Words by Tom Hoare
Jerry Keyawa is the man with the stories. Having worked in Hollywood’s Professional Drum Shop for the last 48 years, he’s seen it all.
He grins constantly and laughs loudly, and has a small stain on his t-shirt where he spilt his lunch. He’s worked in the shop since he was nine, along with his two brothers Stan and Tom. “Some things have changed over the years,” Stan grins, “but Jerry still eats like a child.” Following a bit of friendly pushing and shoving Stan concedes, “We love him really.”
During the 1960s, with the LA recording industry in overdrive, Pro Drum was a regular haunt for some of the world’s most prolific musicians: Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones. It was one of the first dedicated drum shops, and rode a wave of success not simply because of its proximity to Capitol Records and the Musician’s Union, but because of the people who ran it.
At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking the store hasn’t changed much since 1959 when it was founded by Stan and Jerry’s stepfather, Bob Yeager. The huge, hand-drawn sign above the door is still the same. The windows, slightly dusty, are still covered with posters of jazz era icons.
Inside, the carpet is worn. The shelves are scratched and the walls are plastered with black and white photos. But it’s busy with people, simply because there’s nowhere else like it.
The Drummer’s Journal: Is this a photo from your wedding?
Jerry Keyawa: Yup. September 8th, 1979. Look, that’s the Louie Bellson Big Band right there. It was the hottest day of the year. But what a day!
(Gesturing at another wedding photo) Forgive me, but is that guy smoking a huge joint?
Oh yeah! It was ok to drink and party and do drugs then. I mean look, lots of people are smoking weed. There was one guy who had all the cocaine but we didn’t let him in. A good decision in hindsight.
You had a good head of hair then, well, you still do – but it’s particularly impressive there.
Yeah – I’d actually cut that for the wedding (laughs). But the 70s, man I loved the 70s. I was such a jerk.
So you were working in the shop then?
Yeah. I started in 1967 when I was nine. Stan was 11. It was our stepdad, Bob Yeager, who owned the shop. They needed an extra pair of hands, so Stan and I would clean drums, cut up cardboard and that sort of thing.
Were you a good kid?
I was real cocky, so if you say something to me, I’ll say something right back: “Hey, fuck you man!”
You started working in the shop in 1967. Have you ever had another job?
I strayed one time for six weeks. My buddy was a set decorator for the Motion Picture Association, and he was working on a movie called The Natural. He asked if I wanted to help out. I got paid 1000 dollars a week. I was only making 200 dollars a week in the shop.
And that didn’t work out?
No (laughs), well, we did the movie, then I just came back to the store. But I earned more money doing that than I still make today.
(Gesturing at desk) Nice to see the old Rolodex is still going strong…
Oh yeah, man. There are some crazy names in there too. Did you know we’ve had President Obama in the shop?
Really? That’s pretty impressive. (Jerry shows me a photograph of Obama in the shop) Wait – that doesn’t quite look like…
Yeah, it’s just a lookalike. I mean, he’s a professional Obama impersonator.
(Jerry reveals another photo) Wait. Is that Kim Jong-un too?
Well, obviously it’s just a Kim Jong-un impersonator. They had a drum-off.
An Obama lookalike and a Kim Jong-un impersonator came in here to have a drum off?
Correct. They’re both pretty good drummers actually.
I had heard that you’ve got some good stories about the shop…
Yeah, I’m the story guy all right. You want to hear some?
Yes. Yes I do. Tell me your best one.
(Deep in thought) Ok. Back in the day, we were cash only, but it was the 70s and people had just started using credit cards. So we talked to our Dad about how we needed to start taking credit cards because people didn’t carry cash like they used to. He didn’t like the idea but eventually we talked him into it.
Two weeks later, what happens? We take a bad credit card. When Dad found out, he absolutely lost it. He was shouting at me like, “From now on, I don’t care who it is, you call Visa and you make sure their credit card is good!”
So, the very next customer that walks in is, (dramatic pause) Neil Diamond. You know who Neil Diamond is?
Yeah, the singer?
Right. Well he’s in to buy his kid a drum set. So he picks everything out and comes over to pay. All I’m thinking is, “Please, please do not give me a credit card.” So, I ring up the grand total - 1800 dollars - and he hands over his card. Fuck. I have to phone Visa in front of Neil Diamond.
So I’m on the phone to the guy at Visa. I give him the card details. Then the Visa employee says, “Wow, this is Neil Diamond’s credit card!” And I’m like, “Yeah, is it good?” And the Visa guy is like, “Well, is that actually Neil Diamond?” When I tell him it is, the Visa guy just starts laughing at me down the phone and I’m pretty sure Neil Diamond can hear it. Diamond had to have been one of the richest musicians around back then. I mean, he probably still is, he’s one of the best selling artists of all time. So that was pretty embarrassing.
That’s a good one.
But it’s not over yet (laughs). So, later that same day at 5pm, I get a call from Jim Keltner. He’s like, “I’m running a bit late, can you stay open an extra five minutes?” And we’re like, “Sure, no problem.” It gets to five past five and in he walks, (dramatic pause) with George Harrison! And I’m like, “Holy fuck.” At this time, George had practically been in seclusion, no one had heard a peep from him.
But here he was, in the shop.
So George wants to buy Ringo a Christmas present. I remember we had a 100th anniversary Gretsch drum set and my dad tried so hard to sell him that. It was the most expensive thing we had (laughs).
He didn’t actually buy it, unfortunately. But he bought some other stuff. So then Harrison goes to pay, and what does he hand my dad? A credit card. Did my dad call it in? Did he hell. So we gave him a lot of stick for that (laughs).
I heard a rumour that you had a fight with Marlon Brando?
Yeah, I was getting mixed up with all these actors. Well, it wasn’t an actual physical fight, more of a heated argument…