Gerry wasn’t like the other drummers and instructors. Hell, he wasn’t like anyone you ever met before, a unique, creative, intense and driven genius. He now resides in Wilmington, Delaware and his current passion is sailing. He screams at the waves, the seagulls, the sails, the sun, and anything else that amuses him.
New England has had more than its share of innovators going back to Chappell in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s and too many others to mention here, but along with Chappell and George Zingali, the visual giant, Gerry Shellmer changed the face of marching percussion for all time.
What he accomplished, especially with the Boston Crusaders in the ’60s and early ’70s, is even more incredible in retrospect. He single-handedly took percussion into a new, modern and exciting era. Percussion’s past was not good enough for Gerry. The 26 rudiments were about to get a little help from a friend. He combined the traditional rudimental style of writing with jazz, classical, and blues influences. It took a while to pay off. Drum corps then as now was not comfortable with change but what Shellmer had accomplished was to finally integrate percussive writing to the brass scores idiomatically, a refreshing change. He not only brought percussion up to the standards of the modern brass sections but superseded them. Before Sheller, there were drum lines. Because of him we have percussion ensembles. The Crusaders were probably the first drum section in history to get as much attention in the parking lots prior to a show as any horn line.
Writing wasn’t the only innovation with Shellmer. He revolutionized the instrumentation of percussion for all time, one instrument at a time, and had to fight for each innovation, at times totally confusing the powers-to-be by knowingly taking penalties because his instrumentation was deemed illegal. As Mike Cahill wrote in his letter nominating Gerry to the DCI Hall of Fame, “He introduced into the activity – tympani, horizontal keyboard instruments, mounted suspended and ride cymbals, concert bass drums, concert crash cymbals, crotales, the timpton, multi-tenor drums, and the musically proper and tasteful use of ethnic and accessory percussion instruments.”
His drum corps career commenced when he joined the Most Precious Blood Crusaders at the age of 12 as a member of the bugle section. Ernie Place was his first instructor and had Gerry playing scales in two months’ time.
Gerry’s first love was drums but M.P.B. had a rule that members of the drum line had to be 14 years old. This was when Gerry’s attitude, a thing to behold, first appeared. It seems that Gerry discovered there was a cymbal player who was also 12 years old. Gerry insisted on joining the drum line and it’s rumored he threatened legal action. (Now to put this in perspective, this was before the civil rights movement and attorney Joe Casey was still in grade school). Management realized they were beat and allowed Gerry to enter the drum line and, at his insistence, as a snare trainee.
It boggles the mind to try to envision Shellmer and a brass career. Instead of the legendary battles with Larry McCormick, his protagonists might have been Larry Kerchner, Saia, Denon, and Bergdoll. I’m sure the brass guys are happy with the way events transpired.
His first drum instructor was Bob Fisher of Lt. Norman Prince fame and Bob realized almost immediately that Shellmer had unlimited potential. As Gerry progressed, Fisher used to cart him around to Old Dorchester, Prince, and other units in the area to show off his young protege. Gerry even marched with Old Dorchester on occasion.
Shellmer was considered a “natural” but the problem here is that when ”natural” is mentioned, it implies that all came easily and without sweat. Shellmer possessed a great talent along with a great work ethic.
Gerry was overshadowed in the early and mid ’50s by other great Crusader drummers.
D’ Agostino, Kirwan, and DiBasio had already made names for themselves both as players and instructors, but Shellmer was a volcano on the brink of erupting.
It was in the late ’50s that the legacy of Gerry Shellmer began to emerge. He elected to join the Princemen and play in a snare line with old friends Arthur Kirwan and Paul DiBasio, arguably one of the greatest snare lines of all time. They went as a team to study with the jazz giant, Alan Dawson, who couldn’t believe the “chops” this trio possessed. Here was where Gerry took things to a higher level. During a break at a rehearsal, he overheard two members of Prince’s drum line discussing the section and the remark was made, ”That new guy Shellmer doesn’t show me anything. I thought he was supposed to be a star.” Shellmer became a man obsessed. He quit his job and went to the *”Woodshed”. He traveled to West Point to check out the Swiss rudiments with their leading proponent in this country, John Pratt.
