Steve Jordan Interview
Steve Jordan has accomplished more in his drumming career than he ever could have imagined. Of the big names he played with, a short list would include Ashford & Simpson, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, The Pretenders, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, David Sanborn, Tom Scott, and The Blues Brothers.
by Billy Amendola
He’s also served as a musical director, a multi-instrumentalist, a producer, and a writer. These days he’s comfortably taking on the role as a member of The Verbs with his wife and music partner Meegan Voss.
Recently Steve’s video The Groove Is Here was released on DVD. The project is pure Steve, featuring the legendary groover laying it down with famous friends Leroy Clouden, Bernie Worrell, and Danny Kortchmar. As you’ll soon find out, this is only the beginning of the next chapter of Jordan’s amazing career.
MD: Your DVD doesn’t follow the normal instructional-type video format.
Steve: I thought that format had gotten a little stale. There are so many players with a great amount of facility, so to go down that route would have been silly. There are drummers who just need some helpful hints, something to get their brain going – a different mode of thought.
MD: How did you become so involved with producing?
Steve: I became a producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist because I found that I would play on something that we all thought was going to be fantastic, and when the record came out, it would be mixed terribly. Or after we cut the rhythm track, they would overdub too much on it. Not to mention the fact that the record company maybe didn’t get it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to stretch out.
MD: Was drumset your first instrument?
Steve: I was a timpanist first. I played orchestral percussion, then I switched to playing traps. When I got my first kit, it really wasn’t a whole kit, I kind of got it piece by piece. My grandmother gave me my first snare drum – I was about eight, and she said, “You take lessons, then you get to keep the drum.” So I had to take lessons. Anyway, later I got a Rogers student kit with a single-tension bass drum and a clip-on rack tom. And then I got a hi-hat.
MD: What led you to play guitar and bass?
Steve: The music I listened to always had great songwriting. I grew up listening to The Beatles, Miles Davis, Sly And The Family Stone, James Brown, Motown, Stax?. The fusion of me loving orchestral music and jazz, rock, or anything that was good, led me to get a guitar. I also played trombone in junior high school because I loved the horn bands – Kool & The Gang, Mandrill?. I messed around with the trombone because I wanted to play like Fred Wesley. But I didn’t stick with it very long.
Later my mom got me this classical guitar, and I taught myself – just started playing. I’d put on my favorite songs and just follow the roots. That’s very different from how I was trained as a drummer, or as a percussionist. Over the years, as I got to know all these great guitar players, I’d pick things up from them. My love for playing the guitar would lead me to collecting them.
MD: What did you learn from playing with Keith Richards?
Steve: Keith’s a lot of fun, and a lot of good music was made. I learned about songwriting and guitar playing. Keith’s a great player and a great writer.
MD: Would you say being a multi-instrumentalist has made you a better drummer?
Steve: Oh, most definitely. I grabbed on to the bass because if you love James Jamerson the way I do, and Paul McCartney, and Ray Brown – you get into the bass. And the pocket is the main thing with all these players. I’ve been blessed, the first session I ever did was with Nathan Watts, who’s one of the greatest bass players ever. He used to play in Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder’s band. And then the second session I ever did was with Anthony Jackson. So when you get baptized like that, you know what the bass is supposed to do. And then when you don’t get that feeling, you know something is wrong. I’ll never forget the first time I ever played with Bob Babbitt. I got this feeling that I used to get when I would listen to some of my favorite Motown records – not knowing that he was the guy who played on some of it. But I got this chill – it was the real thing. That flipped me out.
MD: Speaking of Bob, we saw you in Standing In The Shadow’s Of Motown. That must have been a thrill.
Steve: Oh yeah, I had known most of the history before. Most of us knew about the first rhythm section, with Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, and Earl Van Dyke. But the second rhythm section with Uriel Jones and Bob Babbitt, I didn’t know as much about that.
MD: You were the musical director for the BMI Pop Music Awards. How was that?
Steve: That was amazing! We started doing it a couple years ago. They’ve been holding that event for maybe fifty years, and the first time we did it was the first time they had live music. Our performance was for a Lifetime Achievement award that went to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. We put together a band with The Staples Singers, Johnny Lang, and George Thorogood. George did the Bo Diddley section, because he and Bo are tight. We put together about twenty minutes of music. We started with a Bo Diddley medley, then we went into a Little Richard medley where Ivan Neville sang lead and played some great Little Richard piano. Then we went into a Chuck Berry set, which featured Johnny Lang. We did “Maybelline” and then we went into Mavis Staple doing “Rock And Roll Music” and “Livin’ In The USA.”
