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Groovers and Shakers: A funny thing happened on the way to the gig – the drummer as entertainer

If you think about it, there has been a rich tradition of drummers as entertainers and comedians. In the UK, Norman Wisdom, Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers were all serious comedians (pun intended) who could also play the drums. The Americans had Mel Brooks, Sammy Davis jnr, Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney and even Johnny Carson. With very few exceptions these guys didn’t actually base their act around this ability; however the Americans had drummers whose act was playing the drums - in a funny way. 

There was one of these ’funny’ drummers called Jack Powell who was a Ludwig endorser in the twenties. He would ‘black-up’ and pretend to be a cannibal complete with a white chef’s hat – mercifully he didn’t have a bone through his nose like cartoon cannibals of my childhood did. What he did have though was a hidden metal plate on his chest and his act would begin by him launching himself across the stage on his front while the band played a long chord until he slid to the bass drum and stopped the music by beating on it and ‘closing the door’ with his sticks. From here he would drum on everything in sight (including the drums) for 15 minutes before triumphantly leaving the stage. 

There have been others including a guy called Freddy Crump who also not only plays on drums but on a great many other surfaces while dancing around the stage. ‘Big Noise From Winnetka’ could be described as a novelty record (or not) but it does feature Bob Crosby’s drummer Ray Bauduc  playing with his sticks on the strings of a double bass while the bassist, Bob Haggart, whistles the tune.

Fred Astaire did the same thing on film in a 1937 film called “Damsel In Distress” so of course it is patently obvious that as a dancer he had more than a working knowledge of drumming, as seen in “Drum Crazy” and “Nice work”.  I haven’t found evidence that Gene Kelly also did anything along the same lines, but I do know Berenice Holmes, who taught him classical ballet, took him along to jazz clubs in Chicago to see the likes of Zutty Singleton. So, OK, Gene Kelly didn''t play actual drums although he did kick his feet rhythmically against the piano in the film “An American in Paris”.

This was in the halcyon days of Vaudeville in the US although we had the same sort of thing in Britain where it was called Variety. Now I know I’ve mentioned ‘Novelty Drums and Fish’ before which I still haven’t managed to find anything further out about, although I have found a witness. ‘Novelty Drums and Fish’ was a guy’s act which revolved around a drum kit with fish swimming around inside it. This by the way was years before Moonie did the same trick with a see-through Zickos drum set during a television programme with the Who. I’m guessing the fish didn’t survive the onslaught because I distinctly remember seeing signs on the side of a gigantic aquarium somewhere in America asking punters not to tap on the glass walls because it killed the fish. God only knows what a foot-pedal sending huge vibrations through the water would do for their longevity!

In an effort to prove that nothing in show biz is new, Jack Powell’s act was copied half a century later by Buddy Rich on the ‘Muppet Show’ where he famously played a drum battle with Animal (aka Ronnie Verrell). Buddy also hit everything in sight and quipped: “When I play the theatre, I play the theatre!” 

Russ Abbott is now better known as an actor and comedian but he began his professional life as a drummer with ‘The Black Abbotts’ who were around in the sixties at the same time as ‘The Barron Knights’ and the ‘Grumbleweeds’. To get some comedy into the otherwise Merseybeat-filled touring shows of the sixties, these bands specialised in zany parodies of the pop hits of the day.

“Call Up The Groups” was one of the Baron Knights records and included versions of Dave Clark, The Beatles and The Bachelors’ hit songs. “Don’t Cry For My Vacuum Cleaner” was based on (you’ve probably guessed it) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” a tune which was never allowed to hit the airwaves because Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn’t give permission for it.

I have a story about when I was touring with The Barron Knights in 1964. The last day of any package tour was/is when pranks are played and we were somewhere up north in an Essoldo, a Gaumont, or a Granada.  While I was doing my obligatory drum solo (called ‘Quite a Party’) they came on stage one at a time and slowly took the various components of the set away until all I had left was the microphone stand and the stage to play on. If you are into your gear, you''ll probably know that Dave Ballinger was their drummer at this time and it was he who brought the Sleishman double foot-pedal  to market in the UK - back before the old king died.

