Working For Stars by Roy Burns

Working for “stars” can be very rewarding, especially financially. However, the experience can be quite different than working in a group where each member makes a contribution. When you work for a star, there is one leader, period! And that is always the star.

Stars can be bandleaders, comedians. TV show hosts, or singers. Singers are, in most cases, the most temperamental. When you work for a singer, it is generally made clear that you are there to support the star. You are to play your part exactly the same way each night. You are not to experiment or stretch out.

One of the advantages is that these gigs often pay very well. Usually the travel expenses are paid for and you stay in quality hotels and eat in good restaurants. The job security is also above average. Since these gigs pay well, you will usually be working with good players. Most singers travel with a rhythm section and often a conductor as well. (Occasionally a singer will employ a horn section but in most instances the orchestra will be made up of local musicians plus the conductor and the rhythm section.) The opportunity to work with a conductor and the experience of playing with a big band or an orchestra is another benefit to this type of playing. It can very valuable if you have the desire to do studio work at a later date.

The insecurity of the “star” can be one of the more difficult things to deal with. For example, there is a famous jazz singer who instructs her pianist to “just play chords behind me. No single-note fill-ins or runs of any kind. I don’t like piano players to show off!” In other words, do not do anything that might take attention away from the star. I guess the rule is “play good … but not too good.”

The great bandleader and trombonist Tommy Dorsey (so the story goes) used to polish the bell of his trombone until it was like a mirror. This way, he could see what the band members were doing behind him when he was playing a solo. In that same band were Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich. Sinatra and Buddy had some famous arguments because Buddy would make faces while Sinatra was singing. Although they wound up becoming friends later on, their disagreements were well documentd.

“Nose-picking” is a term used to describe someone in the band doing something to distract the audience from the star. (It’s not hard to figure out how the expression came into being.) Some singers are paranoid if someone in the band moves or turns a page of music at the wrong time. To be fair, these things can disturb the mood of a soft ballad. So, it is best to try to conduct yourself in a professional manner. As they used to say in big bands, “Just play your part and keep your mouth shut!”

You never win an argument with a star or bandleader. (If you do win the argument, you lose the job.) If you disagree strongly about something, you must learn to be tactful and diplomatic whenever possible. For example, when I was on Benny Goodman’s band, I quickly learned who was boss. If he said, “Play brushes”, I played brushes. One did not make suggestions on Benny’s band. Benny knew what he wanted and you played it the best you could. If he didn’t like it, he would tell you so!

We used to play a sextet number on concerts and Benny liked brushes on that tune. However, the late, great tenor sax player Zoot Sims said to me, “Roy, play the sticks. You’re up by the trumpets and we’re way down in front by the piano. We can’t hear a thing. We’re walking on eggshells down there.” I had such great respect for Zoot that I started to play sticks on the sextet number. After a few days, Benny caught me in the hotel after the concert and said, “What are you playing on the sextet number?” I replied, “Sticks but very softly.” Benny said, “Why are you doing that?” I replied, “I thought it might hold things together a little better since we’re sort of spread out on stage.” Benny said, “No, you don’t need to do that. Just play the brushes.” I said, “Sure.” I felt that Zoot was right but I wasn’t about to argue.

After a few more concerts, Zoot began to complain again. So, I went back to playing sticks. Sure enough, Benny caught me in the hotel after the concert and asked.” What are you playing on the sextet number?” I said, “Sticks but very softly.” Again Benny inquired, “Whey are doing that?” This time I said, “If you remember, the last time we talked, you said play sticks but keep it soft.” Benny’s eyebrows went up and he said, “I did?” I responded, “Benny, you know I wouldn’t change anything unless you said to do so.” He smiled and said, “That’s good kid. Keep up the good work.”

To say that I was relieved after this exchange would be an understatement. I had had a close call, believe me. I learned that my job was to please the star, not necessarily the other members of the band. Zoot was great but Benny was singing my check every week. He was also signing Zoot’s check every week.

Avoid people in the band who make fun of the job or belittle the star. Just remember this though: How many people would show up of only that band member’s name was on the sign in front of the concert hall?

Not too many! I found out very quickly who the star really was when I left Benny’s band. Although I got a lot of attention when I was in the band, I got very little when I left. The phone just didn’t ring. I realized at the tender age of 23 that stars are stars for a very good reason: People want to see and hear them. They work under a lot of pressure; your job as a drummer is to help them by playing well, having a positive attitude, and being a professional as possible. Don’t create problems.

Remember, if you get tired of playing the smare music the same way very night, you can always leave and look for another ob. However, as long as you accept the check, give it your best. That’s what being professianl is all about.