Famous drummers: Alex Duthart


Today, we remember the great drummer, Alex Duthart (1925-1986), a huge figure in the pipe band world. Alex was destined to be a pipe band drummer. His father, John, an Ulsterman, was a drummer in the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War. Initially, Alex learned his drumming in the Craigneuk Parish Church Juvenile Pipe Band. Later, he joined the Dalzell Highland Pipe Band. However, by 1957 his talent was becoming known widely and in 1957, John K. McAllister, Pipe Major of Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band, approached him to form a drum corps. Duthart’s corps won the drumming title at the World Pipe Band Championships that year, and Shotts also won the overall title, as it did again in 1958, 1959 and 1960.

Duthart remained at with Shotts until 1982, with the exception of the years 1964-1967 when he led the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band, and 1968 to 1969, when he led the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band.

Alex Duthart pioneered a new style of pipe band drumming at a time when pipe bands were becoming more adventurous in their musical selections. He was also known for his drum salutes, introducing elements such as back-sticking and stick clicking to pipe band drumming.

In 1982, Duthart joined the British Caledonian Airways Pipe Band. While playing for this band he suffered a fatal heart attack while lined up to play in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City on 27 November, 1986. Duthart’s influence on pipe band drumming cannot be overstated. Pipe band drumming today would not be where it is without Alex Duthart. Among his pupils were John Scullion, Jim Kilpatrick and Alex’s son, Drew, who is the Leading Drummer of the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band.

This tribute was penned by Seumas MacNeill at published originally in the February 1987 Piping Times, shortly after Duthart’s death.

Seumas MacNeill
Seumas MacNeill

The world of pipers and drummers was shocked to learn of the sudden death in New York on November 27th [1986] of the greatest drummer of them all, Alex Duthart. He had been playing with his band, the British Caledonian, in Macey’s Thanksgiving Parade, when without warning he collapsed from a heart attack and died almost immediately.

It is difficult to assess, and impossible to over-estimate Alex’s influence on drumming techniques and styles over the last 30 or 40 years. Taught originally by his father his ambition was to become a percussionist in a sympany orchestra, but initially, through the family interest in pipe bands, he joined the Dalziel Highland Pipe Band where his brilliance and musical flair immediately attracted considerable attention. But as he said himself afterwards, it was not until he heard a performance at Cowal by the Clan Macrae Pipe Band that he stiddenly realised the potentialities of pipe band drumming. From that moment he decided to devote himself to the snare drum.

With Dalziel he won the first of his 14 world drumming championshps and it was not long before all the top bands were anxious to persuade him to take over their drum corps. Born in Wishaw it was almost inevitable that his choice would fall on the next-door Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia, and there in 1954 he began a long and fruitful association with the pipe majors from the famous MacAllister family.

Dalzell Highland Pipe Band in 1948.
Dalzell Highland Pipe Band in 1948.

However, the increasing importance of pipe bands in Scotland, and eventually throughout the world, were to bring a number of unexpected changes. In 1964 the directors of Invergordon Distillery decided to promote their own pipe band, with a view to winning the world championship and so no doubt bring considerable attention to their product. They secured the services of Donald Shaw Ramsay as pipe major and on his advice approached Alex Duthart to take over the drum corps. Alex’s answer more than surprised them. He was perfectly happy playing with Shotts, so he set what he thought were impossible conditions, and asked in fact for the cream of Scottish (and Irish) pipers to be  signed up before he would consent to join. Undismayed, the organisers came to terms with Kit Reynolds in Northern Ireland, Jim Hutton of Muirheads, Alex’s own close friend and associate, Bert Barr from the Shotts, and altogether a formidable array of the best stick men in the business.

So Alex and his wife, Cathy and the family found themselves at Invergordon for two years. The band did not quite win the World Championship — they were second to Muirheads — but Alex and his drummers won the World Drumming Championship.

The band was dissolved due to a change of boardroom policy, but not before they had made a recording which is still today a monument to a tremendous achievement. On it they recorded a piobaireachd — the first time this had been attempted by a pipe band. The tune was The Old Woman’s Lullaby and the percussion arrangement by Alex Duthart (who himself played the bass drum) is something to listen to with awe and admiration.

