Brown in the ’70s

What Do You Know About…?

Mel Brown

Portland, Oregon, gave a young child the gift of music. The kid took that gift with him to Detroit, and proceeded to elevate the music of some of the greatest performers of all time. Back home, he’s repaid the debt in full, providing the city’s nightlife with endless hours of feel-good grooves and sharing with its up-and-coming musicians the same lessons that took him so far, all those years ago.

He’s not touring the world anymore, but life is good for Mel Brown. “I’m very blessed,” the drummer says, “because I can play five nights a week—and play five different ways.” Brown worked as a Motown drummer in the 1960s and ’70s, recording and touring with Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, the Temptations, the Spinners, the Four Tops, and the Miracles. After that heady time, he returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and became the spark for that city’s jazz revival, fronting bands in the styles of Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, and Bernard Purdie.

The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, featuring Louis Pain, recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Portland’s jazz hub, Jimmy Mak’s. The group nailed soulful takes of “I’ll Be There,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Watermelon Man,” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Getaway,” and the drummer took his funk seriously too. A series of anniversary recordings from the club, as well as Brown’s 2000 release, Mr. Groove, attest to Mel’s wide-ranging skills.

It’s not a stretch to say that Brown’s experience playing for some of the world’s greatest R&B singers has served him well in his career, even in instrumental situations. “Drummers need to learn to hum or sing the tune, kind of get a feel of what’s going on,” Brown says. “The best way to play a tune and make it feel good is to think like a singer. A singer has to take a breath sometimes, so when you’re playing a tune, leave space for somebody else to play. You’ve got to know when to play and when not to, and to play real simple and steady.”

Brown learned important musical lessons early. As a boy he delivered the morning paper through Portland’s “jazz district.” Sometimes the clubs’ shows would just be ending as he was riding by. “This is like six o’clock in the morning,” the drummer recalls. “The doors would open up and I could see guys playing inside. Back then there were shows with strip dancers and comedians and tap dancers and all kinds of things going on. There were also a lot of musicians that lived in my neighborhood, and I could hear them practicing during the day, so I was around a lot of music.”

Much of that music was jazz. “We called it jazz,” Brown says, “but it was also an entertaining thing. People would go out and dance, and that’s where you learn to play a groove. ‘This is a shuffle,’ or ‘Give me a backbeat on this one,’ or ‘This is a ballad.’ You learned to be part of a group. You weren’t saying, ‘Hey, look at me—I’m an outstanding player.’ You said, ‘Hey, listen, what tune is this? And how can I make it sound good?’”

Later Brown was mentored by Portland trumpeter Bobby Bradford and trombonist Cleve Williams. “I’d get home after high school,” Mel remembers, “and guys would say, ‘Hey, man, come by the house and sit down and listen to this record. Listen to the way Sam Woodyard is playing with Duke Ellington, and the way that Sonny Payne is playing with Count Basie, so you know how to set up figures.’ When a horn player is getting ready to come in and make their shout, the good drummers will play a fill for a bar or two, or maybe half a bar. You could feel something coming up because of their fill, and it was always a big help for the horn players. I was always a good reader, but I had learned how to set things up. You know, if you’re doing ‘Satin Doll,’ you do a bar of triplets, snare and floor tom, building it up.”

In high school Brown performed with the Portland Junior Symphony, and while studying at Portland State University he played local jazz clubs with Billy Larkin and the Delegates. One summer the band took some gigs in L.A., where Brown met the legendary Miles Davis drummer Philly Joe Jones and immediately asked for lessons. “I wanted to have the drive like Art Blakey,” Brown recalls, “but a clean sound like Max Roach—the musical sound. And I wanted some of the smoothness like Philly Joe, so I would study all these guys—Philly Joe, Blakey, Max, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb. It was like, there are certain things that these guys do that I can’t do.”

