February 17, 2009

Skin Deep

Sadly another tribute entry is called for. Drumming great Louie Bellson passed away on February 14, 2009. He’s always credited as the only legitimate rival to Buddy Rich for the throne of Best Big Band Drummer.

Born Louis Paul Balassoni, it’s safe to say that a couple of experiences in Louie’s early childhood facilitated his legendary career. He spent a bit of time as a child tap dancer, which I’m sure translated into his prowess with his double bass drum set. Also at a young age he was fortunate to study winds and string instruments along with his drumming, which may have contributed to his ability to become a composer and arranger, as well as a drummer and band leader. When Louie won a nationwide Gene Krupa-sponsored drum contest, I think his career path was set.

Louie was a person who was devoted to music as a positive force. One example is the story of his experience in the early 1950’s as the drummer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. When the Ellington band was scheduled to do a tour of the south, Duke asked Louie, who was the sole white musician in the band, if he would mind masquerading as a Haitian.

From our interview conducted in Florida in 1996, the following is a memorable section about touring with Duke:

In 1951 they had the Big Show of 1951, which consisted of Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington’s band. They were the three big stars. Now besides that they had Peg Leg Bates, Timmy Rodgers, Stump and Stumpy, Patterson and Jackson, all these wonderful acts — tap dancing acts, you know. It took us a week to rehearse that whole show, playing with Nat King Cole and Sarah, Duke, and all these acts. So after we finished rehearsing for a week, Duke finally discovered that hey, we’re getting ready to go down to the deep south you know? And in those days, you had segregated audiences. And the whites couldn’t play with the blacks at that time you see. And in those days it was “colored,” you didn’t use the word “blacks.” So now the big problem is, Duke called me in the dressing room and says “what are we going to do? I can’t find a drummer to take your place, because it would be a week’s rehearsal and the guys that can do it, they’re all busy.” So Duke says “you mind being a Haitian?” I said “no, okay, that’s all right.” So we got through it okay. It was a little tense, because the situation was still down there, and the audience, because they told Jack Costanzo with Nat King Cole he couldn’t appear because of the racial thing you know. But some spots it was a little rough you know. But we got through it. I think through Ellington’s peaceful ways and the wonderful attitude that the band had you know, kind of rubbed off on everybody. But still it existed.

Well it’s nice that the music had a part in helping that situation to move along a little faster I guess.

We played a gig in Mississippi and there the townspeople were wonderful, they came to the rescue, where we couldn’t stay in certain hotels in so forth. I mean these people came from wealthy families too. They had Strayhorn and Duke and Clark Terry stay in one house, and Carney and Russell Procope and myself in another house, and all on down the line. Beautiful homes and they fed us. So you know, along with the bad there’s some good too. And these were situations that we got over, we dealt with it. Sometimes it’s almost like a slap in the face but you realize what the situation is and you go straight ahead because you’ve got something to do that’s valued and I think when you do that you realize that none of those things should bother the musicality of something. It’s the fact that whoever’s playing that music doesn’t make a difference, let’s play it and show where the peace and love is.

Louie had early opportunities to hear his own compositions, including the memorable “Skin Deep,” with the Ellington band — not a bad place to premier them.

In the post-big band era, significant numbers of musicians benefited from the fact that Louie was able to do tours and concerts with his own big band. He found it expedient to have a west coast and an east coast contingent, and the recordings of Louie’s band always included top soloists and stellar compositions from Louie himself, and of course enough drum solos to satisfy the most avid percussionists.

In the 50’s, Louie became Pearl Bailey’s music director, then Pearl Bailey’s husband. They enjoyed a significant number of years together, and some time after Pearl’s passing Louie found a second soulmate, Francine. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her and the entire Bellson family at this sad time.

Click on the title, “Skin Deep” and you will be transported to the official Louie Bellson website.

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