by Rick Mattingly
Additional reporting by Lauren Vogel Weiss
Remo Belli didn’t have to go to PASICs and trade shows; he had plenty of employees who could promote and sell his products. But he could typically be found in the Remo booth, and he usually had one or more new products to promote, which he did with the pride of a new father. But once he had shown off the new drumhead, or hand drum, or percussion accessory, or described a new venture related to wellness or community drumming, he wanted feedback.
“Remo was always concerned about how drums could be used for human development, personal growth, and health,” says Christine Stevens, who has led training sessions in the Remo HealthRhythms program since 2001. “He had a ‘curiosity’ state of mind and a ‘research’ state of mind. He always want to know what you were doing, how you were doing it, where you were going with it.”
“A couple of years ago,” says Dennis DeLucia, “Remo invited six ‘marching’ endorsees to attend a two-day meeting at the factory. Even though he was an extremely busy man, Remo sat in on the entire day’s meetings, during which he listened and did not say a word! Then, at the end of the day, he stood to address the gathering with his words of wisdom and encouragement.”
When Remo Belli died on April 25 at age 88, he left behind a legacy of innovation coupled with a passion for percussion in all its forms. His perfection of the plastic drumhead alone would have ensured his legendary status in the drumming world, but he continued to innovate and work to spread the joy of drumming, being instrumental in the formation of the Percussive Arts Society and creating products to serve those outside the professional music business, including children, hobbyists, world music practitioners, drum circle enthusiasts, and those who use drumming for music therapy and wellness.
“The strongest impression or memory I have of Remo has to do with the indelible sense of enthusiasm, wonder, and pride he felt for the whole of humanity where it concerned drumming,” says Peter Erskine. “Remo saw drumming and human health as being completely intertwined. He saw the path towards enlightenment—for the drum industry, for medicine, and for the human race—as a journey best made with hands on skin—Dupont Mylar or otherwise! Remo saw ’round the bend, and he’s still waiting for the rest of us to catch up. Sure, he was a percussion industry innovator and tremendous businessman, but he was more than that: Remo was one enlightened soul who believed in a better world and who knew that the drum would play an essential part in that, as it always has. He could see so far into the future because he understood the past so well. That was my takeaway whenever I spent some time with him.”
Frame drum master Glen Velez considers Remo’s greatest contribution to be his openness to new ways of seeing percussion and his inventiveness in translating that into products that everyone could use and enjoy playing. “Because of his expertise in the business world,” Velez says, “Remo was able to make a huge impact on the percussion scene in the United States and all over the world.
“One recurring memory I have of Remo was his enthusiasm for new technology and new ideas,” Velez continues. “He had a great and wonderful childlike quality of being very enthusiastic about what he was doing. It was really contagious, and that’s what made it so much fun to work with him. After knowing him for more than 30 years, I always felt a very wonderful connection with his love of percussion and his love of drumming. It was great to work with him, and I always considered him to be a visionary.”
Tambourine virtuoso Alessandra Belloni shared similar thoughts. “He mastered the synthetic drumheads back in 1957,” says Belloni. “Thanks to that, we started to have these fantastic rock ’n’ roll beats and dance beats. And Remo developed percussion instruments that I use to heal and help people with mental illnesses and other kinds of physical problems. He was also a pioneer of drum circles and the idea that drumming was for everybody, not just professionals. He believed firmly in things, and he could see through the future. Besides being a genius, he kept inventing things right until the end, like the new drumheads that had a vibration that really worked for autistic children. I think the vision he had was so big that he could see through people somehow, and it was good to know that he was always there.”
Countless drummers considered Belli a friend, not just a businessman. “Remo was a very good friend to me and my father, Bud,” says Gregg Bissonette, Los Angeles-based studio musician and currently the drummer with Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. “I first met Remo in 1982 when I was with the Maynard Ferguson Big Band and he gave me my Remo drumhead endorsement. I will never forget when he asked me to play at the Remo ‘Hands-On Day’ in L.A. We had a blast together, and that was also the day that Remo introduced the Pre-Tuned Drum series. My dad always told me how great Remo was to him and my mom whenever they would go to the Remo headquarters in Valencia to pick up my drumheads. One of my greatest memories of Remo was hanging out with him at the NAMM show party he threw at the Hilton Ballroom in Anaheim with tons of wonderful musicians. That was the last time I saw Jeff Porcaro play with Toto. Remo hired so many great bands to play at his party. Remo Belli was so amazing!”
