Buddy Williams

The drum is a very spiritual instrument,” says Buddy Williams, “if you look at the African thing and communication and at the drum as being the second instrument, behind the voice.” Williams is a good one to talk about the roots of his instrument, since his own musical roots run very deep. He has a dozen “uncles” in the business—close family ties to some of the giants of jazz. Perhaps it’s been partly by osmosis that this drummer got the chops, taste, and instincts that have attracted artists like David Sanborn, Manhattan Transfer, Tania Maria, Grover Washington, Jr., and the Honeydrippers to use him on recent albums and tours, and enabled him to continue to hold down the drum chair in the house band at Saturday Night Live.

“Buddy and I have been good friends for about ten years, ” says former Saturday Night Live keyboardist Paul Shaffer. “It’s always good to see him on a session, because we know the beat will be there.” Saxman David Sanborn agrees, “I think Buddy’s a great drummer. He’s a very musical drummer,” David says. “He really plays within the tune and he plays with you. He listens. “On the 1985 Sanborn tour, Williams was powering a crack unit that included keyboardist Larry Willis, bassist Tom Barney, guitarist Mike Stern, and Jumo Santos on percussion. The grooves were of recent Talking Heads intensity—rising, falling, and shifting—always moving. Look right in the middle of that, and you’ll find Buddy, content as a cat can be, playing precisely what’s needed, and pumping things up a bit more with a solid fill—yeah, Talking Heads with a touch of ‘Trane.

Williams has sometimes been accused by listeners of laying back too much—of underplaying, in fact. The drummer shrugs it off. Oddly enough, he’s so busy doing tours, sessions, and jingles in New York that he hardly has time to think about it. Williams gets his ride cymbal rocking (literally), with a strong right hand to the bell as Sanborn’s unit cranks it up on “Run For Cover.” He smiles as bassist Barney peeks in at him over his toms, all the while mixing it up with his left hand between the hi-hat and snare. As the song peaks, he’s got a wash of cymbals roaring as he bashes around the kit. The proof is in the pudding, and this pudding is hot.

Essential to the Buddy Williams discography is Luther Vandross’ Never Too Much, where the drummer and Marcus Miller team up on some of the fattest grooves yet slapped on vinyl. Listen to the hi-hat control on Sadao Watanabe’s Orange Express and the offbeat bells on “Bagamoyo/Zanzibar.” The drummer shines on Michael Urbaniak’s Serenade For The City, and does the job of two circus drummers on Bette Midler’s Live At Last. Herb Alpert’s “Rise” was powered by Williams, and he is featured playing and singing on Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson’s Live & More.

Williams was born in Brooklyn, New York, 33 years ago, and grew up in the city’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. His father was a professional singer, and the desire to be in music hit Buddy at an early age. His family arranged piano lessons for him when Buddy was three years old, but after a few years of that, he wanted to switch instruments. “I had a lot of energy when I was small; and I think the drums dispersed it more than the piano, “he says. “There were already enough piano players in my house. I just wanted to do something different, grow, and stand on my own.”

While in junior high school, Williams was playing with a group called the Packers, and when he was accepted at New York’s Music and Art high school, he had the chance to expand his knowledge to classical, big band swing, and other forms of music. Williams was, at that time, more interested in jazz, and was establishing a musical identity with the band Natural Essence, which featured Rasheed Ali, Nat Adderley, Jr., Noel Pointer, Earl McIntyre, Francisco Centeno, and Eddie Martin.

RT: Tell me about Natural Essence.

BW: We used to rehearse at my uncle Walter Booker’s house in Manhattan after school and on weekends. I met a lot of guys like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Sonny Rollins at Uncle Bookie’s place. It was called Boogie Woogie. That was like my teething ring. But my life has always been music. My father was a singer in the ’30s and ’40s with a group called The Charioteers. They used to sing on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall, which was big-time radio in the old days. My father died recently; he was 75. I’m just an extension of him in terms of music. That’s all I ever saw—ever heard. I could name guys who came to my house that were Uncle This and Uncle That. Everybody says, “How come you had so many uncles?” It’s because the way people are in this kind of business, you just don’t want to call them Mr. This and Mr. That. They’re always at your house, hanging out, exchanging thoughts and ideas, and playing music. So that’s all I ever saw. I had no choice in the matter. My great uncle, Eubie Blake, lived only three doors from my house. I played piano from the age of three because of my father. He wanted me to play that music, and I saw nothing but piano. I started taking lessons, reading, and all of that.

