The story of one musicians effort to catch up to a dream, and a love too real to leave behind.
Chapter 1 – The Seed
In 1971, I was five years old, and lived with my family in a small wooden house set on piers in an area not far from the Morganza Spillway in South Louisiana.
My Dad worked at a local chemical plant, and my Mom stayed home with me and my little sister.
Me and my Dad mostly hunted and fished, and my Mom and sister… did girl things I guess.
Life was pretty simple for me, and I had no complaints.
The house was modest to say the least and we didn’t have much in the way of furnishings, although there was one item of particular curiosity to me.
In the living room was an oddity of sorts ; a 4 foot long by two-and-a-half foot tall wooden box on 4 stubby legs, with two vertical strips of fabric on the front at each end, and a horizontal sliding door on top.
You learned the first time, but no matter how many times you slid the horizontal door open, it was like peeking under the table to see the secret behind a magic trick.
Sliding the door open revealed an array of knobs and buttons that required the full might of a five year old boy to resist the urge to push, pull, and turn each one no less than seventeen times each.
A Console Stereo System that featured an AM/FM radio, 8-Track tape player, turntable, and speaker system, that to my youthful eyes was like looking at the controls of a spaceship.
I had seen it operated a few times, but although I don’t remember any particular established boundary, I somehow knew better than to mess with it unsupervised.
So I mostly just glared at it as I walked by.
On this particular day however, my parents were hosting some kind of social event, and thanks to a happy coincidence, my life would never be the same.
As my parents prepared for guests to arrive, two particular events would occur simultaneously:
Just as I’m walking up the front porch steps, opening the front door, and about to make my way across the living room floor as if I had someplace to be, someone else was, “queuing-up” an album on that console stereo turntable ; at max-volume!
I made it about halfway across the living room floor when I was stopped in my tracks, dead in front of the console stereo by the very first deafening and most deliberate note of Master of Sparks by ZZ Top.
What was that?, I had time to wonder for two silent beats before being stunned once again by the three single notes that would follow.
Whoa ; I had never heard such a sound.
I just stood there, paralyzed by the wonder of this sound and the unfamiliar yet incredible feeling that overcame me as I experienced for the first time, the chemical reaction released in my brain as it scrambled to interpret this wondrous sound and its profound effect on my emotions.
What a day.
What a discovery.
My name is Bobby Duthu, and there is little doubt in my mind that this is the very moment that music found its way into my soul, and would become among the few consistent joys my life would ever know.
Chapter 2 – The Drums
The next year of my life would be among the worst.
My parents divorced, and so began an uncomfortable, confusing, and grueling thirteen year cadence of new schools, new friends, and new living arrangements.
While not completely devoid of happiness, this lifestyle made it exceedingly difficult to focus on any one particular person, interest, or endeavor.
But similar to my experience with the Console-Stereo years earlier, this would begin to change in 1978 at the age of twelve.
I had one of those Mom’s who really did dance and sing like nobody was watching ; A quality I have always admired.
A little embarrassing for a kid maybe, but she was pretty good at both, and it was impossible not to notice that the underlying motivation was pure joy, so I didn’t complain.
I didn’t realize though that she had considered singing professionally if only briefly, and in yet another living-room-based-music-discovery-story, was pleasantly surprised upon returning home from school one day to a living room full of band equipment.
The living room looked like a stage.
There was nobody in the house, but there was a microphone on a stand, a couple of guitars and amplifiers, and a drum set.
I walked up to each instrument and studied it patiently as I had once studied that Console-Stereo.
Then gradually, one-by-one, they all seemed to disappear.
All but one that is:
Chapter 3 – Frank
As it happens, the drum set found in my living room that day, was not the first I had encountered.
My Dads little brother, Mark, played drum set in high school band, and had graciously treated me to a seat at his set a couple of times when visiting my grandparents when I was barely out of diapers.
I lightly hit each drum and cymbal a time or two with a drumstick.
While not particularly inspiring, the specific and unusual sounds of the snare drum, tom-toms, and especially the cymbals was something I particularly enjoyed.
My Moms’ band never got off the ground, and the drum set was only there for a few of weeks or so, but before they were taken away, unwilling to ignore my enthrallment, my Mom arranged a lesson with their owner.
His name was Frank, and I only saw him twice.
