Thomas Earl “Tom” Float, legendary marching percussion performer and instructor, passed away at the age of 69 on October 3, 2022 after a six-year battle with cancer. Best known for his tenure with the Blue Devils Drum & Bugle Corps (Concord, California), he also taught Spirit of Atlanta (Georgia) and Oakland Crusaders (Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada), and was inducted into the Drum Corps International (DCI) Hall of Fame in 2004.
Born on November 19, 1952, Float was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he marched with the Golden Triangles Drum & Baton Corps. In 1969, Tom moved to California and joined the Diplomats Drum & Bugle Corps from Lynwood. Float majored in sociology at UCLA and attended graduate school (for a business degree) at both York University in Toronto and Georgia State University in Atlanta.
In 1971, Float joined the Anaheim Kingsmen Drum & Bugle Corps, and the following year, he marched in the snare line alongside his friend Ralph Hardimon (who would go on to teach California’s Santa Clara Vanguard). In 1972, the Kingsmen won the first DCI championship and Float continued marching with the corps until he aged out in 1974.
“Tom and I joined the Kingsmen on the same night,” Hardimon remembers, “and we became forever friends. In the 1980s, we became big rivals in the competitive world of drum corps: Blue Devils versus Vanguard. Tom was a wonderful man, admired by everyone in the marching percussion world who had a chance to meet him. He was full of knowledge, talent, and was oh-so-much fun!”
In 1975, Float worked with the Freelancers (Sacramento, California) before moving to Canada to teach the Oakland Crusaders. Thanks to his efforts, the Crusaders’ drum line was one of the best in the activity, winning drums at the 1977 DCI Prelims in Denver even though the corps placed 15th and did not make finals that year.
In 1978, Float joined the Spirit of Atlanta, where he met his future wife and musical partner, Catherine. During his four years with Spirit, the drum line finished in the top four, tying for first place (aka “High Drums”) with the Bayonne (New Jersey) Bridgemen in 1980.
Left: Tom Float (4th from left) marching in the Anaheim Kingsmen snare line in 1972. Photo courtesy of Ralph Hardimon
Right: Scott Johnson, Tom Float, and Ralph Hardimon at a DCI Championship. Photo courtesy of Ralph Hardimon
Bob Morrison, founder of Quadrant Research and a fellow member of the DCI Hall of Fame, knew Float for over four decades. “Tom’s contribution to the marching arts is immense, and his impact has been passed down the percussion tree lineage he started. It lives in all those he taught who have gone on to teach others…and will live further as the branches of the Tom Float tree continue to grow. My condolences to all of those he taught, all those who worked with him, all those who marched with him, all those inspired by him, to his family and friends, and to the love of his life, Catherine.
“I first met Tom when I was a rookie with the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps in 1979,” Morrison recalls. “We were on tour to the West Coast when we found the Spirit of Atlanta truck in an accident on the side of the road. Our drum line helped unload their brand-new Slingerland drums. We met up with Spirit at a rest area where Tom had the Spirit percussion members give their new drum keys to the Crossmen members as a gesture of thanks and respect for helping them out. Tom shook our hands with that grip and finger snap.”
Beth Gottlieb, a drum corps alumni and current member of the Lt. Dan Band with Gary Sinise, remembers when Tom Float came to Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama. “Tom was my first real drum instructor and recruited me to join Spirit of Atlanta. He put me in the snare line with ten guys, and I grew up fast and tough! He was the most inspiring, funniest, toughest, and awesome teacher I ever had. I will sorely miss Tom and his love of percussion.”
In 1982, the Floats moved to California and Tom began his nine-year career with the Blue Devils (1982–90), which included two world championships (1982 and 1986) and four consecutive “High Drum” titles (1983–86). The “four-peat” was a record that held until 2016 when Santa Clara won its fourth drum trophy in a row.
