1970. Bo Diddley walked into the dressing room at the Miami Sportatorium with the ease of a Zen martial arts master, dressed all in black with his thick glasses and his gunslinger black hat. He smiled and got right down to business, pulling out his square Gretsch guitar, he started jamming with the young fresh players brought in by Louise , our friend, concert booker and general music business liason. Charlie and I were in Bo’s band. We had a great time.
In nineteen fifty nine, at Diamond lake in northern Indiana, I was ten years old and my older sister was spinning forty fives with some other fourteen year old girls at our two week summer vacation. The lake side bungalow was small but nice and accomodated my school teacher mother, her mother, my older sister and the young boy who had no father. His mystery always played at the back of his mind. Unless he was playing the drums, then the mind would shut off and he could just play. He walked back in from catching a blue gill on the end of the dock, he didn’t know what to do with it, so just left it on the hook in the water and walked back across the road. A sound grew louder as he neared the music coming from his sister’s dance group. It was drums. Big drums. It was Bo Diddley. The young boy’s brain caught fire.
I could read any kind of difficult percussion music put in front of me, Podemski’s advanced percussion reading was fun, Aileen Trafford was a good and kind drum teacher and also a very good drummer. Her daughter was a drummer about my age. Women were drummers in my eyes as well as guys. I had a chest full of medals for state wide drumming competitions. I was able to sight read extremely difficult snare drum parts while playing to the exacting click and blink of a metronome. I learned what sixty beats a minute felt like, and forty beats where the world would gear down and I would trip over myself rhythmically. My racing mind would witness the phenomenon of shifting time. Part of my mind would think the metronome was wrong, that it was jumping ahead, then slowing down, but I had to remind myself that I was the one who was jumping around in my head, speeding up the input of sensations, trying to make sense of everything all at once. Drumming gave me independence; a learned trait where the body can do a variety of activities while a central core stays calm. Aileen Trafford showed me how to meditate using rhythm. My open and closed drum rudiments were like scales on a piano, only we had to start the rhythm pattern very slowly, then speed up to our fastest controlled tempo then slow back down again to the ultimate slowest tempo. If this was done correctly, the judges awarded the medals. If there was a bit of flair, they wouldn’t acknowledge it. This drumming was stern, anonymous, consistent, exacting. Designed for orchestras and brass bands. There might be a drum clinic on jazz or some other exotic drum techniques but most of it was geared toward teaching world class orchestra percussionists. After all, Elkhart, Indiana was the capitol of orchestral music instrument manufacturing in the world. The Selmer Mark Six saxophone that Charlie was playing, was made on the street where I walked to West Side Junior High school every morning. I heard the testers running scales on the new horns. Mother had asked me when I was younger, when I was putting together organized meticulous scrapbooks of rocket research in the U.S. including the first rocket designer Dr. Goddard, all the way to Werner Von Braun, the transplanted German rocket designer of the dreaded V1 and V2 rockets that decimated Great Britain. Along with stories of American spies, history of the Secret Service. FBI, CIA. Things my father did.
“What musical instrument do you want to play?” she asked me.
I thought about the most popular kid in the fifth grade, Mike. “Drums.”
She tried piano, French horn, but in the end, drums were what I was able to practice every day. I could not improvise like Mike could, “How do you do that? There isn’t any music in front of you!” I asked at my birthday party. The girls were loving him.
“I just play, man.”
I could read music pretty well, but improvising was a great mystery that I decided I had to learn about.
Mother remarried, and I found myself sitting in the foulest swamp in central Florida with mosquitos the size of canaries, and no symphony. I learned to play the blues.
Bo Diddley was trying to get my attention. “Let me play your drums!” He yelled at me over the noise on stage. I got up off my new Slingerland chrome drumset. It was like a Cadillac. Bo sat down and started having fun. The rest of us just kept the groove going. I played a cowbell just to have something to do. There were thousands of kids watching us. Finally Bo got up and came back to his guitar. He suddenly launched into an opera piece from Pagliacci. He could sing that too.