Friday, August 26, 2011

Ron Tutt-Backing Vocals

Note Ronnie Tutt's vocal mic on the cover of the Let It Rock cd
Ron Tutt is one of rock's great drummers, by any accounting. He was the drummer for Elvis Presley from 1968-77, and apparently Elvis's band leader as well, and for the last three years (75-77) he was in the Jerry Garcia Band at the same time. He also did a zillion sessions and has played on too many great records to count. From the 1980s onward, he has also been Neil Diamond's drummer. Whatever you might think of Diamond's music, he is a hugely popular singer who can afford anyone for his band, so it's a sign of Tutt's talent that he got the call.

However, one completely unremarked fact about Tutt's tenure in the Jerry Garcia Band was that he also sang harmony vocals on a few songs. There are a number of points to make about this obscure fact, but I don't believe Tutt has ever commented on it, nor were Jerry Garcia or John Kahn ever asked about it. Tutt has only been interviewed about playing with Jerry Garcia very rarely, and I don't believe his singing ever came up. I happen to think that one of the reasons that Tutt liked playing in the Jerry Garcia Band was that he got to sing harmony vocals. This is complete speculation on my part, of course, but that is what this blog is for. So until someone interviews Tutt and asks him about this, here's my take on the curious significance of one of rock's great drummers singing harmonies on stage with Jerry Garcia.

Ron Tutt
Ron Tutt was a trained drummer, playing in a well regarded jazz program at North Texas State. He had played trumpet and violin as a child (just like Phil Lesh...hmm), and seems to have come to the drums somewhat later. Tutt was a successful studio musician in Dallas and Memphis, and through those connections he got a chance to audition for Elvis Presley. When Elvis returned to touring in 1969, his core group was his "TCB" (Taking Care of Business) Band, with James Burton on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass, Glen Hardin on piano and Tutt on drums. Although he missed a leg or two of a tour here and there (such as in early 1970). Tutt stayed with Elvis all the way until his final tour in 1977.

Deadheads who are interested in Tutt's drumming would do well to look at the 1972 movie Elvis On Tour, which showcases Tutt's disciplined and high powered drumming to good effect. Elvis's show was a huge production, with singers, an orchestra and numerous sidemen, and Tutt absolutely drives the sound in a completely different way than he did with the Jerry Garcia Band. One reason that I think Tutt enjoyed alternating tours with Elvis and Jerry was that he had a chance to excel in both a structured and unstructured settings, as Tutt was the rare musician who thrived in both.

Singing Drummers
It's a convention of rock music that drummers don't sing. The joke is that drummers take up the drums because they can't carry a tune in the first place, but that is only true in junior high school. Real drummers are listening to the music they are playing along with, and even if they aren't skilled at other instruments--many are--they at least have to have an intuitive feel for melody and harmony. One larger issue is that drumming is a much more physical activity than playing the guitar or piano, and it can be difficult to have the breath control to sing while playing the drums.

Another sixties issue with singing drummers was the difficulty of the drummer actually hearing the music well enough to stay in tune. Monitors were not great back then, and in many cases the drummers had to play as loud as they could to make up for deficient sound system, yet another barrier to singing. The typical rock band cliche was that the drummer sang one song, usually to give the lead singers a rest. It usually had a simple beat--so he could sing while drumming--and not much of a melody. Famous examples of this include Ringo singing "Act Naturally" with The Beatles, and Keith Moon's immortal "Bell Boy" from The Who's Quadrophenia album.

There were a few singing drummers in the sixties, but very few of them were really reknowned for both vocals and drumming at the same time. Buddy Miles was a high energy soul singer, which fit in well with his drumming style. Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice, but she played quiet pop music, which in turn fit in well with her drumming style. Only Levon Helm really stands out as a major rock singer who was also a fine drummer. As far as the Grateful Dead went, Mickey Hart's few vocal attempts over the years have really emphasized what a fine drummer he is.

