An Englishman Remembers Barrett Deems
by Stephen Voce
"Barrett," said Louis Armstrong, "you're the only guy in the world that makes coffee nervous."
Barrett Deems, billed as "the fastest drummer in the world" during his five years with Armstrong's All Stars, was an abrasive man driven by a restless energy. He had constant rows with the rest of the band, who used to hold meetings about him. "I don't care," said Armstrong, "as long as he goes ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding."
"What's wrong with you?" Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser asked the drummer. "Nothing," answered Deems. "I feel fine."
Deems was given his first drum because he was a hyperactive child. He remained so for the 85 years of his life. He and the newly elected mayor of Chicago were guests at the city's first annual jazz festival in 1979. The organisers were anxious to make a good impression on the new mayor, Jane Byrne, and tried to keep Deems away from her. Somehow Deems arrived at the spot where the mayor was sitting. He tapped her on the shoulder. "You know, I don't care what they say about you," he said. "You're not a bad looking broad. And you've got great legs, too." the mayor smiled. "Thank you very much," she said.
The drummer travelled the world with Armstrong on tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department and documented in the film "Satchmo the Great" (1956). At a concert in Ghana, Deems's drum feature "Mop Mop" so excited the 100,000 crowd that a riot broke out. That same year the band appeared in the film High Society with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. Amongst the more than 2,000 recordings he made during his career, Deems played on two of Armstrong's most famous albums - "Satch plays Fats" and "Satch plays W. C. Handy".
"He was the most beautiful man I ever worked for and the best entertainer in the world," said Deems. "He was constantly giving money away. Sometimes, if someone on the street asked him for 25 cents, he'd give them a $100 bill and tell them to buy some food and clothes and find a place to stay. "A lot of people would ask him about me. 'Why do you have a white drummer?' "He'd just say, 'Because I like his playing.' Period.
"I remember once we were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we couldn't find a hotel that would let us in. So here's Louis, who always had about $10,000 cash in his pocket, and the guy can't get a hotel room. The whole band had to sleep in a gymnasium that night. Go figure it out."
It is hard to think of anyone else who worked for so many eminent bandleaders. When Deems began to play he couldn't be bothered to learn to read music and never did. "Who cares?" he said. "Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa couldn't read too well either, but they could play. Guess what? That's what counts."
Deems was in Chicago as the Twenties roared and the city was transformed into the crucible of jazz by Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and other of the music's innovators. "Every block had four clubs," he said. "You only made $14 a week playing from nine at night until four in the morning. But you could hear everyone—Krupa, Dave Tough, Baby Dodds, all the great drummers."
The drummer led his own bands in Chicago before coming to the notice of the jazz violinist Joe Venuti, a man with a similarly abrasive character. Deems joined Venuti's band in 1937 and stayed until 1944 when petrol shortage and the draft forced the violinist to disband.
Deems worked for Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey and then Woody Herman before returning to his hometown of Springfield. Then, in 1948, he joined Red Norvo.
His eccentric stage personality was well captured in the 1951 film Rhythm Inn, a story about a young songwriter and a budding girl vocalist in which Deems was given a feature number. His first visit to Europe followed shortly afterwards under the leadership of Charlie Barnet. On his return he made a significant move by leaving the big band field to work in the Dixieland group led by cornettist Muggsy Spanier. This was the first of many such small bands that he joined.
"Spanier paid lousy money, always had done, and when I left because of this he thought I didn't appreciate him. He was right."
The years with Armstrong followed and then in 1960 Deems came off the road to lead his own band at Chicago's Brass Rail club. After a few months he joined the band led by trombonist Jack Teagarden, an easy going virtuoso who drank to sustain himself against the constant travelling and died in his fifties as a result. "Never cared for the stuff," commented Deems, who abstained for most of his life.
As the Armstrong sidemen had learned, the Teagarden men found that travelling as a sextet with Deems on board had its problems. "He was no trouble," said the band's trumpeter Bobby Lewis. "We put Barrett's drums in the car and Barrett in the boot."
Deems settled finally in Chicago in 1964 and from then on worked with the Dukes of Dixieland and accompanied visiting musicians such as Buck Clayton, Joe Venuti, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson and Red Norvo. Still in demand he toured Eastern Europe with Benny Goodman's sextet in 1976 and in the early Eighties went to South America with Wild Bill Davison. The drummer returned to Britain to take part in a tour with British and American musicians billed as "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" in the early Eighties.
Fast becoming a legend in Chicago, he recorded and worked there with a blues pianist who already had that status, Art Hodes, an ex-patriate Russian who had become a jazz great. By now, still thin and sprightly, he wore bottle-thick glasses, had hair that a hairdresser described as "18 cowlicks" and had grown a beard, which failed to stop the Adam's apple protruding at will. He resembled, as one of the local papers put it, a rooster.
He took advantage in the early Nineties of his extraordinary appearance and volatile stage manner to form a big band. The audience loved his corrosive cracks, but these did not detract from the fact that his band, which played regularly at Chicago's Elbo Room, was a very good one that attracted some of the city's best musicians.
Amongst them was Deems's wife Jane Johnson, who played alto and flute in the band and was more than 30 years his junior. One of the band members said to him "Don't you worry about the big age difference?" "No," said Deems. "If she dies, she dies."
Researching for a programme on Armstrong a few years ago, presenter Campbell Burnap and producer Terry Carter called at Deems's home. It reflected the drummer's personality. By now he collected drums and one bedroom was jammed to the ceiling with them. One of the largest was a bass drum that had been used in Sousa's original brass band. The six cats and three dogs that ran about the house were unimpressed.
Deems nearly died from a collapsed lung in 1993 but determinedly rose from his bed to continue to lead the band. His drumming, slightly less swift, was otherwise unimpaired. He continued to lead and play with the band each week until his death.
I met Deems when he came to Liverpool with Armstrong in 1956. As I wrote in Melody Maker at the time "The coffee lounge of Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel is designed to strike awe into all but cabinet ministers and the most eminently U. In Barrett Deems they hit a dead end." He was a small, wiry little man whose most notable feature was his huge Adam's apple and he never stopped moving. "I play drums the way I used to box." I ducked as he demonstrated with a quick jab and uppercut to the table. A portly gentleman in evening dress rose from his chair nearby, folded his newspaper and left.
At that stage Deems had taken a dislike to all Europeans and wasn't afraid to say so. Asked what he thought of Europe he said, "They should clean it up, paint it and sell it."
"The way we travel round the world, you got to stay healthy," Deems said. He admitted to smoking four packs of Camels a day. He offered me one and lit it with a cigarette lighter like a blowlamp. "That's a real lighter, man. The best make in the world. You can't knock it out; you can't blow it out. Look." He blew. The lighter went out.
"I got six, maybe seven hundred lighters back home. I collect them," he told me at the Adelphi. "This one's a present from Zildjian, who make the cymbals." He lit the monster again. "Look, you can't blow it out." He blew more gently. The huge flame flickered—and then shot up again. Deems beamed delightedly. "See!"
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