A lot of music lovers mourned the loss of Anita O’Day a while back, and rightfully so. When she died at age 87 it marked the end of a legendary career that reached from her early days as a big band singer (or songbird, a subject I covered in a previous article) through her many years as a respected jazz singer. Equally compelling was the story of her many ups and downs with alcohol and drugs, and how she rose above the bad times to continue to amaze and delight fans, even into her eighties.
Reading about Anita’s early days kind of sent me off on a tangent though, because it got me to thinking about someone who was very important to her career but who is himself seldom mentioned. In 1941, Gene Krupa hired Anita as a vocalist for his band after she’d tried unsuccessfully to catch on with Benny Goodman and others. It proved to be the right move for both and they had a lot of success, especially after adding Roy Eldridge, who played a mean trumpet and did vocal duets with Anita. Their biggest hit was “Let Me Off Uptown”, but Anita sang alone on other tunes such as “Skylark”, one of my favorites.
Even after Anita later moved on to other opportunities, she continued to periodically collaborate with Krupa, in some cases rejoining his band or participating in recording sessions and the filming of musical shorts. She was also one of those who rejoined him after his legal troubles. (More later about that.) There’s little doubt that she always considered him a friend and mentor.
Ironically, I think I first noticed Gene Krupa in the movies during the 1950’s. He was in both The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story, playing himself — although in both movies the main character was played by an actor, respectively Jimmy Stewart and Steve Allen. (That is, if you call Steve Allen an actor.) In a later movie made of Krupa’s life, he was played by Sal Mineo — although Gene furnished the drumming.
But I digress. In any case, he was definitely the first star drummer, and you might even say he invented the concept, because drummers were strictly for background support before he came along. With his dark good looks and lively playing style, he soon drew attention to himself in his early stints with bands, culminating with his rising stardom as part of Benny Goodman’s group. In the late 1930’s he was an integral part of the band’s success, and not surprisingly, left to form his own band shortly after Benny’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert.
As with many others who took that step he found times tough at first, but he had an added handicap. While a leader with a conventional instrument could take all the solos he thought his fans could handle, a drummer didn’t have the same luxury. Endless drum solos were not what the public wanted and once Gene learned that, things began to happen. He also continued to add talented musicians (including O’Day and Eldridge) and became a big success — for a while.
In 1943 he was arrested and charged with drug possession, and his world came crashing down around his ears. “Reefer” use among musicians of the time was not uncommon, but the laws were not forgiving and Krupa found himself watching his band dissolve from behind bars.
After his release, he again began working regularly, starting back with Benny Goodman and later working for Tommy Dorsey and others. Eventually, he again formed his own band and continued performing with some success, although never to the heights he once enjoyed. He continued growing musically, welcoming the early bebop pioneers (one of the few from the big band era to do so) and gradually began working with smaller groups himself.
After a number of years of poor health, he died in 1973. Musically, Krupa has a legacy that’s perhaps closer to that of a showman than a great drummer, although he is recognized as an innovator, not only in how he played but also developing and improving the drums themselves. He’s also considered to be an influence for many rock drummers in the years since his death.
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