Sonny Greer Day

December 13, 1895 – March 23, 1982

 

A tribute to Duke Ellington’s first drummer

Drummer William Alexander “Sonny” Greer was born on December 13, 1895 in Long Branch, New Jersey.

He began playing drums while in high school, worked locally around New Jersey, and in 1919 moved to Washington D.C. where he joined Marie Lucas’ orchestra, meeting the young Duke Ellington.

Greer first worked with Ellington in 1920, they were both part of Wilbur Sweatman’s short-lived band in New York in 1923, and the drummer returned with Ellington to New York later that year to join Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians.

Ellington soon took over the band and Greer was his regular drummer for 28 years, lasting into 1951.

Sonny Greer was a colorful player, adding interesting sounds and swing to Ellington’s performances and recordings.

Unfortunately Greer, who led two sessions of his own during 1944-45, became an alcoholic and his unreliability was causing Ellington headaches by 1950.

The drummer left Duke the following year, joining Johnny Hodges’ combo.

Greer’s post-Ellington years were anti-climatic but not uneventful as he had stints with a variety of swing and Dixieland groups including those of Henry “Red” Allen, Tyree Glenn, Eddie Barefield, J.C. Higginbotham and Brooks Kerr.

This delightful and witty short features Sonny Greer as both a bartender and a drummer with a Duke Ellington combo in 1942 playing “C Jam Blues.”

Personnel:

Duke Ellington, piano
Rex Stewart, cornet
Tricky Sam Nanton, trombone
Barney Bigard, clarinet
Ben Webster, tenor sax
Ray Nance, violin
Junior Raglin, bass
Sonny Greer, drums

-Scott Yanow