Moving Towards Goals
It was a hectic time for Ricky Lawson when we finally got together at the beginning of the year. He was only home for a brief stay before going back out with Lionel Richie, and he was trying to spend as much time as possible with his family. He was also grappling with career choices. The Yellowjackets were demanding his full attention and so was Lionel Richie. It was a crossroads for Lawson, who had been in the Yellowjackets since the band’s inception in 1982. Not only had he been a founding member of the band, but he had once told me that the group was his baby.
But as Ricky explained, he has always had an uncanny sense about what job to go with, from Roy Ayers, to the Brothers Johnson, to Flora & Airto, to Stevie Wonder, to Al Jarreau, to the Yellowjackets. Now, Ricky had a feeling it was time to be moving on.
Working with Lionel Richie will unquestionably bring Ricky closer to his ultimate dreams and goals. It will afford him the time and financial means to really pursue becoming a full-time producer. No doubt, his recording experience with such artists as the Emotions, George Duke, Jennifer Holliday, Maurice White, Anita Baker, and, of course, the Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney hit “Say, Say, Say, ” will have served to help make that wish a reality, not to mention his writing abilities, as particularly noticeable with the Yellow jackets. All that, plus Ricky’s ability to get along with people, will have helped create the total musician/producer/writer that Lawson aspires to be.
RL: I just got a new computer, and it’s a powerful little unit. It’s got 240 million banks of memory that you can store.
RF: What do you need that for?
RL: I can use it to sequence my musical instruments, like my DX7. I have an E-mu SP-12 drum machine that I can sync up to this thing and do all my composing on. I can turn it into a 24-track recorder. All I need is a board to EQ the different instruments. I can do all my composition and then transfer it to tape, or I can go straight from the computer to the mixing process. Therefore, it gives me something real clean. When you transfer it from there to tape, it’s like making a digital recording, because all the instruments you’re recording are digital instruments.
RF: Do you mostly write on keyboards?
RL: I go back and forth. I just started playing bass a little over a year ago. As a matter of fact, I wrote the tune “And You Know That,” which is on the Yellowjackets Shades album, on bass right there at that little Yamaha MT-44D four-track. I can have my own little studio here where, in essence, I’m the producer, the engineer, the maintenance man, the musician, and the building itself. Then I have my tape deck and two drum machines over there.
RF: There are no acoustic drums set up here.
RL: I usually have those set up in the living room, and I rehearse right here. I have my own piano, my own bass amp, and my own bass, so the guys literally just have to show up.
RF: Are you talking about Yellowjackets rehearsals?
RL: Those and others. Bobby Lyle, Nathan East, and I did a couple of jazz concerts at colleges in San Diego last summer, and we rehearsed right in the living room.
RF: When you have those drums set up, what do you do with them?
RL: I’ll play just for the sake of playing every day. If you’re going to be a writer, you should write every day. I try to practice every day, and while I don’t get to every day, I’m always touching music one way or another. You can physically practice, and you can mentally practice. When I say mentally, I mean that you listen to tapes and records, and your mind becomes like a tape. All of a sudden, you go to your instrument, whatever it may be, and you can play things where you say, “Dang, that was that thing I heard today.” Then it actually becomes a part of you. That’s how a lot of people come up with their styles.
RF: Where do you think your style comes from?
RL: I have an uncle who played drums in the local bars, and I talked him into letting me borrow his instrument. He would play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I’d pick up his drums Monday evening and play Monday through Thursday.
RF: What made you want to do that?
RL: I was basically a pretty shy guy, and there was this girl I liked. I just couldn’t figure out a way to talk to her, and once I did, I couldn’t keep a successful conversation going. Then I got some neighborhood guys together, because there was going to be a talent show at school. We got in the show, they gave me a little solo, and the girls went nuts. The girl I liked went crazy, too, so I found out that, by playing the instrument, people would come to me. It gave me an outlet to be popular.
RF: When did you start working?
RL: Through word of mouth, I got a chance to play with a good local band called the Ebony Set when I was 16. The bass player was really good. They needed a drummer, and I was a nice guy: I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I had a nice instrument, I was easy to get along with, and I wanted to work. A lot of the guys didn’t really want to work—I mean, really work. I would go home, study those songs, learn all those licks, and have it down pat by rehearsal.
