Heroes #5: Victor Berton, 1898-1951

A true pioneer, for the timekeeping methods he introduced and for his role in determining the very equipment […] subsequent drummers would play.” – Richard M. Sudhalter

Vic Berton

(aka. The Red Heads / Red Nichols & His Five Pennies / Red & Miff’s Stompers / Miff Mole’s Molers / Van’s Collegians / The Charleston Chasers etc, etc.)

Today’s Hero is one I have always had a soft spot for, not just because of his playing (excellent, imaginative and truly unique though it is) but because his name became something of an in-joke with a band I played in for many years. This band would make an annual trip to play a jazz festival on an island off the west coast of Scotland. The first year we played there I was accosted in one of the set breaks by an elderly (though extremely imposing-looking) Scottish gentleman, who loudly demanded: “Have ye haird of Victor Berton? Ye plae just like Victor Berton!” We had a brief chat and I thought no more about it. But from then on – every tune, every set, every subsequent year – whenever I took any kind of hot cymbal break with this band at this festival, I knew his stentorian voice would inevitably pipe up from somewhere at the back of the room: “VICTOR BERTON!”

Many of the drum heroes of the ‘twenties grew up in the South, in poor working-class homes if not in actual poverty. Their musical skills were hard-won, on the streets in parade bands and in saloons, watching and absorbing the talents of older musicians. Victor Berton (né Cohen) – for a short time recognised as perhaps the greatest jazz percussionist working in America – originated from a very different cultural background and consequently approached both the instrument and the role of the jazz drummer in an alternative way to many of his contemporaries. Berton was extremely fortunate to be a native-born Chicagoan and would be on the spot in the city where jazz would come of age. On top of that, his family were middle-class and musical: his father was a violinist and both his brothers also became musicians (Eugene a singer, Ralph another drummer), and Berton received formal music lessons from a very young age. He initially pursued the classical tradition, studying timpani with a Chicago Symphony percussionist and performing with professional orchestras at theatres around the Midwest whilst still a child.

When America entered the Great War in 1917, 62 year-old John Philip Sousa, the legendary ‘March King’, was commissioned as a U.S. Navy bandleader at the Great Lakes Naval Station outside Chicago. Overcome with a mixture of patriotism and eagerness to work for a true hero of American music, young musicians in the area flocked to enlist in Sousa’s band, the 20 year-old Berton among them. Sousa’s bands had been playing orchestrated ragtime marches since the turn of the century, and it might have been his wartime bandmates that first exposed Berton to popular music. At the cessation of hostilities,  Vic quickly became immersed in the burgeoning Chicago dance band scene, where his reading, impeccable time and formidable orchestral technique made him a valuable commodity. By the early ‘twenties Berton had passed through several leading bands and co-composed the hit song ‘Sobbin’ Blues’, with saxophonist Art Kassel. The tune would later become a standard, recorded by great jazz artists including King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Berton made his recording debut with Art Kahn’s hot dance band in 1923.

At this early stage the bands still sound rather stiff and mechanical, but on ‘Bahama’ we can hear some snappy choke cymbal from Berton at several key moments and a driving out-chorus played on woodblock. Around this time, as he was establishing himself on the white Chicago jazz scene (officially at least, music had to remain racially segregated), he had been impressed by a Midwestern jazz band, the Wolverine Orchestra, and befriended its outstanding cornet player, Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke. In 1924 Berton became the band’s manager, and occasionally covered the drum chair in place of the Wolverines’ fine drummer, Vic Moore (Hero #13). Of the many sides recorded by the Wolverines, Berton appears only on three.

Having already mastered classical percussion and dance-band drumming, Berton is now clearly becoming an excellent jazz player. He matches the insouciant swing feel of the rest of the band perfectly and plays the kit with great variety and imagination, making use of woodblock, open and choked Chinese cymbal, and some syncopated snare drum hits on the two shout choruses. Unfortunately Beiderbecke (heard here playing one of his most elegant solos on record) would shortly leave the Wolverines, leading to a significant change of personnel including Berton’s departure. Fortunately, one year on Berton – now relocated to New York City – was to make the professional acquaintance of another exceptional young cornettist with whom his name will always be associated in the musical history books: Ernest ‘Red’ Nichols.

