Battling terminal cancer, beloved W. Michigan musician Bill Vits plays his final concerts with Grand Rapids Symphony this week before starting sick leave. In his own words, here’s his remarkable story.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Grand Rapids Symphony principal percussionist Bill Vits kicks off his 44th season with the Symphony this week, telling Local Spins that these will be his last scheduled performances before a sick leave as he continues a long battle with cancer. His remarkable legacy extends far beyond his Symphony tenure. He’s also the much-acclaimed masked man behind the drums for The Concussions, West Michigan’s popular surf-rock institution, an enthusiastic champion of rhythm bones — ancient instruments in which bones/slabs are held between the fingers and clicked via wrist and arm movements — and a tireless educator of youths and adults in all things percussion.
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The Concussions, by the way, plan to release brand new tracks featuring Vits in the near future. And Vits himself notes: “I have so many ideas and projects swimming in my head as the morphine, tramadol and steroids give me creative surges.” He’s also distributing his “vast collection to my talented students who will carry on the mission of love and music.” In its season opener, Grand Rapids Symphony will present the world premiere of brain cancer survivor Alexander Miller’s “Immortal Beloved” plus Beethoven’s 5th and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets, $19-$76, available online here. Now, here’s the Bill Vits story, in his own words.
Musicians often trace their instrumental beginnings to events, personalities and opportunities. As a child and student we are often unaware of the significance and brilliance of these events and those that take us under their wing. One of my first memories was a Scottish Style (Shrine) Band in the Evanston, Ill., Fourth of July parade.
The bass and tenor drummers twirled their lambs wool beaters overhead between strokes and were larger than life to a 3-year-old in 1960.
Leaving the “north” we then moved to Nashville, where my mother found a unique piano teacher for my sister and I a couple years later. June Wolfe taught piano at home but also played the clubs in Nashville’s “Printer’s Alley.” She could play cocktail piano and read a book at the same time! She agreed to teach little Billy who had a habit of “jazzing up” all the basic piano tunes. Her son, Jim, was the hot drummer at the local Two Rivers High School. He would often practice when I was there for my piano lesson. I would hear him working on funky drum beats as he was playing with various integrated soul bands. I asked if I could take drum lessons, too, as this was 1964 and the music world was exploding in Nashville with country, jazz and rock. My mom said I could, if I practiced more than I watched television (which was easy with just three black and white channels that went off at midnight).
That next Christmas I got a brand new Gold sparkle Ludwig drum set with Zildjian cymbals. I was hooked and playing drums became me. The first record Jim gave to me was “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The groove is deceptively simple and is basically quarter notes with an implied shuffle. Man, did it feel good to lock in while playing to the console stereo turned up loud in the piney basement. I realized soon that I liked the unknown Al Jackson and Earl Palmer’s drumming better than the newly famous Ringo and Charlie. I could put on a stack of 45-RPM records and play with the diverse hits of the day then flip them over and do all the B-sides. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Association, The Capitals, Temptations with some Al Hirt and Louis Armstrong sneaking in. Three-minute lessons in jazz, rock, swing and Latin beats just like you heard on AM radio.
Had my first band at the fourth-grade talent show. I was in an accelerated class with SRA materials that allowed us to work at our own rate. I thrived in this environment as I was already reading at 12th-grade level. I was allowed to play with the high school band and by 5th grade, became the youngest member of the Nashville Youth Symphony. In 6th, I was runner up for All State High School band as I was the only auditionee that played xylophone excerpts from the Gayne Ballet. I then joined my older sisters’ friends in a better band, The Originals (ha), and started winning talent shows with them and as a soloist playing to Mitch Ryder’s “Devil with a Blue Dress On.” My mom made a folding platform we put on the Rambler station wagon (nicknamed Peanut) and when the curtain closed, she would pull it on stage with the drums set up perfectly. I would run out in my Beatle boots and start the throbbing bass drum that begins the tune.
I had many friends through music growing up, including Pam Tillis who was a shy girl who played clarinet in band. She became a big country star in the ’80s and her father, the stuttering talker but smooth singer Mel Tillis, helped found Branson, Mo., as a thriving country music attraction.
