One good deed by a legendary session player was all he needed to kick-start a prolific recording career.
George Harrison liked what he was hearing. Poking his head into the home studio where Billy Preston, a friend from back in the Beatles days, was coproducing the 2nd Resurrection album by the Stairsteps, aka the Five Stairsteps (“O-o-h Child”), Harrison decided on the spot to sign the group to his Dark Horse label. He also offered drummer Alvin Taylor the chance to record his next album, Thirty-Three & 1/3, at the studio he’d set up at his Friar Park mansion in Henley-on-Thames, England.
Taylor was already a seasoned vet before that fateful meeting, having worked with rock icon Little Richard since he was a teenager and racking up credits with ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon and famed Latin pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, among others. But getting to play on Thirty-Three & 1/3 was undoubtedly a huge break. It allowed Taylor to contribute to two of the former Beatle’s hit singles, “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace,” and it provided the drummer with what he describes as a life-altering learning experience.
Soon Taylor’s résumé would be filled with world-famous names such as Elton John, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bob Welch, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Barry White, Sly Stone, Bill Withers, and Andraé Crouch; top producers like Richard Perry, George Martin, Frank Wilson, and Norman Whitfield; and popular TV shows including The Midnight Special, In Concert, Solid Gold, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and Soul Train.
Taylor remains active as a drummer, musical director, and producer, and he’s currently in the process of writing his autobiography. We began our conversation at the chapter that could be titled “Thirty-Three & 1/3.”
MD: Tell us about your experience working with George Harrison.
Alvin: I had never played with George before, and I have to say that my entire drumming technique changed from working with him. I learned things that I’d never thought about, just by working with and watching him in the studio. It literally revolutionized my life. He gave me a different perception altogether about playing the drums.
MD: How so?
Alvin: The first thing George did was sit me down, pick up a twelve-string guitar, and start strumming the rhythms to the songs that we were going to be playing. He never told me what to play. Rather, he would express to me what he was looking for as if we were going over a script. I began to see that music was more than playing sounds; it had a lot to do with taking on a “character,” as if I was an actor in a movie—becoming familiar with my role and inserting myself into it. Being a drummer is like being an actor—you must really know your lines. I wrote drum parts that I thought would be best for the character of the songs and for what he was looking for.
MD: The album has so many legendary players on it, including Gary Wright, Richard Tee, David Foster, and Billy Preston on keyboards, Tom Scott on sax, Emil Richards on marimba, and Willie Weeks on bass.
Alvin: I loved working with Willie. Playing with him, I learned to be a good listener. Being a good drummer, to me, means keeping a strong backbeat while listening to what the bass player is playing. That way it becomes easy to interact and slide in the proper turnaround leading into a chorus, and to do proper pickups while going into the next section, whatever it may be. Willie Weeks plays some things that sound complicated, but as you listen carefully, you hear how uncomplicated they actually are. And there is no greater joy for me as a drummer than to assist and worked with a lot of great bass players, but he’s the greatest I’ve ever worked with.
MD: How did you get started playing drums, and who influenced you early on?
Alvin: I started playing when I was around seven. My mother and father took me to a parade. I was born and raised in Palm Springs, California, and each year we had two annual parades—the Desert Rodeo Parade and the Desert Circus Parade. I recall sitting there, anticipating what the parade was going to be like. All of a sudden, it seemed like from miles away I could hear this thunderous, roaring sound coming closer and closer. Finally it got to the point where I could see what that sound was. It was a big huddle of drummers marching together, playing these songs that I thought were great.
I was fascinated by the drum major, who wore a tall, white, fuzzy hat with tassels hanging from it, swinging a baton from left to right, with a whistle in his mouth that he blew in time with the rhythm of the drummers. I’d never seen or heard anything like that before. I knew from that moment what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—I wanted to be a drummer!
