By Fred Gretsch, 4th Generation Drum Maker
Louie Bellson’s career was remarkable for many reasons. In musical terms, few, if any drummers, could match his achievements. He began playing with Ted Fio Rito, and he replaced Gene Krupa in Benny Goodman’s band by the time he was seventeen years old. He performed and recorded with such jazz legends as Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, as well as with great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Mel Torme’, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, and Tony Bennett. Louie also led his own successful big bands and small groups for more than forty years.
In addition, Louie established himself as a gifted composer. He wrote and arranged more than a thousand tunes, including the drum-feature classic “Skin Deep,” which he made famous with the Ellington orchestra.
Louie was also a legendary clinician and educator. The eternal student himself, he was always eager to share his knowledge and his skills with young drummers.
And on top of everything else, Louie was an innovator. His vision of what a drumset could be literally revolutionized the design of the instrument, blazing a trail that would be followed by generations of creative drummers. And when Louie first sought to turn his vision into reality, he turned to the Gretsch Drum Company.
Louie established his lifelong pattern of constant study and self-improvement at a very early age. Besides taking lessons from the top teachers in his hometown of Moline, Illinois, as well as in Chicago, Louie played regularly with his high school big band. He also kept abreast of what the top bands in the country were playing by studying the records that were sold in his father’s music store.
In 1980, Louie told Modern Drummer author Robyn Flans, “I was aware of all the bands that were coming into the picture, like Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. I was very fortunate to sit in with those guys when they came to town-partly because they’d heard that I’d won the Gene Krupa Drum Contest [Louie won that contest in 1941 at the age of 16], and partly because my friends would yell, ‘Hey! Get my friend up there to play!’”
One such incident proved to be the turning point in Bellson’s career. When Ted Fio Rito’s band came into town, seventeen-year-old Louie sat in with the band. Fio Rito’s drummer was leaving, and the bandleader offered Louie a job on the spot. Louie opted to finish high school first, but joined the band immediately after graduating. His first job was in California, at the Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard, in 1942.
Three months later Benny Goodman heard Louie playing with Fio Rito’s band, and invited the youngster to audition for him. The next day Louie went to Paramount Studios, where Benny was doing a movie, and sat in with the Goodman Sextet. After playing only one number, Louie had the job. The seventeen-year-old wunderkind quickly established himself as a drummer to watch-no small feat considering that he was following in the footsteps of Gene Krupa.
After a year with Goodman, Louie was called into service in World War II. He was sent to the Walter Reed Hospital Annex in Washington, D.C., which had a large orchestra, a concert band, and a jazz band. These bands performed for wounded soldiers being treated at the hospital. After serving three years in the Army, Louie returned to Ted Fio Rito’s band for three months. That three-month period saw yet another historic development in Louie’s career.
It Started as an Idea
Louie’s return to the Ted Fio Rito band in 1946 marked his first use of two bass drums. But he’d actually had the idea back in 1938, when he was still in high school. That idea was at least partly prompted by the fact that Louie was completely ambidextrous.
“One thing in the drummer’s favor,” Louie told Robyn Flans in 1980, “is to be able to manipulate the right hand or the left hand equally as well, and vice versa with the legs. I didn’t go out for sports much because they kept me so busy in bands while I was in school. But I did go out for track. I was an exceptionally fast runner, and my track coach, who was also the football coach, said I’d be a great halfback. I couldn’t leave band to do that, but I did fool around some with a football, and I discovered that I could kick with either foot. This caused me to sit down one day and think, ‘How would it be to have another drum over there . . . to still utilize the hi-hat, but have another bass drum?’ So I drew up a design of the double bass drumset.”
When Louie first took his design to various drum companies in 1939 and 1940, they were-to put it mildly-not very receptive. “I was just getting started as a player,” Louie told Robyn Flans in 2004. “When I approached one drum company, they told me, ‘You and Buck Rogers ought to go to the moon. You’re crazy.’”
The Gretsch Connection
It took a few years, but eventually Louie found one drum company that didn’t think he was crazy. In fact, when he approached the Gretsch Company in 1946, their craftsmen took his design as a challenge.
