James Bradley Jr.

James Bradley, Jr.

Feels So Good


Story by Scott K. Fish
Photos by Scott K. Fish

SF: How about a little bit of background on yourself?

JB: My parents noticed that I had talent for rhythm when I was 16 months old. I was playing to music in my crib with two pencils. When I was about three years old, I told my father that I wanted a drumset. He got me one of those play sets, and I tore it up within weeks. When I turned four, I told him exactly every piece I wanted. I wanted a sock-cymbal, snare drum, and bass drum. So, he went and got it.

My mother and father were performing at a press party for Muhammed Ali about 1962. My father had been telling his friends that his four-year-old son could play the drums. I guess a lot of people didn’t believe him, so my mother and father took a break, and they just let me loose, and I started playing. There were a lot of prominent people there focusing their attention on me! They all came to this one room where I was performing and were taking pictures. Ali walks up and takes the sticks out of my hand! I started crying immediately. Being the showman that he is, the attention was off Ali, so he came over and did that. After I started crying, he took me in his arms and cooled me out. People started talking to my parents saying, “Hey, we’d like to get in contact with you.” These were people from Paramount Pictures, and KTLA in Los Angeles. This executive producer from Paramount called and said, “We’d like to sign your kid up to a 26-week contract.”They had me doing TV shows, which led to me doing some acting for about three years. When I was seven years old, I performed in Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman and George Kennedy.

SF: You were telling me before about the solid musical foundation that your mother gave you.

JB: Yeah, my mother really helped me out in that respect. She played the piano and taught me all the standards. I learned “Caravan,” “How High The Moon,” “Take The A-Train.” All those things, when I was four years old. My father was a vocalist, who played cocktail drums. My mother and father worked together as a nightclub duo in L.A. in one club for about 12 years. My father worked with brushes a lot. He wasn’t a real good trap-drummer. So, the only thing he really taught me was how to hold the sticks. When I was 4-years old, he took me to Bill Douglas, who was my first drum instructor. He taught me the single-stroke rolls, the paradiddles; I wasn’t able to comprehend reading music, so I came back about two years later and I started working out of a book.

I was fortunate to have my parents behind me. They didn’t really push me. Even after the early success that I had, I went to school and grew up in a neighborhood and ran the streets like everybody else. I could’ve gone down another road, but I always had a determination and knew what I wanted to do all the time. I had my mind set on it. It’s just something that happened naturally. I always enjoyed playing drums and performing. Even when I was in school. If I wasn’t really active making money professionally, I was still doing it! I always played my drums.

SF: When you were in high school, did you play in bands?

JB: I was a marching-band freak fanatic! As a matter of fact, I had some school scholarships to go to some universities all over the country. My father said, “If you leave Los Angeles, you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities as far as your music and your acting careers. You have to be in town to be on call.” So I said, “He’s right.” I stayed in town and went to El Camino Junior College. Took a few music courses, and I did gigs around town. That’s how I met the right people, and people started hearing me, and I got gigs that way. I was playing with Patrice Rushen in 1976. Before that, I was with a local band called Manufactured Funk. We’d play at this R&B club in L.A., opening shows for B. B. King, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and most of the black groups that came through there. There were a lot of well-known people who would come down to check out the music. If they liked you, they’d offer you gigs.

SF: Did you ever find a conflict between your acting and your music? Did you have to reach a decision between one career or the other?

JB: Music was always my first love before acting. Acting was something that just happened.

SF: Who was the music teacher who told you that, when you were younger, you sounded like Roy Haynes?

JB: Clarence Johnston. He’s in Los Angeles. He was the best teacher I had. He worked a lot with my touch, and my reading. The student has to develop reading. You have to work on that. But he had a lot of wrist exercises that we’d do with sticks. I already knew most of my rudiments at the time. I used to work those out myself. The thing I really had to work on was my reading. Clarence helped me out with that quite a bit.

SF: Was there ever a conflict playing in marching bands and jazz bands with the two different “feels?”

