Dedicated to the late Paul Gagne
By Bob Campbell
Every now and then, I take a chance on a drum auction even though I can’t exactly identify the model. In this case, I found a 1920’s Ludwig drum kit on Ebay Canada complete with snare, bass drum, Chinese toms and cymbals. The snare looked to be a Ludwig 4 X 14”, 10-tube lug, brass shell with deluxe hardware (a script “Ludwig” logo stamped into the upper hoop), no badge, Professional/”Timepiece” strainer (the top arm was damaged and a replacement at that), optional top head dampener, 12-strand snappy snare wires, and a dark silver sparkle exterior with what appeared to be the original De Luxe - plated stand. I sent some of the auction pics to Mike Curotto who said, “Hi Bob - The hardware looks like it’s gold plated? I have seen 2 “Silver Stipel” drums in my day...one I own; check the contents page of the latest Drum! Magazine: The History of the Snare Drum. If it’s really silver then you may have something there. Be sure to look closely.” Bun E Carlos, to whom I also sent pics, asked, “Another Silver StipelGold?” The auction for the whole kit ended with no bidders, so I took the risk that this might be a rare Silver Stipelgold and made an offer to the seller for the snare. So you might ask, “What was so interesting…? “
When the drum arrived, I did some careful inspection. It was clear from the outset that this was not a silver Stipelgold snare. Initially this was a bummer, but that did not make it an uninteresting find. The silver-gold sparkle was actually metal flake and extended to about 0.50-0.75 inch from the head collars, i.e., not all the way across the shell. The metal flake was also not present on the outer center bead of the shell. The exposed shell was smooth brass. However, it was indeed an early 1920-30’s Ludwig heavy brass shell. I removed the calf heads and saw that on the inside of the shell were remnants of a white enamel finish. It was a two-piece shell with the bearing edges folded inward to the shell in typical fashion of heavy brass drums of that period, including the Black Beauties and Triumphals. I will often repeat my contention that it is the two-piece shell and the triangular air chamber produced by the folded over bearing edge that gives these drums their amazing sound.
I sent pics around to some esteemed vintage drum experts to help confirm the identification:
Mike Curotto: “I've seen two "Silver Stipel" snare drums, one was a metal shell and one is my wood shell drum. The white interior doesn't make sense though... There would not be a badge on that era drum...Is there a Ludwig engraving on the top rim as a Ludwigold/Stipel model would have had? Be sure to check with Bill Wanser and/or John Aldridge.”
Me: “Mike - no engraving anywhere (except the small script Ludwig logo on the top hoop) - the white interior has me in a quandary…the sparkle is rough to the touch so no lacquer around it…the plot thickens. The construction of the shell seems all Ludwig, the rest has me stumped.”
Bill Wanser: “I am going to take a stab and say it is a standard model snare drum that was the "White shell" option with De Luxe plating option and someone has removed the exterior white paint and added silver "stipel" to the outside of the shell. It is possible that if the "stipel" was removed you would find Ludwig engraved in the shell just to the left of the strainer however, I have not seen a White shell that has been engraved. This white shell option was offered in the 20's to early 30's. This would explain the white interior and would also explain no engraved "Ludwig" anywhere. On wood shell snare drums you often find the wood "Gold" or similar, stamped on the interior of the drum. But you don't see this on metal shell drums.
I don't think it is a "Stipel Gold" or "Ludwigold" snare drum because the "stippling" doesn’t extend to the rim of the drum nor cover the center bead of the drum. There is a nice even line where the heads flesh hoop would come and nothing above. In both the "StipelGold" and" Ludwigold", the finish would have covered the center bead and extended all the way to the rims. Plus, the "stippling" looks too thick and rough. Also, if it were either "StipelGold" or Ludwigold", the interior would have been painted gold. You can find the "White shell" option on page 22 of the 1930 Ludwig catalog with the optional De Luxe (imitation Gold) plated hardware.
The other interesting thing about this drum is the vent hole, which is in the first panel to the left of the throw-off. Although not uncommon to see this, it is not the norm for the era. I do have an early 1920's BB standard with the same vent hole placement.”
Given all of the expert feedback above, I concluded that this was indeed a circa 1930 Ludwig 4 X 14” brass snare with De Luxe/Imitation Gold finished hardware. It probably started off with the white enamel finish, and as that wore down, one of the owners decided to glue some silver-gold sparkle to the outer shell to give it some flash. In my opinion, the sparkle (better described as metal flake) was actually applied with a good adhesive and held up very well over the years, with the exception of the center bead.
