Groovers And Shakers - A Tribute To Remo Belli
We had planned many weeks ago that Remo would be our ''Groovers And Shakers'' subject for May 15th 2016. His passing on 25th April was a shock to us all, but in tribute to Remo's massively influential life we knew we had to go ahead as planned. Remo had made us very welcome at the factory when we had visited a few years ago, and our NAMM coverage always started with Remo's breakfast meeting and his view of the percussion industry and where he wanted to take it. He will be greatly missed.
So here is Bob Henrit's Groovers And Shakers tribute to Remo Belli
Remo Belli was born on the 22nd of June, 1927 in Mishawaka, Indiana. This is part of the industrial city of South Bend, and not too far from Chicago - the ‘Windy City’ and undisputed jazz capital of America’s Midwest. Mishawaka is also close to Elkhart which for many years was the home of CG Conn so, not only was it the centre of the band-instrument business, it also had drum companies like George Way’s as well as Leedy and Ludwig.
Because of the Czech, Polish, Italian and German immigrants who arrived there in the late 19th century to work in the South Bend factories (such as Studebaker’s, Singers’, Bendix’ and Honeywell’s), it was an area where European polka music was extremely popular. Remo’s uncle played trumpet in a polka band and on the nights he was playing at a club for Italian émigrés, his parents would take young Remo and he’d sit next to the drummer. As he tells it, his father would have preferred him to take up a proper instrument, like the accordion, but perversely (and fortuitously for the drumming world) at 10 years old or so he started on the drums.
Remo studied hard and, as with several previous too-young-for-the-draft ‘Groovers & Shakers’ subjects, he was catapulted into playing at proper paid gigs at 16 while still in High School. This was simply because the guys who would normally do the gigs had been conscripted and were away fighting in the war. Very young guys became instant professional musicians and the sort of professional gigs Remo Belli himself did evidently varied greatly (and possibly even included polka music). But mostly he’d play the music he liked: jazz and swing. Much of this musical activity often took place at around six o’clock in the morning to entertain men and women who had just finished work in the armaments factories on what was known as ‘The Victory Shift’. These workers simply wanted to forget the war and dance, and this was evidently the high-light of their shift, albeit ridiculously early in the morning after they’d been labouring through the night.
Sid Catlett, Papa Jo Jones and Davey Tough were Remo’s inspirations in those days and he studied hard to be like them, although I haven’t been able to find out who was teaching him at that time. Since all three were based just 90 miles down the road in Chicago, it’s reasonably safe to assume that he got to see them there.
Eventually at around 18 years old Remo gave up the ‘Victory Shift’ gig and signed himself up for the US Navy. He joined a Navy band based on the East coast in Newport, Rhode Island where he played for parades, concerts, shows and ceremonies.
Sometime after demob, and based back in the vicinity of Mishawaka, he was reading the local South Bend newspaper and spotted an advert placed by someone planning to drive to California, who needed a passenger to share the costs of the 2000 mile journey. Remo seized the moment and having arrived on the West Coast with $60 dollars to his name, got on with doing all the gigs he could - playing whatever he was asked in clubs and bars, everywhere and anywhere.
Eventually Remo began to play at ‘The Lighthouse café’ in Hermosa beach (famous for its Sunday 12 hour jam session!) in their ‘Allstars’ band which from time to time featured the likes of Chet Baker, Max Roach, Jimmy Guiffre and even Miles Davis. During this time he was having drum lessons from Murray Spivack, who as well as a teacher, was also an Academy Award winning Hollywood sound engineer and the genius behind the sound effects in films like ‘King Kong’, ‘Westside Story’, ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Hello Dolly’.
Upon Murray’s death Remo had this to say of him:
“He found time in an extremely busy career to teach many interested drummers some profound technology in the playing of the drum. In having taught those who in turn taught others, he set a standard that will be very difficult to reach by the average person.“
As a professional player, working with the likes of Anita O’Day, Betty Hutton, Billy May et al; he would spend a lot of time touring the country and like most (if not all) drummers he would visit the drum shops in every town and city he had a gig in. So if he was in Chicago he’d go to Franks, in New York to Bill Mather’s and in Boston to Jack Adams’ place.