The first time, over a 30 minute period, he showed me how to play a beat: chick-um-tat ; chick-um-tat ; chick-um-tat-um-chick-um-tat ; repeat
He told me if I was still interested, to practice over the next few days, and he’d be back to check on my progress.
As promised, he returned a few days later and was pleasantly surprised at my progress, then proceeded to share the next lesson, which would be among the most important I would ever learn.
He took the sticks gently, set them down quietly, and proceeded to explain that the most important aspect of the progress that I had made was not enthusiasm, coordination, or talent ; but the patience to overcome the frustration of doing something difficult.
He went on to explain how this lesson is not limited to learning to play drums, but essential to the success of anything that I may encounter in life that requires hard work and perseverance, and that if I believe I can do something, I can, and nothing can change that.
I nodded and said, “OK”.
He then showed me how to play a lick between the snare drum and tom-tom, how to incorporate it into the beat I had learned, told me to practice as I had done before, and remember what he had told me about believing in myself.
I would never see Frank again.
I would come home from school a couple of weeks later, the drums would be gone, and the living room restored to its former modesty.
With one exception:
Sitting near the middle of the floor where the drum set had been, was a single drum.
It had an oyster-shell finish, rusty steel hoops, thin wires and an assortment of fasteners and miscellaneous drum parts set on top in a pile.
My Mom later explained that the band had moved on, but Frank left the message that if I put in the effort to repair it, he wanted me to have it.
For awhile, even though I had no idea how to repair, or play it, I did know that I couldn’t get home from school fast enough to do both of these things that I had no idea how to do.
But now what?
As if magically appearing out of thin-air, within just a few days, I had learned just enough about this amazing apparatus of fun and exhiliration called a drum set, to accelerate my curiosity and imagination to light-speed, if not beyond.
This experience had an extreme impact on me, and thanks to the influence of just a few minutes with an insightful adult armed with the right message, the next year would not only prove that it would take far more than a lack of a drum set or the money to buy one to diminish my determination to become a drummer.
But far more importantly ; That Frank was right.
If I believed in myself, and set my mind to do something ; Nothing could stand in my way.
Chapter 4 – A Boy and his Trash
Over the following year, my efforts toward perfecting my drum roll, and making repairs to my newly acquired snare drum, bordered on the obsessive.
Suffice it to say that it had become well established and understood by all, that whatever else may, or may not be in my future, drums were a certainty.
Adding fuel to the fire was a chance encounter with my uncle Mark, who took a few minutes to help me with my drum roll.
He demonstrated expertly, then explained that the idea was to, “make it sound like a machine”.
“Make it sound like a machine” ; Those words were like a secret code that unlocked my understanding of the deliberateness of a drum roll, the necessity of the uniformity of each note, and that even the natural bounce of the drumstick could be controlled.
I spent countless hours sitting cross-legged with that snare drum in my lap, desperately laboring-away with my new-found, “secret code”.
And when I wasn’t doing that, despite having no Earthly idea how, I was desperately trying to figure out how to regain access to a drum set.
Being from, “modest means”, I didn’t ask my parents for much ; And certainly not a luxury item like a drum set.
And I was more than happy to find something in need of repair, or even made from scratch.
For example, a few years earlier I had seen a pile of empty ice cream containers out back of a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop on my way home from school.
Over the following week, I took one home everyday on my bicycle until I had enough for a drum set.
I filled them with towels, t-shirts and the like to make them sound differently, set them on the floor around me in a circle, and played along with songs as they came over the radio.
So when my Mom and step-Dad came home with two drum shells and a pile of parts found at the end of someone’s driveway waiting for trash pick-up, I was over-the-moon.
So just as I had done with my snare drum, I began trying to repair and assemble these two new drums.
And before long, I had assembled the most patched-together, hideous looking, pathetic excuse for a drum set you could ever imagine.
And I loved them.
Chapter 5 – Pearl Summer
In the meantime, my Moms’ adopted little brother, Bo, who was only two years older than me, was enjoying his 5th year playing guitar, and had heard about my interest in drums.
Despite living quite a distance apart, it wasn’t long before we were scheming to get together on weekends to, “jam”, and it wouldn’t take more than once to turn to obsession.
My grandparents had a camp on the river where we basically lived that summer.
By summers’ end, we were already talking about adding a bass player and a singer, and planning our take-over of the music-world.
When it came time to return home, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Bo had arranged to return with us for a few more days of jamming before having to return to school himself.
