by Fred Gretsch
I recently came across a terrific YouTube link leading to a rare early TV clip that showcases the Count Basie Orchestra performing at New York City’s legendary Birdland club in the mid-1950s. Among the many great moments in this clip are several shots of drummer Sonny Payne driving the band in his inimitable style.
Because Gretsch drums are so strongly identified with the small-group drummers of the be-bop era, people sometimes forget that they were also the choice of some of the greatest big band drummers ever to play, including Louie Bellson, Don Lamond, Sam Woodyard—and Sonny Payne.
Sonny played with the Count Basie band from 1955 through 1965. And though initially it might have been a challenging task for him to follow his predecessors—the inimitable “Papa” Jo Jones and the vastly underappreciated Shadow Wilson—Sonny brought his own special brand of dynamic technique and showmanship to the drum chair.
No less a drum giant than Elvin Jones said of Sonny: “I first saw Sonny in the early 1950s with Count Basie. Swinging…dynamics…intensity. He was happy—a pure showman. But a showman who knew what he was doing. He just made that band come alive.”
Louie Bellson added, “For a while everybody was criticizing Sonny [because] he was a [drumstick] juggler. But boy, he kicked that Basie band. The minute you walked in and heard Basie’s band, right away your eyes went up to Sonny Payne. Basie himself summed it up, when he said ‘No question about it, Sonny Payne was the spark plug in my band.’”
Sonny left the Count Basie Orchestra in 1965. He worked with a number of different artists over the next several years, but his main gig was drumming for Harry James, whose high-energy band was a perfect fit for Sonny’s high-energy style. Sonny drummed with the Harry James band from 1966 until his untimely passing in 1979 at the age of fifty-four.