RF: You weren’t still borrowing your uncle’s set, were you?
RL: I borrowed it until he wouldn’t lend it to me anymore. Then I got another uncle to cosign for my first set of drums—a Slingerland set. I was into the way Buddy Rich looked. I also had an uncle, named Paul Riser, who worked for Motown. He did some really neat stuff while he was there. He arranged “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Car Wash,” “Which Way Is Up,” and “Cloud Nine.” He wrote that tune “What Becomes Of A Broken Heart” by Jimmy Ruffin. He still lives in Detroit, and I used to hang out with him a little bit. He was really inspirational in regard to learning the trade correctly and in learning to be the best you can be. I owe a lot of my success to him, my mother, and my aunt Joanne. These three people really helped keep me on the right track—not getting involved with drugs.
RF: Why didn’t you?
RL: It never turned me on. For one thing, it smelled bad. But for another thing, I was not going to throw away that little bit of money I was getting. You actually would be better off smoking the money than smoking the dope. I would see people who were doing it, and they would look so bad to me.
RF: You haven’t felt that some people look badly upon you for not doing it?
RL: I always keep myself in situations where I don’t have to deal with that. Usually, the people around me are on that same wavelength. And if there are people who do it, they have enough consideration to do it in the privacy of their own little thing. It’s certainly always available. At every gig, there’s someone inviting me to go home and do whatever, but I don’t go. They understand. I’ve never had to deal with peer pressure. I always knew what I could do, and I knew that drugs were a hurdle I didn’t really need to have to jump over. Then the people you work for appreciate that, because at one time, it was very unusual to find a musician who didn’t smoke or drink something.
RF: While you were getting into drum more, did you have a way of actually learning how to play them?
RL: I’m self-taught. I listened to records. In his Mark III car, my uncle had an 8- track of “Walking In Space” by Quincy Jones that I loved. The Ebony Set would play “Red Clay,” which was a big hit for Freddie Hubbard. We had a Shaft medley, two Sly Stone medleys, and we were playing some really hip stuff. I had to listen to everything because I would wind up playing it. Mainly, I listened to Quincy Jones, Grady Tate, Bernard Purdie, and James Brown. Then Billy Cobham showed up, and I just got sick. Then the guys turned me on to “Four And More” by Miles Davis with Tony Williams. I would go home and imitate the record, so when I did the gig, I would just play it like the record. We played enough of it so that I could at least get the concept. Once you have the concept, you know how to glue it together.
RF: You can imitate people, but how do you end up with Ricky Lawson?
RL: It’s a conglomeration of all my influences and what I feel on top of all of that. I think it’s more of a straight-from-the-heart kind of feel, because that’s how I learned to play. When I worked with the Brothers Johnson, I had to learn Harvey Mason’s licks. You take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and you glue it all together. All of a sudden, people are saying, “He sounds like . . . , then again, he sound like . . . ,” because I’ve been able to play everything pretty much like the drummers who play it for a living. I can play enough bebop to sound like a bebop cat. I can play just enough Latin to sound like a Latin cat. I can play just enough
funk to sound like Parliament Funkadelic. I can play just enough fusion to sound like a fusion cat. Therefore, I don’t get caught up having to play one kind of gig.
RF: Where did you learn to play bebop?
RL: Just hanging. They used to have a situation happening in Detroit called Metro Arts, which was sponsored by the city. All you had to do was show up, and you could play a Fender bass, Slingerland drums, or a Fender/Rhodes piano, and it was free. So the older cats would be playing bebop tunes, and I’d watch them every day. Then I’d go home and imitate them. I’d learn a song, and they’d say, “Hey, do you want to sit in? What songs do you know?” I’d say, “I know that one.” I’d play it, and then I’d remember what I did wrong and what I did right, so I’d know how to do it better the next time. It was a lot of trial and error, but if you don’t remember what you did, you don’t know what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. I’d tape myself as well. I’d do a lot of homework. Sometimes the guys would think I had an incredible ear, but I’d be home studying. One thing I learned fairly early was that a drummer’s job is to play time first. If you don’t play time first, then you’re not doing your gig.
RF: How did you work on time?