Remo also knew that even though LA certainly had its own drum shops, they weren’t anything like his favourites in America’s other major cities, and they certainly weren’t the sort of places drummers liked to hang out in, so he resolved to put this right.
This he did in partnership with Roy Harte, another professional and well-known New York jazz drummer, who’d also emigrated to LA. Roy not only played with a whole host of jazz notables like Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie, he also diversified by playing as well with Stan Freberg and Willie Nelson.
The pair opened up ‘Drum City’ in 1952 on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and North Gower Street in North Hollywood and it immediately became the place everyone wanted to visit – not just players, but manufacturers and film stars too. Remo carried on gigging and ran the drum shop in tandem with that, a liaison which he told me resulted in seven good years of retail business. They were based in Hollywood and, so the story goes, he also found time to teach several very famous people like Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Little Ricky Ricardo, Mickey Rooney, Gary Cooper, and even Mae West, whom he actually played with.
These gigs took him around the country and he found he was always very welcome at the various drum factories who, then as now, were extremely interested to know what was going on out there at the retail end of the drum market. He told me that one day he was visiting Bud Slingerland who showed him this new wonder plastic material called Mylar which had been produced by a collaboration between Dupont in the US and ICI in Britain. It seems at the time even the manufacturers didn’t know what to do with this polyester film which had been developed to take aerial reconnaissance photos and was perfect for that job because it wouldn’t burst into flames. Another use for Mylar, it was thought, was to make more hard-wearing reeds for woodwind instruments. Remo evidently looked at it without too much interest and the ‘eureka light bulb’ didn’t go on over his head at that particular time.
As time went by and Drum City became more popular they would put on Percussion Fairs and one day he was looking for a way to make a dividing screen for a display stand and got a piece of Mylar plastic film to which he stapled a wooden counterhoop - I guess you’ll see where this is going... Now I realise there’s another story on Remo’s website which states something slightly different about the discovery and has him seeing the Mylar film at Dupont, but both stories come to the same conclusion. He got together with a chemist called Sam Muchnik who worked on an adhesive to permanently hold the crimped and perforated Mylar film into the inverted U-shaped channel, which took the place of the flesh hoop - and the rest is history. Or should I say serendipity as far as drummers are concerned.
I’d like to think I know Remo Belli a little having first interviewed him in 1975 for ‘International Musician & Recording World’ magazine although I initially visited him at the company’s North Raymer factory in LA some time before that. It was on my first US tour with Argent in 1970 and after that I bumped into him at music trade shows just about every year thereafter. I actually got to know him a little more having invented a foot-pedal for his Roto-Toms which was patented in 1979 and marketed around 1980.
In an interview I discovered Remo talked about something we had discussed together when we first met - the profound impact of the revolutionary ‘Weather King’ head on the drum world at the time.
The story he told me over 45 years ago was that in the beginning he had no interest in being in drum manufacturing; he was enjoying doing gigs and being in the end-user side of the drum business and doing very nicely, thank you. But eventually he simply had to leave that side of it because Weather King drum heads were immediately so spectacularly successful. Remo tells it like this:
“It was at this time that rock and roll really started to get popular. Had the synthetic drumhead not been developed at that time, rock and roll as we know it, wouldn’t have happened. Simply because the animal skin head didn't allow drummers to travel wherever they wanted to and still get replacements when the needed them. There weren't enough supplies of animal skins to make the drum sets that were on order at that time. There were 23 drum companies in Japan trying to supply the markets. The thousands of drumheads per month that had to be made could not have been made with animal skins. But it wasn’t all plain sailing because lots of drummers like Jake Hanna, Mel Lewis and Shelly Manne still preferred the sound of natural drum heads they were used to for the type of work they were doing. But fortunately for Remo these guys were very much in the minority and everybody else liked the difference the plastic ultimately made to the playing experience and, perhaps even more importantly, the explosive sound it made”.
