Ever wondered who was responsible for the plastic drumhead or banjohead? Ever wondered who was the man behind the ubiquitous 'Remo' brand? The answer is Remo Belli - one of the most experienced and successful men in the MI industry. This interview appeared in the April issue of Music Trade News.
 

INTERVIEW: REMO BELLI

For all its many trophies, the musical instrument industry doesn't have a host of internationally successful companies with fifty year histories of unbroken growth and success. Still less, it has precious few run by the man whose name the company bears and (we're down to the level of absolute uniqueness now) by a founder who still turns up for work every day and makes an indispensable contribution to the business's plans for ten years in the future. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Remo Belli - one of the industry's true greats.

All of the above would be remarkable enough, but it starts to reach the level of improbability when you realise that the Remo Inc wasn't even Remo Belli's first successful venture in music. Before he became the name emblazoned on the world's most popular drum heads, he had already had successful careers as a Jazz drummer and music store owner.

Like so many professional musicians before and since, Remo Belli found his way to California as a consequence of his work, but he wasn't born there. 'No, I'm a product of South Bend, Indian,' he says, 'And I became a professional drummer at the age of 16. I'd began playing at the age of 12 and at the time the popular music was by the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey era big bands and my heroes and inspiration were players like "Pappa" Joe Jones, Sid Catlett, Davey Tough - a number of people like that.'

Reaching Hollywood as a young man and already an established drummer might have been enough for most, but not Remo Belli, who, in 1952, decided what the city needed was a really superb drum store, which he duly founded, with Roy Hart. The store's name was Drum City - and if that rings bells, it was what inspired the British music entrepreneur, Ivor Arbiter, to take both the concept and the name back to London, for his own interpretation of the theme.

Though the store was a success, that didn't deter Belli from simultaneously pursuing his playing career, which now and then took him back to the Great Lakes region, to play theatres and nightclubs in Chicago. And while he was there, there was a small series of useful additional calls he could make, this time with his shopkeeper's hat on.

'While I was there, it was easy for me to stop in on all the drum companies - Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, all were represented in Chicago and it was while I was visiting the Slingerland company one time that I was introduced to this material from the DuPont company, called Mylar.'

Mylar was, of course, the wonder material that did a lot more than make Remo Belli's fortune. Persuasively, he argues that, without it, Rock and Roll drumming (and, you have to conclude, with it, Rock and Roll itself) could never have happened. Perhaps surprisingly, as it still seems a little bit science fiction, its worth noting that DuPont developed the polyester-based material during the Second World War, in which it as actually used a heat-resistant film in military aircraft!

'I think it was in 1954 when I first saw it,' he recalls. 'It has to be said that there were several people toying with the synthetic drum head at the time, but not too successfully In fact the original DuPont patent for Mylar polyester had actually suggested drum head use, but nobody had figured how to utilise it at that time. There had been trials, as to its effectiveness - its tonality and how it felt, and they had proved to be fairly good, though at the time DuPont was limited in so far as the thicknesses it could make.'

In short, though Mylar had potential, it was still a long way from being usable. Enter chemist Sam Muchnick, introduced to Remo Belli by Drum City's accountant, Sid Gerwin.

'It was actually Sam Muchnick that came up with the manufacturing method. Sam and I worked together virtually every day and night on this. I was determining the parameters - what it could be and should be - and, fortunately, we were able to do it using a method for which we were the first to receive a patent. And it is still the method we use today, incidentally. As I say, there was a whole basket of people trying at that time, and what we did was a combination of the exposure I'd had to the requirements of drummers and Sam's abilities as an authority on bonding and chemistry.'

Exciting to Messrs Belli and Muchnick though the resulting prototypes must have been, as everyone in this industry knows (and some only too well) musicians can be a conservative breed. So when something as revolutionary as a synthetic drum head had come along, hadn't there been enormous resistance to it? What had been the reaction when Belli had said, in effect, "Hey guys, stop beating calf skin and use a piece of plastic instead?'

'Well, fortunately for me, I was absolutely in the business, I was one of them, as it were, and I guess it all depended on where you were. If you were playing in New Orleans, or playing the steel pier in Atlantic City, with the ocean lapping beneath your feet, it was a pretty interesting prospect! And what people don't recognise so much is all the military and the marching bands, all the pipe bands, all over the world. For them, this was a revelation!'

What appealed was the relative immutability of the Mylar head. With animal skins you could never be quite sure what was going to happen to them next and if you were playing, as Belli says, in a damp environment one day and a dry one the next, that spelled trouble - as did, particularly, playing outdoors. And then there was Rock and Roll.

'The thing about the phenomenon of Rock and Roll was that it demanded more and more equipment be produced and that could never have occurred with animal skins - they were so unpredictable and the amount of people out there in the tanning industry who came anywhere near having the requisite knowledge of animal skins and drums was just too small. Only a small cadre of people knew how to do it - and then there was no standardisation, so to be able to travel from place to place and get what you needed, or have an instrument repaired, just wasn't possible.'

All the same, the step from running a drum store - even a big one like Drum City - to manufacturing drum heads was a giant one. How had he gone about it?

There is a long laugh, followed by a short pause, and then he says, 'You know... to this day I still don't know. It was very interesting. Myself, Sam Muchnick and Sid Gerwin, none of us had ever been in a factory, so we're standing there, looking at a piece of Mylar, wondering what the hell we were going to do.

'Anyway, there was a feller who lived across the street from me who was a good carpenter and who could do a lot of things with his hands, so I asked him if he would join my company, and with a saw and a hammer and some wood, he built some benches and, literally, that was how we did it - from the ground up, taking it a day at a time and letting logic take its course. We kept some of the disciplines of the chemistry, of course, but the rest of it changed dramatically and rapidly and we just hung-in and kept up with it.

'We started off in a little workspace at the back of my shop, Drum City, about 500 square feet and that lasted maybe four months. Then we went to a 1,000 square feet. That lasted three or four months. Then we went to 3,000 square feet and stayed there for maybe a year. Then we moved to the San Fernando valley to 6,000 square feet. We grew very, very rapidly.'

It sounds wonderful but, as any businessman who has been lucky enough to suffer it will tell you, growth that rapid can be difficult to manage. How had he and his small team coped?

'Well... fortunately we had people who were capable. Sam was capable of handling the chemistry side and Sid Gerwin - well, Sid took me off the streets. He was the one who mentored me in business, because I was still Remo Belli Jazz drummer at the time. But I found, with Drum City that I was capable and I enjoyed business, so I didn't have a big problem in weaning myself from being a Jazz musician to a business man, because after your through the initial phase as a musician, of going from amateur to professional, you realise that being professional is an entirely different ball game - it's running a business. I realised when I was running Drum City that I was on the side of the counter that I enjoyed being on. I had no problems jumping over,' he says with a smile.

Having that foot in both camps was doubly useful, though, as it also meant all the top Hollywood session drummers were at the same time friends, colleagues and customers at Belli's store and so he was able to show them his new drum heads. Even so, there were those who didn't want to switch.

'Oh, I respected very much guys like Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne, Jake Hannah - any number of people who were very, very passionate about what they did and their acoustical values that were very different from a Buddy Rich or a Louis Bellson, who played an entirely different style. They still maintained a certain amount of feel and sound that emanated from calf - and an animal skin head, well made under the right conditions is one hell of a good drum sound. Over the years, though, we developed various combinations of material that came closer to what they needed, until eventually we surpassed calf skin.'

For all that a minority of players may have had reservations, the word on the street was that something very important had happened and the Remo Weatherking head was it. Where most new products in the MI business take a while before they get distribution, with Remo, the take-off was instant.

'My sales curve was straight up in the air and that's because I was known to everybody. I had Drum City, I had played everywhere and I knew everybody that one had to know, so I could write "Dear Sam, Dear this, Dear that, I'm sending you something to try...". It wasn't like it was coming from an unknown. And the drum factories were more than receptive, considering that I was one of their largest retailers. But the results were obvious. In a lot of situations, the synthetic drum had improved a mediocre instrument and it didn't detract from the best of the best.'

Not only did the drum manufacturers fall in love with synthetic heads because they sounded great - they also made for an incomparably easier life than having to cope with unpredictable natural skin heads in a production environment.

All the same, exports in the 1950s had problems for many manufacturers (in the UK, for example, there were restrictions on US imports, due to the huge debts incurred during the Second World War) but Remo Belli soon found himself taken under a set of very comforting wings. 'The Zildjians were my greatest help. With Drum City, I had developed a wonderful relationship with the entire Zildjian family. We were very good customers of Bob, Armand and Avedis, and I got to know them all, so when I got into business with the drum heads, I went to them and asked what they could do to help me with exports and they were immediate and kind and gave me the names on their export list. They gave me credit references and as a matter of fact I flew to Frankfurt with Bob Zildjian for an early Frankfurt - I think there ended-up about nine of us in that hotel room!' he laughs. 'So yes, of the fifty years we've been in business, I've been exporting for 47 of them.'