RL: Playing records. They’re pretty consistent. So I’d play along, and then when I got on the gig, if I found myself rushing, the other musicians would always let me know. So that was one thing I always worked on. A lot of that has been part of my style: being aware of what I’m doing, and playing straight from the heart, because a lot of sessions that I do don’t have charts. I have to write my own charts.
RF: You taught yourself how to read?
RL: Yes. You see a phrase, and the next session you do, you see that same phrase, so you remember it. Early in my musical career, I was around older musicians, so they helped pull me along a lot quicker than I would have been if I were playing with people my own age. But the older players knew what was happening: “Ricky, when you get to this part, you’ve got to play a little more open, so you go to the ride cymbal. On this part, you play cross stick,” etc. And you just remember that stuff. It really helped pull me through early in my musical career, because 16 is kind of late to be starting to play an instrument.
RF: It’s not usual to meet a drummer who is self-taught in jazz and fusion, and who can play odd times. That’s quite an accomplishment.
RL: Working locally in Detroit, I knew that if I could play Top 40, I could work with this band, but if I could play jazz, too, I could work with this band and that band. And if I could play country & western, I could play with three bands, so instead of making $25 a week, I could make $75 a week. Then I noticed that it made me a better musician, concept-wise, because I would take jazz and interject it into funk, or take Latin and interject it into funk, or vice versa. Like in Earth, Wind & Fire, a lot of the rhythms they use are Latin rhythms, but they’re playing it in an R&B, pop, and funk situation. Playing jazz over rock ‘n’ roll, you have to be sensitive, and that’s hard for a lot of people. They don’t understand the concept of when it’s quiet. You can come off just as strong playing quiet as you can playing loud. Then you get into dynamics and things like that, which a lot of people aren’t aware of. It takes different kinds of technique to play different kinds of music. It takes another kind of technique to play jazz over funk, rock, R&B, or country & western, and another kind of concept mentally. So you’ve got to be able to put this hat on, and then go over there and put that hat on, and cover all the ground. Playing R&B and the funk thing, everything is on the downbeat, whereas when you’re playing jazz, most of the stuff is on the up, anticipated beat. You can play a lot more notes within a smaller time frame. For instance, there may be four beats in a bar, and in funk, you play just the four beats. In jazz, you can play 16, 17, or 20 notes in that one bar. You’ve got to be able to do it all, though. Then you won’t corral yourself into one thing. Then you’re a musician, which is what I am. Actually, I want to be a producer.
RF: That’s what you want to do now?
RL: Yes. I just produced a tune for a group called Fatt Burger from San Diego. It’s called “Good News,” and I produced it up at George Duke’s house. I’ll tell you, if there ever has been a great person in the music business, it’s George Duke. He cares about people first. Maurice White is another person. They’ve done very well for themselves financially, and they don’t have to worry about too much of anything, yet they still come back to where they were—back to earth. And Lionel Richie is another one—incredible. So George let me use his studio, and I did this thing for Fatt Burger. I think they have a lot of potential to be a dominant force in the music business. It’s jazz instrumental, pretty close to Spyro Gyra, where a lot of the Yellowjackets’ stuff is more hardcore—more for the musicians. There’s some stuff that’s hard for me to listen to.
RF: Like what?
RL: On Shades, there’s a tune called “Son ja’s Sanfona.” It’s a great tune, but there’s a lot going on. A lot of people don’t want to have to think about a lot—just in life, let alone in music. Being in a group situation, of course, you have to give and take. I usually wrote more of the funkier tunes because most of my background is R&B and funk. The other guys come from more of a fusion jazz background, so they use a lot of progressive chords.
RF: Why does production interest you?
RL: I can still have all of the goodies, but I can still walk the streets. I can help people. I know what it’s like, because I’m a so called jazz musician. When I played with the Yellowjackets, I was a jazz musician; with Lionel, I’m a pop musician—so I understand where they’re coming from. It’s hard, and you need all the help you can get. I have the time and the expertise to help them do what they’re doing, and that helps me become a producer, too. That way, I don’t have to go on the road, and I can stay home with my family. Record companies will give a rock band a million bucks, but they won’t give a jazz group ten grand. It’s not fair.
RF: A minute ago, you said that with the Yellowjackets you’re a jazz musician, and with Lionel you’re a pop musician. But where does your heart lie? Do you have a true love?
