Who is Gary Chester?

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SKF NOTE: This piece was published first in the Piscataquis Observer weekly newspaper on October 29, 2018 as Who is Gary Chester?

Gary Chester, starting in the 1960s, was a top New York studio drummer. One of a special breed of musicians who music producers and artists counted on to make hit records. Mostly these musicians worked inside recording studios in places like New York City, Los Angeles, Muscle Shoals, and New Orleans.

When Gary Chester retired after 20-years as a studio musician, he had chalked up 14,000 recording sessions. If you listen to classic rock and pop music, it’s hard to go through a day without hearing Gary Chester’s drumming.

Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” Dionne Warwick’s “What the World Needs Now,” The Chiffons, “He’s So Fine,” Petula Clark, “Downtown,” Jim Croce, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” John Denver’s, “Rocky Mountain High,” and The Drifters’ “Up On the Roof.” These hits barely scratch the surface of Mr. Chester’s body of work.

The first time I heard about Gary was in a letter sent in response to my 1982 five-part Modern Drummer magazine series, “A History of Rock Drumming.” The letter, signed “Gary Chester,” patted me on the back, but wondered why I hadn’t included Gary Chester.

September 18, 1982, I drove 26 miles to Gary’s Suffern, NY home. I came away with about two hours and fifteen minutes of a taped interview. After editing, it was published (April 1983) as a Modern Drummer feature interview.

I also learned Gary Chester had developed a unique, useful, drumset playing method. I was stepping down as Modern Drummer’s managing editor, while the magazine was helping Gary organize his drum method into book form. Gary Chester’s “The New Breed,” published in November 1986, is still in print, still a very popular drum method book.

Nine months later, August 17, 1987, Gary Chester died at his home, unexpectedly. Around that time I stopped writing about drummers.

Then on April 2, 2014 I again started writing about drummers through my “Life Beyond the Cymbals” blog. My first blog post started with:

My blog is…about music mostly, about the parts of my life I would pass on to my children — if I had children. My hope? That some of these stories will be of use to someone. Maybe an aspiring musician or music journalist.

In 2015, Gary’s daughter, Katrina “Kat” Chester wrote to me. Katrina handles her father’s drumming estate. We agreed to a video chat where Kat mostly asked for my memories and impressions of her father.

Do I still have Gary’s interview tapes? she asked

Yes, I said.

Soon, Kat and one of Gary’s drum students, Tony Cruz, decided to produce a Gary Chester film documentary. I agreed to give them copies of Gary’s interview tapes.

First, I had to find the tapes. Tape C, the interview’s final 45-minutes, showed up. It includes the sound of Gary introducing me to Katrina, who was 14-year olds.

I drove to Tony Cruz’s Nyack, NY home last year, to be interviewed on video for the Gary Chester documentary. At one point, camera rolling, Tony asked me, “If Gary was here right now — what would you say to him?”

Before I could speak, I was overcome with sorrow. Unexpected sadness; out of nowhere. I wish I had time to know Gary better, to interview him again. Great drummers may be great timekeepers, but, like all of us, great drummers eventually run out of time. That, in itself, is a drum lesson.

Last week, after a year searching, I found the missing Chester interview tape, digitized the full 90-minutes, sent it to Katrina. I’m looking forward to her Gary Chester documentary.

My prime motivation for interviewing drummers always was to capture their stories, to make certain, to the best of my ability, their musical contributions aren’t lost to history. Gary Chester’s interview, everything happening with Gary’s story since, seem somehow tied to all my life experience with drummers and drumming.

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