Though Remo grew through the Rock and Roll era and got even bigger once a certain Liverpuddlian drummer had Ivor Arbiter's handyman paint a dropped T logo on a Remo bass drum head, which he then took into just about every home in the world, Belli's fellow countrymen in the drum world were not having it quite so good. Just as Detroit was hit hard by the likes of Honda, Nissan and Toyota, so their geographic near-neighbours were starting to experience a pasting at the hands of other Japanese tyros, like Tama, Yamaha and Pearl. How on earth had that come about? Remo Belli knew everyone in the US drum world and at the highest level, so is perhaps uniquely placed to comment.

'I remember very well when the demand for drums began to increase. To understand what happened, you have to understand the personalities at the Ludwig company at that time, and at Slingerland, and at Kent, (who made drums for Sears & Roebuck and others) and then, of course there was Gretsch. I remember meeting in Chicago with Bill Ludwig Jnr and Bud Slingerland and Sid Gerwin and me telling them "Here's the movement - here's what's going on. You are not supplying the drums that are currently needed. There are people now going to Japan and the Japanese companies are coming to us to buy and it's time you take a position on this and decide what you want to do. And they chose to ignore the situation on the basis that the Japanese "couldn't possibly" make drums. So, once you understood the personalities as they were, you could understand the situation that developed. When I first went to Japan and saw what they were doing, you realised what was going to happen. At one time there were 23 drum companies there, all trying to supply drums to the wholesale market in the United States and it was the wholesalers who started importing those - both drums and guitars - to meet the demand.'

Was he ever worried that what the Japanese drum manufacturers had done to US drum makers, they might just as easily start doing to him, too?

'Absolutely! I'm in a constant state of concern that has to do with what can be done, how, where and why.'

So how about the current shift of Western production to China. Does that concern him equally?

'Well, I make in China, we have a plant there, and we have one in Taiwan, where we've been for seven or eight years. There would be no possible way of supplying that kind of industry from California so we chose, wisely and successfully as it turned out, to be there to supply a great many units to that market.'

Given that he now manufactures there, can he foresee a time when Remo manufacturing in the USA has to cease?

'No. I don't see that time ever coming because we're so highly specialised in so many different directions and the world needs multiple locations in order to keep it supplied. As a matter of fact, we're now looking elsewhere, too, because the drum business is so huge and so diverse that we think this is what we have to do.'

Presumably with en eye to markets in Africa and South America?

'Something like that,' he laughs.

As far as China is concerned, Remo Belli's philosophy is typically far-sighted. 'If you're in China and you're there only because of price and only there to milk it for as long as you can and then get the hell out, that's one thing. But if you're there with the idea of supplying China itself, then you're talking about something that has never existed before - a market with one billion 300 million people. And then there's India, too...'

Speaking of far-flung markets, Remo's relationship with the UK goes back a long way and always in the hands of one distributor, Arbiter. The friendship between the late Ivor Arbiter and Remo Belli was strong, as was proved when the company underwent its much-publicised problems some years ago, during which it notably lost Fender, but did not lose Bob Zildjian's Sabian and Remo Belli's Remo. Had it been his personal relationship with Ivor that had made him decide to hang on in there, or had it been a hard-headed business decision?

'I think it was about fifty-fifty. I knew Ivor and felt very confident in what be was going to be able to do. There had been voices in the company suggesting we stopped selling, but I'd said "no - they'll get there" and they did.'

It would be wrong to give the impression - 50th anniversary or not - that Remo's great strength lies in its past. While heritage is important, Remo Belli himself is a notably forward-looking individual and never more so than his decision to plough resources into the link between lifestyle, drumming and health. It is an idea whose time has yet to really come in the UK, but in the USA it is a very big deal indeed, with drum circles growing in number and a serious commercial opportunity opening-up, not solely for drum manufacturers, but for instrument makers of all kinds. On the principle that what happens in the USA inevitably happens here a few years later, Remo Belli's thoughts on this, an area in which he is a world leader, are particularly important. Aside from anything else, they may contain the salvation of the MI industry.

