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A Sensitive and Musical Drum StylistCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Nick Fatool made his reputation as the tasteful but driving drummer behind a succession of big name bands at the height of the swing era and well beyond, but may have secured his firmest grip on immortality in the recordings he made with the Benny Goodman Sextet in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
These were the seminal records in which guitarist Charlie Christian redefined the role of his instrument in jazz, although the guitarist only made the band when Goodman was persuaded to give him a second chance, having failed to match up to the irascible clarinetists demands in an initial audition with Fatool which was heavily weighted against the guitarist.
Nick Fatool was born in Milbury, and began playing drums while still in high school in Providence, Rhode Island. He made his professional debut with the dance band led by pianist Joe Haymes before being recruited by Goodman in 1937 as a replacement for Lionel Hampton, who was launching a successful career of his own, albeit as a vibes player rather than a drummer. Fatool played in both Goodmans big band and the sextet, and is heard on famous recordings like Flying Home, Rose Room and Seven Come Eleven.
He appeared with the Sextet in the famous Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in December, 1938. The concert was recorded by John Hammond, still a rare event in those days, and in an era where recording drums was still a primitive art, the engineer contrived to record Fatool in especially prominent fashion, allowing posterity a better than usual appreciation of his driving swing patterns and crisp, punchy hi-hat accents.
Goodman was a notoriously difficult employer, and Fatool had several run-ins with the leader before leaving the band in acrimonious circumstances after a disagreement in 1940. He was quickly snapped up by another famous clarinettist of the day, Artie Shaw, who was forming a new band at the time.
Fatool is heard on the original recording of Shaws Concerto for Clarinet, and also worked with distinguished band leaders like Claude Thornhill and Alvino Rey in New York, before making the move to the west coast in 1943. He settled in Los Angeles and became a studio musician, but still took the opportunity to work with bands led by the likes of Harry James and Les Brown whenever he could.
His extensive work in the film studios included playing on the soundtracks for the jazz-based films Young Man With A Horn in 1949, Pete Kellys Blues in 1955, and The Five Pennies, a film biography of trumpeter Red Nichols, in 1959, and an appearance on screen with Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard and Artie Shaw in Second Chorus.
He appeared on television with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in 1951, and later became the regular drummer on Crosbys television show, from 1957-9. He was also active in the recording studios throughout his career, playing with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, among others. He worked over a long period with pianist Jess Stacy, another musician who had suffered from Goodmans belligerence.
Over the years he shifted his focus away from the swing big band style toward the Dixieland revival, and he played with many of the luminaries in that field, including clarinetists Barney Bigard and Pete Fountain, and the Worlds Greatest Jazz Band and the Dukes of Dixieland. He was a more subtle stylist than is common in the genre, and his musicality ensured that he was held in high regard by his peers.
He worked with Pete Fountain in New Orleans from 1967-69, and spent four years in Las Vegas with singer Phil Harris from 1969. He was a golf professional for a time in the early 1970s, but continued to play in and around Los Angeles. He made occasional tours further afield, including jaunts to the Far East (in 1964) and Europe (1981) with band leader Bob Crosby, the brother of Bing Crosby, and to Europe with the Worlds Greatest Jazz Band in the 1980s.
He is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, David; a brother, Ernest; and a grandson.