By Robyn Flans
Between 1963 and 1992 Ed Shaughnessy was probably the most visible drummer in America. He came into millions of homes every night, playing with everyone's favorite artists and swinging The Tonight Show band.
It's hard to believe that when Shaughnessy was asked to take over the drum seat for Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, he didn't know if it was something he'd want to do. He'd had a previous staff gig with CBS, where, for four years, he played for The Garry Moore Show in a jazz combo, a situation he describes as "nirvana." When that ended, though, he stayed at the TV network for a year, doing "typical studio work, which is boring and static. The saxophone player, who loved the stock market and golf, but not music, said to me, 'You're really weird; you're the only guy here out of 50 musicians who tries to play his best all the time,'" Ed recalls. "I said, 'That's what you're supposed to do.' And he said, 'Not up here.' So I gave my notice that day."
Shaughnessy feared The Tonight Show gig would be more of the same. But Ed was persuaded to try it for two weeks, and found the experience to be refreshing and challenging. "When I got up there and Doc Severinsen was the lead trumpet player, Clark Terry was sitting next to me in the jazz trumpet chair, and there were all these great players, I said, 'My God, this is not your ordinary studio situation,'" Shaughnessy says. "When the two weeks were over and they asked if I wanted to stay, I said I sure would."
Shaughnessy wasn't about to let himself become uninspired about playing. For him, music was definitely about passion. "As a kid, I used to practice eight hours a day," he remembers. "I had a very unhappy home life. I had an alcoholic father who was a good man, but it was traumatic. I was an only child and music very, very definitely was a way out. A psych friend of mine says it's called doing the right thing for the wrong reason. But thank God for it.
"So I would go down in the basement in the apartment building, and if I muffled the drums enough, I could play. On Saturdays, I would go down there for eight hours, and right after school I'd go down there with the radio and skip supper. I would practice and I would go see the greats play. I didn't have much money, but in those days I could watch the great drummers for 50 cents—take a sandwich and stay all day," he says, recalling that he met his first idol and major influence, Sidney Catlett, that way.
"He had a fantastic touch," Shaughnessy says of Catlett, who invited Ed up on the bandstand one night when Shaughnessy was only 15. "He was a very big man," Ed recalls, "yet jazz writer Whitney Balliett said that Big Sid 'played the drums with the velvet skills of a surgeon's scalpel.' Everything flowed. A lot of people say I look graceful when I play. I think that has a lot to do with having seen Sidney. That was my first impression about how to play the drums. I saw Sidney play one night with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. They were playing all of the hot bebop tunes of the day and he sounded terrific. Then he took me across the street to the Dixieland club and sat in with Eddie Condon and his Chicago jazz players in an entirely different kind of music, and he sounded the greatest. So the impression I got was that Sidney could play it all, and so sympathetically. He was famous for asking a soloist, 'Which cymbal do you like me to play behind you?' Have you ever heard anyone say that?
"Since Sidney had this infectious rhythm, dance lines loved him," Ed adds. "I was learning how to read anyway, but he emphasized it to me, so I was starting to become a fanatic and tried to get every book I could."
At 18, Shaughnessy went on the road for two years with bebop artist Charlie Ventura. It was the gig that put Shaughnessy on the map, and immediately following that, he played more mainstream jazz as part of a septet with Benny Goodman on Goodman's first European tour in 1950, where he learned not only musical lessons.
"Can you imagine coming from Kennedy Airport to Charley's Tavern in Manhattan and saying, 'Hey, Charlie, can you give us cab money?' Benny hadn't paid us our last week's salary because he went to Monte Carlo from Paris and gambled forty or fifty grand away. We went up to him like gentlemen and said, 'Hey Benny, you know the five days we had off? We made a little album under Roy Eldridge's name.' Of course, the small print on the contract said 'exclusive services,' so he withheld our salary to help him bail out of his losses. We had been paid like two dollars to make the album with Roy, thinking it would just be a nice thing to do during our time off. But that's why they say only two people were at Benny's funeral." Whenever Ed worked with Goodman after that, he asked to be paid in cash, up front.
When Buddy Rich left Tommy Dorsey, Shaughnessy was offered the job—a better experience and a highlight. "At 17, I had watched Tommy Dorsey's band at New York's Paramount Theatre with Buddy Rich," Ed says. "Four years later, I was on Tommy Dorsey's band, and when he played his famous theme song, 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You,' the hair went up on the back of my neck."
