May 27, 2013

Ed Shaughnessy: Performing a Rhythmic Service

Ed Shaughnessy, in 1995

It’s human nature to attempt to identify “the best” in every possible category. Buddy Rich was called the world’s fastest drummer. Now there’s actually a well-known contest for the world’s fastest drummer. The “Guinness Book of Records” has a category for the world’s loudest drummer. Both of these records are surely debatable and constantly challenged. One thing we can safely say is the world’s most frequently heard drummer was Ed Shaughnessy. Mr. Shaughnessy, who passed away on Friday, May 24, 2013, spent 29 years behind the drum set with “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson, and in his own estimation that equaled some 5,000 appearances on national television. I can’t imagine that any other drummer was heard as often, and his trademark intro for “The Tonight Show” theme became its own musical signature. It’s no coincidence that he was also one of the best at his profession.
Ed Shaughnessy was born in New Jersey in 1929, and his first experience in music was with piano lessons, which he didn’t embrace. His life was changed in true storybook fashion due to a man who owed money to his father. In my first interview with Ed, he related the story:
MR:    Let me take you back. The story is about your first drum set.
ES:     Oh, my first drum set? Yeah I guess you know the story. My dad, who was a Teamster, he worked on the docks, he had loaned $20 to somebody, and the fellow was up against it, he couldn’t give him the $20, and he said to my dad, “doesn’t your son like music?” Because at the time I was playing piano. I played piano for like three or four years before drums. And he said “oh yeah, my kid, he just loves his music, he loves everything about music.” And he was a mellow guy, my dad. So the guy said “well look, I can’t give you the $20, but I’ve got these two drums, a bass drum and a snare drum with a stand and a little pedal” and I think a beat up old cymbal, and “would you take that in place of the 20 bucks.” And like I said my dad being a mellow dude, he said, “yeah, if you’re broke, my kid will probably have fun with these things.” So we never had a car. He brought them home from New York on the subway that went from New York to New Jersey. And you know I appreciated how he did that, he brought them home and on the bus, from the subway to home. That’s the way you did it in those days. You didn’t think twice about it. I guess they let you on with crazy things like that. And so he, to make a long story short, I’m 14, he brings these old beat up drums in, I mean really beat up, old, like from the 30’s or 20’s or something. And I can’t explain it to you, but something fascinating happened when I opened them up. It took me half a day to set the snare drum up on the stand right I think, and put the pedal on. You know I didn’t know anything about drums.
It didn’t take long before Ed became completely enamored with the drums and in his own words, “began to practice like a madman, four to six hours a day.” His practice paid off and led to his first break in the business:
ES:     Three years later I was on the road playing with professional bands. That’s a true story. George Shearing gave me my first job in New York when I was about 18. I was sitting in with Bud Powell and he played “Cherokee” for 25 minutes, and I stayed with it. And George Shearing said anyone that could play “Cherokee” at that tempo for twenty-five minutes, I’m going to give a gig to. This is just what he said. And his manager came over and said, “Mr. Shearing wants to talk to you.” And he says, “young man, anybody that can play ‘Cherokee’ for 25 minutes with Bud Powell, I’ve got to give a job to.” I thought it was so sweet the way he did it. And he says, “besides, my drummer is a little hung up” he said later. So he gave me two nights.
He continued to pay his dues with Jack Teagarden and Charlie Ventura, and in time he landed a studio job with CBS Television. His involvement in that world eventually led to his gig with “The Tonight Show.”
While Ed’s career blossomed after the big band era, he did get in some significant playing time with the legends of that time. His story about playing with Benny Goodman is classic. Ed was with Benny’s band for a 1950 European tour and fortunately he had been given some information about how to deal with the inevitable encounter with Benny’s irascible personality.
ES:     I liked working with Benny a lot because he was playing great at that time and I got along with Benny, who was hard to get along with, everybody knows that. Most people know that and don’t know what instrument he played. But when I used to sit in with Lionel Hampton’s band, he said to me one night “I hear you’re going with the old man.” I said, “yeah I’m going to go to Europe with Benny.” I was 21. And here’s what he said to me. He said, “now if he gets weird on you, get weirder.” I said, “this is the key?” He said, “this is the key.” He said, “didn’t I get along great with him?” I said, “yeah, you seemed to have a good relationship with him.” He said, “well if he gets a little out, go a little outer.” So when this happened and I was late at a rehearsal, and I walked through the thing and he looked at me and he put the glasses down with the famous ray, and he started in, I said, “Jesus, Benny, are we just here to jerk around or are we going to rehearse?” May God be my judge, that’s what I said. I tried to go as far out as I could. And he said, here’s what he said. He said “the kid’s right. Let’s play.” And he never said a word. And I was over 35, 40 minutes late. And this was Paris, his biggest concert. So you know he was going to chew my thing out real good, and I did a Hamp, and I went out on him. And I’ll tell you, I did it one other time in a lesser way, and he never bothered me. I think he thought the kid is definitely crazy but he’s a nice little drummer, leave him alone. But he picked on everybody else, see. He cut out Roy Eldridge’s solos in certain places because he was getting too much applause. He cut out Zoot Sims’ solos all through Scandinavia because Zoot was more popular than he was. And may God be my judge, this is the truth I’m telling you. You know he was a very strange man. But thank God for Hamp — Hamp straightened me out, just go a little further baby and it worked like a charm.
Ed Shaughnessy, in 1998

