Book Review: Sticks ‘n’ Skins – “A Unique Insight into the Community of Drummers”

(Originally written by Scott Gudell in April of 2020)

Sticks ‘n’ Skins, the book that looks at numerous drummers (and percussionists,) just celebrated its ten-year anniversary. This is a great time to take a second look at this amazing collection of pictures that two dedicated photographers took through the years. Whether from a massive stage, a recording studio or a candid shot from someone’s home, there’s a little bit of everything in the book.

Instead of pointing her camera at the lead singer or guitarists of a frantic rock group or the brass or woodwind leader of an innovative jazz ensemble, Lissa Wales concentrated on one of the anchors of the rhythm section, the drummer. Although she passed in 2005 at the age of 48 from Leukemia, the baton (or drumstick) was picked up by an equally passionate photographer, Jules Follett. She eventually brought everything together for the book.

The book’s goal was never to seek out the most ‘famous’ drummers. Sure, we meet dozens of musician’s worthy of that title throughout the 500 plus page collection but we also learn a little bit about hundreds of other drummers – one page at a time. The Wales section opens with over twenty featured drummers. There’s a page featuring a dramatic photo of Rochester Music Hall of Fame inductee Steve Gadd and – as with everyone else in the book – a brief description. In Gadd’s case, it alerts us to his studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester New York and that he’s played with an amazing list of ‘who’s who’ giants including Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon. Then there’s a spotlight on an artist who took a different fork in the road. Mick Fleetwood, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac, has helmed the same group for over fifty years. A guiding light for the group, he (along with bassist John McVie) has navigated the complex world of music via spot-on drumming and sheer determination. Other Wales’ drummers include rock super nova Tommy Lee and jazz / R&B veteran Earl Palmer.

A section of candid group photos creates a bridge and then Follett officially takes over. With no arbitrary lines of demarcations such as fame, birthplace etc., Follett gives us insight into the drummers she’s met. U.S. drummers dominate the book and several of them have supported the Rochester Music Hall of Fame through the years. In addition to Steve Gadd, there’s Brooklyn born brothers Carmine and Vinny Appice who both followed the alluring beacon of rock as well as Dino Danelli who, along with Gene Cornish, brought the Young Rascals to the top of the charts.

The book also spotlights drummers from around the world. There’s Nigerian born Tony Allen who helped define Afrobeat when he spent a decade and a half with Fela Kuti. London born Ginger Baker loved both jazz and blues yet ascended to the top of the music world as the power drummer of rock supergroup Cream. Later in the book, a page is reserved for another guy from the UK, Ringo Starr. Keep flipping the pages and you learn about men and women from Mexico, Japan, Honduras, South Africa, Peru and others points on the planet.

From celebrated professionals to aspiring amateurs, the question is often ‘why play?’ Some of the musicians say to ‘get something out emotionally’ or state that, once you start, ‘don’t stop playing.’ Other artists talk about the ‘possibilities of elusive fame or fortune’ that ‘the drummer is always the nice guy in the band’ and alert ‘would be drummers’ to get ready for countless ‘broken sticks and cracked cymbals.’ Ultimately, many of them talk about being part of an unofficial fraternity and, probably by chance, the last word in the book is ‘success.’

Many of the drummers give a shout out to those who came before them and influenced them. The names vary but if you do an informal count, many of them recall a night in the mid-1960s when they were hypnotized by Ringo Starr appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. A lot of the drummers tip their hi-hat to Buddy Rich. But Rochester should be proud since drummer after drummer also saluted another superstar, Steve Gadd, as being one of the top people they truly admire and strive to emulate.