Louie Bellson, one of the last headline drummers of the big band era whose twin bass drums and high-energy beat-keeping thrilled audiences and powered orchestras ranging from Benny Goodman to Duke Ellington, died on February 14. He was 84 and had been recovering at home from a broken hip. [Photo: Francine Bellson]
Considered a swing drummer, Louie's style was less pronounced than Gene Krupa's and Buddy Rich's but could be equally bombastic and showy. Louie had a different sort of vigor than other drummers of the period, built largely on endurance and a near-hypnotic passion for hard-snap rhythms and subtle strokes. It was not unusual on a Louie Bellson solo for the drummer to punish the heads and skins while at the same time mixing in soft subtle figures that grew to a roaring crescendo.
Born in Rock Falls, Illinois, Louie told me in a series of interviews in 2007 that he spent much of his early youth at his father's music store, where he learned to play nearly all of the instruments sold there. But it was a passing parade that inspired Louie most, particularly the drummer. From that day on, Louie focused his energy on the drums. In high school, Louie developed what would become his signature technique of playing two bass drums at once, one for his left foot and one for his right.
Louie's teen-age passion for showmanship and the music of the big bands was impossible to extinguish. In 1941, at age 17, he entered the Slingerland National Gene Krupa Drum Contest along with 40,000 other young drummers. After several rounds in New York, Krupa picked Louie as the winner.
"I was knocked out," Louie told me. "When Gene gave me the award, he said, 'You have a brilliant career ahead of you.' Later, whenever I’d run into him, Gene would say, 'See, I told you that you had a big career ahead of you.' He was a funny guy."
Louie's first professional break came when the Ted Fio Rito band passed through his home town in 1942. With large numbers of musicians entering the military during World War II, Louie was hired by Fio Rito straight out of high school. His first job was at the Florentine Gardens club in Los Angeles. On the same bill were the Mills Brothers. "I heard them every night, and they sounded even better live than on record," Louie said.
Later in 1942, Louie joined Benny Goodman's band. "Benny wanted the sections playing in tempo on their own," Louie said. "He needed them to keep time without relying on the rhythm section. We'd have to sit through the entire rehearsal until Benny would finally add the bass, drums and piano. When he'd rehearse the other sections, he’d look over at us and say, 'Now don’t pull a magazine out on me. Listen to what’s going on.' ”
In the late 1940s, as Goodman band engagements slowed, Louie joined Tommy Dorsey, whose highly proficient orchestra at the time established the blueprint for many concert and studio bands of the 1950s and set new instrumental standards. "Now that band was one tough group," Louie said. "Most of the charts were by Bill Finegan and were written tight. Sections came in and out, and the beats had to be there and sharp."
Louie's first extended solo appeared on the band's recording of Drumology, which Louie wrote and arranged with the help of Sid Cooper, one of the band's alto saxophonists. The song had a big Kenton-like fanfare introduction, followed by a breakneck beat that ultimately wound up featuring Louie in a jaw-dropping solo. "There was a whole crowd of top session guys in that band who could really read," Louie said.
Louie remained with Dorsey for three years, a period of grueling road trips that leapfrogged from one theater to the next. "We played all the RKO theaters, which meant I played for tap dancers and jugglers who warmed up audiences and needed the beat to be dead on," Louie said.
In 1950, as work for Dorsey's band slowed, Louie joined Harry James briefly, a ferocious band that played mostly live and was captured by radio transcriptions. Two airshots feature Louie on drums—Bluebeard's Blues by Neal Hefti and Jimmy Mundy's Rank Frank. "Man, what a band," Louie said. "Willie Smith [alto sax] was in there. So was Juan Tizol [trombone], and Neal Hefti [trumpet] wrote many of the arrangements."
Louie was close friends with Tizol, and whenever the band was in New York, he would stay at Tizol's apartment. A frequent caller on Tizol's phone was Duke Ellington. "In 1951, Duke called and asked Juan to join his band and to bring Willie Smith and me with him," Louie said.
When Louie joined Duke Ellington's band, there was no music to read, nor was there a drum book. Everyone in the band knew the parts by heart. "Duke took a big risk hiring me," Louie recalled. "I was the only white musician in his band. During our first 1951 tour, just before we headed south for Birmingham, Alabama, he said ‘We’re going down South so we’re going to make you a Haitian.’ That’s how they described me so we wouldn’t wind up in trouble."
In the mid-1950s, Louie formed his own small groups and bands, playing and recording constantly throughout the decade. In 1962, he joined Count Basie for a tour abroad. In the decades that followed, Louie's ability to swing and fire up small groups and bands made him a favored drummer of virtually every jazz legend. As a drummer, Louie was both an innovator and old school, a combination that both inspired and reminded musicians on his dates of a long-gone glorious era. Louie's last album, Louie & Clark Expedition 2, was recorded in 2007 with Clark Terry.
Over the past two years, whenever I would call Louie to chat, he was always eager to reflect on his band years, and he generously shared his memories and stories. His voice also was from another era. It was gravelly, but there was a Midwestern tone mashed together with a hipness from years of exchanging one-liners with musicians and swinging the beat. He had a strong, confident street sound you no longer hear in the voices of jazz musicians or anyone else these days.
My deepest sympathies go out to Louie's family, especially his wife Francine, a woman of tireless energy, unrelenting optimism and a wonderful warm laugh. She also was Louie's biggest fan.
JazzWax tracks: Louie joined Benny Goodman just as the American Federation of Musicians recording ban of 1942 began, so most of his performances during the two years that followed were captured on film and radio transcriptions. His recording with Goodman began in earnest in 1946.
Louie's recordings with Tommy Dorsey can be found on Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era. It's available here as a download. It's a must. Louie's two tracks with Harry James' orchestra are on a spectacular CD called There They Go here.
Louie's work with Duke Ellington can be found on the bandleader's recordings between 1951 and 1953. In particular, The Hawk Talks shows off Louie's enormous drumming skills during this period. To see Louie in action on this tune, go here.
To hear Louie's work as a leader just after he left Ellington's band, download Skin Deep from iTunes. And one of my favorite sessions led by Louie is Thunderbird, a 1963 recording that featured Harry "Sweets" Edison (tp) Carl Fontana (tb) Sam Most (as) Ed Scarazzo (ts) Jim Mulidore (bar) Arnold Teich (p) Jim Cook (b) and Louie (d), with arrangements by Jay Hill, Lalo Schifrin and Marty Paich. It is available only on CD as an out-of-print Japanese import here.
JazzWax clip: For a series of clips, go here, to the Louie Bellson site. A 1943 clip that I watched with Louie that he enjoyed a great deal was this one with Benny Goodman. Louie had completely forgotten about his unconscious daredevil stick twirl at the beginning, laughing and shrugging it off by saying, "that's what we did." You can catch it just as Goodman leans forward...