With his tousled hair, grimaced face, and wild drumming style, Gene Krupa was easily one of the most colorful personalities of the big band era. Despite his outrageous stage persona, Krupa was a serious and disciplined musician whose vision changed the role of drummer forever and who helped standardize the jazz drum kit. Krupa believed that drums could be a serious solo instrument, and he was never afraid to prove his point, much to the annoyance of some critics and listeners who felt that he showcased his drums too much.
Krupa began playing drums at an early age and became part of the group of young musicians who created the Chicago school of jazz in the late 1920s. He made his first recording in 1927 and worked with a variety of bands through the early 1930s, including Red Nichols, Irving Aaronson, Buddy Rogers, and Mal Hallett. In 1934, he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra, where he played a major role in its success. His wild appearance and drum playing made him a star in his own right, and as his popularity grew so did tension between Krupa and Goodman. In 1938, not long after the famous Carnegie Hall Concert, the two had a falling out, and Krupa left to form his own outfit.
With help from Tommy Dorsey, Krupa put together an exciting group that made its debut in April on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. The band’s initial female vocalist was Jerry Kruger, who soon left. Irene Daye replaced her. Krupa asked Daye to audition after hearing her in Philadelphia with Mal Hallett’s orchestra. When Hallett had finished for the night, Daye made a 4 a.m. audition with Krupa and landed the job. She proved a popular vocalist, singing on two of the early band’s most memorable numbers, “Drum Boogie” and “Drummin’ Man.” Trombonist and ultra-wild scat singer Leo Watson sang with the band during its first year, leaving at the beginning of 1939. Krupa had no male balladeer until spring 1940 when he hired Howard Du Laney, who had previously worked for Frank Daily and Larry Funk.
Though the band proved a big hit in concert, in the studio, first for Brunswick and then for Columbia and its subsidiary Okeh, it proved rather dull. It wasn’t until the arrival of trumpeter/singer Roy Eldridge and groundbreaking jazz vocalist Anita O’Day in 1941 that the group finally came into its own. O’Day, a newcomer to band work, joined Krupa in February 1941 after Daye quit to marry trumpeter Corky Cornelius, who had recently left Krupa to join the Casa Loma Orchestra. The African-American Eldridge joined the band in spring 1941, initially as a featured performer then later as part of the regular brass section. It was a bold move at the time, though Eldridge was not the first black musician to play with an otherwise all-white band. O’Day and Eldridge often performed numbers together. Both were talented entertainers who provided the much needed spark that sent the orchestra to the top of the charts, producing the band’s first major hit, “Let Me Off Uptown.”
Du Laney remained with the band until summer 1941, when he received his draft notice. He was given a deferment until Krupa could find a replacement, which turned out to be former Bob-o-Link Johnny Desmond. O’Day, in her autobiography, described Desmond as completely square. He didn’t drink or smoke weed, and he was loyal to his wife, which put him at odds with the rest of the men in the band. When Desmond received his draft notice in mid-1942, guitarist Teddy Walters briefly took the mike before Krupa brought in Ray Eberle, who had just been fired by Glenn Miller.
O’Day left at the end of December 1942, indicating that she needed to rest. Penny Piper from Anson Week’s band filled in until she returned three weeks later. O’Day didn’t stay long however. Reports suggested that she and Eldridge were not getting along. In her autobiography, O’Day denied that there was any bad blood between them, though she does admit that Eldridge had stopped speaking to her during her last few months with the band, and he didn’t speak to her for years after. Gloria Van took O’Day’s place. Eberle also bounced back and forth in January 1943, departing for Jan Garber but falling out with him at the first rehearsal and returning to Krupa, only to quit a few days later for a planned movie career. Gene Howard replaced him.
Arrest on Marijuana Charges
Events took an disastrous turn in April when Krupa was arrested in San Francisco on charges related to marijuana possession. Federal officials charged Krupa with both a misdemeanor for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a felony for using the minor, his band-boy, to transport marijuana from his hotel to the theater. The government at the time had begun cracking down on drug use in the music industry, charging a number of high profile musicians with various crimes, with Krupa becoming their most important prize.
As Krupa later told it, his previous band-boy had been drafted and had given him a bag of marijuana as a going-away present. Krupa had stuffed the bag in his coat pocket. A Treasury Department official had found out about the gift and showed up with a search warrant at the theater where the band was working. When they found nothing and left, Krupa knew they’d be headed to his hotel room, so he called his new band-boy and told him to take his laundry out to be cleaned, but to first take the “cigarettes” out of his coat pocket and flush them down the toilet. The new band-boy decided to keep them instead, and officials found them on him.
