The Slingerland Black Beauty
Geez, I hate to complain. I know that anybody – even somebody with a taco short of a combination plate – would clearly recognize that being the big quesadilla (author’s note: you might have noticed that I crave Mexican food this evening) of a vintage and used drum shop is a glamorous profession. For an ego-enhancing experience that transcends verbiage, nothing quite compares to the thrill of finding a wingnut to match the hi-hat stand second-stage tension screw for the drummer of the ninth (and current) incarnation of the Troggs. Still, a certain complacency sometimes does occur after we, at the shop, start seeing and hearing about too many of the same kind of things.
Lo and behold, as the expression goes, fate is kind, and oh so occasionally, delivers a prize, such as the pictured drum, to our doorstep. The drum is a version of a Slingerland Artist model referred to as a Black Beauty in the company’s second catalog, produced in 1928. The term Black Beauty is more familiarly associated with the Ludwig company, which did not actually use that phrase in their literature until 1932—34. This means that Slingerland actually coined the name.
Many drummers who are familiar with the history of American drums recognize the legend of the Ludwig Black Beauty either in its original ’20s and ’30s incarnation, or in later reproductions. These drums, especially the earlier versions, are actively sought out by players and collectors alike for their distinctive sound, intrinsic beauty and value.
But what about the Slingerland Black Beauty? When Slingerland brought their Black Beauty to market, probably somewhere around 1926, they were basically a small company that had made the most success selling banjos and ukuleles, which were popular at the time. The main drum companies, Leedy and Ludwig & Ludwig, had their own engraved drums on the market. Leedy’s Black Elite featured an all-brass shell plated with black nickel and then engraved down to the brass. It featured a one-piece shell with Nobby Gold trim (gold lacquer) on the hoops. Ludwig had introduced its Deluxe drum, which also had an all-brass shell, albeit of two-piece construction that was soldered together at the center rounded convex bead and covered in black nickel. It too was etched in various decorative patterns down to the bare brass, and was trimmed in Ludwig DeLuxe imitation gold finish. Both companies offered other fancier options at a heftier price, such as real-gold plating.
The Slingerland version resembles the Ludwig drum more than Leedy’s, even though it has a single-piece shell unlike the earlier Ludwigs (Ludwig switched to a one-piece shell around 1934). According to drum historian Rob Cook, the Ludwig Deluxe (a.k.a. Black Beauty) weighed 7 lbs., 13 ozs. The Slingerland Black Beauty weighed 9 lbs., 11 oz. The specimen in the photo above weighs exactly that. Cool, huh? But, here’s the thing:
Collectors have been turning up Ludwig Black Beauties and Leedy Elites for many years now. When these drums were being sold by the original companies, they weren’t cheap. Still, it is probably safe to say that there are at least several hundred of these drums still in use. There may be at least as many that are hiding out until some grateful collector uncovers them.
John Aldridge, publisher of Not So Modern Drummer magazine, has a penchant for keeping track of any Black Beauty—type drums that show up, especially the rarer varieties. According to him, only seven previous examples of the Slingerland drum have come to public attention. The drum that entered our store, and is now presented for your perusal in the photograph, is number eight.
For you sticklers to detail, Slingerland made two other variations on the Engraved Black Beauty Artist model. There was an Artist model that was entirely gold-plated and a later engraved version of a Slingerland Du-all model, which featured a more complex snare throw-off mechanism. Neither example of these drums has been found, however, other rare, strange drums made by Slingerland have turned up.
The Slingerland Black Beauty that we acquired presents some challenges and mysteries. Fortunately, the drum is fully intact, with all original parts, except snare wires and heads. There are no serious dents, extra holes, or any non-production modifications. The engraving pattern seems to be wholly typical, with its sawtooth lines fashioned in a scroll or wave design, and the engraved Slingerland USA logo appears exactly where it should be. There seems to be more of Slingerland’s Art gold lacquer on this drum than has been found on previous drums. There are splashes of gold lacquer both on the inside and outside of the shell, and it seems that the hoops may have been put on the drum when the lacquer was wet, because a residue ring of gold lacquer remains on the top and bottom edges of the drum when the hoops are removed. Curious indeed.
A bit of restoration work is needed on the drum (and drums like it) to clean it up. The superficial way to do the job is to apply 3-In-1 oil to the shell with a soft cloth while cleaning the golden areas (copper-plated brass with gold lacquer) with a bit of lemon juice. This process makes the drum look passable again. The most important thing to remember is not to apply abrasive cleaners.
The extensive restoration is a bit more complicated and requires the patience of someone with a life sentence (fortunately, the actual cleaning process doesn’t take quite that long).
When these drums were first created, they were covered with a coating of clear lacquer to protect the thin layer of black nickel plating over the brass shell, as well as the phony gold lacquer and delicate engraving. In most cases, age, use and harsh detergent cleaners have removed the clear coat, leaving the drum at the mercy of the elements. These drums can be partially restored by finishing the job of removing what’s left of the old clear lacquer and polishes, carefully cleaning the naked surfaces and engravings (with lots of chamois and soft baby toothbrushes) and then re-lacquering the entire drum again. This is no picnic, as they say, and should only be attempted by experts.
For now, we like 3-In-1 oil and lemon juice. A lot.
In case you think that the purpose of this article was simply to go on with our bad selves, well you’re not far wrong. But, there remain a lot of amazing drums out there that have yet to be discovered. If you are into vintage drums, this is still a treasure hunt with a lot of great scores out there if you keep yours eyes open and know what to look for.