Jones’ lessons would always involve improving listening skills. “He would leave the room and have me play something,” Brown says, “and he’d tell me what it was that I played and which hand I started with. And then it was my turn to do the same thing. He’d play something, and I’d say, ‘Okay, you’re playing some ratamacues, you’re playing some paradiddles, you’re playing the paradiddle-diddle, and you started with your left hand. He was giving me ear-training classes. So by the time I got back to Portland State, I could listen to that Milestones album, like the track ‘Billy Boy,’ and hear exactly what he was doing—he’s starting with his left hand on the floor tom and working back to the snare drum. I could hear everything.”

Brown suggests that drummers who are trying to find their voice on the instrument learn to be choosy about what they incorporate from their heroes. “You use whatever you can use, and the rest of the stuff you appreciate but don’t even attempt to do. It’s like taking stuff and putting it in a bucket. I’ve got the best of Philly, the best of Max, the best of Roy Haynes, the best of Art Blakey…. You take a spoon and stir it up, and you say, ‘Okay, now what kind of sound can I have?’ Everybody’s got a signature, a thumbprint.”

After college, Brown took a steady gig in Vancouver with guitarist Tommy Chong (later of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong), and singer Martha Reeves happened to hear him on a gig. Soon Brown was learning a whole new feel. “I came from the jazz side,” he says. “The person who really showed me the Motown groove was Stevie Wonder, ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ back then. ‘Hey, Brown, come here. This is the way we do it back in Detroit.’ ‘Oh, okay.’

“It took me a minute to adjust, to fit with the snare drum being on the downbeat and the bass drum on the ‘&’ of the beat. It turned everybody around, because we didn’t just play on 2 and 4. The snare drum was on 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the bass drum was on the ‘&’s, and that screwed everybody up. They were used to the bass drum being on 1, 2, 3, 4, not the snare drum.”

There were always two drummers on the Motown sessions, according to Brown. “Guys would say, ‘Do you want to play the top or the bottom?’ If you played the top you were playing the snare drum and ride cymbal. If you played the bottom you were playing the hi-hat and the bass drum. That could be tough, but after a period of time you can read each other. Everybody thought it was one drummer.”

Besides a pair of drummers, the rhythm section would usually feature bassist James Jamerson and three or four guitar players. “Everything was put together like a puzzle,” Brown says. “We’d lay down a rhythm track at Hitsville, and then they would take that track across town and put the horn players on it. When they finished with the horn players, they’d bring the track back down to Motown and put the strings on it. We had a chalkboard—it’d be, “Temptations at midnight,” and the Temps would come in and put their voices on top of the track. And then at three in the morning they’d have the Supremes come in and lay their voices down on a track that was done for them. So everything kept going.

“We hardly ever were all in the studio at the same time. When a record came out, you’d listen back and say, ‘Am I playing on this track?’ Motown hated the idea of putting the musicians’ names on records, so unless you kept a notebook in the studio, it was very hard to tell. Smokey [Robinson] would come in and say, ‘Okay, this tune I want you guys to play is for Stevie, and this tune here is for the Four Tops, and this tune over here is for the Spinners.’”

The Motown era was an exciting one for all the musicians involved, and Brown never knew what opportunity awaited him next. While in England with the Temptations, recording Live at London’s Talk of the Town, he was surprised by a visit to his dressing room from Billy Preston and members of the Beatles. The next morning a limo arrived to take Brown to the studio, where he recorded the original version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which appears on Preston’s 1970 Encouraging Words album.

Now in his early seventies, Brown hosts a jazz camp every summer at Western Oregon University. One of the things he tries to get students to understand is that the drummer isn’t solely responsible for keeping the time in a band. “You have to listen to other people,” Mel says, “and if you think you might be ahead of the beat, synchronize yourself with the bass player and the piano player, because no one knows who’s in the wrong [if the time goes astray]. But if the rhythm section is together, everything works. Because every tune that you play, there’s a sweet spot. You may have to pull back on the time, or push the time, but once you get to that sweet spot, no one cares. It just feels good.”

Robin Tolleson