Barrett Deems Centennial Celebration: Bernard Flegar Remembers

Today is the centennial birthday of "The World's Fastest Drummer," Barrett Deems!

At least, we think it is. Barrett seemed to believe it; throughout his entire life, he gave his birthday as March 1, 1913. But when he died, the mass card given out at his funeral said 1915! And if you do a quick Google search, you'll find the majority of websites go with 1914.

Barrett's word is good enough for me and really, I've been looking for an excuse to celebrate one of my favorite drummers for a while now so selfishly, the sooner the better!

Deems has long been a hero of mine because when I first got into Armstrong back as 15-year-old teenager, it was through the Columbia Recordings of the mid-50s: the Deems Era. To some, it might seem like Deems was with the band forever, but in actually, he joined in May 1954 and was gone by February 1958, lasting less than four years. Later in life, Barrett would talk about his EIGHT years with Louis! It might have felt that way because he really  came during an incredible period: Louis Plays W. C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats, Mack the Knife, Satchmo the Great, Ambassador Satch, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, High Society, the band with Edmond Hall....on and on I could go.

Of course, though Louis's popularity went through the roof in this period, these years are really when the jazz critics sharpened their knives and went after Louis and the All Stars, often holding a special contempt for Barrett Deems, the only white musician in the band during his first two years with them. He was too loud, too powerful, "heavily unswinging," you name it. I've never heard that and I've never met another musician who felt the same was. Was he light as a feather like Jo Jones or a creative giant like Big Sid Catlett? No, but he swung and had power and I think by the mid-50s, that's all Louis wanted. Music was changing and Louis had a heavy dose of early rhythm-and-blues in his private collection with those giant backbeats. Louis always thrived from a heavy two-and-four, dating back to the Hot Sevens, and I think Barrett (and later, Danny Barcelona) provided Louis with the kind of no frills support he wanted.

I can go on and on about Barrett--and I will, as I've put together some great quotes, videos and audio that I'll be sharing on Tuesday. But before I took a turn, I wanted to let someone else speak for a change. Bernard Flegar is not only a fantastic drummer himself, but he befriended Barrett and got to know him fairly in the last years of Deems's life. When I was getting into the All Stars, I was to starstruck to even think about approaching a Deems or Arvell Shaw, even though I knew they were alive (much to my regret). Thankfully, Bernard--only three years older than me and living in Germany--seized the opportunity to get closer to his hero and we must thank him for that. I asked Bernard to remember his friend Barrett and this is the beautiful piece he wrote:

"First of all my greatest gratitude to Ricky for asking me to contribute a few words to celebrate Barrett’s special birthday. I met Barrett through a mutual friend, Chuck Hedges, one of the greatest swing clarinetists of all time – some say he could have blown Benny Goodman of the stage and that means something. Barrett, like Chuck, was a Chicago fixture. So, in 1995 I scratched some money together and flew to the Windy City to meet Barrett. After my arrival I called Chuck. He said he would get in touch with Barrett to let him know about this eighteen year old German visitor.

Chuck Hedges and Barrett Deems
"Later that day the phone in my motel room rang and it was Jane, Barrett’s wife. She told me that they would pick me up on their way to a jazz concert. So this old Chevy pulled up, Jane was driving, and in the passenger seat was this old, hyperactive hero of mine, Barrett Deems. We understood each other well from the first moment on and were friends until the day he died three years later. Despite his age, he still played magnificently and had only lost a little bit of steam since his days with Louis, Jack Teagarden or the Dukes Of Dixieland. He was leading a big band when I met him which appeared weekly. Barrett was small in stature,over eighty years old, had a bad back but the transition that took place whenever he sat down behind the drums and started belting the daylights out, swinging like mad, gives me goose pimples until this day. 

