Member Focus - Mike Higgins
Posted November 02, 2020 by
Mike Higgins Casual drummer will play with anyone, anywhere, anytime. (VMA JOB BOARD)
We recently sat down in the Performing Arts Lodge library where nonagenarian Mike Higgins, drummer and VMA member since 1956 resides.
Mike was born in London, England and from an early age was enthralled with live music particularly drumming. He grew up in a council flat where he started practicing on the back of a leather chair using his cycling winner’s cup for a cymbal! He would be hanging out the dance halls, not there for dancing, but to see the big bands, intently studying the drummers. Gradually he got behind a real drum kit and that was the early beginning of his lifelong love for drumming.
In his teens, Mike was worked as an electrician’s helper with an aim to become a certified electrician. This meant he would then spend two years in military service, a government requirement for apprentices at that time. After he finished his army stint, he went on to work for the British Merchant Marine. Through these experiences, Mike’s horizons expanded: “I got to see places I never thought I would ever see: the Middle East, Tripolitania, Ben Ghazi. I went to Scotland, Wales and even the Panama Canal. There was a whole wide world out there for the boy who lived through the London Blitz.
During his travels, he would listen to the foreign radio stations in particular a French jazz one. After seven years, he realized that he needed to go further afield and in 1955, emigrated to Canada , landing in Montreal. By day he was worked the engine rooms of lake boats, but at night you would find Mike in various strip clubs sitting in behind a drum kit. Within a year, having heard wonderful things about Vancouver and its vibrant music scene, he had moved out to the west coast settling in a $7.50 a week single room on Main Street and then shortly after upgrading to a basement suite on Comox Street. In 1956, Mike joined the Musicians’ Union, working the weddings, bar mitzvah’s and sitting in on various gigs. “There was a shortage of drummers at that time.”
In 1958, Mike decided he would move to Los Angeles. ‘I went there to get into the scene and give it a real good shot – make it down there with the Americans. I was studying under Shelly Man of Shelly’s Manne-Hole [Cahuenga Blvd]. I asked him, how do you get the speed and make it looked so relaxed? “Wrist and fingers, wrist and fingers” [Shelley responded]. I was hanging out everyday in Local 47’s rehearsal spaces, amazing place on Sunset Blvd. I really enjoyed being there – the music was right for the time—everyone advised me get as much exposure and lessons and playing as possible and then when you go back to Canada you’ll get work. And I did – jobs came right away. Everyone in Vancouver was going to hear American musicians in the clubs so you automatically came into that class having come from LA.’
By day Mike worked at the Bay as a display man and at night he would be gigging all over town. After 13 years at the Bay, Sears offered him a management position and he moved to Kamloops for five years. Mike still gigged at night, this time in a country and western band: ‘We travelled with two vans full of gear, playing all manner of barn dances, along with flash pots and strobe lights, hay and dust.’
Where would you play?
There were so many clubs in those days, all over the city. Played five nights a week at the Quadra Supper Club with Howie James, The Embassy (now Celebrities) Danceland, Oil Can Harry’s, The Press Club, for Claude Logan at the Roof, the Cave. Then there were all the places in Chinatown, The Forbidden City, the WK [Gardens] and the May-Ling Club. The May-Ling had padded stairs, which really helped the police when they came to haul out a rowdy drunk! I really liked playing with Bruno Dalla Porter’s latin rhythm band at the Bayshore. I’d be playing in Hal Eisman’s big band on Oak street and at the Royal Towers in New Westminster. He pushed me; What’s your job in this band? Playing drums I said. Well you’re playing like the whole band. He said, we play as a unit here, go take lessons. And I did. I played at The Gai Paree and Hoyers on Kingsway, we called those the wedding factories. I started a band called Hooked On Dancing. Ballroom dancing was big in the Chinese community – you had to play the International Ballroom tempos- quick step, fox trot, rumba, cha cha, tango – not my favourite beats but essential for the dancers. I would lock into two good dancers moving in and out of the beat – if you are too busy you won’t be playing.
After hours everyone would head to Penthouse or the Espresso, where musicians would jam until the wee hours of the morning.
Who inspired you?
Oscar Peterson, Tito Peunte.
Did you teach?
I wanted to teach but I didn’t know how so I took lessons from Val Mark, he was a stunt double for Johnny Weissmuller [Tarzan] but also a drummer. Taught me all the names of the techniques, and a must read for any drummer is Ted Reed’s book [Progressive Steps to] Syncopation [for the Modern Drummer]. Always stay one lesson ahead of your student! So I started teaching. I would rent drums to the students – I would recommend to the parents not to buy the drums but apply the rental to the purchase instead in case they didn’t stick with it. I had a microphone up in the ceiling and I would record the students when they first started and then after three or so months would play it back so they would hear how they sounded when they first started.
It is hard to maintain relationships and be a musician. There was a saying that you can tell how long a musician has been playing by the number of wives you have had! Not many could go along with a musicians’ lifestyle. When I was working on the cruise ships my wife at that time says “if you want to stay on the cruise ship you will have to get your own apartment” That was the end of the cruise ship gigs for me.
Tell us some of your career highlights:
Definitely one was playing at the Commodore with Doug Kirk’s Big Band. teaching my students, teaching with Miles Black at Vancouver School of Music. A memorable trip was going down to Port Townsend and taking master classes with Jeff Hamilton, Diana Krall’s drummer.
How do you stay current?
I’m listening to Snarky Puppy, love that band, they are very good. Also, one of the residents here at PAL sends me YouTube drumming videos, what’s hot. I go to Pat’s Pub, it’s the place to be on Saturday afternoon. One of the great benefits of living at PAL is I can break out the drum kit every now and then and play. I have the Metro Senior’s Band too, but because of the pandemic all the community centers and places are closed now so we can’t get together to rehearse .
In closing what would like to say to younger members?
I’m not the average person at my age that has done all these things, but what I have done I would do all over again. You have to get out and do it and keep on being busy, believe in yourself and love what you are doing.