He had recently acquired his drivers license and we had stuffed his guitar, amplifier, and my junk-drum set in the back of his Pinto Station Wagon.
But upon arriving at home, things started to get a little weird.
The ride home was relaxed and uneventful, and no one seemed to be in any particular hurry.
But now that we were home, it seemed as if something was wrong, and everybody knew what it was but me.
Doors were slamming, people were scurrying, and I was looking around trying figure out what the hell was happening.
But I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, so I grabbed my suitcase and headed toward the house.
At that time, we lived in a house-trailer, and my bedroom was at the far end of a very narrow hallway.
I noticed that my door was closed which was a bit unusual, but I been away for six weeks.
Then I opened the door…
Set individually on my bed, was the most beautiful set of drums I had ever seen.
I was stunned.
Then I felt the presence of My Mom, step-Dad, sister, and Bo right behind me.
I was trying not to cry, and they were all speechless as the moment that they has so thoughtfully and carefully planned was even more momentous than anticipated.
We all had tears in our eyes, and nobody said a word for what seemed like an eternity.
I finally sat down in my desk chair, as they filed in to the room one by one, and we all spent a few minutes just staring at them.
A 5-Piece drum set made by the Pearl Drum Company, stunningly beautiful silver, brand new ; and all mine.
There was no yelling, no jumping up and down, no attempt even to touch them.
It was a very somber moment.
Then one-by-one, everybody faded away and went on about their business.
I sat for awhile longer, still trying to come to grips with what was happening.
It just didn’t seem real.
Eventually, my Mom came back alone.
She told me how it was my step-Dads’ idea and doing from the beginning, and we talked about the magnitude of his gesture.
I was still kind of numb.
Then he came in.
I tried to thank him, but broke down in tears before I could get even a single word out.
He told me that I didn’t have to say anything, that my reaction was all the thanks he would ever need.
I started to question him about the hows and whys, and he stopped me and said. “sometimes you can want something so bad, you need it”.
What an incredible moment that was.
An incredible and thoughtful gesture from an incredible and thoughtful human being:
His name was Bruce.
Chapter 6 – Blue Collar Boy
That was the summer of 1979, I was thirteen years old, and my life would never be the same after that most special day.
Fast-Forward three years and I’m the drummer in a rock and roll band, had my own drum set, a hot girlfriend, and a 65 Mustang.
Not bad, But nothing lasts forever.
The next several years would include endeavors with various local and touring bands, a temporary relocation to California, as well as a two year course of study with an acclaimed music professor at a local university.
So I’m really making my mark right?
For starters: I had no Earthly idea what the hell I was doing, and no one to guide me.
I had dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and was wandering aimlessly toward no place in particular.
Certainly not the life of a professional drummer.
I had a lot of information, but without life-experience, didn’t understand, that I didn’t understand what it all meant.
I had no shortage of drive and passion, and was extremely subject to inspiration, just no experience or understanding of how anything worked outside of my own personal everyday life experiences.
For example, I was deeply inspired to learn about my Uncle Davids’ education and profession as a solar engineer, and upon learning about it happenstantially from my grandmother, was visibly impressed and inspired.
Next thing I know, I receive a package in the mail including literature related to solar engineering, including engineering basics and education recommendations.
It was enthralling, and I spent a significant amount of time reading through it, but had no concept whatsoever of what steps I might take next.
It was kind of like someone from the Jurassic period finding a smart phone.
I still have that literature today, sitting in my studio like an ancient artifact from the coulda-woulda-shoulda era.
In another instance, when I was around 17, I was spending a lot of time in the area of Hammond, Louisiana on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana State University.
I wasn’t enrolled, but the student union was a bit of a community hang-out at that particular time, and many non-students like me frequented there and could be seen coming and going through all hours of the day and night.
Eventually, over time, I began noticing the titles of the buildings that I passed on my way to and from the union, the most interesting of which as I recall had an official sounding name that I wasn’t quite sure I understood, but that included at least one word that I certainly understood ; Music.
One day, on my way from the union, on no more than some sort of primal instinct that was always trying to guide me toward betterment, I pulled in to an empty parking space in front of that building that looked at that moment as if it been abandoned.
I sat in my car awhile scoping out the scene, and with no activity or sign of life in any observable direction, headed toward the front door.
