Steve Jordan

It’s 4:00 in the afternoon, and the set of Late Night With David Letterman is crowded with people. Cameramen are setting up shots, electricians are adjusting lights, stagehands are moving things around, various assistants are checking innumerable details, and Steve Jordan is working with the sound engineer, trying to get the rented Simmons drums to sound right before Herbie Hancock arrives to rehearse with the Late Night house band. Nearby, bassist Will Lee is listening to something on a Walkman, his body moving in time to whatever it is he’s listening to. (It turns out to be a tape of the song that the band is going to play with Hancock.) Jordan is slightly bugged. “I don’t know, man. I had the sounds worked out at home on an SDS5, but this thing [an SDS7] is different.” Suddenly, they find the sound they’ve been looking for, and Jordan relaxes as he starts playing one of those grooves of his—fat backbeats combined with intricate, but subtle, hi-hat patterns. He plays for five minutes or so, making slight adjustments to the Simmons settings, and then goes into the band’s dressing room to check out the tape that Will was listening to.

A few minutes later, the whole band—Jordan, Lee, guitarist Sid McGinnis and leader/keyboardist Paul Shaffer—assemble on the set to run down the tune with Herbie. They play it through once, go back to work out a couple of tricky spots, and then run through it twice more while the show’s associate director gets the timing. Jordan is keeping his eyes on the chart, but it doesn’t sound as if he’s reading. It feels too good.

At 5:30 the taping begins. Even though the show won’t be broadcast until several hours later, the feeling in the studio is of live TV, as every effort is made to avoid having to do any editing. The band launches into the Late Night theme, David Letterman appears, and the show is rolling. The audience is clearly excited by the fact that Burt Reynolds is going to be the featured guest. But I’m looking forward to the commercial breaks, because for once, I’m going to get to hear the band play entire songs instead of just the first couple of bars. And tonight there’s an extra bonus: With Herbie Hancock on the show, the band will be featured.

I’m not disappointed. The band sounds great as they play classic songs of the ’60s, such as The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full Of Soul,” Cream’s “White Room,” The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” and, after the spot with Hancock, “Watermelon Man.” Jordan only uses the Simmons drums for Hancock’s feature spot; the rest of the time he’s playing his four-piece, acoustic kit, and his backbeats really cut through the studio.

After the show, the band waits around to hear the playback of Herbie’s tune. Hancock seems pleased as he thanks the band, and makes plans with Jordan to get together later. But going down in the elevator, Jordan is irritated. On the playback, the Simmons snare drum didn’t have the sharp attack sound that it had in the studio; instead, it was mostly white noise. Jordan was unhappy about that. It’s not that he’s naturally grouchy or anything. It’s just that Steve Jordan is different than a lot of people. He cares.

A half hour later, sitting in his spacious Manhattan loft, Jordan puts it into perspective. “Live television is the most exciting thing, but when it comes off wrong, then you’ve got to be sent to a shrink. I remember watching Duran Duran on Saturday Night Live. There was this big drum fill on Simmons toms, but the Simmons weren’t coming through. They had an overhead, so all you heard was the sound of the sticks hitting the plastic. That’s the kind of thing that can happen. On the Letterman show, though, I’ve mainly gotten to do a lot of great things. I’ve gotten to play with some of my idols, like Herbie. I know every note of every solo Herbie ever played.” In Jordan’s loft is a souvenir of another memorable night; a cue card from the show is propped up in the corner which reads, “Please welcome . . . James Brown.” “I thought I was going to die after that,” Steve laughs. “I figured I was obviously going to be hit by a bus, because that was the high point. We brought James back, man. He hasn’t sounded like that in 10 or 15 years. I also got to play with Sly Stone. He was in great shape, and he sounded fabulous.”

Television is not generally known for taking risks, or being overly creative. Playing it safe is the name of the game. When one considers the idea of a staff musician for NBC, one pictures such establishment figures as Skitch Henderson, Doc Severinson, and Ed Shaughnessy. So when the Letterman show first started, music lovers couldn’t believe that a funky bunch of cats like Shaffer, Jordan, Lee, and original guitarist Hiram Bullock had actually been hired to be the band on this network show. And they weren’t just kept in the background either; they were definitely part of the show’s identity.

“From what I understand, the concept was to have a looser, more modern combo,” Jordan explains. “David had a morning show, and they had a band that was kind of like that. When the time slot was changed, two people were up for the job of music director, and I knew them both: Tom Scott and Paul Shaffer. They went with ‘the king of ging’—Paul—and Paul met with me about it. Then the call went out to Hiram and Will. Paul knew the three of us from The 24th Street Band, because I had gotten him to produce an album we made for Japan. Also, Paul and I had worked together on Saturday Night Live and with the Blues Brothers. So we got on well, but it was a very high-pressure situation. Paul knew how to get the most out of the slot he had, and since three of us were already a band, we came off hot.

