At 21 years old, Louie Bellson was already on top of the world, and facing a stark choice. On the one hand, the trappings of fame beckoned like beautiful sirens — glorious mirages of consequence-free excess at his fingertips. A temptation no different in 1945 than it is now. On the other hand, the road to longevity, arrow straight and unadorned, with rewards that took a special set of eyes to see.
Bellson’s star had risen fast. Blindingly fast. In the three short years since he’d launched his career by handily dispatching 40,000 other hungry young drummers to win the Slingerland National Gene Krupa Drum Competition, he’d swung with heavyweights like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, appeared in two hit films populated by Hollywood glitterati, and rode out two years of the War honing lethal chops in the U.S. Army drum corps.
But there’s no mystery as to which path Bellson chose, then or at any other time. In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, changed the course of music forever, and impacted countless lives in the music world and beyond, Bellson, like some mythical creature of virtue, seemed immune to all the classic pitfalls — the drugs, the booze, the promise of fast cash, the inflated ego he had every right to indulge. All of it he shrugged off with a smile, retiring at the end of every day — every day — to jot down some notes for posterity. Notes that would evolve into thousands of separate compositions to be played all over the world by symphonies, big bands, jazz combos — or never to be played at all, simply written because he had the music in him and it needed to come out.
And through it all, not even a casual admirer could ever muster anything but starry-eyed, glowing praise for Bellson — for delivering the beast of double bass, for driving a stake into the heart of pre-civil rights bigotry with an interracial marriage, for his almost superhuman generosity, kindness, and humility. “World’s greatest” titles get thrown around a lot — Rich, Krupa, Bellson, the Big Three, spent their careers trading that title back and forth like fours in a drum battle. But Bellson had it all. Long before his passing on Valentine’s Day of this year at the age of 84 triggered the inevitable rush of memorial fawning, Louie Bellson was, to those who knew him, simply the greatest.
It was the 21-year-old Bellson that Ed Shaughnessy first met outside of the The Strand Theater in New York after a Tommy Dorsey concert. Shaughnessy was a 16-year-old kid from Jersey City with a year and a half of drum lessons under his belt and not much else. Ahead of him lay an illustrious career capped by a decades-long run in the drum chair with The Tonight Show Band With Doc Severinsen, not to mention a long, close friendship with Bellson, but on this night he was just a nervous kid standing outside the stage door clutching a note from his drum instructor, Bill West, who knew Bellson well enough to know any student he sent him would be received in kind.
“He comes out,” Shaughnessy remembers. “And just the friendliest, warmest greeting. ‘Hi! How are you? Who are you?’
‘Oh, I’m Eddie from Jersey City.’
‘Oh. And you’re a student of Bill West? Come on up to the dressing room.’ Right away, you know? Well, that proceeded to be the beginning of quite a few sessions where he would tell me to either come to the theater or come to the hotel where he stayed. And he would give me lessons — tips. He was studying finger control with the great Murray Spivak in California, who had developed that system to a very high level. And he’d say, ‘Hey listen. Watch this thing I got from Murray for the left-hand finger.’ Now you can imagine for a kid — I didn’t have anything much. I used to roll my drums around in a wagon. What I mean is, I came from not too much. He couldn’t have cared less. He treated me like I was a brother drummer equal with him.”
And there it is, the common denominator in anyone’s story of meeting Louie Bellson: “He treated me like an equal, a brother, a friend.” The remarkable thing about Shaughnessy’s story is that it wasn’t remarkable at all. Whatever your age, whatever your position on the totem pole, Bellson was ready to give you all of himself, any time, anywhere.
Bellson’s playing was an open book. Literally, in the sense that he wrote a dozen or so on instruction, but also in that he had no secrets, no carefully guarded signature moves, nothing he wouldn’t gladly demonstrate, explain, or dole out for free to anyone who asked. Because the thing that made Bellson Bellson was something else, something fleeting, illusory, revealing its full power only in later listening — an entire universe of rhythmic mojo brewing just below the surface. “You would stand there and watch what he was doing,” says Andy Weis, a long-time Bellson friend and protégé who studied his playing from every angle. “But then you’d take it home and listen and say, ‘Holy mackerel, did I see him do that?’”
His contemporaries have difficulty expressing Bellson’s individuality in words, often citing his versatility in a general sense. “I don’t know anything better to say than that you could hear four bars and you know it’s Louie Bellson,” says Shaughnessy. “You can’t say that about a whole lot of people on any instrument.”
You could point to the “isms,” signature moves like his ability to swing all day on just a ride cymbal, without the aid of the 2 and 4 on the hi-hat; or the patented six-note lick he’d often use to set up a horn figure — RLRR on the rack and floor toms followed by left and right bass drum hits — devastatingly simple, but a combination given special impact by Bellson’s hands and feet alone.
“I used to play in front of a mirror, a big mirror, and watch myself,” Bellson said, attempting to explain his powers of illusion. “And I always wanted to make my motions graceful, not ugly or stiff. It’s like watching an ice skater skate beautifully. Every motion is like a fan dance, you know? That’s very important. The motions. Because when you play fast tempos, you have to relax. If you don’t relax, you’re going to stiffen up and you can’t forge ahead. The breathing is very important.”
It was with this fan dance that Bellson could hypnotize even the most astute observer, his hands drawing smooth, lightning-quick arches as notes cascaded in perfect dynamic harmony. “His playing was always graceful, elegant, and supremely relaxed,” says Peter Erskine. “He had beautiful hands, old-school hands, the hands of a master.”
Take Bellson’s single-stroke roll, widely regarded as a showcase of technical perfection — clean as a surgeon’s scalpel at any volume, any speed, the envy of his contemporaries. “Joe Morello used to tell me, he said, ‘Your single-stroke roll, I can’t get it up to that speed.’ And Roy Haynes told me the same thing. I thought that was a compliment. I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve always had that, even when I was real young.’ I think it’s because I got better and better working with Murray Spivak using the fingers as well as the wrists and the arms. And that made it happen.”
Always the diligent student, no matter how much playing he did in the ensuing years, Bellson never let the foundations of his technique go slack. “I’m still working on the rudiments,” he said in 2003, at the age of 78. “You can never have enough of that because that’s basically what the basis of all this is — single roll, double roll, all the flams — I do that every day. It’s important to do a little sight reading. I still work out of my books, the 4/4 book and the Odd Times book. I try to get to the drum set at least four times a week to feel comfortable behind a set of drums. Because as you get a little older, you know, your muscles don’t react as fast as they should, I don’t care who it is. You try to keep up what you can do, and do it right.”