A native New Yorker, legendary drummer and educator Sam "Mr. Rhythm" Ulano was born on August 12th, 1920 on E 45th Street. He had 8 siblings, including a twin brother. Sam's love of the drums began at age 13 when his Bronx buddy, Harry Koppleman, got a dazzling set of mother-of-pearl Slingerland Radio King Gene Krupa drums. Something just clicked with those drums... It was love at first beat for Sam.
Sam Ulano began playing drums at age thirteen.
Sam opened his first drum studio when he was seventeen, and had been teaching and writing about drums ever since.
Over the course of 76 years, Sam Ulano wrote over 4000 drum instruction books, and taught nearly 10,000 students.
Sam Ulano appeared on several television programs, including Tonight Starring Steve Allen, and recorded with Moondog. He was also for one night in 1981 a member of the English post-punk band Public Image Ltd.
A native New Yorker, Sam Ulano was born on August 12th, 1920 on E 45th Street. He had 8 siblings, including a twin brother. His love of the drums began at age 13 when his Bronx buddy, Harry Koppleman, got a dazzling set of mother-of-pearl Slingerland Radio King Gene Krupa drums. Something just clicked with those drums... It was love at first beat for Sam.
“Before studying music, I never did my homework, I didn't study, I wasn’t interested in anything,” says Sam. “ I had a pretty good voice, though, and I liked to sing. All the rest of the family studied. I never read a book. My mind wandered and instead I drew cowboys and horses and dogs. When the teacher asked to see my notebook, it was filled with drawings.”
“When I was 14 I went to work in the Flatiron Building at a company that made gold eyeglass frames - Goldberg, Goldberg & Epstein. On the first day the guy across from me was working on a drop press. The thing dropped right on the guy's hand and his hand was cut off - right in front of me! I put my coat on and said to Mr. Epstein, ‘I can't work here - I'm going to be a drummer,’ and went home. My mother said ‘Why are you home so early?’ I told her ‘I'm going to be a drummer and I can't afford to risk that.’”
At James Monroe High School in the Bronx he studied with Alfred Freize and Fred Albright. Sam won a gold medal for music - the only drummer to ever get the gold music medal. His after-school drum instructor, the legendary Harlem percussionist Aubrey Brooks, told him “Music is the study of sound through math. Get better in math and you will be a better musician.” Because Sam had found something that he loved to do, by studying music his other school work improved.
Sam started teaching others right from the beginning - while he was still a teenager. He opened his first studio in the Bronx when he was 17 (the kids coming over to the house to beat on drums were getting to be too much for the neighbors) and has been teaching and writing about the drums ever since. “I taught what I had learned and then kept learning and kept sharing.”
World War II
In November of 1942 at the age of 22 Sam Ulano was drafted into the Army, where he served for 4 years. He was assigned to the 391st Infantry Band at Camp Breckinridge Kentucky, and was ecstatic at his good fortune to be playing music in the military.
“In the four years that followed, I gained some of my most important experience as a musician. As a band player in all kinds of musical situations, I played shows for the troops with Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, Jerry Colonna, and most of the other headliners that worked with the USO. The USO was an organization that sent all kinds of entertainers to perform for the soldiers just behind the lines on the battlefields. It was an important part of keeping the morale of the troops high.”
They also made Sam a sergeant and put him in charge of a 100-piece marching drum corps. He traveled all across the US and to Japan and Hawaii. “I learned a lot - and fast. Those four years were like going to music college - in fact, better than music college.”
Post War Years
After the war, Sam Ulano spent four years at the Manhattan School of Music - from 1947-1951. “In school I studied timpani for symphony work, that’s what the curriculum was. I didn’t have a clue how to consider a program. I did what was told of me.” He got married and opened his studio in the Bronx, where 20 of the students he had before the war came back to study with him.
He’s played the Borsch Belt summer resorts in the Catskills, the concert field, the wedding scene, vaudeville, on Broadway, in studio sessions and shows with big bands and small groups. He’s played classical, jazz, swing, Dixieland, Latin and many ethnic styles of music. He’s done it all.
NYC Club Scene
Being in NYC, Sam was able to go out and listen to the best in his field - Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones and many others - and become friends with them. He was also carving out a niche for himself as a respected drummer on the New York scene. For decades, Sam played at many of the top nightspots in New York, including the Gaslight Club - the premiere job in town. Sam played the Gaslight 6 nights a week for 15 years.