“Remo was a slender man who cast a gigantic shadow,” DeLucia said. “He and the Remo company have been extremely generous supporters of all forms of percussion, including his passion for the wellness benefits of drumming. I am grateful for his support of the marching arts and artists, and I will miss him dearly.”
Drum circle facilitator Arthur Hull considered Remo a mentor and father figure. “He was not afraid to ask me the hard questions,” Hull says. “And that is why, even though it annoyed him, I called him ‘dad.’ I’m still mourning his passing, and I say a little prayer of thanks every time I touch a drum with a crown symbol on it.”
Remo Delmo Belli was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, on June 22, 1927. As a child, he loved listening to his uncle’s polka band, and his father urged him to learn the accordion. But Remo had a different idea. “I am a first-generation American,” Remo said. “My first language was Italian. When I went to the Italian club that was developed in my town, they had organized a band with a drummer, and I became fascinated by the drum. I got my first drum when I was 12.”
By the time he entered high school, World War II had broken out and many of the local drummers had been drafted. As one of the few drummers left in northern Indiana, he began playing professionally. When he enlisted in the Navy at 18, he was assigned to the Navy band.
After receiving his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, joined the musicians’ union, studied drums with Murray Spivak, and began working as a drummer. From 1947 to 1957 Remo worked steadily, both in town and on the road. Remo became well known as a player, working with Billy May, Anita O’Day, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Ann Southern, Johnnie Ray, Betty Hutton, Mae West, and with a number of jazz musicians, including holding down the drum chair with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, the house band. When he was off the road, he was a first-call studio drummer.
In 1952, jazz/session drummer Roy Harte asked Remo to partner with him in a small drum shop in Hollywood that was growing. They moved into a larger space on Santa Monica Boulevard. The shop, named Drum City, became quite successful, quickly becoming a local “hang” for local and touring drummers and percussionists.
“Drum City was Mecca,” Remo recalled. “We were very active with Hollywood. We had so many superstars that came in to do business. Roy and I were both silly enough that everybody was on the same level. It didn’t matter who you were—Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, or Joe Schmoe. In one day to have Louie Bellson, Shelly Manne, Buddy Rich, Jack Sperling, Alvin Stoller, and Lou Singer all in one place at the same time was just amazing.”
At that time, there was no West Coast trade show where drummers and percussionists could see the product lines of the prominent percussion manufacturers. The only exhibition of musical products was at the summer NAMM show in Chicago. So Drum City staged a “Percussion Fair” in the store each April from 1954–1960. This event boosted Drum City’s image as the premier drum sales and service organization west of Chicago’s Franks Drum Shop, and provided an opportunity for percussion instrument manufacturers to have greater visibility in one of the larger professional markets in the United States. It fulfilled a need for professional players to see what was new and to try the instruments out. The fair was very popular, attracting visitors from as far away as Las Vegas and San Francisco.
Up through the early 1950s, drumheads were made from calfskin, most of which came from the Chicago slaughterhouses—which was one of the reasons that such drum companies as Ludwig and Slingerland were located in Chicago. The heads varied in quality, and they were greatly affected by humidity or lack thereof. When the weather was damp, the calfskin stretched, requiring drummers to tighten them. If the head dried out while tightened, it could split. Plus, calfskin heads were prone to breakage if struck too hard.
During World War II, the British firm Imperial Chemical Industries created a polyester film that was used as a packaging material and as insulation for electric motors. In 1947, the DuPont Corporation bought the rights to manufacture and market that polyester film, which DuPont named Mylar.
In 1953, Jim Irwin, a chemical engineer at 3M, made a Mylar drumhead for Duke Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer. Irwin had no plans to mass-produce the head, but he applied for a patent in 1955, which was granted in 1958. His drumhead was made by serating the edge of the Mylar so it could be bent around and attached to the flesh hoop of a calfskin head. Joe Grolimund at Selmer was also experimenting with various materials for drumheads, including Mylar. His head was made by tacking polyester film to a flesh hoop. Drummer Chick Evans had also been experimenting with different substances for the head material, including nylon, silk, and airplane cloth. In late 1956, Evans fashioned a Mylar version that consisted of a drilled outer hoop that tacked a Mylar head to a smaller, inner hoop. He sent out sales letters, one of which reached Drum City. Drum City distributed Evans’ heads for a while, and Roy Harte used them on session gigs. But often the Mylar would tear from the hoops, and the film would dent badly.