Jim then got me to study at Blair Academy, which was part of Vanderbilt University. I became a student of Farrell Morris who was in the Nashville symphony and played on many hit records. His influence made me diversify and embrace all styles at an early age. He even played with the Johnny Cash orchestra when it was a TV show.
The youth symphony was conducted by Thor Johnston who I realized as an adult was a young music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1939, taught at Interlochen and had also received his master’s degree at the University of Michigan.
DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP SKILLS IN HIGH SCHOOL, WINNING AWARDS
Another coincidence is that he was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., where my mother was born and raised. He also started the Peninsular Music Festival which several of my friends play in to this day. All these similarities seemed to lead me to my penultimate musical destination, Grand Rapids.
My dad was transferred to Indianapolis after sixth grade and once again my mom found me the best teachers and opportunities. Dr. Erwin Mueller became my mentor and set me up for orchestral success from day one at the Paul-Mueller Studio. He and Richard Paul played with the Indianapolis symphony and taught at Ball State where I began going to for summer camps. Erwin was an energetic, disciplined marine who produced hundreds of successful performers and educators.
We had no shortcuts and I continued to progress on drums but focused more on marimba and timpani. When I outgrew my three-octave instrument (with wartime cardboard resonators) he convinced my parents I deserved a rosewood Musser Concert Grand (with equally expensive cases) to play the “Creston Marimba Concerto” (which had been recorded by my future teacher at the U of Michigan, Charles Owen.) I have used this instrument my whole career and once my parents transported it in 1978 to Tempe, Ariz., to play in a 50-piece marimba orchestra conducted by Claire Omar Musser himself.
In junior high, I participated in football and track and tried to be a “normal” teenager. I soon realized I had to work hard at sports while music came easy to me. Why? Supportive parents, the best teachers and a musical environment set me up for success. My best sports friends used to leave me in the dust when we ran or played keep-away. Later, one of them went to college on a football scholarship while the other set a dozen world records in distance running and was featured in Sports Illustrated. I was competing against the best.
In high school, I got into jazz band, found a love for Frank Zappa and locally connected with John Von Ohlen (nicknamed the Baron) which introduced me to the music of Stan Kenton and then Maynard Ferguson as the big bands slowly disappeared. Our Lawrence Central jazz band attended the Elmhurst jazz festival and I received a trophy from Maynard for Best Miscellaneous solo as we had a percussion jam with kit, congas and a “canophone” we had made with recycled cafeteria cans. My best buddy, Bruce MacDougall (“Little Oscar”) also played a Christmas cookie tin while bending it with his knees. You had to be there …
My high school education included Latin and Greek derivatives, music theory, music appreciation, sight singing and rhythmic dictation. I played in all the ensembles and eventually became drum major of the marching band after starting on bass drum, as seniors got the snare positions. This was old school, high stepping marching before drum corps changed everything. My assistant drum major was the state high school high jump champion, so I was challenged constantly. For two summers, I went to Smith Walbridge drum major camp and learned baton and whistle commands to march military style. Three-hundred-sixty drum majors from high schools all across the country divided into six rank-and-file groups of 60. You would lead this group daily in commands and compete while the instructors judged you if you flinched in the hot Indiana sun. Again, there was a right way to do everything and this was how I developed my confidence and ability to lead.
After graduation in June of 1975 I immediately enrolled for summer school at Ball State. Already familiar with the campus and instructors I raced through school in three years with Dr. Mueller providing concerto opportunities, awards and playing with the Muncie Symphony with guest conductor Arthur Fiedler. We played “Fifth of Beethoven” arranged by my future GR Pops conductor Richard Hayman and I got to play my large Slingerland drum kit. When I followed the written dynamics, Fiedler stopped the orchestra and asked why I got softer. I said the part indicated mezzo forte to which he responded, “To hell with the dynamics, this is rock ‘n’ roll.” I have a bootleg cassette which features the drums and plenty of inspired trombones.