Upon entering, I realize I’ve likely made a mistake.
The place seems enormous, it’s deathly-quiet, and my foot steps are echoing back to me as if I’m alone in the Taj Mahal.
But with good intentions on my side, I picked a direction, and started walking.
One long hallway after another, lined with uniform office doors, all vacant with the lights out ; this giant building is completely uninhabited.
But just about the time I decide to make my exit, I see a faint light through a half-opened door toward the end of the last hallway.
I make my way to the door, take a small breath, and knock softly.
“Yes?”, says the occupant, “come on in”.
Pushing open the door reveals the curious and friendly smile of no less than the director of the music department himself, Dr. Will Rapp.
What follows is the result of two individuals on polar opposite ends of every spectrum imaginable.
Economic, social, educational, and intellectual.
By most accounts, I would’ve been shown the exit, and sent about my way, if not by security.
But this is not at all what happened to me.
Amazed by the story he heard of my interest in music and life experience, and instinct that led me to his office, Dr Rapp told me that he may be able to help, but needed to speak to at least one of my parents first.
I agreed to try, and left with a sense of relief as if I had been rescued from the out-of-control whirlwind of uncertainty in me:
I would eventually come to realize that my lack of guidance was directly related to my lineage.
As I would later learn, my parents were likewise chronic under-achievers.
That is to say that to no fault of their own, although rich with potential, they likewise had no idea how to navigate themselves out of the vicious-cycle of under-achieving in which so many fall victim.
So how could they possibly know how to help me?
So my Mom was happy to attend a meeting with Dr Rapp, but like me, would lack the experience to understand the totality and implications of this priceless opportunity, and the resources to take advantage of the aspects that she did.
Dr. Rapp explained that he had already committed to a tenure at another university, but would be there for another two years, and wanted to do everything he could to help me, and gave her three options:
One, follow him to his forthcoming assignment as music department head at Iowa State University.
Two, accept a three-quarter paid music scholarship to the University of Miami.
Or three, enroll there at Southeastern after achieving my high school equivalency with which he would personally assist.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dr. Rapp then suggested that in the meantime, I begin weekly lessons with him, at no charge in order to ensure that whichever option was chosen, that I would be prepared for my forthcoming immersion into the world of higher music education.
For those of you unaware, below is the reality of growing up with limited resources in an environment that does not adequately value education:
Option 1: unattainable due to lack of funds.
Option 2: unattainable due to lack of funds.
Option 3: unattainable due to lack of funds.
In retrospect, Option 3 was likely attainable, but would have required an epiphany of epic proportions on my part in order to overcome my own lack of experience, and advance a campaign to lobby others outside of my immediate family for resources.
A pretty tall order for a 17 year old with my background.
Regardless, I accepted option 3.
The first thing Dr. Rapp did was personally escort me to an administration building where he introduced me to a group of ladies that could, and would help me to get started with my high school equivalency and subsequent university enrollment.
Then he gave me a lesson schedule, and said, “see you Tuesday at ten o’clock ; you know where to meet me right?”.
I said, “yes sir”, and went on about my way.
I spent the next 2 years, attending weekly lessons with a world-class percussionist and drummer, and one of the country’s most prominent educators of music, despite never enrolling as a student.
The lessons were something for which I could easily assign value, but just as I had in high school, not because I didn’t want to, but just didn’t understand the significance of education, and it’s role in the opening of doors, and forging of paths toward a career in a white-collar world about which I knew less than nothing.
After two years, Dr. Rapp indeed moved on, no doubt disappointed in my inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to which he had so generously offered.
The benefits of my studies with Dr. Rapp over that time period continue to reveal themselves even today.
And with every passing year, I feel more of the weight of the disappointment that I was unable to overcome my own ignorance and pull myself out of the cycle of mediocrity to which I seem to have been destined.
Although under different circumstances, I would later achieve my high school equivalency, but despite spending almost four years on the campus of a state university, would never spend a solitary day enrolled as a university student.
Regardless, as life goes, by the time the path to success started to come in to focus, and I began to develop ideas on a path forward, I would be faced with one of the most difficult decisions I would ever make.
Chapter 7 – The Decision
Somewhere around 1990, out of the blue, I get a phone call from a friend of mine with whom I once played in a band, but with whom I hadn’t spoken in awhile.
