The "Cocktail" Drum Set by Liam Mulholland
Drum! Magazine, Vol.6, Issue 2, March/April 1997
The Carlton King Combination 1948 - 1952
World War II had only been over for a couple of years. Yet, once again the streets of the world became an unsafe hang for anybody's daughter. Thousands of drummers who had previously been in the armed forces were once again turned loose to practice their profession. The popularity of American Big Band swing jazz had spread throughout the planet by allied troops listening to armed forces radio.
Gene Krupa was the man, and his influence probably doubled the number of people who wanted to drum and play with a band by the end of the war. With so many new and old drummers (and other musicians) looking for work - coupled with a different economic situation (more workers than jobs) - many of the big bands began to fragment into smaller dance bands, quintets, quartets and trios.
Out of this uncertain time of experimentation emerged a new form of jazz music, centered around a smaller group of players utilizing a more open, improvisational style. This type of music became what we now call bebop. The stars who made it great were people like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach.
But not everybody could play like Max Roach. There were lots of new drummers out there, all competing for the same small combo gigs. In response to this, the drum companies, as a marketing strategy, pushed an advertising gimmick that is still used to this day - "The person with the most innovative drum gear gets the gig". Portability coupled with a unique appearance (which made you stand out from other drummers) was the key in marketing the cocktail or jobbing kit.
The example in the picture shown above is an early variation, and a rather extreme one at that. The Carlton King Combination was actually a British invention that was in production from 1948 to 1952. It featured a 20" floor tom supported by a massive hollow cast aluminum base. A cable connected through the base and out to a pedal that operated a timpani-like tuning mechanism inside the tom, allowing its pitch to be raised and lowered. A second pedal swung a beater vertically up against the bottom head of the tom, which approximated a bass drum. An arm folded out from a brace on the side of the big tom that held a snare basket for a 61/2" X 14" snare drum. Also included were several clips and mounts to hold arm attachments for cymbals, cowbells and woodblocks.
This unit, according to the advertising literature, was designed for use in cramped orchestra pits in London's West End theaters. The brochure went on to say that it served its purpose admirably by enabling "an incredible simulation of tribal beats and intonations for the 'Indian Love Call Dance'" for one particular British theatrical show.
Although the Carlton Combination was more compact than a standard drum set, it was only marginally more portable. It was heavy, required several cases and wasn't quick and easy to hook up, thanks to the cable-linked pedal. It's probably for this reason that out of "hundreds of kits ordered by eager music stores," only three Carlton Combination outfits exist in the world today, to my knowledge (send me your photos!).
Major American drum companies such as Slingerland, Gretsch, Rogers and WFL (soon to be reunited as the Ludwig Drum Co.) didn't begin to offer what is generically termed a cocktail kit until the mid 1950s. When the American kits first started to appear, they were different enough to perhaps land you a gig, but were very similar in appearance to the Carlton kit of "Indian Love Call" fame. Wisely, the American development took a different tack by leaving out the timpani pedal apparatus.
The initial American versions, which were referred to as Combo, Jobber or Be-Bop kits, were based on the idea that many American drummers had decided to downsize their kit for small group work. It was around this time (late '40s to early '50s) that the major drum companies moved from the large-size drums needed to propel a big band (including a 26" bass drum) to something that would comfortably push a quartet, such as a 20" or even 18" bass drum and 12" and 14" toms. Early cocktail kits took this concept a step further by enhancing more utilitarian aspects. A typical kit consisted of an 18" x 20" tom that could be mounted upright with a vertical pedal and snare drum on a swing-out or separate stand. This large central drum was equipped with a metal top 20" tom hoop as well as a wooden bass drum hoop on the bottom side, which allowed the drum to be placed on its side as a bass drum (the pedal and cymbal arms could also be adjusted to accommodate the drum in this manner). Usually, a 4" x 14", a 4" x 13" or even a 3" x 13" snare drum was offered with the kit. With this set, theoretically, you could do your happy- hour gig, pack everything into two cases, load it into a cab or a bus, and make your polka/bingo- night gig across town with minimum hassle.
The second version of the cocktail kit debuted a bit later on in the '50s. Initially these were basically confined to a single stand-up 14" x 28" drum with snares under the top head and a vertical pedal (and couldn't be reversed). As time went on, companies began to shorten the shaft of the drum from 28" to 26", and finally, in some cases, even down to 23". Expensive versions of these kits would have outrigger toms, snare drums and cymbal/doodad holders, and cheaper models came without the vertical pedals, snare wires or even bottom heads. This version of the kit reached heightened popularity during the late '50s and early '60s when America rediscovered Latin rhythms, especially the bossa nova from Brazil. The "Girl from Ipanema" was not so much a sultry dream composed by Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, but was instead a bosomy retread with beehive hair and a "come-hither" look singing slightly off-key and side-sticking a tall red sparkle drum in Danny's Dew Drop Inn.
The final version of the portable kit appeared before the notion of rock and roll drums and big amplification made the small kit obsolete (until recently). A 12' or 14" x 18" bass drum was mounted with a single stand coming up from the middle containing a small snare drum. I doubt that many people bought these units, because they disappeared in the space of about five years. By the mid '60s, cocktail kits were history as the trend was to go to larger kits and bigger sizes once the rock thing had taken off.
As we know now, the current retro trend in drum making has revived the cocktail set. Ayotte and Yamaha have produced current versions that allow us to see what our predecessors were up against. Have you ever tried to stand up, balance your body weight, work a bass drum pedal (and maybe hi-hats), maintain a comfortable back position, and groove for an hour or two? Do we understand why we don't hear much about Slim Jim Phantom anymore?
Special thanks to Jeff Parkhurst for finding, typing-up, and passing on this article!
Also thanks to Liam Mulholland for permission to post his great article.