The drums came later on, because in Brooklyn they have what is known as Brooklyn Day. There was a parade in front of my house every year. There were marching bands, and those guys were steppin’ like you see Florida A&M and Grambling, and playing the hip tunes. That just caught my ear. My folks took me to the islands when I was very small, and I heard a steel drum. Today I know that it was a steel drum, but I just remember being under this instrument when I was very small and hearing those sounds come out of it. That’s what kind of attracted me to that piano. Again, that piano was like the whole solar system to me almost. Every Saturday, the other guys would be playing baseball and basketball, and I would be going to piano lessons. My family wanted me to play that piano so bad. My grandmother was a minister at my church, and they would gear me towards playing in the church. But I like all music, so I wanted to play more than just hymns. Now I see some of those hymns that I used to play and I go, “Wow, I really used to play this?” They’re really intricate. That’s why it’s so important for kids to get into music as early as they can, because then it doesn’t seem like such a task.

Then the piano stuff really started getting to me. I wanted to back off it and get into my own thing. So when I was nine years old, I started playing in parade bands. I went to my great aunt’s house in Lakeland, Georgia for the summer, and I used to hear those blues guys. It killed me, man—killed me. So I got into that and started listening to those guys. The next summer I remember going to Illinois, and staying with my cousin Chris Brooks. His mother used to make me go with him wherever he went. He played in this garage band, and I’ll never forget that he had a white set of drums. I think they were playing “Satisfaction.” They were learning it, and they played that record about 30 times. Meanwhile, I was out in the yard. They took a break to go get some pop, and I sat down at Chris’s drums and played the song with the record. They said, “He’s got it!” From then on, it was over. I wanted a set of drums. My father said, “Oh yeah?” But instead of doing the typical father thing—going out and buying me a set of drums—I worked for a summer, saved my money, and I bought my set of drums. It was a Ludwig Standard. So I got that set and played. I rehearsed in my attic and practiced on the roof. Every day, I would practice with Will Tilghman and some other guys. We just played and practiced. I was lucky. All through my life I’ve been lucky. I’m not going off on a trip, but God is really good, man. I can’t explain a lot of things: Why did this happen? How come I got that. I was just lucky. This business is like that.

Do you know who gave me my first sticks? My dad took me to Lionel Hampton’s house one day, and Lionel gave me these big 3S sticks. Those things looked liked logs to me. I think I’ve still got them somewhere. I got in trouble, because we had this big mahogany door, and I started beating on it. The dents are still there. Boy, did I get my butt beat for that. But it sounded like a drum, and I was playing—what is it, the Gene Krupa beat? I remember that beat, because I got beatings for that beat. [laughs] I heard Hampton play that on his drums in his house. That just impressed me. From then on, the drum thing kept dropping in there. I didn’t start drum lessons until I was in junior high school, but from the age of eight, I was listening at home. I was into everything. My favorite was Jimi Hendrix. I liked the drummer who was with him, Mitch Mitchell, for a lot of reasons. He had a lot of stuff going on. I mean, he was hittin’ it.

So then I went to this junior high school in Queens, and they had a good music program. I played as much as I could there. I had to play classical, and I got into timpani and percussion. The timpani is so powerful, but it’s such a soft instrument, too. You can play stuff on there that’s so warm and intimate within the music. They had a little jazz band in junior high, and I converted the school’s concert drums into a drumset.

My family would speak to people in my neighborhood about different music schools, and two of my friends had gone to Music and Arts high school. A lady named Ann Bryant, who is a big-time producer and writer in New York now, was a phenomenal whiz kid when I was small. Her parents told my parents they should send me to Music and Arts. My dad checked it out, and I got an audition. Later, I got into the school. I really had to knuckle down on the classical thing, so that was great. I played in the school’s jazz band—Glenn Miller, big band stuff like that—but we were already beyond that. I guess this was around the “Right On” period in the ’60s, and there was a heavy black awareness thing going down. We were into ‘Trane and Eric Dolphy, Cannonball, and all those guys. I loved jazz band so much that I would miss my lunch. I would go there during lunch, because Music and Arts really didn’t smile on jazz. They felt it was an after-school program. Even at the university I went to, the Manhattan School of Music, they really didn’t like jazz then. Now it’s chic to be into jazz. But it’s too late now; we were already in and out of there. So Rasheed came in and started playing these chords. He sounded like McCoy. He said, “Check these chords out. Do you want to do something like this?” And we got a group together. He named it Natural Essence. We used to practice at Uncle Bookie’s place. He was very open to us. I was there almost every day, because I lived in Brooklyn, and it was very hard to go back and forth with my drums from Brooklyn. So I’d leave my drums there and practice, hang out with him, and he introduced me to so much music, man. It was like that was my school—like the African folklore thing, where they pass it on. School gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people who transmitted a lot of knowledge, and if you just listened you heard a lot of stuff. But God bless Uncle Bookie, because I wouldn’t have known of a Sonny Rollins or a Thelonius Monk on the level that he introduced me to them. He was playing with these guys. He’d sneak me in there to hear Monk play that stuff. You can hear it on the records, but if you heard and saw this guy—people said he was weird and wacked out, but he was no weirder than Boy George. Now that’s weird. Monk was an innovator, and he was just different. You know how people are. If they see anything different, they want to mess with it, and not only poke fun but make it like it’s not cool. You’ve got to be the same old thing. And with music like that, you’ve really got to do just what you feel. Look at Arthur Blythe. It took him so long. Finally people came around to his way of thinking. Even Jimi had to go to London to really get over and then come back. Then he was cool, even though he was doing the same thing. So luckily, I was introduced to a lot of different stuff at an early age, and I understood just what things there were, instead of just bubblegum music and the basic soul and rock stuff.

Natural Essence was an original group playing our own music. We got with Cannonball Adderley because of Nat, Jr., and Cannonball produced an album for us. He recorded our tunes, but it took them a long time to release it. Finally, it came out on Fantasy Records. It’s called In Search Of Happiness. There is a lot of good music on it. If you find that one, let me know.

Anyway, we had good tunes. We were young, not even seniors in high school. We released it, and it didn’t do too hot. It did well in California, but California’s more open to jazz and new music anyway. In high school, we would back up acts like Leon Thomas. I remember that one day we did the Jackie Robinson jazz concert at his estate in Connecticut. We played with Roberta Flack, Benny Powell, Grover Washington, Jr.—all these people who I ended up playing with later. I’m on Grover’s album that’s out now, and he teases me about that. He says, “Oh yeah, I remember when you used to be real skinny and small.” I think my first gig in high school was with Herbie Mann. Bruno Carr had split from him to play with Sarah Vaughn, and Herbie had some gigs. He called me up and had me come to his house to audition. I had to bring a trap case on the train from Brooklyn to Central Park South. He had this fancy apartment overlooking the park. He played some tunes, and he had this joke. Every time you’d ask him what to play, he would always say, “brushes,” because he’s a flute player and he didn’t want the drummer bashing all around. He had Sonny Sharrock, Miroslav Vitous, Steve Marcus, and Roy Ayers in his band. Those guys were playing—I mean playing, man. And Herbie would always tell me to play brushes. They would always look at me, shake their heads, and say, “Don’t listen to him, man. Go for it. You know how to play. You know what you’re doing.” So I got to the point where I wasn’t so scared that I would die if I messed up. I got to Herbie’s gig, and Sonny Sharrock was one of the very out-est—a very avant-garde guitar player. He played the chords to Herbie’s “Memphis Underground” and all Herbie’s hits. Then when it was time for his solos, he’d just take it out. Now, how are you going to play brushes with that? I would take it right out there with them. I said, “This is great. I can stretch out with these guys and then come back in, and we got that flow together.” Hugh Masekela opened a show for us, and I met my good friend Larry Willis. He said, “Man, you’ve just got to go for your feeling.” So I got a good concept, and started playing with more and more people.

