Sunday 12 August 2018

Swingin' Sammy and His Bopping Boombase

The way it was told on the Jack Benny show, the members of Phil Harris’ band were petty thieves and cons. They weren’t, of course, but one of them sounded like he could have been.

Drummer Sammy Weiss was born on New York’s Lower East Side, and he had a flat voice like a mugg who was doing the strong-arming for the “boss” before a heist.

Sammy was referred to on the show for a number of years, but finally got to go in front of the microphone in the last season, 1954-55. For years, Phil Harris fronted the band on the show, then Bob Crosby took over in 1952. But in reality arranger Mahlon Merrick did the bulk of the work; Harris and Crosby had become characters. Benny didn’t really need Crosby. So in the final season, Crosby simply didn’t appear very much and the “musician” gag spot on the show was taken up by Merrick, pianist Charlie Bagby or Sammy the drummer. Sammy didn’t sound like a professional actor, which made him even funnier. It sounded like he’s right off the Benny bandstand, which he was.

His family was poor. After success had come to him, he met Eddie Cantor at a Radio Hall of Fame event and thanked him for something 25 years earlier. Cantor had taken him out of the tenements and gave him a free two-week vacation at the Surprise Camp for Boys in the mountains. Cantor said he could repay it with a donation to help other poor boys. Sammy readily coughed up $25.

I don’t know when Sammy joined the Harris aggregation but he had worked with some of the top bandleaders—Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman among them. He was a member of the Johnny Guarnieri Trio in the ‘40s. He cut Jewish novelty records with Mickey Katz. He made the front page of the April 15, 1939 edition of Billboard when he was drumming with Merle Pitt’s studio band at WNEW. The story had nothing to do with music. It talked about Sammy becoming the father of twins. His wife phoned him with the news an hour after the birth. Sammy asked where she was. “I’m in Whelan’s drug store having a Coca-Cola!!!” she responded. It must have been an easy birth. (In May 1951, the birth of a daughter to Sammy became part of the script of the Benny show).

Here are a couple of stories about Sammy. The first is from the Hollywood column of the Universal Radio and TV Features Syndicate dated February 2, 1953.
Weiss Is Unusual Ad Libber-He Does It on the Drums

HOLLYWOOD — One of the quickest men in Hollywood with an ad lib is Sammy Weiss. But Sammy is an ad libber with a difference— he does it on drums! Sammy plays with orchestras too—with Bob Crosby and the Jack Benny program, and with Irving Miller on the Bob Hawk show—and he's one of the best in the business. But it’s the unrehearsed stuff he does that captures and fractures the audiences, and has led to Benny considering him more a member of the cast than of the orchestra. For example, when Benny walks across the stage, Sammy may play footsteps in time to Benny’s pace. Or, as the comedian approaches the microphone, Sammy may give a drum roll like they do in circuses when the guy is about to dive 80 feet into a pail of water. Or he may express his critical opinion of a flat joke by drumming out a noise that sounds like a Bronx cheer.
He has a hundred or more such sounds that he can throw into a show, and the regular soundmen are considering picketing any day now on the grounds that he’s taking over their racket.
But the point is, the star of the show never knows when to expect Sammy to cut in, and frequently is caught with his lines down. When you can do that to Benny or Hawk, you're good!
It’s real disconcerting, some times.
However, the audiences love it, and what audiences love must be put up with.
Sammy, the drummer, as he’s called from coast-to-coast, wasn't always that way, but almost. He started drumming when he was 12, with sticks made from rungs of an old chair, just as Spike Jones did.
Physically, Sammy is as impressive as he is musically. He’s a giant of a man, 6-feet, 4-inches tall, with huge shoulders, hands and arms.
Everybody in Hollywood knows him, and even trying to walk, from one studio to another with him is often painfully slow, for everyone he passes, stops to talk. Right now he's busily writing a book about himself, tentatively titled, “What Makes Sammy Drum.” I say the title is tentative, because he’s also considering naming it “I’ll Take the Drumstick.”
And this is from the King Features’ TV Key column of July 19, 1962.
TV Keynotes
Drummer Has Fun With Boom

