By Bob Campbell, Michael Welch, Elda Nichols, Bret Nichols, and Steve Grier
There are many unsung heroes in our drum history that have unfortunately received little attention. One so unequivocally deserving of recognition is the drummer/musician, Tommy Thomas. Until I bumped into a couple of Tommy’s drums exhibited at Steve Grier’s Discount Music Center in Orlando, Florida, I had admittedly no knowledge of Tommy Thomas. I spoke to Steve Grier about the drums, as they appeared to be an engraved Black Beauty and a Super-Sensitive in great condition. Steve mentioned that Tommy Thomas gave them to him. I said, “Who was Tommy Thomas?” He seemed surprised that I had never heard of Tommy. We talked for while and I began to realize how amazing Tommy was. The story was much more than just two vintage drums; it was about preserving the knowledge of a drummer who gave so much and was loved by so many. Steve then referred me to Michael Welch (custodian of tommythomaspercussionlibrary.com) and Bret and Edna Nichols, who truly knew much more about Tommy and helped fill in the historical gaps. So this story began with visions of a late 1920s – early 1930s Ludwig engraved Black Beauty Super-Ludwig and Ludwig Super-Sensitive, but developed into a detailed inquiry about the incredible man behind those drums, Tommy Thomas.
(Courtesy of Elda Nichols)
Damon P. Tommy Thomas, known as ‘Tommy” to all his friends, was born in 1901 in Braceville, Illinois, a small town just south of Joliet. His brother happened to be a drummer. At age 3, it seemed that Tommy was also destined to be a drummer. According to Tommy (excerpts from a filmed interview circa 1990), he would beat on his brother’s drums while he was away. His brother caught on and hid the drumsticks from him. That didn’t stop Tommy. He just got some wooden spoons and starting playing with those, until eventually the head broke. Tommy said, “He hid the sticks from me, but after I punctured a hole in the head of his snare, he gave me back the sticks!” After this incident, his family purchased Tommy his own drum, where he took it around to various churches and town meetings. At around age 5 or 6, he was asked to join in a town parade, where he proudly marched and played his heart out. Tommy’s drumming career had officially begun.
At age 15, Tommy was needed to help the family make ends meet and went to work in an Illinois coal mine. This was not without risk as Tommy’s father was unfortunately killed working in the same coal mine. Tommy said he would pass the time by “…taking those long spikes they used to shore up the housing in the mines, and during our lunch period, I’d play on the miners’ helmets and lunch pails.” Around this time, his mother surprised him with a unique gift, a xylophone. Tommy said, “I knew she needed money for other things but she realized how much I loved music. So I taught myself to play it.”
Tommy waited until he was 20 years old to receive his first formal drum lesson – from Bert Winans of Peoria, Illinois, who also later gave lessons to Louis Bellson. His skills improved on both drums and xylophone. Word soon got around about his talent. Tommy’s big break came when Earl Hoffman and his Dixieland Jazz Band came to Thayer, Illinois to play at a dance. Tommy’s friends told Hoffman about this great drummer, so Hoffman invited him to an audition. So Tommy set up his xylophone and played “Home Again Blues.” Tommy remembered the audition fondly, saying “The guys in the band flipped! Hoffman hired me for his second band, but it wasn’t long before I was playing in his regular band!” Tommy remembered Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer sitting in with the band on the tour.
Tommy’s music career continued to take off. He soon landed the drum chair in the house band at Chicago’s renowned Capitol Theater. From there, Tommy played in various nightclubs and other theaters in Chicago, where jazz was really hopping. Tommy also taught himself how to tap dance, much like other Vaudeville drummers had done. According to Tommy, most of the early drummers were tap dancers. He even had a short stint on Broadway as a tap dancer and drummer in shows starring Eddie Cantor, George “Georgie” Jessel, and the comedy duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
One of Tommy’s fond memories was playing in an orchestra for Ginger Rogers, who at the time was “merely a Charleston dancer.” He also recalled playing in the Ted Weems Orchestra, where Perry Como first gained national exposure. But some of Tommy’s greatest memories were yet to come…
In 1937, Tommy collaborated with Ray Bauduc and Sam Rowland to produce the Dixieland Drum book for the WFL Company. At the time, Bauduc reportedly said, “Tommy is a great drummer, percussionist, musician and teacher. He also understands all styles of drumming. He is my best friend, and has helped me so much in my playing.” Tommy also wrote the “Percussion Technique: The Tympani Book V” which was compiled and edited by Sam Rowland. In 1941, Tommy was given the Calvert Gold Drum Award, “In recognition of his talent and service to the world of drummers.”
Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was a Chicago-based morning comedic variety show that ran on the NBC Blue Network (later ABC) radio. Little did Tommy know, but he would be asked to take the drum chair for this popular show in 1944; a gig that would last over 20 years and span into the early days of television. The number of famous guests on the show were countless over the years but included the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis. Several videos of these shows can fortunately be found on YouTube and the WWW archives of the Don McNeill Breakfast Show. They are indeed well worth watching. In one video circa 1948, you can see Tommy tapping quietly on his thigh while Don is talking. Always thinking drums!
Tommy’s life was indeed a storybook of famous acquaintances, interesting antics and great laughs. He described Louie Bellson as having given drumming a shot of adrenaline. Some years ago, Tommy said, “Drummers today are great musicians. Louie was one of the forerunners. Today, he is the best combination of musician and percussionist in the world. He plays with symphonies or jazz groups with equal proficiency and composes every kind of music. Louie used to come to the State Lake Theatre, in Chicago, where I was the house drummer. He was about 15 then. I’d see this kid every week moving all over the theatre watching me. I began to refer to him as ‘Cricket’ because he jumped around so much. One day, he got right up close and leaned over the railing and said, ‘Gee Mr. Thomas, I don’t think you read music!’ I explained that you had to read music. But I said you have to be an inventor as a player. All the things he heard were strictly me. I said, ‘you don’t ever read music when you’re an inventor of music because music will get in your way’, he said. Said Bellson later; “Great people like Tommy Thomas paved the way for drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Cozy Cole, Joe Jones and myself. Even today he is still expressing his talent and passing it on to others. Tommy is a Hall of Famer. I love him and know that we are all lucky in this world to have a Tommy Thomas among us.“ In a 1998 Modern Drummer interview by Rick Mattingly, Louis Bellson also said, “Those guys who played in the vaudeville theaters used to come up with all kinds of sounds and gimmicks. Tommy Thomas showed me how to lay a tambourine on the floor and ease my foot in so that my toes were under the jingles in the front and my heel was on top in the back, and you could rock it back and forth and play tambourine with your foot. Or I could lay two tambourines on my bass drum pedals and play two bass drums and two tambourines at the same time.”
When the Don McNeill Breakfast show ended, Tommy stated in the Chicago Daily Herald that, “Those 20 years are filled with wonderful memories which I’ll never forget…. One of the highlights of my life was in 1961 when I played and was broadcast live from the aircraft carrier Enterprise in the middle of the Mediterranean. While on board, I was made an honorary member of the crew.” In 1965, Tommy told the Daily Herald, “I’m going to take things a little slower and sort of drift into retirement”. Tommy wound up teaching percussion in various locations over the subsequent years: the Midwest Conservatory and Frank’s Drum Shop, in Chicago; Tennessee Tech University, Cookeville, Tennessee; Larrie Londin’s D.O.G Percussion Drum Shop, Nashville; and in Florida, at Rollins College, Winter Park; Orlando Junior College, Drum World and the Music Mart, in Orlando, as well as giving many clinics at schools and universities. When asked his opinion of the differences in early drummers’ techniques and today’s drummers, Tommy stated, “The early drummers were just drummers, not allowed to play too much drums. They were time beaters. Nothing like today. The guy who broke the ice to change things was Gene Krupa. He changed the trend and thought of drumming from night to day. Drummers suddenly realized they had to really become drummers.”
