NYC Musician Drums up support

Shawn Pelton donates to UCM, Warrensburg High

By Kathy Strickland

UCM Magazine 2020 Pelton

One has been on stage with Bruce Willis, Lady Gaga, John Goodman, Jimmy Fallon, Katy Perry, Chris Pratt, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Jim Parsons, Seth Rogen, Melissa McCarthy, Blake Shelton and Charlize Theron, to name a few.

The other has shared the spotlight with Ryan Gosling, Eminem, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Natalie Portman, Will Ferrell, Chadwick Boseman and Tina Fey, among other stars.

Now they’ve both come to Warrensburg — to stay.

These two drum sets have been generously donated to UCM and Warrensburg High School, respectively, by the man who played them on the set of “Saturday Night Live.”

Shawn Pelton grew up in Warrensburg, Missouri, and first discovered jazz at the age of 11 when he saw Duke Ellington (pictured below circa 1946-48) perform in Hendricks Hall in 1974, just a few months before the legendary musician passed away.

Duke Ellington 1946

The concert had such a profound influence on Pelton that he purchased a silver-sparkle drum set from the local Ike Martin Music Company with money he had saved from his paper route for the Daily Star Journal. His mother, UCM professor emerita of physical education Elois Pelton, still has the receipt.

“I grew up always banging on things,” Pelton says, noting Folgers cans were a favorite. The first instrument he played was the cello at Central Elementary School, UCM’s former laboratory school, but he “bailed as soon as possible to the drums.”

By age 14, Pelton was playing gigs in Warrensburg, Sedalia, Higginsville and Kansas City. He remembers a vibrant concert circuit featuring artists like the Nace Brothers, Diamond Jim and Brandy.

“Warrensburg was such a great place to grow up,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to have had access to the music department at UCM.”

During summer breaks, Pelton participated in UCM’s jazz and band camps and even traveled to Springfield, Missouri, for a Stan Kenton Band Clinic.

In 1981, Pelton continued his musical studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, the site of the first Stan Kenton Band Clinic. He had the good fortune of spending summers in Boston with Alan Dawson, a music teacher at Berklee College of Music, a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a teacher of Tony Williams, drummer for Miles Davis.

While in Bloomington, Pelton took lessons with Kenny Aronoff, an Indiana University graduate who had also studied with Dawson. Pelton watched Aronoff make it big as John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s drummer when the single “Jack and Diane” soared to the top of the charts in 1982. When Pelton graduated in 1985, Aronoff recommended him for a gig that landed him in New York, where he has resided ever since.

“When you’re freelancing in New York, you end up doing so many different things,” Pelton says of recording and touring with a broad range of famous musicians from a myriad of genres. “I pinch myself to think I’ve been a part of Grammy-winning records and able to record with artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow, another Missouri native.”

Pelton also has recorded with Billy Joel, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant, Van Morrison, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Rosanne Cash, Carly Simon, Pink, Shakira, Kelly Clarkson, George Michael, Chris Botti and Buddy Guy, among many others — not to mention those who have shared the stage with him on “Saturday Night Live.”

Pelton’s stylistic versatility really comes into play in the SNL band. Having also served as a standin for David Letterman’s CBS Orchestra and Conan O’Brien’s house band, Pelton says his steady gig is different because it’s actually live. “The fact that it’s a live show means there’s really no safety net when things go wrong,” Pelton explains. “Actors can forget lines, and there have been times when pieces of the set have fallen over.”

Unlike Pelton, who has been SNL’s drummer since 1992, a set of drums only lasts two seasons on the show. After amassing a sizeable collection from Drum Workshop, which regularly sends new sets for him to rotate out, Pelton generously decided to pass some equipment on to his hometown schools. In March, 57 boxes of drums, stands, cymbals, drumheads and music technology arrived in care of Michael Sekelsky, a former UCM percussion instructor, assistant director of bands and associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. (The boxes are shown taking over Sekelsky's garage below.)

Pelton Drum Delivery

Sekelsky had previously arranged for Pelton to lead a drum clinic in Warrensburg in 2000, when his mother retired from the university, and again in 2014, when Pelton also performed in Hendricks Hall with UCM’s jazz ensemble.

“Having access to all the music at UCM was really positive and motivating to be around,” Pelton recalls fondly. “It’s so great to be able to come full circle and give back to the place that inspired my career.”

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