By Robert Slack

Rob Slack, principal percussionist of the Pacific Symphony, sat down with percussionist Jerry Friedman to chronicle his life in Vaudeville and the NBC studio orchestra. For more information about Rob, check out his website and snare drum videos on YouTube.

Jerry Friedman is a living historical treasure to the world of percussion. Born in 1912 in Chicago, he still plays the marimba daily at a virtuoso level. His career spanned from Vaudeville in early childhood to live radio broadcasts through the life of television from its beginnings in the early 1950’s with the ABC studio orchestra to the late 1970’s with the NBC studio orchestra. It was a joy and inspiration to meet with him, and his love and enthusiasm for playing percussion are as fresh today as earlier in his career. The following is an interview with Jerry Friedman.

When did you start playing percussion?

I started playing professionally in Chicago when I was 6 years old, in 1918. I had a teacher, Mr Abe Zipperstein, who played shows in the big theaters in Chicago. He was a terrific teacher and mentor. When I was very young he helped get me booked in Vaudeville. My mother would travel on tour with me because I was so young. Both Mr. Zipperstein and I are pictured in an early Deagan catalog (year). At that time my stage name was “Master Jerome”.

When I started lessons with Mr. Zipperstein he said “Jerry, I am going to teach you from the bottom up. You’re going to start at the bottom and go all the way to the top.” When I got to be a little older he would bring me to the theater and let me sit in the pit so I could learn while watching him work. I was eventually put in the show playing the drum set on stage while the orchestra marched from the pit to the stage. It was a real thrill to be in a professional production! He was a well-rounded musician and he played all the major percussion instruments– xylophone, timpani and drums– which was unusual at the time. My older sister used to bring me to my lessons. Amazingly, my teacher got to know her and he eventually became my brother-in-law!

During World War I Mr. Zipperstein said he was going to teach me something that went along with the war. I said, “What is it?” He said “American Patrol.” That was the first big piece I ever learned, and I still remember it! Later my parents asked Mr. Zipperstein to teach me some Jewish songs, so he did.
My teacher arranged for me to sub on an afternoon theater show. The first piece I played in the pit orchestra was The Poet and The Peasant Overture when I was 12 or 13. I went on to play regularly in The Palace Theater, The Oriental Theater and The Chicago Theater.

How did you get started playing solo xylophone?

RKO Vaudeville heard about me and asked me to play xylophone as a headline act, so I started to play solo xylophone in all the theaters in Chicago. At that time Vaudeville was “the thing” and I became a big shot! I worked in Vaudeville from the age of nine until my early twenties. When I was in my early twenties I met my wife who was a dancer and choreographer. I got a new stage name “Major Jerome” when I was working with Sir Harry Lauder, the Scotch comedian, who suggested I change it from “Master”. This was around 1932. All the other acts would salute me back stage, although I was still a youngster at the time. I worked in Vaudeville and playing the theaters in Chicago until about 1939, at which time I started work in radio.

Where did you get the material you performed in your solo xylophone act in Vaudeville?

My teacher taught me many pieces, but I had a good ear and I learned to imitate all kinds of popular music on the xylophone, often using classical music, overtures, and symphonies. All the music is still in my head. Everything that I heard I was able to apply to the marimba or xylophone immediately because I had a good ear. My portion of a typical Vaudeville show would be about 12 minutes of solo xylophone playing.

How did you get started in radio and what was it like?

When my teacher started working in radio at WGN in Chicago he recommended me to play some afternoon shows. I thought I didn’t know anything, but somehow I got through it and that’s how I began my career in radio. After 5 years at WGN I spent another 5 years at ABC radio in Chicago. In radio, typically we had one rehearsal before the live broadcast. The rehearsal was about a half hour before the broadcast.

And what about television?

I moved to Los Angeles, California in 1949 and about that time television was just getting started. I played an audition for ABC in Hollywood and I then went to work for them for 14 years. There I played in many of the earliest television shows like Name that Tune. Chucko the Birthday Clown, Password and “You Don’t Say”. When they discontinued the orchestra at ABC, the contractor for NBC called me and said,
“Jerry, we heard about you and we would like to give you a try.” After passing the audition I was with NBC for 20 years. I played the Bob Hope show, the Jack Benny show, and the Danny Thomas, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis shows. I also did shows like Laugh-In and the Flip Wilson show. While I worked at ABC and NBC in Los Angeles I was on a weekly salary. We worked every weekday but every day was something different. There was very minimal rehearsal time so you really had to be a good sight-reader.

What was the NBC staff Orchestra like?

The NBC television music division head was a man named Rex Koury. Rex composed and conducted a large portion of the music. The orchestra was often broken into smaller groups, such as a dixielend group, a swing combo, a latin band, or a symphony orchestra, depending on what Rex felt was appropriate. Some days we would tape music in a recording studio that would be used later, and other times we would play for live broadcasts.

What was a typical schedule like like in a studio orchestra?

Many shows were performed with an audience, and broadcast “live” so the performances were in the evening. We would rehearse about a half hour before show time, and then you were “On the Air”.

Did you use the same setup for each show?

Basically I used the same setup. For Bob Hope the arrangements used nearly all-identical instruments so I knew what I had to use. The arrangers, God bless them, would let me know if there were any changes so I had time to have the stage crew bring me any additional instruments so I could work them into my setup.

Did you do other work at the time that was outside the NBC Staff Orchestra?

One outgrowth of the job at NBC was my involvement in the Bobby Hamack Quartet. We played ragtime jazz, and swing and produced an album.

On weekends I did a lot of work playing drum set at the major hotels in Los Angeles in “society bands”. I worked for Joe Moshay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Beverly Hilton and the Balboa Bay Club. We played many debutante balls, weddings and bar mitzvas. I also played many Academy Awards Dinners. I had the honor of playing for a dinner which was attended by President Reagan in the 1980’s in Palm Springs. The President and the first lady were on the dance floor and the President looked over at me and gave me a wink. It was a real thrill.

Did you do any teaching?

I started but I it proved to be frustrating because students did not always practice. I did teach at John Brock’s store where he sold mallet instruments he manufactured in Los Angeles.

Who were you favorite drummers and percussionists?

Lionel Hampton was a great influence as well as a good friend. He had heard about me and he invited me over to his house. We had a great time together and some years later I ended up playing drums for him in the Lionel Hampton Big Band. Speaking of drummers, Buddy Rich was amazing—he had a technique all his own. I also admired Shelly Mann.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I’ll surprise you—Hungarian folk music—it’s very charming. I like to play Hungarian music on the xylophone as well.

Do you have any advice for young percussionists?

Above all, start with the scales and arpeggios in all the different keys. You’ll never get any place without these basic skills, and just get booked!

Interview © Robert Slack, 2010

What are your thoughts about the interview? What can learn from percussion legends such as Jerry? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on September 18, 2010.

Dave Gerhart
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