Prince’s John Blackwell: An Interview
John Blackwell always listened to his dad’s advice, and it’s paid off, big time. “Growing up, my dad used to tell me, ‘If you want to make any money in this business, play in the pocket.'”
Those were words of wisdom from John Blackwell Sr., who himself was nicknamed “Pocket Man” by some of the R&B acts he played with in his hometown in South Carolina. “Back when I was growing up,” recalls John Sr., “money was tight. I taught myself to drum by playing on boxes until I could afford a real drumset. Eventually I had my own group, The Mellowtones, and from time to time I would sit in on gigs with The Drifters, Joe Simon, J.J. Jackson, and Mary Wells. [After John Jr. was born] I would have the drums set up in the living room and he would sit for hours watching and listening to me play.”
“My dad always was and still is my main influence,” says John Jr. Besides playing and listening to his dad’s R&B and funk records, in his teenage years John took an interest in jazz. “My mind was downloading all of the information like a computer,” he says. “But my brain didn’t really comprehend it yet. I heard it, but I wasn’t ready to understand it until I started studying at Berklee. There I got into Billy Cobham, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones. And I loved Tony Williams, from Miles to Lifetime. Tony was very melodic with the drums.”
Soon after graduating from Berklee College of Music, John landed his first “big time” R&B gig with Larry Blackmon and Cameo. “My dad used to take me to every concert that came through our hometown in South Carolina,” John says. “And Cameo was one of those groups.”
After three years on the road with Cameo, John’s next gig was touring with Patti LaBelle. It was on Patti’s tour that John would meet bassist Larry Graham and the legend himself, Prince. That meeting would eventually change John’s career and life forever.
Obviously John Blackwell Sr. is very proud of what his son has accomplished. We here at MD are also proud. We first wrote about John back in August of 1998, when we featured the then-unknown drummer in our Diamonds In The Ruff article. We had a feeling that this talented young player would make a mark on the drumming world – but we had no idea he’d do it so soon!
MD: How’s the gig with Prince going?
John: It’s been great, really great. Not only in playing music, but also in life. What a learning experience. It’s another school.
MD: How did you hook up with Prince?
John: Prince and Larry Graham, who’s been working with Prince, came out to a few shows back when I was with Patti LaBelle. One night after the show Prince came up to me and said, “My God, you’re unbelievable. I’ll see you soon.” I thought to myself, how’s he going to see me soon? He doesn’t even have my number. [laughs]
I stayed in touch with Larry, and Prince, well, he knew where to find me. He approached me when he felt it was time. One night after Patti’s show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, he came up to me and asked if I would come to Minneapolis to jam with him and Larry. At first he flew me out to jam for a day, and then two days. Over time, it would turn into a week. I was honored not only to be jamming with Prince, but with Larry Graham too. I was in heaven.
I grew up on Sly & The Family Stone and Graham Central Station. To me, Larry invented funk. He’s the groove master. But playing with those two guys, you learn the true meaning of funk. It leaves me speechless; sometimes I can’t believe it.
MD: When you were “auditioning” for Prince and Larry, were you still on tour with Patti?
John: Yeah, but that tour was about to end. And it was right before I was committed to start a short one-month tour with Utada Hikaru, Japan’s number-one pop star. Prince waited until that tour ended and then we got together again. I officially signed with Prince on September 2, 2000.
MD: How would you describe your playing style?
John: I think it’s a combination of all the drummers I’ve admired over the years: my dad – of course – Prince, Morris Day, Jonathan Moffett, Larry Blackmon, Lil’ John Roberts, Yogi Horton, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Dennis Chambers, Ricky Lawson, Sonny Emory, Vinnie Colaiuta, Gerry Brown, Sheila E, and Zoro.
MD: You’re a very visual player. How did you get into stick twirling?
John: Stick twirling was taught to me back in high school – back to the competition thing. If you couldn’t twirl the sticks, you couldn’t be in marching band. We used a lot of showmanship. It was a big part of the whole thing. The drummers would have battles, and we had dance steps to go with it. The show was as important as what we were playing.
After high school I let my imagination run with the showmanship stuff. I took some of that, and I took a lot from studying martial arts. I was really fast at swinging nunchakus, and I would apply these moves to my drumkit. Sometimes when I hit the cymbals, I’ll hit them from underneath – like a boxer hitting with an upper cut. Sometimes I’ll twirl the stick and swing my hand underthe cymbals – from right to left and criss-cross. I have a trademark China cymbal behind me – I’ll twirl the stick and hit it from behind me.
For more info on John, check out his Web site at www.johnblackwell.net.