The drum machine was one of a wave of early mass-produced electronic instruments and studio devices in the ‘60s that expanded, by quantum leaps, the technological and creative bounds of music and recording.
Historically speaking, however, early drum machines like Ace Tone Rhythm Ace and the Maestro’s Rhythm King, with their somewhat awkward analog drum sounds and preset rhythms, would long remain marginal to keyboard synthesizer counterparts like the Moog. A Moog could wow early ’70s audiences with bleeps, gurgles and swooping sequences of tonal pulses. Early Japanese-made drum machines, intended from the start as an organ accompaniment or rehearsal aid, mostly just sat there, dutifully pattering away in metronomic samba time and eventually finding their niche as a built-in component in Lowrey and Hammond church organs.
The Maestro Rhythm King (Picture credit, Backbeat Books, from their book Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop.)
It wouldn’t really be until after Roland’s introduction of its crunching TR-808 drum machines in the early ‘80s that the drum machine would finally find its true calling – electronic dance music – and become less of a bastard stepchild.
Nonetheless, from Bee Gee Robin Gibb (1970’s Robin’s Reign) and Sly Stone protégés Little Sister (1970’s “Stanga”) to Dick Hyman and soul-pop guitar innovator Shuggie Otis (1974’s “XL-30”), the drum machine did catch the attention of the occasional pop musician or two. For some, its gadgetry was enough to add a futuristic sheen. For others, like Sly Stone, who used it on the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the drum machine was a probably a nice option after you’d fired another drummer. Most of these musicians seemed to recognize that the drum machine was too incidental to ever supplant an actual drummer, but, luckily for us, there were still a few eccentrics left over that heard the ring of the cash register somewhere in those mechanized rhythms.
1. Timmy Thomas, Funky Me (Glades)
Best known for his 1972 hit “Why Can’t We Live Together,” singer and keyboardist Timmy Thomas grew up in Indiana playing piano in his minister father’s Methodist Church. Graduating from Tennessee’s Lane College with a BA in music, Thomas did some session keyboard work for the Memphis soul independent Goldwax Records, and, a few obscure soul numbers under his name for Goldwax later, he settled in Florida in the late ‘60s. There he worked as a college administrator and opened his own Miami Beach club, “Timmy’s Lounge.” There, too, Thomas recorded his impassioned peace-and-harmony anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” for the tiny local Konduko label in 1972.
Leased for distribution by Florida music impresario Henry Stone for his Glades label, the spare organ-and-rhythm arrangements of “Why Can’t We Live Together” (hear excerpthere) made for a somewhat unlikely million-seller in 1972. Just as unlikely, however, was its chugging instrumental flipside “Funky Me.” Unerring in its tempo, its juicy organ vamps and mechanical funkiness would have made a good b-side on some early ‘80s New York art-disco 12”.
In 1973 Timmy Thomas released the full-length album Why Can’t We Live Together, which sustained the spare aesthetic of “Funky Me” and “Why Can’t We Live Together.” Thomas currently works as a music teacher and director of One Art, an independent music and arts educational initiative in Florida, and has recorded sporadically in the decades since.
2. Simtec Simmons, Tea Pot (Maurci)
1967’s “Tea Pot,” for all its whimsy, was not some studio engineer’s after-hours lark. This selection was the handiwork of Simtec Simmons, the singer, guitarist and leader of aspiring Chicago R&B group the Tea Boxes. “Tea Pot,” according to legend, was recorded at the behest of Herb “Kool Gent” Kent, a Chicago radio disc jockey who was taken with the sound of the rhythm machine and who in turn encouraged Simmons and his combo to record using it.
“Tea Pot” features Simtec Simmons on guitar and two members of the Tea Boxes – his brother Ronald Simmons on bass and Bobby Pointer on the drum machine. Released on Maurice Jackson’s tiny Chicago soul label Maurci in 1967, “Tea Pot” was, improbably enough, a good-sized regional hit, its anomaly and quirky appeal sending robots all over the upper Midwest to their local record shops.
Around the time of “Tea Pot”’s release, Simtec and the Tea Boxes were performing as part of a nightclub act with another local Chicago R&B group, Wylie Dixon and the Wheels. The two bandleaders would join together as the hard-edged funky soul duo Simtec and Wylie in 1969, going on in the early ‘70s to score some sizeable hits like “Do It Like Mama” and “Gotta Get Over the Hump”. After a few more years of recording and performing in Chicago, Simmons quit the music business in the late ‘70s.
3. The Computer and the Little Fooler, Computing (Maurci)
Let me paint a picture for you. In 1967, a song like “A Day in the Life” (hear excerpt here) was transcendent, an orchestral capstone to the Beatles’ Summer of Love tour de force. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix was pushing psychedelia’s outer limits with space guitar epics like “Third Stone From the Sun” (excerpt here). That same year the Velvet Underground’s noisy, experimental aesthetic would culminate in a selection like “I Heard Her Call My Name” (excerpt here), and, on the R&B; charts, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (excerpt here) steered popular African-American rhythms into dark new directions.
And, somewhere on the south side of Chicago in 1967, our friends from the previous selection – Simtec Simmons and Maurci Records head honcho Maurice Jackson – rushed this selection out to a market awaiting a follow-up to “Tea Box.”
4. The Computer and the Little Fooler, Sw-w-wis-s-sh (Maurci)
I’m not sure who or what the Little Fooler was, but I’d wager that he was roughly the size and shape of a pocket calculator.
The weirdest post-War American music has always shown up first on the 45 rpm record, one of the most expedient of commercial music media. But the strange-witted minimalism of “Computing” and its backwards flipside “Sw-w-wis-s-sh” beggars all belief. “Computing” was neither funny nor weird enough to be a novelty record, nor did it offer anything that anyone could point to as a being conventionally instrumental. Sometimes I think this is the greatest record ever made.