Speaking of Argentina and Evita, it’s probably stretching the point, because he was never really a comedian, but David Essex who played Ché  Guevara began his showbiz career as a drummer in the sixties playing the nine forty-five minute shows a night in German night clubs like the Beatles (and lots of others including me and Cozy Powell) for peanuts.

I’ve told my Michael Bentine story before, but since he really was a comedian and entertainer it’s worth re-telling. Mr Bentine was of Peruvian extraction and after the war and prior to the Goon Show the young man was a drummer with ambitions of making it in music. But he was living in Watford and didn’t know how to make it into the ''Bigtime’ which in those days was exclusively based on London. A musician friend told him that the way you got gigs in those days was to present yourself on Archer Street in London’s West-End on a Monday afternoon and somebody will give you a gig for the next week - it sounds ridiculous now but this was exactly how it worked. MB was sceptical and asked how they would know he was a drummer? His pal said because if you’re a violinist you’ll have it with you and if you’re a drummer you’ll have an empty drum case with you to show what you were. Michael had a better idea and decided to take a whole drum kit’s worth of cases with him to show he wasn’t messing about. He then asked himsel
f what would he do if he got a gig then and there so decided to play safe and bring his drums along too.

Now to get from Watford to Archer Street you had to get the over-ground train to Euston, and negotiate its vast concourse before descending into the depths of the underground system and travelling on to Piccadilly Circus. Once he arrived there he had to get his drums up the longest escalator on the underground network (which a decade or so later Keith Moon would hurl his stolen coffee beans down and cause absolute mayhem amongst the commuters during the rush hour). So he moved his drums piecemeal. Walking backwards so he could see the ones he’d left behind he retraced his steps and ran with the residue of his kit back to where he’d left the others. This exercise was repeated until he reached the escalator down to the tube with all his drums. 

Once Mr Bentine came up for air alongside the statue of Eros he only had a quarter of a mile or so to drag his drums via Shaftesbury Avenue and Windmill Street and onto the relative safety of Archer Street. I can’t tell you whether he was successful in his quest but think it’s unlikely he was since he went on to greatness with the Goon Show where they already had a couple of useful drummers in Ray Ellington and Peter Sellers.  

Before he rose to greatness in films like ’Doctor Strangelove’ and ‘The Pink Panther’ Peter Sellers was actually billed on the music halls as: ‘Britain’s answer to Gene Krupa’!  He came from a show- business family and while they were living on the South coast he did odd jobs in a theatre where Joe Daniels happened to be working. He started playing on his drums and Joe kindly gave him some pointers. This lead to him becoming a proper drummer and playing jazz with the likes of Oscar Rabin and Henry Hall. Somewhere along the line he found the time to learn to play the ukulele too and do impersonations of George Formby.

Norman Wisdom was also a drummer but this was while he was in the Army and I can’t find any evidence that he played with any of the jazz stars of the day. However YoutTube does have some evidence of his drumming prowess.

Patrick McGoohan was certainly no comedian and always played a hard-man but had a really good stab at playing the drums in an Ealing film in 1962. Not long before ‘The Prisoner’ (''I am not a number, I am a free man!'') he made this film with jazz greats of the calibre of Dave Brubeck, Alan Ganley, Charles Mingus and Johnny Dankworth. I can’t find any info on his drumming other than The Times said in his 2009 obituary that he prepared himself for the part in ‘All Night Long’ by locking himself into a garage with a drum kit [possibly a white Trixon Luxus] and practising for hours.  If he hadn’t played drums before he did an amazing job of looking like he had in the film.

Bill Cosby is not just a comedian, he’s also a useful drummer. His story of sitting-in with Sonny Stitt is a classic and a salutary lesson to anyone who likes the idea of getting up with the band because the feels they’ve played up until now have been manageable. Having played easy tempos all night when it was Bill’s turn to get up to play with the others, Sonny Stitt decides to get up too saying he’s had enough of those blues tunes and let’s play some real jazz. He calls out “Cherokee” – at a break-neck tempo. It’s hilarious and it’s told with great self-deprecating humour about the perils of sitting in! You’ll find that on YouTube too.