Nichols was a clean-cut and technical player with an ear for modernistic harmonies and creative musical arrangements. He had a contract with the Brunswick record company and had been making small-group jazz sides for the previous few years, often with his principal partner, trombonist Milfred ‘Miff’ Mole. They recorded under a host of aliases, among them The Red Heads, Red And Miff’s Stompers, Miff Mole and his Molers, The Charleston Chasers, The Six Hottentots, and most frequently, Red Nichols And His Five Pennies, a wisecrack (five pennies equals one nickel) apocryphally attributed to Vic Berton. The jazz they made was consciously ‘artistic’ – clever, controlled and cerebral. Berton, with his classical training and mastery of percussion instruments, proved the perfect drummer for Nichols’ bands. They began recording together in 1925.

Over the years that he was a member of the loose Nichols/Mole group of musicians, Berton originated and developed a number of trademark sounds and techniques hitherto unheard in jazz. Firstly, he brought his childhood timpani expertise to bear on jazz, using state-of-the-art pedal-tuned drums to play chromatic basslines and short solo breaks: many Nichols records from the period feature Berton “galumphing along on his tymps like a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing lunch” (Richard M. Sudhalter). Secondly, Berton pioneered a special trick for playing rapid rhythmic patterns on a light choked cymbal. He would strike the underside of the cymbal with the stick held in the fingers of his left hand, the thumb of which choked the edge of the instrument. With his right stick still free to play the top side as usual, he found he could alternate very rapidly between striking the top and bottom sides of the cymbal and produce a range of extremely interesting syncopated rhythms. Earlier this year, Mr. Josh Duffee (a great mate and true 1920s drumming expert) and I were watching another wonderful vintage jazz drummer, Mr. Richard Pite, performing the ‘tricky-cymbal’ technique faultlessly and with typical panache. I turned to Mr. Duffee and said, ‘Who first came up with that thing? Berton?’  Josh replied: ‘Berton.’

Many classic Nichols/Mole records feature Berton’s percussive trickery to wonderful effect. This is perhaps the first ever band to record prolifically in which the drummer regularly takes lengthy solos and breaks, and he is not only beautifully recorded (for the period) but prominently showcased almost as much as any other instrumentalist.

‘Boneyard Shuffle’ is a tour de force – virtually a percussion concerto! Vic begins playing complex bass lines on his timpani, punctuated with the odd choked cymbal. Behind Nichols’s cornet solo (0:39) he plays some neat ‘hot socking’ on cymbal, moving to mellow woodblock for the breaks (1:01), backs Mole’s trombone solo on tom-toms (1:33) before taking a complete chorus using the trademark ‘tricky cymbal’ technique explained above (2:30).

‘Alabama Stomp’ (the second recording of this tune by the Nichols gang, on Edison, 1926) finds Berton playing a 16-bar chorus of improvised solo on the snare drum with brushes (1:40) which is not only one of the earliest clear recordings of brushes being used, but a masterclass in syncopated ‘hot’ rhythm. If you want to know what the cutting edge in hip brushes playing in the mid-20s was, this is it.

During these incredibly productive few years Berton seems hardly to have left the recording studio, often working with Nichols, Mole and their other collaborators in backing bands for what we’d now call pop sessions – his timpani featured prominently, for example, on a number of records by the great singer Annette Hanshaw. Berton was finally poached by America’s most famous bandleader, Paul Whiteman, in 1927, but his tenure with the greatest large jazz ensemble extant at the time  – which ought to have been the peak of Berton’s career – lasted only a month or so, before he and Whiteman (not usually known for being a hard man to work for) had an almighty falling-out about something. There are two stories: firstly Red Nichols’ version of events, that Berton became angry when Whiteman refused to transport his huge percussion outfit between gigs along with the band’s other equipment. Secondly there’s Vic’s younger brother Ralph Berton’s account involving a punch-up between the two men in the gents’ toilets, which according to Ralph was won by his brother. Either or both stories may be true. However, Berton quickly moved on from Whiteman to see the decade out playing in a number of high-class New York dance bands.

