by James Byron Fox

In October of 1991 I got a phone call from my pal Larrie Londin, The Greatest Drummer In The World. I know that is a rather provocative assessment of a drummer whose name goes unrecognized more often than not, but I'm not the only one who holds that belief. "Larrie Londin is the greatest drummer in the world, at least, that's my opinion, and it should be yours too," said Chet Atkins as he introduced Larrie during the GUITAR MASTERS tour in 1991. Chet is a legendary performing artist, writer, producer, and certainly one of the most influential recording executives in the history of recorded music. His guitar playing is known the world over and he crosses over into every style of music. His distinction as "CGP," which stands for Certified Guitar Player, is his passport. Chet performs with symphony orchestras, he makes Grammy winning albums with legends of Country as well as Rock music and he's a regular at the Grand ol' Opry. He's a Vice-President at RCA responsible for launching hundreds of careers. He's got over 50 years of experience in the business of music and I could go on about his remarkable successes, but the bottom line is that he chose Larrie Londin for his GUITAR MASTERS concert series which showcased the talents of some of the most talented and versatile musicians in the world. Whenever Chet plays or says that Larrie was the greatest drummer in the world, lots of people listen.

I first met Larrie Londin when he came to Virginia Beach for a Guitar Masters Concert in September, 1991, and I spent as much time as I could with him, from picking him up at the Norfolk International Airport, trap case in tow and  helping him assemble his drum kit, to taking him to some local nightspots after the show. I was hoping that some of his experiences would rub off on me and I urged him to relate stories about his amazing career that spanned four decades and scores of hit records with some of the world's biggest stars.

The day he called me from Nashville to invite me to Philadelphia. I made excuses; my job, my dog, the six hour drive, my own band's commitments, my perpetual lack of funds, but I arrived in Philly Wednesday afternoon, October 17, 1991, despite my excuses. In my heart I'm a journalist and a musician and this was a chance to spend two more days with one of Elvis Presley’s drummers. I could not resist. You see Larrie had become my friend. We hung out together at the hotel, backstage and on the streets of Philadelphia. I dogged him unmercifully and he answered every question I could think to ask, holding nothing back. I had an idea to help him co-write a book about his extraordinary life and call it, IN THE COURT OF THE KING, referring to the 9 years he spent recording and often touring with Elvis, replacing Ronnie Tutt. But the recordings and tours with Elvis were only a small part of Larrie's legacy. If not the best known, Larrie is one of the most listened to drummers in the world. He played on more hit records during his career than any other drummer with the possible exception of the legendary session drummer Hal Blaine, and his work covers the complete musical spectrum.

A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Ralph Gallant (Larrie Londin is his stage name) grew up in Florida, returning to Norfolk in the 50's and cutting his musical teeth on local groups like Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps. His Mom was one of the first roller-skating waitresses at DOUMAR'S, a prototype of what would become a national craze of drive-in hamburger restaurants. Larrie's early environment was saturated in Rock'n'roll music and it rubbed off on him.

He said his drumming career started in Norfolk by accident, and as I listened to his wealth of stories it seemed that he credited accidents with situation after situation which had thrust him from a Norfolk nightclub into the studios of Motown at the height of the "Motor City Sound," and on to a career in Nashville, where Chet Atkins was defining "The Nashville Sound." He went from being one of Nashville's only drummers to being Country Music's top studio drummer. Larrie played with the cream of the crop on literally thousands of sessions.

His accomplishments ranged from touring with Adrian Belew to The Everly Brothers, from TV shows with Tennessee Ernie Ford to The 1992 Command Performance for the President, from records with Stevie Wonder to Steve Perry and JOURNEY. All accidents? Diana Ross; The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves; The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Lionel Ritchie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Boots Randolph, Charlie Pride, Randy Travis, Porter Wagnor, Dolly Parton, B.B. King, Albert Lee, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, England Dan; John Ford Coley, Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Jerry Reed, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Reba McEntire, KT Oslin, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Hank Williams, Jr., Chet Atkins; Elvis Presley . All accidents? It wasn't a string of accidents. It was hard work, taste and talent. Larrie was the first to admit that he wasn't the best drummer in the world, we both agreed that Buddy Rich had been the best, but Chet Atkins was right, Larrie was the greatest.

By the time we left Philadelphia, I knew I wanted to tell Larrie's story, but I also knew he was one of the busiest musicians in the world with studio commitments, concert tours, drumming clinics, product endorsements and his own video production company.

