Shadowing the Saints of Rhythm
Let’s begin here at home.
The many gigs and recordings.
The accomplished drummers in my past and to this day who shine rhythm and light on my world.
A lifeline of grooves from the local beats’ makers: Mark Kelso, Everton Paul, Rick Gratton, Terry Clarke, Archie Alleyne, Jim Casson, Kevan McKenzie, Paul DeLong, Davide DeRenzo, Larnell Lewis, and on.
I base this entry on chance encounters, recording sessions, concert performances, and jam sessions with drummers of universal influence. The storied players whose work is admired, studied, transcribed and the foundation of contemporary music.
I devoted a good part of my early life to listening and concentrating on the rhythm makers. The beats men. The dynamic swing drivers, the shopkeepers of soul, the funksters, the brazen, the heavy-handed. Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Paul Motian, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd, Sonny Payne, Ringo Starr, Peter Erskine, Tony Williams, Alvin Taylor, Jim Keltner, and so many others. Invariably, it’s about the ‘pocket’ over chops for me. That zone between one and four I feel securely at home.
The concerts I saw as a teenager opened me to the masters: Joe Morello, Payne, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Clyde Stubblefield, and others, and got the brain guessing. What if one day, a situation would materialize whereby I’d find myself ten feet from one of my heroes, and what would that be like to be trapped in a swirl of deafening beats, fearless swing, a ruthless backbeat, and juicy fatback?
Along the way, those opportunities presented themselves.
Round One: I’d caught the Count Basie Orchestra from afar in the Louisville Coliseum and up close at a Musicians Union, New Year’s ball 1964, and never witnessed a performance like Basie anchorman Sonny Payne. Payne stiff-armed swing - something unexplainable about how he defended the groove and shoved it along with such fervour and goodwill. The eyes locked on the cymbal work from atop and beneath. The drum rolls that would arise from nowhere, climaxing in a sonic boom just when the orchestra was about to peak. The effect was thrilling. It was also the physicality of Payne’s playing. The sleek look of rhythm. Body movement is choreographed to the beat. This is from Frank Sinatra’s favourite drummer. I wrote about Payne and this night in my memoir, Coming Through the '60s.
Payne and I hooked up on the third night of a weeklong stopover at Duke’s, an after-hours joint on Paradise Valley Road in Las Vegas, 1968. The FBI had removed both bassist and guitarist from the stage - Kent, and the Candidates for life choices that didn’t sit right with local authorities, Vegas being a thickly policed zone. Me, Hammond B-3, left-hand bass, and Kent on drums, the lone survivors. That ‘Hollywood’ Lee Michaels duo thing.
In town with the Harry James Orchestra and playing in one of the big rooms in a casino hotel, Payne asked to sit in. Dukes was available to the show crowd: the performers, dancers, gamblers, and deep in local beauties. After midnight, entertainer Andy Griffith (Andy of Maybury) would appear - drawing an admiring crowd.
Flashing a broad smile, Sprague graciously handed Payne the sticks. Next to me, a Wollensak two-track tape recorder set to ready.
I’d been tampering with Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, playing both modally and rhythmically. With Payne looking comfortable, I punched the record button, played a few Garth Hudson-like organ embellishments, then set up a funkified groove. Payne enters and goes outside the Basie/Dorsey parameters and plays with abandon. To say the moment was a gift from the beat Gods would diminish the impact it had on me. I felt it. I felt why players like this find their way into the greatest bands. It was twenty minutes of pure ecstasy. That place no drug or fantasy thrill could replace. It was that swirl of sound, the blend, the landscape in between, the pauses, counter rhythms, peaks, and valleys that left me fatigued and appreciative.
Back at the motel room, Wollensak wired in, tape rolling, I heard the clamour of the event in full distortion. Only a novice recording engineer could have done as well. Crushing defeat. Static, distortion, and failure.
Let me pause and pay groove respect to Kent.
Round Two: Kent (DuBarri) Sprague came from Kansas City with the Candidates and settled in Los Angeles. A drumming style based on that southwest Kansas City swing and Memphis soul.
It was through Kent I learned the music of Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, deep into the Bobby Bland repertoire, Otis, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and beyond. Much of what Kent played was a straight-ahead groove with few embellishments. Owing, I assume, to being a singer of high regard.
