I wanted to talk with them about drums. Period.

Notice in this interview, when I ask Sandy the name and location of the club where he was appearing regularly — he didn’t want to tell me. That’s the opposite reaction of most musicians.

Toward the end of this interview I hint at having Sandy do a feature MD interview, telling him we receive letters from MD readers asking why we haven’t done a Sandy Nelson feature. Sandy was glad to hear that, but he never said, “I’m ready anytime you are.” 

There’s some good historical info here. Caveat: Carmine Appice had a solo album out at this time. In promoting the album Carmine was making the Sandy Nelson connection in a major way. Sandy shoots down some of Carmine’s claims. I said nothing about that at the time. In retrospect it’s good to correct the record [no pun intended] for the history books.

Finally, this is the first time this interview is seeing the light of day. Enjoy!

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Sandy Nelson

Sandy Nelson

Scott K Fish: Could you tell me how you came to record all the great records you did — and the concept behind them?

Sandy Nelson: Sure. In ’58 I was with a little rock and roll band with Bruce Johnston, and somehow we fell into a demo job for a record. I think it only paid ten dollars. That sort of got me into recording for other people, and publishers, and singers for demos and things.

Then I started doing sessions. A few. I saw everybody around me making records and I thought, “Why don’t I do one myself?” Because Cozy Cole did a great job. And I thought there could be room for one more drum record.

[SKF NOTE: Drummer Cozy Cole had a hit record with Topsy Part 2, a drum feature.]

So I tried to make a beat that was danceable and, believe it or not, I got the idea for the feel of the beat from Battle of New Orleans. That is, for Teen Beat. Not many people realize that, but if you listen to both records, they both have the same feel.

Then I thought of the title from looking at the record charts. I saw Teen Angel and I thought, “How can I work that into drum or tom-tom?” Then I though of beat. Most of the companies turned the idea down.

As a matter of fact, the guy that did do it was Art Laboe on his label. I remember Preston Epps coming into the control room and saying to Art, “Well, that’s just a march!” And Art said, “I don’t care what it is as long as it sounds good. And that’s my first lesson in the record business: Just follow your heart. Whatever sounds good.

[SKF NOTE: Preston Epps was a percussionist who also recorded on Art Laboe’s label and had a hit song called Bongo Rock.]

SKF: Your concept was so unique and it has really never been done since — where a song that is essentially a drum solo or a drum feature has become a Top 40 hit.

SN: After that was a hit all the fellows in the recording industry out here would sort of kid me and say, “Well, you were lucky. It was a fluke. It could never happen again.

Then I went on the road with The Ventures for a few months and I got real depressed. I thought, “Damn it! I want another hit record.”

SKF: You were the drummer with The Ventures for awhile?

SN: Yeah, for a short time.  I think their drummer had had an accident. His neck was broken. Howie Johnson.

Anyway, I got a little bit dismal and I thought, “Gee, this is alot of work getting out here on the road trying to earn a buck. If I just had one more hit.” Because I really didn’t have an artist’s contract with Teen Beat. And I’d had a few flop records with Imperial Records and they were ready to drop me. But they gave me one more chance on Let There Be Drums. And so I fooled everybody and had anther hit. And that one I got paid on, of course.

I stole alot of licks from dear old Cozy Cole on Let There Be Drums. Just the other day I was listening to an album of his — the one that has another version of Topsy and Ol’ Man Mose. He did Let There Be Drums on it and he was trying to copy me copying him! It was like several carbon copies.

SKF: So Cozy was the main influence in creating that style?

earlpalmer2SN: Yes. I think the greatest influence to me, in general, was Earl Palmer — a session drummer out here. I saw him last year playing at a small club. He likes to play in person just for fun once in awhile. Alot of the record producers say, “Oh, he’s got a dated sound.” Then they try other people, but they always go back to Earl.

SKF: I heard you were one of the first to play single-headed drums.

SN: Actually, on the road in 1959…no. No, in 1963. I had remembered that a tour I was on in ’59 in the Middle West [when] Johnny and the Hurricanes’s drummer –I forgot his name. He said that Dickey Doo and the Don’ts drummer had the head off the front so he could put part of his traps inside.

So in ’63 when I went out on the road in the Middle West again, I remembered that idea so I — with a razor blade — sliced off a round circle of the skin of the front head so I could put some of the hardware inside the drums.

