Murray Sheinfeld doesn’t miss a beat – Part 1

Murray Sheinfeld, Conga Drummer, Newton, MA 002

Murray Sheinfeld, Conga drummer, Newton MA, 2002

 As he taps the pads of his practice drum set, Murray Sheinfeld doesn’t miss a beat. A focused, determined look on his face, he glances up – “86 years old,” he says bluntly.

“All from here,” he adds, pointing a drum-stick-laden fist to the left side of his chest.

Sheinfeld has been behind a drum set for most of the past 70 years, hitting the skins for Betty Grable, Frank Sinatra and a host of other singers, bands and outfits. A career moonlighter, Sheinfeld is currently enlisted in four active bands, playing the set, bass drum and congas for Boston-area ensembles, He bangs out swing and big band tunes four or five nights a week, and marches two hours in scorching weather for parades.

And he’s doing so at 86 years old, an age, he points out, at which rhythm and stamina aren’t easy to come by.
“I’m never going to stop.” Said Sheinfeld’s, sitting in his Commonwealth Avenue condo. “What am I going to do, sit around the apartment?”
For Sheinfeld, a thin man with a robust fashion sense, drumming in all he has left locally. His wife of 52 years, Sylvia, died in 1995, his son passed on before that and his only other child lives in Florida. Some would give up on Massachusetts, the only home Sheinfeld has ever outside of being in the service.

Instead, Sheinfeld packs his drums into his white Cadillac, dons a similar-colored tuxedo, and hits the road with one of the bands of which he’s become an integral member.

My whole life was playing.” He said. “I loved every minute of it. It’s like eating a big steak. I play with my heart and soul.”

Sheinfeld’s thoughts began to turn to drums when he was 15. His parents taught him to dance and he soon fell in love with swing music. As an early teenager, he took the wire rims off a pair of milk bottles and patterned makeshift drum brushes, beating them against everything in the house. His parents decided the kid showed promise and to further his talent — while also saving the furniture — they bought him his first drum set. It didn’t last long.

I beat the s—t out of that thing,” he said. In 1941, at the age of 24, Sheinfeld was drafted into the military. He quickly made a name for himself by helping to book talent for base shows and drums for them. Stationed at camps in America and base in London, Sheinfeld kept soldiers entertained during down time.

The bombs were all over the place,” Sheinfeld remembered. “I was just missing bombs in London. They were coming down from all over the place, let me tell you.” While avoiding death, Sheinfeld got to play with traveling acts in London.

While avoiding death, Sheinfeld got to play with traveling acts in to entertain troops, most notably Grable, whom he backed up on set.
“She was unbelievable,” he said. The draft effectively killed Sheinfeld’s plans to go to college to study accounting. But his father put him to work selling the coats he manufactured, allowing Sheinfeld’s talent to blossom at night. He would stand in at bars, clubs and any type of place that would feature music – all just to play.

I used to play in all kinds of joints for a dollar a night.” He said. “I couldn’t lift the drums, they were heavier than I was.” Even though he never drank nor smoked, Sheinfeld enjoyed the club atmosphere. He was at home whenever swing was wafting through the air.
“Those were the days,” he said.

In those days is when he met Sylvia, a striking woman who would often be confused for Liz Taylor. They met on a blind date.
More than her looks, Sheinfeld was in love with her willingness to be with him despite his hectic schedule.

A musician should never be married, especially a good one. You work all day and play all night. It was tough. It was a tough life,” he said. “I used to come home, eat supper and then put on my tux and go play.”

One of those nights brought together Sheinfeld and Ol’ Blue Eyes. Sinatra played a club in Boston and needed a drummer – the local union hooked him up with Sinatra. “Sinatra is the best swing singer who ever lived,” said Sheinfeld, who relished the chance to play with him.
Sheinfeld got that opportunity by not settling with one band. Rather than see the same people and play the same music day after day, Sheinfeld decided then to keep himself strictly freelance.

I never liked to do steady work, one-night stands mostly,” he said. “I like variety.”
Now Sheinfeld plays with the America Legion Post 156 marching band put of Waltham, a Shriners swing band, the Natick-based Sweet Little Big Band and Soft Touch, a swing orchestra that donates all of its profits to music charities. Soft Touch has raised $135,000 over the past few years, according to Sheinfeld, donating to Berklee School of Music and setting up music instruction scholarships for high school students.
“We don’t get paid, nobody in the band.” Sheinfeld said. “We help kids, that’s what the function is.”

Sheinfeld plays conga drums in the 18 piece Soft Touch band, which he hopes to bring to more audiences. “A lot of people don’t know about us,” he said. Sheinfeld has been encouraged by retired musicians to move down to Florida. But for him, this is where the action is. This is where the happening joints are. “I say, leave me alone, will you,” Sheinfeld explained. “ I’d rather play than eat.”
~ Written by Matthew Call, Staff Writer, Newton Tab, Aug 2002

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