In late 1956, Drum City’s accountant, Sid Gerwin, introduced Roy and Remo to a chemist, Sam Muchnick. Sam and Remo began working on a new design for a drumhead. By early 1957 they had developed what proved to be the first successful plastic drumhead design, which involved punching holes around the edge of the Mylar head and using a fast-setting liquid resin to bond it to a U-shaped aluminum hoop. This was the first version of a Mylar drumhead that didn’t involve tacking the film to a flesh hoop. Remo immediately began head production in a 500-square-foot space adjacent to Drum City.
The Weather King drumhead debuted in early summer 1957 at the Chicago NAMM show, where orders for over 10,000 heads were placed. On June 1, 1957, Remo Inc. was created to market the aluminum-channel drumheads. The original partners were Remo Belli, Sid Gerwin, Sam Muchnick, and Roy Harte. Remo Inc. applied for a patent on the aluminum channel drumhead in August of 1957, and it was granted in 1960. The company outgrew the first Remo factory within a year and moved to a 1,000-square-foot space located on Santa Monica Blvd. near Vine.
In 1957, DuPont was making a number of thin films, and only three thicknesses of Mylar film were suitable for drumheads: 7.5 mil, 5 mil, and 3 mil. The original Weather King drumhead was made from the 7.5-mil thickness, eventually named the Diplomat. The playing style of the day was much lighter, and this film was able to withstand these playing conditions. The 3 mil thickness became Remo’s Snare Side Ambassador head. Mounting two plies together resulted in the Ambassador, (7.5 + 3 mil), and the Emperor, (7.5 + 7.5 mil). By mid-1958, all three of these heads were in production. For a time, the plastic was sandblasted to make the surface look more uniform and to create a rough surface texture that would work well when played with brushes. In 1958, Remo developed a chemical coating that resulted in a better sound, with a rough surface that gave a superior brush sound.
Remo’s synthetic head initially drew criticism from purists who argued that it “wasn’t the same as calfskin.” He responded by marshaling an all-star list of endorsers including Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa to vouch for the musical quality of Mylar heads. As demand for drumkits soared, manufacturers and retailers enthusiastically embraced the Remo Weather King.
In late 1959, Remo Inc. moved to a 6,000-square foot facility on Raymer Street in North Hollywood to accommodate the company’s growth. This factory eventually expanded into surrounding buildings.
Along with Ambassador, Emperor, and Diplomat heads, Remo Inc. also manufactured timpani and banjo heads, along with a non-tunable practice pad that had a non-tensioned, plastic head with backing behind it, mounted at the playing angle for traditional grip. The company also experimented with a synthetic drumstick: Weather King Miracle Duralam Drumsticks. Duralam was short for “durable laminate,” a combination of fibers and resins. But the sticks were not successful.
Starting in the late 1950s, a small group of percussionists and interested music directors would gather informally to discuss percussion topics while attending the annual Midwest Band Clinic in Chicago. When fourteen percussionists and educators met for dinner at the 1960 Midwest Clinic, they discussed the possibility of establishing a national organization that would “bring up to date the present standards in solo and ensemble contests, stimulate a greater interest in percussion performance and teaching, and promote better teaching of percussion instruments.” That meeting is credited today with planting the seeds of what would become the Percussive Arts Society.
"There had been a lot of discussions at Midwest and various MENC state conventions—anyplace percussionists and band directors were gathering,” recalls Jim Sewrey, who participated in many of those meetings and discussions. “Remo Belli was always asking, ‘Isn’t there a possibility we could have an organization through which we could discuss everything involved in our craft: how to teach it, how to play, and so on?’ We also had educators at every level wanting an organization in which they could discuss their craft.”
