What’s That Sound?: Distant Drummers and their American Roots

Drummer Source Video: JaNae Contag & Ryan Black | GIF by: Jordan Schulman

One of the best music-related things that happened to me over the pandemic is that after decades of being a fan of heavy rock, I finally discovered the dark joys of Black Sabbath.

I can’t say I’m a metal fan, but I do dig the late-60s/early-70s hard rock that was its direct inspiration. Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and now, Black Sabbath. I don’t know what my malfunction was with Sabbath, maybe it was Ozzy’s voice that was bugging me, or perhaps the lyrics. Whatever it was, it’s my sin and I will repent. I credit my conversion to a short email from a music friend who asked me out of the blue if I had ever noticed just how much the 1970 Black Sabbath debut album was rooted in the blues. I guess giving my ear something to do other than focus on what Ozzy was up to did the trick; it got good to me and I quickly started immersing myself in the band’s early catalog. My evolution was fast; not only did I hear the blues influence that I’d never before associated with the band, but I heard everything that Sabbath had to offer. The curtain of doom with light piercing through here and there, the long instrumental intro sections that shift into entirely different feels for the body of the song, and the endless stream of heavy riffs coming from Tony Iommi doubled by Geezer’s ominous bass. But what really took me by storm was the powerful, inventive drumming of Bill Ward. And I had this thought: fit another Brit into the top drawer of early rock drummers.

Music is personal and taste is subjective, and nothing against Americans, Canadians named Neil or anyone else, but almost all of my favorite drummers from that early, groundbreaking era in rock are British, to the point where I’ve got to ask, “what was in the water in post-war England?”

I mean, John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Mitch Mitchell. Bill Bruford, Ginger Baker, Phil Collins, Carl Palmer. Let’s put aside Ringo and Charlie for a second and look at this set of explosive, expressive, monster rock drummers that went way beyond keeping the beat and completely transformed the whole idea of what drums were for and could do in rock music. Add Bill Ward to the heap too — it’s uncanny how so many of the leading rock drummers are from the UK during that first peak era in rock. It’s beyond a coincidence. There’s definitely something going on here.

Not that there weren’t amazing rock records being made in the US during those same years when rock underwent its initial growth spurt (say, 1965-1972), but a good amount of them were being made with session drummers like Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew (who backed the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel) or the Nashville or New York session players, and besides, the early, more progressive American rock bands like Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Velvet Underground, et. al. were perhaps less drum-forward than their British counterparts. With a few notable exceptions, the heaviest, most creative, drum-driven music was coming from England. Even Jimi Hendrix, the American guitar genius, went to London to be paired with Mitch Mitchell to create his first three explosive, drum-heavy albums with the Experience. Something indeed was in the water and yes, it originally came from across the pond in the form of Black American music — blues, R&B, and for drummers especially, jazz.

“Good Times, Bad Times” (Led Zeppelin)

On the spectrum of politeness, we usually don’t think to put jazz and hard rock very close to each other, so it might not be obvious that John Bohnam, the loudest, heaviest, most forceful drummer that rock ever spawned, was heavily influenced by jazz drummers, namely Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Elvin Jones. Same is true of Mitch Mitchell, who was an outspoken jazz snob. Keith Moon’s entire output behind the drum kit sounds like one long Gene Krupa solo. Bill Bruford and Ginger Baker made no secret of their jazz influences, both going on to put out their own jazz albums after their heavy rock heyday.

Most knowledgeable rock fans know that the bands of the British Invasion of the 1960s were all obsessed with American music, either blues, R&B, American soul music, or all of the above. The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Fleetwood Mac were all formed by Brits who wanted nothing more than to emulate American bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta all way up to Chicago, at least in their early years. The Who, the Kinks, and the Beatles, were all into early R&B, and especially the soul music coming out of Detroit, that was pressed on vinyl in England as Tamla, but what American teenagers knew as Motown. Chuck Berry and all early American rock and roll records were highly coveted in the UK, and even proto-surf rock instrumentalists like the Ventures, and guitarists Dick Dale and Duane Eddy made a big impression on future guitar heroes coming out of England. George Harrison gained entry into what would become the Beatles by impressing John and Paul with his rendition of “Rumble” by Link Wray. The 50s and 60s folk revival movement in the US that eventually gave us Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Phil Ochs, and the Byrds was mirrored in the UK by the famous skiffle craze that brought forth the energetic Beatles, Kinks, and the Who, among other British Invasion bands, as well as a rich, authentic British folk movement that would continue to develop well into the 70s.

Look Back in Anger, original trailer (1959)

What has been left to history, however, is the “Trad Jazz boom” that swept post-war England. Unlike in the US, jazz music played a significant role in the rise of youth culture in Europe, specifically in Britain and France. After the war years of rationed privation and then post-war austerity, the expansion of the British economy in the 1950s proved fertile for a number of youth movements and countercultures — coffee bars, beatniks, Teddy Boys, skiffle, “Angry Young Men,” as well as satire, pop art, left-wing politics, and the growing affinity of Britain’s youth to the Caribbean culture of Britain’s migrant black community. All of this occurred against the backdrop of a hard-swinging jazz movement already afoot, branching out, and growing in post-war Britain.

From 1937-1942, as part of his commissioned work for the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax drove around the hinterlands of America seeking out and recording early American “people’s music” of all kinds, a landmark historical event of the 20th Century that helped to kick off a revivalist jazz movement in America. What started out as a parallel trend among 1940s British musicians venerating such American jazz pioneers as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington, gradually morphed into Trad Jazz, a unique, British offshoot of the genre that drew from both African-American sources and its own European traditions and British identity. Trad Jazz was the first non-Black offshoot of jazz, and the beginning of a trend that eventually included similar scenes in France, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia.

The Trad Jazz movement at its height in 1950s Britain reflected the tension between its various factions, musical, socio-economic, and racial, culminating in what has been described as a jazz riot at the 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival. In a scene echoed later in nearby Brighton with the clash between mods and rockers (see Quadrophenia), what was coined in the Observer newspaper the “coffeehouse cult” descended on the village within the New Forest national park in coastal Hampshire. Lord Montgau upon whose mansion grounds the festival was hosted, excitedly said he’d never seen 1,000 seats fill up so quickly. Some accounts were that the violence began as a faceoff between the dixieland fans vs, the bebop fans. Some say it had nothing to do with music, that it was the greaser Teddy Boys who just wanted a punch-up. All of this action occurred against the backdrop of jazz music, something that we may have trouble imagining through an American lens given our own 50s rock and roll iconography. But in England, the pioneers of rock that would comprise the British invasion were coming of age in a local music scene thoroughly steeped in jazz, something that had a profound impact, especially on the drummers.

“Fire” (Jimi Hendrix) studio outtakes featuring Mitch Mitchell

Long before he was introduced to Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell grew up as a child actor in the London suburb of Ealing and then learned music by working at Jim Marshall’s Drum Shop (Marshall of Marshall Amps fame). Mitchell’s main musical obsession was Elvin Jones, the hard-hitting master of jazz polyrhythms who played with Coltrane on all of his most emblematic works, from My Favorite Things through Giant Steps to A Love Supreme. Mitchell’s attachment to and internalizing of the drumming of Elvin Jones made him the perfect choice for the drummer in the Experience; Mitch Mitchell was to Jimi Hendrix what Jones was to Coltrane, the perfect foil who balanced Jimi’s superhuman presence and unbelievable musicality with his own rhythmic conception, inventiveness, and explosive power. That’s asking a lot from a drummer, especially at such an early point in rock’s timeline.

“Pure and Easy” (The Who) live at the Young Vic (1971)

Keith Moon’s role as foil and dynamo in the titanic Who was equally as vital to that band, if not more so. A dervish of constant, churning energy and perpetual improvisation (it’s hard to find two measures in a row where he provides anything close to a simple backbeat), Moon soon figured out that the regular placement of tom-toms in a row across the kit wouldn’t work. Flanking himself with columns of toms on both sides proved to be the trick, allowing him to, in the words of John Entwhistle, “propel himself forward like a skier as he played.” Musically, despite his abiding love of surf music and the Beach Boys (whom he once said he’d leave his band and join, given the invitation), to really understand the drumming of Keith Moon, listen to Gene Krupa. Krupa, himself a pioneer and a major figure of the swing era in jazz used manic propulsion as his signature and his drumming, like Moon’s, was a torrent of constant energy (although Moon played in “straight” time and not swing). Keith Moon is such a paragon of rock drumming that it’s not obvious how deeply rooted his style is in jazz, but just check out Krupa here playing his signature tune live in 1938 with the Benny Goodman Big Band:

“Sing, Sing, Sing” (Bennie Goodman Big Band featuring Gene Krupa)

Ironically, Bill Ward is one of the British drummers who played actual jazz swing grooves in the context of heavy rock on Black Sabbath records. “Wasp,” the intro section of “Behind the Wall of Sleep” from the debut plays like an amped-up jazz waltz, and “Wicked World” sounds like a Jo Jones sample off of an early Count Basie album. Born in 1948 and growing up in the bombed-out industrial town of Aston near Birmingham (the Nazis knew they were manufacturing war supplies there), Ward heard the music his parents loved, mostly “GI music” — American big band and swing bands. He talks about being influenced as a child by the records of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller that his parents played in their home, but also that he was attracted to music of all kinds like a moth to a flame. Later, Ward and Ozzy (also from Aston) got heavily into rock and roll and the Beatles, but in the beginning, it was American big band jazz that formed Bill Ward’s musical DNA. Listen to the jazz drums on “Wicked World” from the Black Sabbath debut:

“Wicked World” (Black Sabbath)

It’s not surprising to learn that Phil Collins grew up with a similar attraction to music with a good ear, but also a passion for drum rudiments (the mundane but fundamental set of exercises given to every aspiring drum student). What may be less obvious is that Collins was deeply influenced by big band drummer Buddy Rich, who by example helped steer the young drummer away from his early double bass drum setup and toward a versatile reliance on the hi-hat. ELP’s Carl Palmer also idolized Buddy Rich. It’s no shocker to learn that Ginger Baker was deeply influenced by Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and “Philly” Joe Jones. Bill Bruford cites Roach, Blakey, and Joe Morello of the Dave Brubeck Quartet as influences. With all of this inventive, aggressive jazz drumming in their blood, it’s no wonder that the most progressive, creative, and explosive drum virtuosos of rock’s golden age emerged from the UK, at least at the beginning. 

It makes sense that “heavy rock” and progressive rock came out of England, the two rock genres that called on drummers to do so much more than keep great time, provide a “good beat,” and maintain a solid, infectious groove, which was much more the purview of American music of that particular time in rock’s development. The fact that those qualities perfectly describe Ringo Starr doesn’t negate anything — it is a testament to Ringo’s own musical influences, which were more limited. Skiffle, American soul and R&B, and the early rock and roll were formative, but not jazz (Ringo didn’t get into drumming until his later teen years, and did not grow up immersed in music like his British drummer peers). Earl Palmer from Little Richard’s band was a much bigger influence on Ringo than Gene Krupa, Max Roach, or anyone from the jazz world. A lot of Ringo’s early work with the Beatles fits into the early rock and roll template but with an even heavier kick (the loudest bass drum in rock, audible even over all of the screaming at the peak of Beatlemania).

And my two favorite American rock drummers, Richie Hayward of Little Feat and Levon Helm of The Band, were not products of youthful jazz obsessions either, and therefore embody a different sort of virtuosity. Hayward, a total master, one of my personal favorites and a virtuoso of and polyrhythms and “pocket” (how rushing or delaying the snare or kick against the steady time of the hi-hat or ride creates different grooves) doesn’t cite a single jazz musician in this Modern Drummer interview where he is grilled on how he got into drumming (his teacher showed him how to set up the drums and a few basic patterns), and his influences (mostly blues, Zappa, and New Orleans funk). Levon, one of the most influential drummers in rock, and one who played all through its golden age was influenced by blues, country, bluegrass, and early R&B. But like his British counterpart, Ringo Starr, Levon was a genius of groove, simplicity, and soul. They both had styles that served the song and not the spotlight. Incredible virtuosos of that most elusive aspect of rhythm, great “feel,” plus an ability to lock in with the band, and provide gravitas and emotion (it’s said of Levon Helm that he’s the only drummer that could make you cry).

The last major rock drummer of the era I have not mentioned is Charlie Watts, also a Brit and maybe the most jazz-obsessed drummer of them all (he leads his own jazz big band), but yet is the rock prototype of the “pocket” player. A true hero of rock whose superpower is taste, Charlie gets sweaty with arguably the best band in rock, but he never overplays. Maybe his subtlety can be attributed to his first jazz obsession as a kid, the minimalist “Walkin’ Shoes” by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring the clever, suave brush drumming of Chico Hamilton:

“Walkin’ Shoes” (Gerry Mulligan Quartet)

As a teenager in London, Charlie was on track to be a graphic designer. He idolized the jazz musicians in Downbeat magazine almost as much for their sharp clothes as their music. Charlie was sophisticated, well-dressed, and urbane — it makes sense that his sense of refinement would carry over into his drumming. Charlie’s solid beats coupled with Keith’s rhythm-based musicality would lock together to form Stones grooves that are case studies in the role of “pocket” in rock music. There’s probably no one more knowledgeable of jazz drumming in rock, so how did Charlie’s jazz background translate into such a minimalist, groove-oriented style?

It’s not my intention here to make grand pronouncements, exclude any individuals or entire continents — I’m not trying to make an airtight case. Jazz does play a role in American rock music too. I’m right now listening to the Allman Brothers’ “Stormy Monday” from their Live at the Fillmore album. Bands like Chicago, Spirit, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears are all products of a jazz influence, as were the Byrds for that matter (see “Eight Miles High,” “I See You” from the same album, and Crosby’s infamous “Triad,” which all display an overt interest in jazz). I know that reflexive need to form a rebuttal when I read any sort of “think-piece.” So, I join you in asking, what about Charlie Watts?”

