There are many aspects to the “most recorded drummer in history” title as awarded to John JR Robinson. These five words can be perceived as a strictly statistic, if highly impressive, term, which makes it almost impossible to spend a day without hearing JR on the radio, be it on a Michael Jackson dance classic or Mike Oldfield’s introspective piece. It can also be a recognition of the man’s talents – as testified by his being Quincy Jones’ groove-layer of choice. But all that’s obvious, while the main characteristic of Robinson’s title is underlies his talents: John’s a great company with sympathetic ear and soul and an imposing presence to boot. We met when Robinson was touring with Barbra Streisand yet touched on wider base during our conversation.
– John, given the list of your recordings, is there a life beyond the drum stool for you?
Oh, definitely! You know, I’m a dad, I’m a father – I have three boys – and my youngest, who’s about 14-year-old, takes a lot of my time, so I go on tours and do sessions, just a personal stuff, and then it’s back to being dad. So it’s equal for me. I’ve been drumming for fifty-two years, but you can’t drum every minute of every hour – you have to break it down for something. I love to write music – I’ve been writing music for a long time – I play keyboards and piano, I play guitar, I play bass, but I love sports and I like to exercise… just things that take me away from music. So when I’m not playing music, I shut it out, although I know a lot of musicians that are always listening to something. That’s because I’m a drummer, and there’s so many kinds of music I’m playing, especially in the studio, and it gets overwhelming.
– Did you ever try to sum up the time of all your recordings?
A couple of years ago, I edited together sixty one of the hits [that I played on] for my site, and that took me forever. I tried to line them up from upbeat to downbeat or downbeat to upbeat and I realized that was overwhelming in itself; and after I did that, and a year passed, I started finding more hits, and I went, “Shit! I’ve got to line up more! Aaaah!” Then I worked with David Foster who has hits done in video [the “Hit Man” series], and I thought, “Oh, man! Do I have to do this on video, too?” – it looked like all the people had done videos of all these hit songs, so I could do that as well, and that means I’ve got to find some hi-tech kid to do all the work… So one day, maybe, but I can’t find every song I’ve ever played on: there’s too many. There are South American songs, there are Chinese songs and Japanese songs, there are Taiwanese songs, there are Mexican songs.
– Being considered the most recorded drummer in history: is this accolade a heavy load for you or just a simple fact of life?
It’s a simple fact of life, because if I get really caught up in my own stuff, it could be pummeling: I’ve done so many things and I worked with so many people – even this year I’m working with the greatest artists on the planet, on tour and in the studio.
– One of these were DAFT PUNK, and I saw a heated conversation on Facebook about “Random Access Memories” where someone stated that he knew from the off there was Omar Hakim drumming on “Giorgio by Moroder,” while I assumed it was you. So who did what?
It was both of us, and we were not together! (Laughs.) He was in New York and I was in Los Angeles, recording in a studio called Conway, in Studio C, and I had no idea that Omar would be on the same track as me – I found out about that through the arranger, Chris Caswell, and went, “Wow, isn’t that cool?” But years ago, Manu [Katché] and I were on a Michael McDonald track together [1993’s “Blink Of An Eye”] but neither of us were together, too.
– How often do you actually spend time with an artist in the studio? I mean many people record via Internet now, sending files to and fro.
Well, in my home studio that’s what I do: engineering and doing all that stuff, but it was a blessing to go into the studio with at least three or four guys and playing as a band for whatever kind of concept that was – whether a DAFT PUNK concept or doing a movie like “The Hangover” – we’d go in and played live, but it rarely happens anymore. But it was a five straight days in the studio for Mike Oldfield’s “Man On The Rocks,” with Lee Sklar and other cats, and it was cool. I’ve been working with Mike since “Tubular Bells II” and I did the Olympics with him – he wrote 17 minutes of music [for the opening ceremony] – and his musical perspective is completely unique compared to the other artists I worked for. I always tell my young students, “You have ten fingers – well, most of them (laughs) – so make each one learn ten different things and master your instrument very well and be a great reader. But there’s more than that: you need to be nice. You’ll be in a studio and you’ll see a bunch of assholes but you’ve got to use what your parents gave you and pass that on.” I’ve very proud that I am the most recorded drummer in the world, as the good thing about that is, when we’re trying to get this record done in the studio and we’re jumpstarting it again, it’s kind of a special feeling.