Sewrey wasn’t at the December 1960 Midwest Clinic in Chicago, but afterward he received a call from Belli, who told him that everyone had been charged to think of a name for the proposed organization, and they would discuss it at the January 1961 Southwest-MENC convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At that meeting, Sewrey suggested the name Percussive Arts Society, which was unanimously approved. Following this meeting, Robert Winslow, a professional percussionist and North Hollywood band director who served as an educational advisor to Remo, sent a letter proclaiming: “The Percussive Arts Society is open for business,” and in September 1961, the society sent its first publication, Percussive Arts Society Bulletin
, printed on a mimeograph machine donated by Belli, to the membership.
After three bulletins, the administrative and publication duties of the society were transferred to Donald Canedy, percussion instructor and band director at Southern Illinois University. In May of 1963, the first issue of the new PAS journal, Percussionist
, appeared. Canedy recalled getting that first issue out to the members. “In the fall of 1962 I called Remo Belli and said I needed four timpani heads and some other stuff. Two weeks later I got a package from Remo, and on top of the contents was an envelope with a check for $140 and a note from Remo that said, ‘Do whatever you can, whenever you can.’ We had been talking about PAS for months and had many hopes and dreams, so I knew what he intended for me to do and I did it. I started the process in September of 1962 with Remo’s check, and gave birth to Volume I, Number 1 of Percussionist
in May 1963.”
In later years, Remo was as proud of his role in establishing PAS as with the perfection of the plastic drumhead. “I think the two most important things that have happened to the industry are the success of the synthetic drumhead and the Percussive Arts Society,” he said. “These are the two, main, biggest things that have caused this industry to be what it is, and to grow into what it has grown into.”
NEW HEADS AND ROTO-TOMS
In the mid-1960s, following the “British invasion” led by the Beatles, sales of guitars and drumsets soared. Synthetic drumheads helped make that possible, as calfskin heads could never have been produced in enough quantity to meet the demand. In addition, as rock ’n’ roll got louder, calfskin heads could have never withstood the harder playing drummers had to engage in to keep up with the bigger guitar amps that were becoming ubiquitous.
Although Remo was making the best-selling drumhead, and some manufacturers were starting to have Remo make heads for them (but with the drum company’s name on them), as the 1960s progressed, Remo’s product line expanded to include the Diplomat M5, an extra-thin batter designed for orchestral playing; drum corps heads, which were heavy-duty Emperors with a spray coating applied to the underside of both the batter and bass models; and the Sparkletone head, a clear head with a metalflake coating applied to the underside of the head. Remo Inc. also offered a program for custom silkscreening bass drum heads, which was popular with military bands.
In 1957, composer Michael Colgrass had written a piece titled “Variations for Four Drums and Viola.” The drums had to be tuned to specific pitches, and those pitches changed at various times during the piece. Chicago Symphony percussionist Al Payson built his own tunable drums in order to perform the piece. The drums were tuned by rotating them so that an apparatus mounted to a threaded bolt would press against the head, raising or lowering the pitch. Remo Belli saw Payson’s drums at Franks Drum Shop in Chicago. Maurie Lishon, the proprietor of Franks, let Remo take one back to Remo Inc., where, after some modification, the Roto-tom was added to the Remo product line. Originally there were only 6-, 8-, and 10-inch models, as they were made from parts from Remo tuneable practice pads. They were not big sellers at first, but in 1970 Shelly Manne used Roto-toms extensively on movie soundtracks as well as the Daktari
and Hawaii Five-0
TV series. The drums became a popular sound effect for studio percussionists. In 1974, the plastic practice-pad shells were replaced by two castings, which made the Roto-tom more durable, versatile, and allowed the line to expand to bigger sizes. Soon, Roto-toms found their way into rock, jazz, fusion, and classical music genres, elementary and advanced teaching courses, timpani training and performance, marching ensembles, and as versatile practice instruments. Some drumset players used Roto-toms along with conventional tom-toms, while others used Roto-toms exclusively.
In 1998, Remo introduced Spoxe, which were essentially an inverted Roto-tom casting, mounted to a cymbal stand and played much like a cymbal. A player could also mount one or more cymbals inside the hoop, thus creating metallic cymbal effects, or mount two Spoxe on a hi-hat stand and create new sounds when played like a hi-hat.
