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Is it possible to have your world permanently rocked while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a living room watching a black-and-white TV? If your name is Rob Thorne and

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Is it possible to have your world permanently rocked while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a living room watching a black-and-white TV? If your name is Rob Thorne and

Is it possible to have your world permanently rocked while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a living room watching a black-and-white TV? If your name is Rob Thorne and the date is Sunday, February 9, 1964, the answer is an unequivocal yes. That’s the night that Thorne watched The Beatles’ seismic American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

At the time, Thorne was playing drums with The Catalinas, a well-known Carolina beach-music band. Tommy Plyler, the group’s trumpet player, had been invited to a neighbor’s house to watch the Sullivan show, and Thorne tagged along. Assembled around the TV set in a Victorian-style house on Davie Avenue in Statesville, they witnessed the Fab Four make music history.

Up until then, the emphasis in a rock ’n’ roll band was on the lead singer, not so much the accompanying musicians. “Take Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” Thorne says. “You knew who Buddy Holly was, but you didn’t know who The Crickets were. There was nothing personal about them. And then, here comes Ringo.”

A record-breaking 73 million Americans, many of them in North Carolina, were watching as Ringo Starr pounded his Ludwig drums along to “All My Loving” during The Beatles’ 1964 U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The number dwarfed the previous record of 54 million, set by Elvis Presley in 1956. photograph by POPPERFOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES, SHAUNL/E+/GETTY IMAGES

What Thorne saw when he watched The Beatles that night was a grinning, mop-topped drummer enthroned on an elevated rostrum for all the world to see — not hidden behind the rest of the band. Ringo Starr was driving the music, moving with the beat, swinging. “What I heard was the pounding, full sound of his instrument,” Thorne says. “Most drummers played with more finesse. The licks were restrained. But Ringo was in your face.”

On that same February evening back in ’64, Bill Ludwig II, owner of a successful musical instrument company, tuned in to the Sullivan show with his family in a Chicago suburb. His company had provided the drum kit that Ringo played that night, and the Ludwig name appeared prominently above “The Beatles” logo on the bass drum — for all the world to see. “I remember my dad watching them on TV and saying, ‘Who knows? Maybe these kids will be big someday,’” Ludwig’s son, William Ludwig III, said in a 2008 Chicago Tribune interview. If there is a Hall of Fame for understatements, then Bill Ludwig II’s quip must certainly be in it.

Terry Bissette, director of global sales for Ludwig, which is now headquartered in Monroe, picks up the story from there: “Overnight, Ludwig became the most popular drum brand in the world. Soon, they were running production 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they still couldn’t keep up with demand.”

As it was for legions of other rhythm-minded teens, that epochal telecast sparked a musical conversion in Thorne. “That night,” he says. “I became a Ludwig man.”

• • •

Just 20 years old when he saw Ringo for the first time, Thorne had already been a professional musician for nine years, following in the footsteps of his dad, who’d played trumpet for Les Brown and His Band of Renown, which featured a young singer by the name of Doris Day. The younger Thorne started on trumpet, too, but soon moved to drums. His hero was Gene Krupa, whom he’d heard at age 7 on a double bill with Lionel Hampton’s big band jazz orchestra at the Paramount Theatre in New York City. “That sent me right through the roof,” Thorne says.

At age 13, he played his first professional gig with a dance band on New Year’s Eve at the Elks Club in Charlotte. He then went on to join two other groups — The Deltas and The Jaguars — before joining the legendary Catalinas in 1961. In addition to their own repertoire, The Catalinas backed up a who’s who of famous soul and R&B artists touring through the South, including The Shirelles, The Isley Brothers, The Drifters, The Ink Spots, and North Carolina-born Little Eva.

Charlotte drummer Rob Thorne was a teenager performing with beach-music band The Catalinas when seeing Ringo Starr play a set of Ludwig drums changed his life and inspired him to eventually form The Spongetones. Photography courtesy of THE CATALINAS

The Catalinas played to packed-to-the-rafters audiences in venues of every description, from sweaty university field houses to fraternities fragrant with the smell of stale beer to creatively named clubs like The Cellar in Charlotte, Jokers Three in Greensboro, and the Royal Pines Casino and Swimming Pool south of Asheville.

While Ludwig suddenly had the most famous drummer in the world endorsing their product and inspiring musicians like Thorne, they also had something else going for them. Bill Ludwig, the company’s founder, and Bill Ludwig II were both drummers who understood the needs of musicians. Between them, they introduced several innovations in their years heading the company. The result was a distinctive drum tone that spoke to artists across multiple decades and musical styles — from Joe Morello and NC-born Max Roach in the jazz era to Ringo, Ginger Baker of Cream, and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin in the rock era.

Ludwig’s innovations, which continue to this day, produced “a very organic, raw sound,” says Bissette, whose own ear has been fine-tuned by more than 50 years of playing percussion. “These drums are alive.”

The Spongetones were devoted to reviving the sound of the early Beatles. Photography courtesy of THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER. © 2004 MCCLATCHY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. USED UNDER LICENSE.

Ludwig was also legendary for its customer service, a quality that Thorne got to experience first-hand years later. By the early-’80s, Thorne had fully embraced his inner-Ringo and cofounded The Spongetones, a band devoted to reviving the hallmark “Mercy Beat” sound of the early Beatles. When he wasn’t on stage, Thorne doubled as the drum manager at Reliable Music in Charlotte. One day, a customer who’d special-ordered a Ludwig mahogany set received a couple of shells that didn’t match. Thorne called the Ludwig plant and left a message, cheekily asking to speak to the “head knocker.”