– You studied at Berklee. So how important is it to be musically educated? Doesn’t it get in the way of that natural feeling?
I think it’s incredibly important. There’s so many young cats out there, who start playing at twelve or thirteen, who get to find a guitar player and get together a garage band, and then maybe somebody gives them a little record deal, so they think that’s all there is, but in two years where are they? One of my teachers, Ed Soph – he’s the drum teacher at North Texas State University, a great, great school, jazz school – has a degree in English, in language, not even in music, so I think it’s really important, especially for drummers, to have a well-rounded concept, and I really stress reading. This gig I’m doing with Barbra Streisand is 100 per cent reading – 100 per cent! Yes, we’re all using in-ears [monitors], but I’ve been doing her gigs for 20 years, on and off, and I know most of the material, but we change it every night, and if I hadn’t had that education… I started playing piano when I was five, and my dad was a tyrant with me practicing, so I hated it; at five, we can’t quite grasp the mathematical input of piano, as we all get math-wise between six and seven. But the feeling is extremely important, too, to tie that up. It’s the same about drummers playing to click-tracks. Sometimes a young drummer hears this pulse and it immediately stiffens them up, but in reality all that is is a guide for you to flow.
– What do you think about the current tendency of getting rid of dynamics? The sound is so compressed that you can’t hear neither cymbals nor bass drum, unlike on classic rock recordings when you could hear every nuance of, say, Ian Paice’s work.
That’s right. And, by the way, Ian Paice is one of the greatest drummers of all time, and he’s a Paiste artist, which is fantastic; he’s always been very influential in my life. I know certain A-engineers that mix all their records the same and then don’t care who the artist is – pop artist, rock artist – so they put the same damn compression on kick-drum, snare drum, hi-hat, overheads, everything. I’ve been Quincy [Jones]’ drummer since 1979, and that’s what I saw: he mixes a recording and says to Bruce Swedien, the engineer, “Give me the mono!” Then he turns over, listens to it and goes, “So low!” Later, he told me what he wanted to hear was the tip of lead vocals and the tip of the bass drum, and nothing else! When you bring everything up – bingo! I went, “Wow! What a concept!” I’d never think that way! And when you listen to those old Michael Jackson records, it’s like, “Ah! He’s so right!” And in today’s music, everybody’s going to slam that thing at whatever the hell the new limiters are going to allow to go, as hard as possible.
– This homogenic approach is also felt in a dance genre, and many of the records you’re on are in this genre. So what does a drummer, as opposed to a drum machine, bring to it?
What is does is, it puts air… Even if I program a drum machine, it’ll probably be a little bit better than other people, because I program it from how I would play, but still what’s missing? Air from the drums, air and groove – and humanity. I’m screwing around with the time, depending on where I meet the phrase. “Lose Yourself To Dance” by DAFT PUNK: listen to that song – it’s nasty! It’s just got so much air to it. But then, you can go all the way back to [Jackson’s 1979 hit] “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”: if I would have programmed that like (beats the rhythm on his knee) “pum, pum, pum-pum, pum-pum,” it would just sound like shit. But I think another part of the problem is that Apple invented the iPod, and the mp3-concept where young kids have tunnel vision, or tunnel audio, they don’t hear all the stuff – it’s all come to pass, and it gets more compressed when it goes to mp3 – and they have no clue about audio files and about how things spread out in stereo.
– Well, sometimes it’s vice versa: there’s “Another Side of Bob Dylan” available in 5.1 – but why, if it’s only voice and guitar?
(Laughs.) The opposite of that all is the latest Superman film, “Man Of Steel”: I’m the lead drummer on that, I worked for Hans Zimmer who conceived that for twelve drummers, not one, all in 5.1. I came in and sat at 90 degrees to see the guy in the middle conducting this, and a drummer across from me, and all the strategic cast would be moving at 5.1 around, so when you sit in the movie theater it’s amazing.
– But what genre of music did you like when you were a kid?