With the Natural Essence thing, we tried to do another album. We got away from Cannonball. It was nothing personal, but he was just too busy as an artist. We needed somebody who wanted to do-us, and Billy Cobham was interested. He really helped us a lot. We did an album on Atlantic Records and had a single come out, but you know the music business. But Billy loved me. I didn’t see him too much, but he knew me and I knew his brother. Natural Essence played a lot, but we all got busy. From college to now, I’ve played with a lot of people. The list is silly, but it’s all kinds of different stuff, from Roberta, to Bette Midler, Grover Washington, Herbie Mann’s stuff, Herb Alpert’s stuff, Masekela’s stuff, and Jean Pierre Rampal.

RT: You’ve done albums with all these people?

BW: Yeah, eventually it got around to that. But I played a lot of gigs with them too, before I even got to the album point. They were always using big-time studio musicians, but as I developed, I ended up doing albums. I produced one of Herbie Mann’s albums, along with a guy named Lou Volpe. I produced a movie soundtrack with Roberta for Richard Pryor’s Bustin’ Loose. I wrote too, with Marcus Miller, and we got that out there. I try to do as much as I can. I’m into all kinds of stuff, though. It’s real crazy, but it makes me a complete person. It’s like you shouldn’t just eat salad or eat fruit. You’ve got to get it all. That’s why I live in New York. You’ve got a taste of everything there. I really think that being in New York was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I got to hear everything—all the Latin bands—Jorge Dalto, Mongo, and people who I’ve played with like that. You’d never get to do that if you were in Iowa. I met Dave Grusin in California, but he said, “What are you doing in California? I’m in New York. Come back.” Tom Browne went to Music and Arts, but I never got to play with him until the GRP days. Marcus was a young boy at Music and Arts when I was there. A lot of folks know the records I’m on, but a lot of folks don’t know what records I’m on. I turn up in the dangdest places.

RT: What records are you on that people wouldn’t think you’d be on?

BW: Israeli records, rock ‘n’ roll records—I did some rock ‘n’ roll records, but I can’t remember the artists. Please forgive me, rock ‘n’ roll people. You know, you do a lot of dates in New York. I’m being honest now. I did a lot of dates in New York for people who are now big time. It’s not that I wasn’t into their music, but . . . . Look at the Honeydrippers thing. When I played on TV with those guys, everybody went, “Oh, you played with the Honeydrippers, wow.” It’s not just another date and working in a coal mine kind of thing. It’s more like a musical experience. I didn’t know who they were in the first place, so I didn’t put them up on such a pedestal. I’ve got a friend in New York right now, and all he does is go to record shops and look. And he says, “Did you know you’re on this?”

Look at Sanborn. I’ve known Sanborn since he was playing with Stevie. I didn’t play with him then, because he didn’t have a band. I guess Gadd played on his first album, Butterfat, and then he had a little band. Victor Lewis and all those guys started playing with him. Then those guys couldn’t make the gigs, and Dave just said, “Can you play with me?” From then on, I’ve been playing with him, and that’s a long time ago. But he doesn’t play extensively because he’s in the studio all the time. We’re doing the same thing. We’re more friends than boss and employee. I enjoy playing with him because he plays from the heart. I don’t go on the road that much—not that I have anything against it, but I like to stay home. You know, I was on the road with Bette Midler and all these people forever, so it’s good to stay home sometimes. I write and I produce, so I stay in town. I get real busy. It could be a club thing, a record date, or a jingle. I do a lot of jingles in New York, knock on wood. If I keep going on the road though, I won’t. It’s just that way, you know. New York is a big factory. You could be cool today, and tomorrow nobody will know who you are. You’ll be driving a cab. Life is like that. And my father, thank God, put that whole thing about something to fall back on in my head. Young people who are coming up shouldn’t lock into one thing. You’ve got to play everything in order to do something.

RT: So what is your bread and butter now, the jingles?

BW: Everything. I try not to be locked into one thing.

RT: You were doing a lot for the GRP label. Is that still happening?

BW: Well, they’re using drum machines now.

