Since 1999, I have conducted more than 50 interviews with players and experts in the genres of classic swing, bebop, early Rhythm and Blues, rockabilly and early rock’n’roll. The list includes mainly drummers from each era, but also top historians, record collectors and DJ’s. Many of my interview subjects have become dear friends, and I thank each of them for their graciousness and generosity in offering so much of themselves and their history.
You can see photos of many of the interviewees in the Pioneers of Drum History page on this website. Transcriptions of two of the interviews, as well as various pull quotes from the collection can be found in my books The Roots of Rock Drumming and The Commandments of Early Rhythm and Blues Drumming.
A point of clarification: The list of musicians is divided up based on the musical style/era from which each is best known. Louie Bellson, for example, is listed in the Pioneers of Swing category. This does not mean, however, that Louie and others did not achieve success in a variety of eras. Those who create such an indelible body of work and influence generations of musicians decade after decade remain truly beyond category.
Legendary swing era drummer, bandleader and educator, with over 300 compositions to his credit. I wrote a cover story about Louie for Stick It magazine, and he still tells me to this day that it’s the best thing that’s ever been written about him. What an honor!
Dave won the Gene Krupa drum contest as a teenager in Philadelphia, and went on to take over the drum chair in Duke Ellington’s band when Louie Bellson left in 1957. Check out just how amazing Dave’s hands are in this You Tube clip.
Johnny was a member of the NBC Studio Orchestra in he 1940s and ’50s. He studied with the legendary Freddy Albright, and played with such legends at Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. At the time of our interview, Johnny was 91 years old and still gigging!
Legendary swing era player with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman among many others. Roy was also an important educator, writing several seminal instructional books and performing thousands of drum clinics across the world in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1980, he founded the Aquarian drum head company, now one of the biggest in the world.
Western Swing was country music’s answer to the big bands of Benny Goodman, etc, and it was the first time that drums made an appearance in country music. Cuviello performed with the legendary Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills during the 1940s and ’50s, and he has the distinction of having recorded the only drum solo in the history of the genre! The song is called The Texas Drummer Boy, and you can watch Johnny perform it here at the age of 92!
Frank De Vito
Frank’s career spanned both the swing and rock eras, and he performed with everyone from Billy Holliday to Frank Sinatra to the Baja Marimba Band. As a session musican, you can hear De Vito on such rock classics as the Beach Boys “Surfin USA” and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” In 1970, he started the Danmar Percussion company, which still thrives today.
Legendary swing drummer whose credits include Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Red Nichols among many others. Fatool was the drummer with the legendary Goodman sextet, which featured the young pioneering guitarist Charlie Christian.
Seminal West Coast drummer and session man, known best for his work with the Les Brown Orchestra.
David “Panama” Francis
Veteran swing drummer with legendary big bands like Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway. Also an influential force in 1950s rhythm and blues and early rock’n’roll, recording countless hits for Atlantic, Okeh and other East coast labels.
I had the pleasure of studying with Freddie for about five years. He is truly a master teacher, and in addition to sharing a tremendous amount about technique, Freddie helped me to understand the drumset as a real instrument, complete with its own set of timbres, moods and textures. Studying with Freddie was like walking into the pages of history, complete with stories that brought to life all the great players of the past. Freddie knew them ALL, and for me, this was the ultimate hang!
Legendary big band drummer from the 1950s and ’60s, known particularly for his work with Woody Herman, and later as house drummer on the Merv Griffin show. Jake is a master of the brushes, and his book “Syncopated Big Band Figures” is a classic.
Legendary swing drummer whose most important early work was with Woody Herman’s legendary “Four Brothers” band. He also bridged the gap between swing and bop, recording seminal sessions with Charlie Parker and Serge Chaloff. Starting in the early 1950s, Lamond became a mainstay on the New York session scene, recording with a wide variety of jazz and pop acts. His drum breaks on Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” are a study in themselves.
Legendary big band drummer and member of the Tonight Show orchestra for more than two decades.
Although much younger than most of the interviewees in the Swing Era section, Gregg has had an incredible career playing with many of the great big band leaders from Harry James to Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. In addition to a stellar career as a player, Gregg is also a well respected producer for Concord records. You can catch a drum “battle” between Gregg and myself on the video page of this website.
