On July 4, the drumming world suffered a heavy blow with the passing of John Blackwell Jr. Known for his deep pocket, powerful playing, and visual flash, Blackwell was a renowned performer and educator whose work included tours and recordings with Justin Timberlake, D’Angelo, P. Diddy, Bootsy Collins, and many other stars of pop and R&B. John was propelled to international stardom as a touring and recording member of Prince’s New Power Generation band, recording multiple Grammy-winning albums and touring the world for more than a decade with the musical icon.
I was fortunate to study with Blackwell when he was a teacher at Berklee College of Music, playing in an ensemble that he led during a five-week summer session. I was already a huge fan of his playing, and I hoped to glean any bit of wisdom I could. I quickly realized that John had an equally large drive to learn from the masters who came before him, a drive that pushed him to continue to practice and grow as a performer and a professional.
John’s father was a successful drummer in his own right who played with R&B stars like Mary Wells, King Curtis, the Drifters, and the Spinners. When John Sr. began teaching the instrument to his three-year-old son, he stressed the importance of playing in the pocket above all else.
While attending Keenan High School in Columbia, South Carolina, John Jr. was an active part of jazz and marching band programs under the direction of a progressive director named Willie Lyles, who went on to develop a School of Funk at Keenan. John was educated early in groove, creativity, and the legendary drummers who paved the way for his career. His first big-name gig, at the age of seventeen, was backing up the iconic jazz singer Billy Eckstine. After high school, John chose to further his studies at Berklee, studying under the accomplished jazz drummer John Ramsay.
“He loved Art Blakey,” Ramsay says, recalling his time with Blackwell in the classroom. Blackwell was fascinated by Blakey, and he wanted to soak up as many of his licks—and stories about him—as possible. “It’s not surprising,” says Ramsay, who came to Berklee in 1982 after having been the second drummer in the Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers Big Band and subsequently Blakey’s road manager. “If you think about Art and John, they were both the kind of players whose whole thing was really feel. Art would frequently say, ‘I don’t care how many ratamacues you play on a paddle—people only know what they feel.’ I think that’s probably what John felt as well. All these years after, whenever we would see each other, John would still talk to me in the ‘Art Blakey voice.’”
Blackwell’s diligence and groove landed him his first touring gig in 1995, with the pioneering funk band Cameo. Cameo was the brainchild of Larry Blackmon, himself a successful drummer and former student at the prestigious Juilliard performing arts school. In a situation foreshadowing his role in Prince’s band, John found himself playing grooves and beats originally recorded by his bandleader. “I was so into Larry Blackmon, who is an excellent drummer,” John once said in a Modern Drummer feature story. “I knew all the beats.”
Even though he may have been playing grooves and fills that started with Blackmon, John added his own flair using his signature stick tricks and dramatic swipes at a China cymbal placed high above his head. The Cameo gig was the first step on his journey as a globetrotting musician, the second being Patti LaBelle, with whom John toured and recorded a Grammy-winning live album.
Blackwell was building a résumé, and he had the business sense to get his name out there. “He was just getting the gig with Patti LaBelle,” Modern Drummer editor at large Billy Amendola remembers, “when he called our office, wanting to talk to an editor. I took the call, and he started to tell me that Prince had come to see him play. He was excited about his work.”
Over the years, Amendola and Blackwell cultivated a friendship, sharing stories, advice, and even family holidays. “During one period, I think he called me every single day,” Billy says, “and we would speak at all hours of the night. He had so much enthusiasm for what he was doing. He wanted to be on the cover!”
Blackwell eventually did land the Prince gig, and that cover story he’d dreamed of for all those years finally came. The piece included a sidebar with Prince himself, who described what he looked for in a drummer, namely “a sense of timing and spirit [and an] ego that doesn’t ruin their playing.” Indeed, John always proved that his visual flair was never exhibited at the expense of the groove.
While Blackwell was touring with Prince in 2004, tragedy hit at home when John’s daughter, Jia, drowned in the family’s swimming pool. Jia would be a continual source of inspiration for John, who titled his solo album 4ever Jia and named his Sabian signature China cymbal after her.