RT: That’s right. I heard Grusin’s new album.

BW: I’m on some of his stuff, though. I played Simmons. They dropped me and Marcus in the middle of that. See, I already knew about the drum machine. I played with Sly Stone when he had the Rhythm Ace. On “Family Affair,” we were playing around with it. But I didn’t play on the record. He was into me, because he said I was the only drummer who didn’t bitch about the thing. I locked right in with it and said, “That’s nothin’. If you want to play with a metronome, great.” And he was like, “Yeah, I like that. See, he’s cool.” But I went back to New York.

RT: So what’s your average day like?

BW: I could be home watching TV one day and the next day everybody calls me to be there for that one session. You’ve got to remember that jingles aren’t only music. They’re music that goes behind the selling of a product. So once you get that in your head, you know what’s going on. I like playing them, because it’s a challenge. You’ve got to read. Ain’t no getting around that one. You’ve got to read, boy. Yesterday, before I left New York, I did a Burger King commercial, and they said, “It’s one second too long. It’s got to be 29 seconds, and it came out to be 30.” So they have to cut off a beat in the middle of a bar. Never mind the fact that Richard Tee is grooving in the middle of the thing. It was Richard Tee, Marcus Miller, George Wadenius, and Steve Love, for Burger King. That’s what all the top people do. Nobody turns down jingles, because jingles run all day and night. It’s just like a factory thing. That’s one of the biggest challenges, for me, because you’ve got to make it all sound like it’s nothing, and you don’t hear it that much over a little speaker. Now they’re getting into stereo TV, and you’ll start hearing the commercials more. You’d be surprised at how many people do that. Patti Austin doesn’t ever have to make another record. Patti Austin is the queen of commercials—millions of dollars. Did you ever hear the end of the Nabisco commercial? “Nabisssscccooooo.” That’s a lot of money.

Jingles are only one aspect of the music world for me. It’s a money-making venture, but my goal in life is not to do all the jingles in the world. There are a lot of people in New York who just do jingles, and they can’t play real gigs. They can’t even play a real form at all. If you base your life on jingles all the time, there’s no music to that. But it’s a skill. It has its uses and abuses.

RT: A friend of mine was listening to the GRP All-Stars record you’re on, and said you sound like a “cool funk” drummer—kind of like a cool jazz drummer.

BW: I know, a lot of people think that. It’s a nemesis of mine. I had a guy boo me in Pittsburgh when I was playing with David. I saw him after the thing, and he said I wasn’t playing anything. But see, man, I’m not a showboat kind of guy. I like to blend in with the music, and when it’s time to solo, great. But I’m a team person. I’m into playing with the thing. Yeah, I can play a whole lot of stuff and eat ’em up, but then I would be sticking out like a sore thumb. People talk about Billy Cobham and how he sticks out like a sore thumb within the music. People talk about Steve Gadd being so locked in and all that stuff, but if the music calls for that, great. When I play with Michael Urbaniak, I make all that noise. But I never wanted to be playing a whole lot of stuff in the middle of it, because then they say the drummer was too loud. And I’m really kind of sensitive.

Maybe sometimes that’s why you don’t hear a person like myself making a whole lot of noise and doing a whole lot of stuff that isn’t necessary musically. I try to be very musical. If it doesn’t fit, I’m not going to play it—sorry, unless you write it in, or somebody says, “Go crazy right here.” With the Herbie Mann thing, it was very important for me to stay out of the way if that’s what the job called for. It was important not just to take the money and run, but I want to do a good job every time and I’m a real nutty perfectionist with that. I want it to be right. I try to stay out of the way as much as possible. David loves me because I can keep the energy going. Wayne Shorter told me that I was like a swan. He said, “You look real calm on the top. Meanwhile, your little feet are going down there.” And I took that as a compliment, because again, I’m not trying to take away from the thing. Even if I had my own group, which I’ve had—my own ensemble and stuff—it isn’t about the drummer. It’s about the music being good. So it’s not that I can’t play. It’s just that I don’t want to get in the way. And I don’t want to take away from what you’re trying to do—the overall end of the thing.