Of course the ultimate drummer/comedian was Keith Moon who mostly saved his antics until he wasn’t on the stage. Although he certainly didn’t do any of these things in private – what would be the point? Moonie exploded his drumkit in 1967 on the Smothers brothers show and caused permanent deafness to Pete Townsend.

Al Murray is the latest in a line of UK drummers moving onto greater things in mainstream showbiz. For those who don’t know him, he started out in Youth Orchestras (with the editor of this fine site) and bands and moved on to being a comedian with a devastating portrayal of a pub landlord with carte blanche to say anything and everything he likes - especially if it’s politically incorrect. Like taxi drivers, those other exalted members of society, when in character he has an opinion on everything. He’s also co-owner of the new British Drum Co.

So is there a correlation between being a drummer and being a comedian? Well there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that drummers become funny men after they take up the instrument so it may be simply anecdotal. Of course, comedy relies on timing and in the main drummers are rather good at that.  The pregnant pause of comedy and the ‘stretched’ crotchet/quarter note of music are very much the same mind-set.  But are drummers quicker at quipping than mere mortals? Well we drummers through years of being put down as ‘four musicians and a drummer’ tend to have that dry, self-deprecating humour we touched on earlier. Some might well say it’s a vicious, but fair one.

Are drummers able to laugh at themselves? Well probably not any more than anyone else in music but perhaps crucially they are able to laugh at one another and there’s definitely a camaraderie you don’t find amongst guitarists and vocalists.

I’ll let you into a well-kept drummers’ secret - essentially drumming is about showing-off, and all of us do it. 

Frank Sinatra wasn’t actually a drummer but he played one in a film and someone successfully taught him how to hold brushes and play with them in “The Man With The Golden Arm”.

To get more up to date we’ve probably all seen a flamboyant drummer made famous on YouTube for the video “This drummer is at the wrong gig”. He’s called Steve Moore and he’s really showing off. Actually he looks like he’s overplaying, but is really overacting.   

Another guy who could be considered to be overplaying but in reality plays great and looks great is Rob Hovey who’s drumming on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street is well worth checking out. 

Evelyn Glennie also looked great when she played at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. She and the other drummers really did a good job at entertaining a massive world-wide audience.

‘Stomp’ was the creation of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas which burst onto the theatrical scene in 1991 when I’m guessing it was very difficult to get acceptance for a project where drummers create intricate rhythms playing dustbins, dance with lids attached to their feet, rustle plastic bags, shake matchboxes, sweep brooms and even bounce basketballs poly-rhythmically - just for fun try bouncing a ball to produce broken triplets with a friend!  Of course it’s all part of the art and entertainment side of drumming and there’s another team from America successfully doing a production all over the world along the same lines called The Blue Man Group. 

Eric Delaney was the consummate showman in the UK long before most drummers realised that’s what they should be doing. He was a jazz drummer known to specialise in up-tempo dance hall music which sometimes veered close to Rock‘n’Roll. But Eric certainly was a showman who incorporated xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells and tympani into his act as well as various other elements of the bells and whistles of the traditional orchestra.

‘Rimshot’ is a phrase which has come to mean considerably more than simply hitting the head and the rim of the snare drum simultaneously.  It has become the percussive punctuation at the end of a joke although technically I’m told, if it comprises more than one beat, it’s a ‘Sting’. The verbal version of it is ‘badaboom, bada bing’ as in the Sopranos series where as it happened, ‘The Badabing’ was the name of their stripclub!

The Nicholas brothers were famous ‘Flash’ dancers in the thirties who could seemingly tap dance up walls or jump from up high into the splits and get up without using their hands. But I’ve no evidence they were drummers either, although their father certainly was.

Rowan Atkinson does a very clever and funny skit with an imaginary drum set which proves he can definitely play drums. Now of course he could use ‘Aerodrums’ to help him as he goes through the motions, but as far as I could tell he was cleverly miming along to a recording.

The more I researched this piece the more I realised all drummers are natural showmen – it seems you can’t play drums without showing off! And why not, if you got it…

Bob Henrit

November 2015

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