Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Alex Solca
Drummers across the world were very saddened to hear of the passing of longtime Prince drummer John Blackwell Jr. over the July 4 holiday weekend. In honor of John, we’re posting his first Modern Drummer cover story, from October 2001.
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 father’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, 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 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 Hikaru Utada, 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: Tony Royster Jr. was also on that Utada gig. How did that work out?
John: It was fun playing with Tony. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were producing Hikaru, and Jimmy Jam had seen Tony on the Grammys and thought we would be good together. Tony is amazing. A great kid, too.
MD: Let’s go back to when you first started playing.
John: I was three years old when I sat down to play my first beat, “Brick House” by the Commodores. My dad had a stack of records that he would play to, and he would play that record all the time. I would sit and listen to my dad play in our living room. I would watch his hands and feet and try to pick up everything I could. After he would finish practicing he’d leave and let me discover things for myself.
Another way my dad taught me was by taking me to concerts. I saw Cameo in 1980. Larry Blackmon was playing drums. In 1982, on the Alligator Woman tour, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett was playing drums. I also saw Patti LaBelle in the early ’80s when she was opening for the Commodores. Those were the first concerts I ever went to. I would watch the drummers up on the riser, playing to thousands of people, and I’d be like, Wow! This is what I want to do. After the show my dad would take me backstage to meet some of the drummers.
MD: So by the time you attended high school, you had some pretty good experience under your belt.
John: I’ll tell you a story about high school that changed my life forever. It still has an effect on me to this day. In the eleventh grade I was in the marching band. We were called the Posse. We had a rival thing going with all the schools, kind of like a battle of the marching bands. And I thought I was bad. I had this shirt made up that said “The Greatest Drummer Alive.” I would wear it everywhere. As soon as my mom would wash it, I’d put it back on. I would walk up to people and say, “Read my shirt. What’s it say? That’s right.” [laughs] I was very cocky and getting on everyone’s nerves at this point.
One day my dad got really mad at me and told me, “No one is the best, there’s always somebody better.” But I wouldn’t hear of it. Then one day one of my really good friends from church, Ray Jackson, said to me in front of a whole bunch of people, “Take that shirt off, enough already. You’re not the greatest drummer. I’m better than you are.” I was like, What? Now, I knew this guy forever. I didn’t know he could play. So we challenged each other to a drum-off at my house after school. Everyone came to watch, and I sat down and did my thing. Then Ray sat down and tore the room apart. He left me with my mouth open. I was humiliated in front of all my friends. Here was this laidback, quiet guy who never bragged. Well, he really put me in my place. I’m glad I had that experience at a young age, because to go through it now would be really bad. It taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me to be humble.
MD: Were you playing in any other bands at school, or just marching band?
John: I was also playing in the high school jazz band. The director was Willie Niles. I was also playing with another teacher, Robert Newton, in clubs on the weekends. Robert had a band called Robert Newton and Lotus Feet. Robert was an experienced player, so people would come out to see him perform. This is where I got my stage performance experience. I learned a lot from Robert. I was studying with him five days a week in school and playing with his band on the weekends. I was fifteen at the time. That was my gig until I graduated at seventeen.
MD: After high school, you attended Berklee. How was that?
John: It was a good thing I had the Ray Jackson experience, because after my first day at Berklee I wanted to go home. [laughs] The first day there I went to this club called Wally’s. I thought, Okay, I’m in Boston, time to blow this place down. So I see this guy setting up, and I go up to him and introduce myself: “I’m John Blackwell and I play drums.” He’s like, “Yeah, okay. I’m John too. They call me Lil’ John [Roberts]. You’re welcome to sit in later if you’d like.”
So I’m watching him play and he’s swinging, doing his thing, and he’s pacing himself. Then like any good jazz drummer, he starts putting everything in the right place, making everything feel good. Now I’m sitting there with my mouth open. I was speechless. I did sit in that night, but compared to Lil’ John—forget it. I called home and told my mom I wanted to come home. [laughs]
MD: Was this when you became serious about becoming a jazz drummer?
John: In high school I was into it, but I couldn’t get it—until I got to Berklee. That’s when I studied the roots, why certain drummers did what they did. It takes a good amount of studying jazz to really understand it. Otherwise you hear, “Well, he’s a funk drummer playing jazz” or “He’s a good rock drummer playing jazz.” I wanted to study and do what a jazz drummer was supposed to do. I wanted to learn the real deal, one hundred percent. I learned it at Berklee.
MD: Do you think a player can be too schooled?
John: I hear what you’re saying, because I hate to say it, but most true jazz musicians are not schooled or have any formal training. I was taken aback once when someone said to me, “John, you don’t play like you’re from Berklee.” But for me Berklee was a good experience. The greatest compliment is when other jazz musicians would say to me, “You play like a jazz drummer, not a funk drummer who plays jazz.”
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.
When I was studying with this teacher from Atlanta named Marcus Williams, he would tell me, “Don’t try to play like me. Take what you can from me, but make it you. Play from your heart. Don’t copy.”
You can never really get the same feel as someone else anyway. You can try to copy Dennis or Tony note for note, but when you play, it comes from your heart. It’s your feeling.
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 under the cymbals—from right to left and crisscross. I have a trademark China cymbal behind me—I’ll twirl the stick and hit it from behind me.
MD: Quite a few drummers have stated that studying martial arts has helped them with their drumming. Do you feel that way?
John: Definitely, for speed and for precision. When I play, I think of how a snake strikes its prey. I think of how to get from here to there on the kit fast and still play in the pocket. So when I twirl a stick, I have to twirl it in enough time for it to be visual and still hit that cymbal on 1. Anyone can twirl a stick, but twirling and hitting at the right time requires you to move your arms very fast.
MD: Are there any players that have influenced your stick twirling?
John: I developed my own style from watching guys like Lionel Hampton, Sonny Emory, and Gerry Brown. I recently saw a video with Sonny Payne that I couldn’t believe. He was twirling his sticks way back then. And when he played he wasn’t loud. He looked like his hands were going everywhere, playing fast, but it was soft hits on the drums.
MD: Do you feel it’s important to warm up before you play?
John: Yes. You should always stretch. I feel stiff if I don’t stretch. I stretch my hands, fingers, and arms. I also like to meditate. I think about positive things. I’ll take a hot bath and let the steam release any stress I may have.
MD: What’s your practice routine like?
John: I use the Buddy Rich method of playing on a pillow. I do exercises and single-stroke rolls. I think it’s interesting what Simon Phillips does, where he takes singles, doubles, triplets, and quadruplets and makes them all sound the same. Working on that has helped me get around the kit smoothly. Another thing I like to do is take the lightest dumbbells I can find and “air drum” with them—it’s a great workout for my arms. For my foot, I practice a single bass drum exercise. In fact, I don’t use a double pedal. I tighten my pedal very tight and try to get my one foot to pull off double bass drum techniques.
MD: Getting back to your career, how did you hook up with Cameo?
John: It was right after Berklee. Larry Blackmon heard about me from a background vocalist named Freddie Boy. I had first met Freddie at a Bee Bee and Cee Cee Winan audition around 1994. I didn’t get that gig. But a year later Freddie Boy called and said, “Larry needs a drummer, can you do the gig?” I talked to my dad about it and he was all for it. He said, “Go ahead, this is what you wanted.”
MD: After having a negative experience with auditions, how did you feel about going on this one?
John: I didn’t have to audition. I went out with no rehearsals, just on the recommendation of Freddie Boy. I was so into Larry Blackmon, who is an excellent drummer himself, I knew all the beats.
MD: How did you hook up with Patti LaBelle?
John: I got Patti’s gig through my buddy, drummer John Paris, who was playing with Patti at the time. Because of another commitment he had, John asked if I could fill in on a few dates. I thought it would be temporary, but I wound up touring with Patti for three years.
MD: How was that gig different from Cameo?
John: It was different because the Cameo gig was always set and arranged. On Patti’s gig, the musical director, Bud Edelson, would give hand signals. It would be a different show every night. Bud would cut the music at points you would never have thought of. You never knew. You had to forget the night before, because every night was different. You had to be ready for anything. And if you missed a cue, he would curse you out. [laughs]
MD: Being young yourself and having the experience you have, what advice would you like to pass on to young drummers?
John: For a young kid who lands a gig—or anyone for that matter— regardless of whether it’s big or small, always do what the artist you’re working for wants. Don’t try to steer the ship yourself. A lot of players get too excited. Control your ego. Control your head. Control that excitement. Don’t ever forget, this is a business. Be professional. But also play from your heart.