Gerry Brown isn’t sure what to call it—fate, destiny, chance—but whatever it was, the timing for his return to the U.S. was impeccable. The first phone call he made after arriving back wound up landing him a job in Lionel Richie’s touring outfit. It may take you a minute to think of a better gig than that.
“Gerry Brown?” asks Brown. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he in Europe?” He laughs about his own lack of recognition in the States. After playing some choice gigs in the mid to late ’70s, notably with Chick Corea (Return To Forever), Stanley Clarke, and Larry Coryell, Brown was one of the more highly regarded young drummers. After putting out several albums with bassist John Lee, he decided to move to Europe. His return to the American music scene couldn’t have come in a more pro nounced way than with the super hot Richie.
Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1951, at the advent of the TV age, and started getting rhythmic at the age of four. He remembers watching the Arthur Godfrey Show and being fascinated with the drum mer. “I’d say, ‘Look at this cat. Wow!’ I’d like to know who it was, myself,” he says. “I never did find out. I’d pull out these cookie cans, and I had some makeshift sticks. I’d start banging away, and my parents said, ‘Hmmm. Maybe he’s got some talent.'”
His parents took him to a music center in West Philadelphia when he was five, and he began studying drums. For seven years he studied with Elaine Watts. “We’d do the rudiments, and then work on different rhythms, mambos, cha-chas and stuff. She’d play xylophone over that. Then she’d give me a xylophone lesson and get those chops together. Maybe then I’d play a solo-type thing on xylophone and she’d play a rhythm on the drums. We did those kinds of exercises back and forth, which was not bad when you think about it. With most drummers, at that time, it was just drums, you know.”
Once or twice a week for a couple hours, Brown attended Settlement Music School and studied with Alan Abel of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a special time, according to Brown, because there were so many excellent classical percussionists hanging around the school. “Bad percussion cats,” he says. “These cats are reading four mallets like you read the newspaper. At the same time I was listening to all this R&B music. I have a brother who’s eight years older than I am. He was always listening to jazz stuff. My father listened to the blues—Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Gloria Lynn, these big band arrangements and stuff.”
In junior high school, Brown met bassist Stanley Clarke. “We were running kind of parallel, doing the heavy classical stuff, but then we started slipping in all these jazz and bebop licks on the side.” He feels that his classical training has helped in later musical situations. “When you have that classical background there shouldn’t be anything that’s too difficult for you. You should be able to get around it.”
In the high school all-city band, Brown played with bassist John Lee and began their musical relationship. After graduating Overbrook High, where he took courses in music theory and harmony, Brown attended the Philadelphia Music Academy. “They not only had big bands, but jazz theory and arranging courses, which was great,” he says. “As a drummer, you’re dealing so much with the rhythmic side that you have to be careful not to forget about the harmonics. You have to balance it out. Drummers tend to be heavily one-sided. Even when you’re playing drums, think about pitch. When you play a fill, try to be melodic.”
Brown describes the healthy rivalries that emerged during those days. “Some people in Philly were into Tony Williams and Ron Carter as the rhythm section. And then you had the people who were into Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. They used to have battles like, ‘Yeah, well Tony’s alright, but Elvin’s what’s happenin’.’ Personally, I had allegiance to both. I figure if you’re dedicated too much to one, you miss something somewhere else. You have to try to keep it open.”
In 1971, Brown got a gig in New York City with Panamanian saxophonist Carlos Garnett. It did a lot for Gerry’s confidence to be playing in New York and have musicians coming by to check him out. One night it was drummer-composer Norman Connors. “He stood by the side of the stage and kind of gave me the heavy stare for five minutes. That’s alright. I saw him there, and then I went back, concentrated, and said, ‘Okay, let me give him something to see.'”
In the summer of ’71, Brown worked as a show drummer at a hotel in the Catskill Mountains with John Lee, backing performers like Buddy Greco, George Kirby and Eartha Kitt. “It was great for the reading chops. We had an hour rehearsal. Afterward, we played a dance set with the dance book of about 150 hits. Then we did the first show for an hour and a half, and that was alright. An hour later, we had the late show. The performer who did the late show came from another hotel. By the time he got to where we were, it was a half hour before the show, and we couldn’t rehearse or anything. He passed out the books and the conductor said, ‘Okay, saxophones watch letter A. Letter B, okay, sign to sign, coda to coda, out. Next.’ We played six nights a week. For the summer it was great. You could play all this music and meet some different people. The money was great.”
