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An Evening with Regis Philbin — A Show Drumming Experience

This is a reflection on a certain type of gigging experience I get asked about a lot, one that I find to be quite unique.

On 9/11/09, I backed up television icon Regis Philbin with a 23 piece orchestra. The older I get, for some reason - maybe the teacher in me or just for prosperity - I feel the need to chronicle and share these experiences.

This type of show drumming gig distills all of your life-experience into a situation where you don't know anything about what you're going to play until a short rehearsal that is typically called just prior to showtime. This requires an expert ability to sightread interpretively, nerves of steel and a thick skin.

I don't know how many of you out there do this type of work yourselves, but I hope you find it an interesting and enjoyable look into the reality behind-the-scenes of the glamorous world of show business.

Show Drummer9/11. Who wakes up on 9/11 anymore and doesn't think back to the dark events of 2001? Not too long to reflect on it this morning, other than a wince as I look at the same blue sky and a quick prayer that I never see another day like it. It's time for breakfast and getting ready for the day while my amazing wife does the same for the two luckiest little boys I know.

My first born is in first grade now and today, although he is soldiering through adjusting to now spending a full day in school, we escort him to the bus stop this morning and the image of his brokenhearted face with tears streaming down through the window of the bus as it pulls away will stick with me all day. I remember exactly how he feels.

My wife and youngest son head out to the library and I begin my working day. Tonight the gig is Regis Philbin, in the events center for a huge casino on an Indian reservation about 90 minutes northeast of home.

The call from the contractor came a few months ago. Regis Philbin. Who doesn't know Regis? But what do I really know about Regis? He started out with Joey Bishop in the early days of late-night television; He's been on morning TV since Kathie Lee... Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Well, I do, I think...how about you?

I mostly see Regis providing comic relief on Letterman and for some reason today, I remember Letterman's first show back on the air after 9/11 and who did he have to help try to make any sense of it? Regis. And it was heartfelt and very good. Hmm.

I've been doing these types of gigs almost as long as I can remember and I'm confident in my abilities but the night before a gig like this I never sleep well. Everyone has their insecurities, I guess.

One night before a big show, I had a dream that I was in a big Vegas hotel, you know the kind w/room numbers like 2469, where Sinatra was booked and his drummer was suddenly incapacitated. Somehow they come to me and I have no time - I have to play immediately. Onstage I realize I forgot my glasses in the rush and can't read the charts. I fake it through a few classics I know but reach the inevitable train wreck. Frank walks back to the drum riser, points at me and says "I'm going to kill you." I wake up in a cold sweat...

So, it's time to warm up. I have time to get nice and loose and I do. Then I blow through a few playalong charts I like that I purposely never spend much time on so that I don't really know them by ear and have to sightread.

Then I decide to blow through a difficult "mock chart" Chad Wackerman sketched out for me when I studied with him briefly in L.A. in the mid 80's. This was when Chad had the chair in Zappa's band. I really wanted to learn advanced concepts Frank used, like odd groupings and advanced mixed meters, and Chad was as excellent a resource as you would imagine.

I remember realizing back then that mastering some of this "Wackermania" would make the typical big band or show chart look like a walk in the park. I haven't seen it for a while, so what the heck. Fun (and still challenging). Good to go.

It's a lovely day and there's road construction on the interstate so I allow an extra 30 minutes for the 90 minute trip and still make it in 90 minutes. That's good...load in and parking can sometimes be awkward and I hate to be in a rush.

I pull in just ahead of Bernie, the contractor - good form! I've known Bernie since I was a kid. I met him through the local jazz community when I was a teenager and he used let me sit in w/his 7 piece disco band at the Steak & Ale on the strip. We haven't always gotten along, he's a lead trumpet player after all, but we're all older and wiser now. And Bernie has just driven two hours to the casino from the airport, after starting the day w/connecting flights out of Boston where he's looking after his sister who's suffering w/cancer. My God. I'm just glad to see him.