The band continued playing while Krupa awaited trail. In May, he plead guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge and was given a $500 fine and three months in the county jail. Trial was set for June on the felony charge. Bandmembers were given ten days’ pay and all signed a pledge to keep together for eight weeks to await the verdict. When Krupa was found guilty on the felony charge and given a one-to-six-year sentence, the band broke up. Krupa was released on bail and appealed.
Returning to New York while awaiting his appeal, Krupa re-joined Goodman that fall, who was then working USO shows on the East Coast. He remained with the band when it went into the Hotel New Yorker but decided to leave after it traveled to Boston, saying he felt it best for all concerned. Goodman eventually talked him into staying, but when the band went on a national tour in early 1944 he opted to remain behind, fearing the public would react badly toward him. He then joined Tommy Dorsey unannounced for an engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater. As soon as the audience recognized him, he received a tumultuous welcome. That warm reception lifted his spirit, and when his sentence was overturned on appeal he left Dorsey and formed a new orchestra of his own in June 1944.
Later Band and Career
Completely different from his first group, Krupa’s new 31-piece outfit featured a string section. Krupa took the role of conductor and only rarely played drums. Evelyne Ambrose and Jimmie Dale were vocalists, with Lillian Lane both singing solo and leading a vocal quartet called The G-Noters, which also initially consisted of Ted Hanson, Bob Lang, and Dave Lambert. After making some disappointing recordings, Krupa realized his mistake and switched back to playing the type of jazz for which he was known.
Dale was gone by November, with Buddy Stewart taking over male vocals. Ambrose departed in July, replaced by Peggy Mann, who left the band in October when it traveled to the West Coast. Ginnie Powell took Mann’s place. Powell was unhappy that Lane was also featured as a vocalist and left in January 1945, feeling there were too many singers in the band. The G-Noters were gone as a group by February, but Lane remained as female vocalist until mid-1945, when Anita O’Day returned to replace her, giving the band an added spark once again. Stewart also emerged as a popular vocalist, capable of handling both ballads and jazz.
O’Day announced her departure at the beginning of 1946, planning to leave after the band closed its stint at the Palladium in Los Angeles on February 3. She unexpectedly walked out, however, in late January thirty minutes before the band was scheduled to do a coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Krupa had to scramble to find a vocalist to fill-in, borrowing Carolyn Grey, who was singing with the club’s house band at the time. Grey sang with the orchestra for a few days before Liz Tilton arrived as O’Day’s replacement. Tilton, however, stayed only briefly, and Krupa like Grey so much he hired her permanently. She married the band’s manager, Joe Dale, in July 1946 and left the band in April 1947 after becoming pregnant. Stewart left the band in November 1946, tired of the road and wanting to be with his family in New York. No replacement was named at the time.
As the swing era ended, Krupa began to experiment with bop. Though he was never comfortable with this new style of jazz, he believed in keeping up with the times and giving young musicians a chance to play the type of music they loved. Eldridge returned to the band in 1948. Delores Hawkins replaced Grey, remaining through at least May 1949. Tom Berry was male vocalist in February 1947. Buddy Hughes was male vocalist by mid-1947, with Billy Black replacing him in October 1948, staying into 1949. Bobby Soots was vocalist in 1950.
In 1951, Krupa disbanded his orchestra and focused on performing with small groups and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. For a while, he operated a drum school with fellow drummer William “Cozy” Cole and occasionally reunited with the Goodman Quartet. Back problems forced him to cut down on playing in the late 1950s, and a heart attack in 1960 sent him into brief retirement. He retired a second time in 1967, only to become active again in 1970. Though diagnosed with leukemia and almost too ill to play, he continued to make occasional appearances with the quartet. He spent most of his time, though, either in the hospital or in his Yonkers, New York, home, despite the fact that it had been almost completely destroyed in a fire. He made his last public appearance in August 1973. Gene Krupa died two months later of complications from leukemia.
Helen Ward also sat in with the band during its first recording session. ↩︎
Howard Du Laney’s last name was also often spelled Dulaney, which was his real name. Recording labels credited him as Du Laney, however, and that spelling is also used in other sources, so the assumption is that he used the fancier version for his professional name. Dulaney was stationed in Mississippi during his time in the service. He didn’t return to singing after the war, instead settling with his wife in his hometown of Anniston, Alabama. ↩︎
After leaving Krupa, Ambrose returned home to Georgia where she tragically drowned in August as the result of a boating accident. ↩︎
In May 1947, vocalist Billy Usher was noted as an ex-Krupa singer, though it’s unknown what dates he sang with the band. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.