MD: Were Chuck, Little Richard, and Bo there?
Steve: Oh yeah. They were very pleased! [laughs] This past year Holland, Dozier, Holland got the award, and they asked me to put together a tribute. So I thought, Okay, this is the perfect opportunity to be able to hire The Funk Brothers. Playing with them was a dream come true. When I worked on the film, I didn’t play because I was the musical director for the Bootsy Collins segment. So it was a different thing. But when we had the premier of the film, I had the chance to play with them – at the Apollo Theater! That was amazing. And they’re the sweetest people, I love them. One of my mentors was Funk Brother Freddie Waits, who I met when I was in high school. Freddie became another dad to me in a way. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot, not only about music but also about life. Freddie played on some very groundbreaking material, like Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips.” And he also played on one of the greatest R&B/pop records ever, “Dancing In The Streets” by Martha & The Vandellas.
MD: How did you meet Freddie?
Steve: At a program called Jazz Interactions. They had an after-school program every Thursday, and there would be classes with some of the great musicians of our time. There’d be people there like Roland Hannah, Charlie Persip, Ben Riley, Freddie Waits, Joe Newman, Frank Foster – I think Billy Taylor used to help out. I met a lot of fellow drummers going to this. And that’s when I first met Freddie. I was very eager to learn, and we struck up a relationship. I wanted to go further, so he started to teach me privately. Then sometimes I got to a point where I would just go there and play, and he would listen and watch me and guide me. And we became friends. He taught me about being a vegetarian. It was a wonderful thing. Another major influence on me was Justin D’Cocciccio from the Manhattan School Of Music.
MD: How old were you at this time?
Steve: Around sixteen.
MD: So, what have you been up to recently?
Steve: I did a few tracks on John Mayer’s new CD, Heavier Things. And I’m on a track on Alicia Keys’ new one, Diary. She was going for a classic Aretha type of sound, kind of an old-school Atlantic thing. That was a lot of fun. She can really play piano. She’s very talented, and we just wish her the best because she’s a really good person. Both Alicia and John are good people, so those gigs were very promising.
Right now I’m finishing up a production on [Bruce Springsteen’s wife] Patty Scialfa’s new record. I’m co-producing and playing on that. I’m also going in the studio to produce a new record with the John Spencer Blues Explosion. And I’m working on a film by Antione Faqua, who was the director of Training Day. Last February I played a show at Radio City Music Hall, in New York City, that launched Martin Scorsese PBS series on the blues. This is the eighth film in that series, and it will be a theatrical release. We had sixty-six musicians – a real massive undertaking. But it was all worth it. I was also the musical director and music supervisor of that concert. My wife and collaborator, Meegan Voss, and I worked on that project very closely. And I’ll also be doing a new Buddy Guy record sometime in the year. Also, I’ve been playing with the great Sonny Rollins for the past year and a half, and I’m very excited about going into the studio to record a new CD with him.
MD: Switching gears, can you take us through the process of laying down drum tracks? If you’re not playing along to music, do you hum the tune in your head?
Steve: Well, when Meegan and I are working on new music together with our band The Verbs, for instance, we record in a number of ways since we play all the instruments. Sometimes we cut her playing guitar and me playing drums. Sometimes we’ll just play guitar and then I’ll overdub the drums. Sometimes if you want to evoke a certain groove, humming the song can help you get the groove to the track. When you’re learning beats, sometimes you can get too caught up in trying to think about the coordination. It’s got to be about the feel, so sometimes it’s better to sing the beat. That might get you closer to it, as opposed to writing it out or trying to figure it out.
MD: Do you sometimes put down scratch drums, and then later do them over?
Steve: Sometimes. When I’m recording in our studio at home, the slightest thing can change the feel of a whole tune. I can play the same beat a million different ways. It’s about how it’s tilted: What side of the quarter note I’m playing on? What do I want the hi-hat and kick to do? Sometimes I want it to feel like it’s the first time I ever played it. Sometimes I need that kind of naivet? for a song to work right. Sometimes it’s not about sounding like somebody who’s been playing all of his or her life. There’s a lot of different ways to go about it.
MD: Is there any song that when you hear it you think, I wish I had played on that one?
Steve: [laughs] Oh God?. I wish I played on every Beatles album, every Miles album – every Sly record, every Motown record, every Stax record, every Elvis Presley record – and not because they weren’t great already, but because I love them so much. Any they don’t have to be big hits, just great songs. Any of the stuff that was recorded at Chess in Chicago in the ’50s, I could go on and on.
