I first met Larrie Londin when he came to Virginia Beach for a Guitar Masters Concert in September, 1991, and I spent as much time as I could with him, from picking him up at the Norfolk International Airport, trap case in tow and helping him assemble his drum kit, to taking him to some local nightspots after the show. I was hoping that some of his experiences would rub off on me and I urged him to relate stories about his amazing career that spanned four decades and scores of hit records with some of the world's biggest stars.
The day he called me from Nashville to invite me to Philadelphia. I made excuses; my job, my dog, the six hour drive, my own band's commitments, my perpetual lack of funds, but I arrived in Philly Wednesday afternoon, October 17, 1991, despite my excuses. In my heart I'm a journalist and a musician and this was a chance to spend two more days with one of Elvis Presley's drummers. I could not resist. You see Larrie had become my friend. We hung out together at the hotel, backstage and on the streets of Philadelphia. I dogged him unmercifully and he answered every question I could think to ask, holding nothing back. I had an idea to help him co-write a book about his extraordinary life and call it, IN THE COURT OF THE KING, referring to the 9 years he spent recording and often touring with Elvis, replacing Ronnie Tutt. But the recordings and tours with Elvis were only a small part of Larrie's legacy. If not the best known, Larrie is one of the most listened to drummers in the world. He played on more hit records during his career than any other drummer with the possible exception of the legendary session drummer Hal Blaine, and his work covers the complete musical spectrum.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Ralph Gallant (Larrie Londin is his stage name) grew up in Florida, returning to Norfolk in the 50's and cutting his musical teeth on local groups like Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps. His Mom was one of the first roller-skating waitresses at DOUMAR'S, a prototype of what would become a national craze of drive-in hamburger restaurants. Larrie's early environment was saturated in Rock'n'roll music and it rubbed off on him.
He said his drumming career started in Norfolk by accident, and as I listened to his wealth of stories it seemed that he credited accidents with situation after situation which had thrust him from a Norfolk nightclub into the studios of Motown at the height of the "Motor City Sound," and on to a career in Nashville, where Chet Atkins was defining "The Nashville Sound." He went from being one of Nashville's only drummers to being Country Music's top studio drummer. Larrie played with the cream of the crop on literally thousands of sessions.
His accomplishments ranged from touring with Adrian Belew to The Everly Brothers, from TV shows with Tennessee Ernie Ford to The 1992 Command Performance for the President, from records with Stevie Wonder to Steve Perry and JOURNEY. All accidents? Diana Ross; The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves; The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Lionel Ritchie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Boots Randolph, Charlie Pride, Randy Travis, Porter Wagnor, Dolly Parton, B.B. King, Albert Lee, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, England Dan; John Ford Coley, Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Jerry Reed, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Reba McEntire, KT Oslin, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Hank Williams, Jr., Chet Atkins; Elvis Presley . All accidents? It wasn't a string of accidents. It was hard work, taste and talent. Larrie was the first to admit that he wasn't the best drummer in the world, we both agreed that Buddy Rich had been the best, but Chet Atkins was right, Larrie was the greatest.
By the time we left Philadelphia, I knew I wanted to tell Larrie's story, but I also knew he was one of the busiest musicians in the world with studio commitments, concert tours, drumming clinics, product endorsements and his own video production company.
Our relationship continued to grow over the phone and through correspondence, but sadly, the Philly trip was the last time I ever saw my friend. On April 24, 1992 he collapsed following a clinic at North Texas State University and he spent four months in a vegetative state. There was nothing the doctors could do to bring him back from the coma. He lingered for months in a Nashville hospice and I hoped and prayed that he would somehow beat the odds and recover even though the best medical minds said he had suffered irreversible brain damage. I had forgotten about writing a book, I just wanted my friend back. He was down to earth and one of the nicest guys I ever knew and I missed him. As summer began turning to fall, I got the news from George Lunn, Chet Atkins' road manager, that Larrie had passed away. On August 24, 1992 the world had lost its greatest drummer.
Larrie's resume reads like Who's Who in music. It's impossible to listen to any radio very long before you hear his solid backbeat. He was a real musician's musician and I hope that someday he'll get the widespread recognition he deserves. The following interview is a compilation of our conversations.
by James Byron Fox