If I had to select one shop that defines vintage Los Angeles, it would be the Pro Drum Shop located at 854 Vine Street in Hollywood. The drummers’ “hang” looks exactly as it did back when it opened in 1959, in all its retro glory! The space is filled with radiant new and used percussion instruments and its rich history bounces off the walls as loudly as the hundreds of snappy snare drums.
Founded by the late Bob Yeager, the family-owned business is today run by his son Tom and two stepsons, Jerry and Stan Keyawa.
Bob Yeager started the family-owned business in the ‘50s when he was on the road playing drums for saxophonist, singer, and bandleader Tex Beneke. Beneke fired Bob during a stop in Los Angeles, and the drummer fell in love with the city and decided to stay. In 1957 he got a job at Drum City on Santa Monica Boulevard, which was co-owned by Remo Belli and jazz drummer Roy Harte.
Belli eventually left Drum City to create Remco Inc., while Bob and Roy clashed over how Roy treated the clientele. Along with former Drum City manager Chuck Molinari, Bob left the company to open Pro Drum Shop across from the Musicians Union on Vine Street (that’s just around the corner from Drum City) on June 1, 1959. The store’s rent cost $195. Chuck understood the business inside and out and Bob was a well-liked guy who knew everyone in the music scene. Bob was also a solid drummer working steadily on records and motion picture blockbusters (he performed in Dr. Zhivago and The Magnificent Seven). Chuck handled managing duties at the shop while Bob was busy recording at Paramount or Warner Bros.
“Anyone who was anybody in the drum industry came here,” says Bob’s stepson, Stan Keyawa, who now runs the store along with his brother Jerry and Bob’s son Tom. “My stepdad was a fun-loving party man who knew his equipment.” Yeager was straight up and honest, but he could also be bold and aggressive with manufacturers in order to get the best deal for his customers. He paled around with Buddy Rich and Shelly Manne and wore hip clothes and drove a T-Bird.
Stan and Jerry first started working at Pro Drum Shop during the Summer of Love. Stan was 12 and Jerry was 9, and the boys were paid $1.50 an hour while their stepdad showed them the ropes of the business. “It was such a swinging time since we were located across the street from the Musician’s Union,” says Stan. “That place always really hoppin’!”
Drummer Hal Blaine, a session musician who played drums on more than 7,000 recordings and coined the term “The Wrecking Crew” to describe the cluster of L.A. musicians working during the 1960s, hung out at Pro Drum Shop often. “When you got paid, you had to go to the Musicians Union to pick up your check” he says. “It was convenient for us drummers to then run across the street and pick up a drum key or a cymbal.” There weren’t a lot of music shops in Los Angeles at the time. Wallichs Music City, at the corner of Sunset and Vine, sold a limited selection of instruments but it was primarily a record store. Spotting Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa testing out floor-toms would be unthinkable at Wallichs, but not at Pro Drum Shop.
Other famous musicians who frequented the shop were bandleader Art Blakey, “Papa” Jo Jones, Shelly Manne, Irv Cottler (Frank Sinatra’s drummer), Mel Tormé, Earl Palmer, Terry Bozzio, Alex Van Halen, and Keith Moon. Even Marlon Brando dropped in to pick up a few conga drums from time to time. “Brando was an avid conga player,” says Stan. “One time he and my brother got into a heated argument over something and Jerry tossed Marlon out! But they ended up calling each other and worked it all out.”
Watch Marlon Brando play the congas:
Bob Yeager was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1986, about the same time Buddy Rich became ill. Bob called Buddy Rich from his hospital bed and they chatted about the “good old days.” They died within a few weeks of each other in 1987 and were eulogized in the same issue of Modern Drummer. Before he died Bob requested a big party on the day of his funeral and said he wanted big band drummer Jake Hanna and bassist Ray Brown to perform at his service at Forest Lawn. “It was a sad time,” says Stan of his father’s final arrangements. “But it was Bob’s style.”
Today Bob’s widow Dolores handles the books for the store while Stan, Jerry, and Tom have a great time working with customers, selling and repairing equipment and talkin’ drums. Jerry has probably sold more drums then anyone on the planet. An aspiring drummer myself, I can never leave the store without purchasing a fresh pair of sticks or salivating over a vintage set of Silver Sparkle Ludwigs. The shop has a way of making you feel like a rockstar even if you’re not.
The shop certainly isn’t lacking in the “more cowbell” department. It’s essentially a dazzling drum museum. Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy’s original drums are just some of the kits on display next to Gene Krupa’s cymbal stand. The walls are filled with memorabilia and thousands of photographs. “We have a ton of pictures from the ‘60s, and that was unheard of then,” says Stan. “Bob was always making up 8x10s and had a photographer on standby.” Original drumheads from Jerry Lewis’s band (including that well recognized caricature of Lewis), and iconic band logos from Chicago, The Cramps, Charlie Watts, Green Day, Elvis Costello and the Beatles are only display in the sticks section, and you drive by and see an enormous picture of Gene Krupa in the window.
“I had one of the first charge accounts when they opened,” remembers Blaine today. “This was way before credit cards. The Public Utilities Commission had a ruling with the Musicians Union that all instruments would be delivered to the studios. I was probably the busiest drummer in L.A. back then and I could never have transported my own equipment from studio to studio. [My] drums came through the Pro Drum Shop and they were always set up for me.”
“We had to open accounts for a lot of the main cats,” says Stan. “Sometimes that became a headache because there were many flaky musicians through the years, but never Hal. He has been one of our greatest customers and is considered family.”
In the late ‘60s, store manager Howie Oliver custom-built a Ludwig drum set using Hal’s design. They were put on rolling wheels with klieg stands so he could easily transport them to sessions and gigs—Hal called them his “monsters.” The world got a look at them when Hal appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. After that, every major drum company in the world starting making them, too.
Watch Hal Blaine record “Good Vibrations”:
Hal Blaine recently stopped in to Pro Drum Shop with keyboardist Don Randi to celebrate the release of The Wrecking Crew, a documentary about L.A. session musicians working during the ‘60s that just hit number #1 on iTunes. “They are the nicest people,” says Blaine of the Pro Drum Shop staff. “To show my appreciation I always wear my Pro Drum hats and jackets.”
Management hasn’t changed anything about the store over its 56 years—and they don’t plan to. “We are probably the oldest drum shop in the world, especially with an original storefront,” says Stan. “Although, we do keep up with the times. We are on Facebook and Amazon and we have a Web site. But we will always keep that old-school feeling in the store. We want you to feel like you’re being transported straight back to 1965 when you walk in.” It is, he says in a DVD produced for the store’s 50th anniversary, “the pro shop where the pros shop.”
Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to CityThink and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram