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The Drum Kits that Set the Beat for Swing Bands: Slingerland Radio Kings

by Wayne Jordan (11/29/12).

Radio King drums are obsessively collected by vintage drum enthusiasts. This Slingerlang White Marine Pearl Radio King drum set from 1941 sold for $1,200 in 2011.

One fact is clear regarding 7,000 years of drum history: whenever drums start beating, people start to move. Archaeologists have found alligator skin drums dating back to 5500 B.C. that they assume were used to create some sort of drumming-induced Shamanic trance (who’s going to argue with them?). In pre-radio military cultures, drums were used to send battlefield signals. In ethnic cultures, drums accompanied ceremonial and recreational dancing.

In ethnic cultures, drums and dancing were inseparable. In cultures that lacked sophisticated melodic instruments (e.g., African and South American) drum music became a complex mix of layered rhythms. In American culture, however, drums had a limited role before 1900. Drums were heard in orchestral and concert band music but rarely in popular dance music. Neither the formal dancing of high society nor the contra dances of the common folk required the use of a drummer. In contra dancing and square dancing the rhythm is provided by the foot-stomping and clogging of the dancers.

Dancing and musical styles reflect the mood of society. When our troops returned from the First World War, Americans were tired of horror and sacrifice, and they found release in the joyful sounds of Dixieland Jazz. The new sounds of jazz inspired dances that shocked the establishment: young people were dancing the Grizzly Bear, the Camel Walk, the Bunny Hop, the Chicken Scratch, the Kangaroo Dip and others. The risqué new music had an element that was lacking in 19th-century popular music: a strong rhythm section, led by a solid drummer.

Old-fashioned trap sets like this used in a Dixieland Jazz band didn’t have the carrying power to drive big-band music.

The rapid growth of broadcast radio shows brought jazz into homes all over America, and dancing became the favorite pastime of young Americans. In Chicago and New York, the musical freestyle of Dixieland morphed into the tight, sophisticated arrangements of Big Band Swing, and swing dancing became the rage. Radio shows such as “Let’s Dance” found an enthusiastic following. By 1935, the undisputed King of Swing was clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman, and the driving force behind the Goodman band was drummer Gene Krupa.

Krupa’s flamboyant drumming style made him a national celebrity, and he soon parted company with Goodman. Leading his own band, he appeared in movies with Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck and his recordings with Roy Eldridge and Anita O’Day were commercial successes. Along with his fame came endorsement opportunities, and in the early 1930s Krupa formed an association with the Slingerland Drum Company of Chicago.

Henry Slingerland’s entry into the music business was rather odd. In 1912, he won a correspondence music school in a card game while cruising Lake Michigan. Having some success with the correspondence school, he followed by opening a music school in Chicago, and soon turned to importing and manufacturing instruments, mainly ukuleles and banjos. When Chicago drum maker Ludwig & Ludwig began making banjos in 1927, Slingerland responded by manufacturing a line of drums.

A tacked-on bottom tom-tom head.

A floor tom with a tunable head.

When Swing became popular, it was found that the old-fashioned trap sets of Dixieland Jazz didn’t have the carrying power to drive big-band music. Something new was needed, so Krupa and Slingerland collaborated to produce what we now recognize as the modern drum set. With Krupa’s input, Slingerland replaced the tacked-on bottom tom-tom heads with tunable heads. A new snare drum was developed made from a single ply of steam-bent and reinforced maple instead of multiple mahogany plies. The new drums were dubbed “Radio Kings,” and the resonance and tone of Radio King drums made them popular with drummers everywhere.

Radio Kings remained Slingerland’s flagship drum set from 1935 until 1957, and they were endorsed by other jazz drumming greats such as Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson. The set Krupa used while playing with the Goodman orchestra is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: For another look at Krupa in action—on a Radio King drum kit and a matchbox—check out this clip from the 1941 Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck movie “Ball of Fire.”

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Radio King drums are obsessively collected by vintage drum enthusiasts, and Radio King snare drums remain popular with working drummers. Professional drummer and recording artist Brooks Tegler says of Radio Kings:

“For me, as I have found since getting my first Radio King in 1979, what sets these drums apart from others is that they were built well and with care. They have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable, solid and versatile. With the hundreds of combinations one can create as far as heads, snares, tone controls, etc., Slingerland drums have always shown a level of craftsmanship that has remained consistent. I have owned (through the years of collecting) over 100 snares alone and, as I recall, there was only one ‘bad’ one (and that was because someone had dropped it off a loading dock!). These drums are a part of my life and have been for a long time. Better than other drums of their day? Ludwig, Leedy (and) others were making equally great drums but what has always captivated me was, of course, Radio King lore, legend and the connection with my greatest hero, Gene Krupa.”

When evaluating Radio Kings for collecting, here are a few points for novice collectors to watch out for. Remember: when in doubt, ask a professional.

The metal tag on the drum shell is called a “badge” and styling has varied over the years.

