by Rick Mattingly
“"There are kids out there today who are playing drums for the pure love of it. That’s what’s behind the whole music business, and I think some of these large corporations forget that.”
About a half hour before he was to give a drum clinic in Louisville, Kentucky in 1977, Roy Burns dropped a wing nut. He had been in the process of mounting his cymbals, and quite a few people were already seated in the hotel conference room where the clinic was to take place. Burns looked up at the assembled crowd and said, quite authoritatively, “Drummers are subject to certain laws of nature, one of which states that if you drop a wing nut, it will roll under the bass drum.”
At first, there was no reaction from the crowd. Burns had made his pronouncement so matter-of-factly that it took a moment for the truth and humor of what he said to register. But as Roy cracked a grin and bent down to retrieve his wing nut (from under the bass drum), the audience erupted in laughter.
If PAS elected people to its Hall of Fame based on their sense of humor or the number of musician jokes they know, Roy Burns would easily qualify. But people are voted into the PAS Hall of Fame in recognition of their accomplishments as performers, teachers, composers/authors, or in the industry. Burns has made contributions in all of those areas.
Born in 1935 in Emporia, Kansas, Roy began taking drum lessons at age seven from the director of the music department at Emporia State College. “He kept telling me, ‘It’s not enough to have good hands, you have to use your noodle,’” Burns recalls. “That made a really big impression on me.”
Roy then took lessons from the drummer in the local dance band. When that drummer went back to college on the G.I. Bill, he sold his drums to Roy, and Burns became the drummer in the band. “I was 14 at the time,” Roy says, “but there was no other drummer in Emporia. So I was playing with all these older guys, and it was a great experience. They were very professional and demanded that I be as professional as a 14-year-old can be. It was a good training ground.”
When he was 17, Roy began traveling to Kansas City to study with a drummer named Jack Miller. The train ride was over four hours each way, and Roy spent more on train fare than he did on the lessons, which cost two dollars. “Jack was very impressed that I was willing to travel that far to take a drum lesson,” says Roy. “He would let me hang around the studio all day long, and he would often take me to dinner and then drive me to the train station. He didn’t make any money off me, but he devoted a lot of time to me.
“Then Louie Bellson came by the studio when he was with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He listened to each of us play, then he played a little bit, and then he asked me to play again. Then he said, ‘Kid, you’re as good as you’re going to get if you stay in Kansas. Go to New York or L.A. and study.’”
Two years later, after spending six months in New Orleans playing with a Dixieland band, Roy headed for New York. “I’d heard about Jim Chapin from my teacher in Kansas City, so I called him up and arranged to take some lessons,” Roy says. “That got me started in New York.”
Burns was soon doing freelance gigs and club dates around New York City. His first professional jazz gig involved subbing for Cozy Cole with Sol Yaged’s group at the Metropole. “That was the beginning of a long association with the Metropole and with different versions of Sol’s band,” Roy says. “One time I was playing at the Metropole opposite Cozy, and something happened in the tune and everybody got lost, so I stopped playing. When I came off the stage, Cozy said, ‘Roy, never stop playing. Just roll until somebody does something.’ That was good advice,” Roy says, laughing.
Burns also attended Juilliard for a semester, but left when offered a chance to go on the road with Woody Herman. After three and a half months with Herman, Roy was invited to audition for Benny Goodman. “I went up to the Carnegie Hall rehearsal studios, and it was just Benny and his piano player, Mel Powell. Benny said, ‘Let’s play “Lady Be Good.”’ So I pulled out my brushes and we played one tune after another for two hours. Then he put the clarinet down and said, ‘Be at the Waldorf tonight and wear a dark suit,’ and he walked out. I didn’t know where the Waldorf was, and I only had one suit, but fortunately it was dark.
“So I found the Waldorf. They were playing in a big restaurant with a sunken dance floor, just like in all the Hollywood movies. They played a dance set, a concert set, then another dance set. I was just listening. Then Goodman’s manager came up and said, ‘Benny wants you to play the next concert set.’ So I went down to meet Mousey Alexander, who was extremely nice. He said, ‘Look, kid, I’m leaving the band anyway. This is a hell of a way to audition, in front of a live audience on somebody else’s drums, but I’ll talk you through the charts the best I can.’ He was very helpful, and I did pretty well. Mel Powell leaped up from the piano and said, ‘Congratulations, young man.’ Mousey said, ‘Wow, you really listened. You played the show just like I did with no rehearsal. But let me give you some advice: to Benny Goodman, music is time, so just play as steady as you can.’
“So I got the job. When I look back, I think Benny was the best musician I ever played with,” Roy says. “When we went to Brussels to play the 1958 World’s Fair, they recorded it, and the Westinghouse television network was one of the sponsors of the tour. They made a promotional album, Benny Goodman at the World’s Fair, that they sold for a dollar. ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ was on it, which was my drum solo. Benny let me do what I wanted on it; he was pretty free with me in that regard. They played it on the radio a lot, and a lot of people had it because it was only a buck, so that got my name out there. At the time, I was just doing the gig; I didn’t know they were recording. But that was my big break.”
The “name” that got out there, however, was Roy Burness. “My name was actually spelled Burnes,” Roy explains. “But on the album it was spelled Burness. One year I got 19 different withholding slips with my name spelled different ways. I got called in by the IRS and the guy says to me, ‘Okay, kid, who are you and what are you trying to get away with?’ I said, ‘I’m not trying to get away with anything. People just keep misspelling my name.’ He said, ‘If I were you, I’d change it.’ So I had it legally changed to Burns.”
Roy stayed with Goodman for over three years. “Then they asked me to sign a contract that basically said I could be fired at any moment, but I couldn’t quit,” Roy remembers. “Also, I had become a father and wanted to stay in town. So I left Benny’s band.”Roy started freelancing around New York, at one point working several weeks with Charles Mingus and Roland Hanna at the Half Note, and leading his own group at Birdland. He also played at the Metropole quite a bit, often with Sol Yaged.
“The Metropole was a great place to work. You could play loud, you could play solos; it was very uninhibited. The best gig I ever did there was a week with Charlie Shavers, Coleman Hawkins, Arvel Shaw, and Marty Napoleon. I played so well with those guys I couldn’t believe it. The next week, when I was playing with people my own age, I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t play as good. Then I realized it was them. When you play with guys who are that great, all you have to do is go along with them and everything will be fine, because they are so strong and so experienced.”
During that time, Roy also became a staff musician at NBC. “Sonny Igoe, who was a mentor of mine and who had helped me quite a bit, asked me to sub for him on The Merv Griffin Show,” Roy says. “Sonny eventually went to CBS to do The Jackie Gleason Show, so I became the regular drummer on Merv’s show. Then I had a chance to do a show called Saturday Prom, which was another Merv Griffin show, and it was a big band and it was live. They wanted a young looking drummer because the show started off with an eight-measure drum break. While I was on staff I would occasionally do The Tonight Show if Bobby Rosengarden took a night off. This was when Jack Paar was doing the show and Skitch Henderson led the band.”
One of the guests on the Griffin show was Lionel Hampton, who Roy had worked opposite at the Metropole and sat in with on occasion. After the show, Hampton told Roy he was going to Las Vegas and invited Roy to be his drummer. “I did that gig for about six months,” Roy says. “It was great because Hamp was one of my heroes. He still played the drums quite a bit. He was the best twirler and tosser of drumsticks I ever saw. He had great enthusiasm, which was very infectious.”
Back in New York, Burns was doing any gig he could to make a living. He started teaching, and that led him to writing instructional drum books. “I would be working with students, and we’d get to a certain point and there would be no material available that I wanted to put them through,” Burns recalls. “So I would write out exercises. Then one day I thought, ‘I’ve written some of these things out a hundred times; maybe I should put them in a book.’ So all the books I wrote came about as a result of teaching.”
Burns had also become an endorser of Rogers drums, which led to more books and eventually to drum clinics. “In 1960, the NAMM show was held in New York City, and I was getting ready to leave Benny’s band. Henry Adler told me I should go see these guys at Rogers because they were looking for endorsers. So I met Ben Strauss and Henry Grossman, and they were very fine people. The drums weren’t bad, and they told me all the things they were going to improve, so I became a Rogers endorser. Then they asked me to write an elementary drum method, which they helped promote, and the next thing I knew Rogers wanted me to do clinics.”
In 1966 Roy went to Hawaii to play with Joe Bushkin, and they ended up staying for two years. When that gig ended, Rogers offered Burns a full-time job doing clinics. So in 1968, Roy moved his family to Dayton, Ohio, where Rogers was located, and became an in-house clinician and artist. After one year in Ohio, Rogers (and Burns) moved to California. Roy stayed with Rogers until 1980.
Burns also became associated with Paiste during that time. “There was some kind of rift between Rogers and Zildjian over distribution of cymbals,” Burns remembers. “Rogers decided to go with Paiste. I was a Zildjian endorser, and I was told that I could either change to Paiste or lose my job with Rogers. But I met Robert Paiste, and he was a very nice man. He offered to fly me to Switzerland so I could see what they were doing and then make a decision. So I went over and saw their whole operation and got to be very close to them. I switched to Paiste cymbals and enjoyed the association very much.”
Roy particularly remembers a Paiste clinic tour he did with Jack DeJohnette. “We had done a product demonstration together for a distributor,” Roy explains, “and Jack said to Robert Paiste, ‘Why don’t you put the two of us together? There won’t be anything else like it.’ One thing I quickly learned about Jack was that he was going to play something different every night; we weren’t going to do a routine. He always played great, but some nights were really special. He is a very creative guy; I’ve always described him as a musician who plays the drums. We had a lot of fun, and that’s one of my most fondly remembered clinic tours.”
While working for Rogers in the 1970s, Roy also taught through the Dick Grove school and continued writing drum books. He also kept busy as a player, and served as house drummer for the Monterey Jazz Festival for nine years.
One day, Roy told his wife that he was going to quit Rogers and start his own business. “After CBS bought Rogers Drums, I realized that if you don’t have a musician in a position of power in a musical-instrument company, the product is going to suffer,” Roy explains. “I’ve seen it happen many times. It’s not that anyone is dishonest or greedy, they just forget who their customer is. There are kids out there today who are like young Jack DeJohnettes or young Roy Burns or young somebodys, who are playing drums for the pure love of it. That’s what’s behind the whole music business, and I think some of these large corporations forget that.”
Along with a partner, Ron Marquez, Roy started Aquarian Accessories. “It was a lot harder than I expected,” Roy admits. “But we stuck to it and things worked out, and here we are 28 years later still going. We try to not come out with products just for the sake of a gimmick. We get a lot of good information from our endorsers, because they see a need for something and they relate it to us, and we take those ideas very seriously.”
Aquarian’s first product was the Cymbal Spring. “Drummers were cracking cymbals,” Roy says, “and we wanted to find a way to reduce the shock. We came up with the idea of a spring, and we went through several generations of it before we got one that worked.“Jack DeJohnette was one of the first endorsers for Aquarian. It was his suggestion to make a heavier cymbal spring so he could mount his China cymbals upside down.”
The company also made graphite drumsticks, which were quite popular in the 1980s. In the meantime, quite a few of Roy’s friends in the industry were encouraging him to make drumheads. “We knew if we went into drumheads we had to come up with something that was at least a little bit different,” Roy says. “We took some calf drumheads and tried to duplicate the shape and dimensions as much as possible, hoping we would get similar results using modern-day materials. After some tries it worked out and we carved out a niche for ourselves. Again, we took ideas from endorsers who told us what they needed.