In the early 1970s, as drummers began looking for ways to control their drum sounds, in many cases wishing them to sound more like what they heard on recordings, Remo Inc. responded with new drumheads. First came the “Controlled Sound” or “Black Dot” heads in 1972. They started out as bass drum heads that had a reinforcement patch in the center, where the beater hit. But that patch also produced a tighter sound with less ring, and soon Black Dot heads were available for all drums (and were soon imitated by Ludwig’s Silver Dot heads).
Then, in 1974, Remo introduced Pinstripe heads, which consisted of two layers of film layered together, with a “treatment” sandwiched between the two at the outer circumference of the head. It produced a much drier sound that became popular in the studio and with live players who miked their drums.
As popular and practical as plastic heads were, some players still griped that plastic heads did not have the warmth of calfskin heads. Remo responded with Fiberskyn, which consisted of fiberglass laminated to Mylar. “We developed the Fiberskyn drumhead knowing that its mass market was not too large,” Remo said. “We wanted to accommodate all segments of the market. But after we introduced it, we were surprised by the number of people in the different segments of the music business that went for it.” In 1980, the Fiberskyn 2 head, which had a “wetter” sound and was available in three weights, replaced the original Fiberskyn head. Fiberskyn 3 drumheads debuted in 1995. Fiberskyn 3 could be created in thicknesses from 5 mil to 60 mil. This ability to change the thickness of the skin to best suit a particular drum was a critical development in the success of Remo’s World Percussion products, and it added a new dimension to drumset applications.
PRE-TUNED HEADS AND WORLD PERCUSSION
In 1981 Remo developed a “Pre-Tuned” head (PTS), which involved tensioning Mylar film on a hoop without the use of any hardware. In a 1981 Remo ad, Belli was quoted as saying, “This could change the way drums are made for the next 25 years [and] have an impact on the evolution of drum making equal to our introduction of the first successful plastic drumhead 25 years ago. A pre-tuned drumhead requires no tuning or adjustment of any kind, yet it offers a truly superior drum sound that will please virtually any performer.”
The first product to make use of PTS technology was the Acousticon drumset made of cardboard tubes impregnated with phenolic resins and then cured in ovens. The first version was the simplest: the Junior Pro kit—an undersized drumset geared for youngsters. The PTS head was held to the shell with clips. The Junior Pro kit was featured on the back cover of FAO Schwarz’s 1984 Christmas catalog, representing the first Remo product to appear in a mainstream, non-music industry, consumer product catalog. After the success of the Junior Pro drumset, Remo expanded to a full line of drumsets, and by 1985, the product line was complete. All featured new Acousticon SE shells and Remo’s own Dynasty hardware and stands. The drums were available in four models, with the top-line models using standard, tunable heads. These drumkits became very popular, and drummers who played and endorsed them included Louie Bellson, Shelly Manne, Ndugu Chancler, Terry Bozzio, Ed Thigpen, and Carl Palmer.
After PTS technology and Fiberskyn were merged, Remo began producing tambourines, bongos, bodhrans, tars, tamborims, cuicas, Indian drums, Chinese drums, and hand drums. The company created signature drums and tambourines for such artists as Glen Velez, John Bergamo, Layne Redmond, and Alessandra Belloni. Velez remembers when he met Remo Belli. “It was my first clinic for PAS,” he recalls of his performance at PASIC ’82 in Dallas. “Remo noticed all the heating pads and heat lamps I was using to regulate the tension of my skin heads. After the clinic, he came up to me and said, ‘I think we have the technology to make the drums that you’re playing.’ We had a meeting and that was the beginning of our relationship. To my understanding, it was also the first time he did anything in terms of hand drumming, so it was very exciting.
“Remo was a huge influence on me and played a big role in my popularizing frame drums,” Velez continues. “Not only was it fun to work in the factory, going through different ideas and possibilities for designing the drums, but Remo and the company were very supportive in sponsoring workshops to get the word out there. He understood that very little was known about frame drums at that time, so there was a big educational component to the process. Remo was extremely supportive during the early stages in the 1980s by letting people see these drums being played. It was a fantastic boon to my mission of letting people know about frame drumming.”