Our relationship continued to grow over the phone and through correspondence, but sadly, the Philly trip was the last time I ever saw my friend. On April 24, 1992 he collapsed following a clinic at North Texas State University and he spent four months in a vegetative state. There was nothing the doctors could do to bring him back from the coma. He lingered for months in a Nashville hospice and I hoped and prayed that he would somehow beat the odds and recover even though the best medical minds said he had suffered irreversible brain damage. I had forgotten about writing a book, I just wanted my friend back. He was down to earth and one of the nicest guys I ever knew and I missed him. As summer began turning to fall, I got the news from George Lunn, Chet Atkins' road manager, that Larrie had passed away. On August 24, 1992 the world had lost its greatest drummer.

Larrie's resume reads like Who's Who in music. It's impossible to listen to any radio very long before you hear his solid backbeat. He was a real musician's musician and I hope that someday he'll get the widespread recognition he deserves. The following interview is a compilation of our conversations.


by James Byron Fox

JF: When did you first play drums?
LL: I was a teenager working in a Norfolk, Virginia nightclub that featured local bands. I was a cook and dishwasher. I moved a lot of beer kegs and I mopped up every night. One night the band's drummer didn't show up and I volunteered. I had never played a drum before but I figured it beat washing beer mugs and it paid better.

JF: When I was a kid in Norfolk I took some drum lessons from Master Chief Musician Kennith Malone (USN) who was head of the percussion department at the U.S. Navy School of Music at Little Creek, Virginia. When he retired from the Navy he joined Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass and ended up doing session work in Nashville. Do you know him?
LL: Kenny is a real prince and an amazing talent. When he first came to Nashville I used to throw a lot of work his way, especially stuff like movie and TV soundtracks. One day he asked me why I gave him so much choice work and I told him it was because I couldn't read the charts. Well, he started teaching me right then and within a year or so I could read well enough to hold my own. I still can't sight-read as well as Kenny, but I can blunder through most of the charts that come my way. I owe a lot to Kenny; he's a real fine player and a close friend.

JF: What was you first recording session?
LL: Believe it or not my first record contract was with Atlantic as a singer doing a very poor Elvis impersonation.

JF: That must be a real collector's item.
LL: I think my mother has the only surviving copy. It was dismal. It convinced me to stick with the drums and keep my mouth shut.

JF: How did you end up playing on all those Motown hits?
LL: The band I was in was signed to Motown. We were the token white guys on an all black label. I used to just hang out at the studio all day and do club dates at night. In those days Motown was a real factory and they used to run sessions in shifts around the clock.

Maybe The Supremes would be in there at 8:00 A.M. and then at Noon The Temptations would come in and cut a track or two. At 6:00 they'd all break so the musicians could get some dinner and by 8:00 P.M. Smokey Robinson or The Four Tops would come in and go until midnight. At Midnight another session would start and go on until three or four in the morning. By 8:00 A.M. it would all start again with Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. That place just cranked out records around the clock (Berry) Gordy never slept. It was the ultimate sweatshop.

JF: Did you just ask to sit-in one day?
LL: Lord no. In those days Bennie Benjamin played drums on all the Motown records. Benny was a great soul drummer and I was nothin'. I was just a kid. I used to just watch him for hours. One day I was in the Motown office and Berry Gordy came rushing in and grabbed me. He said Bennie had just had a heart attack or something and the ambulance hadn't even arrived yet. Rather than cancel the days sessions Gordy told me to get down to the studio and play drums, that's what he paid me for. I was scared to death, I mean, here's all these great soul artists, and I'm this white boy from Norfolk, Virginia. I mean you don't get much whiter than that you know?

JF: It must have been great. What was it like?
LL: It was great and terrifying - I can't even remember the first track I played on, there were so many. It's just all a blur. We worked sixteen hours a day making five or six records each and every day and it all just runs together in my mind.

JF: Does anything stand out as particularly memorable?
LL: Oh sure. My first trial was to learn the Motown pick-up drum intro. If you listen to all those records you'll hear that each one starts with a drum lick. Each studio had a trademark drum pickup and you can actually identify the label by the first bar of the song. Benny had that trademark fill that started virtually every Motown cut and I had to learn it. I practiced it a lot. Over time I changed it just a little to give it my own signature but at first I tried my best to sound just like Benny. After he died I replaced him.

