Drummers had always been considered an integral part of a band, but merely time-keepers, hardly musicians, and certainly not featured performers. Then someone came along to change that. His name has become synonymous with the drums.
Eugene Bertram (Gene) Krupa was born in 1909 and raised in a working class Polish American community on Chicago's south side. The eleventh of twelve children, his grandparents were Polish immigrants. His father Bartley was a Chicago city alderman for a time and died when Gene was a young boy. His mother Anna and the children then had to take various jobs to support the family.
At age 10, Gene took a job doing chores at a music store. He took an interest in the music and spent a lot of time there listening to records. He had studied saxophone from age 6, but switched to drums. His brother bought him a drum kit at age 11. Working as a soda jerk at Wisconsin Beach, he played sax in the junior band and substituted for the drummer in the house band one day when he was only 13. In high school, he sought out the company of other young musicians and was able to play with them at dances and socials.
Krupa's mother was a devout Catholic and wanted Gene to enter the priesthood. Giving in to her wishes, in 1924 at age 15 he enrolled in a seminary prep school at St. Joseph's College in Indiana. But the draw of music was too strong for the teenager. He left St. Joseph's after one year, determined to become a professional drummer. He began hanging out at jazz clubs and was able to get an occasional job playing with different professional bands. He studied other jazz drummers who influenced his style, and he was always ready to give them credit for his success. Black jazz drummers Tubby Hall, Zutty Singleton and Baby Dodds were among his influences. He soon met and played with Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman.
In 1927 he and a group of buddies landed a recording contract billed as the Chicagoans. They recorded four songs, and Krupa made a bit of musical history by insisting on playing the bass drum in the studio recordings. That had never been done due to the effects of the vibration on the equipment, but it turned out to be a smart move. The records were a success, and critics praised the work of the previously unknown drummer. Some would later say Krupa's drumming helped define the Chicago jazz sound.
In 1929, Krupa moved to New York City with some of his bandmates and eventually found work with various orchestras. He played in the Gershwins' Broadway show "Strike Up the Band" along with Glenn Miller and Goodman, still studying to refine his playing and expand his repertoire.
By 1934 he was back in Chicago when Goodman convinced him to join his new group. Playing as a trio and quartet, the swing band became increasingly popular, not the least because of Krupa's flashy talent. By the late 1930s, both men had become national phenomena. Krupa's drum work on the 1936 Goodman hit "Sing, Sing, Sing" was a milestone in music. At a Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Krupa's energized, frantic playing on the song stole the show. It featured the first extended drum solo ever performed and recorded.
Drumsticks twirling and flashing, chewing gum while frenetically playing with tousled hair, the handsome, hip Gene Krupa had become a genuine superstar in the entertainment world. He and Goodman disagreed over his role and style, so he left to form the Gene Krupa orchestra in 1938. His shows sold out, his records were hot sellers, and he appeared in several movies. And young Polish Americans were extremely proud to have one of their own as a pop culture icon of immense popularity. Among his hits were "Let Me Off Uptown," "After You've Gone," and "Drum Boogie."
Krupa convinced Slingerland Drums to make tuneable drums for him. Working with Zildjian Company, he developed the modern hi-hat cymbals. For these innovations, he is considered the father of the modern drum kit.
In 1943 he was arrested in San Francisco for possession of marijuana and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was convicted on the possession charge and spent 84 days in jail, but the following year the conviction was overturned when the main witness admitted that he had lied about the affair.
This incident caused the break-up of Krupa's big band and could have killed a lesser man's career, but his popularity was so strong that the public forgot and forgave. Determined to forge ahead, he briefly rejoined Benny Goodman before forming another band in 1944 that was to last until 1951. By then, the big band era had ended.
With rock ‘n' roll ascendant in the 1950s, Krupa worked with trios and quartets and operated a drum school. He engaged in famous "drum battles" with Buddy Rich and continued to cut the occasional record. The movie "The Gene Krupa Story" was released in 1959 starring Sal Mineo. The soundtrack featured Krupa himself, and the movie led to a resurgence in popularity.
By this time back problems and a heart attack forced him to slow down. In 1963 he famously reunited with the Benny Goodman Quartet. He assembled a big band that played Las Vegas regularly, toured and made television appearances.
In 1967, Krupa announced his retirement, saying, "I feel too lousy to play and I know I must sound lousy." Then in 1970 he came out of retirement to perform with a new quartet, but he began to suffer from emphysema and leukemia. 1973 saw a few appearances with the Goodman Quartet, and his final performance was with Goodman on August 18 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. On October 16, 1973 Krupa died of heart failure in Yonkers. A requiem mass was said at St. Denis parish in Yonkers, attended by Goodman and other performer friends. Burial was in the family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Calumet City, Illinois.
Later drummers may be judged to be better than Gene Krupa. But he was the pioneer who set the standard for drum playing in popular music. All those who follow play in the shadow of this legend, the greatest drummer of all time.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal
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