8 Q&A’s WITH ONE OF THE BRIGHTEST STARS ON BROADWAY
Known as a "musical chameleon", Larry Lelli easily switches from one musical style to another, and that is part of the reason he is one of the top freelance drummers in NYC.
His impressive resume includes performances and recording sessions with former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, pop stars Vanessa Williams, Heather Headley and Doug Stone, legendary 60's band The Mamas & The Papas, jazz piano virtuoso Geoff Keezer, indie hard rockers SuffraJett, Latin trombonist Andre Stephani, and the Cedar Avenue Big Band.
Larry’s versatility landed him in Broadway about 15 years ago, and since then he has been nothing short of prolific. He has performed in no fewer than 25 shows, including The Producers, Jekyll & Hyde, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Assassins, and most recently the critically acclaimed and Tony-nominated Million Dollar Quartet.
Larry considers the Million Dollar Quartet gig one of the most musically rewarding shows he has ever played on Broadway. The relatively small cast of eight musicians gives the audience an exclusive sneak peek into the now legendary 1956 recording session at storied Sun Records in Memphis that featured Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
1. Who/what influenced you to start drumming?
I'm one of those people who, for better or worse, are born with an innate passion for something. My passion happened to be drumming. So, the desire was always there, and my earliest memories are of me banging away on pots and pans or tabletops, or any other surface where I could make a sound. I loved all sorts of music, and my ears were naturally most tuned-in to the drums. That being said, there are two moments in my early childhood that have stuck with me, and I think both of them really opened my eyes to the fact that drumming could be a major part of my life. Coming from a small town, both moments came from TV rather than in person. The first was seeing and hearing Buddy Rich perform on the Johnny Carson Show. The second was Animal from The Muppet Show! Buddy amazed me with his ferocity and passionate performance, and Animal showed me it was ok to be fun, wild and free while playing the drums! From then on I dove headfirst into drumming, and have never looked back.
2. Tell us about your first ''big break''.
Usually when I'm asked that question, people expect to hear about a huge, exciting event, like when I was asked to be a featured soloist in a big band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, or my first Broadway subbing experience for Miss Saigon, or my first world-tour with The Mamas & The Papas, or even performing live with Melissa Etheridge in New York… and yes, while those may all be big events, for me, the "big breaks" happened well before all of that.
They came when someone, not necessarily a big star, saw something in me and decided to give me a chance. THOSE are the events that led to all of the gigs that followed. One such moment that really sticks out for me is when my college jazz instructor recommended me for a gig with the hottest big band in Minneapolis. Why was that such a big break? Because I was ready for that moment when it happened, and I was fortunate enough to impress the other 15 members of the band with my playing and positive attitude, and I started working with them immediately from that moment on.
Another break came when I was sitting in with the band at a songwriter's circle at a little club in Nashville and someone out of the audience came up to me and asked me to play on their next gig. I had no idea who that person was or what it was for, but I was new in town, needed a gig, and I agreed to do it! What was so great about that? The gig turned out to be a showcase for record labels, and this guy was trying to get a record deal. Not only did that gig pay so well that it paid my rent for the next two months, but I ended up playing in front of 10 of the biggest A&R guys in Nashville. And the next day one of them called me to audition for a brand new artist that he was working with by the name of Faith Hill. So, as you can see, you just never know where one little gig in a bar can lead!
Perhaps one of the luckiest breaks I ever got was me just playing my drums in the basement of our house while I was in Junior High school. The jazz band director heard me one day as he walked by our house, and the next day at school he called me down to his office and said "I'd like you to join the jazz band here at school." I replied, "But I can't read music. And I don't even know what jazz is!" He grabbed his upright bass, sat me down at the drums and said, "I can teach you all about that stuff, but you also need to be able to use your ears and play from your heart, which I can tell you already know how to do. Let's play something right now and just have some fun. Just listen to me and play what you feel."
What was so significant about that moment? Well, without that break from a very supportive music teacher early on in my life — a teacher who believed in me and taught me how to read music and listen to others — who knows where I'd be today! For me, those are the kinds of breaks that matter, and you never know when or where they will come along, or what they might mean to you down the road.
3. What lead you to pursue a career as a Broadway drummer?
I didn't initially set out to pursue a career on Broadway. I started out playing Jazz, then Latin, then Pop, then Country, then Rock. I was constantly reinventing myself and reinventing my playing because of my love for all musical styles and my passion for playing drums. I was just following along the path of doing everything I could to continue making music for a living.
After living in Minneapolis and Nashville, I realized I'd always wanted to live in New York City, and a friend of mine said, "You know, with your background in all those different styles, and your ability to read music, work with conductors, and play both percussion and drum set, you should really check out the Broadway scene. You were made for it!" So I began to meet and speak with Broadway drummers to check out their scene, and I realized it was very cool in so many ways.
The pits were full of some of the best musicians in New York, the work was steady, the music was widely varied and the environment seemed uniquely challenging. So I moved to New York, and with a little luck, some very nice players giving me a shot, and a LOT of hard work and wood-shedding, I started subbing around here-and-there and eventually made a name for myself and started getting my own shows. Fifteen years later and I'm loving it more than ever!
