Ed Shaughnessy Interview

Interview by Sean Mitchell

As a young boy I was sometimes afforded the privilege of staying up past 10pm. This of course meant I could watch The Tonight Show with my folks. While there were many entertaining guests, none caught my eye like the quick handed Tonight Show drummer sporting the coolest clothes, a huge smile and an incredible turquoise amulet. This of course was the one and only Ed Shaughnessy.

The chance to speak a legend is always a privilege and Ed did not disappoint. He is by far the most humble, genuine and interesting man I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with. At 83 years young, Ed is a self admitted student of the drums and shows no sign of slowing down. He is currently in the midst of learning to play the cello and is going under the knife at the end of May to have surgery on a back problem that he feels slows him down.

So without further ado … heeeerrrreee’s Eddy!

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Ed, I understand you are teaching. How many students do you have?

Well, I have a kind of unusual arrangement. I’d say that I only have about ten rotating students but nothing is by schedule, you know; everything is kind of loosely wrapped—meaning a guy calls me up when he wants a lesson and when he gets the stuff down he’ll call me again. I’ve always taught like that.

This week, for instance, I’ve got two out of town drummers. I get out of town drummers that come in and they want to book a double lesson, and, you know, that’s kind of fun because they’re guys that usually have problems that I can help with but they’ve never really seen a kind of a teacher that might help them with those problems. So it’s very satisfying. You might say three quarters local guys and one quarter visiting firemen that come in. One guy’s coming all the way in from Texas just to take a double lesson. I felt very proud of that, you know.

Your first memory, Ed, of wanting to play drums, how did you get started?

I was playing piano, studying piano when I was a kid. I came from a blue collar family—my Dad was a dock worker, he threw around packages and things. I lived in Jersey City, New Jersey and in those days, don’t forget at my age, there was no television so you either had radio or people sang around a piano a lot, and that was very popular in a lot of the homes where I lived in the blue collar area.  Everybody was supposed to play the piano. It’s not that I was dying to play the piano but everybody’s suppose to do it, so I took lessons starting at about the age of twelve.

And believe it or not, I know this sounds abstract but many people have stories like this, my Dad brought home a bass drum and a snare drum with a pedal and a stand and a dinky old cymbal. He brought it home on the subway cause we didn’t have a car, because a guy owed him twenty bucks and the guy couldn’t pay him the twenty bucks.

So he said, “Doesn’t your son like music?” and my Dad said, “Oh, he loves any kind of music, you know.” “Well how about these drums instead of the twenty bucks?”

So the drums come in the house and from the time the drums came in the house I got so fascinated I think it took me all day to set up the bass drum. I was fourteen years old but from then on—I asked my folks if I can give up the piano lessons and they said sure—I started taking drum lessons with my Scout master (I was a Boy Scout). He was a marching guy; he didn’t play drum set. You stood up at your lesson and you played on a pad with him but he was a good guy to get started with. At least he knew his basics, rudiments and stuff, you know? So that’s how I got started. But I was a drummer at home. My mother used to say I drove her crazy like a lot of guys with the spoons and the knives and the forks drumming, so I think I had a hint of wanting to be a drummer but I didn’t really know it.

Tell me how it came to be that you landed The Tonight Show.

For The Tonight Show you had to be an expert reader, you had to play all styles well, and of course be dependable—show up on time and don’t be drunk, or something like that. When they were going to add a drummer to The Tonight Show they went down a very short list and there were three guys on the list, I was told at the time, and I was the first one. They called me first.

I was very happy being a freelancer in New York. I was making a good living, I had just gotten married and we got a new apartment and I was doing fine, you know. So I turned them down, believe it or not.

I said, “You know something, I was on staff at CBS two or three years ago and I didn’t like it. It was too restrictive. I like what I’m doing now; I play in jazz clubs at night and I do some more commercial work in the day, so thanks very much but no thanks.” So the contractor at NBC said to me, “Well, would you help us out because we’re really stuck? Would you come in and play for two weeks and we’ll look around?” I said, “Yes, if I can cancel my work that I have now I will be glad to help you out.” So I did that.

I get in there and after a couple of nights here’s Clark Terry sitting next to me and Ol’ Snooky Young and Doc Severinsen is the lead trumpet player, who is the greatest friend that a drummer could have cause he’s got such good time when he plays. Well any way, I went home to my wife after a few nights’ work and I said, “Honey, this band is such a thrill to play with. It’s an all star band and you know Big Band work is kind of dead by now. I really like it. I was thinking about taking it.”  And she said, “Why don’t you take it?” I said, “I think I will.”

