Born 16 September 1926, Chicago, Illinois
Fred Below is considered by many as the finest blues drummer ever. He was a schooled musician, who studied percussion at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. Starting out as a jazz drummer in the 1940s, he played bebop, then joined the US Army as part of the 427th Army Band. Returning to Chicago in 1951 after his military service, Below found that the music scene had changed considerably. Jazz was in a lull, blues gigs were what was happening.
Muddy Waters's drummer Elgin Evans introduced Fred to a group called the Three Aces, who needed a drummer. They were Junior Wells (vocals, harmonica) and the brothers Louis Myers (guitar) and Dave Myers (bass). As a jazz drummer, Below was not familiar with blues drumming and needed some time to adjust. Then Junior Wells joined the Muddy Waters band as a replacement for Little Walter, who was much in demand after the success of his 1952 instrumental "Juke". Walter joined the remaining Aces, renaming the group Little Walter and the Four Aces (later the Jukes). They turned out to be a perfect fit and this four-piece electric blues band soon became the hottest combo in Chicago. The effect of this band on the Chicago music scene can hardly be overestimated. Fred Below and the Aces pretty much created the standard for the blues shuffle beat.
After "Juke", Little Walter scored a dozen further Top 10 R&B hits and Below plays on almost all of them. His refined, elegant drumming was an important ingredient of the success of the band. As a result, he became the most wanted drummer for recording sessions in Chicago. Especially Walter's label, Chess / Checker, used him whenever he was available. Not only for their blues artists, like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon, but also for rock and roller Chuck Berry. The first Berry session on which Below can be heard is that of April 16, 1956, which yielded the singles "Roll Over Beethoven"/"Drifting Heart" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man"/"Too Much Monkey Business". Fred is the drummer on most of Berry's classic hits : "School Day", "Rock n Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Johnny B. Goode", "Back In the USA", "Let It Rock", "Memphis Tennessee", etc. However, Below does not play on any of Berry's post-prison recordings. Compared to the frantic backbeat of Earl Palmer (whom I consider to be the greatest rock n roll drummer), Below's shuffle style is rather restrained, but quite effective. He was also known for his use of the ride cymbal, the wood block, tom-tom fills and many other embellishments.. Other artists for whom Below recorded include Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, the Moonglows, the Drifters, the Platters and Dinah Washington.
Fred Below died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 61.
Acknowledgements : Michael Erlewine, All Music Guide.
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