Among Ed’s fondest memories is Count Basie telling him that he “fit the band like a glove.” Ed appeared on five Basie LP’s in the 1960’s, an opportunity that occurred for the oddest reason. Ed stated:

ES:     Thank God for Sonny Payne’s marital problems, because when Sonny Payne (his regular drummer) couldn’t come into New York because his wife would throw him in jail, Basie would call me up.
In addition to the thrill of recording with Basie, he also got to witness one of the very few moments of the Count’s temper:
ES:     We come to this studio to make the first album, and we sit down and we had no dividers between any of the band. Basie did not like to record that way. Therefore he set the band up almost like real life. Almost the same as you would on a stage, almost. And we start running the first tune down and play it. Kind of a medium tempo tune, nothing real hot. And I’m playing and filling and doing the stuff that I normally would do. And we stop, and the engineer says over the thing “well, the producer wants to talk to you, Count.” So Count says, “well talk on the thing.” He says, “well do you want to talk over the mics?” Count says “yeah, what is it? Come on, let’s get going.” So the producer leans over the mic, he says, “we think the drums should probably be about half as loud as they are and we think that that would be a lot better for this recording.” And Basie, who very seldom does this, went [screams] “rahhhhhh,” and hit his fist on the piano. And all the band went like [screams] “rahhhhh” I swear to God, including me. It scared the crap out of us. Now after he does this, now he’s Mister Cool and he says “Mr. Shaughnessy’s here because I like the way he plays in a big band. Your job is to get it all down on record.” And he looked at me and he says “play your way.” And that was the last time we got a word about, in five record dates, never a word came from the booth. And you know something? They got it all down okay. I didn’t modify anything. But man, that scared the crap out of all of us. It was like, well, you know he made the point because we were going to make a couple of albums for this company. He made the point that this band is going to play the way it plays. We’re not going to play studio style, where we kind of don’t play or we modify everything. He wants the fire. The main thing is he wants the fire, and you need a certain amount of drumming intensity and energy for that, don’t you? You can’t lighten up and play, let the band play and you play like Mr. Wimpy, it’s going to sound awful, see? But boy he sure took care of it. But I’m telling you he scared the hell out of everybody. And the main thing I remember was the roar, like a lion [quiet roar] and everybody just froze, you know, just like this. Because you know he never did stuff like that. You know this was Mr. Quiet. It was a great experience.
Ed Shaughnessy was one of the first jazz musicians to sense the potential and worth of interacting with high school and college students. He stopped counting his appearances at 600. During the early years of the Jazz Archive I was able to bring Ed to Hamilton, where I witnessed his interaction with high school musicians. He had just the right amount of intensity, inspiring but not intimidating, and he had an answer for young drummers who didn’t feel the necessity of being able to read charts:
MR:    That’s a pretty old fashioned thing, like if I learn to read I’m going to lose my spontaneity.
ES:     Yes or will it hurt my jazz is the old line. I don’t want reading to hurt my jazz. But you’d be surprised, some kids love to catch on to that because they don’t want to have to want to bother. So you know what I say? ‘Cause the example that was given for years was Buddy Rich see. So I would go at clinics “well Buddy Rich doesn’t read, why should I read?” And my rejoinder is: “do you think you’re as talented as Buddy Rich? If you are, you shouldn’t be here you should be out earning like he did, at the age of four years of age.” A thousand dollars a week in 1921. You think you’re that talented? The second highest paid child star in the world? Do you think that you’re as talented as he was? He could get by without reading because he had way more talent than most of us. And I of course say “most of us” because I mean it. Natural gift. He was the second highest paid child star to Shirley Temple I think.
Ed not only affected youthful musicians, he stayed hip and current himself, embracing jazz/rock and African and Indian drum styles in his playing. And for all his technique and solo ability, he kept in mind a phrase that he attributed to the late, great bassist Milt Hinton: “the players in the rhythm section are providing a rhythmic service, and don’t ever forget it.”
You can check out Ed’s take on the meaning of swing in a previous blog. You may also read the full transcripts of Ed Shaughnessy archived at Hamilton College. Part I was conducted on 9/1/95 in Los Angeles; and Part II was conducted at Hamilton on 4/25/98.

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