Born: July 06, 1924
Died: February 14, 2009
Studies: Augustana College, Illinois (1942)
Louie Bellson was born in Rock Falls, Illinois, in 1924 and started playing drums at three years of age. At age 15, he pioneered the double-bass drum set-up. His detailed sketch earned him an 'A' in his high school art class. At age 17, he triumphed over 40,000 drummers to win the Slingerland National Gene Krupa contest. Louie graduated from Moline High School, Moline, IL, in 1939.
In an interview in 2005 with Jazz Connection Magazine he credited Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett as influences as well as Chick Webb. "I have to give just dues to two guys who really got me off on the drums - Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones. They were my influences. All three of us realized what Jo Jones did and it influenced a lot of us. We all three looked to Jo as the 'Papa' who really did it. Gene helped bring the drums to the foreground as a solo instrument. Buddy was a great natural player. But we also have to look back at Chick Webb's contributions, too."
In 1943, he performed with the Benny Goodman band and Peggy Lee in The Powers Girl, the first of his many film appearances. He also appeared in 20th Century Fox's classic The Gang's All Here (1943) in the orchestra while Carmen Miranda sang "Paducah". Bellson was 24 and a veteran of a U.S. Army band when he joined Danny Kaye, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Benny Carter, Mel Powell, Kenny Dorharn, Harry Babasin, Al Hendrickson, Buck Washington, and Goodman for the Howard Hawks film A Song Is Born (1948)
Between 1943 and 1952, Bellson performed with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Duke Ellington (for whom he wrote "Skin Deep" and "The Hawk Talks"). In 1952 he married Pearl Bailey, and he left Ellington to be her musical director. They adopted a little boy, Tony, in the mid-1950s. And the couple adopted a little girl, Dee Dee J. Bellson, born April 20, 1960. Son Tony Bellson died in 2004, and DeeDee Bellson at age 49, died July 4, 2009, just 5 months after her father, who died on Valentine's Day 2009.
After Pearl Bailey's death in 1990, he married his second wife, Francine in September 1992. Trained as a physicist and engineer at MIT, Francine Bellson (née Wright) became his manager. The union lasted until his death in 2009.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s, he performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic or J.A.T.P., Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington again, and Harry James again, as well as appearing on several Ella Fitzgerald studio albums.
Over the years, Bellson took several bandleader's holidays to play under the direction of other leaders or to lead someone else's band. During the 1960s, he rejoined Ellington for his Emancipation Proclamation Centennial stage production, My People in 1963, the motion picture soundtrack of Assault on a Queen in 1966, and A Concert of Sacred Music which is sometimes called The First Sacred Concert in 1965. Ellington called these concerts "the most important thing I have ever done." In 1966, Bellson toured briefly with both Basie and ex-boss Harry James. In 1967 Bellson recorded an album entitled 'Repercussion' in which he played alongside his great friend, the British drummer and percussionist, Eric Delaney. On 5 December 1971 he took part in a memorial concert at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall for the late (drummer) Frank King. This special tribute show also featured legendary British session and big band drummer, Kenny Clare, as well as Buddy Rich. The orchestra for the occasion was made up of top musicians and led by Bobby Lamb and Ray Premru. The concert was released on vinyl LP in 1972.(Re-released in 2011 on the Vocalion label.) Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he worked with territory bands like the Unifour Jazz Ensemble. A few years later, renowned drummer Buddy Rich (referred to by many as "the world's greatest drummer" over the years) paid Bellson a supreme drummer-to-drummer/bandleader compliment by asking him to lead his band on tour while he (Rich) was temporarily disabled by a back injury. Bellson proudly accepted.
He also recorded extensively and led his own bands (occasionally maintaining separate bands on each coast). His sidemen have included Blue Mitchell, Don Menza, Larry Novak, John Heard, Clark Terry, Pete and Conte Candoli, and Snooky Young. He was equally effective as a big band drummer and as a small group drummer. In 2006 a new album appeared, The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet. In May 2009, Francine Bellson fascinated jazz fans when she told The Jazz Joy and Roy syndicated radio show, "I like to call (Sacred) 'how The Master used two maestros,'" adding, "When (Ellington) did his sacred concert back in 1965 with Louie on drums, he told Louie that the sacred concerts were based on 'in-the-beginning,' the first three words of the bible."
Mrs. Bellson, who is affectionately called "The Indomitable Mrs. B" by the many jazz-radio fans, recalled how Ellington explained to Louie that "in the beginning there was lightening and thunder and that's you!" Ellington exclaimed, pointing out that Louie's drums were the thunder.
Both Ellington and Louie, says Mrs. Bellson, were deeply religious.
"Ellington told Louie, 'You ought to do a sacred concert of your own' and so it was," Mrs. B. said, adding, "'The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson' combines symphony, big band and choir, while 'The Jazz Ballet' is based on the vows of Holy Matrimony...."
In May 2007, Bellson recorded a number of his compositions and arrangements for big band, featuring Clark Terry on Flugelhorn, with Kenny Washington and Sylvia Cuenca on drums. The big band was manned by the members of Clark Terry's Big Band. The music was recorded in Studio A at Clinton Recording Studios in New York City. The resultant album, Louie and Clark Expedition 2 was released in January 2008. Bellson led his own orchestra almost steadily for more than forty years. His last band was called the Big Band Explosion.
On February 14, 2009, Bellson died at age 84 from complications of a broken hip in December 2008 and Parkinson's disease. He is buried next to his father in Riverside Cemetery in Moline, Illinois.
Books for Percussion
Bellson, Louis; Bellson, Henry; Black, Dave. Contemporary Brush Technique. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 2006.
Bellson, Louis; Breines, Gil. Modern Reading Text in 4/4. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1985.
Bellson, Louis; Breines, Gil. Odd Time Reading Text. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1999.
Bellson, Louis. The Musical Drummer. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1993.
Works for Percussion
Discussions in Percussion – Percussion Ensemble
Four Stories – Percussion Quartet
Kingdom of Rhythm – Percussion Septet
Modern Reading Text in 4/4 – Snare Method
Percussion International – Solo Percusison, with Orchestra
Percussion Suite Number One – Percussion Quintet
Six Solos – Solo Percussion
T.B.A. – Solo Percussion
Tandem – Percussion Duo
Tea for Three – Percussion Trio