'I'm married to a physician and we've been into integrated medicine for many years, so the relationship between care, maintenance and health is probably what I do secondarily. I go to as many medical meetings as I do musical meetings.

'16 or 17 years ago, Mickey Hart, one of the drummers for The Grateful Dead, called to tell me that he was appearing before the United States Senate committee that was discussing The Older Americans Act, which had to do with the funding that was going to go into anything that was going to benefit older Americans. He went with a group from the Music Therapy Association, so I got involved and we immediately began to understand the relationship between what we were capable of making and some of their uses to get their therapy work done. Being that I was involved anyway from a medical side, I got very interested - and then trials began to demonstrate how closely people were related to the use of music, the use of rhythm and the human condition. Once I began to see this and understand what the potential was, I knew that we, in the music industry were opening-up the possibility of the use of music in a way that had never been considered before.

'Form all perspectives, this makes the use of a musical instrument much, much more significant and much, much more important than its use as an entertainment device. I now am completely devoted to the use of music in a recreational sense. When I served in the board of directors of NAMM, I sat on the market development committee and that's where we came up with the whole idea of where we wanted to go with this, and I was involved in funding that too'

Indeed, Remo Belli has been personally involved in funding medical research into this area, too. So how big a market is this in the United States?

'We have 300 million people in the United States and the way we approach it, our potential customer is everyone that is alive. So I have 300 million lives that are out there a percentage of which are going to be interested in answering the question "How am I going to be able to maintain a satisfactory lifestyle? How can I stay well?" I now believe that 25 per cent of any given population is going to want to get involved in recreational music making, pretty much like any given percentage of the population wants to get involved in sport, because music making is going to be perceived as a life-enhancement activity.

'We have no interest in you becoming a musician in this context. We have no interest at all in you even learning how to play the musical instrument - that isn't what it is about. It's the use of an instrument of choice and it goes as far as you want to take it. We have now demonstrated, and we have the only recreational music centre in the world, that people are having beneficial results. 60 per cent of the people we see have never been in a music store and had never even thought of going into one, Yet they are coming to us and learning to do what they do at their own level - they don't have to play in order to play - and the drum is the most simplistic of instruments. So group activity is now gaining a good following and it's doing so because it's working.'

And, as we in the UK are starting to realise too, what applies at one end of human life is just as useful at the other.

'Here in the Los Angeles Unified School district, we have 740,000 students, 80 languages and a 40 per cent drop-out ratio, so we have done studies and over the past ten years the curriculum that we have written actually allows teaching to go on, because in a lot of school systems, teachers spend their time trying to control the students, rather than actually teaching. That's the magic of music - the magic of rhythm. We develop approaches in which people who normally won't listen to one another start to do so.'

Not everyone (even in the USA) is ready to be convinced by this, Belli admits. 'There are a certain amount in the retail business here that are still Rocking and Rolling and I can appreciate that. That's where they came from. They're in the entertainment business and they choose to stay there. But they are going to have to cope with the entertainment industry and its variability and how it changes from time to time. You can see for yourself what's going on with the consolidation among retailers - there's a lot of drama going on. Well, this approach to recreational music making opens up a huge possibility that's never been dreamed of before by those of us who manufacture musical instruments.'

As a seasoned observer of the industry (and a very early friend of the founders of Guitar Center) Remo Belli sees the music industry constantly changing. He sees the opportunities for stores willing to specialise and make themselves different from the chains, and warns: 'Time and circumstance. You have to adapt. If you don't have the need, the want or the skills to adapt, then it's time to step out and it doesn't matter what the industry is - it's always the same.'

And still Remo Belli drives his business ahead. There's a slight faux pas on MTN's part, when we repeat a misheard rumour that he is now semi-retired. He quickly points out that he is anything but and soon makes that obvious with perceptive comments about both Remo and the industry. All the same, he has had an astonishingly long and successful career. Is there a golden rule he has formulated?

'It's a lot of things but it's simple - I'm not capable of making it complicated' he laughs self-deprecatingly. 'I honestly believe that if you do something, don't screw around with it, don't misrepresent it, do the best you can and go for it. I don't have any secrets: I honestly don't - I don't know how to have!'

Then again, if it is quite as simple as Remo Belli suggests, you can't help wondering why this genial and very charming man is, when all is said and done, one of the very few to have achieved so much over so many years. It may be, as he says, simple. But it is also very special.

Ends.

2007 Gary Cooper