My Drumming Origin Story - The Fifth Grade Band Audition
I love hearing drummers’ “origin stories”. We all have one; that story that we tell over and over again about the first time we played a drum, or watched someone else play a drum or a drum set that inspired us and gave us the “drum fever”. This is mine. Please tell me about yours in the comments below.
When I was ten years old I lived in the small town of Grenada, Mississippi. I was looking forward to starting fifth grade at Lizzie Horn Elementary School because that was when beginning band started and I wanted to play the drums. My mother wanted me to play a horn – clarinet, saxophone, trumpet – anything but the drums. She had played the clarinet in high school and was also the drum majorette for the Kosciusko Mississippi high school marching band. She also played the piano so music was in my blood. I had been studying the piano for a year or two, taking lessons at school once a week with an old woman named Mrs. Rhine whose arm fat jiggled when she played. The Grenada High School marching band practiced for the Christmas parade by marching on the streets surrounding the block of the elementary school playground. I fell in love with the drums. I would walk right along the fence keeping up with the band and watch everything the drummers did. The sound of the drums mesmerized me. It was very exciting the way the snare drums and bass drums and hand cymbals crashed and boomed like man made thunder and lightning as it forced the horn players to march ahead of them. The sheer volume of the drums echoed off the surrounding houses and the school building. I thought the drummers were incredibly cool. I imitated the drummers’ arms and hands with a pair of crude drum sticks I had fashioned from dowels I had bought at the Ben Franklin Five and Dime. i made a crude drum out of a wooden box and held it around my neck with a chain. I learned the cadence; the street beat they played, and at home I would practice those rhythms and phrases over and over and over again. I would corral my playmates to play band and march with me on the street. I couldn’t play a roll because my little dowels wouldn’t bounce like real drum sticks.
I had also fallen in love with the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all the other rock and roll bands of the early sixties. I saw Ringo playing drums with the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and watched the girls scream as they shook their hair. A Beatle haircut with bangs promptly ensued. My neighborhood gang would play toy guitars and I would play toy bongos as we mimed to Beatles records and put on shows for the neighborhood girls.
When the auditions for fifth grade beginning band started, the band director said only four out of the thirty or so hopefuls would be chosen to play the drums. Of course most of the boys wanted to play the drums, not the horns. As I stepped up to the marching snare drum on the stand, the first real drum and real sticks I had ever played, the band director told me to play slowly RLRLR…, then double strokes RRLLRRLL… and a few other basic patterns just to see if I could play in a steady tempo. After doing that I enthusiastically volunteered, “And I can play this too!” and launched into the high school marching cadence at full volume and tempo, producing an impressed look on the band directors’ face, and dropping the jaws of my classmates. When it came to the rolls in the cadences that I had never been able to produce with my home made dowel sticks, the real drum sticks were bouncing just the way they were supposed to and producing a very satisfying buzz, just like the high school snare drummers played. What a feeling of magic and power! I was in heaven. I was thrilled. Needless to say I made the audition with three of my buddies; Keith Bills, Ford Bailey and Harry Alexander.
When I got home after school that day my mother asked me what I was going to play, “…the clarinet, the trumpet, the saxophone?”. “No, Mama, he chose me to play the drums!!!” . She started crying on the spot, then promptly marched out the front door, headed toward the house across the street where the band director, Ferrell Lunceford, just happened to live. I thought for sure that she would bless him out and I would be switched to a horn, my dreams dashed. She came back in a few minutes with tears still in her eyes and told me, “He said you were the best one out of everybody, so if you’re going to play the drum, you be the best drummer you can be”. My fate and identity were sealed from that point on.
It is hard to express in words how deeply my heart and soul and brain fell for the drums. I was so excited about having a talent and being very good at something. I practiced every day for as long as I could until my parents couldn’t stand any more that day. I would stand in front of a mirror and play a long roll without stopping for an hour. I was obsessed. I was consumed with it and it was hard to concentrate on anything else. It became my identity. I would sit by the drummers in the high school band in the bleachers at the football games and watch every move they made. My mother and father supported me totally. They bought me a Ludwig rubber practice pad and some 2B sticks (I still have the pad). That Christmas they surprised with me a Japanese snare drum (a Pearl no name) and a small brass cymbal attached. I still feel sorry for that poor little 10” cymbal. I would beat it so hard while I played along to Beatles and Rolling Stones 45 singles on my record player that it would be bent completely out of shape and I would have to beat it back into shape with a hammer. A year or two later they bought me a bass drum, mounted tom and a ride cymbal. I got invited to play in my first garage band, “The Ryatts”. Heavy name, eh? One band led to another, and then to a gig, then to another gig, and then…… for fifty five years now and it hasn’t stopped yet.