He’s down in The Bahamas with his band, and needs a drummer to finish a series of dates there, then come back to the states to play a showcase for a record company in hopes of landing a deal.
Coming on the heels my epiphany that I was on the wrong path, this was an ideal way for me to initiate a much needed course correction, and start moving in a more deliberate and strategic direction.
And yet, I’m hesitant.
Surprised by the hesitation and silence, my friend admits that my reaction is a little less than he had hoped for.
“I thought you’d jump at this opportunity”, he said.
I stammered while coming to the realization in real-time that I was about to verbalize a reality that I knew was coming, but for which I was not quite prepared:
“I can’t do it man ; I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the call, or how badly I want to ; but I just can’t.”
And as he tries in vain to persuade me, cutting him off mid-sentence, I remove all remaining doubt…
“My girlfriend’s pregnant”.
I fight back the tears as I feel a profound sense of failure and helplessness in the grasp of the soul-crushing reality that I have just voluntarily sacrificed a life of intention, for one of quiet desperation.
I was 23 at the time of that fateful phone call, but truth be known, I had already started to accept, if only subconsciously, that my biggest fear would inevitably come to pass:
That the idealistic and rebellion filled clouds of my mind, would begin to part and be replaced with the reality of a life chosen for me, and not by me.
Chapter 8 – Quiet Desperation
The events of my life that occurred between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three would likely rival the entire life-span of many, and at the very least, adequate for a mildly dramatic made for TV movie.
The details are a story for another time, but the fact is, that the dream of life as a professional drummer that ended so dramatically during that fateful phone call, was actually the third and last of three such dreams.
The previous two years would see the end of parallel aspirations of athletics, and a potential life in the military likewise result in similarly abrupt endings and understandably had a profound effect on me.
Having accepted these results begrugingly, the reaction to likewise losing the last, made it all-the-more devastating.
That said, I also had been raised on the premise that if you wanted something, you had to work for it.
So over the years, between endeavors, I had held several different jobs, had established an admirable work-ethic, and was pretty confident that I could do just about anything I set my mind to.
And that would be the foundation for my next step after that phone call.
I was already working out of a local labor union, but woke up that next morning with a new and different attitude.
I was no longer an aspiring athlete, fighter pilot, or drummer, biding my time and making a few bucks between gigs.
I was a craftsman, and soon-to-be-father, on a mission to make a better life for me and my new family.
The next twenty years would go by like a flash, with intermittent thoughts of drumming flashing daily, but only a few futile attempts to re-engage during the occasional fit of inspiration experienced after listening to one of my heroes.
Even bought a new drum set at one point, but even that couldn’t reignite the seemingly inevitable dousing of a smoldering fire.
The dream was gone.
Chapter 9 – The Dinner
Thirty-Two years after, “Pearl Summer”, on a Friday night in 2011, as we often did during that time, my wife and I attended our favorite local restaurant for dinner.
While chatting each other up about the usual goings on ; work, the kids, or projects we may have on-going around the house, while blathering on about my plans for the forthcoming weekend, I mentioned in passing that I was going to pack my drums away in their cases, and prepare them for long-term storage, or maybe even sale.
As I continue to ramble, I can’t help but notice the progrssively intense look of mystification on her face.
She looks as if she’s about to cry, and when I inquire, for the next 5 minutes, I get a side of her I hadn’t seen before.
Otherwise quiet and reserved, and certainly not prone to asserting opposing points of view.
But on this particular occasion, she not only had an opposing point of view to assert, but a flat out command to issue ; and it went a little something like, “You’ll put your drums in long-term storage over my dead body”.
I was truly stunned.
She had never said anything even remotely like that in all the time I had known her.
She went on explain how important she knew drumming was to me, how she understood and respected the reason I had given it up in the first place, and what a significant part of my identity it was.
And most significantly, that the kids were grown now, and that that excuse was no longer valid.
When she finally took a breath, I tried to interject how difficult it would be to return to my previous playing shape, but was shushed and told that I would get up the following morning, and figure out another path forward, no matter what it took.
We both took a breath, and just kind of looked at each other for a little while.
I felt a little like I had been scolded, and put in time-out.
But just like that, my whole perspective changed, and I slowly started to mumble about baby-steps that I might be able to take in order to start working my way back.
She still had that look, but ever-so-slowly, as my confidence and enthusiasm grew, so did her demeanor return. And within another fifteen or twenty minutes, it was just us again, talking ninety-miles-an-hour as if nothing had ever happened.