RT: Sometimes the things you play sound like they’d be easy to play, but when you sit down to play them, they’re not easy at all.

BW: It isn’t easy. It’s like another guy said, “Man, you look like you’re bored and you’re not playing anything.” But like you just said, when you sit down and try to play that, it’s real hard. It’s control. It’s got to come from that. You’ve got to be able to control yourself at all times.

RT: You’re playing a rented Yamaha set on this gig.

BW: Sometimes I have to play rented drums in these situations. But we’ll be doing the rest of this tour with Al Jarreau, and my drum guy, Artie Smith, will be taking my drums to travel with Al Jarreau’s crew.

RT: But these are your cymbals. You didn’t rent those.

BW: No, no. I don’t go anywhere without my cymbals and my snare drum. I bring my own. I use different cymbals for different situations. There’s no one basic setup. It depends on where and when I’m doing it.

RT: During soundcheck, I noticed that your snares sounded pretty loose.

BW: The reason I keep the snares loose so much is that, if you get them too tight, then it sounds like a piece of cardboard. When they mix it in the house, it comes out a little better.

RT: I was listening as you did your drum check, thinking some people say the Simmons are so much faster to get a sound with, but …

BW: Bull.

RT: It didn’t take them long to get a great sound on you.

BW: Simmons are awful, man. Simmons are great for what Simmons do. Simmons are nothing but an extension of the Syndrum.

RT: When you were checking the toms, you said, “Give me more of the low ones than the high ones.”

BW: At the loudest point of the music and the softest point of the music it must be audible. You’ve got to be able to hear it. These guys are crankin’, and they’ve got a volume knob and I don’t. So I don’t want to bang; I want to play. I resent it when people say, “You really bang those drums.” No, I don’t. That may be semantics, but that’s a feeling. I don’t bang, man. I try to play.

RT: The higher toms cut through better than the low ones?

BW: Yeah, because of the frequency and pitch of the instrument itself. You’ll always hear the higher ones before you hear the lower ones, because the lower it gets, the more washed-out it gets, and the more susceptible it is for the other instruments to slip in there, like the bass. That’s what the bass player and I were discussing just now—getting a proper balance between the bass drum and the bass. It’s not so much the hearing, but you’ve got to feel it right.

RT: Your cymbals look like Zildjians.

BW: Yeah, all K.s and A.s. It’s not that I’ve got anything against everybody else, but that’s what works for me. It’s not because of my endorsement either, because I’ve checked out other ones just to see if they have something new.

RT: Your cymbals were cutting through really well.

BW: Yeah, that’s why I bring my own cymbals. I have an 18″ over my hi-hat, and I have a 20″ medium with a bell. I have an 18″ medium thin, and this little small guy—he’s about a 16″—next to the ride. And then I have the China Boy. I call them garbage cans because they sound like garbage can covers, you know. I mean that lovingly, because Zildjian makes nice stuff. Those other guys do too, but I like the Zildjian stuff. At least, they hang in there longer. I use different setups for different situations. For Saturday Night Live, I have a totally different setup—drums as well as cymbals—because it’s another kind of situation. With the TV show, I have a special setup that I designed with Artie Smith. I have 10″, 12″, and 16″ tom-toms, and then I have three electric drums—Simmons and a new Yamaha electric drum prototype that I’ve been using—over each tom-tom, and then a Simmons snare over the hi-hat. So it’s a double layer of drums. That’s why you can never see me on TV. When they look up at us on an angle above the main stage, you can’t really see me through the drums.

RT: What’s your reason for this special setup?