Rock ‘n’ roll. And big bands. When I was a little kid, my mom used to sit me down and tell me what the word “swing” meant, cause she was a kind of a frustrated drummer, and I was, like, “Swing! That’s a little cool word!” And I associated swing with big bands, because she played me all these big bands records, Buddy Rich and the like, from the ’50s. I would listen to Gene Krupa and realize that he was basically a pop drummer; he played four-to-the-floor but he was swinging. I started playing drums at 8 and I put my first band together at age 10: we played surf tunes and early BEATLES tunes, as the British invasion hadn’t hit yet – it just was hitting. Then, we started experimenting, so I changed it to CREAM, to Ginger Baker, and I’d sing Clapton’s parts, like in “Crossroads”; Hendrix showed up and we started doing all that stuff. And from there it was wide open.
– You play several instruments, but at which point you decided you were going to be a drummer?
I got my first paying gig when I was 10, so at 10 years old I knew I was going to be a professional drummer.
– And when did this dream come true? When you joined RUFUS?
Yeah, that was the big gig. But I was always working. As a kid I’d played with THE TOMMY DORSEY BIG BAND which was interesting, but the Berklee thing was a huge step. After high school I moved to Boston and, coming from Iowa, a very small town, and getting thrust into a bigger city was shell-shocking as we say. At Berklee it was fantastic, especially in the year I got in, in 1973: Steve Smith was already there, Vinnie Colaiuta came in the year after me, then Kenwood Dennard and Casey Scheuerell came – it was an amazing group of guys, like kindreds, all of us were there together. I became a studio drummer at Berklee in 1974 and then I started joining bands. I had a big Ludwig set from Iowa, and it wouldn’t fit the locker I had so I had to drive it around. That beautiful Ludwig set was my second; my first Ludwig set was a 1940 – single tension rod, 20-inch bass drum, no toms, big snare, calfskin heads – but I got rid of that and then, dad got me another one, a 1966 Champagne Sparkle, and right after junior high school I bought a White Marine Pearl set which I took to Boston. But in 1975, I was out of school so I wanted to move to New York. Everybody was going to move to New York then, many moved to New York – and then they realized there was no work there. So I joined another band who were on the road, and in Ohio, in Cleveland, I met RUFUS and Chaka Khan who asked me if I wanted to move to Los Angeles. I said, “Yeah. When?” So in about two weeks, I got home, packed up and moved the job from Boston to Los Angeles.
– Was it then that you started to play funk and soul?
No, I was doing that in Boston – there were different cliques, or kinds of music, to work with in clubs, so I knew all the RUFUS tunes, cause they were a cult band. I somehow identified with funk, and not because I grew up in a white family that was into a swing music, I think it was the way I learned how to play it just to listening to THE ROLLING STONES, to Charlie Watts; also I listened to John Bonham a lot and I realized there’s a huge soul factor to this rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of people just say, “It’s rock ‘n’ roll,” but in reality, if you strip all this shit now, it’s funky – it’s really funky music! If you strip those loud guitars away, it’s R&B, it’s rhythm-and-blues at its finest. I ascribed it to that, and I also watched people dance and realized there was a reason why they were dancing: they feel the groove.
– You also worked with EARTH WIND & FIRE, THE TEMPTATIONS, THE ISLEY BROTHERS, so you must really love that soul factor.
Yeah, I worked with EARTH WIND & FIRE at the end of Maurice White era, and I also cut Maurice White’s solo record [1985’s “Maurice White”], with “Stand By Me” on it, before he had gotten Parkinson’s decease: a great record. Maurice White was the drummer with [jazz pianist] Ramsey Lewis, did you know that? – there was a famous song called “The In Crowd” – so when I got to work with him, that was truly cool. As for THE TEMPTATIONS, it was also at the end of the group, before everybody had passed away, but I worked with THE FOUR TOPS, too, with Smokey Robinson and, yes, with THE ISLEYS. I worked with Ronald Isley a lot, with Ronald and Burt Bacharach, which was very interesting. Quincy was our producer in 1978-1979, he did a RUFUS record with Chaka, “Masterjam,” and after that he went right into “Off The Wall” which wasn’t called “Off The Wall” then. He asked me if I wanted to record for him, and I said, “Of course.” I came in and did overdubs on a couple of tunes and then cut “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and this thing just exploded: “Off The Wall” was huge! After that I got a call from Diana Ross: (half-whispering, imitating Ms Ross) “I heard you were a drummer on ‘Off The Wall’…” So I went and played on her song “Missing You” with Abraham Laboriel Sr., that was about Marvin Gaye.