As a percussionist teacher for many years, Tommy had some strong pointers for students, saying: “A percussion teacher should have a background of more than one kind of drumming. I’d stay away from a teacher who has a good knowledge of music, but is one–slotted and whose experience in playing is nil. There is also the percussion teacher who just teaches from a percussion book, and the person who wrote the book doesn’t know any more about correct playing than the teacher. Some teachers push reading music. I say music can’t walk or talk—in fact, music is a big dummy, because it is only ink and paper. To me, playing is more important than reading music. What good is music if you play it wrong or badly? I recommend you learn to play correctly and learn to read music. Then, single, double and triple check your percussion teacher. My advice is to try and find a teacher with a large spread of experience in all phases of music. Count his experience from the ‘farms hayloft’ to the symphony orchestra and everything in between. When you’ve found such a teacher, you’ve got it all wrapped up!” As to practice: “I recommend a student, on any instrument, if he enjoys the practice and has the time, to throw away the clock! Today’s schools offer instruction in marching, concert, orchestra and jazz groups. This is great experience for the students. Then, if he studies rudiments from a good teacher, yes, indeed, it will pay off.” One of Tommy’s laments is that drummers today just don’t get the kind of experience that drummers in the Big Band Era received. “They just don’t have the opportunity to go on the road and learn musicianship from A to Z.”
Tommy’s pep and vitality has been the envy of many younger men. He credits his strong constitution with helping to pull him through a serious accident in 1979. While riding his bike on the busiest state road in Central Florida, he was hit by a car, suffering multiple injuries. A short time later, he had another go at a car while on his bike. “ I was even on the bike path!” he said with a sigh. Unfortunately, in 1995, Tommy Thomas passed away, leaving behind an immense legacy of drumming, teaching and contagious humor behind.”
Memories from friends of Tommy Thomas:
“My first memory of Tommy Thomas was going to take some drum lessons from him. I was 18 or so (around 1966). The best I can recall, he had been recommended by Bobby Caldwell (Bobby co-founded the rock bands ‘Captain Beyond’ [with Rod Evans] and ‘Armageddon’ [with Keith Reif] in the early 1970’s, and also played with Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton). I was really impressed with Bobby Caldwell’s drumming so I figured Tommy must be a pretty good teacher (and he was!)! About 4 years later, I opened a shop called Drum World in Orlando. One day, Tommy showed up at the shop and I said, “Whoa, Tommy Thomas, my old teacher!” We started talking and hit it off. A year later (1972), I bought out Discount Music from a friend and Tommy started teaching there. We started spending more time together and became good buddies. Everybody loved Tommy. There he also became friends with Mike Welch. Tommy later moved to Tennessee. Before then, he gave me two beautiful Ludwig snare drums. It was like, “Hey, here are a couple of snares that I’ve had, and I want you to have them. I value our friendship.” What a wonderful gift from a dear friend. I put the Ludwig engraved Black Beauty in a case and put the other Nickel-plated drum on top. They’ve been there on display ever since. I knew these drums were vintage and beautiful drums but I was never a big vintage guy. So I learned more about them from other vintage drum players who came into the store and they would tell me stuff about them.”
“Well, I’m 66 years old now. So around 1970 when I was 16, I quit school to become a professional musician. Way back then, you could really make a living at it. I played for about 10 years and then decided to go back to school to get a degree in music and all that. During that time, I met Tommy Thomas. I heard about Tommy in Orlando from this friend of mine who still lives here, drummer Bobby Caldwell. Anyway, I heard that Bobby was taking lessons with this guy, Tommy Thomas. Bobby was, and probably still is, one of the finest drummers around. So I got Tommy’s phone number, and I arranged for a lesson.
At the time, Tommy was in his 70’s (he was born in 1901). The first time I met him, Tommy would gave me a big packet of drum lesson material that he had personally written - a lot of stuff! My first impression of meeting him was in his carport. So in his garage, he had this printing machine (mimeograph?), which made carbon copies. He was printing all his materials by hand for his students and making copies this way.
