Barrett Deems Centennial Celebration Part 2

Last week, I got the ball rolling with the first part in my centennial tribute to the great drummer Barrett Deems. Another ace drummin' man, Bernard Flegar, was kind enough to share his memories of Barrett and then I shared a bunch of prime live All Stars cuts from Stockholm in 1955.

For this entry, I want to write a little more about Barrett's time with the All Stars and his pre and post-Louis career, as well as sharing some stories and one-liners of a man who was a true character. It's not hard to find tales of Deems; a simple Google search brings up a bunch and the Jazz Institute of Chicago's Website proved to be especially valuable in being a resource for memories of Deems.

We've established that Barrett was born in Springfield, Illinois on March 1, 1913 (possibly 1914 or 1915 but I'm sticking with 1913 since that's on everything I've found from Deems's lifetime). His father was a projectionist who also played piano, accompanying silent movies. Deems was about 12 the first time his father let him play along. When he 14, he won a drumming contest at the Orpheum Theater (he didn't imbibe the prize-winning bottle of champagne and in fact, steered clear of alcohol and drugs as an adult, too).

His first big break was with the legendary jazz violinist, Joe Venuti, spending seven years with him, including time with his underappreciated big band. It was with this group that Deems made his first records, cleverly titled, "Flip," "Flop," "Something" and "Nothing." Deems makes his presence felt throughout, swinging the band and taking breaks and short solos. Here's "Flip":

And "Flop":

It was with Venuti, stationed in New York, that Deems got close to Gene Krupa, whom he'd call "my best show business friend." When Venuti disbanded in 1944, Deems formed his own combo. The 1944 Billboard Music Year Book, gave the "Barrett Deems Quintet" an entry and already mentioned that he was being billed as "the world's fastest drummer." He spent the ensuing years bouncing around in various big bands: the Dorseys (separately), Woody Herman, Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet (with whom he made his first trip to Europe).

But the days of a thriving big band scene were over, causing Deems to try his hand in the world of small group traditional jazz, doing stints with the likes of Muggsy Spanier and Wingy Manone. It was with Manone that Deems participated in the 1951 film, Rhythm Inn, a forgettable flick that gives us our greatest glimpse of Deems the showstopping drummer. He was given a featured solo and he made the most of his two minutes, standing up, playing around the drums, playing on the floor and eventually working over a chair. This is what he did nightly with Louis, but it was never filmed then so this is the best glimpse of what he did during his features in this period. There is a YouTube video of just the solo but I'm going to share the full clip from Daily Motion because it shows Deems in the full "Dixieland" setting:

Wingy Manone-Barrett Deems by boberwig

Deems was doing well in the early 50s and even started leading his own band. He might never have joined Louis if not for the destructive personality of Kenny John. Louis hired the young John to replace Cozy Cole in late 1953 but John's boozing and erratic behavior (once almost getting in a fight with Armstrong) was too much to handle. He was fired in May 1954 and immediately replaced with Deems. Glaser usually did the hiring in house from the Associated Booking roster but it's possible Louis knew his work from the many name bands he had been played with. Louis--and Glaser--always placed a value on showmanship, which Deems clearly had. More importantly, he didn't drink or do any drugs.

Deems told Dempsey Travis that when Glaser offered him the job, Deems told him he already had a band of his own.

"Well," Glaser said, "fire the whole band. Louis wants you to join his orchestra next week." Deems said he couldn't do that because he had a contract for two more weeks at a gig in Steiger, Illinois. "That doesn't make any difference," Glaser said. "How much are the musicians making?" "Three hundred a week," Deems replied. "Okay," Glaser snapped. "I'll send you a check. Pay them all off."

"He sent me a check for $1200 for four guys, and I paid them off and left Steiger," Deems told Travis. "The man who owned the joint was mad enough to kill me, but how often do you get an opportunity to work with the world's greatest trumpeter?"

Deems was nervous, but it all dissipated on the first night with the All Stars. He was given Cole's features of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop"...and they'd remain his until he left the band in 1958. On his second night, he couldn't contain his enthusiasm, telling Armstrong, "Jesus, playing with you is like being in another world. It's a natural ball!" Armstrong replied, "I'm glad you're aboard. I enjoy your playing. You do a nice job with those skins."

Soon after, Armstrong did a radio interview where he praised Deems and said of the All Stars, "My current about the greatest. Without them, I don't know what I'd do." Two months later, they were in Chicago recording the seminal Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy for George Avakian at Columbia. During the sessions, Armstrong told Avakian that Deems was "the best drummer I've ever worked with." Armstrong loved his rock solid beat, crowd-pleasing showmanship and clean-living ways.

Of course, that was still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, when everything always seems too good to be true. And of course, it was. Before Deems joined, Louis complained on one of his private tapes about Kenny John and Zutty Singleton, saying of drummers in general, "They're all nuts
Barrett Deems and Trummy Young in 1954. Courtesy of Bernard Flegar.
motherfuckers. All of them." Well, it would turn out that Deems was a little nuts, too. Avakian remembers Deems constantly muttering to himself. Writer Steve Voce described him as "an abrasive man driven by a restless energy." Barney Bigard wrote, "[Deems] was a little crazy. Crazy in a nice way. He was really a nervous guy." Trummy Young agreed with Bigard and summed Deems up perfectly by saying, "Barrett was the swingingest drummer that I ever played with. . .a little bit crazy but in a nice way." Armstrong famously told him, "Barrett, you're the only guy in the world that makes coffee nervous."

Eventually, Deems's restless streak could turn up in his playing. Armstrong himself admitted to Sinclair Traill in December 1956 that Deems had a tendency to rush. "With all respect to Deems, that's our biggest battle, watchin' that strict tempo," Louis said. "He's got that nervous streak so many drummers have." When bassist Jack Lesberg joined earlier in 1956, Joe Glaser warned him that Deems "rushes like hell." Apparently, it used to drive pianist Billy Kyle crazy sometimes. (In Deems's defense, I never really heard it; there is a session tape for Satch Plays Fats where on one take of "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," the tempo speeds up noticably going into the rideout, but that's about it.)

And his abrasive nature could wear some down. A typical Deems-ism came when British writer Voce asked Deems what he thought about Europe during a 1956 tour of England. "They should clean it up, paint it and sell it," he replied. It's a great line, but that kind of restlessness and complaining could get wearying when traveling with the same group of guys 300 nights a year. Voce was told that more than once, musicians got together with Armstrong or Glaser and held meetings about his behavior.

"What's wrong with you?" Glaser would berate Deems. "Nothing," answered Deems. "I feel fine."

But in the end, Armstrong didn't pay attention to what happened offstage. "I don't care," he said, "as long as he goes ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding." If Armstrong wanted him fired, he would have been gone (see Kenny John). He clearly thrived off his playing and especially appreciated Deems's ability to work crowds into a frenzy. When the All Stars hit the Gold Coast of Africa (soon to be Ghana) in 1956, Louis realized that they were in "drumming country," as Deems put it, and set Barrett loose, almost causing a riot in the process. Deems was carried on the shoulders of the natives for the entire three-day tour.

Another example comes on the tremendous 1956 concert, Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, which put the All Stars on the end of a Jazz at the Philharmonic bill. The opening jam session featured a Buddy Rich explosion, while Ella Fitzgerald's set was swung by Louis Bellson on the skins. The All Stars only had about 50 minutes to make their mark. In that time, Louis pushed himself hard, then featured the All Stars on their individual specialties: Deems was the only man to get TWO features in such a short set, Louis confident that Deems could win the crowd over after they heard Rich and Bellson (and indeed, you can hear the audience hooting, hollering and laughing as Deems plays up and down the stage floor on "Mop Mop"). I know I've plugged it before, but I feel it's an essential purchase because the All Stars are at their peak...and sets by Ella, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and JATP don't hurt! Grab it here.

Of course, I wanted to share Deems's two features but I have so many different versions to choose from. In the end, I've opted for two unissued tracks from my favorite All Stars concert, live at Hinsdale High School in Hinsdale, Illinois, March 25, 1957. This was one in a string of a LONG string of one-nighters. David Halberstam spent some time traveling with the group only about two or three weeks before the Hinsdale show and captured a tired, muttering Deems, exhausted from the grind. "No damn sleep,"Deems complained. "No sleep the night before, none last night, and none tomorrow. At least we spent the night in Atlanta." Goodness knows the stuff Deems saw during these travels. "I remember once we were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we couldn't find a hotel that would let us in," he told Steve Voce. "So here's Louis, who always had about $10,000 cash in his pocket, and the guy can't get a hotel room. The  whole band had to sleep in a gymnasium that night. Go figure it out."