Scott Johnson, current Percussion Arranger and Caption Head for the Blue Devils, as well as a BD alumnus, taught alongside Float from 1982–88. Johnson recalled the 1983 season in a 2013 interview with Percussive Notes. “That was one of the cleanest drum lines I’ve ever been associated with. 1983 was one of those magical seasons. We won percussion that year by a full point, which I think was the largest spread from first to second.” The Blue Devils drum score was 18.9, followed by the Phantom Regiment with a 17.9.
Neal Flum, Marching Percussion Director for Pelham High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was a member of the Blue Devils drum line. “Like so many of us, Tom Float changed the trajectory of our lives for the better. I would not be where I am today if he had not given me the opportunity he gave me in 1983. He was truly one of a kind and an amazing teacher and arranger who changed the landscape of marching percussion. As one of my friends once said, ‘There was no clean like Tom Float clean’.”
In a 1986 interview with Modern Percussionist, Float described how he decided on the drum solo. “I usually try to pick something that I think would be fun for the players to play and that has some musical interest to the average person. It also has to be something that I could listen to about 50,000 times and still like it, because I’ve got to! [laughs] Nobody wants to play a solo, or hear a solo, or have to work on it for a year if it doesn’t get the players excited. So I go for something that’s going to satisfy all our needs.”
Following his years with the Blue Devils, Tom and Catherine moved back to southern California, and Float worked with the Velvet Knights (1992–94). He was also a longtime Disney performer, as a member of the 12-person Magic Kingdom Korps and Disneyland’s “Trash Can Drummers,” a trio that was always an audience favorite. Float (in the center) can be seen performing at Disneyland in this YouTube video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6FACg_hFhk.
Float also worked with hundreds of high school and college programs across the country and gave marching percussion clinics around the world. As recently as this past fall, he was teaching drummers at Alhambra High School in southern California.
In 2011, Float became involved with Tama Drums and was instrumental in their launch of a line of marching percussion products. Over the past decade, he could often be seen in the Tama exhibit booth at PASIC, DCI, and state music educator conventions, demonstrating the equipment to a new generation of drummers.
Dennis DeLucia, a member of the DCI, PAS, WGI (Winter Guard International), and World Drum Corps Halls of Fame, was sorry to hear of his friend’s passing. “I admired Tom for his passion, talent, and success at a very high level. Every place he taught — Blue Devils, Spirit, Etobicoke, Disney — became wonderful, ‘clean as a whistle’ drum lines. It was a challenge, honor, and privilege to compete against his lines.
“Tom was always gracious and funny,” DeLucia continues. “Living on opposite coasts, I did not have the opportunity to interact with him as often as I would have liked. The drum corps activity will miss him dearly.”
Tom’s widow, Catherine, simply states, “He was many things to many people. To me, he was my light, my love, my life, my universe.”
Left: Tom and Catherine Float at PASIC 2015. Photo by Lauren Vogel Weiss.
Center: Tom Float performing at Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Ralph Hardimon.
Right: Tom and Catherine Float at DCI 2017. Photo by Lauren Vogel Weiss
John Wooton, Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, was honored to be both a fan and a friend. “Tom was a true legend in the rudimental drumming community. Heaven just got a lot cooler because Tom has got to be the coolest human I ever met.”
Scott Johnson remembers his friend, mentor, and fellow DCI Hall of Fame inductee. “I learned so much from Tom about drumming. But more importantly, I learned it’s not always about drumming; it’s about the hang, telling stories, the camaraderie, and just being good friends. You are already missed, my brother.”
Ralph Hardimon, a member of the DCI and PAS Halls of Fame, adds, “Tom’s greatest contribution in marching percussion was his ability to win, win, and win almost ALL of the competitions year after year. It was because his teaching techniques and musicianship were at the highest level possible! Tom and Catherine were both ‘gems’ in the world of marching percussion.”
Float himself agreed during his MP interview: “One of the best things that’s happened to me, as far as teaching goes, has been my wife, Catherine. Ever since she’s been with me — from when she was in the Spirit of Atlanta mallet line to when she was on the [Blue Devils] staff — that’s when the stuff has been getting good. I think the two of us work very well together, and hopefully, we will have continued success both on and off the field.” And they did.