"Barrett wasn’t always an angel – who is?? – he drove many people nuts, me included, but he was a good guy who lived to swing a band. I also liked the fact that he loved animals. When I met him he had several dogs and cats. When he was much younger, Barrett watched a guy beat up a horse – Barrett broke the guy’s jaw. I guess the message came across.

"Outspokenness in addition to his drumming was something that Barrett was very good at. He would say anything anywhere anytime. I very vividly remember sitting with him and Jane in a Chicago restaurant when he commented loudly on the figure of a nearby sitting woman….that moment I simply wanted to vanish….Barrett loved fast food and took me to all of his favourite grease joints around town.

Bernard Flegar and Barrett Deems
I visited him again in 1996 and 1997 and also met many other great musicians in Chicago. When I was at home I’d call him about once a month. I can still hear his distinctive voice yelling on the other end of the line and his standby advice….”….hang up, kid, save your money!!” One time he was especially excited because George Avakian had come to visit. Mr Avakian was in town and remembered Barrett staying at the Croydon Hotel in the 1970s. Well, the Croydon was long gone, no sight of Barrett and so Mr Avakian looked him up in the phone book. Barrett was home and the two reminisced about old times. So, when I called, Barrett shouted…”guess who’s here, guess who’s here…” and after he told me, he handed the phone over to George Avakian. I will never forget this special moment."


And now it's time for some music! Like my other such tributes, I immediately thought about sharing audio of Deems's two big features, "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop" and I will do that...on Tuesday. For now, though, something different.  On October 2, 1955, the All Stars--now featuring the new addition of Edmond Hall, plus  Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett--played at Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden. Years later, ten tracks were released on an obscure Queen LP; finally, those ten plus one more were issued on the essential Storyville boxed set, Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia

I've always loved these performances because not only does it capture my favorite edition of the All Stars in peak form, but the sound quality is magnificent. On top of that, the drums are little loud in the mix; this might be seen as a detriment to some listeners but to me, it's always given me a deeper appreciation of just what Barrett was doing back there to drive the band along. If you've read my write-ups of various Musical Autobiography tracks, I've always complained about the "Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000" because he just sticks to closed hi-hat all the time. But I'm quick to point out that's what the arrangements asked him to do--and he obeyed--but that's NOT what he did on a nightly basis. The Stockholm tracks should prove that if anyone out there doubts it.

Once again, I asked Bernard to give me his take on these tracks. He admitted that he didn't want to keep repeating himself so he refrained from commenting on a few selections; I've still included them because Deems's work speaks for itself. Let's listen, opening with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South":

Bernard says: "Barrett plays time on the hi hat, during Louis’ vocal he is on brushes, a master of the brushes he was and equally masterful were his rolls, as can be heard at the end of the tune."

Next up, a little "Back Home Again in Indiana" (sorry that this was still "Sleepy Time" for two days...fixed now!":

Bernard says: "Obviously an effect of his overactiveness, Barrett often made some sort of noise between numbers. Listen right at the end of Louis’s anouncement. Like many swing drummers he played four to the bar on the bass drum as it is audible here. Barrett and Arvell Shaw locked in so well together. During his drum breaks towards the end it becomes clear why Barrett was called 'the world’s fastest drummer.'"

A favorite of Louis's from this period, here's "The Gypsy":

Bernard says: "Another prime example of good, clean, swinging, time keeping, another lesson in smooth brush playing and a nice, long roll during the cadenza. Barrett’s playing always contained a good measure of witt and irony, check Barrett hitting the splash cymbal at 01:33."

Up next, Louis and Billy Kyle's contrafact on "Perdido," "Pretty Little Missy":

Bernard says: "Things start nice and easy before gears are changed after Louis’ vocal when Trummy comes in. Barrett beautifully prepares the front line’s riffs in the last chorus."
Ricky says: Indeed, I love Deems's work on this one, especially with the riffs behind the vocal and during those "Hot Toddy" riffs at the end...a tight arrangement, really driving by Barrett!