BW: On Saturday Night Live, you’ve got all kinds of sounds and all kinds of stuff, because you’re dealing with TV. You’ve got parodies. If you’ve seen the show, you’ve got all this silly stuff like spoofs on commercials. So maybe you’ve got to play something stupid-sounding to get the bit off. I find that, if I program it inside of an electronic thing as well as the regular drums, I can get the fast changes. It’s at my fingertips. I can press it and capture that, and still have the regular natural thing going on, because we have to play for sketches, we might have to play for an artist, and then when they go to commercial, we play for the audience. We play our own tunes and our own stuff. It’s split-second, and that is the last of the live shows. That’s why I love doing that show. It’s been on for ten years. I’ve been there for most of the ten years, but I did leave, and a gentleman named Steve Jordan started doing the show while I was gone. I had left to do The Rose tour with Bette Midler, and that was my stint in California. It’s not that I didn’t like the show when I left; it was just that it was another experience. As I said before, I like to try to do all kinds of different stuff. I had worked with her before the show came on the air, and then when the show came on, it was like a locked-in, in-town thing. Howard Johnson got me on the gig, and I met the great Paul Shaffer and all these people before anybody knew who they were. Paul’s a silly cat, but you know what, he’s a bad piano player, man. He can cop any lick. He can remember any old song—rock ‘n’ roll, funk, or jazz—and play it verbatim. He’s like one of those Name That Tune kind of whiz kids. So he really has that gift to capture a thing and really play it. He really did well. In fact, Paul Shaffer was the one who really kept it going, musically. It was a great opportunity and an honor to play with that show, even though it is, as some folks say, just a TV show. But it was following in the tradition of my father. My father sang in that same studio during the ’30s and ’40s. That studio was made for radio, when they did the Kraft Music Hall. I brought my father to see the show one time, and he said to me, “Yeah, we used to work in this studio.”

RT: How much time do you put into Saturday Night Live?

BW: You’re there all day Saturday, 11:00 in the morning to 1:00 A.M. Maybe you have to prerecord something during the week for one of the actors so they can get it together. If you have to play for an artist, like when we had to play with Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, or Robert Plant & The Honeydrippers, you may have to rehearse with the person. Then, you’ve got a camera block-in another day. And then on Saturday, you come back and do your whole thing all day. Friday night, you may have to do something. You’re like a fireman. There may not be a fire that day, or maybe you have a couple of fires to go to that day. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re on call. I remember that Marcus Miller and I were doing a session for a guitar player, and we got a phone call at the studio. They said, “Listen, you guys have to come up here right now.” Aretha Franklin’s band didn’t come. It was a mix-up where they thought Aretha was going to bring her rhythm section and just use the Saturday Night Live horns. It turned out that Aretha did not bring her rhythm section, so we had to drop what we were doing with this guy who was paying a lot of money for studio time right in the middle of his record date. But we had to do it. It’s a “You knew this job was dangerous” kind of thing. We had to do the rehearsal with Aretha and the soundcheck, and then go back to the guy’s date. Who’s going to say no to Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul? I know I’m not. You never know what’s going to happen with the show. We’re off for the summer, but when we’re on, we never know when we might have to be there. It’s funny though, because it gives you the chance to play with a whole lot of different people. It could be anybody, and it’s always funny. I remember that John Belushi loved to play the drums. I had played one of the Blues Brothers things, but I left the show right before the Blues Brothers jumped off. My only regret was that I missed the Blues Brothers, but Steve Jordan did a great job. He’s another Music and Arts kid. He was two years behind us. I remember Eddie Murphy used to be my drum student at the show. He loves the drums.

RT: David Sanborn seems to love ballads. Do you find it hard to play slow?

BW: Slow is hard, because you’ve got to stay out of the way. It’s really like you’re trying to keep the dynamics and everything going with the music without messing it up. A lot of people call me for ballads. I have this feeling—maybe it’s my own paranoia—but the jazz people think I’m a funkster. The funk players think I play too much jazz. The people who really love ballads think I only play upbeat and funk. And the people who want driving rock ‘n’ roll think I only play ballads and R&B. It’s because I play so much different stuff. But Luther Vandross, my dear friend, is a master of ballads. Have you heard “The House Is Not A Home”? We did that performance live. The strings were over-dubbed, but the performance was right there with him developing it. He gave us all a hug and hung out. Anthony Jackson played his subway notes—you know, the ones that are way down there. I tease Anthony about it. I tell him, “Anthony, the subway just called, and they say you just derailed another train.” The ballads are a real sensitive, got-to-feel-it-out kind of thing. Yes, it is hard to lay back on ballads, but again you’ve got to get inside of it and not just be the drummer. You have to be a piece of that machine that makes it all come together. I don’t mind.