JB: No. No conflict with any feeling. I have always been able to play in whatever musical situation I’m playing. And play the music well enough, and authentic enough, which is really important. There’s a lot of drummers that don’t really do that. They really should. You may have three or four different feels in one song, and you should be able to play it and make it happen. If it’s a Latin feel, then play the shit out of it, and then go back into your funk feel. Music evolved around me like that, and that’s the way I approach it.

SF: Most drummers seem to have more of a challenge with a jazz feel than with a rock feel.

JB: The first thing I learned was how to swing. Even if I just played rock, I’d never be able to lose that. For somebody to really keep their jazz feel happening, you really have to play it. If it’s a problem for somebody, you have to stay on it. Fortunately for me I can play other styles and I always am able to add to it. It’s in my blood. I was brought up with it, so I’ll never lose it.

SF: What drummers were you listening to when you were growing up?

JB: When I was four years old, my parents told me I used to say I was Gene Krupa. I knew about Gene, but I didn’t understand where some of his music was coming from. I could comprehend some of it. I always loved Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich, but Louis Bellson was my main man. Then, when I was eight or nine years old, I started listening to progressive jazz.

SF: Who turned you on to that?

JB: I had a cousin who lived around the corner from me who was always listening to progressive jazz. He turned me on to Coltrane and I noticed Elvin Jones when I was eight years old. I fell in love with Elvin. Then my cousin turned me on to Miles and I noticed Tony. I fell in love with both those guys, and I consider them the two major influences on my drumming style.

SF: What particularly is it you love about them?

JB: The energy that Elvin has. The way he plays different time signatures. I really got into his use of the hi-hat and the left hand. I got off on that. I loved Tony’s creativity. When he was playing with Miles, he spaced me out a bit. I was really into riffs. I was always into that. Me and my father would joke about different licks that the drummers would do. He’d ask, “Can you do that?” I always listened to licks. Then, playing in different time signatures was the next thing I got into.

SF: Did you get a chance to meet any of those people?

JB: I finally met Elvin about three years ago. I was also into Max Roach at that particular time. I listened to Jack DeJohnette when he was with Charles Lloyd. I listened to Art Blakey then, also. I learned from all of them! But Elvin and Tony were my two main squeezes.

SF: You’re pretty unique. It seems that many players your age don’t have the knowledge of drum “roots” that you have.

JB: When I was in high school, everybody was talking about Billy Cobham. I checked him out, but I knew where Billy Cobham was coming from. A lot of cats didn’t know that. They didn’t know the roots. It didn’t fool me at all. He was very strong and that’s what freaked people out. He’s fast, but after awhile you can be fast, but you’ve got to have feeling behind all the music you play. Grooving! I’m not saying Billy’s not a groover. He’s one of the great, great drummers of all time, but he didn’t really freak me out like a lot of the kids I was with. I’d say, “Hey man. Why don’t you listen to Tony Williams? Listen to his Emergency album, and then tell me what’s happening!” The different time signatures Billy played with Mahavishnu were quite unique to a lot of kids. I was taken by that a lot, so I started practicing that type of drums. Playing sambas with the hi-hat playing eighth notes. Then there was the newness of Cobham playing matched grip.

SF: Can you tell me about your experience playing with Deniece Williams’?

JB: August of ’76, I got a call from her. She left Stevie Wonder and got a record deal with Columbia, making an album that Maurice White produced. That was her first album, and she needed a band, so she called me, and asked me to get some musicians together. I got the group together for her, and we rehearsed her material. We did her first tour in September of that year. We toured with The Ohio Players, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, The Commodores, and LTD. I was with Deniece for four months. I left around December of that year. That was my first experience on the road. I had just turned 18. I learned a lot. I learned how important the business was, and how much of a business the music business is. Then I got recommended to Chuck Mangione. Joe LaBarbara had just left the band. I was recommended by Charles Meeks. We had worked together before. His mother and my mother worked in bands together, so it was coincidental that Charles and I are now working together. We auditioned together. Chuck auditioned quite a few other drummers. I guess I was right down to the last few. I didn’t think he was going to call me.

SF: What was the audition like?

JB: Well, first of all we just jammed. We played a song called “Sunflower.” Then he had some music he wanted me to look at. At that time the music he was pushing was Main Squeeze.