• The metal tag on the drum shell is called a “badge.” Badge styling varied over the years; there’s a good overview of badge styles at the Vintage Drum Guide. Bent or damaged badges may indicate that they have been swapped. There are a lot of badges for sale on eBay; make sure you’re not buying knockoff drums being sold as Radio Kings;
• Early Radio Kings did not have serial numbers. In fact, Slingerland drums in general didn’t have serial numbers until 1962. If the drum you are looking at has a serial number, it’s not a collectible Radio King, no matter what the seller says. There may or may not be a date of manufacture stamped on the inside of a drum;
• Most drummers will customize their set to get the sound they want. Consequently, drum sets have been “mix and match” for as long as there have been drum sets. Also, drum heads, snares, strainer mechanisms and hardware may wear out or break and need to be replaced. “All original” Radio Kings are as rare as alligator-skin-drumming Shamans;

in 1943, Slingerland produced drums with wooden lugs known as Rolling Bombers to conserve metal for the war effort. (Photo courtesy of coopersvintagedrums.com)

• During WWII, American factories cut back on the amount of metal they used. Beginning in 1943, Slingerland produced drums with wooden lugs known as Rolling Bombers. Most of these sets were sold to the military, and there aren’t many in circulation. Production of these stopped after the war;
• You will find student model Radio King snare drums that were made using three-ply shells rather than one-ply. These are not worth as much as drums with a single-ply shell. Remove the top drum head to inspect the shell; don’t pay a premium price unless you’ve done this or can otherwise verify the shell construction;
• Early Slingerlands had the Slingerland logo hand-engraved into every top hoop (hoops hold the drum head in place). By the late 1930s, hoops were machine-stamped. Radio Kings will have machine-stamped hoops. Hoops were available with either nickel or chrome plating (Krupa models were always chrome-plated). Drums that have engraved or stamped hoops are worth more than those that don’t have them, provided the drums are authentic;
• Ideally, you want to collect Radio Kings whose shells have not been modified: don’t collect any that have been drilled, refinished or re-wrapped.

Drums that have engraved or stamped hoops are worth more than those that don’t have them, provided the drums are authentic. (Photo courtesy of coopersvintagedrums.com)

How much should you pay for vintage Radio Kings? Like other collectibles, the answer depends on three variables: age, condition, and authenticity. Unfortunately, too many online sellers see the name “Slingerland Radio King” and automatically place a high price on the drums without considering these three variables. Worse, uninformed buyers sometimes pay ridiculously high prices for these drums. Here are a few pricing tips:

• Snare drums are “most” collectible and are disproportionately valuable compared to other drums in the set;
• A “basic” drum set consists of a bass drum, a floor tom, a mounted tom and a snare drum. Cymbals, stands and cases should be considered separately;
• A complete drum set is worth more than the sum of its parts. If you can find a set that is color-matched, authentic, all original and in good condition, you have made a good find. Partial sets can be problematic, especially if the snare drum is missing. Don’t pay a lot of money for partial sets (unless you own the missing snare drum);
• Generally, older drums (1935-1949) are more valuable than newer drums;
• Authenticity is paramount. Sellers often don’t know what they’re selling, so confirm everything and make sure you can return any drum that is not authentic. I recently saw a drum advertised as “Vintage Ludwig Radio King snare drum.” No such thing. The drum head said “Radio King,” but that doesn’t make it a Radio King drum;
• Check recent auction and sales prices in WorthPoint’s Worthopedia; you’ll get a better idea of price range than you will from eBay alone.

Drummer Brooks Tegler with Krupa’s bass drum at the Smithsonian Institute; the “GK” is for Gene Krupa; the “BG” is for Benny Goodman (Photo courtesy Brooks Tegler)

Here is the range of recent auction prices for Radio King drums (notwithstanding some really poor product descriptions):

• Radio King snare drums, 1940s vintage, fair to good condition: $600-$2,100;
• Radio King 9×13 tom-toms, 1940s vintage, fair to good condition: $100-$125;
• Radio King 16×16 tom-toms, 1940s vintage, fair to good condition: $325-$450;
• Radio King 9×13 bass drums, 1940s vintage, fair to good condition: $127-$525;
• Radio King 4-drum sets, 1940s vintage, good condition $2,200-$4,455;
• Radio King 4-drum sets, 1950s vintage, fair condition $1,850-$2,100;
• Radio King 4-drum sets, 1950s vintage, restorable condition (no snare) $800-$1,000.

Slingerland Radio Kings hold a prominent spot in the history of drums and drumming. Collectors who are serious about Slingerland drums will find interesting reading in Rob Cook’s “The Slingerland Book,” which offers a detailed company history.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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2 Responses to “The Drum Kits that Set the Beat for Swing Bands: Slingerland Radio Kings”

  1. Mary Paquette says:

    Interesting article about Slingerland drums. My dad Bob Willis had a band in Boston Mass., before going to war in the Forties. After the war, he married and had three children the last in 1960. The last child had a expensive birth $60.00 dollars, so he had to sell his beloved drums. $100.00 was all he received for those drums that he loved so much. he was a crane operator so he did’t use them any more, but I know he missed them, They reminded him of being young and carefree. My Grandmother, said “Girls use to swoon under his window” , Everyone loves a drummer, and so do I! Mary Willis Paquette

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