(Authored by Steve Maxwell and published in Not So Modern Drummer shortly after Ellis passed away).
Ellis Tollin was a historic figure who played a significant part in the history of drumming in many ways. He was also funny, warm, quick witted, sharp as a tack, and very opinionated on topics near and dear to his heart. To some folks Ellis?s name is quite familiar, but many of you may not have had the opportunity to know of Ellis and the many contributions he made to the field we love so much.
In the past year I got to know Ellis pretty well, and though we never actually met in person, (which is my great loss), we talked at length many times. I came to know him through a mutual friend who knew that I have a keen interest in wood dynasonics, and I had occasionally mentioned to him that one day I?d like a gold sparkle wood dynasonic for my collection. He called me one day and said that a friend of his, Ellis Tollin, had a gold sparkle dynasonic and might want to replace it with a white marine pearl since his own white marine pearl dynasonic disappeared many years ago. He put me in touch with Ellis and we began to talk. From our very first conversation Ellis impressed me with his humor, candor and knowledge. He was a wealth of information and was very willing to talk and share his knowledge. In many ways he reminded me of my old friend Barrett Deems who, despite his 85 years, seemed ageless somehow. Always youthful. I got this same sense from Ellis when we talked.
Ellis was quick to share several experiences with me, and I?d like to share them with you here.
The Dynasonic Snare Drum
There are slightly different versions of the birth of the dynasonic snare drum and most of them are fairly accurate, with slight variations here and there. Ellis tells the story as follows:
Through his Music City store in Philadelphia, Ellis was a Rogers dealer. He was very close to Buddy Rich as well as many other prominent drummers of the time. He also knew Ben Strauss and Joe Thompson of Rogers. In the late 50s and early 60s Ben and Joe began the creation of a ?new? Rogers and were intent on making significant product changes. Joe Thompson?s revolutionary swivo-matic hardware was a prime example of state of the art innovation. However, Joe was an ?inventor?, not a drummer. Ben was a keen marketer, but he was not a drummer. In fact, Ben was a trumpet player. Ellis was a man who knew the ?ins and outs? of what makes a drum work, and he had excellent ideas for improving them. He also new what drummers wanted. Ellis had always contended that a snare bed was not necessary, and he also strongly supported the idea that snares should be brought up to just ?kiss? the snare head rather than pulling them taught in the traditional manner, which he felt choked the drum and reduced responsiveness. Ellis knew what drummers wanted and had the concepts for improving the sound and responsiveness, Joe had the ?know how? to make it work, and Ben had the marketing skill to make it saleable to the masses. The collaboration of these three minds resulted in a truly unique snare drum. And yes, the story about Ellis, Joe and Ben being stranded for several days at Ellis?s home during a snowstorm is true. It is also true that they emerged from this event with prototype designs for the drum.
Buddy Rich, Ellis and Rogers:
Joe and Ben were not content to have only new products. They wanted top name endorsers for Rogers. Ellis was the man who knew the top drummers of that period and he was the one who brought Buddy Rich into the Rogers fold. Ellis told me that he met with Buddy and mentioned to him that he thought that Buddy should play Rogers drums.
Buddy?s response was: ?Ellis, if you think I should play them, I will?.
With the creation of the dynasonic snare drum, swivo-matic hardware, top quality shells, a top name endorser, and (eventually) the stylish and sturdy beavertail lug design, Rogers was poised to become an industry leader. And a leader they were for many years to come.
Ellis was one of the first, and perhaps THE first drum storeowner to sponsor clinics. Ellis told me that he had extra space at the store and that at one point he decided to try to bring in top name drummers and have them put on clinics for aspiring drummers. He said that the concept worked so well that he was continually devoting more space to it. He sent me photos of one of the early clinics with my old friend, a very young Barrett Deems, as the clinician.
