As I watch the spontaneous demonstrations all over the world I wonder what anthems and songs will come from all this. How many poets and musicians will never get to sing and play. “War! What is it good for?... Absolutely nothing!” Edwin Starr…
I can see Charley (cause that was his real name - Charles Hatcher - but nobody could call him that except Julius the bass player who had been with him since high school) sitting dumbly in the back seat of a used limo he had stupidly bought in Jersey and we had crossed the country in. Now he was hoisted up on a garage lift refusing to get out and come down somewhere outside of Houston. We were already late for a gig.
I spent considerable amount of time home and abroad talking with him about his old days at Motown. I even met some of the old producers who had come west with Berry Gordy. Lamont Dozier used to bar-b-que and talk about Hitsville and the Detroit days. Now, I grew up on Motown and the music they created. As a kid I knew every part to most of those hits, I still do. Later I would listen to those records with an ear for how they did what they did. I love the rhythm section; The funk bros. I also think we could have and still could contend with them and kill them if we took it to the stage either then or now. Anyway, as you should know by now, I think the Sugar Hill rhythm section could hold its own with the best of them.
Those records, with the lush production of some of Marvin’s songs, or the raw funk of Jr. Walker, not to mention the lyrics and melodies of Smokey Robinson, set me up with a love of a good song. I used to make my hodge to the Apollo whenever they came to town.
The circular nature of my life has always led me to my influences. Getting the chance to work with and or be around some of my musical heroes and influences has always been at least informative. Whether it was Dr. John, Jack McDuff, (one of the kings of the organ) Johnny Lytle (not Milt Jackson but a good vibe player) Jimmy Ponder or Miles Davis who named a song after me… they all played and said shit that reverberated around in my head.
Newark was an organ town and I played with a lot of the cats in town. Jiggs Chase (one of my mentors), Big John Patton, Gary Henry (the best as far as I’m concerned), these guys could first and foremost play! You can’t make a living now doing what we did. The venues just don’t exist anymore. You don’t play jazz the same way when you learn it in school. The clubs is where it was really happening. The blues filled the rooms we worked in. Not no ole’ timey shit, but modern urban jazz that ate, slept and lived it. You had to feed your family and we all had families; some of us more than one and they all had to be fed and clothed.
So you practiced, hung out, jammed and gigged when and where ever you could. We worked in cover bands and learned all the songs of the day. We played them first just like the record and then worked and prolonged the parts that the crowd loved best, playing the jazz lines we had learned and practiced over the vamps of the cover tunes. If the grove was fierce people loved it.
There is something to be said for performing and there was a time when I loved it but if the truth be told I love the serenity of the studio much better. It was with Edwin Starr working and living in L.A for about a month and a half before we left for Europe for a couple of months that sold me on the recording process. My friends laughingly suggest that when I made my first few thousand dollars at one time with Edwin and I said fuck Jazz.
Though you could say that, the truth is I found a love of the recording process that lasted for quite a few years. I started my recording career when rhythm sections recorded the basic tracts together, then the overdubs; horn strings, percussion, vocal would come in later. By the end of my recording career everyone came in and recorded separately. When as a producer I would suggest we set up and see how it sounds with the rhythm section playing together, they would act like they don’t know what you are talking about. It is only the best studio cats that can come in alone take a few tracts and make it sound spontaneous and like they were all in the room at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, anyone that has seen me play can tell I love to perform and playing is the practice to the studios theory, but playing and singing for my supper has never really been my thing and even if as they say, there are fringe benefits (your money for nothing, and your chicks for free, plus all the travel.) if I had to choose one over the other it would be recording.
The isolation of the studio can be the perfect alternative to the constant people of performing or being on tour. That was why those years at Sugar Hill Records worked so well for me. We would go out on tour but never for too long because Sylvia always needed us in the studio. It was the balance of the two and cash that kept us so busy if not completely content. The twenty or so acts at Sugar Hill went from the Sugar Hill Gang and Flash and the Furious, to the Moments, Jack McDuff, Philippe Winn of the Spinners or Chuck Jackson (Any Day Now). I was also doing sessions for people like Bert Degato of Atlantic, a long established main stay at Atlantic along with other up and coming independents.
A jazz sensibility informs everything I do. By this I mean there is a sophistication of concept, design and execution in everything I do, even if am producing some straight up stupid shit. Traveling to and from this musical family reunion of sorts one can come to understand for better or worse that these are the ones who made me who and what I am.
Popular to me means money and it isn’t always easy to make music in the money business. All good popular music contains the same ingredients; danceable rhythms, whistleable melodies, singable hooks or choruses and reasonable informative verses. It is best if it is four minutes or less. Think about all the songs written and think about how many go on to be chartable hits. The odds are more than a million to one. That being said, we keep writing them and people keep singing or rapping them. It is not unlike playing the lottery. Though talent and skill have a great deal to do with it there are gimmick songs that people just love… gimmicks and anthems rule.
When I was around him, Edwin had just had the number one disco record of the day, was recording his first album in years, and producing it himself. Not a good Idea as far as I’m concerned but I say this with 20/20 hindsight. The record had gotten him the album deal with 20-Century and he was putting the down payment on a house.
My rock inoculations came from Mac Rebennack better known as Dr. John. Mac is a walking institution of higher music business lessons, what to do and what not to do. Once again that man can play. He can also write and is one of the more interesting raconteurs I have been around. He loves to tell old music business stories and I love to listen. When we got together when he performed down here at the Savannah Music Festival he tore the place down. We laughed and talked for hours and I got a few stories to tell myself about some of our mutual acquaintances. Mac is the same whether he is talking to the cleaning woman, the caterer, or Seymore Stein the president of Sire Records. He says what is on his mind. He is also one of the funniest cats I have been around in his own very low-key kind of way.