JF: In the book, THE BIG BEAT by Max Weinberg, Bernard Purdie claims that Bennie Benjamin was a junkie and that he (Purdie) actually played on some 500 of those Motown sessions, only he claims that the rhythm tracks were cut in New York and shipped to Detroit where vocals were laid on.
LL: Well, some of that may or may not be true about Bennie. Bennie was a very sick guy and it's no secret that he had a problem with the junk. As far as Purdie's claims go I don't want to get into a big thing about it but the guy's got some kind of a problem of his own. I mean - his memory's not too good.

JF: Without actually naming you he claimed that he, had to fix up go in and overdub a lot of the Motown stuff, because it wasn't right."
LL: Yeah, I've read that interview. He also claims he played drums on the early Beatles records too. There's no doubt that he was a great player, with King Curtis, James Brown, Aretha ... but I was there and I can tell you he didn't do some of the stuff he claims because I did it. Those sessions were live, vocals and all, and overdubs were unheard of in those days. If someone goofed we just did it over.

JF: In the Weinberg interview, Purdie seems to be hedging - he's very reluctant to name any of the tracks he claims he doctored with The Beatles or for Motown.
LL: Well, that's because he didn't play on COME SEE ABOUT ME, or BABY LOVE or SUGAR PIE HONEY BUNCH, or any of the others. Lots of witnesses were there, so ask them if it was a tape from New York or a fat scared white kid named Ralph. (Laughs.) I really hate to call someone a liar, but he called me one first. Ringo called his story rubbish and said you don't bother disputing that shit. Those were his words...I just never bothered. There were other drummers from time to time - Purdie may have been one of them. I don't deny that, but 500 tracks? I have fond memories of playing double drums with Stevie Wonder on the UPTIGHT sessions. It was a gas - he was soooo funky!

JF: You played with Stevie again many years later didn't you?
LL: Yeah, SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED, I'M YOURS around '69 or '70. Stevie is just such a genius. What he lacks in eyesight he makes up for with his music. He's got a great feel - so much soul.

JF: I heard you once say that you used to play tricks on Ronnie Milsap during recording sessions. Was it because he's blind?
LL: Ronnie Milsap is a great guy to work for and I used to have a lot of fun at his expense. When he would record his vocals live with the band he always did a peculiar thing with his headphone mix. Rather than a regular click track he had this cowbell track in his left ear really loud and he listened to the rest of the band in his right ear. I always got a kick out of that cowbell and I found that I could lay back a little - just off the beat -- and Ronnie would start leaning to the left where he heard that cowbell. The more I'd lay back, the more he'd lean. If I pushed the beat a little and got a fraction ahead of that cowbell he would lean to the right where he heard me. It was really funny man, and we had lots of laughs watching him lean this way and that. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles have that leaning back and forth thing down, but I swear that if I laid back too much Ronnie would just fall over. We must have ruined a lot of tape messing with him like that. It was a riot but it was good-natured fun. I love Ronnie.

JF: When you left Motown where did you go?
LL: I did a 13-week stint on Tennessee Ernie Ford's summer replacement TV shows. It's a shock that he's gone so suddenly. I'll miss the ol' pea picker. (Note: Ford had died the morning this portion of the interview took place, October 18, 1991.)

JF: From there it was on to Nashville?
LL: Music City.

JF: How did you make that transition from Motor City to Music City?
LL: It was easy. I just wanted to keep getting a payday so I just kept working.

JF: You did a lot of television when you first got to Nashville, didn't you?
LL: I had learned the ropes on the Ford show, so I had an edge. I worked on Porter Wagnor's TV show for a while and it was some tough work. Porter was sometimes difficult to work with because of some of the stuff he was into in those days and he really used to beat himself up a lot. But, he was a real star, and he was always very professional, but we got into it more than once. He was always a fine judge of talent though - I remember when he brought a little girl in one day and told everyone that she was gonna be real big. When we saw her we all laughed because she was this tiny gorgeous little thing in a blonde wig and she was already real big, if you know what I mean. The guys in the band all joked about her thinking that Porter had found him some extra-curricular activity. But when she started to sing we all knew Porter was right. Her name was Dolly Parton.

