by Robyn Flans
Growing up in Creston, Iowa, Robinson’s earliest influence was his mother. “Back in the small town in Iowa, there wasn’t much happening, and my mother would always go the VFW Club and whoever was drumming would let her sit-in and play with the brushes. She would come home and tell me all about it,” recalls Robinson. “And then, one evening, when I was 8, I came back home and there was this old Ludwig drum set sitting in the middle of the living room. I remember picking up the sticks and playing semi-traditional grip, but not quite. I played some sort of swing-oriented pattern and it was right. The hi-hat was on 2 and 4, so I guess my mother’s playing swing records just sort of stuck.”
A tremendous amount of training followed, beginning with the basic music programs in school, to bands with his sister’s older friends. In the summer of ninth grade, Robinson attended a music camp at Northwest Missouri State University, where he met one of his prime influences, Ed Soph. “At that time, Soph had an 18″ bass-drum, which was something I had never seen before, and his technique was flawless. He’d had rudimental training and knew how to apply it to a jazz idiom, and he played real up jazz tempos. He took a liking to me and got me out of my bad habits. I had started playing traditional grip, and now I really alternate, although when I’m playing with Rufus, I use match grip.”
Robinson’s father had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and become an optometrist, and that, along with his talent in basketball, were the two rivals to his drumming career. “But I simply decided drumming was what I really wanted to do,” Robinson states. “There are many more years of drumming than basketball, because basketball is something where your estimated life span in the game is not that long, whereas you can drum until you die.”
Of all his educational experiences. Berklee College of Music in Boston was definitely the highlight. During his five semesters there, he studied with some very fine instructors. John LaPorta, a reed player who taught improvisation, was one who called upon Robinson to play on tapes for the students. “He said he called me because I was very consistent and had good time, thank God, and I would play all these charts straight—nothing but the same thing for 290 bars.”
Another influence, for whom Robinson did studio work, was Bob Hores. He also had the opportunity to study with Alan Dawson for six months. “He really knows his stuff,” exclaims Robinson. “He’s a very consistent and melodic drummer, and I just wanted to listen to him play and talk. I didn’t really care about the lesson,” he laughs.
Listening to a lot of rock at an early age, such as Grand Funk Railroad and Vanilla Fudge, and combining it with the immense jazz training he received, Robinson became interested in jazz-rock fusion, and at Berklee, he became very aware of the musical changes he had undergone. “While everyone was studying in the jazz idiom, I knew I was getting out of that idiom and that I was progressing into something more contemporary.”
Upon leaving Berklee. Robinson remained in Boston for awhile, continuing to gig with bands with whom he had hooked up during his schooling, and then he left for N.Y. State. “My education came in stages,” Robinson says, recalling one evening in particular in 1973 in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I did one night with the Tommy Dorsey Band, and they pulled out his book with over a thousand pages and said, ‘Turn to chart 1238,’ and so I opened the book to the end and it was this old yellow sheet of paper from the ’40s with dust on it, and all the figures were written very, very straight. That was a tremendously educational experience.”
J.R.’s big break occurred early in March, 1978, when while enjoying the stability of several years with a showband called Shelter, he was asked to join Rufus.
“I had followed Rufus from the beginning, and one night, while I was playing with Shelter at a club called the Rare Cherry, northeast of Cleveland, Ohio, I looked up on the big computerized outboard and it said ‘Welcome Rufus and Chaka Khan’ and I just didn’t believe it. We had started the second set of the show when, sure enough, I looked out at this section of front tables and there was Hawk (David Wolinski), and Bobby (Watson) and Moon (the former drummer). During the show I had thought to place where a heavy group or person had been in, and I had tried to show off, so this time I told myself to just play.”
Discussion concerning Robinson’s joining the group began immediately, and shortly thereafter, he happily found himself in Los Angeles recording their Numbers album. While he had done some recording at Berklee, he had really not had an abundance of 24-track or album experience, but says the members of the band helped him out with the various do’s and don’ts.
It was during the recording of Rufus’ next album, Masterjam, that Robinson became acquainted with Quincy Jones, who was to produce the project. The association with Jones opened up a lot of new doors for Robinson, who recalls, “He asked me if I did sessions and I said, ‘Why sure,’ smiling to myself all the while. So he asked me to come in and do something for him, and little did I know it was to overdub two tunes on Michael Jackson’s album (Off the Wall). He kept me for the rest of the album after that, and I’m glad he did. Doing that album was like going to college. It was a whole fresh set of players and the combination of good players and no egos was really nice. I also learned a great deal about miking techniques from Bruce Swedien, who is, by far, the best engineer today. He would say things to me about different dynamics and he would make me play certain things louder, certain parts of my limbs louder than others, and that presented a challenge. It was a tremendous experience. The material was excellent and generally we did it within the first three takes. When you have good material and players like that, nothing but good can happen and the sale of 7 million is proof of that!”
Events snowballed from there. Louis Johnson, also playing on Jackson’s Off the Wall, called upon Robinson to play on the Brothers Johnson’s album, Light up the Night, after which, he also played on a spiritual album Louis did on A&M. Through Louis Johnson, Robinson met Stanley Clarke and was called in to do a session on Clarke’s album Rocks, Pebbles and Sand, on a tune called “We Supply.”
“I had always listened to these bass players on albums and it’s a real privilege to be working with them,” Robinson smiles. “Those guys are great. I have to say, it’s a real sense of accomplishment for people to call me just for me now. They call me for my groove and my sound and that makes me feel good inside.”