At eight I got a chance to hear Buddy Rich, who I liked very much. But, to be honest, for me Buddy was a little too technical, and that scared me. I couldn’t imagine ever being that good. My saving grace came when I saw Gene Krupa, who had lots of feeling but didn’t seem as technical. He made it look easier. I liked the way he moved, with his hair flying all over the place, and I liked the things that he did on the drums.
MD: What was your practice routine then?
Alvin: I would practice about six hours a day. When I got out of school at three o’clock, I’d go directly to my garage and play until nine or ten at night, with very few breaks in between. I had my girlfriend do some of my homework for me. That was my basic routine. And on Saturdays and Sundays I would play eight hours a day. I’d listen to the latest records and songs on the radio and imitate everything I heard.
MD: How would you describe your playing style?
Alvin: The only thing I can say is that it’s very unorthodox—I have my own creative style. Growing up, even though I liked soul and R&B, I favored listening to British rock bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin because of their drummers, Keith Moon and John Bonham. There seemed to be such freedom in what they were playing. They were never limited by what they played or how they played it—unlike the drumming on certain R&B songs, where you had to do turnarounds before the bridge and the beat had to be straight. You couldn’t take risks. The songs I liked are what helped me be versatile enough to play all kinds of music.
MD: How did you get started on the session scene?
Alvin: I’m grateful to have had great role models in my life—other drummers and musicians that I looked up to who helped me. For instance, on my first session with Little Richard, he wanted me on his album so that my name could begin to circulate in the industry. But the contractor for the session had something different in mind and hired James Gadson. Well, of course Little Richard wasn’t going to tell James that he couldn’t do the album. So instead what Richard did was talk with James. I overheard the conversation: “James, I have a little fourteen-year-old wizard from Palm Springs, California. He’s a great drummer, but he doesn’t have any experience recording. Would you please do me a favor and let him sit in on this session with you?” I heard James say, “No problem, Richard—you got it.”
So I ended up in the studio, playing together with James Gadson. James would lean over and say to me, “Play the tom-toms like you hear the Indians play on the reservation where you live.” So I would get this tom-tom rhythm going on, and Gadson would cover it with a good backbeat on the snare, 8th notes on the hi-hat, and a strong four on the bass drum. Playing with him really made me sound good. Thanks to James, who I call my godfather, that built my strength and prepared me for sessions.
Another person that helped me get in on the session scene was Billy Preston. He had tons of connections with various producers, artists, and arrangers. And he had a special connection with Motown. Billy and I played in Little Richard’s band together, and when Richard would go on hiatus, that put both of us in a position where we had to try to find work. And through Billy I ended up recording with Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons individually and collectively, the Originals, Rick James, Teena Marie, and the Temptations. That pretty much got the ball rolling for me as an established session musician.
MD: What are some lessons that you learned doing sessions?
Alvin: Think your parts through thoroughly, but be prepared for any changes that might come up. Learn how to read, and study hard. Don’t try to call the shots; just play the part. And always be on time.
MD: Which do you prefer—live or studio drumming?
Alvin: Even though I consider myself equally good at both, I favor the studio. It’s always fun and exciting to be able to fix something after hearing it back in the control room. To hear parts that seemed incomplete be completed is a feeling of great achievement.
But you shouldn’t limit yourself to only wanting to be a session drummer, because during a session you might need to provide that live feeling on a track. Likewise, it’s never good to limit yourself to being just an R&B, rock ’n’ roll, or jazz drummer. It’s good to be able to do it all—commercials, videos, movies, jingles, records, as well as performing live. To be good at all this requires an experienced mind that’s open to versatility.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Taylor plays Gretsch Catalina Maple drums in mocha fade finish, including 8″, 10″, and 12″ toms; 14″ and 16″ floor toms; a 24″ bass drum; and a 14″ snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″ hi-hats; an 8″ splash; 12″, 16″, and 18″ heavy crashes; 14″, 16″, and 18″ thin crashes; 16″ and 20″ Chinas; and a 22″ ride. He uses 5A and 7A drumsticks by Vic Firth, Promark, and Regal Tip, plus a DW bass drum pedal and Jan-Al custom cases.