Brown went to Europe for the first time in 1972. “I was 21 years old, and that was a big experience,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh, Europe, ah! Let’s go there and find out what it’s about.’ ” He shared a loft rehearsal space with John Lee. “I’ve been very lucky coming up, playing with Stanley, playing with Charles Fambrough, and playing with John Lee. Alphonso Johnson was also at the college, in the background at that time. Anthony Jackson was there a couple of times too. It really helps to be playing with someone you can joke with and have a lot of fun with, but someone who, at the same time, you can have a lot of respect for and vice versa. We could say to one another, ‘No man, don’t play that there. That won’t work. Let’s try something else.’ Maybe one of us would get a little hot under the collar then, but an hour later we’d all agree that it was burnin’.”
Brown’s first gig in Europe was with flautist Chris Hinze. “It was his interpretation of jazz, which was very European. So John and I, after months of just checking out Europe, Chris and the whole scene, said ‘Okay, we’ve been playing it this way. Let’s play it like we would in America. To hell with this European idea.’ John and I would take the classical textures, kind of discard them, and start driving it more. This forced Chris to play, which, in turn, forced us to play even more.” According to Brown, the European audiences responded enthusiastically to their playing. “It was like, ‘Hey man, that’s what we’ve been hearing, and these guys are doing it right in front of our eyes.’ ”
Brown found it hard to stay away from the States for too long. He started feeling like he was on the outside looking in. He moved back to America and began playing with violinist Michael Urbaniak in January of 1975. Urbaniak’s group would occasionally do shows with Larry Coryell and with Return To Forever. When Alphonse Mouzon left Coryell’s group in ’75, Brown took his place in The Eleventh House.
Soon Brown and John Lee landed a re cording contract with United Artists. In 1976, they released the jazz and funk flavored Still Can’t Say Enough, featuring the likes of Reggie Lucas, Ray Gomez, Mtume, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, Ernie Watts and many others. Later that year Brown did Stanley Clarke’s School Days album. Then he joined Return To Forever, following Lenny White in that chair. That RTF band, featuring a horn section, Gayle Moran on vocals and keyboards, Chick, Stanley and Gerry, recorded the Musicmagic album, toured, and put out a live four-record set. The arranging was adventurous, to say the least.
“All that training from before came in handy as hell,” says Brown. “The first two days I was reading the drum part, and every so often Chick would say, ‘Okay, you don’t have this horn lick. I want you to write this in your part.’ I said, ‘Chick, why don’t you just copy off a piano part, because it always has the horn licks there. It’ll be easier for me to read. We can get a flow going.’ That made it easier for everybody all around. If it was not written in my part, I could just go to the piano part.” Brown was playing one of the first sets of North drums on that RTF tour.
When Return To Forever disbanded, Brown continued working on his recording career with John Lee. By 1979, they had changed labels to CBS and released Chaser with guitarist Eef Albers and saxman Bobby Malach. But they were becoming disappointed by their records’ lack of acceptance. “We got our asses kicked, but we know a bit about the business now,” he says. “That went on until about 1980, and at that point, I’d had it up to here. I moved to the West Coast and was working a bit with the Brothers Johnson, but at that time, their thing was kind of trailing off. So around the middle of ’80 I decided to go back to Europe. I knew enough people there so that it would be no problem to work.”
