It’s difficult to depict a drummer whose career started in his teens, who did a world tour in the middle of prep school, and who has played with people ranging from Diana Ross and Luther Vandross to Yoko Ono and Hazel Scott. Although his career is in the sky, his head is not.
If you have been within earshot of radio, TV, or a stereo, chances are you have already heard Yogi Horton. The jingles he has played on include State Farm Insurance, Budweiser, Michelob, Coca-Cola, Mellow Yellow, Miller Beer, Polaroid, Ford, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Listerine, Cannon Towels, Chevy, Bubblicious, and AeroMexico. The recording artists Yogi has performed with include Diana Ross, Irene Cara, Stephanie Mills, Gladys Knight, Ashford & Simpson, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, David Byrne, Martha & the Muffins, Bob James, Yoko Ono, Hall & Oates, Michael Urbaniak, Grover Washington, Jack McDuff, Eric Gale, Leslie Gore, Melba Moore, Cheryl Lynn, and Laura Donaberte.
Although he is well respected by his peers, Yogi is one of the most modest people you will ever meet. He is quick to praise others and give credit to those who have influenced him as an artist. It is only recently, however, that this talented individual has begun to gain the recognition and respect he deserves from the general public.
NK: When did you first start playing drums or show an interest in them?
YH: I used to go to the Apollo Theater in 1960 when I was seven years old. I thought the drummer had the most fun.
NK: At the time, did you express your interest to your parents? Did you bang on pots and pans at home as a substitute for playing the drums?
YH: You didn’t do that at our house. My parents basically considered playing music something you did after work. My father was a career soldier. Most of the goof-off people in the service were in the band.
NK: Were you influenced by the marching band in the high school you attended?
YH: Yeah. I was also in the marching band at Alabama State.
NK: Then you have a strong rudimental background. Did that help you develop the chops you have now?
YH: Yes. Definitely.
NK: Did you study other percussion instruments?
YH: No, but I would like to go back to school to study them.
NK: Who have you taken private lessons with?
YH: I went to Charli Persip for two weeks. We rapped a lot.
NK: Then most of your musical ability is self-taught. Were you able to pick up a lot by ear?
YH: When I was in high school, I knew all the songs and beats, but I wasn’t reading then. I was very good at imitating them.
NK: What was the next move in your career?
YH: When I was 14 or 15 years old, I was in a little band, and the Apollo had an amateur hour. They gave a spot on the show to the winners, and my band, called The Deltas, won. After that I was playing at the Cheetah. Those were power-playing days because they weren’t miking up drums. I never played with microphones until I started doing recording sessions.
NK: When did you make the transition from semi-pro to pro?
YH: When I was in Harlem Prep School, a guy named Frank Prescott from a band called The Moments called me. The Moments had a gold record called “Love On A 2-Way Street” in 1969. Frank asked me, “How fast can you get a passport?” I asked, “Why?” And he said, “The Moments are going on a world tour tomorrow and Eddie Brown can’t make the gig.” So I ran down to the passport office, got my passport and split with $2.55 in my pocket.
NK: Then that was how you got your first big break. Is that how you developed your reputation?
YH: Yes. When I got back from the world tour, I cut this record called “Pillow Talk” with Sylvia, who was doing demos for F.L. Green and Willie Mitchell. Then I did tracks while I was in Alabama State at Muscle Shoals.
NK: What was the importance of Sylvia to you? I understand she was instrumental to your career during your teenage years.
YH: Sylvia would get all the kids in the neighborhood for sessions at All Platinum cheaper than the musicians across the bridge. I wanted to be on a hit record real bad. I did “Pillow Talk” with an idea I had that was new, and I was breaking rules although I didn’t know it. I got a lot of work and education I never would’ve gotten anywhere else. They were using eight tracks at Platinum until 1973. You had to be good and a lot of good has come out of that experience.
NK: What was the most challenging situation you were ever in?
YH: The first jingle I ever did because of the reading.
NK: When did you start to pick up reading?
YH: Sammy Lowe, a house arranger at Muscle Shoals, made it clear to me that I had to read. He gave me a mathematical approach to reading.
NK: Do you recommend reading as a must for up-and-coming drummers?