– But RUFUS were carrying on, right?
Funny, [when I began recording with other artists] our guitar player said, “You owe me a lot of money,” and I go, “Shut up! I don’t owe you shit!” But I always wanted to be a session drummer, and I really wanted the band RUFUS with Chaka to continue. I mean, Jeff [Porcaro] had his studio career with TOTO, and I had mine with RUFUS, but Chaka started doing solo records away from us, so we started doing solo records, too, but ours weren’t successful. But then we got together again and won a Grammy for “Ain’t Nobody” from “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”
– What was Michael Jackson like in the studio?
I worked together intimately with him: we would sit together like you and I do, and we talked and laughed. He was very shy, but when he was in the room with just the guys, he was very open and funny. He was great! To me, “Off The Wall” is one of the greatest records of all time, and I’m very pleased to say it’s one of the greatest records I’ve ever done. But I was pissed about “She’s Out Of My Life” as I wanted to do all the record, but Bruce Swedien goes, (in gruff voice) “There’s no drums on it!” If you put on “Off The Wall” today, with all this other compressed stuff, it holds up sonically – there’s something to be said about that, because “Thriller” is a little bit more… controlled, and then, when you get to “Bad,” it’s really electronically enhanced. That’s partially because Quincy asked me to bring in my shit, so I had a big rack of triggering crap – all of us did: I brought in an acoustic set and then had it have triggers. I had stuff to add to the sound, and I did all the claps that way: on “Off The Wall” me and two other guys did all the claps, and if you listen to that it’s just right in your face.
– You weren’t invited to play on “Thriller” but you were back for “Bad.”
Yes, in reality, I am not on “Thriller”: there’s rumors and listings that say I am, and I was booked at two-week notice for the album, but Glenn Frey called me ’cause THE EAGLES had just broken up. “John, you want to go on the road?” I told him I hadn’t been out with a rock band for a while, but you can’t refuse a famous cat like that, so I jumped on the Glenn bandwagon and went out on tour for about a year.
– Was it Frey who recommended you to Timothy B. Schmit?
You see, from Glenn I did get a lot of other work: I got Stevie Nicks, I got Bob Seger, I got Timothy Schmit… Steve Winwood came because of my connection with RUFUS, but I got a lot of good work out of that.
– Robbie Robertson as well?
Robbie and I were always friends.So we did “Storyville” and we did this American Indian concept thing [“Music for The Native Americans”] for him.
– When you worked with Winwood, Chaka provided backing vocals on “Higher Love.”
Well, I was in New York in 1987 (1986. – DME) doing George Benson’s record [“While the City Sleeps…”]. I also was on his “Give Me The Night” which was a huge record; it sold more copies than his “Breezin’,” and we did do “Beyond The Sea” with Joe Sample, the Bobby Darin song, remember? (Sings.) “Beyond the sea…” So I’m doing Benson, and I get a call from Russ Titelman, the producer, who asks, “John, what are you doing?” I say, “Nothing. I’ve got a day off.” “Come over to the studio and listen to the stuff that we’re doing with Steve Winwood.” I say, “Okay,” take a cab over and listen, and he plays me this song that had no lyric and nothing on it, only a little small drum program, just background, rhythmic stuff. He says to me it was going to be called “Higher Love,” and I raise my hand like in a class: “Can I play on this? Can I play on this?” And Russ goes, “Why do you think you’re here? When can you get you drums over here?” “In a couple of days.” So I brought them over, got it all set up and over the next couple of hours, I did it. The first song I did was “Higher Love”: I fixed hi-hat, overdubbed the toms, got the cymbals separated and then, for that intro thing, snare’s off, I was just messing around at the end of the session, and they all said, “Do that! Do that! Play that!” So we went back, played the track, and I played this (claps on his knees): from top to bottom, And they cut off a piece of that and plugged it back into the top again. That’s why it’s odd-metered. Steve Winwood was on top again!