Brown lived in West Berlin for a year, then in Hamburg for a year. He played with musicians like Philip Catherine, Joachim Kiihn (keyboardist with whom he recorded Springfever in 1976) and Jasper Van’t Hof. “I was doing a lot of projects with the radio bands there in Germany,” he says. “The radio stations would have featured American artists coming over to do a week-long project, which would be recorded. Sometimes it would be on television. They had people like Clark Terry, Michael Gibbs, and Gil Evans. I did a percussion thing with four drummers from South America for the Berlin Jazz Festival. I was teaching at the high school for music in Hamburg. As far as Germany was concerned, that was really a very good situ ation, because there are a lot of drummers there who wanted to learn a lot and were willing to listen. So I was more or less a hero there. There were things, for example, that they read in Modern Drummer Magazine which they didn’t understand, so I was there to say, ‘Well, this is what they’re talking about.’ Then they understood it.”
Brown was playing in an acoustic jazz setting with Joachim Kiihn around Europe. “It was great to play with a nice 18″ bass drum, two K. Zildjians, and a small basic setup. It’s always a challenge to go from what I was doing with the North set to a small jazz set. With every set it is a challenge to see what’s there, what drums you have, what pitches, and to think about your possibilities—just to make the best of it.”
Meanwhile, things at home were starting to get interesting. Wilbert Terrell, who knew Gerry from when he was road manager for the Brothers Johnson, was now working with Lionel Richie. Terrell wanted to get in touch with Gerry. He called Brown’s mother in Philadelphia in June of ’83, and she told him Gerry was doing real well over there. “You know how parental pride can come across in a conversation,” Brown laughs. “She almost blew it for me by talking it up for me and saying how well I was doing.” On August 3, Brown returned to the States for a visit. He asked his mom for Terrell’s number and gave him a call. He remembers the conversation well.
“Gerry, when did you get in?” Terrell asked.
“Oh, about an hour and a half ago.” “Look, man, this Lionel Richie thing is still not solved. We’ve got Rick Marotta and Neil Stubbenhaus coming in tonight for an audition. Lionel wants a show drummer who can do this and that. I want Lionel to see and hear you. How soon can you come out?” The fact that Brown had just lost six hours flying did not impress Terrell. “You’ve got to come out to L.A. tomorrow morning.”
After seeing Brown’s performance on the 1983 Richie tour, it’s certainly easy to understand how he got the gig. He has a fluent, seemingly effortless approach, and can summon great bursts of power. As far as the showmanship goes, Brown brought roars from the crowd with some amazing stick twirling and drumming combinations. He was completely in control.
It was August when Brown flew to L.A. and was soon calling friends in Germany to tell them it would be, er, February before he would be back. “I couldn’t turn this down,” Brown explains. “It was like someone telling me, ‘Here man, take these dice and roll boxcars.’ You have to realize I was in Europe and I knew that I had to go back to the States eventually.”
Brown says he was thinking of returning to the States for good after the 1984 elections, “with optimism in the air.” He was doing well in Germany, playing with the likes of Kiihn and doing the radio broadcasts in a studio with big bands with charts, which is something that doesn’t happen on the radio in the U.S. “But what they don’t have there is the choice of hearing the music that you want to hear anytime of the day. That’s what they miss. I think that’s the difference between American musicians and the European musicians. Anytime you wanted to hear some popular music at two or three o’clock in the morning when you were growing up, you could always hear it. This cat can’t hear that in Europe. It’s not happenin’. He can hear it for maybe one hour in the evening, or a little bit in the afternoon, or through all these political talks and stuff like that. But it gets into no groove at all. There just isn’t stuff constantly coming at you. When I was growing up there was always the R&B station, always the rock station, the blues station, the country station and the jazz station. They don’t have that.”
Lionel Richie is more of a pop artist than people are used to hearing Gerry Brown play with. Brown likes that. “I can finally dispel all rumors that people may have said. People are very quick to categorize. I played with Stanley and Chick, so people say, ‘Yeah, he can do that.’ I played with the Brothers Johnson but just not at the right time. I got on one of their last albums for one song. I played on one track of a Patrice Rushen album called Posh, which also was not enough. But now I’m on the Lionel Richie gig, and people say, ‘Wasn’t he in Europe? How did he get on the gig?’ and then they hear how well the concerts are going. I’m sure people are scratching their heads, particularly in L.A.”