To him, being a good drummer means “number one, being musically sound,” he explains, “if he’s playing with a big band, he can accent them, or if he’s playing with a trio, he can lay back, if need be. A true drummer is somebody who will lay it right down, everything on the one, because in today’s music, everything is on the one. I look for a guy who, when he has the chance to solo, doesn’t copy somebody’s lick. So many people you see in clubs today will be playing Billy Cobham’s licks. I look for someone who is unique, stylistic and swings. Everything, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, has to come up to the groove.
“A good studio drummer is one who can, when called upon, cut the mustard on whatever it is. For example, I worked with Richard Perry on Marva King’s album and he called me in to do a thing with Marvin Hamlisch, and so I overdubbed on the theme for the film Ordinary People, and that was kind of a challenge. It wasn’t difficult, but I had to play to a string track, which was different for me. It was really the first legit thing I’ve ever done, and it felt really good. I try to do the whole spectrum of things. I think a good studio drummer should be able to play with brushes, should be able to play with Joe Pass or somebody like that, and has to be able to read thoroughly. His rudiments should be together and he has to have a good attitude. I think that’s the key to everything. If you have a positive, good attitude, people will like you, and they’ll call you back. If you come in with a big-old ego, they’re never going to call you again.”
While Robinson has been categorized as an R&B player, he hopes the variety of projects on which he has recently worked will help break that stereotype. Canadian group Dakota, a straight rock & roll record, and John Ford Coley’s album, he feels, help display additional capabilities, but he would love to play more jazz, as well, and looks forward to when he might be able to release his own products.
“A lot of drummers playing in groups have branched off and done their own thing. Lenny White is a great example. He’s doing benefits and drum clinics for kids and I think that’s great. Narada Walden is another example. He’s gotten into producing also, and I would like to get into that as well. I have a few ideas of people I’d like to get involved with. Plus, we produced this current Rufus album, Party Til You’re Broke, and it made me feel good, knowing I accomplished something. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
“If I were going to do an album that would have radio hits, which seems like what everybody is trying to do, it would be a very careful selection of material. We’ve all learned so much from Quincy and one thing I’ve learned is to pick your material very carefully. I would be going very carefully for lyric and melody, which is the key to all music. If I were to do a jazz-oriented album and not worry about how much it sold, it would be something that would please me, which I want to relate to other people, and I would choose players who could help that.”
He has also been writing more these days, and while he didn’t write anything on their current album, on Masterjam he co-wrote a tune called “Dancin For Your Love.” He and his wife plan to collaborate more in the future. “With the Rufus thing, we all try to keep our individual projects happening. Bobby produces, Tony writes, Kevin writes, so we all try to vary our directions, and from that, when we get together, it’s just that much better. It’s kind of nice to have the best of both worlds.”
His role with Rufus and the outside sessions currently consume all his time, and while he was on the road for 7 months with Rufus last year, between March and May he was flying back to L.A. during holes in the tour to record George Benson’s Give me the Night album.
For the past year, Robinson has been endorsing Slingerland Drums, obtained through the help of Danny Seraphine. At the time of this interview, he was using a 24″ bass drum (front head on), although he.wants to change to a 26″ bass drum to get more depth and power. He had also been using a complete set of concert toms(6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, 15″ and 16″ floor), but he plans to change to doubleheaded drums for live performances. “Most of the engineers, live, wanted me to use concert toms because they’re easier to mike and it’s much more of a dead sound. But I really like double-headed drums for the response, and Slingerland makes great toms.” He also prefers using double-headed drums in the studio, unless a tune calls for a certain effect obtained best by a single-headed drum.
“Thanks to Lenny DiMuzio, I’m with Zildjian,” he says. “Everyone says what a nice guy he is, and it’s true—they’ve been wonderful to me.” For live performances he uses Quick Beat hi-hats, a Rock 21 ride, a swish and various crashes. In the studio he uses 16″ thin crashes, a ping 20″ ride, the same Quick-Beat hihats and various other cymbals to get the sound he wants.
He uses Bunken 5B sticks, although he is extremely open to necessary experimentation.
Recently, Quincy Jones asked him to go out and get a pair of marching sticks for a different effect. “It works to play as soft as possible on certain ballads with these big sticks because it gets a sound I can’t describe. I think of Elvin Jones and how he has all these different sticks for different effects.”
Before a live show, J.R. is very disciplined about warming up. “I always isolate myself from everyone for about a half-an-hour before the gig. In the dressing room, I’ll practice with the pad on a few drum patterns and work on speed and accuracy, which will warm you up real quick. I’ll work on accurate doublestroke rolls real slow, and sometimes while I’m by myself, I ‘ l l fantasize in my head about playing a situation. Once you start playing a groove, you’re automatically warmed up, and when I feel I’m ready and the butterflies are gone, I just walk around, because I know I’m ready to go on.”
He also enjoys teaching and has since he first taught at age 12, while still in Iowa. He only has five students, but devotes his Saturdays to them. “When I have a student come in who has some kind of bad habit, I enjoy knowing that I can correct him, because I’ve gone through the same thing with bad habits and Ed Soph or Alan Dawson corrected me. It’s nice to be able to help people and see results. I get into the technical aspect of the physical thing. Some players have a physical problem when they sit behind the set and their coordination doesn’t allow them to play and they’re not relaxed. I like to help drummers loosen up and get their brain to think right. That’s all it is—relaxing and coordination.”
Going to see bands play live is a very important aspect of learning, J.R. suggests. “Go see all kinds of musicians—horn players, symphonies, everything.” He cites that while he was growing up, he spent at least 50% of his time listening to albums and watching musicians. In his spare time, Robinson still joins friends to jam. “For those who are struggling,” he concludes, “You have to just keep a clear mind and hang with it.”