A master of drum-set artistry, American swing-era bandleader and drummer Gene Krupa (1909–1973) put drums in the spotlight with his full-throttle playing style. As a percussionist, he elevated them from a background, time-keeping vehicle to a full-scale solo instrument.
In the mid-1930s, a young musician named Gene Krupa gained fame while working as a drummer in the band of famed swingman Benny Goodman. Krupa added a pulsating tom-tom groove to the band's 1937 classic “Sing, Sing Sing,” which included the first extended drum solo ever recorded. A true showman, Krupa perched behind his white-pearl, chromium-plated drums, chewing gum and wincing while playing with such style and spectacle that his arms blurred in motion and his brow beaded with sweat. With his movie-star good looks and performance flair, he became the first jazz-era matinee idol, appearing in some 20 films, including Some Like It Hot (1939).
Music historians give Krupa credit for putting the drums on the musical map, and he took a special pride in bringing prestige to percussionists in all genres of music. Speaking to jazz writer George T. Simon, author of The Big Bands, Krupa once discussed his accomplishments. “I'm happy that I succeeded in doing two things: I made the drummer a high-priced guy, and I was able to project enough so that I was able to draw more people to jazz.”
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 15, 1909, Eugene “Gene” Bertram Krupa was the youngest of nine children; his eldest sibling was already 23 years old. Krupa's father, Bartley Krupa, was a Polish immigrant who died when Krupa was young. His mother, Ann Oslowski Krupa, worked as a milliner (a maker of ladies' hats), but her job did not pay enough to support her large family. Once they reached working age, the Krupa children balanced their schoolwork with paying jobs.
Krupa's older brother Pete worked part time at a local music store, repairing phonographs, and when Gene turned 11, Pete got him a job as a “chore boy.” In between dusting pianos, running errands, and washing windows, Krupa listened to every record he could get his hands on. Developing an interest in music, he learned to play the saxophone, and then he decided to purchase a set of drums. Krupa chose the drums because they were the cheapest item in the store's wholesale catalog, and his starter set consisted of a wide bass drum, a bass cymbal, a woodblock, and a snare drum. Together with several friends, he formed a small band.
Not surprisingly, Krupa's grades at school dropped and he neglected his studies and his sleep in favor of playing music. His family grew dismayed, particularly his mother, because the Krupas were Roman Catholic and she had dreams of her youngest son becoming a priest. In 1924, Ann Krupa persuaded Gene to enter St. Joseph's College, a prep seminary located in Rensselaer, Indiana. Krupa played baseball at St. Joseph's, and he also furthered his music education under Father Ildefonse Rapp, a trumpet player who taught him to appreciate many kinds of music.
After a year, Krupa left St. Joseph's and returned to Chicago, determined to pursue music as a career. Around this time, his appreciation for music was broadened still further when he met an older drummer named Al Silverman. Silverman idolized timekeepers like Baby Dodds, a black jazz drummer who had relocated to Chicago from New Orleans. Silverman also enjoyed the music of local Dixieland drummers Dave Tough and George Wettling, and he brought Krupa to the Chicago nightclubs and dancehalls to see such men play.
Performing as a drummer from 1926 to 1927, Krupa hopped from band to band in Chicago, proving that, although he was under 20, he could hold his own at dance halls and country clubs. He played local gigs with the Seattle Harmony Kings and the Hoosier Bellhops and also joined the bands of trumpet champ Leo Shukin and danceband leader Joe Kayser, as well as performing with the Benson Orchestra. Krupa also played alongside bassist Thelma Terry, best known as the first female to front a jazz orchestra. His music education continued at the Three Deuces, a Chicago club where local musicians gathered after hours for jam sessions. Here, Krupa rubbed shoulders with notables such as jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, tenor sax player Bud Freeman, jazz banjo player Eddie Condon, and Goodman.
In December of 1927, through his connections at the Three Deuces, Krupa was invited to play in his first recording session, joining Freeman and Condon. Singer Red McKenzie liked the Three Deuces guys and hooked them up with Tommy Rockwell, recording director for OKeh Records. The recordings produced during this session were credited to “McKenzie and Condon's Chicagoans.” The group recorded four songs, taking inspiration from New Orleans jazz and swinging it hard to set the stage for what became known as the “Chicago style of jazz.” Their fresh approach brought the rhythm section to the forefront and emphasized solos over ensemble playing.
Krupa played a major role in the sound that was developed that day. At the time, most songs were recorded with only a snare, woodblock, and cymbal because recording engineers had trouble capturing the low-end vibrations of the tom-toms and bass drum. When Krupa arrived at the recording session with his entire drum kit, Rockwell initially balked but McKenzie urged him to reconsider, saying he would take the heat if it did not work out. Their recordings of “China Boy,” “Sugar,” “Nobody's Sweetheart,” and “Liza” immediately struck a chord in the jazz community.