So here's Deems, Louis and the rest of the All Stars on this same grueling tour, pulling into a high school gymnasium full of enthusiastic students. If you have my book, I included three wonderful photos from this night by Swiss photographer Milan Schijatschky, one of Louis warming up in the gym locker room. No one would have blamed them for going through the motions that night but instead, they put on a two-and-a-half hour show that is just one climax after another. Louis knew that the kids were responding to Deems so he let his drummer loose. Of all the versions in my iTunes, the ones of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop" from Hinsdale are the longest, "Savoy" pushing nine minutes with encore after encore. And at the Armstrong Archives, we have another Schijatschky photo of Deems in full flight, with students flocking the stage, standing in front, watching in awe.

Without further ado, here's "Stompin' at the Savoy":

And "Mop Mop"

Yeah! Hopefully, you can see what made Barrett so irresistible to fans around the world. Of course, as already alluded to, critics were merciless when it came to Deems, complaining about his features, complaining that he was too heavy, that he didn't swing.

Deems took those barbs for all four years with Louis but it's worth pointing out how much musicians loved him--and especially drummers. I already mentioned how Gene Krupa became Deems's closest "show business" friend. Buddy Rich also loved him him. According to Jim Beebe, "I drove Barrett and Polly Podewell out to see Buddy Rich once. Buddy was doing an outdoor concert in Oakbrook. It was very touching to see the genuine affection and respect that Buddy held for Barrett. Barrett worshipped Buddy and this meant a lot to him. Buddy introduced him from the bandstand and fawned all over him. Backstage the two of them jived each other and carried on in a wonderful fashion." John Miles remembered, "Buddy Rich's 'What It Is' bus had a seat with a sign on it that read, 'This seat is reserved for Barrett Deems' and God help the hapless musician that mistakenly sat in it."

Barrett with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. From

Miles also remembered, "In hanging out with Barret and because of him, I met some of the biggest names in the jazz business. I found out that not only that I respected him for his talent, but a hell of lot of others did too for his incredible playing ability. I can remember the time we caught Max Roach one night and after a great solo performance by Max, the audience was just loving it and gave him a standup ovation. He announced that, '... if you thought this solo was great, it was nothing compared to what Barrett could do.'"

Something like that probably would make the hardened jazz fan/critic put their nose in the air, but I don't think someone would make it up. Just this weekend on the Louis Armstrong House Museum Facebook page, Keith Gubitz put up a this wonderful photo of Barrett and a beaming Max Roach at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.
 And I've noticed on YouTube, some Rich acolytes get upset that Barrett was billed as the "World's Fastest Drummer," though again, courtesy of Facebook, John Nasshan wrote in to say, "I remember Barrett challenging Buddy to see who was faster. Barrett once looked at Buddy and said, 'C'mon Buddy, we'll see who's use a pad, I'll play on a pillow and I'll win!"

Anyway, I digress; back to Deems's time with Louis, I wanted to share a video of the two of them together.  Unfortunately, though there's dozens of hours of live audio from Deems's tenure with the All Stars, there's no videos of him doing one of his features. But again, Louis knew to unleash him when the world was watching, such as this televised version of "Blow Gabriel Blow" from a Cole Porter tribute in 1956. It's only two minutes and 17 seconds--and Deems only has a couple of short breaks--but my goodness is he fun to watch!

Fantastic, isn't it? He can also be seen going to town--and twirling his sticks slickly--in Satchmo the Great, but God knows if that will ever get released publicly.

On and on Deems went with the All Stars....and then he was out. It was not an abrupt termination and honestly, no one has ever pinpointed exactly what happened. There's speculation that Deems's temperament got the best of him. Trombonist Jim Beebe recalled, "Deems had become a pariah with his prickly personality and had caused scenes throughout Europe. Deems told me that Glaser made it very difficult for him if he wanted to stay with the band. He was never honest about getting fired--for years he maintained that he quit."

Last week, you read Bernard Flegar's beautiful tribute to his friend Barrett. When I first "met" Bernard via e-mail in 2009, I asked him what he knew. Indeed, Barrett had told him something about quitting because of money, but Bernard added, "As you may or may not know, Barrett had a big, uncontrollable mouth and a terrible temper at times. He said what he wanted no matter if it was the right time and place or not. As much as I loved the old man, he could really drive you nuts if he wanted to. [Barrett's daughter] Mary Jane said that her mother had to go to Glaser's office and beg for his job numerous times after Barrett had managed to raise hell one way or the other...But I always had the feeling that Barrett would have loved to stay longer with the band and that he didn't want to come up with the real reason why he left the maybe he did screw something up. We'll never know for sure."

Like I said, it wasn't abrupt. On December 30, 1957, the All Stars played the first Timex All Star Jazz Show. That night, back home in Corona, Queens, Louis turned on his tape recorder and talked a bit about the show. When he gave the personnel of the All Stars, he got to Deems and said, "Deems, Barrett Deems, who also seems like the ax done hit him, but he's still with us. I don't know, I don't run Mr. Glaser's business. I just blow the horn."

So the ax had h it Deems by the end of December but he was allowed to stay a little longer until a replacement was lined up. That replacement was Danny Barcelona, who told me that when he got to New York, he was allowed to watch Louis record Louis and the Good Book in early February 1958...with Deems still on drums. When the last session ended on February 7, Deems was out and Barcelona was in.

Whatever the circumstances were, Deems showed no bitterness and always spoke glowingly of Armstrong. "He was the most beautiful man I ever worked for and the best entertainer in the world," he told Steve Voce. "He was constantly giving money away. Sometimes, if someone on the street asked him for 25 cents, he'd give them a $100 bill and tell them to buy some food and clothes and find a place to stay. A lot of people would ask him about me. 'Why do you have a white drummer?' "He'd just say, 'Because I like his playing.' Period."

Deems continued to stay busy after his All Stars tenure, first joining another fellow Pops sideman, Jack Teagarden. In the early 60s, he did a stint with the Dukes of Dixieland (missing Louis's sessions with the band by two years). And then it was back to Chicago, where he became a permanent fixture for the rest of his days.

Of course, he was happy to leave when a worthwhile project came along, such as Benny Goodman's tour of Eastern Europe. Deems got the call to play drums; a number of videos exist on YouTube of these performances, all of them swinging like crazy. Here's a medley of "Don't Be That Way" and "Stompin' at the Savoy":

Of course, All Stars reunions were prevalent in the 70s and 80s, especially groups organized by the trumpeter Keith Smith. Here's a pic of Smith with Dick Cary, Peanuts Hucko, Russell "Big Chief" Moore, Arvell Shaw and Barrett:
 And fortunately, this band was filmed a few times. Here he is with Smith, Johnny Mince, Bob Havens, Nat Pierce and Arvell Shaw, trading fours:

And to really see Deems in action, from the same concert, fast forward to 6:07 and see him as his speedy best, including standing up, playing around the set and indulging in a little "Big Noise from Winnetka"-esque action with Shaw:

 More great videos: Barrett backing Doc Cheatham on "Someday You'll Be Sorry" at the Chicago Jazz Fest in 1985:

And backing Bud Freeman from that same festival:

And here he is in Australia (with Chuck Hedges on clarinet) in 1989, 76-years-old (with a "12-year-old body"), playing and talking:

On and on he went, like an iron man, forming a big band and leading it for weekly gigs up until his death in 1998. I've had a ball with these two tributes to "Deemus" but as can be seen, my focus has been on his years with Louis. But already, people have been e-mailing and writing me on Facebook with Barrett stories and lines. Another great drummer, Brooks Teglar, sent along this wonderful Duncan Schiedt photo of himself flanked by Barrett and Butch Miles: 

Of the photo, he said, "That very evening was when Barrett and I had a conversation in the restaurant of the hotel (they stayed open ALL NIGHT during the Central Illinois Jazz Festival weekend...another thing of the past, sadly) about Louie, Gene, drummers in general, his career and so many other things that wound up going on until 3 or 4am. It was a deep, thoughtfully sensitive Barrett I spent that time with and I was so glad to have seen a side of him that few did. That night he drew for me a map to the Calumet City grave site of Gene's and that little piece of Original 'Deems' artwork sits in a place of high prominence in my mementos collection. I also cherish the 'Honorary Barrett Deems Duck Call' that he gave me in Manassass and can still hear him telling me when it should be put to use.....ha!"