– Then, you went on to play with his friend Eric Clapton?
I played with Eric before Steve. The first time I played with Eric because of the Warner Bros. connection, it was a record called… “Beyond The Sun”?
– “Behind The Sun.”
“Behind The Sun,” yeah. [I was on] only one tune. I think I did two tunes, but I don’t know if the second one made the record. But that was a fun record.
– One with Jeff Porcaro and Phil Collins in the drum department as well?
Yeah. Before I was there, Nathan East was playing bass and Greg Phillinganes was on keys. We did that, and then I did a movie with Eric, Rob Reiner’s film [1999’s “The Story Of Us”].
– Didn’t you also do “Phenomenon”?
Oh, that was another one I did with Eric, as I worked with him a lot. That was “Change The World”: Babyface, Kenny Edmonds produced that: it was Record Of The Year and won a Grammy.
– How many Grammys do you have?
I personally have one, but Grammys [for the records] I played on, over fifty. They don’t give ’em to us, though. It’s a drag. I have still goals, to win another Grammy. That one is for “Ain’t Nobody” by RUFUS and Chaka Khan (blows the dust off imaginary statuette and admiringly rolls his eyes) whereas David Foster has fifteen, and Quincy has the most, twenty six.
– You were the only drummer on another Grammy winner, “We Are The World”: did you get the job through Lionel Richie?
And Michael, cause I’d been working with both of them, but mostly Lionel at that time, as we had just cut “All Night Long.” But we went in as Quincy’s rhythm section: there was me, Greg Phillinganes and [bassist] Louis Johnson – I don’t remember a guitar player being there, it was just the three of us – and that was an interesting thing, because there was so many cameras in this small studio! The song was really simple, and I was playing very straight, but the cameramen distracted me with their noise, so I said, “Get the fuck out!” I told them to leave so we could cut it, and Quincy’s looking at me: “Let’s go, JR, let’s go!” and I’m going, “Okay.” And this is what drummers don’t do today: hey, you’ve go to take charge as well as get there. All those camera people that were in there were interrupting our vibe, so I go, “You can do that after we’re done,” kick everybody out, and they’re all watching, and, after we’d cut the track, I say, “You guys can all get back in now.”
– After that, there was your rock period where you played with David Lee Roth and John Fogerty.
I was John Fogerty’s musical director. It was again a Warner Bros. connection, cause I was signed to Warner Bros., but I always had that vision of being in a rock band, you know. But there was always some strife to this, because Fogerty was being sued at that time by Saul Zaentz, and we weren’t allowed to play CREEDENCE tunes, although I joned the band and became MD specifically to play CREEDENCE tunes. I love those tunes! We did it for half a year, and we did a record [1986’s “Eye Of The Zombie”] which was really dark but very soulful. Then the David Lee Roth thing came about from [producer] Ted Templeman; he called me personally and said, “We’re doing something, but don’t tell anybody, because David’s leaving [VAN HALEN].” I went, “Oh, shit!” because I’d already known shit like this from Chaka leaving the band. So it was, “Okay, but will you want me to…”
– …be swinging on “Just A Gigolo”!
Yeah, it was swing but it still was rock, too. We had Willie Weeks playing bass on that EP [1985’s “Crazy From The Heat”], which we did in New York, and Edgar Winter was part of the band. And there was Lou Marini from BLUES BROTHERS, a good guy, we played the other gigs together. So it was a cool band. Also I played with Bob Seger – we did the “Like A Rock” record.
– Did you really play with Madonna around the same time?
I can’t remember which year “Express Yourself” came out. There were Jonathan [Moffett] and me, but I played on two tunes: on that one and, I guess, on “Like A Prayer.” [Madonna] is a cool lady; I enjoyed working with her.