“They had to tone us down in the beginning. Between us, we’d had seven years of television experience, so we were ready to participate a lot more. The powers-that-be were kind of tentative about us doing that, but we were very loose. We would respond to a lot of things, and the feedback from David was obvious. He would do a joke, then he would look over at us, and we would jump right in there. That kind of made people nervous at first, but then the original staff of writers started writing for the band. So gradually we transcended that barrier that usually exists between musicians and the rest of the TV people. Now, it’s basically a carte blanche kind of thing. I can respond to Dave just like I’m a member of the audience. I can even be a heckler at times, but Dave knows it’s me, so it’s cool. It’s fun as long as it’s done tastefully. It makes us that much more integral to the show. Sometimes we get away with murder, but we help keep the mood up.”

If there’s any complaint about the band at all, it’s that they don’t get to play more. I personally know a number of musicians who religiously tune in to the Letterman show just to hear the band for those few seconds before and after the commercial breaks. (Dave, if you’re reading this, no offense.) A lot of people feel that the band should exploit themselves a little more—may be put out their own album, play in clubs, or something—but Jordan thinks that things are fine just the way they are. “Our band gets the right amount of exposure. I think if we did too many gigs, the mystique of the band would be lost. That’s why people come to the show; they want to hear what the band sounds like. That’s good. Also, we are featured a lot. When I played on Saturday Night Live, there weren’t that many features, and when there were, it was usually just for laughs, like Steve Martin doing ‘King Tut,’ or something like that.

“The Letterman show is doing better and better every day, and people are still having fun. We all go through days of thinking, ‘How much longer can I do this?’ but then we put it in perspective, like any other job. I went through that. I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life, obviously. I like to write music, and do a lot of other things. But right now, it’s perfect for me to have this great job in the middle of the day. For a couple of hours, I get to play my favorite songs with my favorite guys.”

Three-fourths of the original Late Night band—Jordan, Lee, and guitarist Hiram Bullock—had previously worked together as The 24th Street Band. The group evolved from a band that Bullock had put together. “We cut a demo for Warner Brothers up at Bobby Columby’s place,” Jordan recalled. “It was under Hiram’s name, and Cliff Carter, Mark Egan, and I played. That basically was the original 24th Street Band. We went on with that for a while, and then Mark left to join Pat Metheny. We did a couple of gigs with a couple of different bass players, and then we settled on Frank Gravis, who is really a great bass player. At the time, he really reminded me of Francis Rocco Prestia, who was the bass player for Tower Of Power, and one of my favorites. I was in heaven because I could play all of this Tower Of Power stuff with this guy. I was totally into Tower. I used to slow down their records, so that I could figure out every note that David [Garibaldi] was playing. Frank knew all of that stuff too, so we had a nice feel happening.

“The band got to a certain level, but then it seemed to stay there. Then Frank left, and we didn’t have a bass player again. I had always wanted Will to be in the band. He didn’t want to, and yet he was fascinated by the fact that I had left Saturday Night Live to be in this band. I was even canceling on a lot of sessions to devote myself to this group, and Will couldn’t understand that. He wanted to know what was so special about this band. Finally, I convinced him to join. He claims that I gave him drugs or something, but I just felt that he was too young not to be taking risks. He was settling into this studio scene, was making all of this money, and was very comfortable. He was playing with great people, but there was no risk involved. So I eventually talked him into joining the band, and we both went broke together, [laughs] It was great. I doubt if he’ll ever join another band again.

“No one could believe that we had actually gotten Will to commit to something. That’s what we heard from all of the record companies; people just couldn’t believe that we were going to commit ourselves to this band. So we were considered a high risk. In Japan, we were able to get one-record deals, but in the U.S., everyone wanted three-year contracts, and no one thought we would stay together that long. People don’t believe that bands come from New York. If we had been from Los Angeles or England, it would have been different, because that’s where people think that bands have to come from.

“We did commit and we lost our shirts, but it was worth it. It was the greatest. We had some wonderful experiences in Japan. People who were really grooving to our music would rush the stage. I had been in those situations with the Blues Brothers and with Joe Cocker, with twice as many people even, but I was a sideman. Here, it was our band.

Steve Jordan
Will Lee, David Letterman, Steve Jordan, Paul Shaffer, Sid McCinnis

“Towards the end, it became a little discouraging. I really wanted to get into some newer stuff, but I had to keep playing a style that I really didn’t want to play anymore. I was hearing other things, but the music that we were playing dictated a specific style. Then we started switching instruments around, and we’d have more fun playing different instruments. I would play guitar and bass, Will plays great drums, Clifford plays guitar, and Hiram plays great keyboards and bass. We came up with some great grooves at rehearsals, but we never developed them because we were just supposed to be messing around. But in a way, we weren’t messing around; there were some grooves that couldn’t be denied.

“The last gig we ever did together was a few days after my 24th birthday. It was in Kyoto. I had the flu, and a temperature of 102°, but it was a great gig. The security in Kyoto wasn’t that elaborate, because we had never played there before and the administrative people didn’t know who we were. So at the end of our second encore, we went to the front of the stage to shake some hands, and we were all pulled into the audience. It was great for about five seconds, and then it got really scary because these people were like possessed. The rest of the band was able to get back on the stage, but I was too weak from the flu to fight my way out. People were pulling on me, and all of a sudden, they pulled the sleeve off my coat—these tails that we wore as band uniforms. Then they ripped the other sleeve off. They couldn’t rip anything else because I was so wet that my clothes were sticking to me, so they finally let me go. That was like the perfect end of the band; we played our last gig, and the audience stripped off my band uniform.”

