Gene Krupa was easily one of the most colorful personalities of the big band era. Despite his outrageous stage persona, Krupa was a serious and disciplined musician whose vision changed the role of drummer forever and who helped standardize the jazz drum kit.
Eugene Bertram Krupa was born in Chicago in 1909; he began learning the saxophone at age six but switched to drums five years later because they were the cheapest item in the music store. He played in local dance bands while still in his teens, and in spite of his mother's wishes that he study for the priesthood he decided to become a professional musician.
Krupa made his first recording in 1927 as a member of the Chicagoans, with Eddie Condon and Red McKenzie. He is said to be the first drummer to use both a bass drum and tom-toms together in the studio. In 1928 he worked with female bandleader Thelma Terry. In 1929 he moved to New York, along with Condon and his other bandmates, to work with singer Bee Palmer. When that job fell through they ended up working for Red Nichols in his various pit bands. Krupa also found work with orchestra leaders Mal Hallett, Buddy Rogers, Russ Columbo, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Irving Aaronson.
In 1934 Krupa joined Benny Goodman's orchestra, where he played a major role in its success, and was the propeller for the bands popular “Sing, Sing, Sing.” His wild appearance and drum playing made him a star in his own right. As Krupa's popularity grew tension mounted between him and Goodman, by 1938, not long after the famous Carnegie Hall Concert, the two had a falling out, and Krupa left to form his own outfit.
With help from Tommy Dorsey's managers, Krupa put together an exciting group that made its debut in April on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Female vocalist for that date was Jerry Kruger. Helen Ward joined the band for its first recording session, after which Irene Daye became featured vocalist. Male vocalist for the first year was the ultra-wild scat singer Leo Watson.
Though the band was a big hit in concert, its recordings, first on Victor and then on Brunswick, proved rather dull. It wasn't until the arrival of trumpeter/singer Roy Eldridge and groundbreaking jazz vocalist Anita O'Day that the group finally came into its own. The duo provided a much needed spark that sent the orchestra to the top of the charts with the big hit “Let Me Off Downtown.” The ride, though, lasted little more than a year. Bad times hit in 1943, first O'Day briefly left the group, and soon after her return Krupa was arrested in San Francisco on charges of marijuana possession.