MD: On your DVD, you play a tune called “Quack.” Can you explain how you came up with that beat?
Steve: That song was written by Clifford Carter, and it was right around the time I was playing in the late ’70s-type style, which I don’t play anymore. That type of playing came from a certain frame of mind at the time. I wanted to come up with a beat that was uniquely its own. Like Steve Gadd, he can play a beat and you know it’s him. Same with Harvey Mason, or Dave Garibaldi. Those three drummers were huge influences on me at that time. I wanted to come up with a beat that wasn’t necessarily like one of their beats, but that was unique to me and that could hold up. I wanted to raise my bar of acceptance. I don’t know if it made it up to that level, but that’s what I was going for at the time.
MD: It’s a great beat.
MD: Who was the first drummer you saw who made you think, “I want to play like that”?
Steve: My father, who was an architect, was also a great jazz fan, and a huge Miles Davis fan. And my mother used to sing classical music before she became this kind of educational motivator. Now, when my grandma gave me my snare drum, my dad said, “If you can learn how to play this beat, then you will be able to play anything,” and he was absolutely right. It was Art Blakey’s “Blues March.” So that was the first thing I learned how to play on the drums.
Now, the first time I ever saw anyone play who really drove me insane was Ringo. I became a huge Beatles fan. So now I’m listening to Miles and The Beatles. And of course there was James Brown. Then Al Jackson, and Benny Benjamin because I was a Motown freak. I also listened to early Atco stuff, the Coasters?. I was listening to people like Big Sid Catlett before I knew who they were.
I used to collect records when I was two years old?I was like the family DJ. [laughs] I had my little record collection, and I would carry around my records at the family get-together. They got a kick out of that. And they would try to figure out how I knew what records I was playing. I couldn’t read, but I would identify the labels.
Another one of the first guys I ever saw play live was Paul Kimbarrow. I went to a school event where he played the drums, and I thought it was so cool. We became friends later on. He’s been playing with Sha-Na-Na for the past fifteen years or so.
MD: When you do a session, do you have a preference of how you like to hear the track for the first time? Would you prefer to hear a demo, or would you just like to have somebody play it on the guitar or piano and sing it to you and say, What do you hear?
Steve: It depends on what you get called for. For instance, sometimes when you get called to do a session, you’re only overdubbing. In that case maybe you’ll just give it a couple of listens and then play it. A lot of times I don’t want to hear anything before I go in.
MD: You’re not getting a pre-conceived idea.
Steve: Exactly. Though sometimes it’s good to know what direction the artist wants, so that I have the right drums to suit the session?I have a large collection of drums. Not everybody prepares the same way. But it’ always good to do the most amount of homework you can if you’re just starting or if you want to make sure that things come out the right way. At this point in time, for me, sometimes I have a fresher approach if I don’t hear anything. But that wasn’t always the case. Generally you want to be prepared, and you want to do your best job.
MD: If somebody wants to be a session musician, what would be his or her must-do list?
Steve: If you want to be a session musician, you must listen to everything – all types of music – and be current. I also believe it’s important to read – especially if you’re going to do commercial work. In that case you must read. That doesn’t mean you have to read like you’re auditioning for the Philharmonic, but you have to know the basics. Of course, some people have made careers out of doing limited session work because their style is so unique, and they don’t know how to read. So there are exceptions to the rule. I’m not saying to fall into massive depression because you don’t know how to read. I’m just saying it’s a good thing to know, even if you read minimally, just so you can get through a session.
MD: Any advice for the young drummers about the business?
Steve: I learned a long time ago that writing songs is very important. I used to read album credits, and I saw that Al Jackson wrote “Let’s Stay Together” [Al Green] with Willie Mitchell. And I thought, well, he must be an actual writer, because you don’t get paid as a writer just for playing a great beat – even though sometimes I think you should. But that’s when I started to attack the guitar more, in my very remedial but full-of-energy state. I was just committed to it. It changed the way I play the drums completely. Before I played guitar, I would think of what kind of beat that would be interesting to me, not necessarily what worked for the song.
MD: Would you find yourself overplaying?
Steve: Yeah, without even knowing it. When people were freaking out about drum machines, I loved it, because I would just program my favorite beat and then play guitar to it, and then I knew it would be grooving. So I embraced that whole situation. Playing the bass and the guitar definitely changed the way I play the drums for the better. In fact, it made me fall in love with the drums again, because I got the insight of what the drummer can really do for a situation. I ended up with more passion than I had the first time around.
For information on obtaining Steve’s DVD The Groove Is Here, contact Music Dispatch at (800) 637-2852, www.musicdispatch.com.