“Come on, I want you to meet the world’s greatest drummer, Stan King!”
– Fud Livingston, as quoted by Timme Rosenkrantz
With THE CALIFORNIA RAMBLERS (VAGABONDS / LITTLE RAMBLERS / GOOFUS FIVE / UNIVERSITY SIX / VARSITY EIGHT / GOLDEN GATE ORCH. / etc. etc. etc.) 1923-6; 1927-9
With THE DORSEY BROTHERS ORCHESTRA, 1928-9
With MIFF MOLE, 1929
With FRANKIE TRUMBAUER & HIS ORCHESTRA, 1929
Stan King is nothing short of an enigma. He was, hands-down, the busiest session drummer of the ‘20s, who recorded with just about everyone; an early equivalent of a Bernard Purdie or a Steve Gadd – yet the majority of these records still aren’t digitised and publicly available, either on CD or digital streaming platforms. He was a member of several famous bands during his career – yet I could only find two or three blurry photos of him, either on the internet or in books. He made far, far more records than any other drummer in the entire decade – yet even the most scholarly works on 1920s jazz only contain a couple of references to him (mostly simple personnel lists on the order of: ‘X on piano, Y on bass, Stan King on drums’). He recorded with both Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong during their heydays. His life should be legend! Instead, it’s largely shrouded in mystery.
Frederick Stanley King was a New Englander, born in the year 1900 in the town of Hartford, Connecticut. I can find no information at all about his early years, but it seems reasonably safe to assume that like the majority of his peers he would have been heavily influenced as a teenager by the ODJB‘s records and the subsequent ‘jazz craze’ which swept America and the world. He was unfortunate enough to be drafted for the Great War, but fortunate enough that it came too late – September 1918 – to place him in danger of going to France.
King’s first documented appearance as a musician came on 2nd August 1923, when he was registered as drummer on a session for Columbia Records in New York City with the famous California Ramblers dance orchestra. The Ramblers were composed almost entirely of middle-class, college-educated white Midwesterners and based firmly in New York state (their rather misleading name had been selected back in 1920, capitalising on a then-current craze for West Coast jazz bands such as Art Hickman’s). The orchestra had already been recording for a range of different record labels since 1921, with one Fred Henry the regular drummer. No information is forthcoming about how young Stan was selected for this date, although the Ramblers had gone through a difficult period a year or so previously, in which they had broken up and then re-formed with several new members; perhaps a new drummer to replace Henry (one of the old guard) had been in the offing for a while. The August 2nd date yielded one side that was selected for release, ‘That Old Gang Of Mine’.
This new Gang of Stan’s were already an immensely popular and prolific recording group for their day, and released literally hundreds of discs; in Brian Rust’s comprehensive discography, their output alone fills 36 pages. In addition to this, they recorded almost as many sides again for multiple other labels under aliases, and sent out smaller units made up of Ramblers-affiliated personnel to record further elsewhere (some of which we will be discussing shortly). The mastermind behind the Ramblers’ considerable success was manager Ed Kirkeby. Soon after his recording début, King became a full-time Rambler, and in addition to making many more sides with the orchestra he also began to appear with them live. The Ramblers’ first residency with their new drummer on board began in New York on October 17, 1923 at the Monte Carlo restaurant, which was downstairs from the famous Roseland ballroom. King’s regular colleagues at this point were violinist/leader Arthur Hand, Frank Cush and Bill Moore (trumpets), Ole Olsen (trombone), Arnold Brilhart, Bobby Davis and Fred Cusick (reeds), Irving Brodsky (piano), Ray Kitchingman (banjo), and another relative newcomer to the band – a precocious young man who was already beginning to redefine the role of the bass instrument in jazz in accordance with his own remarkable ideas – on the bass saxophone, Adrian Rollini.