Mac is beyond race and went to jail for hanging out and working with black folks. He also grew up around them but I guess they can’t put you in jail for that. That Iko New Orleans groove combined with that Professor long hair melodic flair is too much. You can hear the history of jazz in one song down there. On my first trip to New Orleans while sitting digging a statue of “Pops” in a park stoned nearly out of my mind, I saw a woman walking a baby goose on a leash. I said “Morning Mam” and knew this town was different.
New Orleans, The Meters and the Nevills and of course Allen Toussaint and Mac himself brought out a rhythmic sophistication and in me a quest for the magical underside of music. Be it funky ju- ju night tripping music or the scary drumming of Santa Ria, music that can unlock the uncounciouss. As someone who made a living as a percussionist I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the calloused hands men who brought me the beat. Eddie “Bongo” Brown from Motown, the conga player from James Brown who showed me how to put it on the down beat instead of the up beat like every other conga player. The “God “ Ralph McDonald who showed me how to find the right beat to go with the right groove. Mtume, who literally showed me the “Big Black” method that he learned from none other than “Black” himself. I told Black, when I saw him at one of the few gigs I did down here at the art museum, that I learned his method from Mtume and he just smiled. He lives over in South Carolina now. He told me he developed his finger method from playing with his father and brothers, Lawrence Killian who cut his teeth with Pharaoh Sanders.
These guys proved to me that a living could be made playing my drums. Though I did a lot of sessions on vibes and orchestra bells, even tympani a few times, it was congas, timbales and assorted other stuff that put the steaks and chicken on the table. A Cuban friend of mine’s father gave me my first drum and encouragement, the rest is - some might say - history.
My father bought me my first set of vibes when I was a freshman in college, reminding me that he tried to buy me a used set from “Scotty” when he quit playing them. Scotty was the brother of our upstairs tenants, Dot and Pearl, who were like family. When the life got too much for him they went to Newark and got him. He spent over twenty years at Singers living upstairs in the second floor of my parents’ two-family home and playing piano sometimes in church. He also found time to come downstairs and teach me my first blues changes. He would say, “ Here is an easy way to play it, but if you are running in fast company and want to impress them play this.” Then he would show me some slick shit and I just couldn’t wait to be able to use it.
It was Johnny Lytle, a very good vibe player, who when I played with him would let me get off the congas and do a duet with him on Marimba and vibes. It must be said Milt Jackson turned me out when I saw the M.J.Q. that was when I knew I had to get a set of vibes. Lionel Hampton cleared the path and Gary Burton’s technical expertise sends me directly home to practice. Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Ayres who sold more records than all of them and can play his ass off too, Mike Manerri all do their thing and this new kid Steffon Harris is good as hell. Still Milt does it all for me. If I had to pick one to listen to it would be him.
The vibraphone is one of the most beautiful instruments ever created by man. Mac talked about the cycle of membrane, bone, wood, steel and now plastic as the surfaces struck by most percussionists. Finding your instrument is essential to expressing your feelings and later, with much practice and time with the ax, your ideas. I am playing things now at sixty-three I could only dream of at 23 or 33. There is a patience that comes with age. That is one of the reasons why Miles was so great, he seemingly had the patience to appreciate and use silence at a startlingly young age. He said he knew he was never going to be able to play as fast as Bird and Diz so he was going to have to find another way. That was how I felt after going to see Milt or Bobby Hutcherson or Garry Burton. I knew no matter how long I practiced I might never be that good so I had to find another way to express myself on the instrument and I did.
So I made a living playing. I can without argument say that during my time as a studio musician I was one of the ten workingest cats in New York. Me, Sammy Figaro, Mtume, Ralph McDonald whom I believe got the most work, Stevie Thornton, Mino Cinelu, Basheri Johnson, sugar coated Andy Hernandez. This is not to mention Ray Barretto and a host of Latin cats who I never really knew.
I also always loved working with singers and did a lot of it. I don’t want this to be a name- dropping kind of thing so I will forgo names but I have worked with some great and very well known singers! Or as we say people that can “sang”. I can’t “sang” but I can sing. That means I might lead two songs in a set of eight but I can hold my harmony note most times as well.
I was blessed with perfect time and near perfect pitch. This means I have good ears. My reading is functional at best. I can read most rhythm figures but have trouble with the bass- clef, which a lot of parts for the full vibraphone are written for. Most times there was a keyboard player or arranger on the gig who could skeptically help me out. Once I got the part everybody was usually more than happy. I am a good hang. I cook, clean up after myself and generally know how to procure whatever we might need. My bunk on the bus was always clean and hooked up with pictures and shit. Doug Wimbash once looked in on me because I often kept my curtain closed and suggested, “Damn man all these quilts and pillows and shit it looks like the Pearls of Pauline in here.” I always want shit clean and nice. If I ever spent considerable time in the joint I would be one of those guys whose cell would have plants, pictures, paintings and books and shit.
That and other skills have served me well all over the world. Even if I can’t speak the language I can make myself understood. I remember being in France once opening my mouth and pointing to the inside in a gesture requesting food that got me something else.
This gift of music can also be a road to excess and personal ruin even if it might come amidst great financial gain. My goal is and was to be a person who plays music. I have never been one of those people who eats, sleeps, dreams and lives music twenty-four hours a day. I tell my student athletes to be a person who plays football or a person that plays basketball or golf. Don’t just be a football player, be a person first. That is what I have tried to do. Music is something that can still release the tears in me, for that I will be forever grateful.
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