Let’s begin the story of Paul Leim not at the beginning but more recently, one night at a restaurant just south of Nashville.

Every Friday night for some 16 years, I’ve played piano at this place called Saffire. Musical big shots are often in the house, but most of the customers are “normal” folks.

One night after the last set, one such customer invited me over to the bar for a drink. He introduced himself to me as Paul. He mentioned that he was a drummer, which didn’t surprise me at all — musicians, after all, are a common sighting in Music City. In any event, he proved to be a good guy to hang with at the end of a gig.

Then, maybe a month later, came the assignment from Drum to interview one of Nashville’s most experienced, versatile, and in-demand drummers. His name also happened to be Paul. The coincidence didn’t register until the afternoon I drove up to The Palace, a venerable nightclub near the Grand Ole Opry, to attend a press event that he would be hosting.

It turns out that this was the drummer I’d met at Saffire — Paul Leim (pronounced “Lime”). Not being one to toot his own horn, he’d given no hint that night of his countless tours and sessions, including several #1 hits, over a 50-year career in the industry.

More Than Country

Leim has played innumerable sessions in Nashville. As one might expect, most of them have been country dates. Many of those have been with some of the genre’s biggest stars on many of their greatest hits, including multiple #1 singles by Kenny Chesney, Rosanne Cash, Billy Currington, Lonestar, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Sawyer Brown, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood, and Trisha Yearwood.

And that’s just the beginning. He’s also played on Hollywood blockbusters (Dirty Dancing, Terms Of Endearment, Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi), hit TV series and specials (Growing Pains, Spenser: For Hire, Wonder Woman, Battlestar Galactica, The Dukes Of Hazzard), recorded and performed with artists in an array of genres (The Monkees, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, ad infinitum, adding up to more than 300 million records sold).

Perhaps most important of all to Drum readers, Leim is also a four-time recipient of a Drummies! Award in the Country Music category. The honor is both illuminating and a little misleading.

“People here think I’m a country drummer,” says Leim, relaxing on a recent afternoon at the home he shares with his wife, Jeanie. “But other people know me as a big-band drummer. Others know me as the jingle guy from Dallas, Texas, in the mid-’70s. And still other people know me as the TV and movie guy from Los Angeles.”

He smiles and shakes his head, as if he doesn’t quite believe his own résumé. “But that’s what I always wanted. I remember one night in 1974, when I was playing with this terrific singer named Vicki Britton. Her manager was talking with us and he said to me, ‘Tell me what you want to do with your life.’ I said, ‘I want to live in Los Angeles. I want to fly to New York and do sessions. Then fly from there to Dallas just in time to make the next session, get back on the plane, fly back to Los Angeles, walk into a studio to do a movie or a TV show or play with an artist. Then I want to get back on the plane and fly to Nashville.’”

Leim laughs. “I couldn’t have described any better what ended up happening!”

Sharpen Those Drumsticks

To put all of this into context, it’s best to begin about three years after Leim was born in Port Huron, Michigan, the son of a machinist and shop supervisor. That’s when the family moved down to Dallas and from there to a hilltop farm in East Texas.

While neither his parents nor their two daughters played music, they did collect a lot of records. Their playlist emphasized big-band jazz with occasional departures, such as the glittery duets of pianists Ferrante & Teicher. Leim absorbed it all, and when he received a snare drum as a gift from his grandfather in third grade, began paying it back, one stroke at a time.

“I was already beating on everything,” he remembers. “By the time I got that first snare, I knew just how sharp you had to make a No. 2 pencil so it would bounce correctly without the tips breaking off. I knew exactly how many turns to make on the sharpener. I drove my parents crazy. I drove my teachers crazy. I played all the time.”

What he didn’t do was take any lessons. “But,” he adds, “I feel like I learned from the best players in the world. I listened to every song I could that had Hal Blaine on drums. He had great ideas for songs. He wouldn’t play the same way with different artists. For each one he always did some special little thing.

“I use that same approach myself now, with Kenny Chesney,” Leim points out. “A lot of people think that piccolo snare drum on his records is a programmed sound. In fact, I play it myself. And I only use it for Kenny’s records. After I’d done that on four or five of his albums, he came into the drum booth one day and said, ‘Is that the little snare you’ve been using on my records?’ I said, ‘Yeah. We call it a popcorn snare. I only use it with you.’ And he said, ‘Oh! I appreciate that!’”

In his formative years, Louis Bellson was Leim’s primary inspiration. “When I was nine years old, a family friend brought Duke Ellington’s ‘Skin Deep’ to our home,” he says. “When I heard Louis’ double bass drums, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. When I was ten years old I practiced and practiced to Louis’ solo, even though by that time I had only one bass drum.”

