april 2009

Louis Bellson: Duke Ellington called him 'the world's greatest drummer'


Louis Bellson, The Drummer's Drummer

By Billy Altman

If the name Louie Bellson is a familiar one, then you'll immediately understand what a loss not just the jazz world but the entire world of music is feeling today with news of the legendary drummer's death on February 14 in Los Angeles at age 84 from complications of Parkinson's disease following a broken hip suffered back in November.

While his career dated all the way back to before World War II, Bellson was still active right up until the time of his injury. Just last year, he released his final recording, Louie & Clark Expedition 2, made with trumpeter Clark Terry, and in October he'd gone back to his hometown of Rock Falls, IL, to perform with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble.

It was in Illinois in the early 1940s that high school senior Bellson (real name Luigi Ballasoni) beat out over 40,000 young hopefuls from across the U.S. to win the National Gene Krupa Contest, named after the then king of Swing Era drummers. Part of what pushed Bellson to the top so quickly was that, in addition to his spectacular talents, he was also an innovator. When he was just 15, Bellson began experimenting with a daring setup that included two bass drums—which is where those not familiar with Louie Bellson's name might begin to understand his place in music history. His visionary approach to his craft has echoed down through multiple generations of percussionists, and not just in jazz, either; his influence on rock could be heard through the work of such notable drummers as the Who's Keith Moon, Cream's Ginger Baker, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Mitch Mitchell, to name but a few.

How good was Louie Bellson? Duke Ellington, whose formidable orchestra Bellson propelled during the 1950s, called him simply "the world's greatest drummer." Considering the source, that was pretty high praise—and Bellson continued to earn it throughout his remarkable life and career, which from the mid-'50s until her death in 1990 was spent as musical director for his wife, singer Pearl Bailey. Like the proverbial Energizer Bunny, though, Bellson just kept going and going, through thousands of concerts and countless recordings: As he quipped on his 80th birthday in 2005: "I'm not that old; I'm 40 in one leg, and 40 in the other leg."

Here are a few clips of Louie Bellson in action, first starring with the Ellington band in 1950 on his own composition "The Hawk Talks," and then back home in Illinois on October 11, 2008, with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, performing "Give Me the Good Time."

"Give Me the Good Time," 2008


Gatemouth Gets A Historical Marker

Three years after Hurricane Katrina and failing health combined to take the life of roots music legend Clarence Gatemouth Brown, his estate has commissioned a headstone befitting his stature.

Provided by West Memorials of Memphis, the headstone is fashioned from black granite, stands more than five feet tall, more than five feet tall, and displays an impressive center in the shape of Gatemouth's signature Firebird guitar.

A painting by artist Diane Russell is affixed as a ceramic inlay on the stone. A quote from Gatemouth himself adorns the stone: "I won't limit myself to one type of music. There's a lot of Universe out there, and what is the Universe? Music!"

Diagnosed with lung cancer in June 2004, Brown fled his home in Slidell, LA (he was born in Vinton, LA), during hurricane Katrina. He died days later of heart failure in his niece's home in Orange, TX, on September 10, 2005. One week later, hurricane Rita came through his final resting place. In September 2008, hurricane Ike damaged Brown's, and dozens of other's, graves. With the help of family members and local mortician Wayne Sparrow, Browns' remains were returned to his site at Orange's Hollywood Cemetery.

A spokesperson for his estate said of Gatemouth, "He has waited far too long to be honored in his death as he was in life; he was, and still is, bigger than any storm that Mother Nature has to offer."

The Texas Historical Commission, inspired by the hard work of Gatemouth's last surviving sibling, Bobby Brown, and local fans Robert Finch and Dr. Howard Williams, have expedited the process of having a historical marker installed at the gravesite in 2010, well ahead of the usual 10-year wait before such recognition is bestowed.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's remains are located at the historical Hollywood Cemetery in Orange Texas.

Gatemouth burns it up on "Pressure Cooker"


The Dunce's Corner

How can we miss John Rich if he won't go away? Like a bad smell, it's hard to get rid of the Dunce Emeritus. Last month was a big one for the blowhard. First, in a profound pot-calling-the-kettle-black moment in an interview with People magazine, he railed against the producers of Nashville Star, ranting that they had "completely bastardized what country music is about." He even claimed he would not return for the show's next season this summer. Do tell.

Following that detonation, he was the subject of a glowing above-the-fold story in the Arts section of the increasingly reeling New York Times, which has been auditioning for its sale to Rupert Murdoch by profiling right-wing yahoos on its front pages (the Rich story followed by one day a Page 1 below-the-fold unblinking appraisal of Fox News hate-monger Glenn Beck). Seems the hapless Rich is going on the populist offensive, adding a song, "Shuttin' Detroit Down," to his forthcoming album. In the story, which makes mention of Rich's "songwriting gifts"—a phrase begging for definition—we learn, in essence, that Rich doesn't understand what's going on with the bailout. Witness the quoted lyric, "D.C.'s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground." Farmers have been hurting for far longer than the immediate present—if memory serves, the first Farm Aid benefit was held September 22, 1985, back during the "no-trickle-down" Reagan era, and Joe Ely mapped out the plight of farmers vividly in his 2003 song "All That You Need," off his angry, unsettling Streets of Sin album, a record Rich really needs to listen to before he storms the Bastille—but Rich never answers, or is asked, apparently, exactly how the farmers, small businesses, et al. are going to get bailed out if the banks aren't stabilized. All in all, the song sounds to us like it's coming from the right-wing lunatic fringe, and is every bit as misinformed as a Glenn Beck screed. A complex set of circumstances produced this economic meltdown, and reducing it to simplistic, reactionary rhetoric does no one any good. We're all hurting out here. There's plenty of blame to go around and it was years, decades, in the making. If the Times must single out a song for the times, we recommend "Desperate Times," on Thompson Ward's powerhouse Porch Funk album, as being far more relevant to the current situation than anything John Rich can concoct. According to Rich, Merle Haggard gave his nod to "Shuttin' Detroit Down," saying it reminds him of "Okie from Muskogee." "As a songwriter that is officially the highest compliment I've ever been paid," Rich said. Maybe someone should point out to Rich how over the years Merle has insisted "Okie from Muskogee" was intended as a spoof and has repudiated extremists' adoption of the song as a redneck anthem.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024