After Ball State, I played two summers with the Colorado Philharmonic just as the founder, Walter Charles, passed the baton (and toupee) to Carl Topilow. Here I met the great young orchestral players from around the country who loved music and the beauty of Evergreen, Colorado. We would do ridiculously difficult concerts of three different programs each week. I spent my 21st birthday partying and listening to Steve Martin sing “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live.
After my quick Bachelor of Science in Music Education at Ball State I auditioned for Graduate school at the University of Michigan and was lucky to get my master’s degree in Orchestral Performance with Philadelphia Orchestra and President’s Own Marine Band Veteran Charles Owen. Known as a durable mallet soloist with the Marine Band he was legendary as a cymbal player, which can be the ugliest instrument in the wrong hands. His stories and practical experience were rich in real-life musical applications. He once said, “Never make a bad sound, I don’t care what the part says. The audience isn’t reading music, they are listening”.
A few weeks before my master’s recital, the phone rang during a timpani lesson with Sal Rabbio, as Charlie was playing his summer gig, the Aspen Music Festival. After a year of opportunities playing the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, a world premiere of Cree Indian Birthing Songs in Carnegie Hall and an east coast tour with H. Robert Reynolds (the greatest band conductor I’ve ever worked with) it was the Grand Rapids Symphony saying they were auditioning for Principal Percussion. I barely knew where GR was but knew my buddy from Colorado, Jim Lancioni, grew up there and his mom, Wilma, played violin in the regional orchestra with less than 20 full-time players. It was part-time and paid $26/service. I won the audition which only attracted 15-20 players and signed on as stage manager as well for $5/hour. I got in on the ground floor and was ready for the challenge.
I moved to Grand Rapids and rented a tiny house for $250/month, started teaching private lessons and playing well-paying Sunday brunch jazz gigs with Aquinas professor Bruce Early and Amway scientist Elgin Vines. Bought my first house a year later with a 15-percent FHA mortgage and moved into a sketchy neighborhood with beautiful neglected homes.
CREATING AN ACCLAIMED, GROUNDBREAKING VIDEO IN GRAND RAPIDS
Met Laura Boomer, a British knockout who changed me from my earthy Ann Arbor long hair look to fashionable early ’80s New Wave. Bought my first Portastudio recorder and started experimenting. The very first thing I recorded became “Percussivision” a video produced by Maggie Annerino and my art guys, Dick Michigan, Michael Soria and Billy Wood as a Grand Valley University project. It ended up on cable TV which had just started in Grand Rapids.
This led to me recording the neighborhood kids jumping “double dutch” in my driveway on a Sony Walkman. I then asked the kids parents if they could come in my house and record to a better microphone in the house with the shades open for all to watch quietly from outside. I then overdubbed percussion and sound effects to create “POP UP” which eventually became a music video that won first prize in the JVC National video competition. Thanks to the lovely and worldly Joanne Hadjiyanis, who further refined my image and tastes, the video had a NY florescent neon look that was right at the front of edge of NY fashion. Fred Baker helped me record the 24-track version at River City studios and we pressed 1000 red vinyl 45-RPM records.
VIDEO: “Pop Up,” Bill Vits
Symphony was going along just fine with young Russian Music Director Semyon Bychkov at the helm. His intensity lit a fire in the orchestral community as the Grand Center was built and I marched the audience from old Civic Auditorium to the new DeVos Performance Hall. The orchestra started to add full-time players and I benefited as Principal Percussion was the last to to be added. My ability to play delicate snare drum, intricate mallets parts and swing the orchestra from the drum set on Pops concerts made me appreciated by all. I soloed on marimba, xylophone and formed the popular Percussion Duo with timpanist Bruce Pulk before David Gross and I continued it for many years. I became known as a children’s entertainer and developed my skills playing to gyms full of rug rats on cold Michigan mornings.
I took a year’s leave of absence to move to Hoboken/Manhatttan in 1984 and seek a record deal with my video, record and an audition for the NY Philharmonic. I quickly realized I was a fish out of water as a Midwest nice guy who didn’t like the big city. I came back to GR with my tail between my legs and resumed being a growing fish in a Michigan pond. I married Anne Rivers whose mother was a folk singer and we moved to East Grand Rapids before she left me for a friend’s photographic brother. I didn’t even see it coming.