Kent brought that Al Jackson Jr. Stax rhythm section vibe to everything. With a four-piece, we could emulate Booker T. & the M.G.’ s and conquer the flow and punch in the music. Kent took part in both of Brenton Wood’s hits, Oogum Boogum and Gimme a Little Sign.
Round Three: I’d caught Buddy Miles and the Electric Flag at the Bitter End Cafe in Greenwich Village. Down front of Miles was like asking to be ploughed over by a runaway John Deere. Ferocious backbeat and bass drum. Pop, pop, pop. Everything dropped in a manner I’d never experienced up close. It was the relentless muscular drive and snap of the snare that caused me to buy a second ticket and ride the rhythm train again and again.
Miles was playing uptown after-hours at Steve Paul’s Scene, and I’m making my usual rounds scouting for the late-night jams. The Buddy Miles Band ended set two with a second drummer, Mitch Mitchell, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
I’d heard the material Miles was selling, and not a big fan of the slick stuff. I preferred the roots blues of Nick Gravenites and Electric Flag, but this was Buddy’s band, and they were lounge warriors.
An unbroken blues/jazz jam arises. I count the minutes between me and the Hammond B-3. Miles' organist Herbie Rich occupies the seat a good twenty before Miles himself leans into the mammoth organ dawdling about in triad hell. Miles eventually surrenders and moves back behind the drums. My cue. Then it happens. The players kick in. Ron Wood bass, Larry Coryell, Terry Reid and Rick Derringer - guitars busting out on Freddy King’s Hideaway. The feel was everything I imagined. A thundering shuffle with Mitchell providing the drum fills.
I pop a key and cut a finger, leaving a bloody trail along the upper manual, yet decided against taking a medical break. It was when Miles gave up and Mitch Mitchell proceeded, and Hendrix drew the bass from Ron Woods. Rick Derringer sat down, leaving Mitchell, Hendrix, myself, and Larry Coryell to go where imagination insists.
Mitchell was that bridge between jazz and rock, from Elvin Jones to Keith Moon. An untapped region of levitating time. High intensity, lots of stick movement and rolling rhythms. Counter beats, jazz slaps, free-form inferno. Coryell for his part raced between blues and bop musings to James Blood Ulmer territory. Screeching, accessible anarchy. Absolutely riveting.
Rounds Four, Five and Six: Chester Thompson, Roy McCurdy and Tommy Check all arrived during a year-long stay with the Pointer Sisters. Chester surviving the pressure-cooked audition for the drum chair. Not only a survivor but much sought after.
Producer David Rubinson ran every competitor through a battery of drills. Chester not only read music like an orchestra conductor but also repaired the charts as he went along. That pencil constantly decorating the sheets of music. Correcting bar lines, codas, repeat endings, and dynamics. Much of this comes from eight-hour days rehearsing with Frank Zappa, Weather Report and on.
Chester had it all. The hard bop chops of a Max Roach, the deep pocket of a Hal Blaine, or Steve Gadd, a music ombudsman of sorts. The ability to sightread the exceedingly difficult pages facing any drummer and a flow rare few could ever spin.
Tommy Check was one of those rare players few musicians knew about. During his long career in Las Vegas, they acknowledged Check the show drummer the Gods sent to earth to reconcile with the stars. Three years with Barbra Streisand, four with Ann-Margret, Tony Bennett, Sinatra, and 13 years in the house band at the Flamingo Hotel, says much about the need for his skills. Playing alongside was a heavenly adventure. It was all about the snap of the snare. One that exploded as if slapped by a disciplining whip.
The Carol Burnett Vegas show allocated the Pointer Sisters fifteen minutes of performance time, guaranteeing us three numbers with the house orchestra. Long-time Burnett Music Director Peter Matz knew Check from their time together with Streisand and praised the man’s ability.
When Check set up a song, either near the downbeat or later in an arrangement, the players slapped hands, grinned, and jabbed each in delight. It was an experience. Check could hear every vocal inflection, scripted accent, pause and punch with authority. No apprehension or uncertainty around the beat. I felt the man. I felt the instrument in the bones.