Those experiences Jordan had on other instruments in The 24th Street Band were important to him. In fact, when you first enter Steve’s loft, you might think that you’ve walked into the home of a guitarist rather than a drummer. Guitars and basses are everywhere. There are a few drums and drum cases scattered around also, but nothing to compare to the guitars—many of them classics. Jordan feels that learning to play them has had a lot to do with his drum style. “Playing guitar and bass made me a much better musician,” he contends, “and gave me a totally different outlook on drumming. Drummers can be the most obnoxious, redundant people, because they become bored with what they’re doing after a while. They want to do more, but if they can’t, then they get frustrated and beat out their aggressions on the drums. That’s why a lot of great drummers are nuts. [laughs]

“When I first started working, I was practicing with a metronome a lot. The concept is that you can make your time better by working with a metronome. The major problem with that is that, when you hit a drum, you are starting the note, but you never really stop it. Drummers don’t really know the full value of a quarter note. Then I started playing bass, and I had to start and stop the note. That’s when I really learned where the beat was.

“The great thing about playing drums with someone like Will Lee is that he can make any drummer sound good because he compensates. He knows time so well that, if a drummer is lagging, Will gets on top of the quarter and fills it out. And if the drummer is rushing, Will lays back a little bit. Anthony Jackson is more of a perfectionist. Anthony is right on the beat, and if you’re not with him, then you’re screwing up. So playing bass helped me learn about placement, and then I was able to understand where somebody like Al Jackson was coming from when he would lay down the beat.”

Al Jackson—the legendary Stax session drummer whose fat backbeats were heard behind such artists as Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. Jordan is often spoken of as the heir to the late Jackson’s title, due in part to his work with the Blues Brothers. There, Jordan was united with two other members of the classic Stax rhythm section: guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. What was it like to play with them? “The first time I ever played ‘Soul Man’ with Cropper and Dunn,” Jordan says with a touch of awe, “Shaffer and I saw God. We couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even playing on a good drumset; it wasn’t the greatest sound, but the groove was incredible. It was so heavy. Shaffer and I were in shock. We were just walking around going, ‘Whoooo.’ It was just amazing.

“I remember listening to those Stax records when I was a kid. Jackson, Steve, and Duck would be laying down this groove, and you might have Booker T. playing piano, and Issac Hayes on organ. The Memphis Horns would also be there, and you could tell that they were all in the same room together because it was a very powerful, self-contained sound. I didn’t know who Al Jackson was in those days, but nobody played like that. His sound was so alive. It was a big sound for that time. In fact, you could put one of his records on now, and it will sound bigger than some drums sound now.

“So when I played with these guys, I had a heavy responsibility. I’m into authenticity, and so is Paul. We had the knowledge of how those records were made and what was important about them, but we were also there to lend contemporary aspects so that the music could be valid today. To have made it exactly the same would have been a tragedy, because nothing is going to sound like that.

“Basically, when Duck liked me, I was cool. We didn’t do a lot of Stax material; we did a lot of shuffles. The band got on really well. It was just perfect, and that’s why I did what I did. I had never played that way before. The whole record was live. In the studio you can work up to something, but this was just 45 minutes flat out. I remember listening back to it and thinking, ‘Damn! That sounds really good!’

“Opening night was really wild. Every writer in the world was there. They didn’t know what to expect, and they were really ready to pan the thing. We opened for Steve Martin. We played, and it was totally monstrous. After we finished, we were all dripping wet. I went into the trailer with John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd]. The band had their own trailer, but Paul and I knew John and Danny from Saturday Night Live, so we were friends. John was opening bottles of Dom Perignon, and we were drinking and saying, ‘Oh wow! Oh man! We really did it!’ Then Peter Asher and Linda Ronstadt walked in, and Asher said to me, ‘I want to congratulate you. You’re the young Al Jackson.’ The trailer was starting to fill up with guests, so I split. At the bottom of the stairs I met Jim Keltner. I had never met Keltner before, and I was freaking out. ‘Hi Steve, I want you to meet my man Mick [Jagger], and Jerry Hall.’ Wow! Then Jackson Browne was telling me, ‘Hey man, you really sounded great.’ I had to excuse myself. I walked around to the back of the trailer and started to scream and laugh hysterically. I had dreamed about all of this, and when it happened, it was just so out that I had to leave. It was just out of control.

“After I did the Blues Brothers record, all of a sudden I had the exposure. The record went to Number One in seven weeks. After that record, people who wouldn’t give me the time of day before were suddenly happy to have me. It was really weird. I mean, I was the same guy and I sounded the same. Give me a break!”

One of the things that the Blues Brothers album did for Jordan was cement his reputation as a drummer who could play shuffles. “There were four or five shuffles on that record,” Jordan remembers, “and one thing I hate is playing the same thing on two different songs. I had played shuffles before, but I wasn’t known for being a blues drummer, or ‘king of the shuffle’ or whatever. So I had to get into shuffles, and now I can play a shuffle a million different ways—slow shuffles, fast shuffles, medium shuffles. After the Blues Brothers record, I was called to play shuffles all the time. Donald Fagen hired me to play one tune on an album: a shuffle. The Late Night theme is a shuffle. My life is a big shuffle now. [laughs]

“I happened to pick up this magazine; maybe you’ve heard of it—Modern Drummer? [laughs] It said that, as far as the readers were concerned, I was the fifth funkiest drummer. I was quite flattered, actually. I know that I’ve got the funk thing happening, because I like funky stuff. There was a period where I got into the fusion thing, too. I was trying to play with every bit of feel that I could inject into that—fusion with feel.”