HOLLYWOOD--Ever hear of a boombase? It’s not a dance, a disease or a kid’s candy, but an ancient musical instrument that is currently delighting movieland celebrities at parties when played by happy Sammy Weiss, Jack Benny’s drummer for 17 years.
The instrument, which looks like it was made in a dirty cellar, consists of a broomstick on a spring saddled with a tambourine, a cowbell, and one wooden block tapped by two cymbals. A drumstick is needed to whack out the heat on the various knobs and that’s it. Weiss estimates average boombase technique can be picked up in five minutes, so there’s hope for everybody.
The boombase had been in oblivion until Sammy saw one in a music store window. He took the noble instrument home, made a copy of it and returned the original. Now Sammy’s main occupation in Hollywood, when not playing in the Benny band, is leading small combos at private parties. He works about a hundred a year entertaining stars and society folk. Sammy shows up with his boombase, and wanders from table to table, beating out “Never on Sunday” to delighted fans.
Hit With Listeners
The Shah of Iran heard him recently and immediately wanted one. Tammy Grimes thought the boombase noises so lovely she wants Sammy to do boom base background music for her next album. Red Skelton fell for the instrument and intends to use it on his hour show next fall. Actor Cliff Robertson thinks the boombase fad will soon replace the Twist.
The first sounds of the boombase—bonk, clink, clank, boom, boom are not irresistible, but when played by Sammy, something happens. He can even play it on the street and not send dogs off howling. In his day, Sammy has drummed for Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few, cutting records with most of them, so he can get music out of a tree trunk and he makes the boombase really swing.
“You know what?” says Sammy. “I'm swinging better now than I did 25 years ago.”
But the main thing is Sammy’s personality. A big man, with a red, shining face usually wearing a grin, Sammy just makes people feel better as he bounces around whacking his boombase. After watching Sammy perform on “Truth or Consequences,” a midwestern company which happens to make boombases to practically no market at all, signed Sammy up to sell the thing. From now on it’s going to be known as “Sammy’s Boombase.”
Sammy has just been playing the gadget for fun, but, judging from the way it’s going, this boombase fad may get out of hand and turn into a big deal.
“I’m just happy playing drums in our little bands,” says Sammy. “I’ve been through the best band years, I’ve brought up three kids and I've stayed straight. Now look what’s happening. I feel I’ve got it made. I have a few good years left and I’m going to ride the boombase out.”
Last year Lawrence Welk’s band played for the Hollywood TV Emmy party. Because of the boombase craze Sammy got the nod this year. Bookings are increasing. He already has three parties booked one summer night soon.
“This presents a problem,” says Sammy. “People might think I’m getting bigger and thus too expensive, and maybe they’ll get some other hand instead. I don’t want that to happen.”
As a drummer Sammy wangles a few commercials, but there’s not a massive call for the sound. Since he fiddles with sticks, it’s assumed he can shake anything correctly, and on one commercial Sammy was called in to rattle money.
“I get a whole bag of quarters, halves and dimes and then I shake this dough,” he says. “I tell you, things are lookin’ up. “Drummers are coming back and so are big bands. You know why? The Twist. People who have never danced are out there wiggling. It’s good exercise. “Take the Shah of Iran and his Queen. She does a beautiful twist I tell you the Twist has changed everything. Maybe the boombase will be next, hey!”
Sammy led his own band and appeared at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, the setting for a number of Benny radio shows over the years. A sadder connection with Benny is this—the two of them died of pancreatic cancer. In Sammy’s case, it was on December 17, 1977. He was 67.


  1. Thanks for this information. Have never gotten to the final radio season, outside of the very last episode "Trouble with the Sound Effects Man", so was unaware Sammy got a larger role on the show. I did however buy a clipped ad from a 1940s musician magazine on eBay a few years back which has Sammy endorsing a sort of drum head; Jack and Phil are standing behind him in the ad. When I get to my storage unit, I'll dig it out and scan it.

    1. Check the International Jack Benny Fan Club Facebook Page for the E-Bay ad