This chapter ends with an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside of an early talkie:

It’s a shame that many of the drummers in these pages did not appear in a moving picture, or at least, not during their peak years. Berton’s appearance on film, however, is an intriguing mystery. A star-studded band under the little-known name of Walter Roesner’s Capitolians was filmed using a new sound process in New York in 1928. The band includes many of Berton’s New York session colleagues: Jimmy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Jimmy Lytell, and Leo McConville. At the back of the band stands a drummer surrounded by percussion instruments. He plays some neat choked cymbal, tom toms, and occasionally reaches behind him to interject on timpani. He also accompanies a singer by tearing newspaper rhythmically. Is this man Vic Berton? Opinion is divided. The time, place and other personnel are right, but there seems to be no record I can find of Berton playing with Roesner. If it’s not him, it’s someone imitating his style and doing a very fine job of it too. There is a brief close-up when he tears the paper – here’s a comparison of the two. Is it our man? Make your own mind up…

Berton comparisonThe film is from 1928, and although I can’t find a confirmed date for the photo of Vic on the left, I would assume from the caption (though cropped here, it lists artists he ‘records with’, including Nichols and Mole) that it’s from c.1925-6, i.e. a couple of years before the film. To me, the mystery man on the right looks a good bit older than Berton – though maybe it’s just his moustache? – and his chin and brow seem to be of a different shape. Whoever he is, it’s great to be able to watch as well as hear a drummer playing really on-point Berton-style 20s jazz percussion.

Whatever the identity of Roesner’s percussionist, the feature film ‘Applause’ (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1929) definitely does briefly feature Vic, playing with a small dance band  in a resturant scene, at at around the 1hr 5minutre mark. The scene fades in to the sight and sound of his beautifully rich-toned cymbal suspended on a springmount, played with a soft mallet and choked (evidently Berton sometimes choked overhand as well as underhand!) He then drops the mallet and sets up a snappy press-roll groove on the snare, all whilst having a conversation with the banjoist next to him. Sadly this is all we see of Vic or the band, but they do perform several more numbers on the soundtrack, and even this brief glimpse is revealing both of his technique and performance practice, and his general personality and charismatic onstage demeanour.

You can also read a colourful (if rather fanciful) account of Berton’s early work and his escapades with with Bix and the Wolverines in the 1974 book ‘Remembering Bix’, written by Berton’s younger brother Ralph, who at the time was only in his early ‘teens and clearly in awe of the debonair Vic and his talented friends. In subsequent years the book has often been criticised by Beiderbecke historians for its lack of factual accuracy, but whatever its shortcomings it still provides ample evidence of the elder Berton’s incredible work ethic and a generally strong flavour of the hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle led by certain young musicians in the 1920s. Ralph Berton is an excellent writer and creates amusing, memorable characters and a compelling story – just remember to take them all with the proverbial grain of salt.

Updated 8/5/20 to include the footage from ‘Applause’ – which I’m grateful to Enrico Borsetti for unearthing and Michael McQuaid for alerting me to.

2 thoughts on “Heroes #5: Victor Berton, 1898-1951

  1. Hi,

    I agree with you – I don’t think it is Vic. However, 1) it’s fun to invite people to speculate! and, 2) in that case, who could it be? He’s perhaps not quite up to Berton’s best, but he ain’t bad! Of those who, as you say, ‘fit the bill’ – care to suggest any names? The list of Heroes I’m planning to write about is already well over 50 long, but any more are always welcome!

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to get in touch,

    All the very best,



  2. The drummer in the Capitolians film is most emphatically *not* Vic Berton. He clearly does not look like him and while there are some superficial similarities in the playing styles, the Capitolians’ drummer is a pale imitation. There were many drummers who fit that bill! I believe Berton *does* appear in “International House” from 1933, performing “I’m The Drummer” with Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra.


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