West End Drummers - Elliott Henshaw - Priscilla...
West End Drummers Part 3 - Elliott Henshaw – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ opened at London’s Palace Theatre in March 2009 and Elliott Henshaw has held the show’s drum chair from the beginning. Elliott’s great love is big band drumming but his capabilities spread across the board and have gained him work with a variety of shows and artists, including Shirley Bassey and Tony Christie.
What inspired you to start drumming?
I started playing when I was 13 but my interest in drums started before that. When I was 11 years old I was actually playing the saxophone and I was really into jazz and big band. My dad took me to see The Buddy Rich Big Band and after that particular concert the sax went in the bin and the drums were all I wanted to do.
From about 11 through to 13 I was very stereotypically banging on cardboard boxes and Tupperware at home. Then I snuck into the practice room at my high school where there was a kit, sat down, had a bit of a tap and the music teacher came in. I thought I was going to get a telling off but he said, ‘I like what you’re doing there. Are you free this Friday? Our school band’s got a concert and we’ve not got a drummer’. I was totally thrown in at the deep end!
From that moment I joined the school big band, then the school jazz band immediately after that. I was lucky because from day one I was playing in bands and that did me the world of good. I was self taught up until the age of 18, when I went to college. My ears were really good in those days and that’s how I developed. All that time I was mainly listening to Buddy Rich, along with anything else I could get my hands on. Without a teacher I was naively thinking, ‘Buddy Rich is only human. If his hands can move that fast then so can mine.'' I was pushing myself to do crazy things!
At 18 I went to Salford University and I studied with a guy called Steve Gilbert who is an incredible drummer from Manchester. There were two drum teachers at Salford; Dave Hassell, who everyone knows, and Steve. With Steve, a lot of the lessons were spent just talking. He really trained my mind in how to approach certain gigs or situations mentally.
Whilst in my first year at college I auditioned for the big band. I knew the style better than anyone but because I was self taught I couldn’t read. I didn’t get the gig and I was devastated. At that point I knew I had to get my reading together.
How did you go about improving your reading?
Along with buying all the books that people go through - Louie Belson, Steve Houghton etc - I managed to become good friends with a drummer down in London called Mike Smith. At that time he was working for the BBC Big Band, who I used to listen to every Monday on the radio. I’d just bought my first car and the BBC Big Band recorded in Birmingham. Every Monday (fortunately I didn’t have any lectures) I used to drive at 7 O’clock in the morning to the studio and sit behind Mike recording with the band.
As far as learning how to read music, that was the best teaching I could ever have had because I was watching someone do it for real. I’d ask him a lot of questions and he was, still is, a really, really big influence. He plays with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra now and I still see him and shake my head. It’s amazing what that guy can do on the drums and he’s the best reader I’ve ever come across. My reading improved and I auditioned for the college big band in my second year and got in!
You got your first gig with a professional big band following that. How did that happen?
One of the trumpet players in the college band was a girl called Georgina Bromilow, who sings now with the Ronnie Scotts Big Band. She was dating the lead trumpeter and band manager of a guy called Andy Prior, who was a Sinatra style singer. He was looking for a new drummer. Georgina''s boyfriend saw me play at one of the gigs with the college big band and asked if I wanted to audition. I did eight years touring with Andy Prior after that.
That was in my second and third years at college and I was doing about 150 dates a year. I was writing essays in the back of tour buses! Big band was my thing but at the same time I was doing covers bands, function bands etc. I became aware after that period that I was becoming pigeon holed as a big band drummer, which is no bad thing, but my heroes were guys like Mike Smith, Ian Thomas, Ralph Salmins; guys that could do anything and that’s what I wanted to do. Around that time I began doing amateur dramatic shows because people knew I could read.
And that led on to doing more shows?
It certainly gave me invaluable experience. Through my contacts in Andy Prior’s band I got offered a touring show, ‘Anything Goes’, which I did for six months, then I went on the road with Wayne Sleep for three and a half months. Mike Smith had amazingly started giving me deps for Shirley Bassey. Suddenly I was going all round the world with her when he couldn’t do it. I was 24 and I was doing an amateur dramatic gig in a community centre in Cheshire somewhere. Mike called me and said, ‘Do you fancy going to Monte Carlo with Shirley Bassey?'' I think he saw that I was very conscientious. In the two weeks that I had to learn the set I went to a gig over here that Shirley was doing, recorded it, took a video of the musical director and did hours and hours of practice. I left nothing to chance and it paid off.
Mike Smith then got a show in the West End, ‘The Witches of Eastwick’, and he knew I was thinking of moving to London so he offered me some deps on that. At that time I was on the road with ‘Anything Goes.'' I went and sat in with him and it was like seeing somebody fly an aircraft. The set up for that gig was full drum kit plus three Rototoms, bongos, two mark trees, three triangles, four woodblocks, two cowbells and an electronic pad. I’d never done anything like that before! Originally I turned it down because I was freaked out by it and I didn’t really have the time to put in the hours of practice that it required.
Two weeks later (this was four weeks before the gig) he rang me again and said, ‘I’ve tried everyone. No one is available and I need this time off. PLEASE can you do it?’. I saw it as a sign and I depped out a week of ‘Anything Goes’ to practice the set. I lost money doing it but I knew it was for the greater good. I did seven or eight hours a day of shedding and as with the Bassey gig, I had videoed the MD. Nobody was doing that at the time; everyone looked at me a bit weirdly when I brought my video camera into the pit, but it meant I could set up my drum kit at home, put the video on the television and pretend I was doing the show, taking the cues from the MD on the video. After I did my first one the fixer phoned me up and said I’d been moved to the top of the list as first dep.
