Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni (July 6, 1924 – February 14, 2009), known by the stage name Louie Bellson (his own preferred spelling, although he is often seen in sources as Louis Bellson), was an American jazz drummer. He was a composer, arranger, bandleader, and jazz educator, and is credited with pioneering the use of two bass drums.
Bellson was an internationally acclaimed artist who performed in most of the major capitals around the world. Bellson and his first wife, the actress and singer Pearl Bailey (married 1952–1990), had the second highest number of appearances at the White House (only Bob Hope had more). He was a vice president at Remo, a drum company.
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. 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 1942. His detailed sketch earned him an 'A' in his high school art class.
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 a little girl, Dee Dee J. Bellson, who was born on April 20, 1960. Son Tony Bellson died in 2004, and DeeDee Bellson died on July 4, 2009 at age 49, 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 December 5, 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 Ray Brown, Pete and Conte Candoli, Chuck Findley, John Heard, Roger Ingram, Blue Mitchell, Don Menza, Larry Novak, Nat Pierce, Bobby Shew, Frank Rosolino, Clark Terry,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."
Francine Bellson recalled how Ellington explained to Louie that "in the beginning there was lightning 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.
Compositions and arrangements
As a prolific creator of music, both written and improvised, his compositions and arrangements (in the hundreds) embrace jazz, jazz/rock/fusion, romantic orchestral suites, symphonic works and a ballet. Bellson was also a poet and a lyricist. His only Broadway venture, Portofino (1958), was a resounding flop that closed after three performances.
As an author, he published more than a dozen books on drums and percussion. He was at work with his biographer on a book chronicling his career and bearing the same name as one of his compositions – "Skin Deep".
In addition, "The London Suite" (recorded on his album Louie in London) was performed at the Hollywood Pilgrimage Bowl before a record-breaking audience. The three-part work includes a choral section in which a 12-voice choir sings lyrics penned by Bellson. Part One is the band's rousing "Carnaby Street", a collaboration with Jack Hayes.
In 1987, at the Percussive Arts Society convention in Washington, D.C., Bellson and Harold Farberman performed a major orchestral work titled "Concerto for Jazz Drummer and Full Orchestra", the first piece ever written specifically for jazz drummer and full symphony orchestra. This work was recorded by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, and was released by the Swedish label BIS. Drum tutoring
Bellson was known throughout his career to conduct drum and band clinics at high schools, colleges and music stores.
Bellson maintained a tight schedule of clinics and performances of both big bands and small bands in colleges, clubs and concert halls. In between, he continued to record and compose, resulting in more than 100 albums and more than 300 compositions. Bellson's Telarc debut recording, Louie Bellson And His Big Band: Live From New York, was released in June 1994. He also created new drum technology for Remo, Inc., of which he was vice-president.
Bellson received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1985 at Northern Illinois University. As of 2005, among other performing activities, Bellson had visited his home town of Rock Falls, Illinois every July for Louie Bellson Heritage Days, a weekend in his honor close to his July 6 birthday, with receptions, music clinics and other performances by Bellson. At the 2004 event celebrating his 80th birthday, Bellson said, "I'm not that old; I'm 40 in this leg, and 40 in the other leg." He also celebrated his birthday every year at the River Music Experience in Davenport, Iowa.
Among Bellson's numerous accolades, he had been voted into the Halls of Fame for both Modern Drummer magazine, in 1985, and the Percussive Arts Society, in 1978. Yale University named him a Duke Ellington Fellow in 1977. He received an honorary Doctorate from Northern Illinois University in 1985. He performed his original concert – Tomus I, II, III – with the Washington Civic Symphony in historic Constitution Hall in 1993. A combination of full symphony orchestra, big-band ensemble and 80-voice choir, "Tomus" had been a collaboration of music by Bellson and lyrics by his late wife, Pearl Bailey. Bellson was a six-time Grammy Award nominee.
In January 1994, Bellson received the prestigious American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, a U.S. federal agency. As one of three recipients, Bellson was lauded by NEA chair Jane Alexander who said, "These colossal talents have helped write the history of jazz in America."
Louie Bellson Drumstick Collection
Current Drumstick Count in Collection: 2.