Martin Grupp, the percussionist who provided the stuttering pulse for the Drifters’ “On Broadway” and later went on to become the musical contractor for a hit Broadway show, died July 16 at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. He was 90.
Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Grupp was the last in a line of seven generations of musicians. His father, David Grupp, was timpanist for the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini.
On the bandstand and in the recording studio, Marty Grupp played with a different constellation of musical superstars that reached from the Big Band Era to the Great White Way. Grupp provided rhythmic drive and propulsive accents for Kate Smith, Johnny Hartman and Jackie Gleason; Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone and Quincy Jones.
Grupp became a musician against his family’s wishes.
“His father wanted him to be a lawyer,” said Brenda Simon, his wife of 15 years. “When Marty applied to Juilliard, his parents didn’t know about it until he got the accepted - and then he had to tell them.”
Until his last days, Grupp had a wonderful memory and great memories to go with it, she said.
“People loved to hear his stories,” Simon said. “He was always very fast with a retort and a quip.”
After graduating from the celebrated music school at 19, Grupp joined the U.S. Army, was stationed at West Point and joined the band. Grupp served as a paratrooper - briefly - during World War II, Simon said.
“The Army wanted to make it look like we had more troops during one campaign,” she said. “So they flew a bunch of the musicians to Europe and parachuted them in. The next day they flew them back home. He might have been overseas for all of 20 hours.”
At the end of the war, Grupp became a studio musician and became a key element of the “Brill Building Sound.” His claves and triangle brought a sparkle to 1963’s “On Broadway” and dozens of other pop hits.
“He’s probably on 5,000 records,” Simon said. “We would drive down the Shore with the radio on one of the American Songbook stations. He would recognize the record and could tell you what studio it was recorded in. He had an unbelievable memory.”
As a percussionist, Grupp was in high demand. With up to five assignments a day, he ran from recording studio to recording studio, often transporting his huge drums across the length and breadth of New York City.
Several of his gigs landed him in the orchestra pits of live Broadway shows. Through the connections he made in the theater and a talent for organizing projects, he became a musical contractor, a job that required him to gather the right musicians for new Broadway shows, Simon said.
“Man of La Mancha” starring Richard Kiley, which opened on Broadway in 1965, was his first contracting assignment.
“Marty said that on opening night they didn’t know if it would be a success or not,” Simon said. “So they escaped to Coney Island, ate hot dogs at Nathan’s, and much, much later, returned to Sardi’s.”
At Sardi’s, the famed restaurant in the Theater District, they learned the show had been greeted with ecstatic reviews. "La Mancha" went on to win five Tony Awards and run for more than 2,300 performances.
Grupp provided similar contracting duties for numerous other Broadway productions while also working for Merv Griffin and David Frost on their TV shows in New York, Simon said. He remained musically active through the early 90s, working with an array of artists that included John Barry, Tony Bennett, Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli, Simon said.
In 1999, Grupp gave up New York for Philadelphia after meeting Simon in Atlantic City .
“We met at the pool,” she said. “He saw this girl with blonde hair and long legs and said ‘I could go for that.’
“Now I wasn’t in a glass candy case. He wasn’t going to win me just by asking,” Simon said. “So he moved to Philadelphia.”
Grupp continued to make trips to the City to hang out with friends at Sardi’s until undergoing surgery last year to replace a heart valve.
“He had his ups and downs,” Simon said. “But he still looked good. He may have been 90, but you would meet him and you would never know it. He was still doing his New York Times crossword puzzle, had a full head of hair, and was really upbeat.”
In addition to his wife, Grupp is survived by his daughters Linda Antico and Carol Wilson, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Services were private. Contributions in his memory may be made to The Legacy Fund at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19123 or ORT America, 248 Geiger Rd., Suite 104, Philadelphia, PA 19115.