All in all, the cliche that drummers don't sing is largely true. With the advent of considerably improved equipment, such as ear monitors, drummers with decent voices are much more able to participate on stage, but back in the day a singing drummer was little more than a novelty. Thus, it was quite a surprise to me when I saw the Jerry Garcia Band for the first time, at the Concord Pavilion on October 17, 1975, and Ron Tutt sang harmonies on some country song I'd never heard of (which turned out to be "Catfish John"). Back in '75, singing drummers were rare, and "harmony singing drummers" was a misnomer, since there was only Levon Helm, so it wasn't plural.

The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins
When the Jerry Garcia and John Kahn decided to stop working with Merl Saunders in 1975, the switch to Nicky Hopkins also marked a distinct transformation in the sound of Garcia's "other" band. The Garcia/Saunders aggregation, under various names, had derived from a soul and jazz feel. Although many of the songs they performed were actually rock songs, such as Bob Dylan songs, they were done in a modified R&B style, appropriate to a band featuring Merl Saunders's funky Hammond organ playing. Hopkins, however, not only played grand piano, he played in a remarkable mixture of American piano styles, from ranging from Chicago blues to New Orleans jazz, with nods to everybody from Jerry Lee Lewis to Horace Silver along the way. The new Jerry Garcia Band had a more "Americana" sound that was distinct from the R&B sound of Garcia/Saunders.

One characteristic of the Garcia/Saunders sound was that while there was a variety of lead vocalists over the years, there were almost no shared or harmony vocals. Jerry and Merl sang lead on different songs, and at various times Sarah Fulcher, Tom Fogerty and occasional guests also sang lead, but shared vocals were very rare. I can think of no song where Jerry and Merl sang together, for example. The only song I can think of where there backing vocals at all were some rare performances of "WPLJ," sung by Fogerty, with backups on the chorus by Garcia. Call and response style vocals are very common in soul music, but Garcia and Saunders never used that format in any performance that I can think of, nor was harmony singing part of the mixture.

Once Hopkins joined the band, however, the door was open for some more honky tonk sounds that featured more country style vocals, very much in tune with Garcia's tastes. Garcia has an effective singing voice, in my opinion, but it is a little thin, and it sounds better with harmonies on many choruses, a pattern that defined many Dead songs. One problem with the 1975 Garcia Band, however, was the absence of harmony vocalists. John Kahn never sang on stage or in the studio, to my knowledge, so he was not a candidate. Hopkins actually liked to sing, but he was an absolutely terrible singer. In fact for the first few '75 JGB shows Hopkins sang lead on a few of his own songs (from his solo albums), and he was just dreadful. There was no chance that Hopkins could sing harmony, since he couldn't effectively carry a tune.

That left Tutt. Tutt actually has a nice singing voice, a bit thin and reedy, but in fact that made it a nice fit for Jerry's voice. I have always wondered how this came about. When the band first rehearsed "Catfish John," who suggested singing harmony? Jerry? Ron Tutt? I have to think Garcia ruminated over the need for some harmony, and Tutt offered to sing the part. Since we know that Tutt played had played other instruments, it's not like he didn't know what a harmony part would be. I have to guess that no one had ever offered to let Tutt sing harmonies before. He was such a good drummer that he seemed to be at ease while playing, so that must have made it easy to control his voice, and the Dead always have great sound, so the monitors must have allowed him to hear Garcia's vocals.  I'm not aware of Tutt singing harmonies with any other group or on any other recordings.

Writing a long post about Jerry Garcia's drummer singing harmonies may seem trivial, and indeed trivial Grateful Dead scholarship is the purpose of this blog (the research blog is elsewhere). Nonetheless, I think harmony vocals were a very big part of the sound that Garcia was looking for with his own electric group. In general, the trend over the next several years was towards increased harmony vocals, and Ron Tutt's contribution in 1975 was the first indicator of that, however minor that may have seemed at the time.