YH: It can’t hurt. It is basic to intelligence in communicating music. You must learn to read and interpret charts, as well as when to read ahead.
NK: How does a drummer get into sessions?
YH: The drummer must do the calling for the gig. Usually it’s an arranger who contracts the gig. Find out who the arrangers are and get to know them. You want to break into the heavy stuff doing club dates, so be trained to sub for someone who is doing sessions.
NK: Who were some of your influences?
YH: Well, at the time I was getting into it, my influences were Bernard Purdie, Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix. I felt that Ringo Starr had great time rather than a style, per se. I was also influenced by James Brown’s drummer, Sly’s drummer, Dino Danelli, Harvey Mason, and Billy Cobham. It wasn’t that it was so difficult, but rather it was difficult to come up with new things. It was a great era between 1966 and the early to mid-’70s. You wouldn’t be around for long if you didn’t take from those people. A special mention before I forget would have to be Grady Tate, who showed me how to burn without banging, but be gentle and exemplify taste. He’s a beautiful guy. Not enough can be said about him.
My other musical influences were Miles Davis and James Brown. I hear things on records now that people think are new, but that Brown was doing years and years ago. I dug Sly a lot and Count Basie. Sonny Payne once told me, when I was playing with Hazel Scott, to make everything I play on the drums a part of the arrangement, so that if others play it, they will have to play exactly what I play. For instance, if you try to play a gig like Steve Gadd, you’ll find you have to play what he played. There is no room for personality. An example of this is the opening drum fill to “She Loves You,” by The Beatles. If you change what Ringo did, the tune is lost.
NK: Who are some of your favorite drum soloists?
YH: There’s a guy named D.J. who plays with a group called Mean Machine, which was behind the Commodores. Steve Gadd is also a favorite of mine.
NK: What was it like to work with Yoko Ono?
YH: She worked in the abstract. She would start a vocal, then once I nailed the groove, she would say, “That’s it.” When I worked with Diana Ross, she said she wanted all the top people and I was called. That’s when she was the executive producer.
NK: Are you involved with electronics in drums? Simmons, Linn, etc.?
YH: Well, if a client wants Simmons, I’ll bring them. You still have to play clean and correct licks.
NK: What type of equipment are you using?
YH: I’m endorsing Yamaha. I like Yamaha because the hardware is very strong. I use the Tour Series. My snare is deep. My toms are 6″, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″ and 14″. My floor toms are 16″ and 18″. I use a double or single 24″ bass and 5B sticks. My cymbals are Zildjian.
NK: Do you vary drum sizes from session to session?
YH: Yes. Certain people want fills on small drums. I don’t tape my drums. My roadie sets them up the way I want them. I tell my clients what I have available, and they pick and choose from that framework.
NK: I understand you play piano and do a little writing.
YH: I know basic chords, but I can’t solo. I write material for Ray Chu on Capitol Records.
NK: Do you like to solo on drums?
YH: It depends on the situation. With Michael Urbaniak, I play an extended solo for as long as I want. With someone like Ashford & Simpson, I might get eight or 16 bars, so I think more about phrasing and the melody.
NK: Do you play differently on a session with a group in the studio than you do live with the same group?
YH: I play a bit more live than in the studio. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to record with an artist and then tour with the same artist.
NK: You look like you are in good shape. Is that from drumming?
YH: Well, I exercise a lot. I run and do push-ups. No one can accuse me of being the tired one in the group. Drumming is physically demanding and will keep you in shape to some degree.
NK: Do you find touring physically demanding?
YH: Sometimes, but if Bob Hope at his age can run around the country, then I have no excuse.
NK: Do you have any pitfalls to warn drummers about?
YH: Never overbook in New York. That can make your career really extinct. I’ll tell you a funny story. One time I was booked heavily. I called the registry and told them to get someone who could read. After the sessions, I ran into this guy who said, “I’m going to wolf up all that Yogi Horton stuff and do all his gigs.” He didn’t know who I was, so he asked how long I had been doing sessions. I said, “Eight to ten years.” He asked if I had any advice. I said, “Be careful who you talk to,” and I left. When you try to get into sessions, they will want to know who you have played with, not what conservatory you went to. That’s why street people are doing the gigs. Otherwise all the music school graduates would be wolfing all the gigs. However, remember Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason are well schooled.