Being a young guy (21 or 22), I had no idea what a genius this guy was at the time. None of us did. Tommy mentioned he played with so many great musicians, like Bix Beiderbecke (1903 – 1931; American jazz cornetist, pianist and composer). Sadly, I had no idea who he was. He mentioned knowing so many famous drummers in our talks: Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich – those drummers I knew! There were other names I’d never heard of:
Roy Knapp (1891 - 1979; teacher to Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, Bobby Christian, Louis Bellson, and Baby Dodds) or
Bobby Christian (1911 - 1991; studio band drummer for Warner Bros., MGM, Universal and Republic studios, NBC Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and Percy Faith Orchestra, etc.) or
Ray Bauduc (1906 – 1988; New Orleans-born drummer for Bob Crosby Orchestra, Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, etc.), or
Ray McKinley (1910 – 1995; drummer, singer and bandleader who played for the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Will Bradley, etc.)
There were so many others he named. I wish now I knew then how important these people were. So that was my introduction to Tommy. We remained friends for many years. He was sort of a teacher and a mentor until he moved out of Orlando around 1984. But we kept in touch even when he was in Tennessee, where he passed away in 1995. We kept in contact through the mail. I talked to him on the phone a few times. There was a big event in N.Y. at the World Trade Center honoring Louis Bellson. I think it was probably 1992 or 1993. I told the organizer, Jerry Ricci, ‘Well, you gotta have Tommy!’ They asked, ‘Well, who is Tommy?’ I told them all about Tommy but he wouldn’t fly any more. So they sent a driver down to Tennessee to drive Tommy up to that event in N.Y. It seemed only appropriate that he be there. It was a great surprise for Louis that he was there. Steve Gadd, Butch Miles and Les DeMerle played.
You see, Tommy knew everyone who was somebody in the business. All of the players: Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Davey Tough, and everybody that I mentioned before; all of those people knew who Tommy was. All of the manufacturers knew Tommy. Tommy is mentioned in the 1933 Ludwig catalog, and notably in the 1937 WFL catalog for using the new Ludwig Speed King pedal. Tommy had an endorsement with Zildjian, Gretsch and also later with Slingerland. Tommy was also best of friends with William F. Ludwig, Sr. I think that’s why he (WFL) gave Tommy those two beautiful Ludwig drums, i.e., the 6.5 X 14”” engraved Ludwig Black Beauty and 5 X 14” Super-Sensitive.
So this all took place in Chicago. Tommy started playing, went on the road, probably around 1920. So he traveled on the road for 10 years. His career, what he did, was he was playing all of those vaudeville theaters all across the country in the United States. Tommy played all those shows with unknown people at the time like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby - all those people. When he got to Chicago around late 1920s and early 30s, he started working the theatres. He met William F. Ludwig. He started working those big theatres in Chicago. Everybody was in Chicago. He was in a band with Benny Goodman at the time before Benny Goodman had his group. He was in these pretty big, well-known groups. During the ‘30s, he was going over to Louis Armstrong’s house and playing on Sunday jam sessions, doing all that stuff. Going out to the clubs. Probably in the late 30s/early 40s, he taught himself how to read and how to write music, how to do all that stuff. He became a staff musician for the ABC Broadcasting in Chicago. He became a staff musician; he played the drum set. Then war broke out. He went and he did 26 months in the Coast Guard. When he came out, he went back to ABC and then went with the Don McNeil Breakfast Show. He was on the Don McNeil show for over 20 years.
Here is my opinion why so few people know about Tommy. Tommy got married. Tommy was a family man as opposed to other famous drummers. All those other guys were out traveling on the road, making names for themselves. Tommy was basically a family man and he’d already been on the road. He did all of his playing right there in Chicago. He didn’t go anywhere, except with the McNeil show, which traveled all over the world. But, as I said, all of the manufacturers, all of the drummers, they all knew who he was. He was even writing for Downbeat and Metronome magazines. He had offers. He turned them down. He turned down an offer with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He turned down an offer when Gene Krupa got sick. He turned down an offer to go with Benny Goodman. He was friends with Benny. He turned down the offers to go with all those bands because he had a regular gig and he was making really good money, doing what he loved to do. He didn’t have to travel or go anywhere.”
