We’re here with another Unsung Heroes of Americana article, looking at the people, places and things that help to make this music we all love. This time around, I’m taking a look at the career of one of the greats from the world of percussion.
What do Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Journey, Joe Cocker, B.B King and Marvin Gaye all have in common? Well, apart from being significant artists in their different musical genres they have all, at one time or another, employed the significant talents of Larrie Londin.
Larrie Londin is probably among the most widely heard drummers ever. With the exception of the great session drummer, Hal Blaine, Londin played on more hit records, in the course of his career, than any other drummer – and he played across all genres, though it was in the world of Americana that he really made his mark.
Born Ralph Gallant in the October of 1943, in Norfolk, Virginia. Londin was largely self-taught and began playing drums when he was 15, forming a rhythm section with his older, bass-playing brother, Eugene. Calling themselves Lonnie and Larrie Londin they worked with bands around the local area but Larrie was first signed to a recording contract, with Atlantic Records, as a singer. He always claimed that it was hearing his recorded voice and realising he sounded like a bad Elvis impersonator that made him decide to concentrate on a career as a drummer! The brothers ended up in The Headliners, a garage band that originated in Florida and, in 1963, the band became the first all-white group to be signed by Tamla Motown, recording on the VIP label. This brought Londin into contact with all the major bands on the Motown roster and when Funk Brothers session drummer, Benny Benjamin, suffered a heart attack, Berry Gordy asked Londin to take over some of his sessions, most notably playing on recordings by The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations. Londin effectively became the backup drummer for the Funk Brothers.
By 1965 Londin felt he’d had enough of The Headliners. Their two singles for VIP had failed to attract much interest and the band was clearly going nowhere. He’d also had enough of Motown records and working long hours in the studio for little recognition and decided a change of pace was needed – he took a job as band drummer on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s TV Show. This was his first foray into a style of music that would, eventually, link to Americana. After the show stopped broadcasting and acting on the advice of friends Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, Londin headed down to Nashville with a view of establishing himself as a session drummer and that’s where things really started to take off for him. Good session drummers were thin on the ground in Nashville at the time, and Londin quickly found himself in high demand, rapidly becoming recognised as the top session drummer in town. Known for his prodigious work ethic (Londin would practice for anything up to twelve hours a day!), he was put under contract as a session drummer by Columbia Records and also became a popular addition to the growing Drum Clinic circuit at the time; something he continued to do, quite literally, until his dying day. Looking at this clip you can see why he was so highly rated among his fellow musicians as he talks through the building of a drum solo; something he excelled at.
Unusually for a top session musician, Londin never learned to properly read music, instead he developed his own “stick charts”, which he used to remind himself of approaches to certain songs for which he was contracted as a session drummer, something he always attributed to picking up from other Nashville session drummers, a practice that was not widely known or understood outside that city. He had a real dedication to his art and it shone through in everything he did. Londin established D.O.G Percussion in Nashville, one of the area’s first dedicated drum shops (named after his wife’s initials) and was always promoting innovation in percussion, being among the first of the session drummers to embrace the use of electronic kits and helping to mentor younger drummers and pass on his knowledge and experience.
It was because of his reputation in session circles, and particularly in the Nashville area, that Londin started working with Elvis Presley. Londin worked on a number of Presley sessions, both in the studio and live, originally being brought in for overdubs at the request of Presley’s producer, Felton Jarvis. When Presley’s regular drummer, Ronnie Tutt, was taken ill, both in 1976 and 1977, it was Londin who filled the drum stool in the touring TCB Band, which resulted in Londin playing at the last two concerts, prior to Presley’s death, in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. There’s a bootleg recording of a 1976 Presley concert at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati where Londin can be heard prominently playing with Presley on ‘A New Kind Of Rhythm’.
Here’s a montage of clips from Presley’s final live performance; not the best quality but Londin can be seen five minutes in, behind Presley as he performs ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, with Londin’s precise rhythm keeping clearly heard.
You had to be the best to play with The King and it’s fitting that Londin was the recorded drummer on Presley’s last number-one single in the country charts, the 1980 remix of ‘Guitar Man’.
Following on from his work with Presley, Londin’s next big gig was as a member of The Cherry Bombs, the band Rodney Crowell assembled after he left Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. The band was put together to back Crowell as he resumed his solo career and has become regarded as something of a country-rock supergroup given its membership at the time – the original line up comprised of Vince Gill (rhythm guitar & backing vocals,), Hank DeVito (steel guitar), Emory Gordy Jr. (bass guitar), Richard Bennett (electric guitar), Tony Brown (keyboards) and, on the drum stool, Larrie Londin. With Bennett replaced on guitar by Albert Lee this line up first backed Crowell on his 1980 album ‘But What Will the Neighbours Think’ and more or less the same line up was still with him for his eponymously titled album released the following year but, in the five-year gap before the next album, ‘Street Language’ (1986), Londin, like some other band members, had moved on.
Here’s Rodney Crowell and The Cherry Bombs, with Larrie London on drums, live in Austin in 1981.
When the Everly Brothers got back together in the mid-80s, Londin was one of the first musicians the brothers sought out for their touring band, alongside other top-rate session musicians like Albert Lee and Pete Wingfield, and these tours would sell out worldwide, with Londin’s drum work very much to the fore. Here’s probably my favourite clip featuring this great player – live from the original Everly’s Reunion Tour in 1983. Listen to the way he drives this classic Everly’s track and the seamless tempo switches through the song.
The 80s and into the early 90s were a career-high period for Londin that saw him appear on albums by artists such as Roseanne Cash, Glen Campbell, Adrian Belew, Glenn Frey, Shania Twain, Joe Cocker and many more while he continued to appear on the Drum Clinic circuit and pass on his knowledge and experience to the next generation of percussionists.
On April 24, 1992, at the age of 48, Londin suffered a heart attack and collapsed during a drum clinic at North Texas State University. He never came out of the ensuing coma, finally passing away in hospital in Nashville, the city that had become the centre of his professional life.
Larrie Londin was a true unsung hero of Americana. A man who spent his life anchoring the band and making other performers sound great. He was always a professional – and he was also always one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.