I didn’t actually know Ed Shaugnessy although we always nodded to one another backstage at Johnny Carson’s ‘The Tonight show’ when I was in Burbank plugging one record or another. I certainly did the Carson Show with The Kinks, and with Don McLean, but I’m afraid my memory fails me after 50 years as to whether I did it with Argent. (That said, with a hit record any group would be crazy not to grab some national exposure, to squeeze some more sales out, so we probably did!)
Ed was famous for being on prime-time networked US television 5 nights a week for 29 years, and simply because of this was, IMHO, America’s highest profiled drummer. But he was a great deal more than that.
Edwin Thomas Shaughnessy was born on January 29, 1929. He was an honest-to-goodness jazz and swing drummer long associated with trumpet player Doc Severinsen, who was (eventually) the MD and a member of The Tonight Show band, who backed Johnny Carson (who incidentally was also a rather good drummer).
Shaughnessy was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and grew up around New York City where after a couple of years of piano lessons, he would eventually abandon that instrument for pots and pans until his father gave in and bought him a couple of real drums.
He began by taking lessons; first from his Scoutmaster followed by some from a teacher called Bill West who knew every drummer in New York, including Louie Bellson. Louie inspired Ed, as did many of the players around him. Louie though was someone Ed really admired for his whole life, and because of him he’d practise drums eight hours a day!
His career took off and he was working in the 1940s with the likes of George Shearing, Jack Teagarden, and Charlie Ventura. In the 1950s he was holding down ‘dream’ jobs with both the Benny Goodman Band and the Tommy Dorsey Band. In the 1960s to complete the trilogy, he moved on to the Count Basie Orchestra. He was touring Europe and somehow playing a 5 nights a week show in New York with Steve Allen for CBS. At just 22 years old, Ed was the youngest musician ever to be employed by the network. But as good and secure as that gig was, jazz was his thing and he wanted to play it – so he did!
It was in 1963 that he joined The Tonight Show Band. Before this though he was the drummer with Jimmy Smith on an album called ‘Bashin’, the unpredictable Jimmy Smith’. This was the record with great big band arrangements by Oliver Nelson, which still sound fresh and includes what became an unlikely ‘pop’ hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. It was written by Elmer Bernstein and remains one of my many Hammond Organ favourites – albeit this time with a 16-piece jazz orchestra,
Ed Shaughnessy recorded prodigiously throughout his career and was known for his drum battles with Buddy Rich. But, he didn’t just play with big bands. he also performed with smaller groups with Charles Mingus, Gene Ammons, Roy Eldridge, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Mundell Lowe, Thelonius Monk, Teo Macero, Shirley Scott, Jack Sheldon, Horace Silver, and many others. Evidently for several years Shaughnessy was a member of the house band at Birdland and other New York clubs. To prove just how rounded he was, Shaughnessy even managed to play in an early version of the “Sesame Street” orchestra To add something more to the mix, in 1969 he actually played with Jimi Hendrix on the Johnny Carson show. Ed referred to it as one of the highlights of his career.
For a long time he was known as an endorser of Ludwig drums, but there are pictures of him with ‘Johnny Carson show’ painted on the front head of a Rogers bass drum. There are also photographs of him in the early days with Slingerland and there was a period when he played Pearl, still with two different sized bass drums. I took these to have diameters of 24” and 20”, but I’m told they actually measured 22” and 18”. He was turned on to this by his pal Louie in 1946 who gave him a foot pedal. He could only find a smaller bass than his regular one to go with it but, he liked the effect and used it all his life, when the music needed it. Like most drummers in America he started out with Zildjian cymbals, but eventually became a Sabian endorser. The internet informs me he used Pro-Mark drumsticks.
Something interesting you may not know is that Ed’s wife Ilene was the original voice of Walt Disney’s Cinderella!
To say the man was versatile would be a huge understatement. Few players were capable of playing with Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Peggy Lee, Oscar Peterson, Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Leonard Bernstein, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, James Brown, John McLaughlin, George Balanchine and The New York City Ballet, although not all at the same time…
Besides all these, casting my mind back to the Carson show, I’d say Ed will have happily played with a great many specialty acts on the Tonight show. No doubt Ed’s job was to play for dog acts, trick cyclists, contortionists, magicians, tightrope walkers, jugglers, ventriloquists, Roy Rogers on Trigger, drag queens and even Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers. There’s no doubt he made a good fist of it.
Dizzy Gillespie once famously said “[As you get older] You finally learn what to leave out” and Ed is on record in an article on the PAS site wholeheartedly agreeing Dizzy.
Ed Shaughnessy died of a heart attack in Calabasas, California on May 24, 2013 at the age of 84. RIP