I guess over the years people have gotten used to the sound and now I guess it’d be hard to go back to the other sound.

SKF: Did you use the same drumset on all those records?

SN: Yeah, I only basically had one set in those days. I wasn’t like the other session men where they had two or three [drumsets]. I had a Ludwig silver sparkle. I’m still usng it now but I’ve painted it black. In the place I’m playing it looks good. It’s just the old Ludwig drums. I bought them in 1962. But I have to admit — the drum world would understand this — that I’m not using the Ludwig bass drum. I’m using a Gretsch. It punches through a lot better.

Primarily, Let There Be Drums was two small tom-toms, then the regular floor tom 16″, and nothing special about the snare — just a regular standard Ludwig snare about 1962 vintage. I don’t have that snare anymore. I wish I did. But, I have one like it that’s a little deeper. I think it’s 8-inches. It’s still an oldie too.

SKF: I had wanted to get in touch with you because those records were so great and you were such an influence on so many drummers.

SN: I really appreciate that. I love the magazine [Modern Drummer] and everytime I read an article on a drummer I feel like the drummers never mention me because it’s not fashionable. Because I’m out of date.

appice_carmine_albumSKF: Did you hear about Carmine Appice?

SN: I heard he wants to do Let There Be Drums.

SKF: He just came out with a solo album [Carmine Appice] that he recorded in the same studio where you recorded all your records.

SN: Well, actually that wasn’t really the same studio. They had moved. But the Podolor’s — they like to shuck people. [SKF NOTE: Carmine’s album is produced by Richard Podolor.] I’ve had a 20-year feud with them. The “stage door mother” syndrome with Ritchie the guitar player. It’s the usual thing in the business, I guess.

SKF: Carmine said he’s using one of the drumsets you recorded with on Drums, Drums, Drums on his LP.

SN: That wasn’t used on any of my records though. That’s a blonde wooden set. I think it’s a Ludwig. I’m not sure. Three Dog Night‘s drummer, Floyd [Sneed], used it quite alot on records. But I’ve never used that on any of my records.

SKF: How many albums did you do altogether?

SN: Around 38. Nowadays they’re repackaging the old tunes for Europe.

SKF: Do you hear drummers today playing things that you feel you started?

SN: Oh yes! I’m really delighted. Just the other night I was at a little party and they played Adam and The Ants. My gosh, I really felt good because every track was based on something I’ve done before. I’ve heard they’re real wild in person, but I sure like them on record. They come across real good. That’s one of the groups I like of the best of the new stuff.

Other than that, what else is going on — I don’t know. I don’t listen that much. I listen to a little jazz.

SKF: Were you coming from a swing music background?

SN: In the Forties I listened to — when I was pretty small — I’d listen to Benny Goodman, Illinois Jacquet, Duke Ellington. I think that was more or less implanted in my soul over my lifetime, because now that’s the kind of stuff I’m playing in a small situation like a piano bar.

I just have a ball because I don’t have to take the drums all over creation. And the owner lets us play what we want. We’ve been creating some things I’d like to put on record soon.

SKF: Where are you playing now, Sandy?

SN: Oh, I can’t mention that. I don’t want to mention…. Just say around the west LA area. I have a record on my own label that I had wanted to do just my own way without producers telling me how to play or what to do. Of all the things, I titled it A Drum is a Woman, but I got so much flak from a few disc jockeys….

Ellington's

Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman” LP

SKF: Because of the Ellington tie? [SKF NOTE: Duke Ellington has an album, A Drum is a Woman.]

SN: Well, I never thought of that, really. But they misconstrued it as something to do with beating a woman. It upset me because I had no intention of that. I was thinking of drums as being very sexy or sensual and should be treated like a woman.

Duke Ellington said something like that. A drum is a lady, did he say?

SKF: No. He said, A Drum is a Woman.

SN: Anyway, I changed the title. [The song is] something like Let There Be Drums except that it has a synthesizer lead.

I bump into young drummers once in awhile that say they want to try to get my old sound. They miss the boat primarily most of the time because they feel it’s in the heaviness of the sticks or the microphones. But the only thing I thing I could come across well with a drum solo is on a tom-tom with the dynamics.

I’m trying to say that I think most rock drummers, when they try to do a drum solo, they get so excited and they overplay, and they play fast, and they play one volume: LOUD! There’s no dynamics.