A lot of people would be satisfied to be able to master any one style the way Jordan had mastered funk (and shuffles, of course). But Steve still had another goal. “I had to prove to myself that I could swing,” he explains. “I would go down to Boomers to hear Billy Higgins or Philly Joe, and they had this looseness. I wanted to combine that kind of looseness with the syncopation of Jack DeJohnette, but I still wanted it to be a structured thing. One night at Boomers, Billy Hart—an unbelievable man, an unbelievable drummer, and a father figure to me—let me sit in. I felt like I couldn’t swing to save my life. Although, at the same time, one night at the Blues Bar, Danny Aykroyd was playing the rough tapes of the Made In America album—the Blues Brothers album that no one has heard of. I was sitting there with Tom Scott and Paul Shaffer, and Danny insisted on playing these tunes on a cassette. Keith Richards was there, and he came over and said, ‘What’s that shit, man? It sounds like a jazz drummer.’ [laughs] So you can’t win.

“About four years ago, I finally took the challenge. Sonny Rollins was asking me to play. He had approached me a couple of times before, but I would always cancel because I didn’t think that I was ready to play with a legend like him. But finally I did, and I overcame that. It was the last thing I had to overcome to prove to myself that I could play.”

It’s not surprising that Jordan felt the need to master jazz, considering his early influences. “One of the first things I played on the drums was ‘Blues March’ by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers,” Steve recalls. “My dad got me to play it; ‘You ought to learn to play this, Steve.’ So I got behind my snare drum, which was a gift from my grandmother; I didn’t have a drumset. My dad had every Miles Davis record, so I heard Tony Williams all-my life. Tony started recording with Miles when he was 18, so that was like a goal for me. It didn’t really work out quite that way, but I tried, man.

“When I first went to private drum school, a guy named Matt was the drum teacher. He got me started on cymbal and snare drum, but no hi-hat or bass drum. So I had my cymbal and snare drum happening, but no four-way coordination. Then this guy named Joe became my drum teacher. A lot of times, I would go in there and just work stuff out for a half hour, because I wasn’t able to practice a lot at home. Joe would guide me along, and he was very encouraging.

“Mickey Roker was one of the main people. When I was accepted at Music And Art High School, I started playing in a jazz band that Lee Morgan was conducting, and I got to be friends with Lee. The day I met Lee, he was playing a Jazzmobile gig that night with Dizzy Gillespie, so I went to it. I remember seeing the drums, and it was the first set of Fibes drums I had ever seen. They looked like turquoise suede. Then Mickey Roker started playing, and I never heard anything like it in my life. I was thinking, ‘This is unbelievable! This guy’s incredible!’ It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever witnessed. Mickey Roker is Charlie Watts’ favorite drummer. I spoke to Charlie about it. The Stones were on the last show I did with Saturday Night Live, and I was hanging out with Charlie, explaining the Major League playoffs to him. He couldn’t understand why I was in the dressing room watching the Yankees on TV, while everybody else was hanging out down on the set. Anyway, Charlie definitely digs Mickey. He was blown away the same way I was.

“Another time, I remember seeing Jack DeJohnette in the south of France with the group Gateway, and he played one of the most incredible solos ever played on any instrument. Dig this: I was playing with Gato Barbieri, and the bill consisted of Max Roach, Gateway, and Gato. Gato was headlining. I was going, ‘Oh my God, give me a break. Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette . . . and me? What did I do to deserve this? I was so nervous. It was really deep. There was a full moon. I had just turned 20. Max Roach went on and played by himself for about 40 minutes. It was the most incredible thing you’ve ever heard. He sounds like a whole orchestra by himself. Luckily, we played second, because after we played, Jack DeJohnette played, and if I’d had to follow him, I wouldn’t have been able to play. His thing was so incredible that, after Jack played, nobody needed to hear any more drums. It was really great.

“Then there’s Freddie Waits—the most amazing guy. If it wasn’t for Freddie Waits, I wouldn’t be able to play anything, because he took me under his wing. A lot of people don’t know that he’s the drummer on Stevie Wonder’s first hit, “Fingertips.” Everybody played that beat after Freddie played it. He was innovative in pop music—he was at Motown—but everybody just thinks of him as a jazzer. I’ve never seen people do things that he can do. He really opened me up.

“Speaking of Motown, I have to talk about Benny Benjamin. You don’t really know what drums and bass are about until you’ve heard Benny Benjamin and James Jameson play together. When I was really young, I knew that the Motown stuff had the most distinct sound. Benny Benjamin was a genius. Every fill in pop music is based around three or four fundamental Benny Benjamin fills. And I don’t even know what this guy looked like! That is killing me. I know that I can sound exactly like this guy, and I don’t even have a picture of him. It’s like being adopted and not knowing who your real parents are. If anyone has any information about Benny Benjamin, please send it to me. Freddie Waits is the guy who taught me about Benny Benjamin, but I wish I knew more, because he was so heavy—the guy with the same name twice. He was amazing.