Bernard chose not to comment on the next two, but I'm still going to share the audio. Personally, I love how Deems changes it up behind the soloists. He gets pegged a lot as just a backbeat player but he saves it mainly for Trummy and Louis, going lighter for Hall and using the closed hi-hat for the rhythm section solos. And on "The Saints," his opening is Deems 101, before swinging the band at the ideal tempo (Louis tried out many different tempos on that number of the years but this one is my favorite). Here's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue": 

And "When the Saints Go Marchin' In": 

After the saints, a little "Basin Street Blues":

Bernard says,: "Barrett starts playing time on the half-open hi hat, a way of playing which seems to be mostly forgotten today, then switches to the cymbal. During Louis’ vocal he plays with brushes. He had a great sound with brushes (check out the original recording of Mack The Knife!). Then after Billy Kyle’s solo, Barrett intruduces the new tempo with an interlude featuring his trade mark triplet figures distributed around the set. After that he swings the band and kicks it in the behind, especially during the out chorus, yet always playing at the right volume and paying attention to what his cohorts are doing. After the drum tag comes something which always makes my day and something that Barretts’ fellow drummers in the band (whom I all admire) who played together with Trummy Young in the All Stars did not do, and that is locking in with Trummy during the very last four bars (not only on this number), emphasizing Trummy’s phrases, creating enormous excitement."

Once again, the next two tracks don't require further comments. On the slower-than-slow "Tin Roof Blues," I love how Deems approaches it with so much power. It's a dangerously slow tempo but he swings and is emphatic enough to add a layer of raunch to the proceedings. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is an Edmond Hall romp and Deems is with him all the way. Here's "Tin Roof Blues":

And "Sweet Georgia Brown":

And finally, an absolutely ass-kicking "St. Louis Blues":

Bernard says: "Barrett was a master in turning up the heat after subtle passages and on this track you will hear this very clearly. On the last chorus he uses the bass drum in addition to the snare drum and the cymbal to play the back beat and kick it out the park."

Amen, Brother Flegar! I mean, those last two choruses of "St. Louis Blues"....that's rock and roll, my friends! And nothing wrong with it. No wonder Dizzy Gillespie told Barrett that this edition of the band was the most exciting one he ever heard playing this style of music.

Again, I'll be back with more on Barrett on Tuesday (though please feel free to write in with other stories or comments!) but I'll let Bernard have the final word. Thanks again, Bernard!

"To sum up Barrett’s playing in my humble opinion, Barrett did what the band needed and what Louis wanted; well chosen cymbals and drums, the drums tuned by a master who offered hefty, swinging drumming, with no prisoners taken."


Kristen Serene said…
Words cannot describe how grateful I am to both of you for such a wonderful tribute to my grandfather, and so perfectly on his birthday. I am so thankful that his music and memory continues to live on. He would absolutely love that! (He would’ve hated the Internet, but loved that he was on it!) I am so pleased that his great grand-children can get to hear him play, and know what he was like as a person, thanks to people like you.

Thank you!!
LOUIS said…
Sorry to be the one to point this out, Ricky, but we get "When it's sleepy time down south" twice and no "back home again in Indiana".
No between numbers noise then...

Great post, by the way, and which will make me get the Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia set if I can find it...
Ricky Riccardi said…
Thank you so much for the heartfelt words, Kristen! Means so much to me to have you feel this way. Come back on Tuesday for much more!

And Louis, thanks for letting me know....all fixed! But do try to find that Scandinavia set if you can. It's wonderful!

Your in Pops,

RICHIE said…
Thanks Ricky for this great tribute to the exciting and excitable Mr. Deems. The recording is a great example of his time with the All Stars showing the whole band relaxed and swinging to Barrett's beat. The quality of this recording let's us hear the subtle little things he did behind the solos and full band. Deems gets a bad rap for being bombastic but you have given us a perfect example of how he played drums FOR the band.
Tuesday can't come soon enough!
All my Best,

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