King’s early work (limited, as usual for the early ’20s, to recording ‘traps) is characterised by dynamic crashes at key moments; strokes played firmly on a heavy-sounding cymbal and allowed to ring. We’re told that on live performances he distinguished himself with his propulsive time feel and considerable snare drum technique, but we’ll have to wait until the later years of the decade for a chance to hear that. Several historians have drawn a comparison between the contemporaneous careers of the early Ramblers and Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra – respectively the best white and black dance bands in New York (once again, we must sadly remember that racial segregation was strictly enforced at the time). The groups were mutually influential, featured similar instrumentation (even down to Henderson’s Coleman Hawkins doubling on bass saxophone) and frequently recorded the same hit tunes within weeks of each other. King’s playing can also be favourably compared with that of Henderson’s drummer (and our previous Hero!) Kaiser Marshall, and their early careers followed something of a parallel trajectory. Both the King and the Kaiser began simply enough, decorating rather than driving the music of their respective bands, but over the course of the decade and many hundreds of recordings, we can gradually hear them mature, each developing his own musical personality and specialisms.
Californian they may not have been, but Ramble they certainly did. During the period 1923-26 King was almost constantly on the move with the orchestra as they criscrossed the Eastern U.S. between innumerable short residencies, one-nighters, rehearsals and recording sessions. They were also a huge hit performing on college campuses, and carefully adapted much of their preppy image and peppy musical output to reflect this, sending out small groups to record as ‘The University Six’ and ‘The Varsity Eight’, and cutting the odd novelty college-themed side such as ‘Collegiate’. Despite their peripatetic schedule, in free periods the band would always return to their home base, the Ramblers’ Inn in Pelham, New York State.
One of the many small offshoot groups from the Ramblers was built largely around the eccentric genius of Adrian Rollini and his penchant for strange and obscure instruments. The Goofus Five featured Rollini on a horizontally-played reed instrument which he dubbed the ‘Goofus’ (it was actually a Coesnophone, a French invention similar to a melodica) plus piano, banjo and trumpet. Stan King played drums and – continuing the novelty theme of the band – the kazoo, which is mildly interesting since it allows us to (sort of) hear his voice. Sadly, however, like much of the larger band’s output, King’s actual drumming is almost incidental to the music as a whole.
As the decade wore on and the Jazz Age took hold in earnest, the number of enthusiastic and able jazz musicians increased exponentially. A slightly younger generation of hothouse players was blossoming, and in the middle years of the decade the California Ramblers sought to incorporate these fresh talents ahead of their competitors. Consequently their records begin to display a stronger jazz element, and the organisation seems to have gained a renewed impetus and vigour from the youngsters’ enthusiasm. From 1925 we hear several future jazz superstars appearing with King; the precise and imaginitive trumpeter Ernest ‘Red’ Nichols became an occasional Rambler and Goofus Five performer, and was joined by the prodigiously gifted Dorsey brothers Tommy (brass) and Jimmy (reeds) in various offshoot bands such as the Varsity Eight. Standing shoulder to shoulder with these three, together with Rollini, Abe Lincoln, Chelsea Quealey and Bobby Davis, King was in the vanguard of progressive-thinking jazz in New York at the time. We can recognise King’s mid-20s style as recorded on numerous sides with the Goofus Five and others from his socking on a trashy, thin-sounding cymbal; dextrous though never overbearing.
King gradually stopped appearing on records made by the Ramblers and their affiliated groups from mid-1925 onwards, his place as house drummer taken by Herb Weil. We know nothing about this parting of the ways – whether Stan resigned, was fired, or asked to take a break. Perhaps the drinking culture of the Prohibition era played a part, as it did in almost all young jazz musicians’ lives. Singer Joey Nash recalled many years later that Stan was “a terrible drunk, always stank of booze […] he hated authority, particularly bandleaders, but he was such a good drummer that they’d put up with him.” Perhaps Ed Kirkeby decided he had put up with King’s antics for long enough? Whatever the explanation, the record discographies (really the only way to keep any kind of track of who was where and doing what) show that from his last Ramblers efforts in mid-late 1926 until early 1928, the busiest and most-recorded drummer in the history of popular music up to that point made no records for around a year. His name just vanishes. Where did he go? What was he doing? Was he elsewhere in the country, touring or working in a theatre? Was he working abroad? Maybe he suffered some kind of health problem? Even more intriguingly, during this period (February 1927) Billboard announced that his wife Anna had given birth to a baby daughter, Muriel.
Whatever the reason for his lengthy absence, it’s certain that he returned to the New York recording scene like a man possessed in mid-1928, and from then to the end of the decade, allowed to record using a full kit at last, he produced a phenomenal body of work from which we can gain an entirely new and much more complete impression of his talents. King was now one of the three most pre-eminent session drummers in America, alongside two Heroes we’ve met already – Vic Berton and Chauncey Morehouse – and the three seem to have constantly subbed in and out of innumerable projects, ranging from avant-garde, cutting-edge jazz to slick commercial sessions by large dance orchestras and popular singers. Each man had a specialism and brought his own style to whichever group he was working with; Berton was noted for his mastery of classical percussion and novel effects, Morehouse was the cymbal man par excellence, and Stan became known above all for what Morehouse later called “his unswayable beat”. As well as resuming work with the California Ramblers, King was also hired by former colleagues for their own independent jazz projects.
King’s incandescent drumming lit up a series of small-group jazz sessions on OKeh records under the name of another Ramblers alumnus, trombonist Miff Mole, from 1928. Mole had been heading his own sessions for several years and had already used Vic Berton, Ray Bauduc and Gene Krupa on drums before he settled on Stan, who he then used for years afterwards. ‘That’s A-Plenty’ from April 1929, is perhaps King’s finest hour, and without doubt some of the most fiery drumming laid down on record during the twenties. Freed from the commercial constraints of his earlier work he really lets rip, and sounds like an altogether different musician.
A septet effort, the record begins with King laying down the rhythm alongside guitarist Eddie Lang and pianist Arthur Schutt with some forceful press rolls and occasional rimshotted fills. Behind the first half of Schutt’s piano solo [0:30] Stan’s four-on-the-floor bass drum is clearly audible thanks to the expertise of OKeh producer Tommy Rockwell, and he plays a neat little syncopated fill on a Chinese tom-tom to set up the second half. The dynamic changes King makes are a constant delight throughout the tune, and he seems to have been so filled with excitement at the music that on occasion – such as during Jimmy Dorsey’s clarinet solo [1:15] – he bursts out with searing triplet interjections. As the record builds towards its climax, he drives the band home amid an electrifying barrage of snare drum and Chinese cymbal.
What strikes me the most about Stan’s drumming on this record and the other excellent sides he made with Miff during these months is how fundamentally different it is to anything we’ve yet heard during the ‘twenties – from him or anybody else. Whilst admittedly the very young Gene Krupa was taking a few promising steps in a similar direction around this time, King’s whole approach to drumming on these sides seems to be something completely new, yet mature – the dynamism, the interactivity, the sheer power of it. Perhaps we can partly put this down to the gradual relaxing of recording rules regarding drums, and perhaps laid-back attitudes from Rockwell as producer and Mole as bandleader, resulting in a fun, knockabout session with no artistic constraints placed on the players. But we are also reminded that we are hearing this music during a period of metamorphosis away from one thing and towards another – which would soon be called Swing. Many of the percussive ideas laid down in embryonic form by Stan King in 1929 would echo for a decade or so to come, though largely in other drummers’ hands.
Another great musician to hire King was superstar saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. Whilst never being a bandleader in the truest sense of the word, he had been recording occasional dance-band style sides for various labels under his own name for several years, and in filling the drum chair on a Trumbauer record Stan King was the successor to Chauncey Morehouse and Harold McDonald. Much of what King recorded for Trumbauer is typical turn-of-the-decade dance band drumming: a combination of neat press rolls, some snappy brush playing and lots of excellent two-cymbal colour work, to particularly nice effect on ‘Futuristic Rhythm’ and ‘Louise’. On these tracks King was joined as sideman by some great names including Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Rank, many of whom had found fame alongside Trumbauer in Jean Goldkette’s groundbreaking orchestra during the later years of the decade. However, King’s stint with Trumbauer was limited to just three sessions in March and April 1929, thanks to a stipulation in the contract between Trumbauer and his boss (bandleader and impresario Paul Whiteman) which permitted the saxophonist to make independent recordings under his own name on the proviso that if he did so, he used other musicians from Whiteman’s band. Hiring the freelance King meant Trumbauer had breached this rule, and he soon relented under pressure from Whiteman, bringing in house man George Marsh for the next session – a steady dance-band drummer and orchestral percussionist but certainly not a match for the mercurial, creative presence of his predecessor.
