Several years ago, the summer of ’69 to be exact, one of my music students asked me how I got started playing percussion and who had the biggest influence on my style. I gathered my thoughts and explained.
“My first drum kit was different size coffee cans with plastic lids. I would listen to WLS radio in the afternoon after school, and I would try to replicate the patterns and rhythms I heard.”
My fourteen-year-old student thought I was crazy.
“I couldn’t afford real drums, so I made do with what I had.”
“Who was the the best drummer you ever heard?” he asked. “Please tell me it wasn’t some old jazz player. Was it Ringo?”
I smiled and instantly replied, “Only one way to answer that. Burrell Saltzman.”
My student shrugged. “Never heard of him.”
“Let me tell you about him.”
For the next hour I told him about my biggest influence.
Burrell Saltzman was born in 1915 in Manhattan, New York. The fifth child of Walter Saltzman and Ethel Rosengarden. Throughout his childhood the family lived on the top floor of an apartment building at 1619 Broadway on 49th street. His father worked for the Brill Brothers, a haberdasher on the first floor of the Alan Lefcourt Building, and his mother earned grocery money as a seamstress. After dinner the family would gather in the living room to play music. His father played the accordion, and his mother tinkered with a battered piano she inherited from her grandmother. Burrell’s older siblings played a variety of brass and wind instruments. The entire family wrote songs to entertain and amuse each other. When Burrell was eight-years-old, he found a discarded drum kit in the alley under a stack of tin pans. He taught himself to play and soon earned the nickname ‘Sticks’ because of his natural ability to accompany his musical family.
He started his first band at the age of fifteen and arranged all the music. In 1931 he played on his first recording in a makeshift studio on the third floor of his apartment building. The following year he joined a band that had an hour long show on WNYC. His reputation grew, and he was soon playing on recording sessions for all the major studios. He replaced his original kit with one purchased from Manny’s Music on West 48th Street. He became so in demand that he was able to pick and choose his gigs. He eventually married, settled down in the same neighborhood he grew up in and began a family. He still played sessions and taught a few select students, but the music was changing. No longer were clubs booking the large dance bands. Now the emphasis was on smaller combos.
Disaster struck in 1955. His wife and two daughters were killed by a teenager driving a hot rod Ford and racing in the street. He had seen too much in too few years. He gave up living and started dying little by little. He suffered from depression and didn’t touch his kit for an entire year. One day as he was climbing the stairs to his apartment after work, he heard the sound of a guitar and someone singing through the thin walls and paused in the hallway to listen. He didn’t recognize the tune, but began tapping his foot to the beat.
Three days later, Burrell heard the guitar and the singing again and knocked on the door of apartment number nine. He met the young man playing the electric guitar and the singer and asked if they would like to come upstairs to jam. A month later with the addition of another musician the four piece combo played their first gig at Nell’s Supper Club, one of the prime locations in the city. A year later Sticks and his band would tour the entire world and play to sellout crowds nightly. I rattled off a list of recordings the band made in the next few years, and my student’s eyes opened wide with recognition.
“But then the band broke up over a woman,” I said shaking my head.
“That sucks! Did you ever meet him in person?” my student asked.
“I met him once at a small club in Granite City. I was driving in my car and a man came on the radio. After tellin’ me some useless information, he mentioned a show that night in the city. At the time I was playing in a garage band with a bunch of high school buddies. We were doing cover songs hoping to get some girl reaction, but I was on a losing streak. Anyway, I showed up early at the club where Sticks was playing. I helped him load-in his kit and noticed how battered it was. I listened to him for four hours. He kept the band in the groove, but it was like he had four different brains controlling his hands and feet. They finished around three in the morning, and I helped him load-out his kit. He thanked me and handed me a pair of sticks. Two months later Sticks was shot and killed in the parking lot outside a 7-Eleven store. The murderer stole his wallet and has never been caught.”
“That really sucks! Do you still have them? The sticks, I mean.”
I nodded and pulled the sticks from a case normally used for a piccolo. I showed them to him, but didn’t let him hold them.
“Do you ever use them?” he asked.
I shook my head. “They are too priceless to risk breaking. I would have a nervous breakdown if that happened. I get my satisfaction by admiring them.”