But it did happen, and I couldn’t repay her if I lived to be thousand.
Chapter 10 – The What, Why, & How
So now that it’s been established (commanded) that I’m going to do it, what exactly is, “it”?
I knew from my previous experience, that aimlessness was not an ideal strategy.
I knew I wanted to play drums seriously, but needed to define what that meant.
It would take a week or so of deep soul searching, but it was well worth the effort.
The answer: Record.
When I ask myself why I want to play drums.
The answer is to develop, and become recognized for my strengths as a drummer, and to inspire as I am inspired by others.
And what I am most inspired by, are beautifully performed and recorded drum tracks included within beautifully performed and recorded songs.
Obviously, live performing can likewise be inspiring, but can also be fleeting, and tends to fade over time.
A recording on the other hand, can and often does, serve to inspire over-and-over throughout an entire lifetime.
For me, the bottom-line is that five seconds listening to, “Peg” by Steely Dan, stimulates an emotion in me that I cannot neither describe nor define, but that is nonetheless among the greatest joys of my life.
So now I know what I’m going to do, and why I’m going to do it, but how?
I had no songs, no band, and no studio, and last I was anywhere near the music business, quality studio-time was the monetary equivalent of a home mortgage.
So as one does when embarking upon a life-changing epiphany ; I went to Guitar Center.
Now drummers, like other musicians, spend more than our fair-share of time in music stores, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that for most of us, wandering aimlessly outside of the drum department, and in to, “foreign territory” is not recommended.
That said, it takes me all of 3 minutes to pick-up a few pair of sticks and browse the instructional video kiosk, and suddenly I’m like an elderly retiree who has wandered a little too far from the facility.
I’m standing smack in the middle of Guitar Center, in no particular department, trying to think of a reason not leave, when mercifully, an employee asks if he can help.
I start stammering in barely decipherable drummer-speak, but he is able to recognize at least a single word…
He says, “right this way”, and suddenly, I find myself inside of a new world about which I had only ever heard before: Pro Audio
I had heard of Pro Tools, but knew nothing about it other than it was software geared toward recording.
As he began to explain the finer points of Pro Tools, and other recording innovations that had evolved over the previous 25 years, the next steps of my grand plan began to come in to focus.
A home studio.
After some internet research, a few phone calls, and an eye-opening tutorial from a local studio owner, I was able to assemble some decent home-studio recording equipment, and even produce my first primitive recording.
My initial equipment choices were a swing-and-a-miss, but as it turned out, an old buddy from my past days in the music business was not only in the thick of the latest developments in recording, but an executive with the recording industries most cutting edge manufacturing company ; PreSonus.
And with some sound advice from my buddy, and a modest investment, I am now the proud owner of a state of the art home-recording-studio.
Chapter 11 – The Problem
Now what indeed.
You see, I have a problem that most aspiring recording artists don’t have:
I’m not really a recording artist.
I’m not really even an artist at all.
I don’t play any other instrument.
I’m just a drummer.
So my position is rather precarious to say the least.
What I’m really endeavoring to do, is somewhere between recording artist and session drummer.
The difference is that a session drummer is hired temporarily by a studio, record producer, or artist to record one or more drum tracks over a period of one or more studio sessions, and are typically employed in a supporting role only, with little or no input into the method of execution, or result of the final product.
These responsibilities are typically reserved for the songwriters, producers, and/or band leaders.
A recording artist on the other hand, may be the main driver or producer of the recording session, and have full creative control, as well as hiring/firing responsibilities.
So here’s my dilemma:
Logistically, I’m nowhere near a music-industry-rich environment capable of supporting a community of dedicated session players, yet need to cram 20 years of lost time and experience into 5 years or less.
Basically, I’m trying to create a situation that offers me opportunities that only occur naturally for actual professional session drummers or recording artists in a thriving environment, and not that often even then.
For example, a session drummer endeavors to work continually in the hope that eventually, through sheer number, a library of quality tracks begin to populate their resume and ultimately, their legacy.
This can take years, and even decades in some cases.
And decades is something of which I’m just about out.
Chapter 12 – The Solution
Steely Dan is one of my favorite bands, and as it happens, an interesting case-study for my particular dilemma.
Steely Dan is famous for producing some of the highest quality recordings in the history of recording.
