The Musical Life and Times of Harry Brabec, Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist & Humorist

Custom Percussion Instruments II

February 7th, 2011 | Posted in Music Biz History, Percussion Instruments

At Franks Drum Shop in Chicago in the Sixties, Every Instrument Imaginable was Available for Rent or Purchase

Percussionists have always made their own instruments. This post talks about Franks Drum Shop, Maurie Lishon and his son, Chuck, and some of the custom percussion instruments made in its “Goodie Room,” as reported in a 1967 Chicago Sun-Times article by Abra Prentice.

FRANKS DRUM SHOP, a place musicians in Chicago called “Percussion Central” in the sixties, was owned by Harry Brabec’s old pal, Maurie Lishon (1914-2000). Conveniently located on Wabash Avenue, the drum shop drew a steady crowd of both local and out-of-town percussionists, offering every instrument imaginable for rent or purchase. Anything it didn’t have, it could make to order, and most of those custom percussion instruments were truly unique.

When Franks Drum Shop shop went bankrupt in 1984, the name was bought by Bill Crowden, who owned a competitive drum shop next door called Drums Unlimited. (See “A Tale of Two Drum Shops” article. His shop thrived until Chicago’s changing music scene prompted him to close in 1991.)

These two drum shops, now just a part of Chicago’s interesting music history, are featured on this website, which honors the memory of one of the percussionists who spent many an enjoyable hour in both of these historic shops.

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THERE’S A STORY behind this picture, but the details have been lost to me. Apparently, for a gag, Harry used to stand behind Maurie and then they’d both play an instrument together. They did make an interesting pair when they were in ham-it-up mode.

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Harry’s scrapbook included a January 19, 1967 Chicago Sun-Times article by Abra Prentice titled “The Big Sound of Chaos,” an article that has apparently never made it to the Web. Following are a few clips from this very lengthy feature article that speak about the unusual nature of Franks Drum Shop and the unique custom percussion instruments that could be rented in those days. It was Chuck Lishon, Maurie’s son, who was being interviewed for this article, in which he said, “The whole world has become oriented to sound.” His pride and joy of the shop was what he and his father affectionately called “the goodie room.”

Excerpts from “The Big Sound of Chaos,” by Abra Prentice

“Crammed into what looks like an over-sized closet at the back of the shop were hundreds of exotic instruments and novelties capable of producing any sound from rain falling on a tin roof to a chorus of cuckoos in mating season,” Prentice wrote.

“Many of the items in this drum museum are more than 50 years old and belonged to the former owner, Frank Gault. They are mainly for rental, though a few are for sale.

“Chuck claims he gets the strangest requests for particular and peculiar sounds from all over the country. Symphony orchestras, movie studios and jingle writers are among favorite customers.

“The other day an ad agency wanted to duplicate the sound of someone tapping on a washing machine for a commercial. With the help of Clarence Williams, the house ‘doctor and chief fix-it man,’ a contraption of metal shelving was set up, which when struck, produced the desired sound. ‘I call it the Norge rap-tap simulator,’ Chuck joked.

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recently presented ‘Sinfonia India,’ which required a string of deer hoofs, a yaqui metal rattle and water gourd for its percussion section.

“‘They usually want everything yesterday,’ said Chuck. ‘It makes it hard when you’ve never heard of some of the things.’ “The yaqui metal rattle, for example, ended up being a toilet float with shot in it.”

Prentice concluded her lengthy article with this charming note:

“The world inside this showroom of $3,000 gongs and 5-cent rubber crutch tips for drum stands is way out. One small boy on his maiden voyage caught the flavor of the place immediately. He asked Mrs. Lishon for some water as soon as he got off the elevator.  ‘Why?’ she asked.

” ‘Because I just swallowed my gum,’ he said.”

[End of Article Excerpt]


Dick Schory popularized percussion music in the late fifties and early sixties and paved the way for an entire movement in pop music that lasted through 1969. In 1960, he said this about unusual percussion instruments:

“There are no limits when it comes to instrumentation in the amazing new field of percussion ensembles. Everything from auto brake drums, inverted rice bowls, and even a manifold from a ’46 Chevrolet are included with surprisingly good musical results. “If it can be struck and can be classified as a percussion instrument, someone, somewhere has scored for it.”