However, I was not content to let the story end there. I contacted the seller to try and find the former owner of the drum(s). The seller stated that the drums were originally obtained from the estate of a life-long Canadian drummer who recently passed away in the St. Catharines, Ontario area. On the calfskin batter head, there was faint writing: “Paul Gagne, Dec., 1952.” I did some hunting through the St. Catharines, Ontario obituaries and found a recently deceased Paul Gagne, who was indeed a drummer. Paul Gagne had passed away May 21, 2015 at the age of 94. According to his obituary, “Paul was a veteran of World War II and a member of the Pioneers of the Royal Regiment of Canada. He was a recipient of the 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star, the Defense Medal, C.V.S.M & C clasp. Paul was a member of the Lincoln & Welland Regimental Band. He was a drummer in a dance band and an avid card player who loved to travel.” I had indeed found the owner of the drum! The obituary listed the names of relatives, including Mary-Dawn Roberts (whose mother was a long-time companion of Paul’s) and Joyce Pearce (his niece). I was fortunate enough to find Mary-Dawn’s phone number listed (as she is an artist with a website for her art gallery) and she gave me the number for his niece, Joyce. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with each of them about Paul:
Mary-Dawn: “Paul’s full name was actually Joseph Helaire Jean Paul Gagne. He was a drummer in a dance band and that’s where it’s likely he used the snare drum you have. He was also in the Lincoln and Welland Regimental Band. He did this for a very long time. After he came out of the war and before he met my mother, was when he spent so much time having this dance band. He was a carpenter with the Ontario paper mill. So as far as being a professional, he did not make his living as a musician. The times I’ve dance with him, he had the most amazing sense of rhythm; although that’s not the same as drumming I guess. It was really wonderful to feel that when dancing with him. He was always kind of tapping on something; tapping out the beat to the music. He loved Big Band music and definitely Gene Krupa. Unfortunately, I never got to see him play (drums). I do remember seeing that drum set sitting there and thinking that someone who cares about it should have it. I’m guessing he bought the drums some time after the war, around the 1940’s, when he had some money to afford it. Paul came home before the end of the war because he got an injury to his leg. He defused bombs. They’d go look for them and needed to do defuse them correctly. If you hurried, then bad things happened; people lost limbs and were killed. Paul did a good job because was a very, very thorough person. I think he was the right person to do that kind of a job. I was so happy that his drum got to you; just knowing that some part of him was embraced by someone else and the information passed on – we can only hope for that. I’m happy that a part of Paul’s life recorded. I think Paul would be pleased. He was a wonderful, honorable man, and I miss him dearly.”
Joyce Pearce: “Paul was 10 years older than me. There were 14 children to start with; he had one brother who drowned, a set of twins who died in infancy, another died with 9 surviving, my mother being the only woman in the family. They all played some kind of musical instrument. He was a big but very gentle man and a wonderful person. You always knew Paul was in a room because you could hear his big giant voice. He wasn’t loud and gruff; it’s just that his voice had this resounding timbre to it. When he laughed, it was just this wonderful guffaw laugh. I always knew Paul was in a band, playing weekends, but that wasn’t his main job; he was a carpenter. He just did party bands on the weekend; they did dances playing Big Band music. He just loved Big Band music. When we were kids, his brothers played pianos, harmonicas, and guitars and drums at the house, and we would all sit around and sing. Times were different then. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a radio until I was about 7 or 8yrs old. My Dad got the radio so they could listen to the war when Paul went away to the war. We didn’t have telephones until after the war. We all lived kind of close together and didn’t have cars; we walked to wherever we needed to go. It was a different world than you people live in today. But it was a good life; we had fun. It was through the Depression. Everybody was poor but nobody knew they were poor, because we had good times. But the war was not fun for Paul.
Paul was in the Mortar Squad in the front lines, both firing and defusing bombs. One time, Paul’s commander sent him back to get something and while he was away, a bomb hit right on his position and killed his commander. It was very, very hard for Paul. Since Paul was a carpenter, he also helped built bridges to get the men and tanks over ravines to get the troops through. At the end of the war, Paul came home with several medals. Many people never knew about his part in the war. He wasn’t a braggart type of person.”
In the end, I did not find a rare silver Stipelgold Ludwig snare drum. Indeed, what I received was an even rarer gift, a beautiful circa 1930 brass Ludwig drum that was passionately played by a war hero and kind friend to many. I was also blessed with tales of the past from his loving family. I have tried my best to capture some of his personal exploits here, so that Joseph Helaire Jean Paul Gagne will be remembered. Brave and humble men such as he should never be forgotten. To that end, I will treasure this drum and think of him every time I play it.
Post-script: I’m still deciding whether to restore it back to its original white laminate coating or keep it as is. I’m trying to think of what Paul would have wanted. What would you do? Feel free to drop me an email with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE FROM JOYCE: I have one picture of Paul when he was 19 and just inducted into the Army, about 1939. I also have one when he was 91 or 92 yrs old in his dress uniform for a Legion event. These are attached in his memory.
Many thanks to Bun E Carlos, Mike Curotto and Bill Wanser for their expert assistance. I am sincerely indebted to Mary-Dawn Roberts and Joyce Pearce for sharing their memories of Paul Gagne.