Afterward, Shaughnessy played with several of the more avant garde artists of the time, such as Charles Mingus, Teo Macero, Teddy Charles, and Don Ellis. "I always enjoyed playing with the avant garde because it made me fearless," Ed comments. He also played some dates with Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as an abundance of record dates, during which time he had one of the highlights of his life—recording five albums with Count Basie and his band.
"Count Basie was my favorite band when I was a kid," Shaughnessy recalls. "They called me when their touring drummer, Sonny Payne, couldn't come into New York State due to some divorce troubles. I would rub that in when I would see Sonny; 'I love your divorce troubles,' I would tease. The band was so great. They would rehearse the music on the road and then I would see it for the first time in the studio. It was a great compliment to my sight-reading abilities. I feel as though those records sound like I had been playing with the band regularly, which is what the band told me."
Reading was Ed's calling card on The Tonight Show, where Shaughnessy would not only sight-read and play different styles of jazz, but play the gamut of musical styles as well. He supplied drums for such jazz artists as Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz, country's Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, soul music stars James Brown and Aretha Franklin, fusion's John McLaughlin, numerous rock acts, and even for opera stars Beverly Sills and Robert Merrill. "I had to get the timpani out and do opera excerpts," Ed remembers.
Among his personal favorite Tonight Show performances are "Cherokee" with John McLaughlin, working with B.B King, and playing a drum duet with Buddy Rich, which he says was not nerve-wracking due to his realistic view of the situation. "I know who is the greater drummer between the two of us, and I know, if I do pretty good, then I'm doing as good as anybody," Ed comments. "As long as you accept that, you go in relaxed. But if you go in there with your head up your behind and say, 'Gee, maybe I could carve Buddy Rich,' you might as well go home. By having confidence in yourself, but still respecting the greatness of his talent, I think you do better."
For Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinsen, Shaughnessy fulfilled the role of show drummer perfectly. In a 1986 interview following a Tonight Show rehearsal, Severinsen described the responsibilities of the drummer as being able to play "everything from Dixieland to ragtime to rock 'n' roll. Then there are novelty acts who come in and say, 'When I step on my wife's stomach, give me a drum roll.' The drummer literally has to become part of the act. I've got to have musicians with a lot of personal discipline—that means people who practice on their axes. Rehearsal was over an hour ago, and Shaughnessy is still up there with his practice pad, practicing the basic rudiments."
Shaughnessy has always been a student of the drums. He says as the 1950s gave way to the '60s, he knew he needed to expand his musical horizons. "I bought and listened to records and went into a serious study, because before The Tonight Show, I was mostly playing big band and small band jazz. I began studying and practicing with a vengeance." His quest for musical knowledge included five years of study with tabla player Alla Rakha.
As for career highlights, Ed recalls a 1952 gig with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. "It was a piece called 'Fusion' by Teo Macero, which was one of the earliest attempts at putting jazz and symphonic music together," Shaughnessy explains. "I loved Lenny Bernstein and that was a big thrill. I think my hair stood up on end because it was a powerful performance."
He also recalls being hired to perform with George Ballanchine and the New York City Ballet. "Later I read where he said I had the 'beat like steel,' and I thought, 'I can go to heaven now,'" Ed laughs. "My wife and I were avid ballet fans, and it was such a thrill for me to work with such a genius."
Shaughnessy recounts one highlight as simply holding the door for Igor Stravinsky at Columbia Records. "He was my idol," Ed says. "I was coming in to do a record date, he was finishing up an editing session, and I held the door open for him. I said, 'My pleasure Maestro,' and he said, 'Thank you, my boy,' and I went home 20 feet tall."
Still another highlight is being elected to the PAS Hall of Fame. "I don't think anything is quite as unique as your colleagues and peers voting you in for something like this," Shaughnessy says. "It is the most meaningful kind of honor. PAS has meant a great deal to me for over 35 years, and the organization has been very close to my heart. It has a great sense of fellowship, which is obvious by PASIC, and it is a great learning source. Through this organization, you have access to any kind of knowledge you may desire," he says, adding that with the Internet and the computer age, there's no excuse for a lack of education.
At 75, Shaughnessy looks 20 years younger; the music keeps him energized. He has a book coming out through Hal Leonard called Show Drumming, based on his vast experience. He conducts clinics, teaches, and is always happy to work with Severinson. "I think I'm playing the best I've ever played now," he asserts. "I love that Dizzy Gillespie quote: 'You finally learn what to leave out.' As we mature, I think we all learn what to leave out. If you work at your craft every day, you can only get better. So I play every day."