RL: Other than my wife, no. I like it all. At the level I’m at, I find myself dealing with it all. With Lionel, we play pop, rock, funk, and country with “Deep River Woman.” If you don’t get into this stuff, you find yourself running into these bridges you’re trying to climb over.
RF: What was your first big job?
RL: My first really big gig was with Roy Ayers. I did that Mystic Voyage album, which was one of my first recordings. Roy took me all around the U.S., so I was able to meet a lot of people, and people were able to see me perform. I was here in L. A., and my uncle Paul Riser did the horn and string arrangement for the Brothers Johnson’s very first record. They needed a drummer, so my uncle got me hooked up with Patrice Rushen and Harvey Mason—who had worked on the project—and they got me hooked up with Quincy’s office. I invited the guys down to hear me play with Roy Ayers, and we blew them away. The band was hot! Quincy wanted to hear me, so I had to go down and play on tape. I took a friend of mine, Greg Phillinganes, down with me, and he wound up playing piano on the session. Greg also got a chance to meet Quincy. That was back in ’75, so I worked with the Brothers Johnson. At that time, they were real hot, and a lot of people came to see them—word of mouth. I worked with them for about two and a half years, and then I left and started working with Flora Purim and Airto, which was Brazilian.
RF: How did that come about?
RL: Ndugu and George Duke had seen me playing with Roy Ayers. They knew Flora Purim and Airto were looking for a drum mer, so they recommended me for the gig. Flora called me to audition, which is where I met Jimmy Haslip. I met Jimmy walking across Flora’s driveway, carrying his equipment in. We got in the house, and I thought she was going to have some stuff she wanted us to play. I had gotten her records and had become familiar with her material, but she was sitting on the couch eating dinner, and she said, “Okay guys, play.” It was just Jimmy and I—bass and drums—and I said, “What do you want us to play?” She said, “Whatever you feel.” So Jimmy and I fired up, played for about 40 minutes, and got the gig. I played what I knew, although I forget what it was that I knew at that time. Whatever it was, it
worked. So I got a chance to work with her and Airto, which helped my Brazilian chops.
RF: What was it like working with Airto?
RL: It was great! It was like going to school on the gig. When he played drums, I played percussion, and when I played drums, he played percussion. I got a chance to dabble in percussion a little bit, and I was exposed to a different audience. George Duke and Stanley Clarke would come out and see us because George had produced a couple of Flora’s projects, so these seeds were being planted. When Flora’s group split, I worked with Roy Ayers again for a little bit. Then I replaced Ndugu when he left George Duke’s band. When that split up, George used us on a lot of his recordings and productions. That helped get me into the recording thing. We did a Dee Dee Bridgewater project, one of Flora’s projects, and three or four of George’s projects. We did one project in Brazil with the Brazilian Love Affair Project, Milton Nascimento, and George Duke in 1980. So I was getting into the studio scene.
RF: How did you develop your recording skills?
RL: By doing it. There’s no school you can go to. It’s like reading a book to teach you how to drive a car. Until you get out and drive a car, you don’t really know. It’s experience. Do it. Play as much as you can. Listen to as much as you can. Go hang out as much as you can. Everybody has something to offer. Just keep yourself in situations that allow you to play. Sitting in is a great experience, because you have to learn to adapt to someone else’s equipment. And if you’re going to be a musician, you should learn how to write and compose. You should know theory. I’m teaching myself to play piano and bass, and to operate
a computer. All that stuff is experience.
RF: What kinds of things do you have to think about when you’re recording as opposed to playing live?
RL: When you play in the studio, the tape does not lie, so you’ve got to be on it. On the gig, you have to be on it, but once you’ve made a mistake, it’s over. Live can be more laid back, but in the studio, things cost so much money that people have the tendency to be uptight. Playing-wise, it’s not that different, but you don’t have to play as much in the studio. Of course, it depends on the musical situation. If you’re doing a pop record, you don’t have to play as sophisticated as I did when I played with the Yellowjackets. But when I played with the Yellowjackets, I played just like I did on the gig. In the studio, you don’t have to compensate as much as you do live, because live, you don’t have all the effects you have in the studio. Playing live, things are less controlled, and you have less to say about how you sound.
RF: How did the Yellowjackets actually come about?
