Gene Krupa: The Chicago Flash

January 15 was the birthday of the father of modern drumming Gene Krupa (1909-1973) and this year will also mark 50 years since he shuffled off this mortal snare.

Krupa remains one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time, one of the biggest stars of the swing era thanks to his flamboyant and flashy theatrics, and his energetic playing style (best illustrated on Benny Goodman’s version of “Swing Swing Swing” one of the best remembered hits of the era), but also because of his influence on later drummers of the jazz and rock eras. Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham all cited Krupa as a major influence, and their emulation of him in instantly perceptible. He’s the guy who gave popular music its first drum solos, and helped standardize the pieces of the modern drum kit

Polish-American Krupa came out of Chicago’s jazz scene and became a professional when still a teenager in the mid 1920s. He was the most famous pupil of drum instructor Gus Moeller, and in his early years played with Thelma Terry and Her Playboys, Red McKenzie, and Bix Beiderbecke. He was a star of Goodman’s big band from 1934 to early ’38, whereupon he started his own outfit. An arrest for pot in 1943 resulted in scandal, causing him to break up his own band and play Goodman’s and Tommy Dorsey’s bands for a time before rebuilding his orchestra. In the ’50s, like many of his contemporaries, he scaled back the size of his bands to small combos. The early ’50s saw his legendary “drum battle” performances with Buddy Rich.

Like many star musicians of his time, Krupa appeared in several Hollywood movies. You can see him in Hollywood Hotel (1937), Some Like It Hot (1939, not the Billy Wilder one), Ball of Fire (1941), Syncopation (1942), George White’s Scandals (1945), Beat the Band (1947), Smart Politics (1948), Glamour Girl (1948), Make Believe Ballroom (1949), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and The Benny Goodman Story (1956). And in 1959, the inevitable The Gene Krupa Story starring Sal Mineo. The movie sensationalized Krupa’s drug use and arrest, and (as always in exploitation films) no doubt inadvertently glamorized what it purported to discourage.

In his final years, Krupa suffered from leukemia and emphysema, although a heart attack ended his life at age 64 before either of those disease could take him. At the time of his death, he was living in a portion of his house in Yonkers New York that had not been destroyed by a blaze of couple of years earlier. That’s a Ball of Fire” he didn’t need!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.