The Tommy Thomas percussion library (http://www.tommythomaspercussionlibrary.com/)
“The library was all of Tommy’s papers and pictures that he left. He was writing drum-set materials. Some of the stuff goes back to the 20s. He was so far ahead this time. He was writing this stuff, talking about permutation, all of these traveling beats. He was doing this stuff in the 20s. Everything he did, over his lifetime, and I have it. It is an enormous amount of material. He gave it to Bret Nichols, who was probably his favorite student, who is a friend of mine. I’ve been friends with Bret the drummer, since mid-70s. I have got all of this stuff with correspondence with Tommy and Louie, letters from people who wrote Tommy. I have William F. Ludwig Drum Solo book that came out in 1941 and is personally signed to Tommy. It is an original copy. Tommy also did a phenomenal, great chart for Gretsch that went all around the world. I have a copy of that. There is a 1941 big Zildjian poster of all their endorsers. Tommy is right there with Gene and Buddy and everybody. He was with Gretsch. I don’t know if you saw the picture with Tommy with that Gretsch broadcaster kit. That is the kit that he used on the Breakfast Club.”
What happened to Tommy’s drums when he passed away?
“Before Tommy came to Florida, he taught at a university in Tennessee. Between Chicago and Tennessee, he may have left it behind. He never played again. He continued to work on his books and his writings, but he didn’t play. He didn’t even own a drum set. He probably left a lot of it in Chicago. Got rid of it; sold it. Probably got rid of some of it in Tennessee. When he came to FL, he did have a drum set. I think it might be that black drum set. I have a picture of him with Don McNeil, which was the Slingerland endorser promo drum set. I think I remember seeing that drum set for sale on consignment, probably 1972, 1973 at Steve Grier’s drum store. Bret remembered seeing it for sale. I think that might have been a set of Radio Kings.”
Steve Grier has two beautiful vintage Ludwig snare drums that he said belonged to Tommy Thomas. Can you confirm these were Tommy’s?
“William F. Ludwig Sr. gave them to Tommy. Tommy told me. Tommy might have been playing Ludwig until he got Gretsch or Slingerland when he started getting official endorsements. Tommy was close with WFL. He was writing and doing those publications for him. He was associating with WFL with the American Rudimental Drummers. He was doing a lot with him. Tommy later gave them to Steve Grier. You see, in Florida, Steve Grier gave Tommy a place to teach at his shop. Tommy really liked Steve. I’m really glad that Steve kept those drums. He still has them.”
Note: According to Karl Newman (who considered WFL Sr. his adopted uncle), “It wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine him (WFL) giving Tommy beautiful snares like that. Tommy was a great drummer and real leader of his time. He (WFL) did things like that quite often. He was quite proud of his drums.”
Do you know how Tommy died?
“He was an avid bike rider. When I met him in the 70s he was still driving. I never rode in the car with him. Bret told me that he had seen him a few times and he wasn’t a very good driver. When Tommy lived in Chicago, he would just take the train to the gig, the McNeil show. Have you seen any of the videos of Tommy? The guy was built like a 5’4” wrestler. His whole life, he was in great shape. Tommy was hit several times while riding his bicycle. He was hit 3 times, I believe. All 3 put him in the hospital. Finally, at 94, it was the last one. He was about to get out but there were some complications. I think it was a stroke and he passed away. “
“I started taking lessons from Kenny Sukhia in 1971. I took lessons from him until he went away to college. He told me about Tommy Thomas, a great drum teacher, who was teaching at Drum World in Orlando (owned by Steve Grier). In September of 1972 (I was 13 years old), I started my first lesson with Tommy Thomas. I’ve still got my Haskell W. Harr Drum Method book that we originally worked out of. I took weekly lessons with Tommy on drums and tympani until 1976. I found a cancelled check the other day. Guess how much my lesson was? It was $3.50/half hour and later went up to $5.00! Tommy had a ton of students; he was pretty popular. I still have my N.A.R.D. certificate that I got that Tommy signed off on. I’m pretty proud of that. I also took some lessons from Don Lamond (his lessons were $6.00/half hour).