I remember him as an encouraging teacher. In his ensemble, he advised us to “own our vocabulary.” I didn’t have the most impressive chops of the drum students there, but John made me feel comfortable improvising, soloing, and leading a group with the tools I had. I would often skip my class following John’s ensemble to grab lunch with him, and he would teach me as much about the business of music as the craft of it. As he wrote on his Berklee faculty page, he wanted students to not only be able to play, but to be able to negotiate fees to ensure that they’re paid what they’re worth. John said that he wanted “to be able to buy their signature drumsticks or snare drum someday.”
Fortunately, John Blackwell Jr.’s music has been preserved on numerous recordings and instructional videos. Although the drumming world mourns his loss, his legacy will live on for many, many years.
SAYING GOODBYE TO A BROTHER IN DRUMS
John was a dear friend who had an unbelievable love for music, as well as for his family and friends. He was a great musician and a great family man who loved his kids and wife, Yaritza. I’m going to miss him dearly, because we spent a lot of time on the phone talking to each other whenever we could. He was my brother from another mother, and may God bless him. —Dennis Chambers
John and I were students together at Berklee in the early ’90s. Everyone around him could hear and see that he was headed for great musical accomplishments. He was a special person and an inspiring musician. His spirit and energy will be missed. —Fred Eltringham
My friend John Blackwell was always a kind-hearted man that wanted to keep the drum community together by any means necessary. He was a fearless tiger! I’m going to miss him. —John Roberts
The few times I saw John play I was completely bowled over. He was obviously incredibly gifted as a drummer, but from what I’ve heard from those who knew him well, he was a thoroughly good guy. After I read about his little daughter drowning, I called him. I have a grown daughter, and if anything bad had happened to her when she was a baby, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it. I was torn up while talking with him, and he ended up consoling me—he was that kind of guy! I love the idea, though, that he’s together again with his little baby girl. Fortunately his playing is very well documented, so he will be studied for a long time. —Jim Keltner
John was such a talented and warm person. I loved his playing and his groove, and his showmanship was awesome. I first met John at a NAMM Show many years ago, when he came up to me and said he loved my playing and my stick twirls in the “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” video with Rod Stewart. He said he copied my twirl from watching that video. I told him his twirl was different and that I loved his twirl even better. From then on we became friends. What a talent! He always had a great big smile under that hat he always wore. Rest in peace, my little drum brother. You were loved. —Carmine Appice
Thank you, John Blackwell Jr., for your friendship and brotherhood. Your heart was always pure, and your willingness to help others was immeasurable. I’m proud to call you my brother. Rest in peace, and know that your legacy will live forever. —Brian Frasier Moore
Like so many of John’s friends and family, I was devastated to hear of his illness, and then his passing. He was very special to my family and me, and we will miss him and that infectious smile. I’ll never forget all the amazing times we shared. Rest in peace, John. —Billy Amendola
The first time I saw John Blackwell play, his talent blew me away. Afterwards, when I met him, he told me that he had a poster of me on his wall when he was a kid. I was so honored. I count myself blessed to have known him. You are missed, my friend. —Liberty DevItto
I first met John Blackwell and his drumming father, John Sr., at a clinic of mine at Sims Music in South Carolina, when he was twelve years old. He followed me the next day to Atlanta to ask more questions. I clearly saw the spark in his eyes for drumming. He then studied with me, and very early on in the lessons I realized it was me who became the student! John inspired everyone with every stroke he played. Now he continues to inspire everyone in heaven. —Dom Famularo
“John Bwell,” as I sometimes called and referred to John Blackwell. Other times, I’d call him my friend and little brother. In heart, spirit, soul, and mind, that’s how I saw him. John was a passionate sweetheart of a guy with an open heart to people and fellow players he loved, admired, and respected. He was a deeply sensitive soul, and that was reflected in his playing. With all his knowledge that he garnered throughout his studying years, and even the recent years before his graduation to heaven, he patterned his own style for drummers young and old to learn, follow, admire, and inspire. The body of work he leaves behind will stand the test of time. I send my prayers to your personal mailbox up there in heaven for you, my little brother. May you have found the rest you so deserve. Your name is etched in the tree of life here on this earthly planet for all drummers to know that you were here and you lived and were not a myth—you were the real deal. I love and miss you. Your big brother. —Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett