The Rocky History Of Premier Drums

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Over the years Premier has been responsible for lots of great stuff, but using the adage of a prophet not being accepted in his own land, we Brits have tended to overlook them. But the Americans – who started all the “classic” business in the first place – have not. Perhaps this would be as good a time as any to fill you in on the company’s illustrious background. Premier began in 1922 when a professional drummer named Albert Della Porta forged, after a short time working with the Boyle Drum Co., a partnership with its former production manager. The pair rented a basement on London’s Berwick Street and were eventually joined by Albert’s sax-playing brother Fred, whereupon Albert became Premier’s first sales manager.

As with Gretsch in America, Premier didn’t initially make drums with its own name on them. Other companies like John E. Dallas (who put their Jedson trademark on them) bought the drums and fitted their own badges – exactly the same method the Taiwanese adopted more than half a century later. (Dallas, by the way, was eventually responsible for Carlton, President, and Hayman drums, which they built themselves.) Eventually Premier-badged instruments were produced, and began to sell. The new-fangled drum kits were becoming popular at that juncture, and Premier’s consisted of a single-headed bass drum, a snare drum, a stand, a small cymbal with its own supporting arm, woodblocks, and maybe even a very small tom.

From the very beginning Premier made timpanis, and for a number of years successfully sold a great deal of its production to a company that rented them to be used as sound effects in silent movie theaters. Unfortunately Al Jolson came along with The Jazz Singer, which was the world’s first talking picture, and killed that market.

Despite this setback the company grew into (and eventually out of) two factories, and ended up in London’s Park Royal with offices in Golden Square. By 1938 they were making brass instruments and clarinets, as well as supplying drums to the armed forces. (In the early ’30s they made a solid guitar called the Premier Vox and eventually an amplifier to go with it.)

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World War II came along and of course changed everybody’s lives completely; Premier stopped making instruments and was moved by the government into essential war work. The company made gun sights and electrical plugs and sockets for radar equipment. When their West London factory was bombed in 1940 they moved, for safety reasons, to Wigston, just outside Leicester where they’ve been ever since. By the time Albert Della Porta died in 1965, his three sons Gerald, Raymond, and Clifford were running the company, which originally had occupied three rather small factories in Wigston, but by 1976 had moved lock, stock and barrel into a newly-constructed facility on Blaby Road.

Premier has been responsible for a great many designs and innovations (the fact that Clifford had a degree in engineering was something of a bonus). They invented flush-based stands and the infamous three-legged 245 stool, originally with a saddle seat (which shaped many a drummer’s career and bottom) and special quick setup lock for its twin struts. (I can vividly remember these had a propensity to be unstable unless you were actually sitting on them. If set high they could inconveniently be knocked over just as you were about to sit down!)

Long high-tension lugs were a Premier first too, and for many years fitted to all drums except, for some strange reason, to the floor toms. They were brought in out of necessity to apply an even amount of stress to the shell and give added strength to the drums, which at that time were exclusively equipped with animal skins. Funnily enough, this became the company’s look, and something that ultimately became a millstone for them since critics felt they stressed the shell too much and didn’t allow it to breathe. Premier moved to single lugs in the ’70s, whereupon the rest of the drum world moved to long lugs!

In the ’50s and early ’60s Premier’s fixtures and fittings were no more than adequate, although to be frank, that description could be accurately applied to every other manufacturer’s equipment too. It really wasn’t until music became heavier in the mid-’60s that drummers began to demand stands and holders that were hefty enough for the job. Initially Premier’s tom holders, spurs, bass-drum legs, and so on were designed exclusively for dance band drummers who were their market up until the ’60s beat boom. I’m sure you know it was Ringo Starr and his pals who were most responsible for the explosion of guys wanting to buy drum sets, but you may not know that the main reason he part-exchanged his old mahogany-finish Premier ’54 (or was it a ’58?) set for a Ludwig kit in London’s Drum City, was because he preferred their oyster-striped finish. If Premier had offered something more exotic at the time, their future (and possibly Ludwig’s) would have been completely different. Fortunately for Premier, not everybody could afford an imported kit (or necessarily wanted one), so they survived the invasion of foreign drums reasonably intact.

Around this time Premier fitted new floor-tom leg holders of a type that were initially seen on WFL, and that held them in a pressed-steel bracket with a sprung lever on the side to adjust their height. Tom mounts way back then were a series of cast ratchet pieces shell-mounted with extensions to get the drum to more or less the right position, although there was eventually a telescopic version along with a telescopic cymbal stand. Their side-pull hi-hat had a unique tilting bottom cymbal cup (which all the other companies copied) and another first: double-locking nuts on the underside of the clutch. Premier was also the first to put a shaped piece of metal between the arrest screws and the tubes in stands to stop them from being dented. Bass drums then had single-lever L-shaped handles, which were another exclusive and arguably easier to use, although you needed to take care when packing them into fibre cases so you didn’t ruin the edges – you had to turn them in line with the hoop to make them fit.

Premier didn’t offer a set with double rack toms until 1968, although they never did produce a 13" drum until the late ’70s (guys usually had a couple of 14" x 8" mounted toms, although sometimes you’d see a Premier kit with a 12" x 8" and a 16" x 20" floor tom mounted). However, by this time an 18" bass was available and the floor tom legs were double-bent and held in the more familiar cast blocks. Fortunately the tom holders too had moved on – they were called Lokfast and had retained the ratchet tilter and were available in three models: shell to shell, disappearing (where there was vertical movement from the bass), and double disappearing where the tom itself could be moved horizontally. These lasted until roughly 1974 when they were replaced by the more substantial ones (confusingly called Lokfast), which we’re probably all familiar with. These had an oval down-tube, knurled L-arms, and a massive cast receiver block on the bass. Their next departure was to the ball-and-socket Fastball, which was replaced at the end of the ’80s by a similar mechanism called RockLock.

Premier stands also have changed quite a bit over the years, although they still do the same job they always have: hold drums and cymbals in the optimum position for hitting them. The original ’50s Flush-Base stands were eventually superceded in ’68 by Lokfasts, which were more substantial with oval bottom tubes, although still with flush bases. The snare stand had a swivel arm cradle, and the hi-hat now had a center-pull (from each side) with a couple of screw spurs on the end of the front legs. Trilok came around 1976, with tripod bases, U-shaped hand-threatening legs, and nylon wear-resisting inserts. The new hi-hat had external expansion springs and a 252-type plate, while the cymbal stands incorporated booms for the first time. Tristar stands had double-braced tripod legs while Tridents were single-braced. ProLock is as far as they’ve gone with stands. They’re extensions of Tristar with important refinements (a memory system for the cymbal tilter and cast memory collars with nylon inserts for all telescoping tubes.)

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Frankly, the names Premier gave their sets have never been quite as evocative as their competitors’. At a time when the others had Birdland, BroadKaster, Radio King, DownBeat and Hollywood; Premier offered 54, 57, 58, 52 and 53, 303, 505, 202, 101, 707, 717 and so on. (They had a fixation with numbers for quite some time, which was eventually succeeded by a brief flirtation with names from the world of aviation like Tristar and Trident.) But eventually these numbers gave way to somewhat more evocative names like Projector, Resonator, Elite, Soundwave, Club, Crown, Royale, Black Shadow, APK, XPK, and so on, culminating in their latest, Signia. However for the States they had to have different names for the sets: Baron, Superstar, Gig-Maker, Powerhouse, Driver, and Kicker to name but a few. (For a number of years Premier also made budget-priced sets for beginners called Olympic. These were discontinued in the ’70s, but reincarnated again as Club around 1980. It became the Disco set in ’82 but in the last three or four years Olympic sets have been built for Premier in Taiwan.)