I roll my kit in on my Rock'n'Roller cart, remembering that I hate this part. The showroom seems pitch black since my eyes aren't adjusted to the low light and the technical crew is swarming around like an ant colony. I remember that I'm getting the cartage fee on top of the rehearsal and show pay and push onward hoping not to hurt myself.

I run back out to the car for a forgotten item and as I return Bernie tells me he's got the techs unpacking my kit and putting it up on stage. "Cool, thanks!" I say, but "Yikes!" is what I'm thinking... I'm a control freak when it comes to my gear.

Office - Regis GigI hustle back in only to find these guys are the best I've ever seen. Better than guys I've had on tours. Wow. Drums out and trap & cymbal cases all up on the riser. Nothing lost or dropped. They packed up my cases just like I would and had them parked on the cart in a very easy spot for load out (which is nice since I know the techs will again swarm the stage for load out before the last note is even done vibrating). I introduce myself to the techs and express my gratitude. It's gonna be a long day and we're all in this together. Camaraderie wins the day.

It's good to see the old faces again as the musicians stream in. Great players all. The Minnesota music scene boasts incredible players in any musical direction you look. These cats are veterans of the bands of Prince, Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis Jr, etc., there are string players from the Minnesota Orchestra as well. I notice the string players are all younger (read: "not older than me") and not snobby at all. This should be fun.

From here it's pretty typical as rehearsal begins. We meet the MD, Stanley Yerlow, who seems pretty laid back. I can tell within about two minutes of his opening remarks that he enjoys his gig so that's promising.

These types of days can be stressful and it always fascinates me how this part of the business works. After all, the fans buy their tickets well in advance and look forward to the day of the show. If you told them that the orchestra meets at 3P on the day of the show, cobble the material together and are moved to the front of the casino buffet line for a quick dinner by 6P before an 8P show, they might think they were getting gypped somehow.

But, in our case anyway, it's not true. It's a testament to the level of talent most professional musicians possess, that a non-musician will certainly appreciate but may never really understand, that makes this possible.

Stanley's affection for Regis is obvious from his words and so is the mission to get it right. This guy endears himself to his "Orchestra de Jour" by proclaiming after the first tune, "I'll tell ya right now, Regis is gonna love this band."

The rest of the first half of rehearsal is the way I like it - relaxed and all business. Easy two-way communication w/the maestro throughout the ranks and no B.S. (which isn't to say there's no humor involved). We get through almost everything in the first hour.

On the break I realize my oldest son has just gotten home from school. I give him a call. He's happy to be home, tells me how the day got better at school and everthing he ate at lunchtime. This gives me great relief - he hasn't eaten much yet during the school day. I let him know how happy for and proud I am of him and feel that weight lifted. The timing is excellent. Here comes Regis to run the tunes we've looked at already w/us. Back to the bandstand.

Comics are an interesting lot. In my show drumming experience I seem to have backed a lot of them, most simply because they don't carry a drummer like a singer or band typically does. Some are easy...Bob Newhart or Joan Rivers, for example - "play-on/play-off" we call it. They actually hire a big band to play entrance and exit music for them and the rest of the time you get a paid seat onstage to dig their act. Joan asks for a bit of schtick from the drummer and she's actually quite lovely to work with. Personal and friendly.

Martin Short or Don Rickles, on the other hand - lotta music, from their films, characters and assorted bits through the years. You're playing pretty much the whole time. It takes a lot of concentration, especially for the drummer. You have to keep one eye on the book, one eye on the conductor, and one eye on the star (are you counting with me here? Right).

Rickles uses the drummer for schtick too. Between shows the first time I worked for him, he sees me in the hall - knowing my name from the bit in the first show - and calls me into his dressing room. I'm thinking, "Oh man, what's up w/this?" He sits me down and proceeds to tell me how thrilled they were w/the band. Incredibly nice man. Not his act at all.

Martin Short, same deal. The gig I did w/him, we arrived at rehearsal and Martin & his MD didn't. They were stranded in the air above MSP while a snow storm raged around us.

They arrived after the scheduled time to rehearse had passed and only about 15 minutes before the house opened. He shakes everyone's hand, "Hi, what's your name?" Dave? Dave, I'm Marty - I'm so sorry we kept you waiting. I don't know what tonight'll be like, let's just have fun."

