I just got the news that Jerrie Thill, the 91-year-old female drummer on an oxygen tank who I did my song and video, “Hey Jerrie”, with in 2009, passed away last night. She was a killer drummer and an astounding spirit, albeit a slightly deflated one over this past year since she broke her hip and was no longer able to play. We became great friends after I met her in 2008 during one of her regular Sunday gigs at El Cid.
Jerrie was the hardest working woman in show business, smacking the drums since being discovered in the midwest by one of the Capone boys during Prohibition.
Eventually Jerrie moved to Hollywood in 1945 to be the bandleader at The Flamingo, a drag club on Sunset owned by Myron Cohen.
She gigged constantly ever since, doing all kinds of dates including appearances on shows like The Golden Girls with her then band, The Dixie Belles, until her hip injury which happened just a few months after “Hey Jerrie” came out. The video caught on fire on YouTube and at one point was even the 12th most viewed video in the world. With no promotion it’s gotten almost a quarter of a million views, a source of great happiness to Jerrie and mandatory viewing for anyone who walked into her house or hospital room. If you haven’t seen it please watch it now as a way of paying tribute to this fine, ever-foxy lady who smacked the skins like no other.
I’m happy to say that Jerrie was sharp all the way to the end. She loved to gossip and talk about music which we did frequently.
She did one final performance at El Cid after her hip broke.
I was set on re-cutting my song “Neutron Dance” with her, the jungle drumming on that being something that Jerrie could do in style, and getting The Pointer Sisters to sing backup on the record. I reassured her that in this day and age we could cut one drum at a time but I think she couldn’t deal with the fact that she had slowed down at all so it sadly never happened.
I’ll miss Jerrie a lot but am heartened by the fact that she knew it was her time to go and that she can make a lot more ruckus up there, free from injury and age. I’m assuming she’s playing her signature song, “When You’re Smiling”, right now.
For more essential Jerrie hit these links:
64,000 YouTube views and counting since the “Hey Jerrie” launch party a few nights ago at Ghettogloss that I should be blogging about right now instead of writing this.
If you follow this blog at all you know how I am. I know any decent blogger or social networkist posts photos and videos immediately. But for me, documentation of an event is an equal part of the art the event was thrown to celebrate. So before I can post anything I need to find the right place for said documentation in the organic ball of goo that is “Hey Jerrie” or any other piece where my music, art, video, animation, technology and a party converge into the octopus-like formation known as “my art”.
I can deal with the photos, though writing captions makes me feel like a Roto Rooter is sucking my blood out. But I did manage to go through them and despite the fact that the shots are mostly posed so the craziest spontaneous moments, the ones that make the party ‘THE party’ are nonexistent, you may go here to see them. But make sure and come back.
Now going through party videos so I can get some stuff up online quick is another animal entirely. I’m conditioned to being terrorized by camera people who don’t capture any of what I’m experiencing and instead concentrate on such tight close ups I may as well be talking to myself at a party of one. If my wrinkles were what I wanted to see I could have just stayed home and looked in the mirror. Besides, transferring 16 hours of footage from three cameras and archiving it so it can be found in the glut of 42,000 terabytes known as my server demands I enter the proper brain space – blissful peace meets mob mentality – and I’m just not there yet. So instead, as process is the most interesting thing about creating art to me, I shall regale you with how it got to the point of “Hey Jerrie” being the 34th most viewed video in the world on YouTube just 36 hours after its release and, just as important to a kitsch freak like me, how it became “the most responded to video EVER” in Hong Kong.
(If you have no knowledge whatsoever about my rendezvous with Jerrie Thill, the 91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank and primary star of “Hey Jerrie”, read my previous posts on her (of which this will appear first so scroll down). If you are familiar with HJ or if you’re too lazy to catch up on the posts, which I certainly would be if I were reading this, please continue.
When I first met Jerrie a few months ago I invited her over because I thought she’d enjoy my collection of Atomic 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Kitsch, much of it music based from an era when she ruled the drum thrones of clubs in LA. But as our date drew near it dawned on me it would be stupid not to record her. It’s not like she could just run down the hill if I got a good idea for a song.