RL: Jimmy Haslip knew Robben Ford, and Robben knew Russell Ferrante. Robben and Jimmy got together, they were bringing Russell down from San Jose, and they needed a drummer. Jimmy told them about me, so we got together, and the rest is history. That was around 1982.
RF: How did it evolve?
RL: We just got to playing together. We were doing a lot of original material live that was not on Robben’s album, and the people loved it. So Gary Borman, our manager, fronted the money and said, “If you guys get the deal, great. If you don’t, we’ll just chalk it up.” We did a digital demo at the Record Plant, and a month later, we had a record deal as the Yellowjackets. It was Russell, Jimmy, and I. Robben had a deal with Elektra. Then Robben lost his deal, and we wanted to make him a member of the band, but he didn’t want to sign contractually, because if something came up, he wanted to be able to do it. Originally, Carlos Rios was going to be the guitar player, but he got an offer to play with Lionel Richie, so he went there. We ended up hiring Marc Russo on saxophone, and he doubles on keyboards as well.
RF: Did working with a saxophone change your approach?
RL: It changed the sound of the music, because we’d never had a horn as a dominant instrument. It changed the concept, and it changed the way I played, because rock guitar is a little bit harder to listen to, whereas saxophone is a little bit easier to listen to. So I approached it with an easier attitude.
RF: You got a chance to solo with the Jackets. Have you gotten a chance to solo with many others?
RL: Probably the freest situations I’ve been in were with Flora Purim and Airto, and the Jackets, for the simple fact that there were less people playing in the band, so there was less going on and less people to keep together.
RF: What do you try to do when you solo?
RL: I try to tell a story. Drums talk, just like any other instrument. Just tell a good story for whatever song you’re playing. It wouldn’t be good to play a three-minute avant-garde solo in an Aretha Franklin tune. You have to find the right hat to stick on for whatever situation you have.
RF: You recently left the Yellowjackets.
RL: While I was off with Lionel, they felt that my commitment to the band was not there, and they had to move on. I could not be there physically to do what had to be done, and I literally could not afford it, so I had to step down. I had a chance to play more with the Jackets, but I would have made way less money. So what it’s coming down to is whether I want to play or whether I want to make some money. I have to stay out a month with the Yellow jackets to be able to make my bills for the month. After a month with Lionel, I can pay my bills for the next year. What’s neat, though, is that it frees me up to pursue some of the things I want to do for Ricky Lawson.
RF: Do you want to put together your own thing?
RL: It’s not so much that as concentrating on writing and producing, which is like my own thing.
RF: Will you stop drumming?
RL: Never. Although I guess you never know. I may stop drumming in the capacity of how I’m doing it now—being on the road all the time—but never altogether.
RF: When you produce, do you plan on playing on the projects as well?
RL: If I need to in order to get the project happening. I did it on the Fatt Burger tune, but we were pressed for time, so I had to.
RF: Is it difficult to drum and produce at the same time?
RL: Yes. It’s a lot easier to sit back and say, “Hey fellas, do this.” It’s harder to produce from your instrument, because the way it sounds inside and the way it sounds outside are two different things. Through headphones, it sounds one way, and through the speakers in front, it sounds another way.
RF: What, besides good time, do good drummers have?
RL: They listen. I think those are two of the biggest things. The time thing comes with experience, but being able to listen and comprehend quickly is important. You have to be open-minded to every kind of music also.
RF: Speaking of other kinds of music, you’ve had a couple of other major road gigs. Which came first, Al Jarreau or Stevie Wonder?
RL: I first met Stevie in about ’73 through my uncle. He took a big vacation, though, so when he finally went on tour in ’84, it was a big deal.
RF: What was it like playing Stevie’s music?
RL: That’s a jam session at rehearsal and on stage.
RF: Is it real improvisational?