Alessandra Belloni, a tambourine virtuoso, singer, dancer, and actress, met Belli in Phoenix at PASIC ’95. “Glen Velez told me to go there, do my thing, and that Remo would probably talk to me,” she remembers. “And that’s exactly what happened. I went to PASIC as a curious tambourine player from southern Italy, not knowing anything about this business at all. When I met Remo, he told me he had always wondered about southern Italian tambourines and how they were played. I demonstrated my tambourine in his exhibit booth and he was fascinated. He said, ‘I would like to build these instruments with you.’ But I didn’t know if I wanted to do that because it would change the tradition and betray my teachers who used goatskin. Remo smiled and said he really appreciated my honesty. He said, ‘I want to help you and this style of playing to get exposure. I’ll invest the time and money to build these instruments with you. Welcome to the Remo family!’ He saw in me what I couldn’t; he saw me as a solo performer and teacher. Because of him, I created a whole show for voice and percussion, and Remo introduced me at PASIC ’96 in Nashville. Remo opened the world for me.”
In the mid-’90s, Remo product specialists developed an efficient way of shaping the raw, straight-tube Acousticon shells into drumshells with curves. During this time an improved shell material, Acousticon R, was developed. The new material could be wound in different thicknesses and adjusted to what would be appropriate for a particular drum. Additionally, controlling the amount of resin impregnation helped control the timbre of the shell. Soon djembes, ashikos, congas, talking drums, and doumbeks were added to Remo’s product line. Signature Series artists added to the roster included djembe masters Leon Mobley and Paulo Mattioli, African talking-drum master Frances Awe, and Brazilian pandiero master Chalo Eduardo.
The Mondo drumset was an attempt to bridge the gap between the conventional drumset and the growing popularity of world percussion instruments. The drums featured molded bearing edges that were rounded to make them easily playable with sticks, mallets, and hands. A heavier, Fiberskyn-type Mondo head was mounted on each shell. A hand percussionist could explore drumset-oriented styles that incorporated more foot interaction, while drumset players could explore the warmer sounds of these drums, including playing them with the hands. Later, Remo introduced a line of taiko drums.
MORE HEADS AND PRODUCTS
The drumhead innovations never stopped. The Powerstroke I and II drumheads featured an underlay ring of Mylar that was embedded in the counterhoop along with the batter film, which cut high frequencies and helped reduce over-ring. These heads were geared for the marching community. Ebony drumheads were made from black drumhead film newly available from DuPont, and were available in a number of standard weights. Starfire drumheads, made by laminating metallized gold or silver reflective film to standard drumhead materials, became available in Ambassador, Pinstripe, and Powerstroke models. Later, Powerstroke 3 was made with a standard aluminum channel pour, thus making it suitable for drumset use.
The Remo Muff’ls Sound and Ring Control products were unveiled in 1983. They consisted of a plastic tray that rested on the bearing edge, inside the drum, a foam O-ring, and two foam disks that would rest inside the tray. This product represented one of the first attempts to give drummers an alternative to duct tape, etc., as a way to tailor the sound of their drumhead to their own taste.
K-series Falams, drumheads made from laminating Mylar to Kevlar, appeared in late 1987. Positioned as a bright, durable head for drum corps, it also became popular with hard-hitting drumset players. Ebony versions were made available in 1990. Renaissance drumheads, introduced in 1998, featured a textured surface that was excellent for sticks, brushes and mallets, while creating a wide, balanced spectrum of sound. As a timpani head, Renaissance delivered a stronger fundamental note, with less upper harmonics. The sound was characterized as more closely resembling a natural calfskin head. In the 2000s came Nuskyn, Powermax, and Powersonic heads.
COMMUNITY AND WELLNESS DRUMMING
In 1991, Remo and Rick Drumm (then Remo Inc.’s Head of Marketing) learned of a drum circle that Arthur Hull had conducted for 2,000 Apple Computer employees in San Francisco. Intrigued, they contacted Hull, and subsequently visited him so they could learn more about drum circles. When they arrived in Santa Cruz, Hull discussed his philosophy. Drum circles, he said, were really fairly simple; you brought a group of people together, issued each of them a hand drum, taught them the basics of drumming, divided them into sections, and assigned each section a rhythm to play. The whole idea was to teach teamwork and interdependence.
After their discussion, Hull invited them down to the beach, where a group of 80 people of all ages and walks of life had gathered, each with a hand drum, ready to participate in a drum circle. For over an hour, Remo and Rick joined in the circle.
