by Dan Williams
“You got it kid, you really got it. I’ve never seen anyone who wants it so bad, so I’ll take the time out to teach you.” – Legendary drummer Gene Krupa to future Kiss drummer Peter Criss around 1966.
It’s 1938 and Gene Krupa is behind the drum kit keeping time for Benny Goodman’s live performance at Carnegie Hall, the first jazz concert played at the venerable theater. Of all the drummers available to play for Goodman, he preferred Krupa over any other, including Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson. He was innovative, dramatic and even athletic in his manic style. There were about nineteen other musicians in the band, including major names like Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams and Lester Young. It was Gene Krupa’s job to drive each song with his drum-forward style. As the first drummer to use a bass drum in a recording session back in 1927, he had the sound and ability to take over. And did he ever!
The concert (and its 1950 double album release that’s still in print) contained over two hours of jazz songs of the day. In the context of time, this was prior to World War II, so most jazz songs were nice little two and three minute tunes and Broadway covers like “I Got Rhythm”, “One O’clock Jump” and “Body and Soul”. Twenty three songs in all.
The game changer, the performance that could now be viewed as the history lesson for every Rock & Roll drummer in the future was “Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing)”. It is the second to last song in the set and clocks in at a remarkable 12:08. In fact, upon release, they had to split it into parts so they could issue it on two 78 RPM sides because it wouldn’t fit on one (Part 1 on side A, Part 2 on side B). When 45 RPMs came out, it went on three sides!
This is Krupa’s break out and starts out with his jungle rhythm drum lead signaling the audience to sit up and take notice …Something great is about to happen. In typical jazz form, the band begins by playing Louis Prima’s famous melody before making way for solos. Between performers and song segments, all musicians are silenced for Krupa’s muscular drum solos. He becomes the director of this masterpiece. Benny Goodman plays his first familiar clarinet solo while Krupa respectfully subdues his kit. As the solo diminishes, Krupa explodes in high energy, huge bass and toms. He was one to use every part of a drum kit from rims to uprights to cowbells. If it could be hit, he played it, all the while with his biceps bulging and shiny hair flying.
Throughout the piece, his driving percussion is front and center as he encourages each soloist (trumpets, clarinet, and a remarkable impromptu piano solo by Jess Stacy). Stacy didn’t expect to play a solo, but Goodman pointed to him and he came up with his own masterpiece on the spot, guided lovingly by Gene Krupa. You can hear Krupa’s musical encouragement during the solo until he takes back the reins and finishes the tune with what can only be described as a tour de force and master’s class in Rock & Roll drumming before there was Rock & Roll.
It’s the late 1960’s and Gene Krupa was near 60 and semi-retired due to a bad back. He still played occasional gigs in New York and opened a music school at the Metropole near Times Square to teach his style to young students. Peter Criscuola (Criss), who viewed Gene Krupa as his musical hero signed up. “He was my idol. I got to talk to him and he really liked me. He gave me lessons for about six months,” Criss was quoted as saying to author Bruce Klauber for the book World of Gene Krupa.
Criss was in several bands around the New York area and started out as a jazz drummer, just like one of his predecessors, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. He converted to rock and eventually met Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley to start Kiss. As they were determining their makeup characters, he chose “The Catman” because he felt he had nine lives. Although he has had a rocky history with the band, he has played on several reunions and is still sought after today.
Criss goes on to say “When I hear the word drums, I think Gene Krupa. He was a pioneer. He brought the drums up front. He was a great showman, but man could he play. He was the first to record a Bass Drum on record.” And after studying Krupa’s style, it can easily be picked up in Kiss records. Google for Kiss’ “100,000 Years” from the Kiss Farewell tour. At around the 2:50 mark, Criss goes into an extended solo. Gene Krupa’s influence is front and center in this hard rock performance, complete with cowbells and rims.
It’s an unlikely pairing, especially since there were 36 years between them. One was a Big Band pioneer and the other became a Rock & Roll legend still influencing young people today with skills only Krupa could teach. I asked Damian MonteCarlo, superb drummer for Philadelphia’s highly regarded MACH22 if he knows current musicians influenced by Criss. He said, “Oh man so many. Peter was the Ringo of the 70s. Made millions of kids wanna pick up the drums.” When I asked about his knowledge of the Krupa-Criss connection, he offered “Yeah Peter was a huge Krupa nut. You can tell from his solos.”
So when it comes to Rock & Roll drumming, we can connect the dots back to the legendary Gene Krupa. And his legacy doesn’t stop there. I was sharing some of my research with MonteCarlo about how Krupa collaborated with the famous cymbal manufacturer Zildjian and developed the modern hi-hat cymbals and popularized the names and uses of specialized pieces such as the ride, crash, splash, pang and swish cymbals. His response was, “Yeah, he changed everything!”
“Had Gene Krupa not existed, I doubt whether contemporary American Music would be played the way it is today.” – Peter Criss