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Sonny Greer

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Biography

Sonny Greer (13 December 1895–23 March 1982) was an American jazz drummer, best known for his work with Duke Ellington.

Greer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and played with Elmer Snowden’s band and the Howard Theatre’s orchestra in Washington, D.C. before joining Duke Ellington, who he met in 1919. He was Ellington’s first drummer, playing with his quintet, The Washingtonians, and moving with Ellington into the Cotton Club. As a result of his job as a designer with the Leedy Drum Company of Indiana, Greer was able to build up a huge drum kit worth over $3,000, as well as chimes, a gong, timpani, and vibes.

Greer was a heavy drinker, as well as a pool-hall hustler (when he needed to retrieve his drums from the pawnbroker), and in 1950 Ellington responded to his drinking and occasional unreliability by taking a second drummer, Butch Ballard, with them on a tour of Scandinavia. This enraged Greer, and the consequent argument led to their permanent estrangement.

Greer continued to play, mainly as a free-lance drummer, working with musicians such as Johnny Hodges, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Tyree Glenn, and Brooks Kerr, as well as appearing in films, and briefly leading his own band. He was part of a tribute to Ellington in 1974, which achieved great success throughout the United States.

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