– You have a kind of specialty of working with female singers…
Yeah, what is up with that? What’s wrong about it? First of all, I like girls. Girls are good. I’ve worked with all these women, and I like it. When I first met Chaka, I was like, “Oh, my God!” She was so gorgeous, but I kept saying to myself, “Must stay focused. must stay focused. Must stay focused.” But somehow I just blend better with them as a drummer, I don’t know why.
– What about Donna Summer?
Just a great lady – God bless her! – I wish that she was here. First time I worked with her was through Quincy Jones; [the song] was called “State Of Independence,” and I got to play some military snare drum stuff. But then, later in her career she became part of “David Foster And Friends,” she’d come and do these charity events, so I did her book many times with (sings in falsetto) “Last dance,” where the drum part is: do-do-do-do-do, all sixteenth notes – but in those days it was cool. I loved Donna, loved playing for her, and I used to go out and hang with her husband on a ranch, years and years ago; we played American football in their yard.
– Karen Carpenter?
Oh, what a sweetheart! A short-lived woman. She was, unfortunately, struggling with her weight, and she was very skinny. I got to work with Phil Ramone who produced her – God bless him, he’s passed – who brought in me and Louis Johnson, and we did the whole record that was issued as “Karen Carpenter,” a solo record, and as THE CARPENTERS’ – it was doubly released. She wanted it to be danceable, and she was very open to suggestions, so I taught her how to clap, and we got to clap together and had such a really good time.
– Celine Dion?
I met her in the old days, before David Foster, when she couldn’t speak English – and all I know is, “Pourquois?” – and I played on her song “If You Ask Me To” and six months later I played on a version of that song with Patti LaBelle, [which was] a whole step down. But Celine Dion is an amazing talent, and she’s so nice, she would never say, “JR, play this there! Don’t play that fill!” She would never say that – never! She’s not a diva.
– And Mariah Carey? The diva?
I don’t know if she’s a diva but she’s really sexy, and she’s got an amazing voice. She was one of those girls that… I played earlier with her, and then I did an Emmy or Grammy thing where she’s dressed up as a Santa chick. (Laughs.) I always liked Mariah. Great, great gift of a voice.
– Same can be said about Randy Crawford.
Wow! (Sings a bit of her song he played on) “Streetlife…” Randy’s got a unique style with her vibrato. She was another Warner Bros. artist, and we were, like, popping out records during the Eighties, and that was another one of those records.
– Some of the artists you worked with moved on from pop and funk to jazzy stuff.
Yes. I think that’s a natural transition for a woman who has a talent to go there. You know, some women don’t nail it as good as others, but yes.
She’s the best female singer in the world – still, to this day – from the vocals point of view. To be still singing like that at her age: it’s quite impressive. A lot of people may not care for the style of music but she delivers every night. She’s just an amazing perfectionist with an amazing gift. I’ve worked with her since the Eighties, I was the first drummer in this giant live band that was started around 1992, but she doesn’t like to work that much, so she does special dates now and then.
– What about your work with Aretha and Whitney?
Ugh. I never met Aretha – she was not in the studio when we were recording with her – so I don’t know [her]. But I always loved Aretha, [she is] very inspirational. Whitney and I were in the studio several times. When I first met her, she was just fresh off being a model, and I was like in a Warner Bros. cartoon, with the tongue dragging down to the ground, It was, “Ah, my god! She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen! And she can sing?!” I worked with her first with Jermaine Jackson producing and then with Michael Masser, so we’ve got a whole bunch of hits there. There was talk of David Foster producing her but she passed on so…
– Let’s go through some more names you worked with. What would you say about Johnny Mathis?
I love Johnny Mathis, man, [he’s a] very talented guy. I was fortunate to co-produce and write a song for him called “Falling In Love”: it was a little more like a RUFUS kind of tune, and he loved it. He loved it. I recorded with Johnny several times, and he loved me to take charge during the sessions.
– Rod Stewart?
The good memories I have of Rod is of my playing on “Rhythm Of Your Heart”… It was just the beginning of the Gulf War, and the song was written for the Gulf War veterans and produced by Trevor Horn. I got to play big drums, and I got to overdub the snare drum parts; I played timpani on that song. I got to be the whole percussion section – that was a lot of time. Also, we did a Christmas special DVD: I wore a suit and played with brushes. We filmed it in, like, in 95-degree weather, but it was snowing. And I worked with Rod on some other stuff, with James Newton Howard producing, who loves Rod.