Tommy seemed to know everybody; it was unbelievable. I remember one day we went to see Ray McKinley, Glenn Miller’s drummer. It was 1973 and the Glenn Miller band had come to town. So at the show, Tommy says, “Come on, let’s go backstage. We’ll get in there.” He was looking for Ray, didn’t see him, and then went out the backstage door. This car pulled up toward us and a big tall guy smoking a cigarette yells out, “Hey Thomas, what are you doing over there?” Thomas turns around and it was Ray McKinley. Later, McKinley sent Tommy a letter saying how he never aged. They seemed like such good friends. Tommy also introduced me to Buddy Rich. Tommy said he taught Buddy how to do crossovers. Buddy gave Tommy a big hug. From what I understand, Buddy didn’t hug too many people! Louis Bellson really loved Tommy; he was his guy. Benny Goodman about fell over backwards when he saw Tommy at a concert here in 1979 at Stetson University. He and Benny were dearest of best friends and played in some of their first bands together. He also played with Irv Goodman. Tommy also played with Louis Armstrong. Tommy said that he would go over to Louis’ house for dinner on Sundays and have jam sessions. Louis Armstrong’s wife would play piano; Tommy would play drums and Louis on horn. Quite a few times (around 1976-1982), I was able to go out for dinner or lunch with Tommy and Louis Bellson and boy they would talk about the old days. It was amazing to hear. We’d go back to his room at DisneyWorld by the club and hang out in his room. I get to play on a practice pad with Louis; those were pretty amazing times. Louis stopped coming there because he couldn’t stand the smoke. Tommy also knew all the people in the business – the Ludwigs, H.H. Slingerland, the Zildjian family, Billy Gladstone… Tommy was a tap dancer in case you didn’t know. Long ago, he was dating one of the Andrew sisters and taught them all how to tap dance. Sounds too crazy to be true.”
So how did you and Michael Welch get to know each other?
“Back in the 1970s, Orlando was really a jumping place for musicians. A lot of stuff was happening then. My brother was 5 years older than me and was working as a keyboard player. He introduced me to some of the more established musicians in the area. Since I was kind of young at the time. My brother wound up playing in a band with Mike Welch, and that’s how I met Mike in 1974. So together we shared our love and respect for Tommy Thomas.
When I first started taking lessons from Tommy, the biggest mistake I ever made was not buying Tommy’s last set of drums. I could have bought them. They were an old set of black Slingerland Radio Kings with a red inlay around the bass drum hoops. He told me it was a special order extra thick bass drum from Slingerland that they had built just for him. Tommy would have sold it for like $200. I have no idea where it went. It was 1972. It makes me sick every time I think about it. I hope they are in good hands.”
Bob’s note in closing:
As said best by the late Maurie Lishon, former owner of Frank’s Drum Shop and close friend of Tommy Thomas, “Tommy’s friends are countless around the world. He was a helluva show drummer but he admits I was a better tap dancer!” And from his close lifelong friend Louis Bellson in a 1993 letter (signed Louis “Crickett”), “It’s always a great thrill to hear from you…I hope I can see you sometime soon. I really miss you. We love you Tommy”. Yes indeed, Tommy was loved by many.
Clearly, Tommy’s contributions to music history were immense as a drummer, teacher, mentor, and friend to many. I wish I had the chance to meet him in person. However, I am sincerely grateful for the efforts for Michael, Bret, Elda, and Steve for preserving the artifacts and stories of Tommy Thomas that I am able to share.
Many thanks to Steve Grier’s grandson, Brantley Shaffer, for providing pictures of Tommy Thomas’ snare drums. I am deeply indebted to Michael Welch who provided the majority of background information for this article. Michael remains devoted to seeing the memories of Tommy Thomas properly preserved. He is planning to release a book later this year on the “Tommy Thomas Percussion Library”, including over 300 lessons and more in-depth historical view of Tommy’s work.