Leim also got hold of and studied the Haskell Harr instructional books. When still in second or third grade, he persuaded the high school band to let him sit in with them during football games. Of course, he did local band gigs too, one of which led to his first step toward a full-time career in music.

With The Marauders, all of whom were in their early 20s, 15-year-old Leim was playing an evening concert at Bergfeld Park in Tyler, Texas. As they exited the stage, a local radio DJ named Rodney Camel approached Leim. “He said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a metronome in your head. How would you like to play on records?’ I said, ‘I want to play anywhere I can play.’ He said, ‘Can you be at my studio on Tuesday?’ I said, ‘I’ll have to ask my mom.’”

Leim’s mom ended up driving him to Robin Hood Studios, which had impacted the music world far beyond the Tyler city limits. It was here that John Fred & His Playboy Band cut their chart-topping “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” and ZZ Top would later record Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, and other early releases.

Soon Leim was working nearly every day at Robin Hood. As a newlywed at 17, he was obligated not only to finish his schooling but also to provide for his family. After enrolling at Tyler Junior College, he combined studio work with studies, giving drum lessons two days a week and playing at a honky-tonk five nights a week. Clearly, something had to give.

The solution presented itself in his music theory class one day. “I kept falling asleep there,” Leim explains. “So this one day the teacher woke me up and asked what was going on. I described what I was having to do to earn a living for my wife and me. He said, ‘Well, you know, nobody can make a living playing music. You have to teach.’” I went, ‘I’m already making a living playing music.’ Then I asked how much money he made. He said, ‘A tenured teacher can make maybe $30,000 a year.’ And I said, ‘I plan to make a hundred thousand a year.’

“So I quit.”

Moving On Up

Soon after that Leim hit the road with a cover band that featured Vicki Britton on lead vocals. Whenever he was back home, he did sessions at Robin Hood.

When Clint Murchison, who owned the Dallas Cowboys at the time, invited Britton to headline with a residency at a club he had just built in Dallas, Leim and his wife relocated there. He started doing jingles in local studios, including all the American Airlines commercials and assorted radio callouts you can still hear on stations all around the US.

“I even had to sign a non-disclosure agreement when I was about 18 for one session. Esso and Enco were going to merge into Exxon. We were doing the music for the commercials but nobody could know. That made me feel really important,” he admits, with a laugh.

Another opportunity soon beckoned.

One of the top writers in Dallas, Phil Kelly, had been booking Leim on corporate shows and big-band sessions. He was also a friend of jazz trumpet virtuoso Doc Severinsen, so when word came down that the drum chair in his touring band had opened up, Kelly put the two together.

By 1976, Leim was doing weekend dates with Severinsen, tracking 450 sessions per year in local studios and taking calls to back Ella Fitzgerald and other headliners at the Fairmont Hotel. He owned a 3,600-square-foot house in the posh Royal Lane estates, complete with a swimming pool, and a private airplane as well. He was only 26 years old.

And yet he left it all behind to try his luck in an even bigger market. Many of the top players he knew in Texas had moved on to Los Angeles — bassist David Hungate, guitarists Dean Parks and Larry Muhoberac, and drummer Ronnie Tutt among them. These connections, plus his ongoing work with Severinsen, drew him out West as well. He and Jeanie bought a house in Van Nuys, where their neighbor was first-call session guitarist Mitch Holder. When they decided to put a band together, Holder brought in his friend Abraham Laboriel to play bass. They played at Dante’s, The Baked Potato, and other SoCal jazz spots long enough to raise Leim’s profile in the community.

Session veteran Jerry Scheff, who was playing bass at the time with Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, took note and brought Leim into his first major LA studio assignment, subbing for Gordon Mills on a Tom Jones date. Jones’ arranger, Johnny Harris, hit it off with Leim and started booking him for all of his major film and television gigs.

Once again Leim seemed to have sailed improbably to the top of another competitive scene. It was redemption for Leim, whose first trip to LA a few years prior nearly ended in disaster for the fledgling drummer.

A Drummer’s Nightmare

Leim had actually recorded in LA before relocating from Texas. When MGM signed Vicki Britton and booked her into their studio, she brought him along. Just 19 or 20 years old at the time, Leim arrived early at the studio to set up his drums. “Then these guys wearing gloves and baseball caps backwards start moving in these big instrument cases. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, these musicians in LA are so busy, they have moving companies for their gear!’ I didn’t even know the word ‘cartage.’

Larry Carlton’s case came into the room. Max Bennett’s case, Victor Feldman’s case … and then these horn players show up. It was a ‘simul-date,’ with all the parts going down at once. I started getting scared.