Brown has been aware of Lionel, the Commodores and their music for many years. “Now that I’ve had the opportunity to play it over the course of this tour, all these old R&B licks I used to play started coming back even more. But now I’m older and have experience behind me, so it’s fun to play. You’ll probably see it on stage. You’ll see how much fun the band is having. It’s totally new to me. Yeah, I’m the new kid in town. So I feel obliged to kick ass every night. When you have the opportunity to play in front of this many people every night [13,000-15,000], the crowd just kicks you in the butt, man. I have to drive it. And fortunately Lionel is doing enough different things where I can use all the different techniques. I’m really happy that I can show all these things—play a soft ballad or something heavy and funky.
“It’s great working with Sheila Escovedo in Lionel’s band. She’s a great percussionist. We work very well together, and I think we’re going to be doing some clinics in the future.” Brown has done clin ics with Tama, and hopes to work something out now that he’s playing Gretsch again. “I came back to Gretsch,” he says. “I had my first Gretsch set when I was doing all that stuff in Europe in ’72. It’s happening. I’m using a power 10″, a normal 12″, 13″, 16″ floor tom, and a power 22″ bass drum. For snare drums, I’m using a Ludwig Black Beauty with an engraving on it. I have a ’36 Radio King from Paul Jamieson and a ’29 Leedy from Jamieson. I also have one of the big Gretsch snare drums. I’m using the DW double pedal. It works really well. And I’m using Sabians. I was using the Sabian brilliant hi-hats. This will probably come out eventually. Paul had an idea, and he, Billy Zildjian and myself got it together. We drilled holes in the bottom hi-hat and put eight or nine rivets in it, about halfway in from the lip of the dome to the outside. We put them around. When it’s closed, nothing happens, but when you open it, it adds another 10 K that the engineer would normally have to add on the board. It’s great for me since I play in big places. I use Vic Firth 5Bs or 2Bs usually. Those sticks are true, man,” Gerry smiles.
Brown worked on a six-hour instructional video while in Europe, and he hopes to get the chance to put a video together here. “I saw Steve Gadd’s videocassette, and it was okay, but if you don’t know about the rudiments and all that stuff you’d never know where that stuff came from. So I think you have to really build that up. You can’t just say, ‘I do this when I play this, and I do that when I play that.’ For someone who’s on my level, that’s great. But it’s the person in second or third grade that you want to go for.
“Get as much of a foundation on your instrument as you can,” recommends Brown. “In my case, it was good to come from the classical side of the drums, which is really rudimental snare drumming. It’s good to know all those rudiments and it’s good to know how to read. It certainly doesn’t hurt.” Now with Brown that knowledge is subconscious. “People in Europe will say, ‘Yeah, man, we heard you at this gig and you played the figure ta tada ta-ta-da, etc. Which rudiments were those?’
“Don’t ask me, man. It’s coming from here [points to his head], but eventually it leaves there and just comes from here—where you’re playing from your gut and your soul. It’s just second nature. It’s somewhere back there. You can always go back and check it out, but I’m not conscious of what rudiment I’m playing or anything like that. Drummers have to remember that they make the drums sound good, and not vice versa. You can have some lousy drums, but if you play them with the right attitude, no matter what they look like, the sound will come across somehow.
“I think the attitude is maybe 60%. There are a lot of drummers who don’t have a lot of technique, but they have a hell of an attitude. Look at Charlie Watts, man. I think he’s a prime example. He’s still happenin’. Jeff Porcaro says he doesn’t have that much technique but he’s got that attitude, and it comes across.”
And then there are some people, like Gerry Brown, who are possessed with out standing technique and the kind of attitude it takes to provide that kick. Lionel Richie calls him “The Governor,” an interesting play on words. On one hand, it’s a tease about the flamboyant ex-governor of the state of California, Jerry Brown. In another sense, the drummer acts like a governor on a car, a device that controls the vehicle’s speed by regulating the supply of fuel.
“Governor” G. Brown has the poise to keep the tempo uniform on a Richie ballad. He can also let loose and let fly, all night long. Noted drumician and industry leader Paul Jamieson is candid in his assessment of Gerry Brown’s talent. “If the devil asked me what I wanted, I’d ask for Gerry’s chops, and I’d take it from there.”