by Rick Mattingly
PAS Hall of Fame member Roy Burns died on May 5, 2018 after a distinguished career as a drummer, educator, author, and founder of Aquarian Accessories. He also seemed to know more musician jokes than anyone!
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. Roy then took lessons from the drummer in a local dance band. When that drummer went back to college, he sold his drums to Roy, and Burns became the drummer in the band. “I was 14,” Roy said, “so I was playing with all these older guys, and it was a great experience. They 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. One day, Louie Bellson came by the studio and heard Roy play. Bellson then told Burns, “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, where he took some lessons from Jim Chapin. 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.
Burns also attended Juilliard for a semester, but he 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. He got the gig. “Benny was the best musician I ever played with,” Roy said. “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. That was my big break.”
Roy stayed with Goodman for over three years, and then 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.
During that time, Roy became a staff musician at NBC. “Sonny Igoe, who was a mentor of mine, asked me to sub for him on The Merv Griffin Show,” Roy said. “Sonny eventually went to CBS, so I became the regular drummer on Merv's show. Then I had a chance to do a show called Saturday Prom, and 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. 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 said. “It was great because Hamp was one of my heroes.”
Back in New York, Burns did 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 recalled. “So I would write out exercises. Then one day I thought I should put them in a book. So all the books I wrote came about as a result of teaching.”
Burns became an endorser of Rogers drums, which led to more books and eventually to drum clinics. In 1966 Roy went to Hawaii to play with Joe Bushkin, and they stayed 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 when Rogers became the U.S. Paiste distributor. Roy particularly remembers a Paiste clinic tour he did with Jack DeJohnette. “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 is a very creative guy; I've always described him as a musician who plays the drums.”
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. Along with a partner, Ron Marquez, Roy started Aquarian Accessories. “It was a lot harder than I expected,” Roy admited. “But we stuck to it and things worked out. 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, and 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 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.” Burns was always accessible. If you phoned Aquarian, as often as not, Roy answered the phone himself.
During the first years of Aquarian, Roy was still teaching. He also did clinics for Sabian. 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.
Burns continued writing books until shortly before his death, including several with New Orleans drummer Joey Farris. In 2012, Kendor Music published three news books by Burns: Relaxed Hand Technique, Solo Secrets of the Left Hand and Bass Drum and The Creative Drum Set Workbook. And just a few months ago, Alfred Music published Roy’s Single Strokes Made Easy: A Drummer’s Approach for Developing Speed and Endurance.
“I've seen quite a few changes in my years,” Burns said in his 2008 PAS Hall of Fame profile. “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.”