Gretsch’s effort to help Louie realize his vision was spearheaded by drum promotion and sales manager Phil Grant. A former percussionist with the Goldman Band in New York, Grant was also an inventor. He was as knowledgeable about drum construction as he was about drumming.
“Phil Grant was the right man for Gretsch to hire,” Louie Bellson told Chet Falzerano in his book, Gretsch Drums: The Legacy Of That Great Gretsch Sound. “He was a very fine drummer himself, and he was sympathetic to all the artists who were using Gretsch drums. He listened to what all of us had to say, and then he’d ask ‘What can we do to make the drumset better?’”
For his part, Grant had this to say about Bellson: “Louie was a great innovator and an excellent drummer. Regardless of what phase of drumming you were in, you looked up to Louie because he had hands and feet that wouldn’t stop. He was way ahead of his time with that double bass set. Since then, quite a few big band drummers have used two bass drums. But most of them didn’t know why the second one was there. It just looked good.”
A Drum Kit Is Born
The kit that Grant and the Gretsch team created with Louie in 1946 featured two 20×20 bass drums, in accordance with Louie’s original concept. But it went further than that. It also featured a unique combination of tom-toms. The center tom was a 26×18 floor tom placed directly in front of the snare drum. Symmetrically mounted on either side were 9×13 and 7×11 toms, with the whole assembly connected and supported on legs. The floor toms were 16×16 and 16×18.
The drums on the kit featured Gretsch’s cross-laminated three-ply shells, with 1/16″-thick veneers of maple on the inside and outside, with a 1/8″-thick middle layer of poplar. Gretsch laminated the plies as they molded the shell, joining them in three different places. This eliminated the need for reinforcing rings, which the craftsmen at Gretsch believed “broke up the sound waves” inside the drum. The thin shells also allowed for a very thin bearing edge, which promoted projection and resonance.
Jazz drumming great Charlie Persip was a contemporary of Louie Bellson’s, though a few years younger. Commenting on the construction of Gretsch drums in Chet Falzerano’s book, he said, “Gretsch really came up with a drum that had the right sound for the music of the day. That’s why everybody went with them. Gretsch toms sang like a mockingbird.”
The Kit on Stage
Louie’s futuristic configuration would be right at home on many stages today. But it didn’t catch on immediately in the big band era. Louie debuted the kit with Ted Fio Rito’s band in 1946, but the bandleader didn’t choose to feature it. And Benny Goodman, with whom Louie next worked, preferred a more standard drum kit. But when Louie joined the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1947, things were different.
“Tommy made a big thing out of the kit,” Louie told Robyn Flans, “because Tommy liked drummers. He had had Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and he wanted a guy who could swing with the band and yet be a soloist. When he saw my two-bass drum idea, he flipped out. We came up with the idea of a revolving platform. Tommy would press a button and the platform would go around in the middle of my solo. That way, people could see and understand what I was doing.”
Louie’s revolutionary kit established him as one of the most creative and imaginative drummers on the big-band scene. It also launched a twenty-year association with Gretsch Drums. Over those years Louie would continue to develop as a drum superstar, and his drum kit would continue to evolve. When he played with Duke Ellington, the bass drums were bigger, and the toms were fewer. By the advent of the bebop era in the early 1950s, the bass drums were smaller, and the toms fewer still. But he always retained the double bass design that had become his trademark.
“I had a wonderful relationship with Gretsch,” Louie told Chet Falzerano. “Twenty years, that’s a long time! Their drums always had a great sound.”
A Musical Philosophy
Speaking with Robyn Flans in 1986, Louie summed up his philosophy regarding the “big kit” design that he maintained throughout his career. “I always go by what I’m doing musically,” he said. “If I hear something, then I want to put it in.”
In 1991 Louie reminisced a bit, this time with Modern Drummer author Rick Mattingly. “When Buddy Rich first saw my 1946 set, with all those drums surrounding me, he looked at me and made a classic remark. He had his hand on his chin, like a Jack Benny pose, and he said, ‘Are you having a baby?’ But I told Buddy, ‘You know, I use all this stuff.’”
Truer words were never spoken.