Besides its permeable nature and its inimitable sound, Remo’s heads actually went a long way to standardising the sizes of drums. Before what I’m calling the ‘Pre-International’ revolution drum, sizes were at the discretion of the manufacturer. If they wanted to make the diameter 14.75 inches they could, providing they made a flesh-hoop to fit around it to which a dead animal’s wet skin could be stretched and fixed. Remo’s heads were deliberately made a standard size - 12”, 13”, 14”, 16”, 20”, 22” and so on.
What followed was the Weather King brush-coated plastic head and all the many other types of head that followed including twin-plied PinStripe. These were revolutionary in their own right and in the mid-seventies became the drummer’s secret weapon, because they could now play in the studio without getting that too-zingy-to-record sound which could only be effectively controlled with tea-towels, Gaffer tape or both!
But, none of this actually explains Remo’s move into full-scale drum production thirty years or so afterwards.
To test the water Remo initially brought out small diameter, non-tuneable, fixed-headed, kids and educational-type drums. Having proved the shells worked Remo was able to move the concept forward to what looked from a distance to be a more regular line of drums
In the mid-eighties I was visiting Remo’s North Raymer Street factory in North Hollywood when the actual shells for the drums were being worked on. Remo himself explained to me the simple philosophy behind them. He was determined to produce really-affordable educational drums and to do this he very soon realised he needed to get away from using expensive timbers. A synthetic shell would turn out to be the answer.
His idea for this synthetic shell was to be called ‘Acousticon SE’ consisting of recycled wood fibres held in a resin, much like the phenolic which DW and Pearl had used for their products in the seventies. Bakelite was the forerunner for this substance too although there’s no evidence of its use in drum production but certainly circuit boards, cases for radios, televisions and possibly guitars were all moulded from it.
He successfully produced a drum line which he called ‘Innovator’ which had pre-tuned heads. Because the set’s heads were pre-tuned they didn’t need expensive nutboxes so simply had pressed-steel sprung latches to hold the heads in place. Innovator came in ‘Classic’ sizes and depths (12 x 8, 13 x 9 and so on) and you could have them with a 5½” or 6½” deep snare drum.
I remember I got into trouble after my very first review of these Remo drums for International Musician & Recording World in the mid-eighties, because I referred to them as being made from cardboard. In my defence this was exactly how they were originally proudly described to me by the great man himself. Clearly Remo’s weren’t unadulterated cardboard although I know from personal experience there certainly were somewhat unsuccessful attempts by one other company of my acquaintance to do this.
Eventually the material for Remo’s shells was named ‘Advanced Acousticon’ which was denser than SE. and is also used for producing snooker balls. Not a lot of people know that!
Those Innovators with PTS heads worked rather well but couldn’t really be described as professional items suitable for the likes of Bellson and Bozzio. And, love it or hate it, we drummers are determined to test our patience to the very limit by struggling to tune our instruments evenly from several different positions around the head. The next step for Remo was to allow them to do just that. So conventional drums evolved naturally from the PTS versions utilising all the fixtures and fittings found on everybody else’s drums: nutboxes, tension screws, counterhoops and tuneable heads. These drums were called ‘MasterTouch’, and ‘Encore’ with snare drums called ‘Discovery’ and ‘Liberator’.
Remo was 82 when he died on the 25th April, 2016 and up to the end showed no signs of slowing down. He was determined to make a difference to people’s lives and their health through “general wellness through drumming”.
We always used to say that Ludwig was the most famous name on drums, but since it wasn’t on other manufacturers’ drums like Remo’s was, in retrospect Remo really should wear that mantle.
Remo, the most famous name on drums.
RIP Remo, you really made a difference!
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