I had no interest in capturing Jerrie playing her standards like “When You’re Smiling” and “Route 66”. Anyone could do that. It had to be one of my songs for me to truly be interested in doing anything with it. “Neutron Dance”, whose bass line was a calculated 50’s jazzbo rip, felt vaguely appropriate. But at the same time as my gut was telling me to write something original I was (foolishly) swamped with The Stallionaires. I also hadn’t written by myself in years so I just prayed the music muse would arrive sometime before Jerrie rang the bell.
Two days before she came over the melody hit me getting off the 101 at Highland. As is a nasty mental habit of mine, some of my simpler stuff, songs that ultimately catch on the quickest, seem dumb as I’m writing them. “Neutron Dance”, which I won a Grammy for as part of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, was definitely one of those. But now I was just looking for something sing-songy that would be easy for Jerrie to drum to. So I decided to commit to the melody stuck in my head long enough to write the lyric.
Although I’ve written both the music and lyrics for 90% of my songs my lot in life has been to be thought of as a lyricist, probably because I wrote with so many male groups like Earth Wind & Fire and the assumption is the female’s there for the lyric or perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t know how to actually read, write or play music. When it’s really flowing, music and lyrics arrive in my head in one tight package. The words “Hey Jerrie, put on a show” spilled out spontaneously with the melody. By the time I passed The Hollywood Bowl at the end of the freeway exit I had the entire first verse:
Hey Jerrie, put on a show./ You play them songs everybody knows./ Beat them skins and keep it in time./Ya make me loose like a bottle of wine when you beat!
Sing-songy, not going to win a Pulitzer prize but it had Jerrie’s zippy spirit written all over it.
The next couple of nights I wrote 36 different versions of verses, choruses and chants. I recorded the beat in my head by playing one drum at a time – I have no idea how someone plays different things with different hands let alone gets their feet synchronized – but even a pathetic little temp track would make it easier to sing the song down to Jerrie when she gets here. I constantly change the lyrics as I sing it down.
D-Day arrives. As soon as we hear the car pull up with Jerrie, Allison Freebairn-Smith who introduced us, and Carol Chaikin, Jerrie’s sax player, my longtime assistant Dina, who started out working my parties in the late 80’s, became my cleaning lady in the 90’s and graduated to chief assistant/ videographer/ keeper of the house in 2003, starts shooting. By this time it’s dawned on me I need to capture some decent stuff in case the song is actually any good and I might want to do a video. So I shoot Jerrie and Dina shoots both of us.
It’s then I realize I’m going to have to deal with the sound of the oxygen blasts that shoot into Jerrie’s nose every few seconds as they’ll be audible in the live recording. I can’t yank the tubes out for 3 minutes or we’ll lose the drummer. So I decide to time the song to the little puffs. I believe it’s the first time oxygen has been used as a percussion instrument and this makes me very excited.
Jerrie does the song in one take. The sound of her kick drum slays me. The weathered, muffled thud sound I had always lusted for.
So I end up with some dark cramped footage and a song that’s starting to sound like it could be something. Carol adds a few takes of sax and flute but the fact that I don’t play, despite hearing every note in my head, has me concerned about how I’m going to finish the record.
The next night I go to see a friend of mine’s 10 year old kid who’s playing Blues guitar at Genghis Cohen. I am definitely guilty of telling someone I’m really interested in hearing their kid play or sing when in truth I’d rather be having my toenails pulled out without anesthetic. All parents, at least the good ones, think their kids are tremendously gifted in their artistic pursuit. If I had the guts, I would tell them to save their money as the kid’s talent is usually hovering in the local telethon area. But this was someone who had recently started coming to my parties who I wanted to keep as a party guest so off I went on a Saturday night to see the 10 year old who I thought was going to put me to sleep.