Sold my Griggs Street house for no profit but had lived there cheaply and rented the upstairs. The EGR house appreciated quickly as Stacey Rajeski and I reconnected (at the famous Reptile House) both after short marriages. I had finally found my soulmate and within a year we married and had Tabor who was a challenging 22” at birth (at 30 he is now north of 6’5”).
Symphony continued with Catherine Comet on the podium and GR made news with adventurous programming with an infallible, no nonsense French female music director. The orchestra grew and our reputation spread as guest artists realized we had a great orchestra with philanthropic support. My chair was sponsored first by Yamaha, then Peter Wege and finally by the wonderful Edith Blodgett who treated the musicians like family. Her foundations continue to support our orchestra and good causes in Michigan and Wisconsin. We were welcome in her home and I was awarded honorary bartender as I knew how to pour Chevis Regal to her standards.
I’m the first generation of Vits that wasn’t involved in the Mirro Aluminum business which was started by my ancestors in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. When my grandmother passed in 1994, we were financially able to move from EGR to Knapps Corner in northeast Grand Rapids where we had fantastic Forest Hills schools, 1.66 acres of pine trees with an aging Swiss Chalet but a new large pole barn, perfect for renovating for a noisy percussionist with lots of equipment.
After my recording business with Fred Baker ended (actually named Pandemic Music in 1988), I set up recording in my insulated and spacious pole barn. I did CDs with Rick Brunson, Jay Round and even visiting Tibetan Monks (thanks to Glen Freeman and Christina Fong) who lunched with us and blessed our son. I could fake some Tuvan throat singing which elicited hearty laughs from these magical men who basically traveled the world in robes with only a toothbrush.
FUN, HIJINKS AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL WITH THE CONCUSSIONS
The Concussions formed after meeting artist Mic Carlson and Susan Evangelista. Susan’s boys, Tommy (Dick Chiclet) and Chris (Matt Mason) had a trio called the Torpedos with their cousin Johnny “Lightning” on drums. He fell ill and passed suddenly so I stepped in to do a benefit. We added Dave Stanton (Claude Nine) on guitar and we all loved the instrumental magic. (Scroll down for a Concussions video.)
Susan made us Lone Ranger style masks which we wore before finding latex skull masks that became our tortuous trademark. We have played together for 20 years and it’s like driving a hot rod at full speed with my best buddies. Often adored but rarely ignored would be a good way to describe our twangy tube driven ’60s sounds with valuable, obscure gear. We’ve played in 98 degrees, rain and even snow at outdoor beer festivals. Every quirky low paying gig was quite the opposite from my coddled symphony existence. The ride to and from shows was like the comedy den as the brothers could mimic anyone we played or talked to at the show. We met the coolest people who appreciated our intensity and passion.
My symphony career saw me on financial committees and as a musician representative on the Board of Directors with billionaires. I was on the search committees that recommended David Lockington and our affable Pops Director Bob Bernhart. John Varineu and I worked closely for 35 years and could read each others’ minds as we played impossible live movie scores and under rehearsed last minute programs.
Our current leader, Marcelo Lehninger, is a joy to work with and brings lots of exotic Brazilian percussion to the stage while treating our musicians with the utmost respect. My current chair sponsors, Lynn and Stuart White, love our orchestra and have visited my studio with three generations of their family. Stuart travels the world studying birds, who are the original music makers of our planet.
I can name-drop with the best as I’ve played “Bolero” in Carnegie Hall, backed up The Who in Van Andel Arena and played with Weird Al Yankovic in DeVos Performance Hall, all in the same year.
COVID pulled the curtain on my career, but I’m still peeking out to see if it’s safe. Cancer has decided the rest and my roller-coaster ride is picking up speed much faster than I thought. I hurriedly wrote this history for my family, friends, students and fans who helped me every step of the way.
Old drummers never die, they just beat it out of town. Love to all and remember that people listen with their eyes and ears, so put on a show for the cheap seats. – Billy Vits (2022)
VIDEO: Playing the Bones, Bill Vits and Jay Round (Local Spins on WJRW)
VIDEO: The Concussions, “Bulletproof”
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