“And then there’s Grady Tate. I actually got to play with Grady’s band when I was about 19. He was singing at the time. It was really an honor for me to play in this guy’s band, because when it comes to accompanying a singer, he’s the best. When I was growing up, I really dissected a lot of Grady’s stuff. Two of the records that Grady was real influential on were the Quincy Jones albums Walking In Space and Smackwater Jack. The drumming on that is just the tastiest. I really copied a lot of his stuff. We’ve got the same birthday, too. He’s exactly 25 years older than me. Mark Egan was also born on that date. Grady and I got together one year on our birthday, and another year Mark and I got together. The three of us will all have to do it sometime.

“Jim Keltner blew me away when he played ‘Woman To Woman’ with Joe Cocker. That was the kind of thing I was hearing, but I couldn’t play it yet. It was the same thing with Harvey [Mason] and Steve [Gadd]. I was glad that those guys were around, because I was hearing that stuff on the drums, but I couldn’t execute it since I wasn’t that good. I was still trying to decide if I wanted to be a musician or play major league baseball. I didn’t really apply myself until I heard this thing that Steve Gadd played with Grover Washington. It’s kind of obscure, but it was so mean that I decided to really apply myself and get it together.

“One of the people who helped me was a guy named Leroy Clouden. He could play anything. When he was 12 or 13 years old, he could play Bernard Purdie’s solo from ‘Cold Sweat.’ It was unbelievable. Back when I could hardly play what Ed Greene was playing on Barry White records, Leroy would take the album, play it at 45 speed, and play along with it. Then he would make me do it; ‘Man, you stink until you can do that.’ But after doing that, when I had to play it at a realistic tempo, it was no problem.

“I started hanging out at Mikell’s. Everybody was there, and you could just learn from watching people like Steve, Chris Parker, Bernard Purdie, Roy Haynes, and Chico Hamilton. You could see anybody. I used to also hang out at Bill’s Rehearsal Studio, and watch all kinds of bands rehearse, like the Breckers and Roberta Flack. I got to meet Stevie Wonder and hang out with him. He auditioned the band that’s on Songs In The Key Of Life at Bill’s. They were open auditions, and I got a recommendation through the owner of the studio. I auditioned about an hour after they had told a guy that he had the job, but at least I got to play with Stevie. He liked me, so they let me hang out.

“Then I saw this ad for a gig: Esther Phillips, Hubert Laws, and The Brecker Bros. at the Felt Forum. Hubert had an album out with Steve Gadd on drums, so I called Steve. ‘Are you playing drums with Hubert?’ No. Then I figured that maybe Hubert was using the Breckers’ band, so I called Chris Parker. ‘Chris, man, are you playing with Hubert?’ No. So I got a union book, and called Hubert. ‘Do you have a drummer for the Felt Forum gig?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t have a drummer for the rehearsal. Do you want to come?’ I said sure, so my dad helped me load the drums up in his car, and he drove me over to Hubert’s house. I was setting up my drums, and the doorbell rang. Hubert was doing something, so I opened the door. It was Ron Carter! Wow! So we played, and Hubert really dug me. I sounded a lot like Harvey Mason at that point, because I was emulating him. So Hubert said, ‘Well, I’ve already got a drummer for the gig, but would you like to play percussion?’ So I said, ‘Sure. By the way, who’s the drummer?’ And he said, ‘Harvey Mason.’ So that was the day I got to meet Harvey. I played congas and stuff on the gig, and then on the second show, they let me play drums on one tune—Harvey’s drums. That was incredible.”

Around the time that Jordan met Stevie Wonder, he started working at Mikell’s a lot with Wonder’s former saxophone player, Denny Morouse. That led to Jordan’s first recording session, which was a demo for Morouse, and included Nathan Watts, Michael Sembello, and Carlos Alomar. “I started getting a lot of dates, because in Denny Morouse’s band, people like Will [Lee], Leon Pendarvis, Anthony Jackson, and David Spinoza would play. I had gotten into that scene because I had played in Joe Beck’s band. He had been using people like Will and Chris Parker, but he couldn’t get them to go out on the road, so I got to be in the band. He really liked me, and he started trying to use me on as much stuff as he could.”

One of the sessions Jordan played on turned out to be somewhat of an unpleasant experience. “I knew it was an important session, because Ralph MacDonald was actually there,” Steve laughs. “He wasn’t overdubbing; he was there! There were a lot of the heavy studio players there. I was fairly inexperienced—it was only my third session—and I was taking the place of one of their friends. I don’t think they took too kindly to that.

“The first track we cut was this disco thing, with an upbeat, open hi-hat thing. You’re most prone to speed up on a beat like that if you haven’t played it a lot. I didn’t realize how bad the track was going while I was doing it, but then I went in and heard it back. I couldn’t believe how it had sped up. I was in shock, and I wasn’t getting any moral support from the other musicians. I’d see them smirking, but no one was telling me anything. That’s a hard scene to break into. Those people weren’t going to let an 18-year-old kid come in and have a good time, unless he was playing brilliantly, which I wasn’t. I was really upset. I figured that, working with these people, by the end of the night everyone in town would be told not to call me. I became very depressed. I’ll never forget that. That’s the worst thing you could ever do to someone. Most of the people on that session are good friends of mine now, but that doesn’t help me forget the first time I met them. So anytime I see players in that same position, I feel an obligation to help them, because it’s all about communication. If a session—or music in general—doesn’t work, it’s because there’s a lack of communication.”

After that experience, Jordan was determined to be ready for his next opportunity. “I started doing demos—anything just to be in the studio. That’s important because recording is a whole other thing from playing live. You have to be in the studio to learn how to function in that environment. So when I finally got the chance to do it again, I was prepared.

“The first record that I really sounded good on was a Patti Austin record on CTI called Havana Candy. I really got it together, and I was really happy. The way I got on that gig was that they called Steve [Gadd] and he couldn’t make it, then they called Harvey [Mason], and he couldn’t make it, but both of those guys recommended me. That’s basically when I started getting my confidence back. I was so up on that date; I remember one song where I was looking at the wrong chart, but I played all of the right stuff anyway, [laughs] I was so keyed up that it didn’t matter.”

Jordan started getting more and more calls, until he was spending quite a lot of time in the studios. But there was a goal that he wanted to reach. “You can do a lot of recording in New York—demos and jingles and things—but not show up on any records, because so many records are made in L.A. I would go over to Will’s house or Steve Khan’s house, and they had gold records all over the walls, because they had played on everybody’s albums. So I was getting depressed about that. I wanted to show up on some albums playing music that I liked. Finally that happened. The Blues Brothers album went to Number One, and I had two other albums in the top 100. I was on a Cat Stevens album that went to number 33, and I played on Ashford & Simpson’s first gold record. So that kind of appeased this thing I had. I gave my first gold record to my parents. Then I got two or three others. They were given to me, but then I found out that a lot of times, if you want a copy of the gold record, you have to pay for it. That took the glamour out of the whole thing. Forget it; I’m not going to pay for the damn gold record. So that was the end of that fixation with hanging stuff on the walls.”

Indeed, Jordan’s walls do not have gold records hanging on them or any other personal trophies. What Jordan does have is a lot of Beatles memorabilia—photos, albums, books, and a bass drum head that says “The Beatles.” My eyes widened when I saw it. “Is that…?” I asked, pointing to the head. “No,” Jordan laughed. “But it looked so real that I had to have it.” Among Steve’s guitars are a Hofner bass (like the one Paul McCartney played), a Rickenbacker solid body (like John Lennon’s), and a Gretsch Country Gentleman like George Harrison’s. What, no four-piece, black oyster-pearl Ludwig set to go with that bass drum head? “No,” Jordan sighed, “Not yet. I’ve got to get one of those.”

“So tell me, Steve, were you by any chance influenced by Ringo Starr?” “Oh, God,” Jordan replied with a grin. “Of course. Charlie Watts, too. When we play Beatles songs on the show, I feel like Ringo, and I feel like I’m Charlie when we play the Stones. There were also cats like Sandy McKee from Cold Blood and Bobby Ramirez from White Trash. In retrospect, due to the repertoire we play, I’ve gotten to appreciate people like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Keith Moon a little more than I did at the time they were happening. Back then, I was totally into the groove, and when I listened to them, it just sounded like a lot of drum shit. It was repulsive to me at the time, but that was because I didn’t know.”

Jordan’s Late Night four-piece setup is one reflection of his concern with the groove, and of the Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts influence. But there was a time when he was using a larger kit. “I got my Yamaha endorsement when I was with The 24th Street Band,” Steve explains. “They gave me all these drums, so I figured I’d set them up. Then I started to be guilty of the very thing I hate about drummers: I became preoccupied with hitting all of these drums. About six months before the end of that band, I said, ‘I’ve got to cut this out. I’m going back to one rack tom and one floor tom. I’m going back to the basics—to getting the groove happening.’ That’s what I did, because that’s what I sounded the best on. That’s my forte. I’m a funky guy, and you don’t need a bunch of tom-toms to be funky. I just got back to what was important.”

Those who watch for those quick glimpses of the band on Late Night may have noticed the red cymbals that appeared on Jordan’s kit this past winter. But wasn’t Steve a fan of old K. Zildjians? What gives? “I have a couple of great K. ride cymbals—about 22″—and I’ll always use those in the right situation,” Steve explains. “When I worked with Donald Fagen the first time, I got this really great setup happening, because Fagen is really into getting the right cymbal sounds. I used an old 16″ K. crash, a 22″ K. ride, a splash with a couple of rivets, and a flat A. Zildjian ride that Danny Gottlieb gave me. It’s really old, and it has a little piece cut out of it. It’s just the most amazing cymbal. I don’t even know why the hell Danny gave me that cymbal, because he should be using it.

“Danny’s done a lot of great things for me. That snare drum I use on Late Night is an Eames drum that Danny gave me. One time, Danny asked me what I thought would be an ideal snare drum. I said, ‘Oh, 7-inches deep, 15 plies, a couple of coats of polyurethane.’ Danny had Joe MacSweeney make up a drum with those specs, and three coats of polyurethane inside and out. It was the first drum he ever made like that. Danny gave it to me on my birthday. It was so great; that’s really a killer drum. I have a lot of drums, but that one is so unbelievable, because I can tune it up high without losing the depth. That’s the key. People want to know how I can tune a drum that high without it thinning out. It doesn’t thin out because the thing is so damn thick. And it’s so loud that I usually wear earplugs.