“It was an exhilarating experience,” recalled Remo. “There was nothing flaky about these people or what they were doing. There were no drugs, no alcohol—just a group of good people who were obviously getting a great deal out of this drum circle. We were very impressed by the depth of their commitment.”
They were struck by the fact that the drums that were being used had not been manufactured by any of the major drum companies. “A major ‘personal percussion’ market is developing without any encouragement whatsoever from the drum industry,” Remo said at the time. “Our industry can either respond to this or not, but it is most definitely happening. The entrepreneurial supplier and dealer will do well to take the initiative and get involved in personal percussion products. These drums are truly consumer products, generally very affordable. People aren’t buying them for the traditional reason of performing music; they’re buying these drums for bonding, personal development, and therapy. People don’t need music lessons to get value from these drums, so that removes an obstacle that has historically limited instrument sales.” Shortly after, Remo Inc. introduced Arthur Hull, Mickey Hart, and Grateful Dead Signature Series instruments. Remo also started sponsoring drum circles at PASICs and NAMM shows.
“Remo D. Belli was not only a great businessman but he had great vision,” says Hull. “Years ago, he described to me what has now come to pass. He told me that in a few years there would be a healthy recreational drumming community, as well as an international rhythm-based event facilitation community that would be well organized and introduce group drumming into almost every part of our culture and society. It has all come true and has moved us closer to Babatunde Olatunji’s dream of ‘a drum in every household.’
“It was a jaw-dropping experience to hear his vision back when there were only a handful of drum circle facilitators in existence, and an environment that consisted mostly of free-form drum circles and culturally specific drumming. Remo’s description of his vision not only solidified my passion for sharing my rhythmical spirit, but became the compass that has led me down the rhythmical evangelism path that I still walk today.”
Following in the footsteps of the Junior Pro drumset, and perfectly in line with Remo’s goal of spreading drumming outside the professional music industry, Remo Inc. developed a line of percussion instruments geared for children. The colorful product line was quickly acknowledged as unique and beneficial children’s products, garnering numerous awards, including the prestigious Oppenheimer Gold Seal Toy Award. Individual winners of this yearly award included the Kid’s Bongos, Ocean Drum, Floor Tom, Lollipop Drum, and Djembe. This emphasis on creating percussion instruments for youngsters included a greater involvement with children’s music education programs in general.
Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, music therapy was gaining attention as a means of improving the physical, emotional, and social needs of individuals with a wide range of illnesses and disabilities, including Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, and cancer. Generally referred to as the “wellness movement,” Remo Inc. assumed and maintained a leading role in funding research and developing programs that address this continually evolving and expanding school of thought. “Remo’s wife and son are both doctors,” says Christine Stevens, a music therapist who began working for Remo in 2000. “So Remo was always inside the medical world. His wife, Dr. Ami Belli, now serves as the international liaison for Remo HealthRhythms. She always took Remo to medical conferences, so he had an affinity and knowledge in mind/body lifelines.”
Remo Inc.’s initial foray into health and wellness occurred in 1992 through an association with Rhythm for Life, an organization dedicated to the study and use of percussive sound, especially active participation in drumming and percussion activities, for the benefit of individuals and the community. Among the Remo products and programs that evolved was the “drum table,” developed by music therapist Barry Bernstein, Remo Belli, and Remo engineer Bruce Hofmann. This instrument is essentially a large table on which the tabletop is a pre-tensioned drumhead, which allows people to sit together to drum. It facilitates dynamic, communal, social interaction, and increases the independence of people with limited mobility.
In 2001, Remo created a new division of Remo Inc., named HealthRhythms, to focus on the relationship between health and drumming. Neurologist Barry Bittman and his research team had discovered that a specific group-drumming approach significantly increased the disease-fighting activity of circulating white blood cells, which seek out and destroy cancer cells and virally infected cells. HealthRhythms developed and provided materials, programs, training, and the latest research supporting the use of promoting and maintaining health and well-being.
“The research study was really important to Remo because he never wanted to go out into the world teaching about something that could be perceived as ‘snake oil’,” says Stevens. “He always wanted to be credible. He didn’t want to tell people that drumming would help them without having research to back it up. So once he had the study, he chose Barry Bittman and me to create a training program. To date, we’ve trained some 3,000 HealthRhyhm facilitators in 30 countries. It’s very interesting interdisciplinary training; the people who take the training are caregivers, therapists, counselors, healthcare professionals, and drum circle facilitators. And there are now five or six published peer-reviewed studies on outcomes of using HealthRhythms protocols.”
