Specs was a drummer’s drummer! When I first sat down with Ed Shaughnessy (1929-2013) who played drums for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, all Ed wanted to talk about was the lessons he learned from Specs Powell!
Specs was also a friend’s friend! And I was humbled and honored to have known him!
I first met Specs in 1994, when he and his beloved wife, Peggy, owned a frozen yogurt shop in the Mission Valley area of San Diego. While visiting Red Norvo, who recorded several albums with Specs, I learned Specs was living in San Diego. When I walked into the shop and asked for Specs I was immediately welcomed into the family. As I recall, Peggy made a delicious strawberry smoothie while I chatted with Specs and neither would let me pay. A friendship developed that included several events at the Dove Library in Carlsbad, the Museum of Making Music, and an interview for the NAMM Oral History program. All of which were conducted to not only document his history but to give him the respect he deserved for being such a pioneering musician. We really had fun together! The yogurt shop was their investment in retirement but it was clear to me, Specs was a musician at heart!
There is the story when Specs was hired as the first black man (he did not like the term African American because, as he said, “my family was from the Caribbean islands”) for the CBS radio studio orchestra in 1945. Upon returning from lunch, Specs saw a noose had been placed on his drum kit. When I asked him who placed it there, he replied in a most chilling manner, “all of them.”. He meant that no one in that orchestra, the booth, or in the office that saw this noose did anything about it but leave it there, laying on his drum. When I asked him “What did you do?”, he replied with a firm, “I played my ass off!”.
Specs played and/or recorded with (as he once said) “anybody you can name” and he wasn’t too far off. During the record strike of World War II, Specs was the go-to drummer who played on hundreds of V-Discs, designed to entertain the troops overseas. He played on 52nd Street in New York in nearly every club and alongside some of the greatest jazz acts of the day, such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Shavers. He recorded a few of his own albums including Movin’ In and Spces Powell Presents Big Band Jazz. I personally love his recordings with Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, and John Kirby. What a feel Specs had for the groove!
In the early 1950s, after Specs decided to focus on studio work to support his young family, he realized he could make double scale from the musician’s union if he was listed as the drummer and the percussionist. On one of his early dates for both roles he had to play drums then quickly switch to the bongos. He tried holding the bongos between his knees but that did not work, then he thought about hanging them somehow on a stand. Specs solicited the help of a young drummer and engineer from the neighborhood named Marty Cohen. Marty created a bracket to attach the bongos to a stand. Specs got the double pay and Marty began creating more brackets and stands and soon established the Latin Percussion (LP) Company. In his own NAMM interview, Marty said it was Spec’s idea that “revolutionized percussion!”. Specs was always proud of the role he played in Marty’s career.
After years in the studio (recordings, TV and radio), Specs retired to the Caribbean’s for a few years where he and his wife Peggy invested in real estate. They moved to San Diego where they opened their yogurt shop, which is when I came into the picture. A few years later I started my career at NAMM and happily worked with Specs as often as I could. In April 2000, I invited Specs to join in on a special photograph that was NAMM’s version of “The Great Day In Harlem” photograph, in which 70 musicians gathered at the NAMM building. We called our photo “The Great Day in Carlsbad”. It was a great day indeed! Specs was delighted to see many of his old friends there such as James Moody and Chubby Jackson. It was at that time that I learned that Specs was THERE for that Harlem photo shoot in 1958. He arrived before the 10:00 appointment but had to leave for a studio recording before the photo was taken because so many fellow musicians arrived late.
I never missed an opportunity to include Specs in whatever I was doing, especially if it gave me the chance to learn from him. In 2001, Specs and I provided a series of lectures at the Dove Library in Carlsbad about jazz, which was a thrill for me. One of our special guests was Herb Jeffries, who sang for Duke Ellington. Specs was on hand for several special tours of the Museum of Making Music where I served as the first curator. Later, as music historian for NAMM, I interviewed Specs for our Oral History program.
When Specs was 85 and in failing health, I visited more than ever before, to help Peggy, to comfort Specs, and because I wanted to gain all that I could from this man I had come to love. When he was on hospice I would often walk into the room already talking (to make sure he was ready for me). On one visit I walked into the room before he saw me and asked loudly, “Was Billie Holiday sexy?”, he replied with an enthusiastic “YES, yes she was!”. I was with Specs every day for three weeks before his passing on September 15, 2007. I was honored that Peggy asked me to speak at his memorial service and even more honored when she asked if there was anything of his that I wanted. I replied with one item: Spec’s specs. These are among my most treasured items as this pair of glasses once guided a man who guided me.
Dan Del Fiorentino
NAMM Music Historian