Monday, 14 April 2008

Bang the Drum Slowly: William Ludwig II, RIP

The perfect drum roll is a glorious thing. What starts out as a nearly-mechanical buzz may, at the drummer's discretion, pulse and throb like a swarm of bees. It becomes a living thing, a living thing that is more complicated than it sounds, for a drum roll isn't simply the rapid beating of left hand followed by right hand--RL RL RL RL. The most seamless roll is what's called a double-stroke roll: RR LL RR LL RR LL....

I've played the drums in rock and roll bands for 30 years and I can't do a proper double-stroke drum roll. Neither can Ringo Starr, a fact which annoys some purists. But someone who could was William F. Ludwig II, who passed away March 22 at the age of 91. Ludwig and Starr are forever linked in the annals of pop music history.

In the 1960s Ludwig was the head of the American drum company that his father, William Ludwig Sr., had founded. The modern drum set--as opposed to a bit of animal skin stretched over a hollow vessel--is a relatively recent invention. It came about in the early 20th century when the percussion sections of orchestras were called upon to create more and more sounds with fewer and fewer people. In the cramped space of a vaudeville playhouse or moving picture theater, there wasn't room for a snare drummer, a bass drummer and a cymbal player. One musician would have to do it all. And so the drum--and the drummers--evolved. A drummer's feet became as important as his hands.

Ludwig Sr.'s great contribution to drumming technology was a bass drum pedal that actually worked. Here's a photo. That little metal curlicue under the beater would have tinkled against a cymbal. The idea was to provide as many interesting sounds as possible. Drummers often had a tray of effects next to their sets--shakers, whistles, rattles. These "contraptions" gave the modern drum kit its nickname: a traps set.

Ludwig's pedal was better than the rest. He added a much-prized snare drum--the "Black Beauty"--to the inventory and the company flourished. It would never have been as successful as it was, however, if it wasn't for a sickly Liverpudlian named Richard Starkey. When he first joined the Beatles Ringo played a set made by Premier, England's, um, premier drum company. But American things were cooler than British things and when the band became more successful he visited a London music store and was convinced to switch to a set made by Ludwig. He evidently liked the color: black oyster pearl.

I can imagine that the young drummer wanted to advertise the fact that he had an expensive American kit. Why drive a Rolls-Royce with all the badges removed? So he asked the owner of the music store, Ivor Arbiter, to paint "Ludwig" on the front bass drum head. (Beatles manager Brian Epstein insisted that the band's name be painted even bigger.) When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964 Ringo advertised the brand to the world.

Today, instrument companies make all sorts of deals with celebrity endorsers to help sell merchandise. They give musicians free gear, pay them a stipend, fly them around to conventions, anything to shift a few more units to young fans convinced that they can sound just like their idols if only they had the same equipment. The drum sets of these stars are often plastered with as many brand names as a stock car. But back then Ringo paid full price for a drum set he liked and he was the one who ordered the Ludwig name emblazoned on the front.

I met Bill Ludwig II about 20 years ago, at a vintage drum show in Maryland. He said he was as surprised as anyone when he saw his company's name on the Sullivan show. It was an appearance, he said, that launched a thousand orders. Ludwig signed a book on his company for me and then he picked up a pair of sticks, stepped behind a snare drum and asked the attendees to do the same. I slunk to a corner (can't do a drum roll, remember) and watched as he started playing a rudiment called "Three Camps," a leftover from when drums were vital pieces of military equipment and the distinctive cadence was used as a signal between different army divisions. He played by himself at first, his sticks beating out a perfect drum roll, then invited the other drummers to come in and join him.

It was a bit of a party trick, a performance piece he'd done countless times. But it showed that Bill Ludwig II could actually play the drums. And if you don't believe me, click here to listen for yourself.

6 comments:

Old Lady said...

In your own special way you have managed to make me read about and be interested in something I previously cared nothing and knew nothing about. A drum in a marching band is one thing - miscellaneous noise-making is another - but I see there is more to it than that.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

John Kelly may not be able to do a drum roll but he is the only journalist I have read who can speak expertly on the subject.
Incidentally, I must confess that when I first taught Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" more than forty years ago, even though I had taken the trouble to fathom some of its complexities, I did not know that in older American parlance a "drummer" could mean a salesman.

John Kelly said...

One of my constant worries as a journalist is that I am much too interested in boring things. I once did a whole magazine story on the wingtip shoe, and wrote an article on highway noise barriers. But I believe that even the most mundane things have interesting aspects to them.

@candadai: I hadn't heard that use of "drummer." I wonder if it comes from "drumming" up business.

wiredog said...

"an article on highway noise barriers."

Well, if you live in the DC area those are a pretty big part of the landscape.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

John: I think "drummer" does come from drumming up business (or beating the drum for it). Theodore Dreiser used it even more extensively in "Sister Carrie."

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