Gene Krupa's Polish-American mother was a hard-working hat-maker who was a devout Roman Catholic. She wanted Gene to study for the priesthood. He attended several parochial schools in Chicago and studied one year at St. Joseph's College, a prep school seminary in Rensselaer, Indiana. Instead, Gene wound up being one of the most exciting pioneer drummers of the age of Swing and Jazz. He became known to millions by his professional moniker, "The Chicago Flash."
If there is one distinctive recording that comes to mind when people mention his name, it is without doubt one that was made during a high-energy live performance in January 1938 as part of Benny Goodman's historic jazz concert at Carneigie Hall in New York. Even listening to that recording of Sing Sing Sing today, a listener cannot help but feel the electricity in that hall 68 years ago.
According to legend, in the middle of the song Gene started to play the first extended drum solo in history as other musicians left the stage to leave Gene alone in the spotlight. The solo seemed like an eternity but was really only a few very intense minutes of non-stop fast-paced tom toms. Finally the musicians returned to an exhausted Gene Krupa just in time to blast away the final stanzas. The solo itself drew a sponaneous round of cheers and when the song finished the hall exploded with decibels never heard before in such a refined venue. Soon, audiences all over the country were demanding drum solos in every upbeat jazz song. Krupa had put jazz drummers on the map.
Gene Krupa was born in Chicago on January 5, 1909. He was the youngest of nine children born to Bartley and Ann Krupa. His father died when Gene was very young and all of the children went to work at least part-time before finishing grammar school. At age 11, Gene's brother Pete got him a job as a chore boy to wash windows and stack inventory at Brown's Music Store on the South Side. Gene tried out several instruments including the saxaphone but a set of drums was the cheapest. "They only cost me sixteen beans," said Gene.
In 1921 when Gene was only 12 and still in grammar school, he joined his first band called "The Frivolians." The story is that he got the drummer spot because another drummer was sick. During his one year at St. Joseph's in Indiana from 1924 to 1925, Gene studied under a classically trained professor of music, Father Ildefonse Rapp. Combined with his own practice and talent, and just by watching other musicians, Gene was getting a good musical education. But he never did actually learn how to read music and often faked or memorized his drum parts when he had to fit in with orchestral arrangements rather than improvise. Gene said, "I'd watch the drummers and pick up what I could. After a bit, I got to make music with some of these fellows and substitute at the dances and socials."
Around 1927, Gene joined the legendary group of white musicians known around Chicago as "The Austin High Gang" which Benny Goodman, who was the same age as Gene, also hung out with. Chicago in the 1920s was a magnet for many of the best hot jazz musicians both black and white. At various times, the Austin High Gang included top jazz artists such as banjoist Eddie Condon, saxophonist Bud Freeman, and Dave Tough on drums who was a mentor to Gene.
After several more bands in Chicago and on the road, Gene moved to New York around 1931 to seek more opportunities. He joined fellow Chicagoans Benny Goodman on the Let's Dance Program on NBC in 1934. He stayed with Goodman through the 1938 Jazz concert at Carneigie Hall but later that year Goodman grew tired of audience calls for drum solos and Gene left to form his own Gene Krupa Orcestra. Then Gene learned for himself what Benny already understood, a steady diet of drum solos was just not practical in general jazz and swing music arrangements.
Gene's base of loyal fans were disappointed to learn in January 1943 that he had been arrested for sending a 17-year old boy to his hotel room to pick up some marijuana cigarettes. Gene pleaded not guilty and his side of the story was that the cigarettes were a going away present from his valet. The police had been tipped off in advance to look for the cigarettes in or near Gene's room and he may or may not have been set up. But he was convicted of drug possesion at a time when that was a scandal even for musicians.
According to music historian John Cohassey, Gene later said, "The ridiculous thing was that I was such a boozer I never thought about grass. I'd take grass, and it would put me to sleep. I was an out-and-out lush. Oh, sure, I was mad. But how long can you stay mad? So long you break out in rashes? Besides, the shock of the whole thing probably helped me. I might have gone to much worse things. It brought me back to religion."
Gene's talent as a drummer outlasted the scandal and he returned to performing with a new orchestra near the end of World War II. In the 1950s the era of the Big Bands passed on but Gene was still in demand.
John Cohassey writes, "With the demise of big bands during the 1950s, Krupa began performing in small combos and toured internationally with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. In 1959 his career was honored with the biographical film The Gene Krupa Story, starring Sal Mineo as the famous drummer."
After suffering a heart attack in 1960, Krupa's performances were rare. During 1972 and 1973 he played several reunion concerts with Benny Goodman's band resulting in one live album.
On October 16, 1973, Gene died at his home in Yonkers, New York. Though he had been under treatment for leukemia for several years, the official cause of death was heart failure. There was a requiem mass held at St. Dennis Roman Catholic in Yonkers, Benny Goodman and Jimmy McPartland gathered with others to pay their last respects, as Cohassey writes, "to a man known by millions of listeners as "The Chicago Flash"--the most charismatic and innovative drum legend of the Swing Era."