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The Most Significant Drum Head in Popular Music, Part 2
Part 2 of a guest post for Ladies and Gentlemen... The Beatles, by Russ Lease. Read Part 1.
On September 14, 1994, my world changed again. I found myself in the unlikely position of being one of the last two bidders in a London auction for one of the most significant pieces of Beatle memorabilia ever sold. It was being described as possibly the Beatles front logo bass drum head from the band’s historic debut performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964. I say possible because up to that time, no one had done the research necessary to confirm its history and Sotheby’s was understandably unwilling to go on record as authenticating the theory. My pre-auction investigation seemed to indicate that six or seven different logo skins had been used over the years and, indeed, preliminary measurements using Sullivan photos strongly suggested what looked to me like an exact match with the head about to be sold. Three weeks of intense photographic study and numerous long distance calls later I was reasonably convinced, ready to roll the dice and go for it. My hunch was that because of several other high profile items in the sale, most notably the recently uncovered original Sgt. Pepper drum head (though the Beatle logo head carried a more valuable appraisal), and the slight initial skepticism over the Beatle skin’s authenticity, might somewhat overshadow some of the bidding interest.
After ‘maxing out’ on what financially would have to be my last bid, I held my breath. Seconds dragged on like hours as I again waited, hoping no one would up the ante. Finally, the sound of the hammer banged down confirming my new purchase at $43,000. ‘Oh my God, is it really mine?’ For many hours and days later it seemed hard to believe. It still does.
Upon taking physical possession of the piece, my mind was set on two objectives. The first was to prove to myself that the drum head really was what it appeared to be. And number two, proving to the collecting world in general that this was, in fact, the Sullivan show drum head. This started an eight year obsession concerning not only my new acquisition, but also exactly how many other logo drum heads did Ringo use? Why and how often were they changed and what were the histories of each? The research I’ve done over the years documenting the other six Beatle logo drum heads is another article in of itself for another time.
With the skin now in my hands, my apprehension was shortly changed to jubilation when a photograph fell into my hands providing the evidence I was looking for. On Tuesday, February 11, 1964 (two days after their debut on Sullivan), the Beatles traveled down to Washington D.C. to perform at the Washington Coliseum. The photo in question was taken this night and was one of the closest and best pictures of the head I had seen up to that point. The angle and sharpness were such that every scrape, scratch, scuff, and brushstroke of the head that appeared on the photo was also minutely evident on the drum head in my hands. In addition, Sotheby’s top expert, Stephen Maycock, assured me that the provenance or chain of possession from the beginning was impeccable because the skin had been sold by them initially ten years prior, in 1984, and was now in the possession of just its third owner.
The head was first consigned for auction in 1984 by someone within the Beatles inner circle (whose identity will not be revealed). It was purchased by an Australian restaurateur named George Wilkins for just under $9000. Wilkins used the artifact for display purposes in his restaurant before reconsigning the head back to Sotheby’s in 1994.
The current overall condition of the Remo Weather King head is very good. It is a 20” coated Mylar Ambassador with very slight cracking in the joint where the Mylar is fused to the aluminum ring, but nothing too serious. You can still see the faint pencil marks where a straight edge was used for letter alignment. None of the original pencil markings were ever erased off. The front of the head definitely shows some use. More so even than one would expect considering its short public tenure of two weeks. It exhibits the usual scuffs and scraps of being packed and unpacked and we know that most of these imperfections occurred during the actual first American visit because many of them show up in photos from the time. Most interesting would be a half-circle scrap starting at the top of the “B” and traversing through the “e” and into the “a”. If you complete this arch in full, you get a near perfect 14” circle. It appears that at some point when Mal Evans (Beatle equipment manager) was breaking the kit down, Ringo’s 14” hi-hat cymbal was laid on top of the flat lying bass drum, causing the scrape. This had to happen during the first Sullivan performance because the scrap shows up in the Washington Coliseum show photo I mentioned earlier.
When I took possession of the head in 1994, just the head itself was displayed in a sealed acrylic depth frame for hanging on a wall. It looked ok, but lacked the familiarity in your mind that you associate with the head on the Sullivan show. I thought it should be mounted on the front half of a Ludwig Oyster Black bass drum that would look as close as possible to the original drum that held it thirty years earlier. I called the Ludwig Drum Company to see if they could build me such a drum. After speaking to Jim Catalano about the project, I was referred to renowned vintage drum restorer, Jack Lawton, of the Lawton Drum Company in Sunbury, Pa. Lawton is quite familiar with the Oyster Black Pearl used by Ludwig back in the ‘60s. In fact, Lawton had reintroduced that finish (now called Black Oyster) in 1992. The material stopped being made in the 1960s, so Lawton placed a call to the plastic’s original manufacturer in Italy and asked the company to reproduce the pearl, graying shade, and texture. They did and proceeded to sell him 400 pounds of the stuff for his own use. Ever since, companies like Ludwig have recognized Lawton as one of the nation’s finer restorers of classic drums.
The drum Jack used was an old 14x20 Champagne Sparkle shell manufactured by Ludwig in the mid-'60s. The original finish was stripped off and the shell was then cut in half. The inside was sanded and painted white, and the outside was recovered in '60s style Black Oyster Pearl. The original hardware was then cleaned up and reinstalled on the shell. A new black inlaid bass drum hoop now holds the vintage drum head in place. Jack was unaware of the price paid for the head when it came time to mount the skin on the shell. After a bit of a struggle, the tight fitting head finally went on. When Lawton was later told of its value (many times that now), he nearly went into cardiac arrest.
The Beatles’ Sullivan drum head is an icon of our generation. It is the only Beatle logo drum head to appear on any of their album covers (it can be seen on four) and, because of the Sullivan show notoriety, it is generally regarded as the most famous of the seven. It has been exhibited in Washington museums and on occasion at Jack Lawton’s annual Pennsylvania Drum Show. It recently completed a 1½-year stint at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and will no doubt be back at some point in the future.
Russ Lease, of Columbia, Md., has been collecting one-of-a-kind Beatle memorabilia for well over twenty years and has built an extensive collection with collection partner, Ron Wine of Hanover, Pa. Russ also does consulting work for some of the major auction houses. Russ can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.beatlesuits.com