In his book Drummin' Men, Burt Korall describes the way Krupa interacted with the other players on the recording, simultaneously offering a driving pulse and an expressive counterpoint. Jazz historian Richard Hadlock, discussing the Chicago session with Korall, noted that “the biggest surprise was Krupa, an unknown whose … drum work on these sessions rocked the New York jazz cliques” and whose “intense study of Dodds, Singleton, and Tough, along with his natural energy and superb sense of time, placed him, as of the last days of 1927, in the front rank of drummers.” Three of the songs recorded during the December session became influential enough to make it onto a “Sounds of Chicago” compilation record.
The OKeh recordings got Krupa and his friends noticed. When singer Bee Palmer asked them to accompany her in Manhattan, Krupa agreed, joining Condon, Freeman and several other musicians in New York City. When Big Apple audiences were unimpressed, the club owner kept Palmer but dismissed her backup band. Left jobless and penniless, the Chicago musicians now struggled to pay their rent at the hotel where they lived. For his part, Krupa made the rounds in Harlem, playing and filling in whenever he got the chance.
In 1930, Krupa got a spot in the pit band for the Broadway production of Strike up the Band, which featured music and lyrics by Ira and George Gershwin. This particular pit band included established musicians like Goodman, Glenn Miller, and trombonist Jack Teagarden. Krupa took the opportunity to define his style and make a name for himself on the song “I Got a Crush on You,” adding a “freeze beat” during which he would stop playing for a bar or two every so often to refocus attention on the stage. When he and the band stopped playing for these few seconds at preselected intervals, the singers and dancers stopped, too, creating emotional peaks in the crowd. The idea was not original; Krupa had seen Duke Ellington use the freeze beat effectively at a Cotton Club show in Harlem.
George Gershwin was so happy with Krupa that he put him in the pit for the next production, Girl Crazy, which ran 272 performances before closing in 1931. According to Korall, Gershwin loved Krupa, and he shared a quote from trumpet player Max Kaminsky to bolster his assertion. “Gershwin was crazy about his playing,” according to Kaminsky, “and no wonder, because Gene was the first white drummer in a Broadway pit band who could swing the beat so that chorus girls could kick in time.”
In 1934, Krupa joined Goodman's orchestra, which performed each week on NBC Radio's weekly “Let's Dance” program. The exposure raised Goodman's popularity and helped Krupa gain national attention. In 1937, the band recorded “Sing, Sing, Sing” using Krupa's infectious swing beat, and this recording proved so popular that it was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In the mid-1930s, Krupa persuaded Slingerland Drums to make tunable tom-toms to modernize the standard drum kit. When Goodman and his orchestra played Carnegie Hall in January of 1938, Krupa brought down the house with his breakneck playing and syncopated beats. Unfortunately, his exaggerated showmanship caused tensions with Goodman, and in March he quit the band.
Within weeks, Krupa formed his own band, and when it debuted in Atlantic City, New Jersey in April of 1938 at the Steel Pier, it drew a crowd of 4,000. Shortly thereafter, the Steel Pier's manager persuaded Krupa that every song did not need a drum solo and he could let his talented bandmates carry part of the load. When trumpeter Roy Eldridge and vocalist Anita O'Day joined Krupa, the band's popularity skyrocketed. Recordings made by Krupa and his orchestra during the early 1940s included the notable singles “Drummin' Man” (1940), “Drum Boogie” (1941), and “Let Me off Uptown” (1941).
In 1943, Krupa was arrested for marijuana possession and served 84 days in jail before the charges were dropped. Because his band had folded, he rejoined Goodman for a number of performances in 1944, then toured with Tommy Dorsey and his band for several months. By 1945, Krupa had re-assembled his band and was once again touring, and he remained relevant into the 1950s. He slowed down after a heart attack in 1960 and finally retired in 1967. Krupa came out of retirement during the summer of 1973, when he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival alongside Goodman.
In his private life, Krupa married three times, twice to the same woman. He wed Ethel Maguire, a switchboard operator, in 1934, divorced her in 1942, and remarried her four years later. After Ethel died in 1955, he married Pat Bowler, and they raised two adopted children before divorcing in 1968. Krupa died on October 16, 1973, in Yonkers, New York, having suffered from both emphysema and leukemia in his later years. He was buried in Calumet City, Illinois.
Within the scope of American jazz music, Krupa's influence had staying power. In 2016, he was included in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.” Krupa came in at number seven and was credited with paving the way for rock band drummers to enter the spotlight.
Korall, Burt, Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, Schirmer Books, 1990.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Schirmer Books, 1981.
America in WWII, February 2012, Carl Zebrowski, “Beating the System,” p. 62.
New York Times, October 17, 1973, John S. Wilson, “Gene Krupa, Revolutionary Drummer, Dies,” p. 50.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1973, Tom Yarbrough, “Gene Krupa,” p. C3.
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-drummers-of-all-time-20160331/mitch-mitchell-20160325 (March 31, 2016), “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.”□