“The Super-Kick bass drum head really got us going. We pre-muffled the head with a felt strip inside. That was our first big success with drumheads. Then the Hi-Energy snare drum head was a success with the heavy players. The Safe-T-Lok hoop was a key thing with our heads, because it doesn’t allow the head to slip and detune.”
During the first years of Aquarian, Roy was still teaching. “I always enjoyed teaching, and I had some great students like Josh Freese, Nick D’Virgilio, John Mattox, and Evan Stone. The nicest compliment is that none of my students played like me or like each other. I tried to give them the tools to help them play the way they wanted to play. When you connect with a student who’s talented and is willing to put forth the effort, it’s pretty rewarding.”
He also continued doing clinics. “When I left Rogers to start Aquarian, I was approached by Bob Zildjian, who had just started Sabian, and he invited me to do clinics for him,” Roy says. “They were making a fine product, so I did some clinics for Sabian and I’m still close to Bob and his family. It was a nice association and it helped get the Aquarian products out there, because we shared the expenses.”
In 1977, Roy appeared on the cover of the second issue of Modern Drummer magazine. A couple of years later, he began writing a regular column for the magazine called “Concepts,” which ran for 12 years.Modern Drummer also hosted Roy’s final appearance as a drummer. At the Modern Drummer Festival in 1997, Roy joined with Vic Firth, MD publisher Ron Spagnardi, DW’s Don Lombardi, and Pro-Mark’s Herb Brockstein in a percussion quintet dubbed The Originators. “Ron’s idea was to let young drummers know that the people behind these companies were drummers or percussionists themselves,” Roy explains. “I thought that was a good idea. We had a good time, so I ended on a high note.”
Burns continued writing books during the ’80s, including several with New Orleans drummer Joey Farris. “We wrote a few books and started a little publishing company,” Roy says, “but then it got to be too much to keep going. So we sold all the books to Warner Bros. [now Alfred]; Sandy Feldstein was the CEO there at the time. And they are still selling.
“I never did books for the money, although that came in handy. It was more to fill a need in the network of books that were out there. Of course, when I started doing that in the early ’60s, there weren’t as many books available and there weren’t any DVDs and CDs and things like that. Now there’s so much good material available it’s hard to know what to get. When I first started taking drum lessons, there were no TV sets, no long-playing records, no videos. You got a 78-rpm record and hoped you could learn something in three minutes. With the recording quality in those days, you might hear a rimshot and a cymbal crash.
“I’ve seen quite a few changes in my years,” Burns says. “There are more good drummers out there today than ever before. The drum business was different when I started out. It was a little more innocent and a time of development for many things. Magazines like Modern Drummer and groups like the Percussive Arts Society created more interest in drumming and made more information accessible to people, and that led to somewhat of an explosion in drumming over the years I’ve been observing it. They used to talk about ‘nine musicians and a drummer,’ but I think that joke has pretty much been put to rest.”
Selected Books by Roy Burns
Advanced Rock and Roll Drumming, Alfred
Developing Finger Control (with Lewis Malen), Alfred
Drum Method, Elementary, Alfred
Drum Method, Intermediate, Alfred
Drumset Music (with Sandy Feldstein), Alfred
Elementary Rock and Roll Drumming (with Howard Halpern), Alfred
Multiple Percussion Solos, Intermediate (with Sandy Feldstein), Alfred
Multiple Percussion Solos, Advanced (with Sandy Feldstein), Alfred
One Surface Learning (with Joey Farris), Alfred
Studio Funk Drumming (with Joey Farris), Alfred
The Best of Concepts, Modern Drummer/Hal Leonard
Roy Burns: Skin Burns
Benny Goodman: Benny in Brussels, Vols. 1 and 2
Dick Grove: Big, Bad and Beautiful
Roland Hanna: Easy to Love
Teddy Wilson: The Touch of Teddy Wilson