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Drum Legend Louie Bellson Dies at 84

Louie Bellson, the drummer whose career began in the late 1930s and continued until he was hospitalized due to a broken hip received in a fall last November, died at his Los Angeles home Feb. 14. The cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease; Bellson had been transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles in late January. In addition to his work as a musician, Bellson was also a tireless educator, holding drum clinics at schools and music shops. A vice president of the Remo drum company, Bellson is credited as the creator of the double bass drum setup. He was 84.

The man who Duke Ellington reportedly called “not only the world’s greatest drummer…(but also) the world’s greatest musician,” performed behind dozens of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and also recorded and performed as a leader and co-leader. According to his Web site, Bellson can be heard on recordings by Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Wayne Newton and Bellson’s late wife, Pearl Bailey.

Born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoniin Rock Falls, Ill. on July 6, 1924, Louie Bellson began playing the drums at age 3. After winning a Gene Krupa drumming contest at 17, Bellson’s career took off in earnest in 1942 when he starred in the film The Power Girl with Goodman and singer Peggy Lee. He remained with Goodman until 1946, followed by stays with Dorsey, James and then Ellington. He also toured with Norman Granz’s all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Louie & Clark Expedition, Vol. 2, was a 2007 collaboration with trumpeter Clark Terry for the Percussion Power label.

A powerful and melodic soloist (see him at work on YouTube), Bellson was also a talented and prolific composer with more than 1,000 writing credits-his pieces “Skin Deep” and “The Hawk Talks” were performed by the Ellington orchestra.

Bellson married singer Bailey in 1952 and they remained together until her death in 1990. He also toured with her and served as her musical director. Among his many accomplishments, Bellson was a six-time Grammy nominee, the recipient of the Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center, and the recipient of an American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (in 1994). He was awarded four honorary doctoral degrees from Northern Illinois University, Denison University, Augustana College and DePaul University, and authored more than a dozen books on drumming and percussion.

Originally Published