Gene Krupa was arguably the world’s first celebrity drummer. The Chicago native’s four-year tenure with Benny Goodman’s big band in the 1930s helped bring the Swing Era to new heights. But even before then, Krupa had been drawing plenty of attention, both for what he played and how he played it.
Let’s take the “what he played” part first. Working closely with the Ludwig and Slingerland drum companies and with the manufacturers of Zildjian cymbals, Krupa played a key role in developing the modern drum set. In the ’20s, most jazz drummers didn’t use what we would consider a full kit, and they certainly didn’t record with one—it was a hassle lugging all that gear around, and given how poorly gramophone players of the day reproduced low frequencies, tom-toms and bass drums weren’t a priority in the studio. But in 1927, as part of Red McKenzie and Eddie Condon’s Chicagoans, Krupa made history by recording with a bass drum, a set of three toms with tunable heads, and a hi-hat (the stand for which had only been invented by Ludwig the previous year).
And how did he play this impressive pile of drums and cymbals? With a dramatic flair that captivated audiences, as you’ll see in the following videos, starting with the song that made him famous: the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s version of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which features the first extended drum solo on record. The performance here is from the 1937 movie Hollywood Hotel. Although the band is led by Goodman (who plays a memorable clarinet solo) and features such other notable players as trumpeters Harry James and Ziggy Elman, it’s hard to argue that anyone other than Krupa is the central focus here.
Breaking with Goodman and forming his own band in the late ’30s, Krupa quickly established himself as a major star. His photogenic nature and lovably goofy disposition made him a natural for Hollywood, and he appeared in many movies over the next 20 years. Here’s an amusing scene from 1939’s Some Like It Hot (not to be confused with the more famous 1959 film of the same name starring Marilyn Monroe).
In this sequence from the 1945 movie George White’s Scandals, we get to see Krupa the bandleader and actor as well as the flamboyant drummer.
Big bands fell out of general favor as the ’40s progressed, but Krupa kept on playing in smaller groups for another 25 years. Here he is in 1971 backing up tenor saxophonist Eugene Amaro on “Dark Eyes.” Though in his sixties and ailing, Gene Krupa had lost little of his skill, showmanship, or talent for listening to his fellow players.
Finally, for a deeper look at Krupa’s historical importance, check out this clip presented by drummer, historian, and friend of In Tune Daniel Glass.