Finally, there were the virtuoso Dorsey brothers, whose stars were rising in the late years of the decade. Both brothers made records under their own names with King on drums and when, in 1928, they decided to form an all-star dance orchestra together, it was to him that they eventually turned for the drum chair, having initially recorded a few sides with Morehouse. They also made records designed to showcase their individual instrumental talents: ‘Beebe’, from June 1929, is ostensibly a bravura feature for Jimmy’s alto – though from the very first beat Stan attempts to steal a good portion of the limelight for himself.
Once again King delights the ear with a display of really exciting and varied percussion. Press-rolls, brushes, multi-cymbal work, rimshots, tom-toms, even a bit of ‘double-drumming’ – it’s all in there, and all played with immaculate technique, propulsive swing feel and very tasteful dynamics. It’s no wonder to hear that “the Dorseys loved him”. Other sessions King made with the Dorseys’ larger orchestra sometimes included Frank Teschemacher on clarinet and Bing Crosby’s vocals, amid a generally stellar lineup – yet whilst we can hear him drive the band along nicely and beautifully fulfil all the functions of a top-level dance-band drummer, he’s never again allowed very much space to really shine.
As the decade roared to a close, the frenetic New York scene showed no sign of slowing. King saw out the ‘twenties continuing to freelance, recording with a host of popular artists including Eddie Lang, Annette Hanshaw, Boyd Senter, Gay Ellis, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Joe Venuti, Ben Selvin, Fred Rich and Seger Ellis. He also continued to frequent the nightclubs and the speakeasies, and to participate in the all-night jam sessions they often fostered – cementing his reputation as the hottest of hot-jazz men on the one hand and exacerbating his alcoholism on the other. In his book ‘Harlem Jazz Adventures’, the Danish aristocrat and writer Timme Rosenkrantz tells a tale which provides us with a typical and rather tragic snapshot of the kind of post-gig habits jazz musicians often fell into in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s:
“We walked over to the Forest Hotel […] where lots of musicians lived […] There was [genius pianist Frank] Signorelli banging away on a beat-up piano in the bedroom, while Stan King slapped the bottom of a cane chair with a pair of fly-swatters. In front of an ocean of whisky – what else? […] Half an hour went by. Signorelli collapsed on the keys, and Stan stared into space and drummed on alone.”
Whilst to us in the twenty-first century he appears to have been slightly eclipsed by his peers Berton and Morehouse, King’s influence seems to have been seismic and widely-felt at the time. A young Krupa, who perhaps more than anyone else would soon take some of King’s best ideas and run with them, recollected that “Stan was a very big name then and much respected by me”, whilst the musical shockwaves created by his tour-de-force playing in 1929 with Miff Mole were felt even across the Atlantic, as the British musician Harry Francis later recalled:
“That’s A Plenty” and “I’ve Got A ‘Feeling I’m Falling” […] revolutionised the work of British drummers, who for some years previously had been concentrating upon their “hot” cymbal work […] The technique used by the OKeh Company to record Stan King’s drums quickly found its way to the British studios and so, very soon, we had drummers like Max Bacon and Bill Harty recording in the Stan King style.”
During the ‘thirties, King continued his freelance career with initial success, but his lack of ability to read music and volatile personality hampered him professionally, and the chronic alcoholism he had struggled with throughout his career became increasingly hard to manage.
He died in 1949.
My sincere thanks go to Albert Haim and Vince Giordano for their assistance with this article.