Charles Robert Watts, born in 1941 was 14 years old in 1955 when rock and roll started taking over. Hits by Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”), and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”) all featured drummers that made the young jazz fan take notice (Ebby Hardy played on the Chuck Berry song and Earl Palmer was the drummer on the other two). By the time he was convinced to leave Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated to join the Rolling Stones, a band made in the image of Chicago blues label, Chess Records and Chuck Berry, Charlie Watts was already deep into the style (it was actually Fred Below, who played on most of Chuck Berry’s hits on Chess that was so influential on Charlie that in 2017 he declared, “I owe my living to Fred Below”). In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards says that when Charlie came into the band, he still sounded like too much of a jazzer, so he and Brian made Watts study the laid-back shuffle of Jimmy Reed and his drummer, Earl Phillips who together fleshed out an understated concept of “pulse” that would complete Charlie’s knowledge of the blues and how it differed from his beloved jazz. So unlike Ringo or Mick Fleetwood, Charlie Watts did have a strong jazz background, but it was bred out of him by his bandmates. Here’s a sample of the Jimmy Reed bug that infected the Rolling Stones at their inception:

“Bright Lights, Big City” (Jimmy Reed)

Just my opinion, but in that narrow late-60s/early 70s window where rock music was in its steep ascendancy, it was the British rock drummers that led the way. This is not to denigrate American drummers in any way, in fact, I write this as a tribute to those great American originals, the brilliant drummers of jazz, soul, blues, and R&B that inspired these “monsters of rock,” a lot of them unrecognized and even uncredited.

Clyde Stubblefield, John “Jabo” Starks, and to a lesser extent, Clayton Fillyau, and Melvin Parker were the pioneers of funk that heard and translated James Brown’s insane sense of pocket in his vocals into a whole new genre of soul music. The James Brown influence is huge in John Bonham’s drumming — that funky subdivision of the beat and the insidious sense of pocket is the secret sauce that balances the thunder with grace and is the key to his power as a drummer. The influence of that early period of funk is pervasive in rock music. A huge debt is owed across the board to the original funky drummer, Clyde Stubblefield and the other funk pioneers (can you imagine a musical world without the primary element of James Brown’s music?), including in the drumming of John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Mitch Mitchell, and the other monster drummers of rock.

We know the names of jazz drummers Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, and Max Roach because they were famous bandleaders and we know a lot of others, Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones, because they featured so heavily in their ensembles and were credited on album covers, often on the front of the jacket. The names of jazz musicians were publicized in annual Downbeat polls and became known to fans and the public at large, such was the nature of jazz in its peak years. Not true in soul music, which was usually performed and recorded by faceless ensembles of session musicians — Bennie Benjamin, Pistol Allen, and Uriel Jones of the Funk Brothers (Motown), Roger Hawkins of the Swampers (Muscle Shoals house band), Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew (hired by Phil Spector and other LA producers), Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters (who were the house band for a lot of soul and early funk records produced in New Orleans), and Al Jackson of Booker T. & the MGs (the house band at Stax records) — all virtually unknown, but responsible for the “beat music” that was so hugely influential on the big-name drummers of rock, along with Earl Palmer, Ebby Hardy, Fred Below, Earl Phillips, and all of the American jazz musicians already mentioned, as well as countless others.

Nearly every one of the drummers that influenced these white rock musicians was black, which is not surprising given the circumstances of how rock music developed. While many of these players were unrecognized in their careers, we can bring them notoriety now. In fact, it’s one of the virtues of a historical approach to rock music appreciation, to dig out these primary sources of funk, soul, R&B, and jazz, and to make their names known at last. Letting some of that adoration we like to heap onto John Bonham, Keith Moon, and our other rock heroes get spread around to the deserving musicians that influenced them is part of the fun of digging in and learning more about the music we love. We all know that there was an ample amount of systemic racism built into the music business and how it functioned through these golden eras (some of it persists today). Many of the greatest creators in music were exploited, underpaid, and certainly unrecognized, almost always because they lacked the station and power to ensure that they would even be credited, let alone fairly compensated. We can undo part of that original injustice just by saying their names and recognizing their contribution in the records they made and in the echoes of their brilliance that can be heard in the music that followed. It’s not possible to find and name all of rock’s ancestors but it’s fun to try and there’s great reward in the search.

Stanton Moore on John Bonham’s deepest influences:

Riot at the 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival:

Keith Moon, the Ultimate Rock Disaster Epic:

Henry Rollins and others muse about the jazz influence on Bill Ward:

Ginger Baker’s Favorite Drummers:

Richie Hayward, The Modern Drummer Interview:

The Drummers of James Brown: