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Groovers and Shakers - Ron Tutt

Ronnie Tutt was born on March 12th, 1938 in Dallas Texas. His mother started him with tap-dancing lessons at three years old after he started singing along to the family’s radio and record player, and he kept up these lessons for eight years. During this time he became interested in the playing side of music as well and moved on to the ukulele, tenor guitar, violin and eventually trumpet. However it seems he was more interested in the rhythmic side of the tuned instruments he was learning which led him inevitably to the dark side - once he reached 17 he took up the drums! This resulted in him attending college at North Texas State University in Denton where he majored in jazz drumming with a minor in psychology. He left the course after two years or so because he had far too much work in the studios in Dallas and Memphis to enable him to study at the same time!

He grew up with popular and ‘original‘ country music before graduating to playing Western Swing in his first proper band with some ‘real’ musicians, including renowned steel guitarist Tommy Morel and equally renowned lead guitarist Leon Rhodes. From there he moved sideways to Dixieland jazz and even played some classical music. He was playing in that Dixieland band in 1956 at a lounge in Fort Worth when he first saw Elvis Presley perform (without a drummer) and the story goes that the girl he was with was more impressed with ‘The King’ than Ronnie was.

Ronnie seems to have gone on from that point to having his own studio in Dallas where he carried on working until in 1969. Whilst planning a career-making move to the West Coast, he was recommend by a keyboard-playing friend to audition for the TCB band and the normally frugal Colonel Tom Parker actually sent him a ticket. Of course he was up against very good players including someone described as ‘one of the Motown house drummers’, but ultimately Elvis preferred Ronnie’s style and attitude and he was duly hired.  Strangely it seems he didn’t have to listen to anybody who’d played with Elvis before (not even DJ Fontana) and was given carte-blanche to do what he wanted so long as he interpreted every move his new boss made. As Ronnie tells it this was exactly like accompanying a stripper!  Larry Londin was with Elvis around this time but evidently didn’t have the rapport with him that Ronnie did (and interestingly it was during a drum clinic for Pearl at Ronnie Tutt’s alma mater that Larry Londin suffered the heart attack from which he subsequently died).

Ronnie played drums from 1969 to 1977 in the ‘TCB’ band but he wasn’t Elvis’ only drummer - there were probably more than you’d think. DJ Fontana was the first in the fifties, followed by Bill Lynn in the sixties, then Bob Lanning who substituted for the second Las Vegas concerts when Ronnie took a year’s gig replacing Jim Gordon with The Mike Post Orchestra. Ronnie apparently took this residency because Colonel Parker didn’t tell him the Elvis gig was happening! The aforementioned Larry Londin and Buddy Harmon fit in there somewhere too as do Stump Monroe and (arguably) Dee Brown who played with the ‘Sweet Inspirations’ who were not only Elvis’ opening act, they were also his backing singers. 

But most people are aware of Ron’s presence immediately behind ‘The King’ because he was certainly more flamboyant than the others. He also appeared in the ‘live’ movies Elvis made once he had recovered his appetite for concert gigs, like his first one at The Las Vegas International Hotel in July 1969 followed by Aloha from Hawaii in ‘73. Ronnie certainly had more exposure than those other drummers and Elvis fed-off what Ronnie was playing and vice versa (evidently many of the Elvis songs of the era like ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Burning Love’ may well have had more drum fills than he really wanted to play but it was what the boss wanted so that was what he got!). The guys backing Elvis at the time were called ‘The TCB band’ which was shorthand for ‘Taking Care of Business’.

He didn’t just play on stage with Elvis, he played in the studios too – his first Presley hit was actually ‘Suspicious Minds’.   It transpires that Elvis didn’t like being in the studios and was ready to leave just as soon as he was happy with his vocal. This would happen even if Scotty Moore’s guitar solo (or any other musician’s) wasn’t quite right yet! So this dislike of being cooped-up made him want to make ‘live’ records where he could feed-off the audience and of course bounce-off what Ronnie Tutt was playing.

But Ronnie Tutt isn’t just famous for accompanying Elvis, the list of other people he played with makes very interesting reading as do some of the great songs he played on...

...we’ll start with Neil Diamond, who he’s played with for more than a quarter of a century, but also The Carpenters, Flying Burrito Brothers, Jerry Garcia’s Legion of Mary, Los Lobos, Glen Campbell, Stevie Nicks, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Lalo Schifrin, Little Richard, Billy Joel, David Cassidy, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris, Michael McDonald, Linda Ronstadt, Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, Quincy Jones, The Beach Boys, Maria Maldaur, Burt Bacarach, George Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bonnie Raitt, and even Ringo Starr. 

As far as non-Presley songs he’s played his part in making famous, amongst a great many others there’s:  “Rock the Boat”, “Gypsys Tramps and Thieves”, “Stoney End”, “Piano Man” and even “Mister Bojangles” with Sammy Davis junior.

I haven’t come across too many photographs where he wasn’t playing a double bass drum set although, as a dyed-in-the-wool studio guy he certainly must have been asked to use a single bass in many recording situations. That said he’s had some very evocative–looking sets in his time. As far as I can see he’s playing a DW set these days but he’s certainly been seen behind Premier, Pearl and Tama but without a doubt his most evocative set is the blue-glitter Ludwig with the three mounted and two floor toms he played with Presley. There is a photo of him playing with a single bass in the studio and with large single bass drum at a German Elvis convention but I’m guessing those were rentals.

Ronnie freely admits that he was playing in a ”slightly out of control style” with Elvis Presley and interestingly talks of the songs he didn’t enjoy playing with Elvis and they seem to be the ones where in his own words, he “throws all the switches” when Elvis is beginning to really get into it and wind him up such as: ”Polk Salad Annie”, “Suspicious Minds” and “Fever”!

Ronnie Tutt is still going strong at 77 and not only does he still play with Neil Diamond, he also still plays with the ‘Virtual Elvis’ touring show with other original members of the TCB band. 

Rock and Roll!

Bob Henrit

September 2015

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