He also played at the famed Metropole Cafe in Times Square and The Garage in the West Village (“More Live Jazz Than Anywhere In The World - 7 nights a week”). He played with Bill Snyder, Tony Parenti, Dick Wellstood, Sol Yaged, Bob Cantwell and Max Kaminsky. From 1964 - 1965 Sam played the World's Fair every night for 2 years. He had his own bands that played at the Gaslight Club, Red Blazer Too as well as many other configurations of musicians that played with him over the years. He's been called the workingest drummer in New York City.
“One day I was teaching a 20-year-old student and he asked how to do a drum solo. I said ‘Tell yourself a fairy tale or rhyme.’ I made up a jazz version of Goldilocks and The Three Bears and that’s how I started doing jazz nursery rhymes for kids. I recorded an album - “Sam The Drummer Tells Famous Fairytales For Your Children” with my drummer friend Moondog and sent it to radio stations. It got a lot of airplay; it sold in Sam Goody's, and other big stores. It’s still selling."
“I used to do the school music shows for the New York City public school system. I called myself ‘Mr. Rhythm.’ It was all instruction - like - ‘What's rhythm? I'll give you a dollar if you know. Anybody in the audience know how to play?’ Some kids would run up and I'd let them have a minute, like they were on TV. I did over 500 of those shows for the school kids.”
Writing and Publishing
Sam Ulano wrote his first drum instruction book at the age of 15. He got the idea from watching Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman play at the Paramount Theatre. He went home and wrote Bass Bops on sheets of plain paper. No one had ever written down bebop before. It was published in 1948 after he got out of the army through a friend’s father and sold for $1. It’s still a classic today, having been continuously in print since then and studied by drummers all over the world.
Writing 'Bass Bops' was his epiphany: he realized that he needed to keep being a student, as popular music moved from Big Band to Bebop. Writing drum instruction books has become a life-long job for Sam.
Well-known for his methods of drum teaching and his progressive approach to writing about the instrument he loves, Sam has over 4000 instruction books, CDs, newspaper articles, magazine articles and pamphlets to his name. Even at 90 years of age, he still writes every day, and works on several books simultaneously.
Sam appeared on television on Cerebral Palsy Telethons, as well as on shows with Gary Moore, Shari Lewis, Morty Gunty, Ernie Kovacs, and Joe Franklin, drumming and telling his nursery rhyme songs. Sam was Steve Allen’s guest on “The Tonight Show” the important night the NYC show was first broadcast nationally - September 27th, 1954. He even was the mystery guest on I’ve Got A Secret - a 1950s game show where celebrity panelists tried to guess a contestant's "secret": something that was unusual, amazing, embarrassing, or humorous about that person. (Sam's secret was that he told jazzy fairy tales while playing on the drums.)
Sam has long produced records, audio- and video-tapes and CDs of his instruction, music and performances. He produced and starred in a 30-minute Manhattan public-access cable TV show on drumming that ran for several years in the 1970s. He also produced, wrote, and directed a series of drum instructional videos.
Drum Master Award
Sam founded the Drum Master Award, given to the drummer who has contributed the most to the advancement of drumming and percussion, and was also awarded a Drum Master Award in 1997 for his many years of teaching.
Guiness Book of World Records
Sam Ulano was listed in the 1958 Guinness Book of World Records for the Longest Drum Solo - 67 hours, 44 minutes and 52 seconds.
“It was a promo stunt for a Broadway show called "Safari" about a troop of American actors entertaining Africans. I was an act in the show and I was dressed in a leopard skin like Tarzan.
“I was with my drum in the store window of Henry Adler’s Drum Shop in the heart of Times Square. I was playing for 3 days non-stop. The stunt attracted a lot of attention. There were mobs of people in the street disturbing the traffic - even at 4AM! Prostitutes were lifting their dresses up - and they were stark naked underneath! It was crazy!
“Other drummers came by and joined me to drum with their pads. They helped me to keep going. For me to use the bathroom, they set up a row of drums from the store window to the bathroom, so I could keep going - they even put a drum in the bathroom!
Up until the end of 2013, Sam was in good physical shape, was as sharp as ever, and showed no signs of letting up. He was still writing drum books, teaching students and playing drums. And, of course, he spent hours each day practicing his craft.
Sam Ulano, who counted among his former students Tony "Thunder" Smith, Allan Schwartzberg, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Dion Parsons, and Art Taylor, died on January 2, 2014. He was 93 years old.
Factoid: Sam Ulano's son, Mark Ulano, is a Hollywood sound engineer and won an Academy Award in 1998 for Titanic.