For my money, Camco remains one of the most innovative companies of the modern drum world. Concepts that were devised almost 40 years ago by the company’s mentor, George H. Way, are still implemented by the very best drum makers today.
In his early days, Way was a development engineer first for the Leedy company, then for Leedy & Ludwig (the two drum companies merged for mutual protection at the time of the Wall Street crash in the ’20s). Rumor has it he visited Europe sometime after the First World War, and ultimately sold his Leedy samples there. He rejoined Leedy and stayed with them until the Second World War, whereupon, having worked for Slingerland, Rogers, and Leedy, he yet again decided to go it alone in Elkhart, Indiana (which was not too far from Chicago). He set up Geo. Way Drums Inc. there in 1955 where he built his “Waybest” products. Like W.F.L. (which later became Ludwig with only a badge change), these drums ultimately turned into Camco (although with thicker shells) when he moved the operation to a suburb of Chicago known as Oaklawn, Illinois at the beginning of the ’60s. (Camco, by the way, was actually a light engineering company that initially made hardware for Geo. Way Company drums.)
The Camco brand itself had a checkered career. Way’s widow sold the company on his death in 1969 to the Kustom company, which actually made strangely upholstered amplifiers in Chanute, Kansas. By 1973 it had changed hands yet again and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Los Angeles. Things began well there, but ultimately went from good, to bad, to worse. By the end of the decade it was all over. With Camco’s sad demise in 1979, the metal-working machines for the hardware were sold to Drum Workshop, while the shells and other woodworking bits and pieces were snapped up by Ray Ayotte in Vancouver. (Even the illustrious name was sold to Tama, who brought out an up-market Oriental Camco set in the ’80s. It had 8-ply birch shells and fortunately seems to have disappeared without a trace.) So, while the air-hole badge remained the same distinctive cloud shape for each owner, the place of manufacture inscribed on it changed. (Purists maintain that the Kansas-built drums aren’t as good as the others and considered those from Asia nothing short of sacrilege!)
Although the original Geo. Ways had 3-ply maple shells with heavy strengthening-rings and white-painted interiors, Camco shells were made from six plies of 100-percent rock maple with thinner glue-rings inside. Their bearing edges were meticulously cut and their ultimate exterior finishes left nothing to be desired. Originally they specialized in great sparkles and moires as well as ripples, but the move to Kansas added natural maple and colored stains too: red, green, ebony, and walnut. The L.A.-built drums introduced the thick lacquer look with black, white, blue, and “off white,” and for the first time, solid-colored plastics in those same basic colors, plus red. (The sparkles have aged best and actually look better now than they ever did.)
The size of your Camco set depended on where it was built. For example, if you had a five-piece drum set from Oaklawn, chances were it had a couple of the fashionable 12" x 8" mounted toms, a 14" x 14" floor tom, and a 20" bass drum, although I was surprised to discover that 18" bass drums were also available then. (Interestingly, earlier Geo. Way Company drums would appear to have pioneered the more logical 12" x 8" and 13" x 9" mounted toms, but discontinued them with early Camcos.)
It wasn’t until the move to Chanute, Kansas that sets with 13" x 9", 14" x 10", 18" x 16", and even 20" x 18" toms began to appear. Single-headed toms were eventually offered from the Los Angeles factory with basses (single-headed or otherwise) from 18" to 26" with solid hoops and the original extra-strong claws and double-bullet handled, timpani-type tension rods. For some strange reason Camco fitted just 16 of these to their basses. While it didn’t affect the tuning too much, it was difficult to find a spot to slot your spare sticks – they were either too high or too low.
Geo. Way Drums Inc. actually started out making snare drums called Aristocrats, which had 3-ply maple shells with traditional glue rings, and were available in three depths: 5", 6", and 8". They came complete with double-flange hoops, precision throw-offs, and those turret lugs. Metal-shelled drums later came from Camco exclusively with 5" bent and brazed shells. Instead of the turrets they came with oval pressed-steel casings, triple-flange hoops, a pair of concave strengthening beads positioned near the bearing edges, plus a key holder and a brilliantly ingenious gooseneck-operated internal damper. The “99 Super” had a parallel-action strainer while the “Tuxedo” had their more usual no-nonsense strainer. It wasn’t until the move to L.A. that they fit the turrets to their metal snare drums (which by then had brass shells), and for the first time offered the option of eight or ten tension rods per head with 5" or 6" shells.
George Way started a company in 1950 simply making hardware for other drum firms (including the Duplex foot pedal and the Gretsch “Floating Action,” which was the same as his own Deluxe). So the original Camco fixtures and fittings were all thoughtfully designed, with curved square-section spurs, completely turned parts for holders, ring notches in tom legs to stop them slipping, and of course those famous circular, heavy-duty turret lugs. These gave Camco their visual identity and were originally turned from brass, with interior brass swivel-nuts (invented by Way for Leedy), which mated smoothly with the steel tension screws.
Lots of the stands in the Camco catalogs bore a striking similarity to other manufacturer’s, with good reason. George Way made them all. They were typical American stands with flush bases, basket-gripping arms, swiveling tilters, side-pull hi-hats and so on. The double Swivel tom holder was completely unique to Camco, but the way it worked wasn’t. Basically it was a ball-and-cage attachment with a flattened rod fixed into the ball that was trapped inside a solid turned cage, and eventually mated with the usual receiver plates attached to the toms.
To my knowledge Camcos only came with Remo Ambassador heads, but the very best Camco set I ever saw was lacquered red with red Evans hydraulic heads and shiny brass fittings throughout! It was in a shop in New York and I could have bought it brand new for $1,000, but I didn’t, and still regret it. Another interesting Camco set I saw was played by a drummer whose name escapes me (it’s possibly Russ Kunkel) in a film called The Rose. He had two large bass drums horizontally mounted on legs with pedals hitting underneath, leaving what would normally be the front heads to be used as batters, sort of like a huge ’50s cocktail set.
Old Camcos had an absolutely brilliant sound, like real drums, you might say. They were crisp and ballsy, yet still round. A bit like Gretsch, but without their slightly woody sound; perhaps closer to Slingerland, only with a great deal of tone and volume. Fifteen years ago you could buy a complete five-piece drum set for just over $1,000. Nowadays you’d probably get a good one for roughly the same price. And you’d have a huge slice of drum history!