Timmy Willis, professional drummer for 52 years, talks about what piqued his interest in the instrument, his love for videography, and his ties to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH).

By Alexander Oh

Not many people can say they have held the same passion for half a century, but Northsider Timmy Willis can. He’s been drumming professionally for 52 years.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Northside, Willis has performed with the likes of Rated X, The Hot City Band, and The Marcels. He’s played at some of the most notable music venues in Pittsburgh including Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.

Though an experienced and recognized drummer, Willis continues to approach his craft with the same fervor and passion he had when he was younger. Only the magnitude of Willis’ aspirations has changed through the years. Instead of playing in small clubs for intimate crowds, he now wants to orchestrate larger performances complete with
choreography, wardrobe, and musical arrangements.

“That’s why you don’t see me playing out in the clubs—Not that I think I’m better than that, but it just doesn’t excite me,” says Willis. “If you want to get together, take off six months, go down to the basement, and put a professional act together, then count me in.”

Willis says he contracted “drum fever” by frequenting parades with his mother as a child. He’s been drumming professionally for 52 years. Photo courtesy of Willis.

Comparing concerts to classrooms, Willis considers himself an expert on the art of entertainment. According to him, it’s a craft that separates the professional from the amateur. Unfortunately, Willis feels as though he rarely gets to implement his expertise, claiming that the Pittsburgh music scene caters more towards smaller, less established groups rather than nationally recognized acts.

Willis contracted “drum fever” by frequenting parades his mother took him to when he was a child. He disassembled toy drum kits and disseminated the pieces of them to each of his friends. Together, Willis and his friends would march down the street, filling the neighborhood with the raucous sound of drumming that only children are capable of.

“That’s what got me interested. That’s what got me to ‘bite,’ so to speak,” says Willis. “The concussion of the drums as they went by, it would excite me.”

Willis wanted to play the drums immediately, but the school system told him he had to wait until fourth grade. He went on to join the elementary school orchestra and was recommended that year for All-City Orchestra, which is composed of the most talented musicians in the City of Pittsburgh’s school system. Growing up, Willis says his
greatest musical influence was none other than the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown.

Willis with James Brown, who he met through his first wife. Photo courtesy of Willis.

“My mother would let me sit up late at night to watch him on Johnny Carson—even on a school night,” says Willis. Little did Willis know that one day, he would be
related to the famous singer-songwriter. Willis spent two years playing music with a female singing duo in New York, then traveled to Dallas, Texas in 1985 to play with a band he had previously worked with. There, he met his first wife*, who noticed Willis was watching a recording of Brown and nonchalantly said ‘Oh, you like my uncle, huh?’ It was a comment that Willis did not—could not—believe at first.

Another one of Willis’ long lasting interests is videography. He remembers the Super 8 camera that his sister lent him to film his sixth-grade graduation: It was incapable of capturing audio and shot only in black and white. He later used the same camera to produce a two-hour documentary about his childhood in the Northside.

Willis says he’s always tinkered with videography, and started hosting his own show on PCTV21, called “The Timmy Willis Show,” in 2007. She show airs every Friday night at 8 p.m., Channel 21 on Comcast and Channel 47 on Verizon. Photo courtesy of Willis.

“I’m a one-man production company,” says Willis chuckling lightly. “I’ve always tinkered with camera and video.”

He now has his own show on PCTV21, which he single-handedly birthed in 2007. It’s called “The Timmy Willis Show,” and on it, he interviews musicians from all over the country. Airing every Friday night at 8 p.m.*, the show has featured talented musicians including Roger Humphries, Charlie Thomas, and Dolores “Dee Dee” Kenniebrew.

“Everyone has a story and I was able to tell some of these remarkable stories,” says Willis on what he finds most rewarding about the show. Willis also works as a Floor and Project Technician at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), a job he’s had for nine years. He says he’s had a lifelong connection with the hospital: It’s the place where his mother had her first job, his older sister and younger sister were born, and where he received vaccinations as a child.

“But most of all I love people!” says Willis. “Working at AGH gives me many opportunities to show that love by helping people, whether [they are] patients, visitors or co-workers.”

In addition to hosting and producing his show, Willis continues to play drums for The Marcels. Recently, he has been focusing more on his faith by conducting Bible studies and preaching door to door.

Timmy Willis says he contracted “drum fever” by frequenting parades with his mother as a child. He’s been drumming professionally for 52 years.

Willis says he’s always tinkered with videography, and started hosting his own show on PCTV21, called “The Timmy Willis Show,” in 2007.

*Corrections: In the print version of this story, we incorrectly noted that Willis’ current wife is related to James Brown. We also incorrectly stated that “The Timmy Willis Show” airs on Saturday nights. It actually airs on Friday nights.