Lo and behold, Milo Sussman was a mofo. Total Chicago Blues chops and attitude mixed with endearing naivite. By the second song all I could think was 91 year old, 10 year old and me plopped somewhere in the middle. As if 91 years old and an oxygen tank wasn’t enough, that’s a hook!
After the show the mom tells me her 6 year old is as good a drummer as Milo is guitar player. I book them both and they come over twice after school to lay down guitar and add to the toms and two fingered keyboards I’ve played on top of Jerrie’s track. I video every inch of this as well, still no idea how to make anything that looks like something other than a home movie of the sessions, of no interest to me whatsoever. And the kids footage is full of parents and bad lighting.
I’m tortured by the prospect of a dull video. I want people to know about this woman who’s been beating the skins since the Capones saw her play sax and drums in their clubs while her parents ran bootleg liquor for them. I decide to scan in all her dust-crusted photos. At least I know how to make those come alive. If something cute enough happens maybe that will be a starting point. I also decide to bring Jerrie back, clear everything out of my living room and roll around in an Aeron chair like it’s a dolly so I can get longer and brighter shots than the cramped-in-my-bedroom-home-studio footage I have thus far.
One of my favorite records of all time is Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd”. Very loud partygoer crowd sounds surrounding that great piano playing and Maurice White’s record debut as an artist. I call up a bunch of my friends, some of whom can’t even carry a tune, and make them come over to clap and sing along. I forget to tell them I’ll be filming so the combination of no make-up, ugly clothes and, due to cramped studio conditions, footage of mostly shoes and backs of heads, makes the video aspects of “Hey Jerrie” seem even further away.
That’s when it hit me I had to throw a party. Which is where this whole blog started…
As I stated earlier, though I’m a natural writer I’m not a natural blogger. I mean I actually love to blog. But I hate to blog just as I hate to write when I’m blogging just to blog. So now I’m really into telling you the rest of the process of making “Hey Jerrie” and it taking off on YouTube the second it arrives there. But if I continue doing that now, with the video and party process still to go, you will be here the better part of your week. And the idea of having material for imminently future blogs is exhilerating to me. Maybe even a tweet or two!
So I’m calling it for the night and will pick up on the rest of it in my next posts. In the meantime, please enjoy the party photos. To make your experience more authentic the main meal items at the party were Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Pixie Sticks. So if you have any of those around you may want to start chewing now.
To be continued…
Had a totally triumphant party last night at ghettogloss, to launch “Hey Jerrie”, my latest music video with me and Jerrie Thill, my favorite 91 year old female drummer/singer on an oxygen tank. I would have woken up and started to get photos up here but I looked at YouTube and the video has EXPLODED. Close to 25,000 views in the first 24 hours and it’s on 37 charts around the world. So I’m fielding a gaggle of emails, Facebook messages and the like so reporting on the frivolity of the launch party will probably not happen til sometime this weekend. So for now, please enjoy the video (hit the ‘Watch in HD link’ or it will look like crap) and send http://www.jer91.com to everyone you know.
Love from Allee and Jerrie.
I’m racing down the final twists and turns of the highway known as Allee’s Throwing A Party and have hit the inevitable pothole of I’ve Got It Together/ I’m Totally UnPrepared. One of the reoccurring bumps in the road has been the design that accompanies this particular project/ party and whether I’ve gone too far or not far enough – a creative problem an artist with any depth must learn to handle gracefully without the aid of too many outside stimulants.
This Thursday night, 2/5, is the launch of “Hey Jerrie”, my new music video featuring me and spectacular 91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank, Jerrie Thill. As I am wont to do for my parties I’m sitting here hand-making hundreds of souvenirs including fans of my and Jerrie’s heads:
Also making backscratchers (age makes sweet spots hard to reach), CDs, DVDs and prints of graphics celebrating the ongoing and persistent Ms. Thill.
When we met a few months ago Jerrie was visibly upset about her new appendage, a portable oxygen tank. My way in life is to deal with circumstances in the most spectacular way possible. The bottom is as much an opportunity for change and empowerment as the top. Which means that if you can’t breathe without the tank, make that tank work FOR you and not drag you down like the annoying and potentially humiliating chunk of steel and gas that it is.