Because Ellis had such a close relationship with so many top name drummers as well as with Joe and Ben, he was always involved closely with the Rogers company. An example of this is the special orders that would come through his store. Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson both wanted their wood dynasonic snare drums without tone controls, and without the holes that would have been drilled for the tone control. They felt that the tone controls interfered with the overall sound of the drum. Some time ago I was lucky enough to come across such a drum and I spoke to Ellis about it. He told me that special order drums for endorsers always came through his store. Being a vintage drum fanatic myself, I had made a note to myself to talk with Ellis further on this issue. I was anxious to know what other types of special orders came through his store, but we never got to have that conversation.
Contributions Beyond the Music World:
I also happen to know that Ellis cared very much for people close to him and he went out of his way to provide guidance and direction to help them. A friend of mine told me that Ellis was like a father figure to him and always provided him with advice and insight that helped him tremendously in his chosen career.
Ellis was an excellent player. I never had the benefit of hearing him when he was young, but I did hear him recently. Last year Ellis told me that he was slated to play a concert with a big band in November. He and I spoke several times before the concert and he expressed some concern over his ability to play because he only had 20% use of his right foot and his overall health had not been good. Anyhow, he promised me a copy of the tape of the concert. He called me a couple of weeks after the concert and told me that it went ?OK?, but he felt he could have played better. He sent me the tape and I fully expected to see someone playing at a significantly reduced level of ability based on his comments. I couldn?t have been more wrong. Ellis played beautifully with great taste and technique, excellent time, lots of fire and lots of swing. You?d never have guessed that he was ailing in any way, and in a blindfold test you?d be hard pressed not to think that this was a much younger man playing the kit. The big band he played with was full of younger professional players and he kept them fired up. The tape is a fitting tribute to Ellis and I hope that his family considers making it available. If so, you absolutely should purchase it.
And about that snare drum? Ellis told me that even though he missed his white marine pearl dynasonic he really loved the sound of his gold sparkle. He really liked the white marine pearl dynasonic that I sent him, but it just didn?t sound as good as the gold sparkle. Every once in a while he?d tell me that he was still working on the white marine pearl dynasonic and it was getting closer to the sound of the gold sparkle. I think he truly enjoyed the challenge of working with the drum to see if he could get ?the sound?. He also confirmed what so many of us have always said: Each dynasonic snare drum has it?s own unique voice. To emphasize this point he confirmed a story that Ben Strauss had told: Buddy Rich once had a white marine pearl dynasonic that he liked better than any other. Buddy called Ben Strauss to tell him this and Ben immediately wanted to come out and look at the drum to try to see what made this particular drum different from the others so they could incorporate it into future production. Before Ben got out to Buddy the drum had been stolen from the stage. It ended up in a pawnshop and when it was found it was in such bad shape that it wasn?t even worth retrieving. Buddy had always said that particular wood dynasonic was the perfect drum. The others were all excellent as well, but this one was perfection. Ellis seemed to share the same viewpoint. To him, his gold sparkle dynasonic had the perfect sound.
Whenever someone like Ellis passes on it always reminds me of how important it is for us to appreciate people such as him. All too often we get so caught up in our daily lives that we forget to take some time and try to get to know people like Ellis and hear what they have to say, and then pass that information on so that it will live for many generations. I felt the same way when Barrett Deems passed on as well. I didn?t know Ellis as well as I knew Barrett, but I know that people like Ellis and Barrett loved to share the wealth of information they accumulated over the years. All you had to do was ask. They willingly spent the time and truly enjoyed the interaction. My advice to you is that if you know of people like Ellis, take some time to get to know them. It will enrich your life and will give them great pleasure as well.
I?ll miss Ellis, but as my friend Harry Cangany said; he?s now back together with Buddy, Joe Thompson, and Ben Strauss.
Author?s footnote: A couple of years after Ellis passed away, his widow Jeanette called me and mentioned that she still had Ellis?s WMP Rogers drumset, which is the set he used with the wood dynasonic I had given him. She said the set was just sitting and she wondered if I would like to have it for the museum since I now had the snare drum. I bought the kit from her and have it on display in the museum section of my shop. As an added ?plus?, Dick Cully (longtime friend of Ellis and also a fabulous player in the style of Buddy Rich) mentioned to me that this kit was the set Ellis used in his music store for drum clinics and that Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and Gene Krupa all played on this set.