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The Reach of New Orleans Drumming: “He Taught Me a Lesson”

An Excerpt from Drumsville! by Robert H. Cataliotti

The Reach of New Orleans Drumming: “He Taught Me a Lesson”

Hogan Jazz Archive Photography Collection, Tulane University Special Collections

Joe Watkins (right) and Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau on a train to Liverpool, 1959.

Looking back over the evolution of the New Orleans beat reveals the remarkable reach of the drumming that has emanated from the city. The influence of Drumsville has been felt by countless musicians across many approaches to music making. One encounter with a New Orleans drummer stands out for its contribution to one of the significant musical phenomena of twentieth-century popular music. In 1959, the traditional jazz revival brought clarinetist George Lewis and his band to Great Britain. The drummer on the tour was Joe Watkins (1900–1969), and there’s a picture of him and bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau looking out from the compartment window as their train is pulling out of a station en route to Liverpool for the next concert. A young drummer named Richard Starkey (b. 1940) attended that show, and within five years, he—known as Ringo Starr—would become one of the most famous drummers in the world. Starr was asked by Goldmine magazine about the rock-and-roll concerts he saw in Liverpool before the rise of the Beatles, and he said there really weren’t any. He did say that two performances he attended stood out in his memory. The first was by guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The second was the show by Lewis: “I saw the George Lewis Band of New Orleans and the drummer was so great. He taught me a lesson. I was 18. He only had a bass drum and a snare drum and when it came to tom-tom stuff he just leaned down and played the bass drum with a stick. It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ You don’t see Ringo playing a huge 15-piece drum kit. I stick to three at the most. And I learned that from that guy.”

LSU Press

“That guy” was Watkins, and Starr credits him with shaping his conception of a drum set. And, the drum set he would use when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, probably inspired the purchase of more drum sets than any other single performance in history. Drummer Stanton Moore believes the image of Starr behind that drum set sparked widespread interest in drumming: “In the drummer world, the guys that are just a little older than me, guys that were born between 1955 and 1960, almost universally, those guys are like, ‘I saw Ringo Starr on Ed Sullivan, and that’s what I wanted to do.’” That was certainly the case with Ricky Sebastian, growing up in southwest Louisiana: “I mean I remember just being totally transfixed by the Beatles, like so many kids back then in the early 1960s watching. I think that probably got me interested in just watching drummers in bands that I’d see on TV.” The impact on a whole generation of fledgling drummers of Starr sitting atop a band riser playing his iconic Ludwig set with its drop-T Beatle logo on the bass drum head is powerful testimony to the reach of New Orleans drumming. A few years after the British tour, Watkins would travel to Japan as part of Lewis’s band, and his work as a drummer and vocalist—exemplifying what gave Starr that “Oh my God!” moment—is featured on the live albums George Lewis in Japan, Volume One and Volume Two. It is unlikely that when Watkins got back on the train in Liverpool he was aware of how far he had extended the reach of the New Orleans beat.

 

EXCERPT FROM:

Drumsville!: The Evolution of the New Orleans Beat

by Robert H. Cataliotti

Foreword by Herlin Riley

$39.95; 256 pp.

Louisiana State University Press

September 2022