The 250 foot pedal (with its plimsoul-like footplate) and the beefed-up 250S, which followed around 1966 with a more angular plate with spurs under the heel, were both extremely popular for many years. Even guys who played and endorsed other companies used them surreptitiously – especially heavier players. Indeed they bought them by the crate-load when they were replaced by the 252 in ’76. Unlike the more traditional 250, the 252 had a single post, a one-piece plate, and something very few pedals had back then: a compression spring. It’s still going strong (there’s even a double version of it) although these days the less bulky chain-driven 253 seem to be supplied with everything except Projector.

Premier was one of the very first drum companies to make its own plastic heads in approximately 1958. They were called Everplay and made from Melanex (ICI’s polyester film also used from time to time by Evans), which wasn’t glued, but mechanically clamped into the self-hoop around a square bar. Over the years they’ve made many different heads to keep up with developments in music, like Powerplay, which had a central doughnut, and TwinSkin, which sandwiched a much larger and narrower doughnut between two plies to get that thick sound. They even had bass heads with pre-cut holes in them called Polo in ’84 when other companies didn’t. Premier actually has made heads from the same sort of film (called Mylar) that Remo uses, which comes from a French concern called Dupont. (Strangely, they actually made a 13" plastic head in 1964, but didn’t manufacture that particular size of snare or tom. But that might be explained by the fact that they did provide heads for an awful lot of other drum companies.) All their modern heads come in international sizes, but up until 1968 Premier’s drums didn’t all take American heads. These were known, believe it or not, as pre-international sizes and the shells of their drums for some time after were actually stamped with the legend “International Size,” which was visible through the air hole.

Since at least the ’50s, Premier has been justifiably proud of their “Diamond” chroming that the company carried out in its very own plant, which was subsequently owned by the Della Porta family for a number of years. Although it’s always been a reasonably standard three-stage process – first copper, then nickel, then chrome – Premier was allegedly the first company to polish the material before coating it, and then after each stage.

For many years Premier’s hoops were cast from a zinc alloy called mazak, until the ’70s when they were changed to pressed-steel with triple-flanges, in line with the majority of U.S. manufacturers. This wasn’t to slavishly copy anybody but, if my memory serves me, once multi-tom sets arrived, Premier didn’t have a mold for a 15" hoop. And since this would have necessitated a heavy investment, they decided to switch to pressed steel, triple-flange hoops, which gave a slightly more open sound.

Premier’s shells have been mainly made from Finnish birch with solid German beech support hoops (although, like most manufacturers, they had a very brief flirtation with acrylic in the ’70s). Other woods like khaya, beech, luan, and mahogany have more recently been used, mostly for the Royale (and its derivatives), which came out in 1982 and was available with power toms a couple of years later when it became APK. This was an abbreviation for Advance Power Kit, which started out with single lugs, but by 1989 was fitted with the more fashionable long type. It was closely followed by XPK, which was ostensibly the same set but with an outer veneer of birch added that was stained and polished. By the way, from 1968 all Premier shells were lacquered on the inside, and Signia is the very first Premier kit to have maple shells.

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The Resonator model deserves a paragraph on its own because, for my money, it started the high-end ball rolling for Premier. A guy called Alan Gilbey was initially responsible, having experimented with putting an ultra-thin inner lining inside his pal Kenny Clare’s drums on top of the glue rings. This both created a resonant cavity and covered up all the bolts that secured the fittings (even the air hole), therefore allowing the unobstructed inner shell to resonate independently and give a very powerful sound. The idea was sold to Premier and sets (originally called Kenny Clare Resonators) came out in early ’73 with cross-laminated birch inner and outer shells with beech strengthening rings. They included full-length lugs too, except on the floor tom, and at the time felt a snare drum was too small to benefit from the inner skin treatment. However, by 1977 there was one in their American catalog, and they produced something similar with their Project One snare seven years later. Resonator begat Black Shadow, which was the same, but with single-lug power toms and bass, black-stained and lacquered inside and out.

Premier has always made good, un-flashy snare drums, the most original being Project One, which came out in ’84 with a twin shell like the Resonator, a microphone port in the outer wall, solid earless hoops, and adjustable snare buzz controls. It was the first drum to have its badge mounted on a base. Thirty odd years ago they had Hi-Fi with a wood or metal shell; the Connoisseur, which was roughly the metal Hi-Fi with a parallel action and gut snares; and Royal Ace with three different depth options, wood or metal shells, and parallel snares. In the late ’60s the 2000 came along, which was Premier’s answer to Ludwig’s Super-Sensitive. It also had a parallel action with a new release arm, and was available with a narrow shell (simply a Royal Ace in disguise). No Premier drum had any more than eight tension rods until 1978 when the 35 came out. It had ten rods, all of which were square-headed. (This was at a time when all Premier’s toms were fitted with slotted tension screws. They felt this was eminently sensible since you could always use a coin if you lost your key. Soon after the launch of the 35 they changed completely to U.S.-type square bolts.)

Premier dubbed 1987 “the year of the snare drum,” and brought out several more to celebrate it, including an aluminum piccolo, a brass-shelled drum with a mahogany liner, and something I was told was impossible to do, an extra-deep spun brass shell. But to prove the point, Heavy Rock 9 exists with top and bottom strengthening beads and stress-ring hoops. There was also a deep brass “symphonic” drum with a mahogany liner. (Nowadays Premier put a rubber gasket on their metal drum’s bearing edges to kill off some of the midrange tones.)

I wrote earlier that Premier started out making drums for other people in the ’20s, but 50 odd years later they did it again with the Hamma drums they made for EMI-Rosetti with their own slightly dodgy badge in 1976. For all intents and purposes it was otherwise a typical Premier set.

For a long time Premier made their own lines of cymbals in the Wigston factory called Zyn and Krut. For a while they were the only decent ones we could get in Britain, and subsequently became the only reasonably-priced alternative to those produced in America, Switzerland, and Turkey. I’m told they were made from an 80/20 amalgam of copper and tin with a smidgen of silver. In the beginning there were Zyn and Super-Zyn, which were ultimately joined by superior 5 Star Zyns around 1968. Some time later there were cymbals stamped Premier, but the company hasn’t made any for a number of years and has no plans to.

Like most long-established percussion companies, Premier has had a great many different finishes over the years. No doubt they used to spray paint their drums in the beginning, but eventually went on to cover them with plastic sparkles, pearls, woods, and of course solid colors. These were followed by shimmers and oysters, then polychromatics, until in 1977 they came out with their first natural wood. Now of course they specialize in time-consuming lacquers and natural stains, as well as solid plastic wraps.

All in all Premier has come up with an innovation or two once every year. Some of them like Resonator and 2000 have gone on to become part of the mainstream. Others like those brilliant, non-slip rubber drum mats and PowerPak have not. (PowerPak was their stab at electronics and I’m led to believe they actually sold a couple of hundred, but aside from the set I saw at Wigston, I only ever saw one on Eastenders! Visually it was a lot more solid than most but its exclusively analog sounds weren’t quite what hi-tech players wanted in 1986, even though the price was right.)

In its heyday Premier exported more than half their production to 125 countries. But in 1984 the company went into receivership and was rescued by a consortium of its management team and The Royal Bank of Scotland. Three years later they merged with Yamaha at a time when they had 27 percent of the UK’s percussion market. At the end of 1992 they managed to buy themselves out of that merger and get back on their own feet again. As they used to say in their advertising: “Premier, 100-percent British drums and proud of it!”

Editor’s note: Since the original publication of this article, Premier has passed through more hands, and even underwent a prolonged period of inactivity. In recent years, Premier has attempted to re-enter the U.S. market, with mixed results.