Alex Duthart in the late 1970s.
Alex Duthart in the late 1970s.

His return to Shotts was via the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, but it was not long before he was winning world championships again. Altogether he won the Championship with three different bands, and if he had lived he would surely have made four.

Some years ago he gave up his trade as a blacksmith and became a full-time drummer. Premier Drums were happy to sponsor him and to take him on a tour of the United States to promote their products. He had never given up his interest in other types of drumming and for a time he was employed by the Education Department to teach percussion of all kinds in the schools. Eventually, however, the demand for his services became so great that he had to cut down on elementary teaching and concentrate on higher grade work.

It was my privilege to introduce him to the North American summer schools — at the 1,000 Islands School in 1974 and then to California and Timmins. Once  people had met him and heard him teach and play there was an unending demand for his services, so that this past year he had spent 17 weeks teaching at various schools between Canada and the United States.

I always admired his introductory talk on the first morning at every school. ‘There is no easy way to learn the snare drum,” he advised. “The only road is straight doon the middle.” Having issued this warning he then made learning such a joy that very few of his pupils ever felt it to be a chore.

As a travelling companion and during the leisure time at schools or engagements he was the very best of company. As a raconteur he was supreme, with stories and comments delivered with wit and precision, always in the good Scottish tongue of Lanarkshire which sounded so much better than any attempt at refined English. All of us who knew him have adopted many of his catch phrases. “Now hear this” he would say, and “Haud on” as with hand outstretched, head tilted and a mischievous gleam in his eye he prepared to put us and the rest of the world to rights. He was a great trouper. Even if he had only been a moderate artiste he would have been worth his place on any concert platform, or on the faculty of any summer school.

But Alex Duthart was the greatest drummer of this century. He had only to play in a solo drumming competition to win it. It is said that he gave up this kind of activity many years ago for all the best reasons. His ability was recognised, with awe and admiration, by drummers in other spheres of music, some of them earning fabulous fees compared to Alex.

The College of Piping’s 1974 1,000 Islands Summer School in Ontario. Alex Duthart can be seen in the centre. Others in the photo include Iain MacFadyen, Duncan Johnstone, Seumas MacNeill and Angus J. MacLellan.

His value as a pipe band drummer was greatly enhanced because of his keen interest in the music played by the pipers. He knew all the tunes well although he did not play the pipe himself. His other instruments were whistles and flutes, which he played with great dexterity. The tune he made for his own drumming idol, Paddy Donovan of the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band in Dublin, is well worth playing.

Some years ago after judging in Ottawa he suffered a heart attack which landed him in a Canadian hospital for a few weeks. Since then he was perhaps living on borrowed time, but, apart from care with his diet and the fact that he gave up smoking, no one could have told. He lived his life to the full, gave great pleasure to many thousands of people, and it is perhaps fitting that the very centre of the entertainment world — the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway — was the place where he died.

Alex with a drumming class in California.

The funeral service was held on Wednesday the 3rd of December in Coltness Memorial Church, Newmains, close to Alex’s home. A huge crowd attended, including the whole of the British Caledonian Pipe Band who played before the service and then in procession to the graveyard. Messages of sympathy had been received from all over the world and some of Alex’s closest friends had flown the Atlantic to be present. The weather was cold and wet as befitted our thoughts at that time, so that the television cameras had difficulty in finding convenient locations from which to convey the story to the whole of Scotland.

After the interment the drum corps played a drum salute that had been composed by Alex himself. Finally, Harry MacNulty, Pipe Major of the band, played a lament.

The world has lost a great man, Scotland has lost one of the jewels in its crown. Our sympathy at this time goes out to Cathy, their daughter Kay and three sons, John, Alastair and Drew.

* Watch a clip of Alex Duthart’s B-Cal drum corps playing a drum fanfare. Jim Collins, Bert Barr, Arthur Cooke and Alex make up the snare quartet. This is from the late 1970s with Seumas MacNeill doing the introduction: