Born: January 15, 1909 | Died: October 16, 1973 Primary Instrument: Drums
Gene Krupa was easily one of the most colorful personalities of the big band era. Despite his outrageous stage persona, Krupa was a serious and disciplined musician whose vision changed the role of drummer forever and who helped standardize the jazz drum kit.
Eugene Bertram Krupa was born in Chicago in 1909; he began learning the saxophone at age six but switched to drums five years later because they were the cheapest item in the music store. He played in local dance bands while still in his teens, and in spite of his mother's wishes that he study for the priesthood he decided to become a professional musician.
Krupa made his first recording in 1927 as a member of the Chicagoans, with Eddie Condon and Red McKenzie. He is said to be the first drummer to use both a bass drum and tom-toms together in the studio. In 1928 he worked with female bandleader Thelma Terry. In 1929 he moved to New York, along with Condon and his other bandmates, to work with singer Bee Palmer. When that job fell through they ended up working for Red Nichols in his various pit bands. Krupa also found work with orchestra leaders Mal Hallett, Buddy Rogers, Russ Columbo, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Irving Aaronson.
In 1934 Krupa joined Benny Goodman's orchestra, where he played a major role in its success, and was the propeller for the bands popular “Sing, Sing, Sing.” His wild appearance and drum playing made him a star in his own right. As Krupa's popularity grew tension mounted between him and Goodman, by 1938, not long after the famous Carnegie Hall Concert, the two had a falling out, and Krupa left to form his own outfit.
With help from Tommy Dorsey's managers, Krupa put together an exciting group that made its debut in April on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Female vocalist for that date was Jerry Kruger. Helen Ward joined the band for its first recording session, after which Irene Daye became featured vocalist. Male vocalist for the first year was the ultra-wild scat singer Leo Watson.
Though the band was a big hit in concert, its recordings, first on Victor and then on Brunswick, proved rather dull. It wasn't until the arrival of trumpeter/singer Roy Eldridge and groundbreaking jazz vocalist Anita O'Day that the group finally came into its own. The duo provided a much needed spark that sent the orchestra to the top of the charts with the big hit “Let Me Off Downtown.” The ride, though, lasted little more than a year. Bad times hit in 1943, first O'Day briefly left the group, and soon after her return Krupa was arrested in San Francisco on charges of marijuana possession.
Out on bail after an 80-day period of incarceration, he returned to New York, and re-joined Goodman, who was then touring Army bases on the East Coast. Krupa opted to stay behind when the orchestra went on a national tour, fearing the public would react badly toward him. He then joined Tommy Dorsey unannounced for an engagement at New York's Paramount Theater. As soon as the audience recognized him he received a tumultuous welcome. That warm reception lifted his spirit, and when his sentence was overturned on appeal he left Dorsey and formed a new orchestra of his own.
Completely different from his first group the new outfit featured a string section. Krupa took the role of conductor and only rarely played drums. After recording some disappointing V-Discs he realized his mistake and switched back to playing the type of jazz for which he was known. Anita O'Day returned for a while and the band was back on top.
O'Day's sudden departure in 1946 briefly brought vocalist Carolyn Grey to the orchestra. As the swing era ended Krupa began to experiment with bop. Though he was never comfortable with this new style of jazz he believed in keeping up with the times and giving young musicians a chance to play the type of music they loved. In 1951 he disbanded his orchestra and focused on performing with small groups and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. For a while he operated a drum school with fellow drummer William ''Cozy'' Cole and occasionally reunited with the Goodman Quartet.
Back problems forced him to cut down on playing in the late 1950s, and a heart attack in 1960 sent him into brief retirement. He retired a second time in 1967, only to become active again in 1970. he reunited with Goodman in ’72 and the result was the recording “Live at the New School.”
Though diagnosed with leukemia and almost too ill to play, he continued to make occasional appearances with the quartet. He spent most of his time, though, either in the hospital or in his Yonkers, New York, home, despite the fact that it had been almost completely destroyed in a fire. He made his last public appearance in August of 1973. Gene Krupa died two months later of complications from leukemia.
Gene Krupa in his heyday was known as “The Chicago Flash,” by legions of fans who considered him the most charismatic and innovative drum legend of the Swing Era.