It's worth noting that even when Donna Godchaux joined the band, Tutt continued to sing harmonies. Not on every song, of course, as with Donna around it was less critical, but here and there Garcia would have been looking for a three part harmony and Tutt could handle it. It's true that Keith Godchaux had a mic as well, but in my experience he only joined in on the chorus parts of "Don't Let Go" and "Who Was John," and otherwise avoided singing. The fact that Tutt continued to sing harmonies even after Donna joined the band indicates both that Garcia thought the sound was important and that Tutt enjoyed doing it. By the time Maria Muldaur joined the band, Tutt had left, but the three part harmony sound remained mostly intact for the life of the Jerry Garcia Band, albeit with a variety of different singers.

Ron Tutt does not seem interested in giving interviews about his time with Jerry Garcia. He still speaks fondly of Garcia's music, but based on an interview on an Elvis site, he seems bothered by financial issues related to the release of various Jerry Garcia Band archival material. Given that Tutt and Kahn were actually partners with Garcia in the original Jerry Garcia Band, this is probably no small matter to him. As a result of these serious issues, however, there's no chance to ask him how he came to be singing in the Jerry Garcia Band. Tutt, great a drummer as he is, probably never got asked to sing, and appreciated the chance to show his talents. Garcia, in turn, seems to have been intrigued by the possibility of harmonies and took his music further in that direction, all because he had a drummer who could sing.


  1. Excellent little hole to fill in, for sure. Thank you.

    Merl sang some harmony vocals on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" during Legion of Mary's April 1975 east coast-midwest tour, which really put into stark relief the high quality of his keyboard playing.

  2. Interesting... A couple small points:

    In the Ron Tutt interview you linked, he's actually asked about bootlegs, to which he replies, "I was involved for a number of years with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and you can go on the Internet right now and buy all kinds of recordings from the sound desk of the gigs that we did with the Jerry Garcia band. And I know that I've never gotten a penny from any of that."
    He's not talking about official releases, but about bootlegs, and how the artists get no money from bootleg releases.
    Personally, it sounds like typical musician's paranoia to me: I'm not sure how many for-sale JGB "bootlegs" actually exist - rather than, say, circulating & downloading for free - but that would probably bother him even more...
    The number of Ron Tutt JGB shows that have been officially released is still quite small, but I would guess he does get a penny from those...but that's just a guess.

    Also, a minor point, but you often parenthetically mention your "research blog," which puts into stark relief the silence of said blog for two months now.

  3. Yes, my main blogs are silent right now because life itself is rudely intruding. Hopefully that situation will rectify itself in the near future.

  4. Amazing post! I'm all of the above: a singing drummer AND a big fan of Jerry G., Neil D. and Elvis P.
    Thus, I am continually amazed by the talent of Tutt.
    I suggest a listen to "Mighty High" from the JGB Dont Let Go album (recorded in 1976) for an example of Tutt displaying the kind of fancy chops he would mostly reserve for Elvis shows.

    If you feel, have look at my blog--both Jerry and Neil figure in a big way.

  5. Big fan of these sites, awesome work guys!

    I finished Guralnick's Elvis bio which compelled me to watch the early 70's docs, and Aloha from HI. Tutt is insanely great - flamboyant and right up front in the mix. It shows that he was pretty laid back w/Jer. I will check out Mighty High.

    To LIA: I do think in that interview you cite, Tutt talking about the officially released archival tapes like Theater 1839 and Don't Let Go.

    Depending on his deal (and if he was a "partner" as LLD cites here: he may have received/still receives residuals on Cats and Run For The Roses (on which he played- I learned that here!), but doubtful on the archival releases.

    Furthermore, because of the way Col Parker structured deals, it's also doubtful he receives much, if anything, from Elvis's vast catalog. He would have received day rates, salaries when on the road, and maybe a small appearance fee in the films.

  6. I was looking for info on the great Ronnie Tutt...looks like I found it. Great job!

    Adding to the list of Harmony singing drummers from the 60s and 70s...Don Brewer (grand funk - lead also), mad dog Lopez (e street band), Pete Rivera (lead,Harmony, rare earth), John cowsill(of The Cowsills), Jay Osmond (Osmonds), even Bonzo Bonham could be seen singing Harmony for some short snippets.

    Like you said, it was probably a technical limitation at the time to get a good monitor and good directional mic
    to allow the drummer to sing without the physicality of the drums or sound blasting through the mic.

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