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Fred Below

Fred Below, b. September 16, 1926 in Chicago, IL, d. August 14, 1988 in Chicago, IL, blues drummer, best known for his work with Little Walter and Chess Records in the 1950s. According to Tony Russell, Below was a creator of much of the rhythmic structure of Chicago blues, especially its backbeat.

Below was born in Chicago and started playing drums in a high school jazz band. After being conscripted into the United States Army, he joined the 427th Army band, in which he played with Lester Young. After service in World War II, he played in a nightclub in Germany before returning to the United States in 1951. Back in Chicago, Below joined the Aces, a band comprising the guitar-playing brothers Louis and Dave Myers and the harmonica player Junior Wells. In 1952, Little Walter left the Muddy Waters band to pursue a solo career, Wells took over his role on harp in the Muddy Waters band, and Walter commandeered the Aces (the Myers brothers and Below). As Little Walter and the Nightcats, they became one of the top electric blues bands in Chicago. In 1955, Below left Little Walter's band to concentrate on working as a session musician for Chess Records. However, he continued to play on Little Walter's records. He also played on hit records for Waters, Wells, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf and others. Below worked with bassist Willie Dixon, Little Walter, and guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. on John Brim's last single for Chess, "I Would Hate to See You Go" (1956). Among his more famous work, he played on Chuck Berry's 1957 hit single "School Days". Below rejoined the Myers brothers for a tour of Europe in 1970. Below died of cancer on August 14, 1988, in Chicago, at the age of 61.


by Michael Erlewine
Fred Below was born in Chicago on September 16, 1926. Below played drums in high school and went on to study percussion at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion. Primarily a jazz drummer at the time, he played bebop and joined the Army as part of the 427th Army Band. After the service, he returned to Chicago in 1951 to find that blues gigs were what was happening. Jazz was in a lull. Then Muddy Waters drummer Elgin Evans introduced Below to a group called the Three Aces -- Junior Wells (vocals, harp), Louis Myers (guitar), and Dave Myers (bass) -- who needed a drummer. As a jazz drummer, Below did not know blues drumming and it was a rough fit at first. The next big event came when Little Walter (on the sudden success of his instrumental "Juke") quit the Muddy Waters band and was replaced by Junior Wells. Little Walter then joined the Three Aces, which he had been itching to do because Muddy Waters did not play in the uptempo style that Walter was into. Little Walter and the Four Aces (later renamed the Jukes) were a perfect fit and this four-piece electric blues combo became the hottest band in Chicago. It is hard to overestimate the effect of this band on the Chicago music scene, and a large part of this success is due to the refined and elegant drumming of Below. He plays on almost all of Walter's greatest hits. He was in total demand for recording sessions. Everyone wanted him and he recorded for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Dinah Washington, John Brim, the Platters, the Moonglows, the Drifters, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and many more. Fred Below & the Aces pretty much created the standard for the blues shuffle beat. Below also was known for his use of the ride cymbal, the wood block, tom-tom fills, and many other embellishments. Just check out his drum solo on Little Walter's classic tune "Off the Wall."