Ever wonder what an average day is like in the life of a studio drummer? MD thought it might be interesting to spend a full day with Chris Parker, one of New York’s busiest session players, to get a feel for the lifestyle of an unsung hero of the music biz. This particular day means waking at 7:30 AM, after an extra-late recording session the night before. On the agenda for today? Two commercials, a record date and a live gig at night.
9:00 AM: I meet Chris on this brisk winter morning in front of the Graybar Building at Lexington and 44th, and we take the elevator to the Howard Swartz Studios for the first jingle of the day: a Shield soap commercial.
Chris greets arranger-keyboardist John Silverman of AdverTunes as the other musicians enter the studio. In an attempt to quiet the drums, the oak floor of the studio is covered with a thick shag carpet before the five-piece Slingerland studio kit is set up. Since this is a 30-second spot, Chris has to play with a click track. The timing has to be perfect. Silverman reaches through the Sennheisers which mike the toms and hands Chris a piece of manuscript with bar lines and chords written in.
“Can you make out what’s going on? Listen to the playback of the demo tape. You’ll catch the groove,” comes a voice from the control booth.
The demo tape, consisting of vocals and piano, is played. Chris picks up the groove and begins to play the funky rhythms on his thigh. He runs it down a few times with the piano, bass and guitar. Things are beginning to fall into place, though Chris feels the time is gradually getting faster than the click track. The others feel the same and they run it down several more times. Finally, they’re ready for the first take. Many takes later, they listen to the playback. Harvey Hoffman of AdverTunes asks Chris to double up the feel on the hi-hat in the beginning of the tune to create more of a bounce. At various times, while the producer and engineers are discussing some technical aspect, the musicians begin playing the tune with different feels: bop, an r & b groove, then a cha-cha. This releases tension, and helps them feel more at ease with the original concept.
Four more attempts and Silverman asks the bass player to “pop” the introductory notes more. Make them more staccato.” Chris counts it off again and they play the tune four more times. The producer comes out of the control room to further discuss the drum part. He’s changed his mind.
“Try to keep the front part more open, and double the hi-hat in the middle.”
Chris quickly pencils in some notes on his music and they try it again.
“It’s almost there. Let’s make it brighter.”
The guitar player asks for more drums in his earphones. Chris counts it off and they play it once more. It’s the thirty-seventh playing.
Parker looks through the glass-topped baffles surrounding the drum booth towards the control room for a sign of acceptance. Everyone quietly listens to the playback.
“That’s got it! Thanks fellas.”
Chris Parker’s climb to the top of the New York heap began to gain momentum after meeting musicians Will Lee, Don Grolnick and Steve Kahn, an association which later led to the forming of the Carmine Street Band.
“Will kept trying to shoot me in on things. In fact, he did shoot me into a lot of studio things that I wasn’t ready for, especially jingles. It was a real pressure thing, and your reading really had to be together. Well, my reading wasn’t together at all, I wasn’t ready for it. In a way, it was good that it happened because it really made me get my chops together. During the day, I’d stay home and woodshed.
“One day I ran into Steve Gadd. He was playing with Steve Marcus, Don Grolnick and Steve Kahn at Max’s Kansas City. We started talking and we agreed that it would be nice to have a variety of things to do. I said, ‘Look, I’m playing this r & b thing and we could trade off.’ I was also playing with the Brecker Brothers at that time, and I said. ‘You do the r & b gig, I’ll do the Brecker Brothers, and we’ll switch off.'” Parker and Gadd set their plan into action and even took it a step further by meshing both their talents into Stuff’s sound. The rest, as they say, is history.
“People would come up to Mikells to hear me play and then they’d take a chance on me in the studio. What I couldn’t fake, I’d figure out some other way. I’d do anything to give them what they wanted. That’s the bottom line—results.
“They’re not really looking over your shoulder to see if you’re playing all the right notes. But they do want it to groove. They want it to sound right. And you have to have your reading together to a point where you’re comfortable with it, and so you can take it beyond what’s written. You play what’s written the first time down and then either ask, or throw in something different if you have an idea. The arranger knows what he wrote and when he hears it back with some polish on it, well, then they’ll call you back. It’s a very slow process. It’s only now, nine years later, that I’m so busy. I’m turning down stuff. Now I don’t feel intimidated by a five-page chart.”
1:00 PM: We arrive early for the next session at A & R Studios. This is a 60-second radio spot for Hecht’s Department Store. The producer is eating a sandwich in the control room as he kids over the talkback with guitarist David Spinozza. Parker enters the drum booth, digs into his leather bag and immediately goes to work with the engineer to get a drum sound. The highest pitched tom-tom gives them some difficulty. Both Chris and the engineer agree it sounds “dull.” After some tensioning of the bottom head, they soon find what they’re looking for. The producer explains he wants a “Beach Boys’ sound” at about M.M. 106. Charts are passed out. Chris looks it over, listens to the tempo of the click track through the cans, and is ready to give it a go. They play it through twice and the producer asks Chris and percussionist Crusher Bennett to give him more dynamics on the fourth beat of the bar, which repeats the hook of the tune. They play it again. It’s time for the first take and the musicians get into it. During the break, the producer requests that the keyboard player play the legato section “as big as a house,” and asks Chris to play “little tinkle sounds” on the cymbals. Another take. The assistant engineer is sent from the control room to make adjustments on the Shure SM57 which mikes the hi-hats and snare drum. Chris asks if the AKG can be moved back because it’s in his way. The problem is corrected by the assistant engineer. Parker gives the downbeat. They play it again.
“Insert a fill leading into the eleventh measure. I need a more definite change in feel,” requests the producer.
Chris pencils in “fill” on his part and counts it off again. Four bars into the music, and a voice comes from the control room.
