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Jerrie Thill: She's 91 and still rocking (and there's a new YouTube video to prove it)

February 5, 2009 |  3:14 pm

Jerriethill What do you get when you combine a 91-year-old female drummer on an oxygen tank; an eccentric, Grammy-winning songwriter; and one of L.A.'s funkiest, hyper-local galleries? A party that will likely be unlike any you've ever attended.

The drummer is Jerrie Thill, a spunky phenom from the Jazz Age who still performs at the El Cid in Silver Lake. The songwriter is Allee Willis, who has penned a wildly diverse catalog of tunes including the theme to "Friends," the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance" and "The Color Purple" musical. The gallery is Ghettogloss, the tiny Silver Lake-salon-that-could. The fortunate union of the three is in celebration of the YouTube premiere of a music video called "Hey Jerrie," directed by Willis and starring Thill.

The video features a catchy, jazz-driven number that Willis wrote and animated photos from Thill's life of drumming (featuring almost as many era-defining styles as I have fingers), interspersed with footage of Jerrie, as she is today, swinging her brushes above her head and pleasantly tap, tap, tapping on her kit.

"I generally like very offbeat talent," explains Willis. "But Jerrie is just a fine musician." Willis had already made a number of music videos featuring herself as her alter-ego "Bubbles" when she discovered Thill, who was playing her monthly Sunday gig at El Cid. Willis was immediately bowled over by the spunky nonagenarian. "I adored being around her," she says.

Willis was also taken by Thill's remarkable history. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1917, Thill began playing professionally at 18, working as a drummer, singer and bandleader in Chicago. She came into her own during the post-Prohibition era, playing in "juke joints," Willis says.

From 1935 to 1938 she was the leader of an eight-piece, all-girl touring swing band, and in 1945 she moved to L.A. to become the in-house drummer at Hollywood's Flamingo night club. In 1974 she joined Peggy Gilbert's Dixie Belles and toured with the group for two decades. Over the years she's performed on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and made guest appearances on shows like "The Golden Girls," and "Married With Children."

When Willis began making the "Hey Jerrie" video she went through Thill's collection of old photos, scanned them into her computer and began the process of animating them. "Getting to see the entire scope of her life was incredible," says Willis. The other aspect of Thill's life that Willis paid close attention to was Thill's oxygen tank.

"The tempo of the recording is timed to the little bursts of oxygen that come out of it," Willis says. "I think it might be the first time that oxygen has been used as percussion."

Percussion isn't the only thing that Thill's oxygen tank is being used for these days. At the Ghettogloss party tonight Thill will be giving "free hits of oxygen" to anyone who shows that they've sent the YouTube video's link to a friend on their cellphone. "You can choose your flavor of oxygen," Willis jokes. If oxygen isn't your thing, there will also be cocktails, conviviality and plenty of art.

"Hey Jerrie" will go up on YouTube at 5 p.m. today. The music video launch party at Ghettogloss goes from 6 p.m. to midnight. 2380 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 912-0008.

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo from www.jerriethill.com