We went out cold and killed it. They looked shocked. "Marty" came back and shook everyone's hand again after the curtain closed. "That was incredible - thank you so much, wow!" The band just smiled at each other in that knowing kind of way, packed up and headed back out into the snow.

So what's Regis gonna be like? Turns out with Regis what you see is what you get. Very sincere, very sharp, very funny. He wasn't on the bandstand a minute and he was already cracking up the band by baggin' on Bernie, our contractor. Good playful fun.

My only personal interaction w/Regis came early (there is a perfect storm of activity around this man constantly) He cracked wise about something, I can't remember what exactly and we all laughed - it was a retort to another comment. Bernie hollered over to me, "You missed your cue for the rimshot!" And I hollered over to Bernie, "I don't do that anymore since Rickles called me out."

That's true. The first joke of the first show I did w/Rickles was great and I instinctively played a rimshot. Don spun on his heels and pointed right at me, from the edge of stage-left, waved his hand and said, "I don't need that!" I was glad he was smiling when he said it.

Anyway, Regis looked at me and said, "Rickles gave you hard time?"
"All in fun," I replied.
"Well that's good," Regis said, "Yeah, I don't need that either."
"Got it," I affirmed.
"Rickles...God, he's great, isn't he?" Regis remarked.
"The best," I replied. He smiled and gave me a wink, nodding, and that was it.
Works for me.

Regis PhilbinThe show was electric. Regis had a jam packed house of almost 2000 people in the palm of his hand for about 80 minutes. It was a nonstop roller coaster ride. His fans adore him. He's in everyone's living rooms so much everyone feels like they know him. The audience is mostly between 30-70 and largely female driven, with everyone from soccer moms to Catholic school teachers to grandmas.

This was no docile crowd either, as much as he interacts with them they're just as proactive. Regis isn't a comedian in the classic sense, he has some bits that are truly funny and also some heartwarming ones.

He's from the generation of the song and dance man also, so that's where we come in - music from the Great American Songbook. He can croon far better than anyone would expect from him and he keeps it real and down-to-Earth - no cheesy overtures or fanfares - looking back, I love him for that!

His true genius is that he a master of ceremonies without peer. He can interact on an individual basis with his fans and ad-lib in an extremely quick and refreshingly funny way. He had the band in stitches w/his off-mic comments and everyone laughing at his on-mic ones.

It may have been the easiest (or better said, most relaxed) and most fun gig of this type I've done to date.

After the lights went up, Regis had left the building, presumably airport-bound for a late flight back to NYC. While handing in the book, Stanley, the MD shook my hand and said, "I didn't want to say anything earlier and jinx it but to have a drummer who's a true accompanist is a real treat. I expect a guy can keep a beat, but you listen and can follow and bend it to really drive the band where it needs to go."

Right there was my payoff. I mean, of course as a working drummer I do this for the money - who doesn't need the money? But as a musician, that's the nicest thing anyone could ever tell me. The hard parts of the day were vanquished and my spirit renewed in one fell swoop.

"Thank you Stanley, it was fun. Hope we can do it again sometime." "Yeah," he said smiling, and that was that. I packed up quick, grabbed a couple juices from the hospitality area and hit the road for the trek home, enjoying the stars in a clear sky that were shining brightly away from the lights of the big city.

Another notch in the belt and another day to be thankful for the work and the opportunity. And it was quite a day.


David StanochDavid Stanoch has has an eclectic background of experience performing with Sheryl Crow, Richard Davis, Herb Ellis, Keb 'Mo', New Kids On The Block, Bernard Purdie, Bonnie Paitt, Don Rickles, Martin Short, Butch Vig and Mary Wilson, among others. David has studied with Max Roach, Alan Dawson, Richard Davis, Elliot Fine, Jeff Hamilton, Ignacio Berroa and Chad Wackerman. A faculty member of the McNally Smith College of Music since 1990, David is also a contributing author to Modern Drummer, Drummer (UK), and PAS/MN magazines.