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Gene Krupa: The Drummer's Drummer

Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Eliot Elisofon

Gene Krupa: The Drummer's Drummer

Gene Krupa, born 102 years ago today, was one of the most influential drummers in history. Funny to think that the man "world's greatest drummer" Buddy Rich called "the beginning and the end of all jazz drummers" could have wound up a saxophonist or a priest.

Krupa was born Jan. 15, 1909, in Chicago, the youngest of nine children. When he was very young, his father died, and as a result all the children entered the workforce early in life. Krupa gained his first musical experience early on, learning to play the saxophone while in grade school. At 11 two events happened which changed the course of his life. He got a job working as a chore boy at Brown Music Company and decided to switch to the drums. Why drums? "I used to look in [Brown's] wholesale catalog for a musical instrument – piano, trombone, cornet – I didn't care what it was as long as it was an instrument. The cheapest item was the drums."

Groomed for the priesthood by his religious mother, Krupa dropped out of St. Joseph's College to pursue music. By 1921 he was playing professionally in Wisconsin. Six years later, he returned to Chicago to join Thelma Terry and Her Playboys, an act signed to MCA and the first notable coed jazz band to be led by a woman. That year saw him make his first recordings, an important occasion in that the sessions may have been the first where a full drum kit was recorded (during this era, studios often only tracked the snare drums and cymbals).

By 1929 Krupa had moved to New York City and was working with clarinetist, composer and bandleader Red Nichols. Five years later, he joined Benny Goodman's trio, the first integrated jazz band in America, and later Goodman's big band. The bandleader gave the flamboyant drummer room to show off his skills. Whereas percussionists had previously been little more than timekeepers, Krupa made drums a more integral, more musical part of the band by interacting with other musicians and going on extended solos. The Goodman classic "Sing Sing Sing" featured the first extended drum solo to be recorded on a commercial release.

Krupa's bold, flamboyant style made him a celebrity, but his growing popularity didn't sit well with Goodman. Audiences clamored for a Krupa solo in every number and Goodman was wary of ceding the spotlight to a sideman. Inevitably, Krupa left to start his own band.

The Gene Krupa Orchestra debuted in Atlantic City 1938 to instant success. In its review, the magazine Metronome gushed, "Gene is now firmly entrenched at the helm of a swing outfit that's bound to be recognized very shortly as one of the most potent bits of catnip to be fed to the purring public that generally passes as America's swing contingent…Throughout the evening the kids and kittens shagged, trucked, jumped up and down and down and up, and often yelled and screamed at the series of solid killer-dillers."

Krupa parlayed his celebrity into other ventures, penning the instructional book The Gene Krupa Drum Method, and lending his name to a national drum contest that drew thousands of entrants. He also became a minor Hollywood star, appearing in Some Like It Hot, Ball of Fire and The Best Years of Our Lives.

In 1943 his career was briefly put on hold following a headline-grabbing bust for marijuana possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He spent nearly three months in jail and exhausted much of his savings in legal fees before the charges were eventually dropped. The ordeal left him depressed, and he was considering leaving showbiz before old friend Goodman reached out and convinced him to perform again with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. These events were chronicled in The Gene Krupa Story starring Sal Mineo, a biopic unflinching in its warts-and-all depiction of its subject.

Krupa continued performing into the late 1960s, even after having suffered a heart attack, before back problems forced him to retire. In addition to revolutionizing the drummer's place in jazz and influencing percussionists as musically far afield as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, Krupa helped revolutionize the instrument itself. Not only was he among the first to record on a full kit, but he was instrumental in developing the tunable tom-toms that became standard on every drum kit, and he worked with the Zildjian company to create and standardize many of the cymbals still in use today. As if that wasn't enough to assure his place in history, he is credited as being (drum roll please)…the creator of the rim shot (ba dum bum!).

Though Krupa died Oct. 16, 1973, his impact is still being felt. Louie Bellson, a musician discovered during one of Krupa's drum contests who went on to become a hugely successful act in his own right, said of Krupa, "He was a wonderful, kind man and a great player. He brought drums to the foreground. He is still a household name."