Jesse Sailes

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While many listeners might be flabbergasted that Elmore James and Doris Day shared the same drummer, those knowledgeable about the ways of studio session men wouldn't be surprised at all. Nonetheless,…
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While many listeners might be flabbergasted that Elmore James and Doris Day shared the same drummer, those knowledgeable about the ways of studio session men wouldn't be surprised at all. Nonetheless, the career of Jesse Sailes is hardly that of the typical studio hack. Most drummers aspire to be adept at a range of styles -- including jazz, blues, soul, and rock -- and if they're lucky get chances to play such styles with virtuosity. Sailes, whose name sounds like a shorthand description of how Jesse down at the lake is spending his weekends, really did do all the styles extremely well. The results included many impressed musicians and many more brilliant records.

In every case he is simply, or not so simply, the drummer in the band, but he did record on his own at least once. Recognizing the importance of making the same sort of pun that spoiled the previous paragraph, he assembled a group in the late '50s called Jesse Sailes & the Waves and cut "I'm in Love With the Drummer Man" for the Felsted label. The song has been reissued on a series of volumes documenting the label's history. Although it is an enjoyable record, expressing an admirable sentiment, it is not really what this artist is known for.

His reputation was made on the Los Angeles music scene, the details of the story cloaked in the kind of versatility that seems to be the standard cloth for Sailes. He was at first known as that great Dixieland drummer from Denver, as the context he was first widely heard in upon arrival in California was Teddy Buckner's New Orleans jazz band, holding forth at Disneyland. He became an essential part of the recording scene for blues and R&B on the West Coast, and it is not only impossible but no fun at all to have a collection of this genre without hoisting the Sailes.

A few examples follow. Of hundreds of recordings he has made, guitarist and singer B.B. King's personal favorite is the Crown album My Kind of Blues, cut in one session in the spring of 1960 with a minimal band led by pianist Lloyd Glenn and featuring Sailes on drums. Sailing back to 1954, there was the Modern session produced by Joe Bihari, an attempt to create another strong R&B hit for Elmore James. What resulted were classic sides in the blues-with-horns style, Sailes on drums along with his frequent partner Ralph Hamilton on bass. For one sort of overall total, discographer Tom Lord tallied up Sailes as having worked on a total of 58 recording sessions between 1947 and 1987 in either pure jazz or blues styles.

This does not include any of his rock, soul, and pop recordings, however. Although often lumped in with studio drummers such as Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, Sailes has been described by studio bassist Carol Kaye as being a bit more of an outsider on the L.A. studio scene, someone who got important calls from time to time but was more associated with jazz and blues. His name does come up in the ongoing debate about who played what instrument on which classic Motown side -- and without a doubt, the Sailes were raised on drums for at least a few of the mysterious West Coast Motown recording sessions.

Yet the drummer's greatest and most personalized appearance on a rock record would have to be on the single that many fans consider one of the great classic rock hits of all time, "Let's Dance" by Chicano rocker Chris Montez. Sailes' voice is even audible providing the countdown at the beginning of the song -- that is, if the disc jockey isn't yabbering. Sailes retired in the late '80s and became the deacon of a South Central Los Angeles church.