He signed up for private lessons with another legend, George Lawrence Stone, and the journey to greatness took another giant leap forward. Stone had a studio in Boston and was a mentor to many percussionists in every field from symphonic to jazz. Stone also had an understanding of drum corps as he had taught the 3-time American Legion National Champions, the Herbert F. Akroyd Post of Marlborough, Massachusetts in the ’30s.
The Boston Crusaders under Joe Dowling in 1959 were in need of a drum man and Gerry began his teaching career. He demanded excellence and effort from his new charges and a dynasty was in the making. The Crusaders made gradual progress and, in the mid ’60s, Shellmer’s Percussion Express was roaring along at full speed.
Not only was he a great arranger and innovator, he was a great technician and tireless teacher. Shellmer was the ultimate, complete percussion package. He would spend hours upon hours on stick heights, etc.
In 1968, Gerry enrolled at Berklee as a full-time student and progressed rapidly under the tutelage of Fred Buda and the rest of the Berklee Masters, not only in percussion, but the entire Berklee program.
When he introduced the tympani to drum corps with the Crusaders, he envisioned an additional and complementary bass voice. Most of the contending corps got on the tympani band-wagon early but the writers didn’t have the technical expertise, talent, or imagination to utilize the new voice properly. While most writers tried duplicating symphonic tymp writing and thought of the new instrument as a percussive extension, a Shellmer chart had the flow and continuity of a Fender bass in the hands of an old master.
Shellmer’s percussion section writing was a brass arranger’s dream come true. His parts enhanced and became one with the brass score. He could make a ballad more beautiful, a march more stirring, and he could make anything swing!
There was some recognition along the way – the High Drum trophies at the 1967 Legion and 1970 VFW Championships – and in 1962 he entered and won the VFW individual senior snare championship by a huge spread wearing street clothes. He still claims he would have won by more if he had borrowed a uniform.
While Shellmer’s above mentioned accomplishments are indeed legendary, there’s another of which he is justifiably proud and that is the large number of his students that went on to get their degrees in music and are today’s music educators, judges, and instructors.
* A story for another time
From Rick Connor, January 14, 2021
I received an email from Frank Dorritie last month asking about Gerry. I didn’t have an address, email or phone number for him. They had all been disconnected or deleted. Linda, my significant other, offered to try to track him down. She finally found a post on Facebook, written by his niece, stating that Gerry had died in August, 2013. That was all the information she could find.
I relayed this to Frank, one of Gerry’s closest friends. We were both shocked but not surprised.
I miss Gerry. He was a creative percussion genius, but more than that he was a loyal, if not quirky, friend. I’ve mentioned most of his countless contributions on percussion in this article, ”Gerry Shellmer Unplugged.”
The only thing we ever disagreed on was when, coming home from a great meal in the North End with him and Linda, I mentioned that tap dancing was a form of percussion. Gerry disagreed with as much passion as he possessed. (He could get passionate over almost anything.) The ride from Boston to our house in Uxbridge became a heated debate.
Gerry had been staying at our house and when we got home, he demanded that I take him to the airport. I told him that I wasn’t going back to Boston at 11 PM. He then demanded I call him a cab. I informed him that we had no cabs or even buses in Uxbridge. Uber wasn’t around yet. We were happy to have street lights and sidewalks.
The next day, we took him to the airport. We didn’t speak all the way in. (I love the silent treatment.) We didn’t talk or communicate for a couple months. He called me a few months later to see if I could find out if a guy nominated for the DCA Hall of Fame had actually graduated from Berklee as he had stated on his application. We never discussed tap dancing again.
He had a new passion.
From Frank Dorritie, January 12, 2021
Shellmer is no longer with us, it’s true, but he’s not gone, either. It goes without saying that every one of his students was changed forever, and their students as well, but it’s much more profound than that. Like Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath, he is everywhere.
Wherever a kid plays a marimba from the sideline pit, Gerry is there. When an instructor pushes back against a rule that stifles musicality, or dreams a creative dream, he’s there. Shellmer is in every hip, odd-meter percussion lick played on every field in every show in every stadium in this country or anywhere else, for that matter.
He may have left us, but Gerry is everywhere. All you have to do is listen.