Louie Bellson: Drumming’s Patron Saint
Living By The Code
Maybe the most important lesson of Bellson’s life was the one he needed the least help learning: strong relationships trump strong technique every time. So when, for instance, a fellow student Bellson crossed paths with in Murray Spivak’s practice room in 1949, a guy named Remo Belli, went on years later to start one of the world’s largest drum companies, it was Bellson he offered to let in on the ground floor, employing him as one of the first testers of his new products, one of which was a revolutionary new plastic drumhead that would forever change the way the instrument was played. Bellson, in turn, repaid Remo with a lifetime of loyalty as an endorser, eventually earning the title of vice president, in 1964.
“You can’t bounce around from one thing to another and take advantage of people.” Bellson said. “You have to be aboveboard. I never had that problem. If I’m going to say that I’ll do something, then I’ll do it. “I remember the time when I was doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson before Eddie [Shaughnessy] came out. Whenever they came to California, they’d ask me to do the month or whatever it was. And during that time, Sammy Davis came on. He came up to me later and said, ‘Can you play with me Friday night? I got a very important gig up here at the San Carlos Theatre. I’ll give you whatever you want. I said, ‘I can’t do it, Sammy. I’m committed to play The Tonight Show,’ which was way less money. He said, ‘Well, can’t you get a sub?’ I said, ‘No, because I think Johnny is going to feature me on that Friday night, so I have to work with him.’ That’s being loyal, you know?”
Shirking the temptation to cash in on the short run paid off in the end with one of the most prolific, memorable careers in the history of entertainment. Estimates on how many albums Bellson appeared on are as shrouded in speculation as the volume of his compositions. But for a guy known mostly for playing with bands, rather than for studio call work, it’s an impressive number however you slice it. “People say that he’s on 200 recordings. Bulls**t. He’s on more like 500,” says Weis, who’s made a habit of tracking down rare and obscure Bellson recordings over the years, stuff like 1954’s Boogie Woogie Piano And Drums, a duo recording with Meade “Lux” Lewis, or 1970’s Soul On Top, a bizarre jazz/R&B mashup that featured James Brown (James Brown?!) out in front of a Bellson-led big band, and dozens more even Bellson himself lost track of over the years.
“When he was signing autographs one time, someone came up to him and asked what was it like playing with John Coltrane,” Weis remembers. “And he said, ‘I never played with John Coltrane.’ And the guy was like, ‘Yeah you did,’ and handed him an album with him and Coltrane.”
Bellson’s life took a sharp turn when, in 1952, he met and quickly married Pearl Bailey, an African American jazz singer and actress. Talking heads all over the country called it a publicity stunt, and Bellson’s own father threatened to disown him. But ignoring them like he ignored every other negative influence in his life, he whisked Bailey away to London to get married far from the din of disapproving voices. For the month he and Bailey were overseas, Bellson persuaded Ed Shaughnessy to sub for him in Ellington’s band.
“You can imagine how much fun I thought that would be,” Shaughnessy recalls, laughing. “And I said, ‘No way.’
‘Well if you don’t take it, Duke says I can’t get married.’ Now I know he lied in his shoes, you know? But I felt I owed him so much.”
Bellson left Ellington’s band in early 1953 to become the drummer/conductor of Bailey’s band, which remained his main musical focus for the next 20 years, punctuated by several notable forays, including 1954’s Jazz At The Philharmonic, with Norman Granz, which Bellson ranked as one of the most significant highlights of his career. “I already had credentials like Ellington and Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James. But now he opened me up to Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Lester Young,” Bellson said. “And Roy Eldridge and of course Oscar Peterson were on JATP too.”
But it was playing with Bailey that he had some of his most unforgettable experiences. “I don’t know of any other drummer who’s slept in Lincoln’s bed — twice,” says Remo Belli, referring to Bellson and Bailey having logged more appearances at the White House, and played for more presidents, than any other entertainer besides Bob Hope. It’s not hard to see why. “Louie was so easy to get along with,” says Belli. “And when you’re at these functions, what do you do? You don’t talk deep politics. You yak a little bit, play a little bit, Pearl sings a little bit, and everybody relaxes.”
Defying odds, Bellson and Bailey remained inseparable until her death in 1990, their 39-year marriage a sturdy beacon amidst the nation’s violent struggle with the issue of racial equality. “I think we’ve proven one thing to a lot of people that didn’t realize it,” Bellson told Jet magazine in the December 18, 1980 issue. “That when two people dig one another, love one another, there are no barriers. We’re friends. Like Pearl says, when you call yourself a friend, that goes very deep. When you’re a friend, that’s something for life.”