I tell Jerrie to think of the tank as a fashion accessory – jewel the carrying case so it looks like a shoulder bag or build a cart with fins and chrome and roll it around like a doll in a kiddie car. I also tell her that she’s got the ultimate hook in this Age Of YouTube. How many people making contemporary music videos have tubes jutting into their nose? As if being 91 years old and still beating the skins in time isn’t enough! This POV has had a positive effect on Jerrie whose spring has now returned to her step.
I always design graphics to accompany anything I’m working on. But drawing ones that honor my sense of kitsch and rather loud design and still be respectful of Jerrie’s age and situation – i.e. the tank. – is more challenging than I imagine. After weeks I finally came up with these:
At first I thought you can’t have any fun with things like lungs and tubes. But having fun is what’s kept Jerrie alive. It’s what keeps me ticking like a teen, working through a plethora of careers wondering what I’ll be when I grow up. You have to find something fun or interesting about the life you live or you’re just miserable and bored and want to curl up in a hole and die. As long as you have a conscious breath in your body life is too precious to give up that easily. So here’s to lungs and tubes and anything else that’s a part of you.
“Hey Jerrie” goes up on YouTube at 6 pm this Thurs. Set your clocks now please!
How I didn’t know about this dynamo drummer and firecracker of a spirit named Jerrie Thill when she’s led her own all female bands for over 60 years is nuts. Especially given my proclivity for being attracted to distinctive characters like The Del Rubio Triplets or “Shagman” Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager for 37 years, who forge their own way where no way has existed before. The sheer force these people exude to manifest whatever vision they have of themselves is a trait I’ve aspired to emulate ever since I realized I had a mutant career that didn’t follow the normal Hollywood path to success. It would be up to me to pave my own orbit if I wanted to ever combine everything I did – music, art, video, technology, collecting, entertaining, et al – into one fiery ball of art expression. Jerrie Thill, NINETY ONE AND STILL SMACKING THE SKINS, propelled herself into a similar orbit drumming and singing her way from The Great Depression to The Might As Well Be Great Depression upon us today.
Jerrie isn’t happy unless two sticks are in her hands and high heels are on her feet tapping the bass drum like a steady heartbeat. Her body language is a study in HAPPINESS, her little arms flapping like birds as if the sticks lift her off from the drumheads. For the past 4 months she’s been attached to an oxygen tank. It’s slowed her down some, just for the sheer pain in the ass of having a tank as a third arm. Not to mention those tubes that connect it to your nose. But I’m so into the quirkiness of a 91 year old drummer, female no less, that the oxygen just becomes an interesting fashion accessory and makes the overall intensity of what I’m seeing and hearing even better.
My neighbor, songwriter Alison Freebairn-Smith, introduced me to Carol Chaikin, Jerrie’s younger sax sidekick, at our block party this summer. Carol’s been playing with Jerrie since 2002. Alison documented them for her just-about-finished documentary of all girl bands which, by the way, did not start with The Go-Gos, but has been alive and flourishing in the US since the 1920’s. Jerrie’s led or been in tons of those bands including the famed Dixie Belles, who I saw on Johnny Carson in the late 80’s and almost needed oxygen myself.
These days Jerrie and Carol and whoever else feels inspired to join them play Sundays at El Cid, a gem of a vintage Mexican eatery in LA. But their most important stop is right here at Willis Wonderland where we’re recording a song I wrote in her honor, “Hey, Jerrie”. Jerrie came over last week and smacked out the drum track in one take. Her kick drum sound is the best I’ve ever heard, 60 years of high heel grime and funk on the ones.
We’re almost done with the record, also featuring a 6 year old drummer and 11 year old Blues and Jazz guitar virtuoso. Then I just need to whip a video together and you’ll hear it. Hopefully that won’t take the usual 7-9 months my other videos have taken. I got to move as fast as Jerrie!