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9 Responses to “Custom Percussion Instruments II”

  1. rich johnson says:

    I worked there and the article just scratched the surface.
    No doubt many first timers swallowed their gum.

  2. Tan says:

    Watch out for the new issue of ‘Jazz Inside’ magazine. It carries an interview of Maxwell Steve with Eric Nemeyer where they share some nostalgic moments of Frank’s Drum Shop and the business ethics that used to be at that time.

    My best wishes,

  3. Len says:

    Anyone who ever went to Frank’s or Drums Unlimited was in awe of the place. From the cramped little elevators just to get up to the shops, to the floor-to-ceiling stacks and stacks of everything, the the knowledgeable staff, these places were drummer nirvana. These places had character. Not like everything today, where the shop you’re in right now could be identical to one in any other city in America.

  4. chris says:

    Maurie Lishon was one of a kind…through him I met Buddy Rich…he cared about everyone that walked in the door a Franks…you couldn’t believe how big a place Franks Drum Shop was…He had a drum clinic about every 3 months…you would get an orange invitation…what a great guy…I miss him

  5. Rick Horn says:

    I had the privilege of visiting Franks Drum shop in Chicago in 1976 while on a college orchestra tour to play The Kennedy Center for the Bicentennial celebration. I always wanted to visit this famous place,and made a purchase of some sticks, mallets and sheet music. I still have the receipt and the memory, the receipt will last longer.

  6. Charles Doherty says:

    I was maybe 12 when I first stepped into Frank’s (circa 1961). On the ground floor on Wabash Ave. with the L tracks running overhead, the small door led down a narrow hallway to a closet-sized elevator, complete with operator that manually opened/closed the gates/door. After you rattled up to the fourth floor (as I recall), the elevator door opened right onto the showroom floor–drumsets stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling, plus everything and anything a drummer could want. I was awestruck. If I were chewing gum that first visit, I probably would have swallowed it.

    One quick tale: I was in college in Iowa when I had a bad run of luck, breaking nearly every stick I had. The few available locally were crap. I called Frank’s (working with Maury’s wife Jan), and she shipped me out a dozen pair that day, based only on the desperation in my voice and claim that I was a regular customer. I had no credit card, no account with the store, etc. I was just trusted as a drummer who had shopped there. How about that?

  7. [...] space, the surrounding community made the location ideal - Carl Fisher Music, Lyon and Healy, Franks Drum Shop, Kagan and Gaines, Chicago Guitar Gallery, and a host of Music Studios from the Fine Arts [...]

  8. KGault says:

    I visited Frank’s Drum Shop sometime in the late ’50′s or early ’60′s, at the age of 10 or so, as part of a family visit with Frank himself, who was my grandfather. I was a budding pianist, but was impressed by the wall ‘o instruments. Wish my folks had taken photos! I didn’t get to see my granddad very often, as we lived in California and he didn’t come west very often. But he was one cool dude, all the way to age 80-something, when he made his last trip west for a long visit with us. He still enjoyed a highball and a smoke, and a good party. Neat to hear old stories about him and the shop.

  9. CC says:

    In the early 60′s, as a kid newly enamored of drums, I discovered this gem. My friend, another budding drummer, and I used to ride the I.C. downtown to visit the place. The drum sets, stacked on shelves were so exciting and beautiful. And all the other accoutrements – the various percussion things – were so compelling. Occasionally, some actual, professional drummer would stop in and grabbing a pair of sticks do some schtick on the counter, which simply amazed us. I loved the place, and as claustrophobic as I was, I braved that rickety elevator just to be able to step out into that amazing and wonderful world of percussion. Maury was the main proprietor, but Chucky was usually the guy who was there. We just soaked in the atmosphere, and adored being among the guys who could really play. What a treat. I’ll never forget how it felt to be in that place – like being in a place the gods would visit.

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