There has been so much written already about the late Louie Bellson, the man Duke Ellington said was 'not only the world's greatest drummer, but the world's greatest musician.. Now, it's my turn. Since the River Music Experience (RME) first opened in 2004, I have had the distinct honor and privilege to welcome Mr. Bellson back home on numerous occasions. The last concert of his long and storied career was right here in these River Cities, in the RME's Redstone Room on October 15, 2008. God's own little drummer boy returned home one last time, and his final concert with the Manny Lopez Band will forever remain as one of my most fondest memories at RME. On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 2009, God called the little drummer boy from Illinois home.
Born in Rock Falls, Illinois in 1924, he first started playing drums at the age of 3. By age 15, he had already developed his own concept of using double-bass drums in his set up. By 17, he had already beat out (pun unintentional) over 40,000 other drummers from across the country to win the coveted Slingerland National Gene Krupa Contest. There was no stopping the little drummer boy from Illinois from that point on.
The list of personalities he performed with over the years, and appeared in Hollywood films with, reads like a virtual Who's Who of music and show business: Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Carmen Miranda, Danny Kaye, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, Shelly Manne, Billy Cobham, James Brown, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Wayne Newton, his very close friend Tony Bennett, and of course Louie's mentor - the great Duke Ellington. Folks, that's just the short list.
In 1952 he married the legendary Pearl Bailey, and the couple had two daughters together . Dee Dee J. Bellson and Debra Hughes. The great Pearl passed on in 1990, and in 1992 Louie married his second wife, Francine, a physicist and engineer from MIT. Francine also became Louie.s manager and confidante, and they traveled the globe together as husband and wife team until his passing.
Louie was a part of many landmark performances and compositions, including Duke Ellington's epic Emancipation Proclamation Centennial stage production, My People, as well as Ellington's Concerts of Sacred Music. In 2006, Louie delivered on a challenge issued by Ellington to 'someday write his own sacred music concert', with the release of the highly-acclaimed 'The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet.' In 2007, Louie realized yet another dream recording with the legendary Clark Terry - and in January 2008 "Louie and Clark Expedition 2" was released.
Louie deeply treasured his role as music educator, and never missed an opportunity to pass on tradition and technique in the many, many percussion workshops and drum clinics he conducted over the years, as well as through the numerous books he authored on drums and percussion. He conducted scores of percussion and band clinics at schools, colleges and music stores across the country.
His awards and accolades are many, and here are just a few:
So, what's my favorite Louie Bellson story? A couple years ago, I did an interview with Louie for my 'Currents at the Crossroads' program on WQPT. I had asked him about his many guest appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. (It was one of his favorite stories, and I loved to hear him tell it again.) Louie was subbing for regular Tonight Show Band drummer Ed Shaughnessy one week, and Louie's old friend and fellow drum icon Buddy Rich was also scheduled to appear on the show. Rich coaxed Louie into playing a prank on Carson, who was a pretty decent amateur drummer in his own right. During the afternoon set up, Rich and Bellson had the stage manager position Carson's smaller drum set in between the two huge drum sets of the iconic drummers. The Tonight Show host's drum set looked like toys in comparison. When Carson came in for rehearsal, he immediately saw the ruse, called over the stage manager and told him, "If you want to keep your job here, you'll move my drum set out from between those two gorillas." I will never forget Louie's sweet smile at that moment, and how his eyes sparkled with true passion for his craft - just like they must have that very first time the little drummer boy from Illinois picked up the sticks. For more on Louie Bellson's phenomenal career and recordings, please visit www.louiebellson.net.
Rest in peace, Louie, and until we meet again at this crossroads, peace, love & blessings to all, and blues to .ya!
Local musician Ellis Kell writes about blues music both local and national in "True Blue", each month in the Entertainment section of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, online at www.qconline.com and www.wqad.com. He is Director of Programming & Education for the River Music Experience, a registered nonprofit helping build the Quad Cities music scene - through diverse live music and educational programming. He also hosts 'Currents at the Crossroads' musical segment of WQPT's Life & Times.firstname.lastname@example.org
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