Friday, December 23, 2005

In Memoriam: Curtis "Cowbell" Jones

Curtis "Cowbell" Jones

We have lost many beloved entertainers this year, but perhaps none more influential than Curtis "Cowbell" Jones, the underappreciated but oft-imitated drummer of the early 20th century.

The date and place of the first "trap" set is debatable, but pinpointing the first inclusion of the mounted cowbell is without question. Jones pioneered this modern staple of drumming on the 1934 recording of "Scataroo To You" on Hambone Wilson's Jamboree Jungle.

Jones' career spanned nearly a century, and was probably the first session drummer -- a career that became known for his raucously tinny bell ride sounds. He has been credited as the first American to include Caribbean rhythms in American popular music, previously considered undanceable.

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, once a student of Jones, found it difficult to quantify the elder drummer's impact.

"I remember struggling how to count off 'Pyromania,' then I put on 'Scataroo To You' and inspiration came like a rush," Allen said. "I doubt that song would ever have been a hit if I had not found such a brilliant muse."

Allen lost his arm in an automobile accident in the 1980s, but continues to utilize a cowbell sound by triggering an electronic pedal with his left foot.

"Curtis could play a fast cascara pattern against a rhumba clave on the cowbell with a stick in his mouth. He really was a cowbell master," Allen added.

Use of the cowbell has taken a hit in recent years, particularly after one Saturday Night Live episode panned the use of the bovine rattle in the Blue Oyster Cult song "Don't Fear the Reaper."

However, the cowbell has been integral in dozens of hit songs from diverse genres, including:

  • Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle"
  • Motley Crue's "Dr. Feelgood"
  • Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend"
  • Sir Mix A Lot's "Baby Got Back"
  • Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music"
  • The Bangles' "Hazy Shade of Winter"

    It all points back to cowbell innovator Jones, said former Twisted Sister drummer AJ Pero.

    "Nothing rocks like a cowbell," Pero said. "Ping rides are fine for sissy ballad bands like Journey, but in Twisted Sister, you needed a cowbell to cut through the guitars. I owe my career to Curtis Jones."

    The cowbell continues to influence a new generation of drummers, and Jones' use appears to be timeless.

    Alien Ant Farm drummer Mike Cosgrove credited an eclectic Jones track -- the odd meter "Mama Rhumba" on Dinky Brolo's Slow Boat to Cuba -- as the inspiration for the challenging beat to the band's song "Rubber Mallet."

    "I had just bought a cowbell, which I attached right between my hi-hat, snare drum, and first rack tom. Then I started messing with this (Jones) feel. It felt stiff at first, but as I played it in practice, it started to flow."

    Jones is survived by his wife, Tambora, and two children, daughter Maracas and son Curtis "Kazoo" Jones Jr.

    Donations will be accepted in lieu of services to: More Cowbell Foundation, 1234 Countdown St., New York, NY 12341.
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