One example of that was Cozy Powell. Everything he played he’s just pounding as hard as he can. Then they wonder why they can’t get that old Birth of the Beat sound on the tom-toms. You’ve go to treat a drum like a woman!

SKF: Were you using pretty light sticks?

SN: Nowadays you wouldn’t believe it. I’m using 7A‘s. I can get just as much volume and I don’t like to play that loud anyway.

SKF: What were you using on the old records?

SN: If I remember, they were the Japanese oak Speedfire sticks. I think it was the professional model of Speedfire.

SKF: Were you using calfskin heads on those records?

SN: I think Teen Beat was calf heads. But from, like, 1961 on would be all plastic. You just couldn’t find the calf heads anymore.

SKF: Is your new record released?

I still have my copy of Sandy Nelson's

I still have my copy of Sandy Nelson’s “Drum Tunnel”

SN: Sort of. It’s just a small operation. The only place that it’s really released — if you want to say that — is in England through a magazine called The New Gandy Dancer. I just ship a few hundred records to the fellow that runs the magazine and he sells them through the magazine. It’s an instrumental rock magazine that’s sort of coming up. It’s in Newcastle, England.

I’m going to change the record title to Drum Tunnel. I can’t get in any trouble with that unless they say it’s Freudian. Then I’m going to give up for sure.

SKF: Can I ask how old you are?

SN: 43.

SKF: You’re just getting started!

Murray Spivak

Murray Spivak

SN: Yeah, that’s true. Actually, I’m sort of in my secon childhood. I’m enjoying drums just like I did when I was about 18. I went through a number of years with a drinking problem and then I stopped five years ago. And being spoiled with record royalties, I didn’t study drums or take them seriously for quite a long time.

About four years ago I finally got arund to studying with Murray Spivak to loosen up my hands. That’s another thing! I always wondered why he’s never mentioned by drummers, and yet, alot of drummers take from him.

SKF: We get alot of letters from readers asking MD why they haven’t done a Sandy Nelson interview.

SN: I’m glad to hear that. I really appreciate that. Is my number in the Union book out there?

SKF: No. I got your number from local Los Angeles information.

SN: Yeah. There’s about six Sandy Nelson’s and they’re all women around west LA. I get these guys calling for them and I’m tempted to say, “Oh, she’s in the shower.” But I shouldn’t do that.

I’m trying to think of something to write either as a small drum book or whatever based around something I didn’t really invent. As you probably know from the drum world — being a drummer yourself — you don’t really invent anything. It’s really usually just the same old something from way back.

My thing is called a Foonadiddle. It’s a very good exercise: RLLRLLRLL — but it has a few other things in it.

SKF: We’re coming out with a book by Airto.

SN: Oh God! I’m loking at an album right now with him playing with Deodato. He really kicks that bass drum and really has alot of feel. I could never tell if he plays regular trap drums. Everytime I ask someboy what he plays they say, “Everything!”

There was another drummer with Bola Sete. I think he’s dead now. He did Black Orpheus in concert. A bunch of African rhythms. Anyway, I think he played with Bola Sete. I heard it at my piano player’s friend’s house.

He has such a sense of humor. About a year went by and I said, “Hey, I want to come up and borrow your Bola Sete.” He said, “A bowl of what?”

SKF: Well, thanks for spending the time to speak with me.

SN: It’s sure nice talking to you. You brightened my day.

end

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SKF NOTE: I found the transcript from an interview with Carmine Appice circa 1981 where Carmine talks about using Sandy Nelson’s drums. So, here is what Carmine said verbatim.

Scott K Fish: For your solo album, Carmine Appice, you went back to a studio and a mixing board that is 20-years old. Do you miss the sound of the drums the way they were recorded back then?

Carmine Appice: No. I went back to that particular studio because the producer that I worked with owned the studio. And he produced all of Sandy Nelson’s stuff.

On Drums, Drums, Drums on my album, I used Sandy Nelson’s drumset. It was the first open-bottom Ludwig drumset to be made in ’61. It was a five-piece set. Two mounted toms: a 12″ and a 13.” And then, I think, a 16″x18″ floor tom and a 22″ bass drum. I used my own snare drum.

It was a good sounding maple wood set. If you listen to Let Their Be Drums or Teen Beat, and then put on my record, Drums, Drums, Drums, you’ll hear the similarity in tone. I used the same sort of skins that were on there.

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