Soon after, Thorne received a call from a man who laughingly identified himself as the “head knocker.” It was Bill Ludwig II, who invited Thorne to the factory to help straighten out the problem. When Thorne’s hotel near the plant turned out to be too noisy because of nearby construction, Ludwig invited the drummer to stay at his home. “He had an incredible basement full of drums and he put on a show for me,” Thorne remembers. “He couldn’t swing like some of the other cats did, but he could play the hell out of the drums.”

Terry Bissette began playing drums in the 1970s and learned to repair them. That ultimately led to his position as director of global sales at Ludwig, where he’s had the opportunity to meet many of his percussion heroes. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

By then, Thorne owned multiple Ludwig kits and had used them to unlock the secret to The Beatles’ drum sound. “Ringo’s playing is so unorthodox, and I didn’t understand it for the longest time,” Thorne says. “Then I realized that he was a left-handed drummer who played with a right-handed setup. Most drum leads are dominant right hand. And his pattern started with the left hand.”

Secret unlocked, Thorne’s playing became the rhythmic foundation upon which The Spongetones built their successful sound and rabid fan following. The group became legendary for their shows at Charlotte’s Freedom Park, where thousands sang and danced not just to the flawless Beatles covers that the band performed, but also to The Spongetones’ own equally infectious original power-pop tunes.

In 1981, Bill Ludwig II retired and sold Ludwig to The Selmer Company (now Conn-Selmer). It wasn’t long after that, in 1984, that Selmer moved Ludwig’s production from Chicago to Monroe, seeking to benefit from the abundant woodworking expertise of North Carolina’s renowned furniture-making labor force.

• • •

Located in a semi-rural area bounded by ball fields and brick ranchers, the four tidy Ludwig manufacturing buildings project a low-key presence that’s at odds with the rollicking international reputation of the drums produced there. Inside, the vibe is decidedly more upbeat. Encouraged by management, the employees work to the music they love, transforming a routine factory tour into a moveable feast of American song.

Accordingly, each stage of the drum-making process has its own rhythm. In the wood room, employees methodically sort through stacks of thin, laminated sheets of mahogany, cherry, maple, and oak that will soon be rounded into snares, toms, and bass drums. Elsewhere, workers move between state-of-the-art computer-controlled production equipment to tried-and-true drill presses, shell molds, and sanders that have been in continuous use since the ’40s and ’50s. And in the section of the plant devoted to metal drums, Ludwig craftspeople fit lugs and heads to glittering chrome and brass shells alongside shiny rows of enormous, hammered copper bowls awaiting their transformation into timpani. The timpani are a reminder of Ludwig’s long and successful history of manufacturing percussion instruments for orchestras, marching bands, and large group ensembles.

Counterclockwise from top left: Lloyd Benton, who’s worked for Ludwig for 17 years, assembles a drum at the Monroe factory; Mary Segura installs the hardware in one of the last steps in the process; and Dennis McCoy performs a final quality check. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Even though Ludwig’s artistry spans countless percussion styles — and a who’s-who of performing artists — Ringo remains the star ambassador illuminating the company’s past: Some 59 years after the famous Ed Sullivan Show telecast, the vintage black oyster pearl kit that Ringo played — now made right here in North Carolina — remains Ludwig’s most popular drum model.

And though performers like Ringo Starr, Rob Thorne, and countless others march to the beat of their own drums, they all share the same passion. “Most drummers I’ve ever known,” Thorne says, “were maniacs for Ludwig drums.”

During an attention-grabbing performance in downtown Greensboro this past April, Harvey Thompson showed off his stick tricks on a Ludwig snare. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Marching to a Different Beat

With his Ludwig drums, a Greensboro music instructor puts a new spin on percussion.

Ludwig’s history of manufacturing marching percussion goes all the way back to 1909, when the company began making drums for military bands. Today, drummers like Harvey Thompson carry that tradition forward in new and wildly inventive ways. A Ludwig-endorsee artist, Thompson serves as the drumline instructor for the North Carolina A&T State University Cold Steel Drummers and Blue & Gold Marching Machine.

Thompson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, obsessed with perfecting “tricks” on BMX bikes and in-line skates and doing “anything that could grab people’s attention.” But when he saw his drummer friend Ralph Nader execute a “left-hand stick twirl” in front of their apartment building one night, the experience was every bit as life-changing for Thompson as seeing Ringo Starr on The Ed Sullivan Show was for earlier budding drummers. “I saw that, and I said, ‘Oh shoot, I got to learn this,’” Thompson says. Mesmerized by this new kind of “trick,” Thompson was soon a section leader in the Jackie Robinson/Brooklyn Steppers Marching Band.

That start catapulted Thompson into a career as a solo artist, as a duo with his childhood friend Nader in BYOS (Bring Your Own Style), and as a teacher, composer, and choreographer at A&T. Led by Thompson, the Cold Steel Drummers have strutted their stuff at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, NBA All-Star Weekend, and the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California.

David Nelson, Ludwig’s director of product and engineering (and a former high school band director), describes what Thompson does as “the pageantry arts.”

“It really is an art form,” Nelson says. “Some of that started before Harvey, but he’s really pushed it. He’s almost created a new genre.”

Displays of Thompson’s artistry are easy to find: He’s posted more than 650 videos to YouTube and Instagram, and his freewheeling feats of physical dexterity and rhythmic musicality are mesmerizing to watch. He taps out a propulsive beat while twirling his sticks like batons and tossing them into the air, punctuating it all with silky dance moves. In short, Thompson transforms percussion into performance art right before your eyes. When asked what drumming means to his life, he flips the question into the air as nimbly as a drumstick and turns it into a statement: “Drumming is my life.”

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This story was published on Jun 27, 2023

Brad Campbell

Brad Campbell lives and writes in Fairview.