– There’s also “This Christmas” from John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Oh, I haven’t heard it yet. Randy Waldman, the piano player with Barbra’s band, produced that. I played on several songs, but one was a cool tune, an uptempo one, that sounds like a hit record to me.
– Joe Cocker?
I played for him once, in a studio, a couple of tunes. He was amazingly talented. I don’t really have a lot to say about Joe, but I’ve always respected him and his soulfulness. I’d been asked to and tour with Joe on occasion but I just didn’t have time to go. He always had a really good band; [keyboardist] Mike Finnigan played in his band who I worked with, too.
– Steve Perry?
Another frustrated drummer. I worked with Steve for the first time on “We Are The World” and he had written a song [“If Only for the Moment, Girl”] that I played on for “We Are The World” album. We became friends and then, later, I did a complete Steve Perry record, produced by Randy Jackson, that got shelved and never came out.
– Willie Nelson? Wasn’t he the only country artist you worked with?
No, I did a whole bunch of country acts. There’s a… Jesus! What’s his name? (Claps on his knee singing Toby Keith’s 2001 hit) “I want to talk about me, I want to talk about you…” Very Republican dude. But Willie Nelson, we did a duets record [2002’s “The Great Divide”]. I met Willie years ago at festivals and stuff. Very talented man. His brother used to be our bus driver in the old days. (Laughs.) Wynona Judd: we did a couple of great records with her, she did a version of FOREIGNER’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” a really great version.
– Herb Alpert?
I worked a lot with Herb Alpert, sometimes for free, and I worked for his wife, Lani Hall – I did a Lani Hall record [1985’s “Es Facil Amar”] – because I was always over at A&M when I worked with Lionel or somebody, and Quincy was still signed to A&M in those days before he went to Warner Bros. So that would be one woman, Herb would go, “Jam!” Come over and do some overdubs for me. I’m over here, and come on over and have a break.” “Okay, I’ll do that.” I worked with Jeff Lorber, who produced that Herb Alpert record [1996’s “Second Wind”].
– Herbie Hancock?
My favorite musician in the world! If he wants to turn left, he can turn left; if he wants to go up at an XYZ axis he can go up; if wants to go right, he can go right. He does what he wants, and I think that’s the pattern that all musicians should follow: we should be able to do what the hell we want to do whenever we want to do it, musically. I was honored to play with Herbie on “Magic Windows,” that old record with David Rubinson [producing] at “The Automatt” In San Francisco, back in the early Eighties, and then, of course, Herbie’s played with us, with Quincy, on many different things like the Quincy Jones 75th Birthday at 2008 Montreux Jazz Festival that’s available on DVD. He’s the most prolific writer that you’re sitting and working with, and what he does is he ups your game, which is very cool.
– Lee Ritenour?
Very talented cat. I always listened to him while still in Boston, because he was one of the greatest studio guitar players, like Larry Carlton, and I’d heard him on so many records. When “Rit” came out, the first record with drummer Harvey Mason, I said, “I want to play with this guy,” and sure enough I started playing with the guy. I ended up doing a bit on “Rit 2,” so that was cool.
– Frank Sinatra?
I only met him once. We were doing a gig with Quincy Jones’ big band, and Frank Sinatra’s big band, and I think Sammy Davis [Jr.] was there and somebody else: we did a benefit for his wife, Barbara. But he was not in the studio with us. I was overdubbing.
– Burt Bacharach?
Oh, I’ve been playing with Burt for almost twenty years. We all grew up listening to Burt’s songs, you know, with Dionne [Warwick] and whoever sang then, but I started working with him in the mid-’80s, and then I cut “That’s What Friends Are For” which we knew right away was a Number One record… You know that right out of the gate when you’re playing on something. And Burt, very interesting, always writes a 2/4 bar somewhere, and he may repeat it, so as a drummer you’ve got to be on your toes with Burt’s stuff. We also did a Ronald Isley record [2003’s “Here I Am”], a really cool stuff. I love Burt, man.
– Mike Oldfield? A whole different area for you?
It’s interesting that a lot of these guys reach out to me through these years, and they’re interested in a special thing for what they do, and Mike has always been able to trust in me. Last time I worked with him, he was at the Bahamas, with a video cam, talking on Skype.
– Chris Botti?
Bandmate in Barbra’s band. He’s our guest artist with this. Chris and I go way back. He’s here; I don’t think he’s at his hotel. Oh no, yeah, he’s on my floor. Chris is great, I love Chris, and I’ve been very fortunate to be his friend.
– Ricky Martin?
I did hundreds of Latino records, and he was part of that. I recorded with him when he was just a little kid, sixteen-seventeen years old.
– But there also were Ivan Lins and Djavan.
Ivan Lins came before – I met him through Quincy who did his song “Velas” on “The Dude” – he came up to the States in 1981. Quincy just loved his stuff, and I would have really liked to play that tune when we got off on the road for his eightieth birthday, but we’re didn’t. As for Djavan, I worked with him when, I think, Ronnie Foster was producing. I think I did two records with him, and that was cool, man, because he’s more of a pop guy.
– Stanley Clarke?
Ooh! I did five or six albums with him. I first worked with Stanley, when I was in town for only a couple of years; I did “Saturday Night Live” with him and George Duke. Stanley respected me as an equal and wanted me to always lay down this funk rhythm. Then I did both CLARKE/DUKE albums – separately; I was the white guy there. We cut “Louie, Louie” for the thousandth time. But they were on CBS and I was on Warner Bros., so there was this conflict of interests. But I’ve done many movies [with them], like “Passenger 57,” and “Rocks, Pebbles And Sand.”
– By the way, who’s your favorite bass player to be in a rhythm section with?
Wow! Can I just say, “My favorite five”? (Laughs.) I like Nathan East, I like Willie Weeks, I like Bobby Watson, I like Neil Stubenhaus, and also Abraham Laboriel Sr. I tend to pick up bass player who is more simplistic-minded than busier-minded. Louis Johnson played very simple parts as opposed to a bass player that’s playing too much stuff, because what it does is it handcuffs the drummer and, to me, destroys the song.
– Do you tend to think more melodically or rhythmically when you play?
I think melodically, because if you hear something you don’t want it to jump out at you – you want to be a part of the song, blended, locking and, sonically, not be obtrusive. So I’m always thinking melodically, always, because rhythm comes natural.
– Given American rhythms, it’s strange that the best heavier bands came from the UK. Well, except, for GRAND FUNK.
VAN HALEN had its good moments, for an American rock band. But I have all the GRAND FUNK albums – wore ’em out.
– What do you think make all these great artists come to you? What is it so special that they find in you?
I think I give them confidence, support and security – I’m a Midwest boy! They know that the groove is always going to be right and I’m not going to screw up – I hope (knocks on the wooden table) – that I’m going to push them and it’s not just going to be a routine show, that I’m going to kick their ass. That’s what I’m going to do, and maybe that’s what it is. I’m very much a chameleon kind of drummer: I can play anything, except for Scandinavian speed metal, as I like to see girls’ asses moving when I play.
– Two special records for you are your own albums: “Funkshui” and “Platinum”…
Oh, Jeez! That guy is great! “Funkshui” is a made-up word: I stole it from Chinese “feng shui” – that was the first record I ever did by myself, so I’ve worn all the hats. I’m writing tunes that are maybe not accessible to all people’s tastes, but I just kind of did what I wanted to do and released it for my own label, and there you go. And I’m not done yet. That did well, and then “Platinum” came a couple of years ago which was a little bit Quincy Jones-ish – I’ve got selected vocalists that I’d found: one is Robbie Wyckoff from Roger Waters [band] – I always used Robbie; he’s on the first record, too – and then I found this little hot girl named Callaway. Now I’ve got another ten tunes that I’m working on, and I may come out with an angry rock record; and then another goal of mine is, I want to do a be bop record and maybe a rock record. You know what? I’ve a got a few more years of drumming left; and maybe I still can surprise people.
With thanks to Sally Jane Sharp-Paulsen for helping with the transcription.