RL: He loves for you to create within his music and enhance his music. A lot of musicians don’t know when to do what. And a lot of musicians can play, but they don’t know how to get along with people. That’s important, too. Playing his gig is great, because Stevie is the cat! He’s never afraid to try anything. You’ve got a guy who can’t see, yet he’s trying to figure out how he can stand on top of a piano, jump off, and land on his feet. Stevie is a genius, literally. He’s got some things that can change the way music is played today. Playing with Stevie is like going to school, because you learn how to play all that syncopated stuff. For his earlier records, the stuff would be so sophisticated that they needed two drummers to play it, so the split the part up. On the gig you’ve got one cat playing it, so you’ve got to figure out how to make the stuff work. He’s got all kinds of computers and synthesizers oper ating on stage, and you’ve got to be able to fit in with that stuff. You’ve got to be able to pay attention to him all the time and watch him, which is discipline. He’ll give you the most subtle signal and expect you to be on top of it. That lets him know you’re paying attention and you want to work. It’s like going to the school of “get it together quick.” He’ll come in and say, “Rick, play this beat,” on stage in front of 15,000 people—writing tunes on stage. Get it together or seriously be embarrassed.
It was a great time. I was still doing the Jackets, and it worked out that when they weren’t working Stevie was working, and when Stevie wasn’t working the Jackets were working, and when the Jackets weren’t working Jarreau was working. Jimmy and I did the Jarreau gig together.
RF: How did that gig come about?
RL: It stemmed from the Montreux Casino Lights album with Al Jarreau, the Yellowjackets, Randy Crawford, etc. I was supposed to play with the Jackets and with Randy. Things got going so good that I wound up playing with Randy, the Jackets, Mike Mainieri, Larry Carlton, and Al Jarreau and Randy together. When I fell into the gig, it was at a time that my style was real conducive to what he was doing, with a real solid backbeat and a real strong, good feeling. It worked out great for him and for me, because I fell in right when I needed to fall in. Jimmy had been doing the gig periodically, and we got together like cake and ice cream. Then we got a chance to do his video project, Live In London. Jimmy couldn’t do it, so they called Nathan East, and that was another ice cream and cake. If Jimmy and I couldn’t do the gig, they’d call Alex Acuna and Nathan East. It worked out where Nathan and I were free. The stuff sounded good, so they did an album.
RF: How did the Lionel Richie gig come about?
RL: We talked about it, and he understood the fact that I would have to leave the Yellowjackets for a while to do his gig. He told me, “If I was doing any other tour, I’d say, ‘Rick, do what you’ve got to do,’ ” because he used to be in the Commodores, so he knows what it’s like to be in a self contained band. He said, “But this is like my Victory tour.” He hadn’t been out for a year and a half, he had a new album out, he had done “We Are The World,” he had a real good momentum, and everyone was dying to see him. Before his record was even finished, there were orders for three and a half million copies. He said, “This is not the tour to miss. Whatever you want, I’ll get it for you.” I said, “Well, I want to get the Yellowjackets to do it.” He came out and heard the band, and we blew him away. He was going to take Marc Russo when he didn’t even need a sax player. We had a meeting with him, but we wouldn’t be able to play any Yellowjackets’ music. If we really had wanted to do it, we could have done it, but in essence, the guys didn’t want to play his music. So they decided not to do the gig, and I told Lionel I couldn’t do it. We went away for a couple of weeks, and he called me and said, “Ricky, I need you. How much money do you need to do this gig?” I named it, and he said great. I talked to my wife, and I talked to George Duke about it. I told the guys what was happening, and they said, “We understand. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” So I’m doing the gig with Lionel.
RF: Is it at all challenging for you? It’s way different from the Yellowjackets.
RL: It’s a challenge to see if I can make the number-one songwriter in the world happy. It’s a challenge to adapt from the Yellowjackets to a real simple situation. To play Lionel’s music, you have to have discipline. A lot of people don’t have it. That comes from playing in the studio. You have to know when to step forward and when to step back. I’ve learned how to do that.
It’s great playing with Lionel, because he cares about what I’m doing, playingwise, and he cares about my personal life. So when I get a chance to do something for him, I give my all. If anything is wrong, he says, “Come to me; I’ll take care of it.” You don’t have to go through three or four people to try to get something taken care of. Musically, it’s a treat to work with him because he’s different from a Jarreau or a George Duke, so it’s discipline in regard to being consistent. That’s not to say that you don’t have to be consistent playing the other gigs, but his stuff is so simple that the simplicity of it is difficult. You get bored, and you cannot let that happen.
RF: How do you not let boredom happen?
RL: I look at Lionel, and he’s always smiling. When he’s smiling, I know I’m doing my job, and when I know I’m doing my job, I get on it.
RF: What is your live equipment like with Lionel?