JF: Tell the story about the 'orn'.
LL: I was working with Porter's band in the studio and his producer had a real country accent. I mean a Deep South backwoods drawl. We rehearsed the track and the producer in the booth said, "That's fine, but drummer... no orn." Well I was new and I didn't want to look stupid so I just nodded my head. We played it down again, and he says, "Drummer. I told you not so much orn!" I looked at the bass player and he just shrugged, so I said Okay. I had no idea what he was saying. So, we started playing it again and the producer stops us. "Drummer - quit it. No Orn!" I was really flustered so I said, "No what?" He came running out of the booth and grabbed a cymbal yelling, "No Orn, NO ORN! He was saying IRON. He called the cymbals Iron. (Laughs.)

JF: You also worked on the Grand Ol' Opry and on Hee-Haw?
LL: Yeah. There wasn't much in Nashville that I haven't been into to at least some extent it seems. In the old days they didn't allow drums on the Opry. It was a long uphill battle.

JF: In Nashville you've recorded with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, Hank Snow, and Elvis to name a few. What was the most memorable?
LL: Definitely Elvis. I started recording with him and the Memphis Rhythm Section in 1968 and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. He was just real special.

JF: You went to Vegas with him?
LL: Yeah, those were wild times. You expected Elvis to be this God-like condescending kind of Rock'n'roll legend...and he wasn't like that at all. He was a good 'ol country boy - kind’a shy. Moody. Yeah, shy. He was very polite and quiet spoken most of the time. He loved jokes and he liked to fool around on the bus and stuff like that, but he was nothing like some of the crap that's been written about him. At least I never saw it. He had problems but he wasn't a wild man except on stage. He was basically good, I guess. He had a big heart, always giving gifts. He treated his friends real good. He even treated strangers good. I remember one show we played in the mid-west somewhere Nebraska maybe - and Elvis had spotted this old couple in the audience. They looked like farmers. The old man wore faded overalls. They couldn't get close to him because of the crowd and he was giving out the scarves so everyone was pushing and shoving trying to get one. Elvis had one of his security guys escort these old folks up close to the edge of the stage, past the photographers and the police. Elvis wadded up one of his scarves and placed it very carefully in the old woman's hands. We all noticed because we had to vamp through the bows several times while he was doing it. After the show he came on the bus and he was real excited. He said he bet that couple would be surprised when they unwrapped that scarf. You see he had slipped a diamond ring worth about ten grand into that scarf. He thought they were poor, or maybe their farm was being foreclosed or something like that and that ring would help them survive. What Elvis didn't understand was that, those folks will never sell that ring no matter how bad things get. He just didn't realize what something like that means to a fan. Those folks probably never had any idea how much money that ring was worth, and even if they did, they wouldn't sell it at any price. Elvis loved doing stuff like that and he loved people. I never heard him speak an unkind word. He was always giving people gifts - Cars and furs and rings. He was very generous.

JF: There has been a lot written about Elvis over the years. Have you ever considered putting your experiences with him down on paper?
LL: I've had offers to write a book about Elvis, but you know, they really didn't want to publish the stories I had to tell. They only wanted the dirt - the scandal. I never saw him use drugs and I never saw him being mean to people. He had problems, everybody does, but he was a sweet guy - real religious, and he was patriotic, he really loved America. The publishers said nobody wants to read about that stuff. I just couldn't be a part of another book trashing him, he was a real good guy and he was always nice to me. The writers who badmouth him didn't know the real Elvis and some of the stuff they write about him makes me mad.

JF: In all the photos and films I've seen, you are always very close to Elvis onstage.
LL: That's funny. Elvis hated drum risers. He wanted the drums on the floor right next to him, as close as possible. He wanted to feel the bass drum kicking him in the ass. He roamed around stage, but at critical moments in the show - tempo changes and endings - he was always right there close - so that I could see him give signals.

JF: What was it like near the end?
LL: (long pause) I think everyone wanted a piece of him - and there just wasn't enough to go around. When he died it tore me up.

JF: What do you think of the stories that he's not really dead?
LL: Bullshit.

JF: Long after Steve Smith replaced Aynsley Dunbar as JOURNEY's drummer you showed up on their RAISED ON RADIO album instead of Smith. How did that come about?
LL: I just got a call from Steve Perry one day to come and play drums. I've heard some of the stories that surrounded that album, but I think the whole thing was kind'a blown out of proportion. The whole thing boiled down to the fact that Perry and the producer wanted to use a click track. I never knew whether Steve Smith refused to play with a click track because he felt it insulted him, or if he just couldn't handle it, I've heard both stories - but that's why they called me. I laid down the drum tracks and got my paycheck and that was the extent of my involvement. Steve Smith went out on tour with JOURNEY when the album came out, so whatever the deal was everything worked out okay in the end. It worked out especially good for me because Steve Perry had me play on his STREET TALK solo album and I even got a few points on that one. Oh Sherrie was a giant hit.