I did it more for the musical feel cause I was working; it was not like I needed the job. So I went back to the contractor the next day—his name was Aaron Levine—and I said, “Aaron, did you get a guy to come in after I finish my two weeks?” He says, “Why?” I said, “Well, to tell you the truth I’m a little embarrassed but I actually changed my mind, and I don’t blame you if you’ve got a guy coming in.” He said, “I never picked up the phone.”

We did ten years in New York and then Johnny wanted to go to California. Doc took three people with him to California (I was one of the three) and we did twenty years there. So it was ten years in New York, twenty years in California and I almost turned the whole thing down.

Is it true that Johnny was a pretty good drummer himself?

I’d say for an amateur he was pretty good. He had a pretty good sense of time. But he really preferred the Swing music. When I went over to his house to set up a new set of drums for him, he had a big pair of earphones and two knobs on the wall and that’s all you saw. Everything was hidden behind this wall. He sat down and put the big earphones on and put on like a Basie record or Woody Herman or Buddy Rich or something and played his drums. He told me that that was his best hobby—the thing that relaxed him the most—was to put on his big earphones and play band music. Like I said, Swing band (could be a modern band), that’s what he liked the best. And he really loved it up until the day he died; he loved his drums.

Is there a difference between a television gig and a studio/stage gig?

If someone said to me, “What’s the hardest gig in our business?” I would immediately say television and I’ll tell you why. Everything has to be fast. You don’t have time to catch up.

The first thing is you have to be a very good sight reader and then the other thing is you’ve got to play all styles well. I mean, years ago when I was doing some clinics I got one or two main drummers in as a sub and Doc would chew me out when I came back from my trip.

I said, “What’s going on? I hired a well-known guy.” And he’d say, “Yea, he’s a well known at swing but he can’t play rock for shit.” So I learned afterwards that I better make sure and I got a sub named Nick Ceroli, who unfortunately passed away. Nick played every style well. Next to being a good reader, being conversant in all the styles was very important.

It didn’t matter if you were a really fine rock drummer if your Big Band swing stuff sucked, you know what I mean? You gotta be strong in the big three and the big three are: rock, jazz and Latin. I’m not trying to make out that the job was terribly hard day by day. It wasn’t because I had done it so much that I built up enough skills, just like the guys playing trumpet and saxes. I mean nobody came to work worried about it or anything, but it was hard and demanding and you read new music everyday for sight, which you’d never seen before.

They’d come in five minutes before the 3pm rehearsal. They came in at ten minutes of or five minutes of and passed out the music for whoever it was and you started to play. So you’ve got to be a really good sight reader because the most you ever played it in rehearsal was twice and the third time everybody heard it in the country. So that’s what I mean by the hardest; I don’t mean it was hard in the way of every day it was hard, but it’s the most demanding because there’s not much time. Everything isdo it now, get it done and unless a person’s done television they don’t understand that. If you go on a record, and let’s say it’s a record with quite a bit of reading, well, you can practice that same tune twenty times until you get it perfect. If you don’t have music you can learn it by ear cause you’re going to play it over and over. But in television there’s none of that. There’s no playing it over and over. You get it good the first time and perfect the second time.

How did your now famous drum battle with Buddy Rich come to be?

Buddy and I had done it in a couple of night clubs, you know, just ad-libbing, and we both said it would be fun to do on television. So we started asking them and the director, who was a pretty good guy. But it’s a lot of trouble with two drummers cause you gotta light two drum sets, you gotta mic two drum sets, so he kept putting us off until I finally asked Johnny. I said, “Hey, we’d like to do this before we’re both too old to play.”(laughs) And he said, “Fine, you’ll do it next week.” And sure enough we did it.

I went to Buddy and he said, “Do anything you want to do; you lead the way.” I said, “All right, the band will play the intro, the first chorus, then I’ll point to you and you play for a little bit, then I’ll play for a little bit, you play for a little bit. We’ll each do that three times and on my third I’m going to start some single strokes real fast. I’ll look at you and say, ‘Let’s go Buddy’. You’ll join in with some single strokes and you count the band in (He was closer to the band), one, two, three, four and we’ll finish.”  And he said, “Fine.”

So during the intermission, I go to him and I said, “Now listen. We’re good friends. You come to my house for dinner, you play with my kids. Don’t wipe me out out there and make me look like an idiot doing all this stuff that nobody else can do!” He said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that.” I said, “I know you, so play good but don’t play too good. I mean, I’d like to be able to hold my head up after we get done with this.” “Oh don’t worry about it,” he said.