NK: You’re known for having super time. What did you do to develop that?
YH: When I was in a college marching band, we had a system called eight to five, which was eight steps for every five yards. You did 60 steps a minute. You learned about pacing. Also you had to know how long it took to hit any given drum or cymbal. Some musicians with bad time set up their instruments all over the place because it looks great to the audience, but it’s hard to execute and the showmanship involved in long reaches detracts from good timekeeping. Dino Danelli was the first guy to tell me about the problems of having to reach for drums.
NK: Tell us about your video cassette.
YH: Well, it’s called A History Of R&B/ Funk Drumming, based on my personal experience. It can be helpful to a young kid who may have missed out on what was happening during the period of the mid- ’60s to the’70s.
NK: Will you be doing any clinics or lectures?
YH: Yes, in the near future at Drummers Collective.
NK: If you were to teach privately, how would you go about it? What would you emphasize?
YH: I would make sure that my student didn’t become a late reader like myself. It’s tough when you’re doing something practical, and you have to go back and learn exactly what you’re doing. This allows for bad habits and errors.
NK: Do you have any thoughts about stroking?
YH: Well, if you are going to be in the studio, use a large stick, because the more surface of the stick there is on the drum, the stronger a signal you will get and the engineer won’t have to EQ as much to beef up the sound. When I found that out, I started hitting the drum hard, which I had already done while working the Cheetah with no mic’s. In contrast, when I played with Hazel Scott, I had to play delicately and softly a la Grady Tate and still make it groove with brush technique. Harvey Mason got a lot from Grady Tate. A lot more should be said about Harvey.
NK: Do you use matched or traditional grip?
YH: When I did Diana Ross’ Work That Body, I used the parade grip on the parade stuff in the beginning. It’s more accurate for that style, but mostly I used the matched grip.
NK: Do you feel that you must adapt the way you play to the way engineers do things?
YH: No, I make the engineers follow me. I don’t let the engineers tell me to play this way or that way. Don’t tell me to play softly because people buy your attitude. You’ve heard where the drummer didn’t have it. I want to feel what you had for breakfast. The machines don’t have that. Nothing feels better than that wood in your hand.
NK: What do you consider to be the most essential element of your professional situation?
YH: One thing I want to bring out in this interview is the importance of a good roadie. One of those people is necessary to keep you from spending more time being a drum technician than a drummer. The way things are now, they are a must. People pay a lot of money for sessions and you can’t afford to have your equipment break down. My roadie, Artie Smith, is as important to me as another musician. He is as dedicated to his craft as I am to mine. I showed him my setup once and that was it. He’s never let me down. This isn’t a luxury when you have to be ready to play in more than one location in a day.
NK: Do you ever work with percussionists?
YH: I’ve played with many percussionists, like Eddie Magic and Sammy Figueroa. I get off on that.
NK: Did you ever work in a two-drummer situation? Did it affect your style?
YH: I did that when I first worked with Eric Gale. He wanted two drummers sounding like one drummer instead of two drummers sounding like two drummers. It taught me a lot about interaction.
NK: When did you start learning when to leave things out?
YH: Well, in recording, especially at All Platinum. They would say, “Play something hip but don’t get in the way. Do whatever you have to do to get to that.”
NK: Were you ever told you were overplaying early on?
YH: I never overplayed because I wanted to keep the gig and I noticed that there were a lot of people who had a lot of chops but couldn’t cut a record. It’s nicer to play less and have someone ask you to play more than the other way around.
NK: What work are you most proud of?
YH: Well, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” with Diana Ross, and my work with Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin be cause the producer tells me to play whatever I want and trusts my judgment.
NK: What was the high point of your career?
YH: Just being able to say that I don’t do anything else for a living but play drums. Another high point is having a respected magazine for drummers asking me what I think.
NK: What are some of your future plans?
YH: I want to develop a reputation for being the person who cuts your record, and if it’s a hit, I’ll go out with you. I’ll be there if you want it to sound the same live as on the record.
NK: Who specifically will you be working with?
YH: Ashford & Simpson, Luther Vandross, and then Dionne Warwick.
NK: If you had to stop playing drums, what would you do?
YH: I would tell other people how to play them. I’ll always be involved with drums.