Soon after that I moved to London with a gig already in the bag. It was an Elvis tribute tour around the UK. We were booked on an exclusive for three months but it turned out that the promoter wasn’t a promoter at all, he was just an Elvis fan with no money behind him. None of us got paid for the work we’d done and after three gigs it all got pulled.
I was crapping myself cos I’d just moved to London where I was paying twice the rent I’d been paying in Manchester and suddenly everything had stopped! A few weeks later the MD from the Elvis tour got a call to work on The Rat Pack. The guy who’d been doing drums up to that point, Matt Skelton, couldn''t do the first four weeks of the tour. These weeks were the exclusive period where you’re not allowed to dep out. The MD said to Matt, ‘Elliott is available so why don’t you get him to do the first four weeks and then share the gig after that?’. We shared it on and off for about two years; it went on tour for 10 months and then came into the West End. It was only meant to do a 12 week run but it was such a hit it lasted three years. Eventually Matt got too busy and it became my gig, which kind of established me in the West End. When The Rat Pack came off I took over from Andy McGlasson on The Producers (which I had been depping on) and did the last six months of that show.
And then you went back to being a dep?
Since moving to London I’d never been freelance so I wanted to leave my options open. In those two years of not having my own chair I must have depped on at least 15 shows. It’s a great way to earn a living because you don’t get bored playing the same thing every night and you get occasional nights off.
During that time I started playing for Tony Christie, who I’ve just done a 50 date UK tour with. It was a great time cos there were lots of different things happening for me. I even recorded my own album - ''Is That Not What You Wanted?'' I got the call in late 2008 for ‘Priscilla’, which I thought would only last a year but here I am and it’s still going.
What’s your set up on Priscilla?
Very basic; 22 inch bass drum, 10, 12 and 14 inch toms, two crash, one ride, snare drum, hi hats and a little woodblock. With Tony Christie I just use one rack tom, one floor tom, two crash, two ride, hi hats, snare drum. I only try to use what the gig requires.
What’s the set up in the pit?
The drums are in their own booth. In front of that is bass and guitar. Next to that is sax, trumpet and trombone; they’ve got screens between them so the noise doesn’t spill. Beyond the horns is Keys 2 and at the very front is the MD. We also have him on monitor screens. There’s a separate room where the percussionist (James Turner) lives. This is because the pit has got such a low ceiling that he wouldn''t be able to stand up to play.
Does the show have any unique features?
I think we are one of the only shows that is 99% on click track. Most of the other shows are conducted with possibly one or two songs to click.
What advice would you give to musicians who want to play in the West End?
I must get on average two or three emails a week from young guys asking to sit in with me. It is one of the few sources of regular work out there and is thus quite sought after. It''s important to know what’s involved. You have to cut your teeth - get out there and play everything that you can. I caught the back end of the organ and drums thing in working men’s clubs, function bands where you’ve got no set list and you have to use your ears and busk it, playing in pubs for no money. All those influences come together. It''s rare that someone will walk straight out of college into their own West End show.
You can’t make a living just doing sessions now, there isn’t the work there anymore. The guys who used to be doing that full time 20 years ago are all in the pits now so you end up working with some heavy, heavy players.
For most shows you have to have a vast knowledge of different styles and you have to be a really competent reader. “Priscilla’ is by and large is a disco show but there’s a big band chart in there, a bossa nova, a country and western bluegrass feel and even some classical.
You have to know how to follow a conductor, play strict tempo foxtrots or rhumbas etc, play bits of percussion; you have to be good at it all.
Don’t set your stall out as, ‘I want to be a West End musician’; just go out and play your instrument. Too many people want it overnight in this X Factor culture. I read an interview you did with Bob Knight and he said the same from his side of things whereby guys phone him up and say, ‘Can you get me on a pop gig?’. It doesn’t work like that. Just because it’s a pop gig it doesn’t mean you''re playing two and four every night; you’ve got to have rounded knowledge. If someone turns round and says, ‘Let’s go into a montuno thing there’ you’ve got to know what a montuno groove is. That sort of stuff only comes from experience.
I’m always striving to get to a point where I’m sight reading, but it sounds like I''ve rehearsed. That''s what people like Mike Smith or Ralph Salmins can do. They can see a piece of music for the first time and you think, ‘Well surely you’ve rehearsed this! That fill was perfect for that figure’. That takes years and years of experience. You''ll make mistakes along the way, that''s how you learn.
I once got a proper bollocking when I first started with Andy Prior cos I came in with a Buddy Rich approach. Buddy''s gig was a jazz gig really - a lot different to backing a singer. My fills were clashing with the lyrics, which is not good. It was a lesson I learned very quickly!
You really are only as good as your last gig so always be prepared and do your homework. There are some people who come in with an attitude of, ‘I’m so and so and I don’t need to do my homework’. They will always come unstuck and they don''t get the call again. Do your homework! It’s not rocket science but it surprises me how many people don’t. That said, It’s great for me though cos it means I’ll keep working!
Interview by Gemma Hill
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