So we get out there, we start my routine, he plays some, I play some, he plays some. On the second time I played was the first time in the piece the audience applauded. That’s all Buddy had to hear. He started doing his stuff with the left hand underneath the right and the left hand over the right, doing some of these moves that only he can do that I asked him not to do. So I go to him at the end of the show. I said, “Hey, pal, whatever happened to you weren’t going to pull out all the tricky stuff?” He said, “You know I just got carried away.” (laughs)


I have heard Buddy was very competitive and a bit of a perfectionist. Have you heard the infamous Buddy tapes? What is your take on those?

You know what people don’t pay attention to on that tape? I only heard it once in my life; I wouldn’t listen to it again. He says, “You’re breaking my heart out there.” That’s something people should pay attention to cause that’s why he’s yelling, because he had such high standards that having a bad night—which he said the band sounded terrible—broke his heart. You and I could both say, “Did you ever see Buddy Rich where he didn’t try hard?” No, you never did. He had high standards and according to things he said on that, tape nobody’s trying; that’s what bugged him.

Who was your favorite musical guest on The Tonight Show?

I love BB King because BB would rehearse with as much spirit as he did when he actually did the show, you know what I mean? He just didn’t know how to do it any other way. He was great to play with and I really, really enjoyed him.

One of the thrills of my life was a couple of years before we finished, maybe around the late 80s, John McLaughlin came on and played a very fast Cherokee and told me afterwards how good I sounded. Believe it or not, mentioning that, he was always an idol of mine. I always wished I could work with John McLaughlin. It was like a real thrill to play with him, you know?

Ed, I hear you still practice. Is that true?

I got to tell you something. I’ve been drumming over sixty years and do you know that I still open my drum magazines with the same enthusiasm now that I did way back when? I’ll go and try some of the articles, tips on a reggae beat or something. I mean, I think if you really love the instrument and you love your drumming, you keep that through the years.

I practise every day.  I’ll tell you the truth; I really feel funny when I don’t play regularly. I mean, if I miss a day because I got busy or had to go to the doctor or the dentist or something and I skipped it, I really miss it.  I think it’s great that you love to do something that much after doing it for so many years. Last year I sent for a couple of the old traditional books. I had worn out one of the Moeller books. I only had one drum teacher in New York for about two years, named Bill West. But he had studied with Moeller and he had you playing with a little Moeller—you know, kind of a nice loose style—and I got a couple of Moeller books, and believe it or not, I was having fun working out some of those traditional rudimental things in the Moeller book. I haven’t done that for years. Its’ a lot of fun!

What is your practice routine like?

Well, I always practice warm-ups for about ten minutes with the old standbys of singles and doubles and I do a lot of three and four beats a piece with the hands. I don’t have an exact practise schedule. I usually try something different. I have a little set downstairs in the kitchen. I have [a bass drum practice pad] by Promark. In fact, I can use my double pedal, which I did yesterday. I have that. I have a little pair of thirteen inch hi-hats and I have a Quiet Tone. I don’t have a drum studio room. I don’t like to bug any neighbours; I’ve never had a complaint. So I play on the Quiet Tone pad, I’ve got the bass drum practice pad, I’ve got the little hi-hats on the hi-hat stand, then I have a little ride cymbal.

I’ll take a day and I’ll practice just independent stuff. I’ll warm up and then I’ll practice nothing but independent stuff—and I find when you do stuff like that, if you ever have to sit down at the drums and you haven’t worked in a while, you’re in good shape. What I mean is, I think it’s good to practice your two-hand stuff on the pad or whatever, but then I think you should always get going in rhythm, jazz, rock and Latin on at least a cymbal, bass drum and snare drum. That’s more like the real world.

Ed, I have waited 30 years to ask you this. Is there some significance to your turquoise amulet?

Yes there is, very important. When my boys were about ten and eight, my wife took them down to a place called Marina Del Rey here in LA, where the boats come in and out, cause the boys loved to see the boats. A store had opened up there called the Turquoise Lady and the lady went down to Arizona and Nevada and got these beautiful turquoise pieces directly from the natives. It was all hand-made and they had the stamp of the artist on the back.

My wife told me about this store and the next time we went down there with the kids we walked by it and I saw this great big beautiful piece of turquoise set in silver. I said to my wife, “Boy, that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” That’s all I said. The price on it was $500, which going back to the early70s I wasn’t the kind of guy to walk in and spend $500 on a piece of jewellery. This was about September or October. When it comes time for Christmas I open up a box and they had gone down and made a few payments on this piece and they had bought this piece for me for Christmas. I opened the box and I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it. First of all it was a complete surprise, the fact that my wife and boys wanted to do this so much for me. That’s why it’s my lucky piece. I don’t wear it every day. I only wear it when I play or when I work. That’s why it means so very, very much to me. I always say if I wear it I play fine, if I don’t I play 5/4 in 4/4 and 7/4 in 3/4.