Florida based swing and jazz drummer whose credits include the Count Basie Orchestra and the re-formed Bob Crosby’s Bobcats.
Legendary Chicago blues drummer and songwriter whose credits include Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and James Cotton. Clay is the creator of the fabled double-time “mojo” beat, which has become a staple on blues tunes like “Got My Mojo Workin'” and many others.
Charles was the original drummer in Little Richard’s group, The Upsetters, and spent many years touring the globe with Mr. Tutti Frutti. His opening groove on Richard’s “Keep a’ Knockin’,” is the influence behind John Bonham’s famous intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Other credits include Fats Domino and Lloyd Price.
Drummmer who played with Louis Jordan from 1950-1955. Became a fixture on the West coast jazz scene thereafter, recording and performing with Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and many others. He was the first drumer that I interviewed for what would become The Commandments of Early R&B Drumming book, and we became great pals. I wrote a cover story about Johnny for Stick It magazine in 2000.
Legendary jazz and bop drummer who emerged out of the West coast jazz scene in the late 1950s. Although Higgins is known as a straight ahead jazz drummer, he came up in L.A.’s Central Avenue scene, which would spawn many of the great West Coast R&B drummers. He was also mentored by Roy Porter and Johnny Kirkwood, both of whom are discussed in detail in The Commandments of Early Rhtythm and Blues Drumming.
Las Vegas based jazz drummer best known for his work with Louis Prima in the 1950s. A veteran of the 52nd St. swing scene in New York, Morris transplanted to Las Vegas in 1950, just as the town was really starting to take off. After working with Primaat the height of his popularity (1954-1960), Morris became the musical director at the International Casino (now the L.V. Hilton) and started his own booking agency. Check out Morris and the band clowning around with Prima and Keely Smith in this cool video clip. Awesome!
Harold is a Hawaii based drummer and percussionist who helped to create the “Exotica” sound of the 1950s with Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. In fact, he toured with Lyman until 1975. You can read much more about Exotica music in the The Commandments of Early Rhythm and Blues Drumming (see pp. 109-110). I grew up in Hawaii, and Harold was my very first drumset teacher, way back in 1979.
Legendary session drummer whose credits range from New Orleans greats Little Richard and Fats Domino to more mainstream artists like Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, the Righteous Brothers and the Beach Boys. Earl was a pioneering figure in both R&B and rock’n’roll. The aggressive grooves he laid down in New Orleans from 1949-57 defined the R&B style, and introduced many of the elements that we take for granted in rock drumming today: backbeats, straight eighth grooves, 16th-note fills, funky bass drum patterns, heavy cymbal crashes after a fill, etc. After moving to Los Angeles in 1957, Earl played with many of the seminal rock artsits of the period: Eddie Cochran, Richie Valens, Sam Cooke and Ricky Nelson to name just a few. His playing heavily impacted the drummers of the British Invasion(Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Dave Clark, John Bonham, etc), and he was a major influence on the pioneers of the 1960s L.A. recording scene (Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, etc.).
Drummer for Sonny Burgess and the Pacers, legendary Sun Records band, and one of the few Sun artists still touring on a regular basis. Bobby was one of the guys I interviewed as part of the Rockabilly Drummers Roundtable feature published in the August ’08 issue of Modern Drummer.
Best known for his work with Elvis Presley in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s him playing the thunderous triplet breaks on “Hound Dog.” D.J. also appeared in the famous “’69 Comeback” television special, and – along with Buddy Harman – played on the soundtrack to most of Elvis’ 33 films from the 1960s.
Buddy was the father of country drumming, and the undisputed king of the Nashville studios, Buddy played on over 18,000 sessions from the 1950s-1980s. Buddy was a dear friend who shared a lot of incredible history with about the dawn of the “Nashville Sound.” For more on Buddy’s legacy and career, check out the Drum History Minute on this website.
Session musician and co-owner (along with Remo Belli) of Drum City, a onetime influential music store in Los Angeles. Although Harte played on many pivotal bebop sessions in the 1950s, he was also a fixture on the West coast rockabilly scene, recording with everyone from Tennessee Ernie Ford to the Collins Kids.
WS “Fluke” Holland
Holland was Carl Perkins’ original drummer (he’s on all the Perkins classics including “Blue Suede Shoes”). Starting in 1960, Fluke spent almost four decades backing up Johnny Cash. He’s on the famous “Fulsom Prison” album, and can be seen backing up “the man in black” on the Johnny Cash Show, which aired in the late 1960s.
Slim Jim Phantom
Legendary drummer for the Stray Cats, and owner of the Cat Club on the Sunset Strip (the Daniel Glass trio did its CD release party there). Jim’s signature “stand up” drumming style was a big influence on a lot of guys when the Stray Cats first burst on the scene in 1982.
J.M. Van Eaton
J.M. played on more than 2/3 of all the recordings ever made at Sun Records, including such classics as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Red Hot.” Sun is still a functioning studio, and it was a real thrill for me to be able to hang out with J.M. and watch him record there just as he did more than 50 years ago!
One of the great studio drummers in the history of Los Angeles recording. Hal was part of the fabled “Wrecking Crew,” an elite group of L.A. studio musicians who played on thousands of pop hits, TV shows and movie soundtracks in the 1960s and ’70s. He and Earl Palmer did the majority of important rock and pop sessions coming out of L.A. during those years – they were a big influence on later recording legends like Jim Keltner and Jeff Porcaro.
Richards was the drummer for Bill Haley’s Comets from 1953-55, and played on some of the Comets’ biggest hits. Now, in his seventies, Dick still tours with the reformed version of Bill Haley’s Comets.
Along with Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, Jesse was one of the top aces in the Hollywood studios during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He was there during the transition from R&B to Rock’n’Roll, even playing on the ’60s classic “Monster Mash.” From Big Joe Turner to Diana Ross, Jesse was around for it all.
Although Ron did not really burst onto the scene until the late ’60s, I’m putting him in the Early Rock’n’Roll category because of his association with Elvis Presley. Ron was Presley’s main drummer from the King of Rock’n’Roll’s re-emergence in 1969 until his death in 1977. That’s Tutt beating up those blue sparkle Ludwigs behind Elvis in the famous Aloha From Hawaii concert special. In addition to his work with Elvis, Tutt has had a 20+ year run with Neal Diamond, and has recorded multi-platinum hits with everyone from Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”) to Cat Stevens (“Peace Train”) to Billy Joel (“Piano Man”) to the Hues Corporation (“Rock the Boat”) to Elvis Costello (“King of America”) to Jerry Garcia (“Reflections”).
Owner and founder of the Remo drumhead empire. Was one of several drummers involved in the development of the plastic drumhead.
Legendary West Coast disc jockey and host of the syndicated radio show “The Swingin’ Years.”
Well known drum historian, founder of Rebeats Publications, and author of definitive histories on the Ludwig, Slingerland and Rogers drum companies.
Los Angeles based record collector, disc jockey and co-author of the book, What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record?
R&B disc jockey and historian, whose radio program “Rhapsody in Black” has been a staple on Los Angeles radio for decades.
Legendary Los Angeles based disc jockey and one of the first to broadcast R&B and rock’n’roll to a mainstream audience. After nearly five decades on the air, the syndicated Laboe still broadcasts six nights a week and remains one of the highest rated jocks in the L.A. market.
Veteran swing dancer and teacher. Manning was one of the original dancers at the Savoy Ballroom during the 1930s, where he is credited with helping to invent classic dances like the Lindy Hop and the Shim Sham. A veteran of countless film and television performances, Manning is still actively touring and teaching at the age of 94!
Engineer and producer whose studio, J&M recording, was the site of many legendary New Orleans r&b recordings, including “Tutti Frutti” and “Blueberry Hill.”
Central California based blues drummer who has worked with legends Harmonica Slim and Hosea Leavy, and Chicago bluesmen like Homesick James, and Jimmy Dawkins.
Los Angeles based r&b record collector, disc jockey and co-author of the book, What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record?
San Diego based drummer who specializes in traditional and New Orleans jazz. Hal is also a highly accomplished writer and historian, who
Singer/songwriter and leader of Billy Vera and the Beaters. Billy is a collector of swing and r&b records and memorabilia, and has produced many reissue compilations covering these styles.
Prominent writer, historian and major contributor to the All Music Guide. Yanow is the author of 8 books on jazz and swing, is a regular reviewer in the L.A. Jazz Scene magazine, and has reviewed over 10,000 jazz recordings for allmusic.com.