Trumpet Phil Person wrote in to add, "I met Barrett in 1988 in Chicago when I was on the road with Dick Johnson & the Artie Shaw Orch. We did a gig at a new club & Barrett came to hear us. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with him during the breaks. He also came out to our bus after the gig. He said, 'We traveled in one just like this with Louis.' About Louis he said, 'He could fart on the bus and it would swing,' and 'He had a heart as big as this earth and he played like it. God I miss him.'" Phil added, "So I was sitting at a table in the club with Barrett, his wife and several others. Every few minutes he'd tap me on the leg and say things. A few examples: 'F**kin' Louis, what a great player. God I miss him.' A Bird & Diz recording came on, the one with Monk and Buddy Rich: 'F**kin' Bird, he changed the whole thing around. Dizzy told me that the edition of Louis' All Stars I was in was the hardest swinging band of that style he ever heard."

That led Bernard to add this hysterical one-liner: "What Barrett said about this woman sitting next to us in a Chicago restaurant was....'...she was put together when meat was cheap...'"

A search of the internet found this anecdote from John Miles: "A few days before the Chicago Historical Society gig, Barrett, myself and another drum acquaintance of ours went up to Milwaukee to check out some music store that was closing up. On the trip up there, I mentioned I had recently heard Louis Armstrong's recording of 'King Of The Zulus,' which Barrett was on and he mentioned how he kept a beat to that tune. He said he would say, 'Eat Some Shit' in a slow tempo. So then throughout the CHS gig Barrett up on the stand was mouthing that same phrase while the band was playing. Bud was never the wiser. Barrett by the way did not mean any disrespect for Bud, he was just having his fun playing drums."

On and and on it goes...and I hope it keeps going. If you or someone you love has a Barrett Deems anecdote, do not hesitate to share them and maybe I'll have enough to write a part 3! But for now, thanks to all who have contributed in making this what I hope was a very special tribute to a very special drummer. 


LOUIS said…
Sorry to be such a wet blanket, Ricky, but did you not give us twice Stomping At The Savoy instead of SATS and Mop Mop ?
Great showcase, by the way...
Ricky Riccardi said…
Fixed! Sorry about the audio difficulties; the site I use to post the audio has been giving me lots of headaches. But thanks for letting me know!

hamfat said…
Very good salute to Barrett - one of the great originals. Eddie Hubble told me a story about when he and Barrtett were recording with the Dukes of Dixieland. They were finished with the track and Frank Assunto was overdubing a vocal while the band sat silently in the studio. The engineer kept stopping the tape because he couldn't locate a buzzing sound.Finally they looked behind the drums where Barrett was crouched with his electric shaver. As always, he had no idea what everyone was mad about.
Really, he was a friend and a great drummer - we all miss him.
Scott Hamilton
A great tribute to one of my favourite drummers, who I actually got to see in Chicago, probably not more than a few months before he passed. I've always dug his high energy playing, ever since I first bought "The Great Chicago Concert" on vinyl years ago. Thanks for another great feature Ricky.
A great tribute to one of my favourite drummers, who I actually got to see in Chicago, probably not more than a few months before he passed. I've always dug his high energy playing, ever since I first bought "The Great Chicago Concert" on vinyl years ago. Thanks for another great feature Ricky.
Unknown said…
I met Barrett Deems when he was in the audience for an Elvin Jones gig at Chicagos's Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase in March 1994. I asked him if he remembered playing with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars in Liverpool, England in 1956. Oh yes ! "That place with the revolving stage ? I'll never forget it " Indeed the venue was Liverpool's then Boxing Stadium and a revolving stage had been placed on the floor of the boxing ring so that all of the audience would be able to view the band. Amazing,Barret playing fast and revolving at the same time !

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