What Xerox is to copying machines and Kleenex is to tissue, Remo is to drumheads: a trademark that has become virtually synonymous with an entire product category. Remo Belli, the man behind the product, did more than anyone else to introduce the world to synthetic drumheads. With his passing, the industry has lost one of the few individuals deserving of the much-overused phrase "icon”. Not only did he revolutionize a product, he built a world-class company and spent an entire career promoting the benefits of drumming with an unmatched zeal.
While the origins of rock ‘n’ roll remain the subject of debate, it's safe to say the genre would never have gotten as far as it did without Remo's synthetic head. Previously, drumheads were laboriously made by wrapping calfskin around a wooden hoop. As rock 'n' roll gained traction in the early 1960s, driving demand for drumkits, the makers of calfskin heads were simply unable to keep up. Remo's Mylar solution, dubbed the "Weather King" because it was impervious to climate, saved the day, providing drum makers with enough heads to fill their growing order books.
The story behind Remo and his drumhead is a classic entrepreneurial tale. Born in Mishawaka, Indiana, Remo developed his interest in drums at an early age, watching his uncle's polka band at the local Italian Club. His father urged him to take up the accordion, but he was determined to play drums. Remo, who often said the market for musical instruments was made up of "compulsive" musicians who had no choice but to play and "impulsive" musicians had only a passing interest, placed himself squarely in the "compulsive" category.
By the time he entered high school, World War II had broken out and all the local drummers had been drafted. As one of the few drummers left in Northern Indiana, he soon had more gigs than he could handle. The varied performance experience honed his skills, and when he enlisted in the Navy at 18, he was immediately assigned to the Navy band.
After receiving his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles and began his career as a professional drummer. Starting in saloons, he quickly graduated to touring with singers Anita O'Day, Betty Hutton, and a host of other notables. When he was off the road, he was a first-call studio drummer.
Although Los Angeles had five drum shops at the time, Remo didn't think any of them were serving the market properly. In 1950, with $2,300 borrowed from his parents, he rented a small space on Santa Monica Boulevard and opened Drum City. It quickly became a destination for top West Coast drummers.
Drum manufacturers began actively courting Remo, not just because Drum City was a growing customer, but because his proximity to leading players gave him unique insights into the market. On a visit to the Slingerland Drum Company in Chicago, owner Bud Slingerland asked for his opinion about a new head, made from Mylar, Dupont's revolutionary new plastic film. Remo was impressed with the material, but immediately realized that a new technique was needed to attach it to the rim; tacks just didn't work.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Remo's accountant put him in contact with a chemist named Sam Muchnick, who devised an innovative solution: punching holes around the edge of the Mylar head and using a fast-setting liquid resin to bond it to a u-shaped aluminum hoop. The unique bonding system was patented in 1957, and Remo immediately began head production in a 500-square-foot space adjacent to Drum City.
As with any new invention, Remo's synthetic head initially drew criticism from purists who argued that it "wasn't the same as calfskin." He responded by marshaling an all-star list of endorsers including Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa to vouch for the musical quality of Mylar heads. As demand for drumkits soared, manufacturers and retailers enthusiastically embraced the new head, and by the time the Beatles made their U.S. debut in 1964, the Remo Weather King had become the undisputed head of choice.
In the early 1980s, Remo developed a "Pre-Tuned" head, which involved tensioning Mylar film on a hoop without the use of any hardware. This invention led to the development of a broad line of world percussion instruments. It also dovetailed with Remo's personal interest in drumming as a tool for enhancing human well-being. He explained, "Drums can be used by anyone for relaxation and enjoyment. They can be used for helping people with Autism or Alzheimer's, or for someone just showing up at a recreation center on a Tuesday night having a ball." With his wife Ami, an MD practicing alternative medicine, he partnered with neurologists and education experts to develop wellness-based programs using rhythm.
Remo committed himself and his company to providing drummers, the world over with quality products and programs while striving to expand the acceptance of rhythm and in particular drumming as an integral component of an individual’s wellbeing. Through his ongoing efforts, the professional, the enthusiast, children, the elderly, those at risk and those faced with both emotional and physical challenges have been brought to the joy of drumming.
Remo Belli made the world a better place by giving drummers better tools, by pioneering the concept of music as a means of enhancing health, and by creating a valuable enterprise that employs hundreds. His name, emblazoned on millions of drumheads worldwide, is a fitting and perpetual epitaph.