“Getting back to the cymbals, I used that combination for a long time, until I rejoined the Blues Brothers in 1980. At that point, I decided that the K. ride wasn’t cutting through; I couldn’t get the bell thing happening. I like a spread when I ride, but I also want to be able to go to the bell and have it clean. About a year ago, I discovered the Paiste Rudes. I found the groove I wanted in the 20″ ride. I can get a clean sound on the bell, but I can ride on it, and it will spread nicely. I also have an 18″ cymbal that I call my ‘Merseybeat’ cymbal; I can sound like Ringo on it. For a while, I retained an old K. crash, but it started to crack and I only have a couple of them, so I don’t use them live anymore. Then I got into 15″ hi-hats, and they’re really loud. Between them and the snare drum, I’m really going deaf. Will got a real long cord for his bass, so that he could get as far away from me as possible, [laughs] “Then I got the colored cymbals. Remember when you used to put a piece of tape on a cymbal to mute it, but then the sound wasn’t distributed properly? If the cymbal rotated, you were in trouble. Well, with the colored cymbals, it’s like the cymbal is muted, but it’s spread out evenly. It’s like there’s a thin blanket over the cymbal. It’s perfect for the show, because I can really lay into it without it getting too loud, and I can really get soft. I really have a lot of control over the dynamics now.”

I remarked to Steve that I had particularly liked the sound of the 18″ black power crash on his right. “That’s the ‘Merseybeat’ cymbal,” he replied with a proud grin. “That’s the best one out of all of them. I think it might be muted less than the red ones. I’m not really sure how it’s done, but I think that for some colors they have to use more coats of the tint. The black cymbals sound different than the red ones. Paiste doesn’t want to admit that, but they do.”

Jordan is just as concerned with the sound of his drums as he is with his cymbals. “There was this drummer named Leo Adamian, who was one of the original drummers with Stuff. He taught me a lot about sounding good live. A lot of drummers had great sounds on records, but they couldn’t get the sound live. I heard Leo playing with a group at The Cellar, and his drums sounded like a record. He knew how to tune his drums to get a nice, warm sound. That’s when I realized that this guy knew what was happening. I always respected him.

“I also learned a lot about tuning from Steve Gadd, which is bizarre, because Steve Gadd’s sound is completely different now than it was when I met him. I kind of inherited that tom-tom sound that I loved about him originally. It was a live sound, but not that ringy, Cobham thing. Cobham was innovative as far as having drums sound more open and melodic, but they were a little too open. Steve had just the right touch with his old set of Pearl drums. I’ll never forget those drums, because I played a gig on them. Those drums just sang. I couldn’t believe how good I sounded, and I played like I had never played before. I’ve been tuning my drums that same way ever since, but he’s changed. He’s gone to the heavier thing, first with Hydraulics and then with Pinstripes. I’ve been through all of that, as well as the Canasonics, but that stuff just doesn’t work for me. I stay with the clear Ambassadors.

“When I met Harvey, he was using Rogers. He didn’t have heads on the bottom, and I preferred a fuller sound, but I liked the sound Harvey got with his hi-hat, snare, and kick. So I combined that with the sound of Gadd’s tom-toms and the crispness of Garibaldi’s cymbals.”

In addition to the setup Jordan uses on the Letterman show, he has another setup—he calls it his “progressive” kit— which he uses for special projects. One of those is a group called Eyewitness, with Steve Khan, Manolo Badrena, and Anthony Jackson. The group has three albums out: Eyewitness, Casa Loco (both on the Antilles label), and Blades (on the Passport label). “The concept of the band is to play new instrumental music,” Jordan says. “After my experiences with fusion, I didn’t think I could ever play instrumental music again, but this was spacious, and the audio end of it was really important; it really enhanced the music. I had gotten a Charlie Cordes double hi-hat. He had invented the thing years ago, but nobody would touch it. I thought it was a great idea, so when Eyewitness was formed, I came up with the idea to completely split the two hi-hats left to right on the record. It sounds amazing. I’ve also got a couple of custom-made Yamaha tom-toms that are an inch longer than their regular power toms. I reverse them; I have the 10″ tom on the left and the 8″ tom on the right. In addition to that, I use Simmons with Eyewitness. I have the bass drum triggering Simmons sounds and things like that. With the progressive setup, I usually use an old white-pearl WFL wood snare drum or else an old Ludwig Black Beauty. I’ve also got a Ludwig piccolo snare drum that I sometimes use.”

Old snare drums are a passion of Jordan’s. He gets a lot of them from Artie Smith, who does cartage and setup for a number of New York drummers. “Artie and I have the same kind of disease,” Jordan laughs. “We like all of this antique stuff—snare drums and guitars. We’ll each find things and then trade. Artie found the WFL drum and a Frank Wolf snare drum that I have. I used to look all over. Sometimes you can go into a thrift shop in the Midwest and find a great drum for 25 bucks.”