Roy McCurdy was like family from day one. Roy came as a replacement for drummer Sherman Ferguson, who replaced Chester Thompson with the Pointers. Kristine and I fell for Roy. Nineteen Cannonball Adderley recordings (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) Bud Powell, Ella, Basie, Sarah, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Nancy Wilson. McCurdy’s name appeared on many coveted record covers next to the giants of jazz. I heard on record and live and knew exactly what to expect. The impeccable jazz swing, the quiet moments, the polish. The brilliance!
Round Eight: James Gadson.
I knew of Gadson from His work with Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye’s, I Want You, Diana Ross’s 1976 hit Love Hangover—session work with B.B. King, Rose Royce, Quincy Jones, and on. Another Kansas City native who arrived on the scene, an original member of Charles Wright’s 103rd St. Rhythm Band.
Gadson was everywhere when I arrived for a second stint in Hollywood in 1976. Somehow, I found work with Motown producer Frank Wilson and the Mighty Clouds of Joy and jazz icon producer Esmond Edwards, Sonny Criss, John Handy and others.
Gadson, along with bassist Scotty Edwards, guitarist Lee Ritenour and I, were hired to give jazz saxophonist Sonny Criss a ‘smooth jazz’ makeover, although the music wasn’t defined as such then. Basically, it was about capitalizing on the success of Mr. Magic, Grover Washington.
Gadson was a different player. A studio veteran with keen ears who knew exactly what to play at any given moment. The right thing. The drums as colour. A steady pulse, a definable presence.
It was a weekend stay at the Roxy in support of the Pointer Sisters with Gadson, James Jamerson bass, and David T. Walker guitar, I felt the full impact of his playing. It was the elegant glide in his playing that made singers comfortable. The top of the beat push. The relaxed urgency.
Round Nine: My buddy and funk master - bassist Bill Sharpe was down in Barbados with either Dave Koz or Brenda Russell, long-time steady gigs for the man when we hook up after the gig for a jam session at the Whistling Pig, mostly dominated by local players. Buying local is a good thing. Much of what transpired came with a calypso beat and smooth jazz touch.
As Bill and I hug and laugh, in steps another rhythm God—drummer Bernard Purdie. I’m never the person who leans in and says, “You’re the man, the man of my music dreams.” I watch and listen.
The jamming is fierce. Pretty Purdie is in the house. No way any outsider is getting near the stage. Sharpe comes with a plan. “Let’s wait until they take a break, and I’ll ask Purdie if he’ll do a threesome with us.” That he does. The stage goes silent, and Bill hits me up. “Let’s move brother, it’s all set.” Bill and I fumble around with the instruments a bit, then Bill calls Purdie up. It was one of those — “How the fuck did this happen moments?” Then the groove hits. Bill is all Bootsy Collins/Larry Graham. Smacking the shit out of the bass strings. Purdie suddenly realized this warrior was ready to rumble and dug in. It was a mini-Head Hunters. Thirty minutes of relentless, creative, vigorous groove. You can’t put words to that.
Purdie played drums on my first published original Hurtin’ World for Charlotte Stokes at the old Atlantic Studios. On this occasion, it’s me, my best friend, and that guy who killed us on Aretha Live at Fillmore West.
Round Ten: Willie Big Eyes Smith. Damn. The greatest blues drumming I have ever experienced.
Willie’s playing with Gary Kendall, me and sidemen doing his own thing in Peterborough, Ontario. We are setting up, putting instruments in place, sound checking, and adjusting volume. I play a bit of left-hand bass and a few chords in the right, a bit of motion when I notice Willie roll behind the drums. I’m thinking—that’s Muddy Water’s drummer. The greatest of the greatest. Maybe I should humble down my warm-up.
Underneath the practice groove, the flesh of a steady shuffle, the meat of roots drumming. Those builds, lifts between sections, rolling shuffle and snap of the snare drum. A pulse so elegant and unwavering it virtually brought me to tears. You think to yourself, this great man honed that pocket behind the innovators and giants, and today he’s sharing with us.
I’m sure there were other encounters that evade memory, yet moments as these opened me to an insider's view of profound musical greatness. The Rhythm of the Saints!