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Drummer’s Debut

I’m not sure what made me choose the drums over other instruments. My first real musical influence was listening to my parent’s vinyl recording of the music from “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

I learned all the lyrics by heart to every single one of those songs. I even learned to play the first few chords of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on my grandmother’s upright piano.

       I think I was influenced by one of my best third grade friends from our second stint living in Northville, two years before we moved to Saranac Lake and my parents finally settled down and we bought our own house.

     My Northville friend’s name was Eric.  As I remember, he and his older brother had their own drum set.  That qualified them as two of the coolest kids in the greater Northville metropolitan area. After ten family moves, nine different towns, and five different schools in my first nine and a half years of life, “Coolest Kid”, anywhere, was a status I craved. I think I thought learning to play the drums might just give me that status in Mr. Fletcher’s fifth grade class.

     So, I signed up for drum lessons. I started with a chocolate brown rubber drum pad, a pair of wooden drumsticks, and a green lesson book. I took lessons at school from Mr. Bixler, our elementary school music teacher.  We sang in fifth grade music class but did not have a band.

      I had to learn to read music. Not the “F-A-C-E/Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” we learned in regular music class, but the eighth, quarter, half, whole and rest notes of drum beat music.

     Mr. Bixler taught me the drum rolls; single stroke roll, five stroke roll, nine stroke roll, long roll, the “flam”. He used a metronome to teach me the difference between 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4 time.  My chocolate brown rubber drum pad allowed me to practice quietly, at home in my room.

     As I dusted off and dug through my archives to refresh and confirm my memories for this story, I found a handwritten note at the top of page 16 of my old “Breeze Easy Method” drum lesson book.  

“Practice loosening your wrists!!!!”

    Four exclamation points, and underlined. It’s written in pen, most likely in Mr. Bixler’s own hand.

     After we moved to Saranac Lake, my parents occasionally went out for a night of dinner and dancing with their friends. When they did, my brother and I had a babysitter.  (Well, my little brother had a babysitter. He was still just a kid. I was nine years old going into fifth grade, perfectly capable of looking after myself.)

      The babysitter’s name was Donna. She was the older sister of boys who lived up the street from us.  Her younger brothers, my brother Raymond and I spent our summer days playing baseball together in Denny Park or in Mrs. Gilpin’s vacant Carpenter’s Hill field across the street from our house.  Donna’s younger brother John was one of my very first Saranac Lake best friends.

     When Donna came down to babysit, she would bring her case of vinyl 45 rpm records. We listened to songs like “Chevy Van”, “Spiders & Snakes”, “A Horse with No Name”, and “Pinball Wizard” on our little grey portable record player.

     I always loved music. Shortly after we settled into our new house, my dad bought himself a fancy new stereo system for his den. He gave me his old one for my birthday that October. I was thrilled. It had two wooden speakers, a stereo receiver, and a turntable with an arm that would allow me to stack records.

     I would sit in my bedroom reading and listening to the radio or vinyl records for hours. I listened to 97.7 CHOM FM every day, and Casey Kasem’s “American Top Forty” every weekend.

     I remember my first two record albums, I bought them with my allowance money at the local records store, sometime during the winter or spring of 1975. The record store sat next to The Adirondack Daily Enterprise office, across the street from the post office. I believe it was called “Adirondack Sound”, but my memory may fail me, that was quite a while ago.

     My first two record albums were Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, and Deep Purple’s “Machine Head”.

My favorite songs were “Smoke on the Water” and anything The Captain’s Toni Tennille sang.

     I was in sixth grade by that time. I had graduated to “Middle School”, which in Saranac Lake simply meant moving upstairs in our Petrova Elementary school building; same cafeteria, same gym locker room, same playground, same music teacher, Mr. Bixler, from whom I was still taking drum lessons.

     The only real difference, besides being upstairs, was, that now instead of just practicing flams and drum rolls on a chocolate brown drum pad upstairs quietly in my bedroom, I got to bang on real drums!  I even got to crash cymbals!

Mr. Bixler was also our middle school band teacher. We collectively banged, honked and squeaked our way through band class, practicing for our first of two big concerts in the school auditorium. Despite all our practice and Mr. Bixler’s best efforts, I have a sneaking suspicion we may have been pretty awful.

     Sometime that year, my parents bought me a snare drum, no hi-hat, no cymbals, no bass drum, no toms. Just a single snare drum and a stand. I had them in my room. I would stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of my closed bedroom door, listening to music and practicing drum rolls for hours.

To answer the question; Yes! I wore those pants to school. Religiously. Knee patches and all.
Sears & Roebuck.
I was stylin’!

      I played drums in the band all the way through middle school. There were three or four of us.  We took turns playing snare drums, bass drums, cowbells and cymbals. We even played the triangle occasionally. But alas, we had no drum set.

     It wasn’t until high school that I finally got my first taste of playing drums on a set. I was a freshman drummer in Mr. Baker’s high school band.

1978 “Canaras” Yearbook photo

We had two Jeff’s, one a senior, one a freshman. There was a junior named Jeannie, another senior named Steve. Besides them there was a sophomore named Mike, then me and another freshman everyone called “Jordan”. From day one, in band, everyone called me “Rich”.

     It’s funny how nicknames work. My given name is “Richard”, but only the girls in school, or my mother when I was in trouble called me that. Most of my family and friends called me by my nickname, which was and is “Dick”.  However, there were exceptions.

     If I found myself on the baseball field, or on a high peaks trail crew up near Mount Colden, I was “Dickie” or “Dickie Boy”. As a DEC laborer working at Meadowbrook campsite, I was “Ritchie”.   On Saranac Lake’s high school football field, I was always called “Monk”.  But from day one, in Mr. Baker’s band room, and to this day amongst my fellow SLHS alum bandmates, I have for some reason unbeknownst to me always and forever been called “Rich”.  

     As with most everything, high school band had a hierarchy. Upper classmen played snare drums and tom-toms in concerts and marching band. Freshmen drummers played bass drum and cymbals.  So, during my freshman year as an SLHS drummer, I spent the majority of my time quietly studying upper class co-ed band members while awaiting Mr. Baker’s cue to loudly crash a big heavy pair of hand-held cymbals.  I found both endeavors enjoyable.

     I thought Mr. Baker was a great band teacher. He made music fun. There was a drum set in the band room. It was shiny, red and sparkled. There was also an electric bass guitar. On our lunch hours, anyone who wanted could go in for jam sessions. It was there that I learned my way around a drum set. Mr. Baker was frequently there, giving us all pointers. Sometimes he would even pick up a saxophone or trumpet and join us. He was really good.

     It was during those sessions that I got a real taste of the wide varieties that music had to offer. We jammed to jazz beats, rock music, and the blues. During those jam sessions I learned the basics of all of them.  I really loved playing drums on that set.

     Mr. Baker even took our band on field trips to Potsdam for concerts at Crane School of Music. There I saw Buddy Rich play drums, live, in concert. It was awesome.

     Saranac Lake High School had its own “stage band”.   They played jazz, rock songs, contemporary hits, the best musicians got solos. Mr. Baker held tryouts. Saranac Lake High School’s stage band was very competitive.

     The two Jeffs, Mike, and Jordan were all better drummers than me. I think they each had their own drum sets.  I did not think I would make stage band my freshman year, so I didn’t try out.

     Sometime during my freshman year, I took my saved-up paper route money and put my own drum set on lay-away at Adirondack Sound. It was textured black. I bought Zildjian cymbals and stands to go with it.  Before too long I had it paid off, took it home, set it up in my bedroom and started practicing.

My original drum set.
I dug it out of storage, dusted it off and set it up for this story. It needs new drumheads and a new snare.
The amazing thing is, I still have all the hardware.

     As it turned out, I didn’t try out for stage band my sophomore year either. Mike and Jeff were really good drummers, Jordan was at least as good as I was, and a freshman named Jane wasn’t too bad a percussionist either. I had already been cut by Saranac Lake’s JV baseball team as a freshman. I found getting cut to be devastating. I was afraid that I would get cut again. So, I took what I thought was the safest route and just never tried out for Mr. Baker’s stage band.

     Sometime during the spring of my sophomore year, something else happened. I was playing drums upstairs in my bedroom. My windows overlooked Stevenson Lane and up Pine Street towards the tracks. I had my bedroom windows open to let in some warm air. Suddenly I heard someone shouting.

“Hey! Buddy! You sound pretty good!”

     I put down my sticks, got up, walked to my open window and looked down. There was a very skinny extremely pale skinned young guy with long scraggly red hair and a beard standing on Stevenson Lane, looking up at me.

“Hey! My name is Rick. I’m a student at North Country. I play guitar. You ever play out?  I’d be interested in jamming.”

     I went downstairs and let him in. He was wearing a soiled t-shirt. He spoke in a very gravely voice. He smelled like cigarettes and stale beer.  We shook hands.

     Rick looked and sounded a little rough around the edges. I had my doubts. Regardless, I got permission from my mother for us to jam in our basement. I moved my drum set downstairs. Rick would come over with his guitar and a small Peavey amplifier. It turned out he was really into jazz and blues rock. Sometimes he would bring over an old vinyl record.

     “Check this out man.” He would say in that roached out gravelly voice.  We’d sit and listen to some obscure blues tune, through all the crackles and scratches, while one of his vinyl records spun on my little portable grey record player. Then I would do my best to lay down a beat and we would jam. I don’t know if Rick was any good as a guitarist or not, but I sure loved playing with him.

     Rick was pasty white, skinny to the point of being emaciated. I don’t think he ate much.

     Sometimes we would schedule a time to get together, but Rick wouldn’t show up. I knew where his apartment was, up at the end of Pine Street. So, on those occasions, I would wander up to get him.

     I would knock on the door, get no answer, then open the door and step over and through cases of scattered grey labeled empty Basics beer bottles to find Rick passed out on his mattress on the floor, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts beside him. I think he only owned about two pairs of jeans, one pair of sneakers, and one sweat-stained tee-shirt.

     He would shake himself awake, light up a smoke, and say “Hey Man, what time is it?” Then he’d put on a record. “Check out this blues riff, man.”

I’d sit there for a few moments, listening to blues guitar riffs on vinyl in that little apartment that smelled like sweat stained cigarette smoke and cheap stale beer while Rick inhaled his morning cigarette and a beer. Then he’d grab his guitar case and amp, and we’d head down to my basement to jam.

     Rick disappeared after that summer. Maybe he ended up being the front man for some famous band, or on some New York City Street corner playing for handouts. I never saw or heard from him again. So, I don’t know. I do know that I learned a lot from him that summer about jazz beats, blues riffs, jamming, along with various and sundry other stuff young musicians must know.

     I started playing football that summer, my junior year. Football practices and games took most of my time and energy through the late summer and fall. I no longer had to play in the band for SLHS football on Saturdays. One of the few aspects of drumming that I had always pretty much hated doing anyways. Instead, I got to cheer on my gridiron teammates from my prime spot manning left bench.

     Another thing happened my junior year. I got a girlfriend. One of the aforementioned upper class co-ed band members I’d been scouting. She was one of the most talented musicians we had in our band. She played clarinet, piano and saxophone.  I remember sitting and listening to her practice Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag” on the piano for a big stage band concert while Mr. Baker coached her.  She was really dedicated and gifted. I know that both Mr. Baker and I thought so.

     That year Mr. Baker took us on another field trip to Crane. We listened to some famous jazz trumpet player’s band. I suppose someone could look up who played concerts at Crane’s School of Music that year. I had other things on my mind. I don’t remember his name.

     I didn’t try out for stage band my junior year either, or my senior year, for that matter, even though by that time I had my own drum set, had practiced a lot, and gotten pretty darned good.

     Mr. Baker was disappointed in me. I could tell. At some point during my senior year, he asked me;

“Rich, why didn’t you ever try out for stage band?”

I said, “Because I didn’t think I would make it.”

Mr. Baker replied with a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten.

“Rich, you’ll never know if you can make it unless you are willing to try.”

     I graduated that spring, 1981, and went off to college. I don’t know if he knew it, but I had listened to Mr. Baker’s advice and taken it to heart. After getting cut from Saranac Lake’s baseball team three years in a row, I tried out my senior year and made it! I also tried out for and got a part in our senior play, somehow got myself elected Senior Class President, and applied for and was awarded a full ride Army ROTC scholarship to Cornell.

     I never took the time to personally thank Mr. Baker for that piece of advice. But in four years under his high school band tutelage, he taught me about far more than just music.

     I took my drum set with me to my freshman dorm room that first Cornell semester. For anyone wondering, having a drum set in one’s dorm room is NOT a recipe for great popularity. It did not take long before I was carting my drum set back home and setting it back up in my bedroom.  I still played occasionally when I was home on break, but, for the most part, my percussionist days were behind me.

     Then, one day, two years later, during my junior year at Cornell, I was home for mid-winter break. I ran into Mr. Baker while I was walking to town.  I waved and said “Hi”.  I thought nothing more of it.

     Then I got back home. My phone rang. It was Mr. Baker. “Hey Rich, what are you doing tonight?”

     Mr. Baker had his own local band; “52nd Street”. It turned out his drummer was sick. He was looking for a fill in. I knew his band was pretty popular. I expressed my doubts.

“Mr. Baker, I really haven’t played in two years.”

    He said “Rich, we are playing tonight at Club 86. I really need a drummer. My drummer’s kit is already set up there. I’ll pick you up early, we can run through our set. I would consider it a personal favor. You are a good drummer.  I know you can do it.”

     I couldn’t turn him down. I agreed. We met at his house, practiced a bit.  Then went to Club 86.

    Club 86 was out just beyond Lake Colby. Muldowney’s owned it. It was one of the local hot spot night clubs. One of the places my parents went. My parents weren’t there that night, but plenty of other folks were. They dined, listened to music and danced.

    As I recall, Mr. Baker’s band had some sort of electronic organ, another multi-talented singer/musician or two, and a bass player. Mr. Baker played saxophone and trumpet. I followed his cues. We played all night, three sets, until closing time.  It was a great time.

     When all was said and done, Mr. Baker thanked me and handed me an envelope.

“Professional musicians get paid, Rich.”

There was seventy- five dollars in cash inside that envelope.

 It was the last time I ever played.

My drummer’s debut.  


Author’s Endnote: I never saw Mr. Baker again after that weekend. I returned to college, life at Cornell, and then on into the army and life after that. I think that one night, playing with his 52nd Street band at Club 86, he was following through on the lesson he had taught me in high school.

“Rich, you will never know if you are good enough unless you try.”

 I never got a chance to thank him for that lesson, or that night he invited me to play with his band.

 Some years later I learned that he had passed away.

This story is dedicated in his memory.

To me, he’ll forever be “Mr. Baker.”

My high school teacher, mentor, band leader & friend.

1980 Canaras Yearbook photo


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


aka: “Rich”