After 35 years, one of Reno’s hottest big band drummers is still working some powerful chops
“I’m a third-generation musician,” says jazz, big band and fusion drummer Tony Savage. “So it’s truly in my blood.”
After more than 35 years as a professional musician, Savage remains one of the most dedicated and passionate among percussionists. A man of diverse talents, Savage helped arrange strings for Merle Haggard’s latest album, Unforgettable, on Capitol Records in Nashville. No matter how markets change, Savage remains at the top of the highly competitive music game.
At a recent performance at EJ’s Jazz Café, Savage began a solo with finesse—nothing wild, nothing uncontrolled. Just a satisfying display of pro musicianship. Silken rolls were punctuated by thunderous attacks on the toms. Never dropping a beat, Savage put the sticks down and worked the heads with his bare hands, pounding out complicated Latin riffs and triplets.
But life isn’t always easy for even the most talented musicians. Savage notes that at age 50, hauling heavy drums in and out of clubs several nights a week “gets old.”
Savage has been a realtor for more than 15 years. He’s currently working at Trendwest. His career hasn’t kept him from playing local venues, but in an entertainment market inundated with more talent than venues, Savage admits his finances have sometimes caused him concern.
“Over the last 20 years, Reno musicians’ pay hasn’t kept up with the cost of living,” Savage notes, “and gas isn’t getting any cheaper.”
An honorary board member of the For the Love of Jazz Society, Savage feels corporate ownership of hotel-casinos has also contributed to lack of appreciation for live music.
“People hire disc jockeys for up to $1,500 per appearance when they could have live musicians for the same money,” he says. “Talented musicians are losing work to DJs, who can’t provide the excitement of a live band. “I’m disappointed over some aspects of our local music scene.”
Savage is simple, direct and sobering about what a life dedicated to percussive perfection has cost him: “two marriages.”
The Savage life
When playing his first set at age 4, young Savage displayed surprising syncopation. He had his first band before he turned 9. He studied with more than a dozen drum teachers, and by the late 1960s, he’d played professionally at the Mapes, the Ponderosa and the Riverside, making a then-sizable $400 per week. By the time Savage was 16, he’d played numerous gigs at the biggest showrooms in Reno and Lake Tahoe.
In 1973, he graduated from high school a year early and majored in music studies at UNR.
“It wasn’t easy playing two shows up to six nights a week at Tahoe and getting back home to Reno at 3:30 in the morning when I had to be in class at 7:30,” he says.
“Work went like that, constantly ‘run and gun,’ for two and a half years,” Savage recalls. “Then, just before I turned 18, I scored a two-week gig with Engelbert Humperdinck. He asked if I wanted to tour with his band, and I said, ‘Bye-bye, college!'”
For the next 12 years, Savage toured 32 weeks each year with Humperdinck’s group. His drum work is featured on Humperdinck’s live album, but the singer always hired other musicians when recording in a studio.
Jeff Sturges served as Humperdinck’s conductor and musical director for more than 33 years. He remembers many occasions when Humperdinck called Savage the best drummer with whom he’d ever worked. Sturges describes Savage as a humble servant, who delivered his best performance at all times.
“Tony was just a kid when we hired him,” says Sturges. “But night after night, he continued to be exactly what Engelbert and I needed—a powerful and wholly professional drummer who drove the band like it was the most important thing he’d ever done.”
Two weeks after Savage signed on with Humperdinck, the band played a Royal Command performance in Monaco for Prince Rainier, Princess Grace and their children. During his tenure with the famous singer, Savage also played for Queen Elizabeth and the royal family at the London Palladium, backed by the Royal London Symphony.
In 1978, Humperdinck’s biggest hit, “After the Lovin',” increased demand for live concerts. Savage and the Humperdinck band continued to dazzle audiences around the globe. Television talk shows became regular venues, and Savage remembers playing the stages of Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall, and many U.S. TV specials and jobs in Britain, Canada and Australia for the BBC.
Since then, Savage has drummed for such showroom events as Grease, Smoky Joe’s Café, and Little Shoppe of Horrors. He’s backed celebrities like Patti Austin, Barry Manilow, Sammy Davis Jr., and bands like Yes and the Jackson 5.
Savage loves to listen to the drummers who influenced his powerful style and rock solid showmanship.
“Of course, one of the best drummers ever was Buddy Rich,” Savage says. “But Gene Krupa really turned drums into a soloist’s instrument. Another drummer with great chops was Jack Sperling, one of the first jazz drummers to use a double bass drum. I loved Sperling because he was melodious. When he played a solo, the melody line remained part of his drum work.”
Savage also enjoys the performances of a number of local drummers, including Chuck Hughes and UNR’s Dr. Andy Heglund. But there’s one person in particular he feels deserves greater recognition.
“To me, the consummate drum performer is still my old teacher Gerry Genaurio,” says Savage. In his early 70s, Genaurio freelances with local bands and plays local showrooms with stars like Debbie Reynolds.
In 1997, Savage co-founded the Reno Jazz Orchestra with lead trumpeter Jack Caudill. Their vision brought world-class jazz players together in one group to preserve the experience of live jazz and maintain its artistic integrity.
An icon of the American music scene, composer Patrick Williams serves as artistic director for the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles. He came to Reno to work with Savage and the RJO on Savage’s “Legends Concert Series” in 2003 and 2004.
“Tony is one of the finest big band drummers I’ve ever worked with,” says Williams. “[He’s] in the lineage of greats like Tiny Kahn, Mel Lewis and Don Lamond.”
Williams agrees with some of Savage’s views on the changing music scene.
“It’s not so much a talent crisis as an audience crisis,” Williams says. “If they don’t care to hear [live] music, how can it survive? We are seeing an erosion of great American music in the cancellation of music programs in schools and, generally, education in the arts being treated like scurvy.”
Yet Savage has managed to make it work. When he’s not selling real estate or out listening to music, he’s playing with ensembles in Reno clubs including EJ’s, Siena’s Enoteca Jazz Lounge and the Hyatt and Northstar at Tahoe. He frequently appears at Moody’s Jazz Bistro in Truckee. Then, of course, there were the arrangements on Haggard’s album, for which he replaced his drumsticks with a pen and conductor’s baton. He remains busy but plays what, when and with whom he pleases.
“After more than 35 years in the music industry, I believe I’ve earned that right,” he says.