Every morning I passed my father's drums, packed in canvas and black boxes at the foot of the stairs. A sickly boy who wasn't given much hope of surviving into adulthood, he had managed to outlast his ailments to thrive as a young drummer under the instruction of legendary rudimental champion Earl Sturtze. When his high school symphony and marching days were over, he joined the New Haven musicians union and bought a new 1940 white marine pearl Ludwig & Ludwig set he would play for the rest of his life.
My childhood desire to wallop these drums was diverted to a thin black rubber pad nailed onto a square of wood. This was a letdown, but as my dad was told by his teacher – emphatically referred to by everyone as "Mister Sturtze" – every drummer started out with a practice pad. I don't remember the moment but was told later that the day I was allowed to briefly graduate to my father's calfskin-headed snare drum was a big deal. Sadly, my father's lessons were not to last. He died in 1963, leaving behind a reputation as a good drummer and a good man.
Among other things, I was sure that my dad's absence would end my drumming activities, which were enjoyable but always a struggle. We went to see Mister Sturtze, who kindly informed my mother after two lessons that she was wasting what little money we had on lessons for a nine-year-old who wasn't motivated to practice at least one hour every day. I was packed off to Russell Spang, a New Haven drummer who taught on a heavily muffled set in a walkup studio on Chapel Street. I wince thinking of the poor guy having to listen to me hack through each week's lesson. Making things worse, I was stubbornly hung up on memories of my father's traditional approach and not tuned in to the sea change in drums and drumming taking place. My dad had been gone for six months when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, inspiring thousands of aspiring drummers to think, "I want to do THAT" and blowing Ludwig sales into the stratosphere. I didn't need Ringo – I already had a drumming hero and his Ludwigs were now mine.
Unfortunately, my dad's drums were better suited to playing with Charlie Barnet or Tommy Dorsey. The huge 26" bass drum was almost manageable, but tacked hide heads on the toms were a nightmare, especially on humid summer nights. At their best I got a resounding BOOM from every drum; at their worst, playing them was as much fun as tap-dancing on wet towels. My friends and I listened to everything from The Who to ESP's avant garde, but despite a widening appreciation for new constellations of drumming, I never bought a more modern set, thinking that the big Ludwigs would go into a closet someday when I settled into some stable line of work. No matter how unwieldy they might be, however, I struggled through a decade of blues, rock'n'roll, and even three raucous "new wave" gigs with them before my high school chum Bob – the other half of Krusty Tubs – invited me to swing by a little shop in Newington where he was picking up a gold sparkle 1950s WFL kit from the owner, Charlie Donnelly.
For today, let's just say that things changed a lot after that.