JF: You endorsed PEARL drums for many years. Everyone's seen pictures of you backing up Elvis with that double bass drum Pearl set. Why the switch to DW?
LL: A lot of times Elvis and the drums are all you see in those pictures. The lights always caught those white bass drumheads with the large PEARL logos. That logo has become a familiar sight on MTV over the last decade, but in those days I think the only logo anyone recognized was Ringo's LUDWIG's. The Japanese were very conscious of product recognition and they always treated me as a VIP whenever I played with Elvis. They gave me loads of drums, anything I wanted. It's just that they got too big, and they became less receptive over the years. Maybe the Pearl thing fell apart because the drummer with The Everly Brothers didn't carry as much weight as Elvis' drummer. When I played with Elvis I did carry a lot more weight than I do now. (Laughs) You know what I mean? I've dropped almost a hundred pounds and I'm on a special diet now. I had to shed some pounds - I was killing myself. My heart couldn't stand it. The PEARL drums were all specially built for me with customized beveling which added low end and allowed them to "sing."

JF: Why have you switched to endorsing DRUM WORKSHOP drums in recent years?
LL: Several reasons. First, DW makes a quality product. It's made in America and so many USA companies have folded due to the foreign competition. After endorsing PEARL for many years I felt sort'a guilty about that - there's been a big push to buy American. Eventually, every time I called PEARL for parts I'd get some Japanese speaking person on the phone and it was getting to be a real hassle, I just got tired of it. Don't misunderstand, PEARL make some quality drums but they also make some econo-models you know? Their low-end lines are kind’a shoddy compared to the high end. I was reluctant to continue encouraging people to buy them. I mean, some kid might think he's buying the same kit I had, but he's not unless he's paying top dollar and had an inside line. For almost the same money he could get top quality drums built in America. That bothered me and I just needed a change. I had played some DW's and they were really fine instruments. The company approached me about possibly representing them so when my contract with PEARL was up I switched. DW is a great organization and I've had a lot of input with them. Working in conjunction with DW and the EVANS people, Pete Erskine and myself designed the Genera EQ Studio Bass Drum head system. They are sold in matched sets and feature a patented grillwork design on the front head instead of a round hole for close miking. It's the best bass drum sound I ever heard. Working with Drum Workshop and EVANS has been great. Both companies are totally dedicated to product research and development and produce only quality lines. It's the same with SABIAN cymbals, they are top quality and they manufacture them in North America (Canada). I also endorse PureCussion RIMS and ddrum products. I'm not a chauvinist patriot, I use some foreign equipment, mostly electronics like the YAMAHA SP12, and the AKAI sequencer but if all the American drum firms go belly up, musicians will be at the mercy of imports and I don't think that's right. DW supports me every step of the way. I travel with my trap case, gig bag; my Sabians and my electronics and DW makes sure the local music store delivers a DW set to ever gig. They’ve never let me down.

JF: What do you think about all the technological advances in drum machines and computers?
LL: I love it. I have an ATARI computer with the Creator Program that runs my sequencers and records what I play. My son does most of the actual programming - I just know how to turn it on. It's really amazing stuff. I really like the control that sampling gives you in defining the sound. It saves so much time and trouble. On sessions I can play a chart once and lock it into the computer then I just play it back during the rehearsals and it keeps me fresh for the actual take. Lately I've been into sampling and Phil Collins just sent me some great ones that I want to use on my album.

JF: You've played on more hit records than any other drummer.
LL: (Grins) If you say so. I think maybe it's Hal Blaine.

JF: Or Benard Purdie?
LL: No (Laughs.)

JF: What do you have planned for the future?
LL: I'm working on the solo album and I'm launching a Video Production Company. I've been working with one of my heros, Joe Morello, and if everything works out I hope to do a video and a clinic tour with him after the MARLBORO MUSIC FESTIVAL "GUITAR MASTERS" concerts with Chet wind up and Joe gets some contractual things hashed out. I've also got some things on the books with Merle Haggard and Chet has asked me to play with him at the Presidential Command Performance next spring.

(Larrie Londin played at the Presidential Command Performance with Chet Atkins. On April 24, 1992 he collapsed following a performance and he spent four months in a vegetative state. He died August 24, 1992.)

Copyright © 1992 James Byron Fox . All rights reserved.