Other than the aforementioned work with Eyewitness, Jordan isn’t doing a lot of extra playing these days. He will participate in something special, like back in February when he went to Paris to record with Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon and Nick Rhodes. That turned out to be an interesting experience, as the Stones were also in town recording. “I called the studio and asked to talk to Charlie. He said, ‘Yeah, come on down.’ I went by two nights later; there was a full moon. I just wanted to watch them record, but Charlie invited me to play. On one track, I played bass drum and tambourine, and the bass drum I used was the one that you see on the cover of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” Jordan grinned. “Charlie has those great old drums and cymbals. And I don’t think he’s changed his drumheads in at least five years!”

Anyway, apart from a special situation such as that, you won’t find Jordan popping up in various New York clubs, appearing on album after album or running out to do jingles. It’s not that he doesn’t get the calls, because he does. But the Late Night gig has put him in a position where he can afford to call his own shots, and for Steve Jordan, that means that whatever he does has to meet his own high standards.

He’s had that attitude for quite a while, actually. “I would listen to the sound on some of the records, and it was depressing,” Steve says, shaking his head sadly. “I was determined that no one was going to mess up my sound again. When we did the Blues Brothers album, I was in the truck every night. I was determined that the thing was going to be great. When people hear you on a record or on TV, they don’t know that somebody else mixed it or produced it or whatever. They see you playing and assume that that’s your sound. So you’ve got to take that responsibility.”

I mention to Steve that some of the studio drummers I’ve spoken with don’t seem to care. The prevailing attitude is that whatever the engineer and producer want is fine with them. “Yeah, what is that shit?” Jordan snaps. “I have friends—whose names I won’t mention—who think that way, and that’s why I can’t play with some of these people. I think they hit a point where they’re bored with what they’re doing, so they don’t give a damn. They still get calls and they work a lot because they’ve gotten to a certain point, but they don’t really care anymore, because they want to be doing something else.”

Jordan knows what he’s talking about, because he’s been there. “Right before I started playing bass, it was getting a little hairy with the drums. I had been forced into playing a lot of fusion music, which was a lot of unnecessary music as far as I was concerned. There were just too many notes in each bar. If I had been paid for the number of notes I played during the fusion era, I’d have been rich. Their idea was that something simple was dumb.

“Personally, I love songs. I grew up with songs. In the past couple of years, I’ve been devoting my time to writing. I don’t want to water down my own concepts by going out and working with all kinds of people, and then being confused when I try to write. I want to be a great songwriter, and the only way to do that is to devote time to it. So that’s what I’m doing. A lot of times I’ll come home from the show, I’ll eat and hang out for a while, and then I’ll feel compelled to write a song. Then, if I finish it, I’ll want to record it. So I’ll stay up all night recording this song and mixing it. When I wake up, it will be like 3:30 in the afternoon—time to go to the studio and do the show. It’s kind of like morning for me on Late Night. So when I play drums on the show, it looks like I’m having fun because I am having fun. It keeps me really in love with the drums.”

 

Steve Jordan on Record

transcribed by Danny Gottlieb and Steve Jordan

Steve Jordan is one of my favorite drummers, as well as one of my favorite people. His amazing ability and personality are evident in everything he plays. I know I’m not alone when I turn on the Letterman show just to hear Steve’s backbeat. Here are transcriptions of some examples that show Steve’s versatility and rhythmic intensity. They sound great! —Danny Gottlieb

“Goin’ Back To Miami” (Made In America, Blues Brothers, Atlantic SD 16025) This is a great example of Steve’s ability to complement the lyrics and rhythmic structure of a particular song. As Steve points out, this is not a drum beat that he would play every day, but one that works specifically with this groove and rhythmic vocal line. We’ve broken it into three parts: (1) basic beat, (2) variation, (3) beat behind the rhythmic vocal. (We’ve also included the vocal part, so you can see how it relates.)

Goin' Back To Miami

“Messin’ With The Kid” (Blues Brothers, Atlantic SD 19217) This recording shows Steve’s versatility in a classic R&B style and shows his tremendous use of “ghost” notes on the snare drum. The three examples are: (1) basic beat, (2) behind vocal rap, (3) variation.

Messin' With The Kids

“Share Your Dreams” (This tune appears on two Japanese recordings by The 24th Street Band: Share Your Dreams, Better Days YX-7268 ND, and Bokutachi, Better Days YF-7012 ND. Better Days Records is a division of Nippon Columbia.) This Clifford Carter composition features a Jordan solo over a vamp. The three examples are: (1) basic beat, (2) basic beat behind verse, (3) intro to solo from live album. This illustrates one of the devices that Steve used with The 24th Street Band—playing predominantly on the snare drum.

Share Your Dreams

“Some Sharks” (Casa Loco, Steve Khan, Antilles 1020) This is a great example of Steve’s ingenuity, innovation, and humor. He starts with a basic hi-hat beat, adds bass drum on the & of 1 and 3, and then plays a basic rock ‘n’ roll beat, but displaces it by an 8th note, starting on the & of 1. On the fourth example, note the “ghost” notes on the snare drum. The quality of the drum sound on this record, and all of the Eyewitness records, is amazing. Also, at the time this was recorded, it represented one of the first uses of electronic drums combined with acoustic drums.

Some Sharks