In 1998, after Remo Inc.’s move to a new factory in Valencia, one of the vacant buildings at the old Remo factory was renovated to be used as an activity center. It soon began hosting a wide gamut of music programs and activities geared for the general public, as well as serving as a performance venue, testing ground, and meeting place for musicians, both professional and recreational. The Remo Percussion Center (later renamed the Remo Recreational Music Center), features a 1,000-square-foot showroom and a 10,000-square-foot activity room stocked with a large inventory of Remo drums and percussion.
“We are applying the drum as a recreational tool,” Belli said. “The Remo Recreational Music Center is a study into all the possibilities where music can be employed. Drumming has been chosen because it is immediate; you can participate and have a good first experience instantly. My personal gratification is simply that; there is no exaggeration. This is a wonderful way to be able to contribute and to be able to see the benefits that are out there. I have completed doing something for a living. I do this because I see a need that has to happen. The more I look, the more I see. The more I see, the more I love to do. My overall incentive is life enhancement for as many people as this could possibly touch.”
Remo also partnered with the Beat The Odds program, devoted to bringing about positive behavioral changes in students. Remo joined others in bringing this program to the Los Angeles School District in Santa Clarita Valley, California in 2012.
Remo Belli was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame on November 8, 1986. The induction occurred at the annual banquet, which concluded PASIC ’86 in Washington D.C., 25 years after Remo and other percussion pioneers first put forth the concept of PAS.
The Music Educators National Conference honored Remo in 2000 with the MIC Award and a brick in the MENC Walk of Fame. In 2003, the Institute for Music, and Neurologic Function in New York honored Remo with the Music Has Power award. Remo received the Doctor of Music, Honoris Causa from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, during the July 2007 Masters of Music Education Commencement Exercises. On December 13, 2008, Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, honored Remo with their 2008 Winter Commencement Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa for his dedication to drumhead technology and music, particularly drumming, as a therapeutic health strategy.
In 2009, Remo was honored at the Smithsonian Institute’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, where he lectured at the New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium. The New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass., bestowed an honorary doctorate on Remo Belli at its 142nd annual Commencement Exercises on May 19, 2013. Remo, along with his wife, Ami Belli, were awarded the College of the Canyons Foundation (Valencia, Cal.) Silver Spur Community Service Award for 2014 for their dedication and passion in promoting the many positive benefits that music can have on the human condition. In 2014, Arts and Services for Disabled created a legacy award, the Ami and Remo Belli Humanitarian Award, which was presented to Ami and Remo at their annual gala. In March 2015 the Bands of America Hall of Fame recognized Remo Belli for his positively life-changing impact on Music for All’s Bands of America programs and music education.
“I believe that Remo led a life well-satisfied, knowing that he had an impact in areas that were important to him, and ultimately, to society,” says John Fitzgerald, Manager of Recreational Music Activities at Remo Inc. “His support of the growing movement of those who use music, rhythm, and drumming as important life tools was deeply gratifying to him. And his support of research and organizations has helped that movement grow, a movement that is just begging to mature. Visionary, passionate, and strategic—quite a brilliant combination.
“While I feel the weight of loss at Remo’s passing, I also feel great gratitude for all that Remo was able to accomplish and for all that he put into play, inviting and tasking us with carrying his vision forward. His vision was and is vast, encompassing the art of the professional percussionist as well as the art of the facilitator of music experiences for everyone, regardless of background, challenge, ethnicity, or age. He didn’t imagine, he knew that this is the future of music-making, drumming, and rhythm.”
“How do you define drumming? These days that’s not such an easy question,” Remo wrote for the company’s 2000 World Percussion catalog. “Drumming is different things to different people and, with the world of drumming fast becoming borderless as well as ageless, today there are almost as many ways to describe drumming as there are people who drum. But no matter how you define it, one thing is clear: Never before has drumming meant so much to so many...Perhaps there’s no simple definition of drumming because we’re finding out that drumming has no limits. And so, like the growing number of people on the planet who may not be able to define exactly what drumming is but who can define themselves as drummers, at Remo we don’t define drumming. Drumming defines us.”