And they did so without a static band roster.
Instead, they hired hand-picked session musicians who they believed would best represent particular recording ideas.
As a result, you rarely find the same combination of musicians on more than one Steely Dan recording.
The difference between me and Steely Dan, beside the fact that they (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) were song writing and recording geniuses, is that they had all but a few bases covered themselves.
That is they wrote, played on, produced, sang, engineered, and arranged everything they ever recorded.
Basically, they had everything else, but needed drummers, and I had the drummer, but need everything else.
After just a couple of inquiries with old friends and acquaintances with whom I was friends on Facebook, I found just what I was looking for.
A producer/song-writer/guitar-player/singer ; My very own Steely Dan!
But of course there’s a catch.
Chapter 13 – TKO
When you’re watching a world-class athlete like professional quarterback Tom Brady for example, and think to yourself, “that looks easy, I could do
that” ; No, you probably can’t.
Not without some serious work anyway.
Enduring thousands of hours of training in order to develop the fluid, and seemingly effortless technique and muscle-memory that you see on television every Sunday is the reason it looks easy.
Certainly not because it is.
Well, performing in the recording studio is very much the same.
As it happens, playing live, and playing to tape, (recording) are two dramatically different techniques altogether.
That is to say that you can have an impressive resume, and long history of performing live, and still not have the technique and consistency required to produce quality performances in the studio.
Unfortunately, I resembled this remark all too accurately.
And that’s pretty much where it all started to fall apart.
We had developed an ambitious plan to record an album of at least ten songs.
We had overcome every conceivable technical obstacle related to the logistics of living several states apart, and were ready to begin work immediately in earnest.
Then one at a time, the songs started to trickle in.
A steady flow of outstanding songs that needed little more than a well-performed drum track.
But even though I thought I was ; I wasn’t up to the challenge.
I could conceive of, and imagine the tracks exactly as they should be ; But I couldn’t re-produce them to-tape.
Every attempt I made was littered with mis-hit back-beats, a total lack of feel, and overall poor sound quality.
Adding insult to injury was the eroding patience of my producer on whom I had become dependent due to the quality and convenience of his services and guidance.
I had built-up some resistance, but was hardly numb to his tough-love brand of constructive-criticism as I consistently uninspired him with one poor performance after another.
Realizing that I was not now, and likely never was the drummer I thought I was, would have been difficult even under the most private of circumstances.
But living it in front of others was particularly galling.
Maybe it <is> time to throw in the towel.
Chapter 14 – Diagnosis
Desperate, I once again reached-out to the friend who had helped me with my recording equipment before, to see if he would be willing to review one of my tracks.
Admittedly, deep-down, I still thought that somehow, there was somebody, or something, somewhere that could convert this difficult-to-listen-to-audio-disaster in to something I would be proud to share with the world.
You know ; Magic.
Instead, he pulled-up my track in his recording software and zoomed-in on the graphic representations of my snare drum hits.
He went on to explain how when played properly, the graphic representations would appear relatively even and consistent with each other.
In other words: My drumming is so bad at this point, you don’t even have to hear it to know how bad it is.
What a gut-punch.
I went there hoping to learn, and learn I did.
I learned that I had the right idea, plan, equipment, songs, and musicians ; I just had the wrong drummer.
In the days to follow, still recovering from ego-reduction surgery, I was forced to reassess my situation and get real about the cause, or causes of my failure to this point.
As a result, I came to the following conclusions with regard to my inability to return to my former playing form:
One, that I hadn’t been playing consistently for twenty five years, and as a result, my body had succumbed to a condition that could only be described as Rigor mortis (I needed to loosen-up).
Two, that as a result of an on-stage injury sustained a short time before retiring twenty-five years ago, I was forced to switch from matched-grip to traditional grip.
This is a major change for a drummer, and I had never really had the opportunity to fully complete the conversion, and acheive the same level of comfort and consistency that I once had using matched-grip.
And three, performance anxiety.
Much to my surprise, although always prone to experience some nerves before a live performance, I was experiencing the same thing despite being totally alone in my studio.
The level of anxiety developed in the seconds leading up to hitting the record button was debilitating, and lasted for the duration of the track, and undoubtedly affected the level of my performances dramatically.
So that’s the prognosis.
And lucky for me, there are remedies for all three of these ailments.
