Born Cesario Gurciullo, Gary Chester was born into a poor Italian family on Oct. 27, 1924. His parents hailed from Saracusa, Italy, and Gary was the youngest of three siblings, which included two sisters and a brother. While growing up in Harlem, New York City, he would stand outside the local clubs and listen to the jazz bands play. He would constantly bang on cans and boxes in the back of his fathers barbershop, imitating the sounds of groups such as Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Chick Webb. He eventually left school in the 8th grade to play with a touring band.
His start as a studio musician was the result of good timing. He had just completed laying down tracks for a demo, and was leaving the studio when the A&R man in the next room stopped him. He told him that Panama Francis, the drummer on the song being recorded, had become sick and couldn't do the session. He asked Gary to step in for him, and the song turned out to be the hit "Every Little Breath You Take" by Gene Pitney. After that, the phone never stopped ringing, and he was doing three sessions a day, usually 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM, and 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM.
Gary quickly became the top East Coast session drummer, and together with his West Coast counterpart, Hal Blaine, they played on a majority of the hits of the late fifties and early and mid-'60s. Gary once estimated the number of sessions he played to be over 15,000. Just a few of the records to benefit from Gary's drum parts were classics by groups such as the Angels ("My Boyfriend's Back"), the Archies ("Sugar, Sugar"), Burt Bacharach ("Promises, Promises"), the Chiffons ("He's So Fine"), Petula Clark ("Downtown"), Jim Croce ("Time in a Bottle," "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"), Jackie DeShannon ("What the World Needs Now"), the Drifters ("Up on the Roof," "Under the Boardwalk"), the Isley Brothers ("Twist and Shout"), Ben E. King ("Spanish Harlem," "Stand By Me"), Curtis Lee ("Angel Eyes"), Little Eva ("Locomotion"), Neil Sedaka ("Calendar Girl," "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"), the Shirelles ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"), Dionne Warwick ("Walk On By," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "Say a Little Prayer"), and Van Morrison ("Brown Eyed Girl"). Artists ranging from The Monkees, The Lovin' Spoonful, and The Mamas & The Papas, to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, all called upon Gary at various times.
As part of his dedication to the art of playing drums, Gary would catalog the parts he used on particular recordings. Always extremely sensitive to the idea of playing for the song, rather than showing off personal technical prowess, he would pull out his files when he thought something that worked in the past was right for a particular piece of music. He often came up with innovations to enhance a song, such as breaking a pane of glass to get the right sound, or attaching a tambourine to the hi-hat, which is something still widely used by drummers today.
As his reputation grew, Gary became a respected teacher, with drummers searching out his expertise and demanding techniques. He often dropped students who weren't dedicated enough to satisfy him, but those that met his approval became trusted confidantes as well as students. Many of those who studied with Gary went on to highly successful careers themselves, including Kenny Aronoff, Danny Gottlieb, Dave Weckl, Tico Torres, and Max Weinberg. In order to reach more people, and spread the word of his innovative techniques, Gary authored the book that has become the benchmark against which drummers measure their technique. He called it "The New Breed," hoping it would inspire a "new breed" of drummer who could handle the demands of the modern studio setting. Published by Modern Drummer Magazine, it continues to be widely utilized by the worlds best drummers.
Gary passed away on August 17, 1987. In a fitting tribute, protege, Chrissy Adams completed the work he had started on "The New Breed II," which contained advanced techniques for developing total independence and creativity. Gary Chester's influence continues to live on, both as someone who set a high standard from which modern drummers learn, and as a personal influence on the lives of his students.
Click here to read and listen to some words from Gary.
A very special thank you to Benny Selzer from Luxx for writing this great bio!!