“I’d like to request a tune-up and an oil change.” The band tunes up. Count off. Again, the voice. Two more times, straight through.
“They both sounded great. We could probably go with either one.”
Parker reaches for his leather bag. The session is over and it’s time to hit the streets of Manhattan once again.
We walk briskly down 8th Avenue to 52nd Street and up the steps of the Musicians Local 802 Headquarters where Chris picks up a handful of checks for previous sessions. From here, it’s on to The Possible 20, a restaurant/night club owned by a group of some twenty studio musicians. Chris and I grab a table towards the back for a quick bite. We’re soon joined by Blues Brothers’ drummer Steve Jordan. The conversation revolves around drums and music, of course, and though one wants to linger, there’s really no time. Chris rises, slings his cymbal bag over his shoulder and quickly heads for the exit. It’s off to the Power Station to lay down tracks.
4:00 PM: Saturday Night Live musical director Paul Shaffer meets us in the lobby. He’s playing keyboards on the date. The studio drums are not in a booth, nor are they surrounded by baffles. The engineer is obviously attempting to make the most of the ambience which Studio A offers. He’s going for a big drum sound. The toms are miked from the top with Sennheiser 421’s, AKG C45’s crisscross the top of the kit. The snare is miked top and bottom with Shure SM81’s.
Chris takes a seat behind the drums. His leather bag slumps to the floor. Producer Lou DelGatto hands out charts while singer Leslie Pearl plays a demo tape on a cassette recorder. It’s a catchy little MOR tune she’s written entitled, “You Never Gave Up On Me.” Chris watches his music as the song plays.
“What do you want me to play on the first four bars?”
“Just play time on the hi-hat. We’re going to overdub a guitar part later and erase the hi-hat.”
They run the tune down twice. Suggestions are passed back and forth between artist, producer and musicians until the tune is restructured. The first take sounds great. Leslie thinks they should go for a second because the tempo should have been a little slower. The second take is right on as Leslie and Lou head for the control room to listen to the playback. The tempo is perfect. It’s on to the next tune.
Again, they listen to the demo cassette and talk over their individual musical roles. Alterations are made. Changes are penciled in. They play the tune several times and put it on tape. After the third take, Leslie requests the bassist, “put a little more energy into the second verse. It lacks drive.”
Fourth try. The musicians are stopped by the engineer’s voice. Technical adjustment. Fifth take. Everyone heads for the control room to listen to the playback. Parker remains seated.
“If I go into the control room to hear each playback, I become conscious of how hard I’m playing the bass drum, or the sound of the cross sticking against the rim of the snare. I’ll find myself concentrating too much on the sound, and not enough on the feel of the tune.”
After a minor discussion in the control room, it’s back for a sixth attempt. Leslie feels confident this will be the take. It is.
The music for the next tune is quickly distributed. No cassette demo this time. The first couple of takes are examined and DelGatto tells Parker to “lay back on the beat more.” Another take and Leslie tells the producer she liked it better the first time. “Back to the ink,” says DelGatto, a term meaning “forget the pencil notations and go back to the original chart.” Three more times, and another listen to the playback. Both artist and producer head for the lobby for a quick discussion. The musicians wait. Pianist Shaffer breaks the silence by playing the theme song from Leave It To Beaver. DelGatto re-enters the studio.
“Okay, we liked the last one, but we’re going to try it again, just a little faster so we can have a choice of two tempos when we go to mix.” Two more playings, and the date is over.
The session has run a bit over and there’s little time to spare. We hail a cab which rushes us downtown to 7th Avenue South. This is a 7:30 soundcheck for a date Chris will play this evening with jazz trumpeter, Jon Faddis. We arrive at the club on time and fine adjustments are made to the drums, which have been shipped and set-up by a city musical
transport service. After twenty minutes of soundcheck, the musicians run through parts of a few tunes. The whole thing takes an hour, after which Chris heads home for a change and an hour of relaxation before the 10:00 show.
10:00 PM: We return to the club shortly before ten to find a capacity crowd. It’s a jazz gig, which, after a full day of pressure-cooker situations, restraint and catering to the whims of others, is a welcome release. The band is cooking. One fiery, inspired solo follows another. By the last set, it’s Chris’ chance to solo. His ideas are set up, developed and expanded as he appears to grow an extra pair of hands before your very eyes. The solo reaches a climactic explosion. The audience is up on its feet. After reaching such a musical peak, there’s really nothing left to do but end the set—and another long Chris Parker day. It’s 2:00 AM and time to head home to catch some sleep before tomorrow’s 8:30 jingle call and another full day. We stop at a small out-of-the-way coffee shop where Chris begins to unwind from it all. I ask Chris if the trials and tribulations of being a dedicated musician ever make him question his career.
“Just last night. I was saying to myself. ‘I should be doing something else.’ A session I did the other day wasn’t all it should have been. I got very frustrated trying to make it happen. You run into stuff like that every day. It’s a different situation every day. It’s the same thing that makes it rewarding. Rising to the challenge, meeting it head-on, and knocking the hell out of it. If you’re putting everything you’ve got into it, and it’s still not getting off the ground, you start to feel responsible. And you are responsible. If the drums aren’t happening, no one else can do anything that’s going to sound hip. The drums have got to be there. I was trying a lot of different things to make it happen, and it wasn’t happening. You come out feeling, ‘maybe I should be in another business.’ But the next date was kicks. It was together. They only wanted two tunes. The charts were good, the players were good, and everyone was into it. I went home and slept well. When I was twenty-three, I used to say, ‘A couple of more years and I’ll be able to coast on up. I won’t be running into problems like this anymore.’ But you run into problems like this everywhere. You’ve just got to learn to deal with them. You’ll always have your ups and downs. You’ve got to take it as it comes, and be ready for the opportunity when it knocks.”