SF: He handed you charts?

James Bradley JrJB: He didn’t have the actual figures written out, just the breaks, which was cool with me. I mean, I’m a good reader. I don’t think I’m the greatest reader in the world. I practice as much as I can. I’ve read enough charts in enough musical situations so that I can comprehend and follow. I feel real comfortable. Of course, me and Charles knew each other. So the feeling was there. We played the music real well. A week later I got a box of albums in the mail. I said, “Ah, this turkey’s sending me the albums to thank me for auditioning.” Then I got a phone call. Chuck was in New York City and he asked, “Are you ready to do it?” I said “Yeah.” He said “Okay. I’ll send you some music.” So, I practiced the charts and listened to the music. The first gig we did was January 29, 1977 at Stony Brook, New York. That was our first concert and I still remember it. It was a great experience. I had missed that feedback from not working for a month with a crowd, which really pushes me, and inspires me. That’s why I consider myself an entertainer. I like to perform live rather than just be a studio musician. I’ve done a few albums but I’d rather be out there doing it, and getting feedback from the people.

SF: How long did the band rehearse before you went on the road?

JB: Well, we rehearsed about a week or two, I think.

SF: How is playing in the studio different for you than playing live?

JB: It’s a mental thing. You have to concentrate on what you’re doing.

SF: Do you feel hemmed in by the studio?

JB: Not really. You have to tune-in and listen and concentrate on what’s happening with everybody. You don’t have any audience feedback to push you or for you to get oft” on.

SF: Were you stuck in an isolation booth during the recording of Chuck’s albums?

JB: No. We were all pretty close together. So, we’re all vibing off each other, which is what it is when we’re on stage. That’s why you don’t really have to rely on a crowd, because you have your “family” there with you. You can feed off them. I just like the feel of the people getting off on what we’re doing. Having a good time like I am.

SF: Did the albums require a long time in the studio?

JB: Basically, Chuck would just write out the chord changes, breaks and figures for the groove things. I just followed the chart, and he let me do whatever I felt would fit, was comfortable, and was grooving with everybody else. That’s the way Chuck usually writes for me, except Children of Sanchez. The main-theme drum figures were written out. We played that and I went back and overdubbed the tympani, which was a grati fying experience.

SF: What happened to the Children of Sanchez movie?

JB: The cat who produced and directed it wanted to sell it to a major company. Nobody wanted it, I guess. The album did real well. The album went gold in three weeks, and it’s still selling today. It just turned gold in Canada. We went into the studio for two straight weeks, 24 hours a day. Literally living in the studios. We had just finished Feels So Good, came back, did a tour in August. Chuck was writing the music on the spot. And we had to do it right then! He only had two or three weeks to write the music, get it mixed and edited. There was a lot of pressure on everybody.

SF: Do you get involved with choosing what mic’s you are going to use for recording your drums?

JB: Technically, I don’t know. Milt Gazalski, our engineer, has done all our albums. He’s a genius. He knows equipment. You can use any kind of mic’s that you want, and if the engineer don’t know what he’s doing behind the board, it ain’t going to come out anyway. I just leave it up to Milt. When he mixes my drums, then I discuss that with him.

SF: Are you happy with the way your drums have come across on record?

JB: Yeah.

SF: Is there any difference between your studio set, and your concert set?

JB: There was on this last album. Fun And Guinea. Before that I had been recording with bottom heads on my drums. I’ve been endorsing Slingerland for two years now. I used the Rogers set on the Feels So Good album and the Sanchez album. I was using a Ludwig snare with Evans heads. The newest album, Fun And Games. I took my heads off the bottom for the first three tracks. But I like to have my heads on.

SF: Why did you take them off”?