RL: I have the Remo Encore acoustic set—which is Remo’s top-of-the-line drumset—Paiste cymbals, Drum Workshop foot pedals, and Dean Markley drumsticks.
RF: Are you using electronics on stage?
RL: Yes. One of the Dean Markley foot pedals is an electric trigger. I have an eight-channel Ramsa board made by Panasonic. I have a Roland DDR30, which is Roland’s version of the Simmons, an SP-12 with the turbo, the Roland percussion machine, three SPX90’s, a Yamaha power amp, and a Roland Octapad. Plus I have some Barcus- Berry contact mic’s that attach to my acoustic drums to trigger some electronic sounds. All of that, except the contact mic’s and the Octapad, is in a rack.
RF: When do you apply the electronics?
RL: In Lionel’s show, there are a couple of tunes on his new album that have a drum machine. I can either program the machine to play the song, or sample the drum sounds on the record and play them myself. That way, I have the drum machine sounds, but with a real person playing it. When people hear the show, they say, “Wow, that sounds just like the record.” Live, it’s hard to have the songs sound like the record, which is what the audience is familiar with. One song is “Dancing On The Ceiling,” and another is “Don’t Stop.” Also, when we do “Penny Lover,” our percussionist comes down front and sits on the piano. But in the song, there are bongos and congas, so by my having the Roland percussion machine, it allows me to cover the percussion parts. On “Say You Say Me,” there’s a big drum break in the middle. On the album, they were able to use a lot of really neat effects to produce this sound, so I can sample that sound, bring it to the stage, and have the exact same big cannon sound.
RF: Speaking of which, what does it take to play a ballad well?
RL: It takes sensitivity, and it takes getting into the song as if you had written it. Like on Anita Baker’s album, she sings a lot of ballads, so you really have to get into that mood. It’s not intense playing-wise, but it’s intense mentally because you have to be real sensitive. You have to be super-conscious of time, because there’s not that much carrying it. Usually, what carries a ballad is the feel and what the ballad is saying. It also takes the discipline of playing simple. It’s almost like being a small orchestra, because you’ve got the drums, the big cymbal crashes, the cymbal swells with the mallets, the bell trees, and all that kind of stuff going on. It can be a real trying situation, but you have to be sensitive to do it.
RF: Is there a difference playing for instrumental music as opposed to playing for vocal music?
RL: Oh yes, because you don’t have the vocalist to worry about. Playing instrumental music, you pretty much worry about the instruments, which, of course, can have the tendency to be a little bit louder or fuller sounding. When you have a vocalist, the instruments should enhance what the vocalist is doing. You’re back a little bit because the vocalist is on top. An instrument like a bass or piano is pretty consistent sound-wise, but a vocalist really isn’t. Vocalists might get a little hoarse and not sing with the same intensity, so you always have to keep your eye on them to feel out what they’re doing vocally and how they sound. Do they sound real strong? You can tell when someone comes out of the gate killing, as opposed to singers who are a little reserved because they’re trying to save themselves for the next night or for later on in the gig. They do that, because it’s hard for a vocalist to have that kind of consistency, sound-wise, that an electric instrument has. It can be an uphill battle. Al Jarreau is a musician—not to say that others aren’t—but when Al is not singing lyrics, he’s creating sounds that will blend into the instrumental side of what’s happening. That’s hip! And he’s always involved, which is another real hip thing.
RF: When were you with George Benson?
RL: In ’82, for about a year and a half.
RF: In his band, is the guitar or the voice the central instrument?
RL: Sometimes he does vocal tunes, and sometimes he plays instrumental tunes. It kind of goes back and forth across the fence, which is really cool. When I was playing with him, there was a really neat bass player in the group by the name of Stanley Banks. Stanley played tambourine with his foot while he was playing the bass. Then we had a percussionist, Vicki Randall, and three horns, which were really cool. All of the guys in the band were really cool, so it was a nice musical situation. We could play instrumental music, and one of the guys in the band—George—could really sing, so all of a sudden, we would be playing behind a singer who was a musician. You don’t have the restrictions that you sometimes have with a straight-out vocalist.
RF: With all you’ve done, how would you like to be known?
RL: I want to be known as Ricky Lawson the songwriter/musician/producer, and be known as a really, really nice guy who cares about other people.