Ricky Lawson
Photo by Jaeger Kotos

Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. Eric Clapton. Lionel Richie. Phil Collins. Steely Dan. What do these artists all have in common? Besides being superstars, they all tapped the tried-and-true drumming services of Ricky Lawson, who died this past December 23 at age fifty-nine, following a brain aneurysm. The ultimate working-man session player and live powerhouse, Lawson had a reputation for being a gentle soul and was a first-call hired gun for musical legends who wanted it done right. Considering he played on Jackson’s Bad (1988) and Dangerous (1992) tours, Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling (1986) tour, and worldwide jaunts by Clapton and Collins, Lawson performed for literally millions of people. And if you weren’t lucky enough to catch his beautifully restrained but rock-solid kit work on a concert stage, you’ve heard him on the radio, gracing songs like Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” (complete with an opening drum showcase!) and Whitney Houston’s ubiquitous smash “I Will Always Love You.”

Born in Detroit, Lawson taught himself to play drums, honing his craft with the help of his uncle Paul Riser, a Motown arranger. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1975, Lawson hooked up with Roy Ayers, Airto and Flora Purim, and the Brothers Johnson, and eventually cofounded the Yellowjackets. In 1986, the drummer got to enjoy his first taste of the spotlight as the Yellowjackets won a Best R&B Instrumental Grammy for “And You Know That,” a track Ricky co-wrote for the Shades album. As word spread of his deep pocket and attention to detail, the pop stars began calling. The Lionel Richie gig was, of course, a big deal. But soon after, Michael Jackson’s touring drummer, Jonathan Moffett, had a scheduling conflict where he had to stay out on the road with Madonna, and in came Lawson to the rescue.

In a 1993 Modern Drummer cover story, Lawson beamed brightly regarding the Jackson experience. When asked about his favorite songs to play, he mentioned “Rock With You.” “It’s a very happy, uplifting, spirited kind of song, and that’s my thing,” Lawson said. “There’s so much negativity and sadness around, so I’m really into the stuff that pulls you away from that.” Check out the recently released DVD Live at Wembley July 16, 1988 for some Lawson magic supporting the King of Pop. You’ll get a sense that it wasn’t just about being a machine; the drummer had a chance to put his stamp on things.

“Michael likes people around him who have creative minds and who don’t just play the record,” Lawson told MD in believe in. One night we were playing ‘Billie Jean,’ and in the second verse he does a dance move where he drops his hand, and I just decided to hit a low floor tom. I was thinking, What can I do that doesn’t sound too loud yet punctuates him and stays in the groove? So I nailed it. He went crazy and everybody in the band went crazy, because they didn’t expect it. But now they love it; if I don’t play it, I’m not playing the song.”

In the 1990s Lawson moved from one dream gig to another, bringing a beautiful touch and proud professionalism to each situation. If a top-tier kit legend like Phil Collins wants you to be his drummer, you’ve got to be doing something right. Speaking with Modern Drummer in 1998, Lawson said he learned from Collins that “if you want to be on top, you’ve got to be dedicated and you have to know what’s going on from top to bottom, in terms of your staff and your business. Watching him deal with musicians, the way he treats everybody, and his emphasis, is enlightening.” Check out Ricky and Phil doing drum-battle work on the 1997 DVD Phil Collins: Live and Loose in Paris.

Then came gigs with Steely Dan and Clapton, neither strangers to employing the world’s best drummers. For Steely Dan, Lawson was coming in after stints by Peter Erskine and Dennis Chambers, who had each done a previous tour following the band’s early-’90s re-formation. Get a glimpse of Lawson kicking “Josie,” “Peg,” and other Dan classics on the 2000 DVD Two Against Nature: Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party. And names like Steve Ferrone and Steve Gadd had been associated with Clapton for years before Lawson took over, confidently bringing his own flavor to the music, playing like a clock when needed and busting out blinding chops when given the opportunity. When asked about his biggest strengths in MD’s 1993 story, Lawson said “consistency of time. That’s a drummer’s first job. My other strength is being able to inspire the musicians around me, just in the feel that I give off in the playing—the spirit I give off.”

That spirit lives on in many documented performances, thankfully preserved on the aforementioned concert DVDs as well as numerous studio recordings. And even though Lawson worked with George Duke, Quincy Jones, Kenny Loggins, and Al Jarreau, it’s perhaps his presence on Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” one of the best-selling singles of all time, that will stand as his most-heard drumming effort. All the characteristics of Lawson’s playing are there: perfect time, understated taste, and that famous one-note hit before Houston’s vocal reentry to take the song home. (Lawson jokingly referred to it as his favorite solo of his career.)

As news of the drummer’s passing reached the music community, tributes came in, with the Roots’ Questlove tweeting that Lawson was “the master” and Sheila E tweeting, “We lost a great man, drummer, father, brother, and son. Mr. Ricky Lawson. He passed away yesterday. Please pray for his family. We will miss u.” Perhaps Lawson himself summed up his musical life best in his July 1998 MD cover story, when he said, “If you’re talking about trying to be successful in any capacity, you really have to pull out all the stops, and I’ve been blessed enough that people even want to talk to me, let alone hire me. I’ve been given some great chances in my career. And when you get a chance, you’ve got to jump on it.”