JB: Milt, the engineer, took them off, actually. It sounded good on the first three tracks. I was having a problem getting the sound I wanted out of my snare. I wanted a fatter sound. I wanted a fatter sounding drum, like a Rick Marotta type sound. I was using a Ludwig Super Sensitive snare drum with a regular Remo head. One of my best friends. Joe Montinari, had made me an 8-inch deep snare drum with Gretsch hoops, and Slingerland Scotch bass drum lugs on it. It’s 8 or 9 ply and it’s a real big fat sound. I didn’t get a chance to use that until the last number on the album which is “Fun And Games.” It’s the sound I wanted to get. I wish I had it earlier, but the drum wasn’t completed. I used three different snare drums on that album, which was different for me. I never did that before. I have 8 or 9 different snare drums now, but that’s the first time I used three different ones on a single album. I used the Ludwig Super Sensitive; a Slingerland gut/wire snare combination with a maple-wood drum; and the one that Montinari made for me, which sounded better. So, from now on, I’ll be using that one! He just made another one for me. It is 14 plies, 6-inches deep.

SF: What kind of wood?

JB: Maple.

SF: What size set-up are you using now?

JB: The set I’m using now is Slingerland. It’s Blakchrome finish. The Power Toms I’m using now are 10 x 10; 12 x 12; 13 x 13 and I think a 10 x 14, which is kind of odd, you know. Usually you have a 14 x 14. And I have a 16″ floor tom; a 16″ Roto Tom. I’m playing a Slingerland snare now and I use Pinstripe heads on all my drums. At the time I’m using Steve Gadd’s idea. I’m using the blue Evans Bradley continued from page 61 heads on the top. and the Remo clear on the bottom which is a good combination. But on the snare drum I’m using the Pinstripe, with the new Deadringer on the inside. The Deadringer is foam with adhesive on the bottom. You stick it on the bottom head and it eliminates ring. I love it on my snare drum, but I don’t particularly use it on my toms. I like my drums to ring a little bit.

SF: Do you pretty much play them open without mufflers?

James Bradley JrJB: Yeah. I just muffle them a little bit. Maybe in the studio more so than live. I like to have them ring on stage and get that live sound out of them. I’m really getting to that sound for the studio. On my own project, I’d like to have my drums open on a lot of stuff. Depending on what type of music we’re playing.

SF: I remember reading a statement by Shelly Manne, where he was bemoaning the fact that today’s drummers all sound alike; that in the old days you could tell who was playing just by the way they tuned their drums!

JB: Well, you still can. I can tell the difference between Steve Gadd and Rick Marotta, Buddy Williams or Steve Jordan or me! Not only by sound, but by the way they play, too.

SF: By the way they play, yeah. But don’t you feel that for a time most drummers were trying to get that “dead” sound? Was Steve Gadd the first drummer to get that sound?

JB: Well, Harvey Mason has his drums really dead in the studio. The East Coast session cats tune their drums a lot different. The snare drum sound I use I got from Steve & Rick. The real loose, fat sound. I think Rick’s snare is a little bit fatter than Steve’s.

SF: How is it different on the West Coast?

JB: Well, I’ve found in the last couple of years that drummers on the West Coast have been tuning their snare drums a lot looser. A lot of the engineers require that. Sometimes on some stuff you can hear that the snare drum is really tuned tight. I used to tune my snare drum like that. On a lot of the old James Brown stuff, the funk, soul, and R&B groups, the drummers would always have their snares real tight with that SNAP! I’ve been getting away from that. On some songs it sounds good, on some things it doesn’t. Some of the drummers like the tight sound, some of them like the real fat sound. I play it back and forth between the two. In the studio I mostly have my drum looser, to get that fat sound. It depends on the snare drum, also. You get different sounds out of different drums.

SF: What do you see as your main function in the Chuck Mangione group?

JB: Well, aside from keeping time, I keep a groove happening. I lock in with the bass player and the guitar player. We really key on our stuff together. I play on top of the beat. When I was younger, before I really started working, I had a tendency to rush, playing on the edge. So playing with Charles Meeks helped my time. Made me laid-back a little more. I enjoy bringing new ideas and different types of rhythms to the music; especially the new stuff that Chuck writes. To keep the music fresh and loose, I’m really into pushing the soloists when I’m playing behind them. I play behind Chuck differently than I play behind Chris. I really like playing behind Chris when he solos. I like to push him.

SF: Does Chuck dictate to any degree how he would like to have you play behind him when he’s soloing?

JB: Maybe when we’re working through new music. He might want to hear something. He tells me then. But when we’re just playing, I use my own ideas.