“Then I heard someone mention Artie Butler, who’s a great arranger. I’m thinking, ‘Did he rearrange all the music?’ Well, of course he did! They put this stack of music in front of me, and when we started running it down I got lost. I played what I remembered playing with Vicki instead of what was on the page because I kept running out of sheet music. After about four run-throughs, I saw Artie go in and talk to the producer. They came out and said to me, ‘You’re not ready.’”

A few phone calls later, John Raines showed up to take over the drum parts. “And I went running down Fairfax, completely broken in two. I was screaming! I grabbed this guy on the street and said, ‘Where’s the Santa Monica Pier?’ He says, ‘It’s ten miles from here! Why do you want to go there?’ I said, ‘I want to kill myself.’ And he said ‘Kid, sit down here on the sidewalk. It’ll wear off.’ This was 1970; he thought I was on LSD or something.”

Eventually Leim returned to MGM Studios. As the producers listened to the music they’d tracked with Raines, Leim looked more carefully at the sheet music — and realized only then that he’d been looking at the first page, not knowing that he only needed to flip it to get to the rest of the chart. “If I’d just done that, I’d have probably gotten through the session,” he recalls. “But that was a big turning point. I had to either go back to Dallas and be a club drummer for the rest of my life or get somebody to teach me how to read my ass off.”

With his friend Paul Guerrero agreeing to run him through the paces, Leim did sharpen his reading to the highest studio standards. More important, he learned a broader lesson: “I learned to always be over-prepared.”

What he hadn’t yet learned was that his traveling days weren’t quite over yet.

Keep It Simple

Leim’s calendar in LA expanded to include work with Chesney, Rogers, and, both before and after his dabblings in country music, Lionel Richie. More and more in the ’80s, he found himself flying to Nashville. Eventually, for professional and quality-of-life reasons, it made sense to him and Jeanie to make the move to Music City.

It didn’t take long to become a fixture in town, apparently the last stop on his odyssey. At this point he’s able to look back on a panorama of unusual variety. With all the genres he has played, whether with symphony orchestras or in roadside dives or on the spectacular big-screen “Elvis: The Concert Tour” retrospective, he is able to identify their differences and follow their common threads, as the situation demands.

“Tempo and groove,” he begins. “I had to develop a sense of tempo in Dallas when I was doing jingles. This was before click tracks. I was the click track. I got to where I could look at the chart, count the number of bars, do the math and know what tempo I had to play. If we ran down a one-minute cue and it came to 61 seconds, I’d say ‘Okay, one more.’ And I could speed the next take up to get it to 59 seconds, with one for the ring-out.

“Club drummers don’t have that kind of discipline,” he continues. “I’m not putting them down, but their role is different. They want to build energy into the performance, so they play faster and faster, not just within particular songs but from night to night. Pretty much the whole show is at the same tempo. The dynamics, the feel, just blur into every song. Most of the audience is drinking so they assume it really doesn’t matter. But I know it matters a lot.”

Styles, as well as studios and live shows, also demand unique approaches. For example, Leim notes, “When I do a big-band record in Nashville, the engineers often bring the bass drum up in the mix. ‘You’re playing it so softly,’ they’ll tell me. But I’m playing softly for a reason. In big-band music, you shouldn’t hear the bass drum until I want you to hear it, for a horn kick or whatever. Big-band doesn’t feel like this,” Leim says, thumping quarter-notes with his foot. “It feels like this,” he adds, fingers snapping a backbeat.

And always, no matter the style of music, Leim preaches the gospel of keeping it simple. “When I do a Kenny Chesney [session], the first thing he says is, ‘Guys, I want you to slam this. I want a lot of energy.’ Or as Mutt Lange put it when he was producing Shania Twain, ‘Play it Neanderthal, man! Don’t play the little notes in the middle. Play the big notes’ — just the kick and the snare, right. That’s how I found out the simpler I play, the more money I make!”

Home At Last

Today, as he and Jeanie look forward to their 50th wedding anniversary in July, Leim continues to seek out new challenges. That day at The Palace, he and Dukes Of Hazzard star John Schneider were unveiling Artist Studio Access, an ambitious program that involves releasing one song each week, along with a video documenting how each was recorded. The aim is to do an end-run around a faltering industry by other means of distributing and monetizing music.

The point is to keep pushing himself, keep finding something new to tackle. “I’m not the youngest kid on the block anymore here in Nashville,” he says. “And I wouldn’t want to start over again now. I wouldn’t know how to do it. I don’t even know how I did do it! I guess I just prayed really hard, and people would show up in my life and take me under their wing. I guess I had the talent to not disappoint them.”