4. How much musical input do you have when preparing for a Broadway show?
I've had every experience imaginable, from having no input whatsoever and every single note being orchestrated and written out for me, as was the case for Jekyll & Hyde — to carte blanche, where I was given TOTAL freedom to create the exact drum part that I felt was right for the show, as I did in Million Dollar Quartet. However, those extremes are both quite rare, and what is most common is something in the middle. There will be a basic chart or arrangement written out when I start rehearsals, and then it's up to me to play what I think is appropriate for given sections.
Each situation is different, so it's important to have a broad knowledge of musical styles to draw upon when creating a part for a show. What often happens is that the powers that be will let me make my own choices at first, and then they provide notes on what they would like to keep, or what they might like to change, so it's important to stay flexible and open to different styles, approaches and possibilities during the process.
The rehearsal period for a new show is often VERY lengthy, and during pre-production it's often just me, a pianist, the musical director, the choreographer and the dance arranger in the room. What I might play during rehearsals from day-to-day can be very different. And by the time the production is ready enough to move into "tech" (technical rehearsals) and the rest of the orchestra has been placed in the mix, many months have passed, and many different versions of each song and dance sequence have come and gone, and I'll be playing something completely different than what I was playing in the rehearsal room.
5. What cymbals do you use on your Million Dollar Quartet kit and what is on your kit at home?
Luckily, the creative team allows us approach the show as a live recording session, which means we play it differently every single night. No two shows are the same, and in that spirit, I treat the cymbals that I use on the show the same way. I will use different cymbals for the show depending on my mood that day, the same way I would pick which cymbals I would bring to an actual recording session!
To be stylistically appropriate, I limit myself to sounds that are reminiscent of that era, and in order to add a vintage visual element to the show in the theatre I also limit myself to using only one cymbal and one pair of hi-hats! On an average day, I generally use an AA Crash Ride as my main cymbal, in 18", 19" or 20". The hi-hats are always 14”, and vary from AA Medium Hats, AA Light Hats, HH Medium Hats, or my current favorites, the Vault Artisan Hats. The Artisan hats are wonderfully complex, mellow and warm, while being clear, shimmery and cutting… it's an amazing combination that SABIAN has come up with, and I just love them.
When we’re recording or making special appearances, I'll use a bigger setup with 16" and 17" AA Thin Crashes, and a 20" HH Flat Ride with rivets.
As for my kit at home, I have a little bit of everything. From left to right: 14" HHX Groove Hats, 10" AA China Splash, 15" AA Sound Control Crash, 10" HH Duo Splash, 16" HHX Studio Crash, 18" HH Crash Ride, 16" HHX Evolution Crash, 20" Artisan Medium Ride, 14" AA Light Hats, 15" HH Sound Control Crash, 18" HHX Ozone with a 12" AA Splash stacked on top of it, 16" HHX Chinese, and a 19" Paragon Chinese. One can never have too many SABIAN sounds to choose from!
6. If you didn’t have the chance to play the drums, what instrument would you play?
Definitely piano. Guys like Jack DeJohnette are inspiring to me. I firmly believe he is such a musical drummer because he is also a wonderful pianist! And I love all the possibilities that a piano brings. In essence, it’s a percussive instrument that combines complex melodic and harmonic abilities. I did study piano for a short while as well, and am glad I did so as it helped me with orchestration, arranging, and simply gave me a solid base in music theory upon which to build my drumming and percussion studies later on.
7. Tell us about your experience with SABIAN
The first cymbal that I ever bought as a young, aspiring drummer was a 15" AA Thin Crash, which was also one of the first cymbals that SABIAN ever made, and I was immediately hooked. I still have and love that cymbal today! That cymbal is such a high quality instrument… it could do everything I needed it to do, and beautifully. So ever since then I've been a devoted SABIAN lover. This was back before my local music store was even stocking SABIAN cymbals, so I would save up all my money from my paper route, go down to the store and look at the SABIAN catalog and describe the kind of cymbal sound I wanted. "I want a 20" ride cymbal that will sound like this and this."
Then the store owner would call up to SABIAN, tell them what I was looking for and they would pick out and send the exact right cymbal to the store. It was always a wonderful cymbal, and just perfect. Mind you, I was just a little squirt of a kid in a small town in the Midwest with dreams of someday becoming a full-time professional drummer. It was clear to me that not only did SABIAN really care about the quality of the cymbals they were selling, but they cared about making cymbals that drummers wanted to play, whether it was a big star like Phil Collins or a young kid like me.
And I have loved playing every single SABIAN cymbal that I ever bought over the years. I grew up playing SABIAN and I will grow old playing SABIAN. To me, SABIAN is much more than a company or a brand… they are the best people who make the best cymbals. They are my friends, they are my family and they are a part of me.
8. Do you have any advice for aspiring drummers?
Being such a supporter of the arts, I ALWAYS have something to share with up-and-coming drummers! But this same advice applies to any musician: listen to as much music as you can, and soak up everything you can about different sounds, styles, approaches and attitudes. There is no one right way to do anything in music, there are simply many different ways. So try to be as familiar as you can about all that you can! And always be a responsible, respectful and good person: treat others as you wish to be treated. For drummers specifically, get a great teacher who will challenge you to grow and stretch outside your comfort zone. Surround yourself with the best musicians you can find, and both play with them and learn from them. If you are serious about drumming, invest in the best instruments that you can afford, as they will help you sound your best, inspire you in your playing, and hopefully last you a long time!
Interview: Katie Robinson, eMarketing Coordinator
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