SF: In other words, Chuck hired you because he liked the way you played. Can you stretch out in concerts, or do you find that the audience demands that you stick close to the format of the records’?

JB: A lot of times people come to me and say they’d like to hear me stretch out more. I try to make my presence known just by being out there. A lot of times that’s the role that I have. I’m a pretty strong drummer. Not overbearing. Dynamics are very important. A lot of the drummers will be playing simple, really fitting in, and you wouldn’t even know who he was. Steve Gadd for example. A lot of cats say, “I didn’t know he played that way.” But if that’s what the music calls for, then that’s what you have to do to make everything lock in.

My feature song every night is “The 11th Commandment.” That’s the only time I really have a chance to stretch out and do my thing. But sometimes Chuck, on any tune, will say, “Hey, go! You’ve got it!” He’ll just cut me loose. That could happen at any time. We haven’t really been doing it that much lately. Charles, Chris, and I have a lot of contact together. We’re in back of Chuck so we’re all with each other. But I’m always looking at Chuck for cues.

SF: It sounds like you really think of the three of you as a “rhythm section.”

JB: Oh yeah. Charles Meeks, Carl Lockhart, and I really get into some stuff. When Grant Geissman was in the band we got into some things too, but it’s on another level of feeling with the three of, us now. Another thing; when I was younger I didn’t realize how important the tightness of a rhythm section is. But being able to work with a great bass player like Charles…he and I have been able to work with just about anyone.

SF: How fussy are you about your cymbals?

JB: Oh, I’m not fussy at all. I like using Zildjian cymbals. I’m endorsing them, and they take care of me very well. I love those people over there.

SF: What are you using?

JB: Right now, I’m using two 18″ thin crashes, a 20″ medium ride, a 10″ splash, and 14″ New Beat hi-hats. I have quite a few other cymbal combinations that I have yet to get into. I’m also using an 18″ Swish now. I wasn’t using it that much last year.

SF: What was it like playing with an orchestra? When you recorded Sanchez was the orchestra overdubbed?

JB: Most of the stuff is overdubbed now except for the live stuff we did. Everything was live, it happened once, and went down just like the album. It was one of the greatest concerts I ever played. We had 55 strings, a 16 piece band, and the quartet, so altogether we had a 70 piece orchestra. My role is then different. When we play music with just the quartet, we stretch out and we get into other areas which we ordinarily can’t get into when we’re playing with an orchestra. I have to push them more so, play the breaks and the figures more than I would with the quartet. I can make up a lot of figures with the quartet, and that’s why I think Chuck enjoys playing with us better, because we have more freedom.

SF: Was that a heavy-duty rehearsal for that concert?

JB: Well, we had 2 rehearsals.

SF: When you first started with Chuck Mangione, it seemed to me that Feels So Good really opened him up to a much broader audience than he ever had. How did that affect you?

JB: It was different in that, when I was playing with Deniece Williams, we drew a certain type of crowd. With Chuck, we draw a pretty wide range as far as audience age is concerned. We appeal to everybody. So, we get very respectful type people. Before we started playing “Feels So Good,” a lot of people didn’t really even know who Chuck was. Eventually his success and the music and the audience grew. But that Feels So Good album did it. It was his most successful album. The people really dug the music. That’s what the band brought on. The way we fit in together, and everybody was basically young. I was 18, Charles was 23, Grant was 23, and Chris was 27.

SF: Do you maintain any attitude philosophies?

JB: When I’m working I have this desire and determination to do things I really want to do, in & positive direction. I have a positive attitude towards mostly everything I do. Basically I am a physical person. I grew up in the neighborhood with all the rest of the kids. I could’ve gone in another direction, another road. But I always knew what I wanted to do. You have to believe in yourself and you can do it! I feel there’s nothing you can’t do.

SF: Did you find people along the way who tried to discourage you?

JB: Oh yeah. It could be people or it could be elements that discourage you from doing what you want to do. But you have to just be strong and believe in what you want to do. Just stick to that philosophy. Work on your goals until you get them. Even when you arrive, there should always be other places and other goals that you want to reach. Just keep working hard at it.

SF: How do you feel about the word “impossible?”

JB: I don’t think anything’s impossible! You can overcome impossible. I have. Certain things happen in our lives for different reasons. Some people get success early in life, and later on they fizzle out. But I think the main thing is to really concentrate on being consistent! That’s very important. As long as you’re consistent, consistently on the positive edge doing something, you’ll always go somewhere. You’ll always keep moving forward.

SF: How do you stay positive?

JB: It’s not really easy to do. I don’t let too many things worry or bother me. Everybody has problems. Through music I’ve overcome a lot of those. Just being able to express myself physically on the drums the way I do, night after night.

SF: Do you associate with positive people?

JB: Right! That’s very important. I vibe off of that, too. That really inspires me. Those kind of people inspire me.

SF: You grew up in a musical family, but it seems to me, through my own experience, that it’s hard to maintain a family and be a musician.

JB: Oh yeah. It’s very hard. I know some very close musicians that are going through that. I’m learning from their experience. I’m watching them and asking myself, “What would I do if I were in that situation?”

SF: Could you talk about the pros and cons of being on the road?

JB: That’s very important. A lot of musicians don’t realize that if they have never been on the road. Before I went on the road I was in Los Angeles for 17 1/2 years! I hadn’t done any tours with anybody. That was one of my ambitions. My last year in high school I said, “Man, next year I want to travel and perform with a group! I want to get out there and do that for a living.” So it happened! But you will see and learn a lot from people, the various places where you’ll go, the cities that you travel in, and other environments that are quite different from where you came from. A lot of people only see the glamour of it all. Many musicians don’t like to travel on the road. I still enjoy it. I’m sure I could be a studio musician later on in my career; when I get older and when I’m ready to settle down.

SF: If a good friend said. “James, I want to go on the road with a band,” how would you advise him?

JB: I’d tell him the same things my parents told me. They hipped me to a lot of things. I was fortunate because my parents were in the music business. Parents shouldn’t push a kid. You push kids into anything and after awhile they might just say, “You’re pushing me too hard. I don’t want to do this.” They might run off somewhere else messing up or something. It’s really hard to advise. A person has to find out for himself. I could tell them a lot. It would be more helpful if the person they are to travel with is a cat that has been in bands. It might be a person’s first time on the road, and there may be a musician in the band who’s been on for two or three years. You can learn a lot from him.

SF: Do you feel musicians get screwed up by not knowing about the music business?

JB: Yeah. Fortunately, I learned by dealing with people and learning how they run their business. Our organization, Gates Music, is one of the best in the business as far as taking care of the people that work for them. The group is a family. We all look out for each other. I’m away from home eight or nine months out of the year, so if the band ain’t a family, you’re in trouble. So there’s many things we all help each other out with.

SF: Have you ever taught or done clinics?

JB: I’m just starting to do clinics now. It’s really hard for me because everything has to revolve around my tour schedule with Chuck. Teaching is another thing that you have to put time into. I don’t think I’m ready. If I had the time, I’d just as soon show people some things rather than have students right now.

SF: What would your clinics cover?

James Bradley JrJB: I’m somewhat a teacher, but I’m not a technician. I’d just be relaxed and natural, tell people things just like I’m telling you. If somebody wanted me to show them something, I would. A question and answer situation would be most comfortable. I’m still learning too! I’ve been getting into writing music. I have a lot of ideas. Charles Meeks and I are going to be doing some music in the future together.

SF: Do you ever get a chance to write music lor the Mangione Quartet?

JB: No. Nobody in the band does that. Chuck writes and we throw in our own ideas to make the music what it is. I’m satisfied with that. But I’ll soon be writing my own music.

SF: Where do you see yourself in five years?

JB: I hope I will have established myself with my own group, playing my own music, and performing. Keeping busy doing what I’m doing now, in my own situation. I’d much rather be doing that.

SF: What kind of music do you want to write and perform?

JB: Charles and I are going to co-lead a band. I’m going to be singing. It’s going to be R&B, maybe a little rock, crossover- music that will appeal to maybe not all the people, but most of our peers. You just have to believe in yourself and keep working hard at it.