What do Chaka Khan, Maynard Ferguson, David Byrne, Police guitar player Andy Summers and Brian Wilson all have in common? At one time or another the musical pistons that have driven the sound of these performers was supplied by the Brian Setzer Orchestra's own percussive tour de force, Bernie Dresel.
Bernie was driven to a career in music by the same inspiration as Brian Setzer. Look no further than Liverpool, England. At the age of two Bernie clearly remembers his Grandmother buying him the Fab Four's American debut, "Meet The Beatles". Unlike Brian's desire to play the guitar, the young Bernie was moved by the beat of Ringo's Ludwig drum kit.
The Dresel family, who lived and still do in Sharon, PA near the Ohio border, were very supportive of their son and purchased him a series of paper-head toy kits before realizing that it would save them money to actually buy him a small pro kit. Those paper drum heads were no match for this toddler's version of All My Loving. By the age of 3 Bernie's folks attempted to get him some drum lessons, "Too young, come back next year" was the response from the local drum teachers. When he was 4 they were told the same thing. Finally, at 4 1/2 years of age the instructors agreed to give this persistent young boy a chance with a trial lesson. The response after that trial, "Why didn't you bring him sooner?".
From that time and up until Bernie was 8 years old his playing was limited to a drum pad and a snare drum. At that point, after y enrolled in music school.
During his high school years Bernie supplied the backbeat to the wildly popular local band, Starbreaker. We can only hope that footage exists of this outfit so that someday we'll be able to get a glimpse of them on VH1's "Before They Were Rockstars". Incidentally, any rumors of a Starbreaker reunion and subsequent Japanese tour were squelched by Bernie himself.
After high school Bernie headed to Rochester, NY to the Eastman School of Music where he studied classical percussion. Upon graduating in the spring of 1983 he did what alot of musicians who want to earn a living do, he moved to Los Angeles. Bernie recalls that his first big gig after moving west was a 2 week stint in Las Vegas at the Alladin Hotel backing up former Dean Martin Gold-Diggers, the Albaricci Sisters. Upon completion of that job he went on the road for 5 months with the vocal group, The Lettermen. Oddly enough the Lettermen's leader, a gentleman by the name of Tony Butala also hails from Sharon, PA. This coincidence however had nothing to do with Bernie landing the gig.
During the next several years, our man Bernie did loads of session work and built quite a reputation as a reliable and brilliant musician. He's played with Maynard Ferguson, Talking Head David Byrne, The Rippingtons and Chaka Khan, in addition to doing a lot of session work. You probably didn't know that Bernie lent his considerable talents to television show scores like Dallas, Knots Landing, Deep Space Nine, Suddenly Susan as well as many cartoons including The Simpsons and Pinky and The Brain. The list of movie scores that Bernie has played on are too numerous to mention here.
One of the highlights of Bernie's burgeoning career was actually performing with his idol, Ringo Starr when the Beatle drummer appeared on the English television series, Dame Edna. One of my favorite Dresel projects is the beautiful work that Bernie did on the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks CD, Orange Crate Art from 1995. You can also see another side of Bernie on the new Andy Summer's CD, a tribute to Thelonius Monk, entitled Green Chimneys.
The story of the garage jam session that ultimately became the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra is at this point almost legendary but for the uninitiated, the story goes that a neighbor of Brian's invited him over to his house where he and various musician friends were playing some impromptu jazz.. Brian grabbed his guitar and a small practice amp and amazed the gathered by not only keeping up with them but actually adding something very relevant to what they were playing. The rest is history as they say.
So when did Bernie enter the picture? When Brian began assembling band members to form this unheard of big band with an electric guitar as the lead instrument, Bernie's phone rang. Unfortunately, he had prior commitments and at this point had to turn down the offer to rehearse and do what would become the first two BSO shows.
A short time later though, Bernie's phone rang again. Apparently, this new musical project was still breathing and did he have time to rehearse and do a couple of shows? This time Bernie's schedule allowed him to participate. Not being familiar with Brian's work outside of his hits with Stray Cats, Bernie prepared himself for this experience by borrowing a friend's rockabilly music collection. It was Bernie's impression that perhaps the drummer who played the first couple of BSO shows took too much of a traditional big band approach and that maybe what he should do was try to create a new style that fused what he assumed Brian loved about rockabilly with the more sophisticated playing of a traditional big band drummer. Well, whatever percussive stew Bernie cooked up in his head during this point in 1992, certainly worked.
Throughout the last few years with the BSO Bernie has played with several bass players but not until the addition of Mark Winchester on a very definite "slap-bass" has the rhythm section of Brian's experiment totally come together to create that Grammy award winning sound that you've come to love. Mark's playing style to put it in Bernie's words was a "Big kick in the butt" that has given Bernie even more musical freedom to grow in what is without a doubt the only band of it's kind.
As I wrap up this look into the life of the pride of Sharon, PA, I want to add that if there is any doubt that Bernie is a living percusive instrument you should hear the following: After my conversation with him in his Atlantic City hotel room I took Bernie to my parent's home to enjoy some hardshell crabs. I'm not sure if anyone reading this has ever invited a drummer to their home to eat a meal that requires the diner to crack open crabs with a wooden mallet but if you find youself in this position, think twice. We are still picking crab shells out of the wallpaper and ceiling tiles. Bernie, next time we'll have flounder.