Chapter 15 – On-the-Job-Training
I could have stepped away from the project and practiced until I was ready to return, if not give up altogether.
But rather than setup a boring practice regimen that would consume valuable time and questionable results, I elected instead to continue recording.
If there was ever a bright-side to my having sacrificed a career in music for a more immediately lucrative alternative, it’s that I could afford to finance a project like this myself.
As a direct benefit of being the sole investor, I could afford to use failed recording attempts as valuable practice and repetition, while likewise continue to gain much needed experience.
Like I said before, I don’t have twenty-five extra years in which to play catch-up.
I need results now.
Chapter 16 – Showin’ Some Signs
In retrospect, an entire album was a bit too ambitious for someone with my lack of experience to take on.
My plan ahead was to just try to focus on one song at a time.
It’s cheaper too.
The going rate for the combined services being provided by my producer is double what he was charging me, and even at that, it’s pretty high by middle-class standards.
Regardless, this new approach would start to show some signs of effectiveness right out of the gate, and the next several months would see significant improvement.
There was no consistency yet between tracks, but I was beginning to produce some winners.
My confidence level was slowly starting to return, and as a result, I was starting to believe again that I might just be capable of doing this afterall.
Then I received a song called, “Love So Real”.
I liked it as I had the others, but this one was different somehow.
Listening a few more times while preparing to begin composing my drum part, I queued it up as I had all the others before, but when I started to play, something was indeed different.
Instead of the anxiety-based-nervous-breakdown to which I had become accustomed, when I hit record this time, it was more like my body took-over, and I was just there to observe, as if my arms and feet already knew what to do without me having to think about it.
And then it was done.
I felt good about it for sure, but after the events of the past few years, I wasn’t feeling very cocky.
I just prepared the track and submitted it to my producer per what had become standard operating procedure, with no comment, then waited for the pending result.
If you’ve never persevered through something that is almost, or maybe even actually outside of your scope of capability, this next event may difficult to understand.
But the results of that drum track were returned to me via text message from my producer and most ardent critic, and would immediately become among the greatest events of my entire life.
The text read:
“Yeah Bobby Duthu!”
Chapter 17 – The Redeeming
When I heard the final mix of Love So Real, for the first time in my life, I heard a well played, deep drum groove, played with just the right feel, embedded within a likewise fantastic song.
And the drummer was me.
I’ve learned since, that you can’t create an opportunity like that.
Some songs are tailor-made for you, and some aren’t.
All you can do is be prepared when that opportunity comes around.
In my case, I may have created a pathway for which these opportunities could find me, but ultimately, I just have to keep playing the ones that are available the best that I can until the right one shows up.
But I have to be ready.
When Love So Real came along, I was barely ready, and it gave me a bit of a chill to realize that all those years I thought all I needed was a warm-up and an opportunity, that I’m actually lucky that one never materialized, because I most assuredly would not have been ready.
Since then, I’ve been recording steadily, and making slight improvements along the way.
My initial attempts to make my mark as a recording artist were humbling to say the least, but I’m nonetheless on my way to building my own library of drum grooves that represent me as the drummer I aspire to be, and that’s all I can ask for.
While I may never reach the level of my heroes, my skills are slowly improving, and I take great comfort and pride in knowing that when that next opportunity comes around, I will be ready.
And while this effort has proved far more difficult than ever anticipated, the net result is the realization of a dream for which I’ve been beholden my entire life.
If there is a feeling greater than the sense of self-worth achieved by proving your own capability in the face of doubt, I am unaware.
But I do know this to a certainty:
The pursuit of my dream began with the premise of fame and recognition for my ability to play my instrument a certain way.
But through my efforts to achieve that goal, a truth that has escaped me for decades has also been revealed.
And that truth is that the fire that has burned inside of me for all these years has not been fueled by a deep-seated desire for recognition or fame at all, but a profound affection for music and an instrument that has brought an incomparable level of joy and value to my life.
So if you likewise had a dream from which you had to move on, was it just a whim, or did you too turn your back on a love so real you can’t live without?…
..but if you must be movin’ on
Did you leave behind?
Leave behind your love so real!
excerpt from, “Love So Real” – Billy Ritchin Band
A sincere and special thank you to the following people, without whom my relative success would have been far more difficult, if not impossible:
Bo Topousis (1964-2011)
Bruce Crain (1953-2009)
Frank (last name unknown)