The Drums of Muscle Shoals
by Robyn Flans
Amidst a small, conservative town in Alabama called Sheffield, where alcohol is prohibited, bootleggers prosper and the sidewalks are rolled up at 8:00 p.m., exists one of the country’s major recording centers. The environment would seem an odd place for the establishment of an artistic empire, but this music mecca was indeed created by four men known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. (Muscle Shoals is the neighboring city in which the group first united at Fame Studios.)
Collectively, this rhythm section is known to be one of the tightest units in music, while individually, Jimmy Johnson (guitar); David Hood (bass); Barry Beckett (keyboards); and Roger Hawkins (drums), are hailed to be four of the finest players in the country. As is the case with many studio musicians, however, their accomplishments are rarely recognized, although their list of credits are staggering, and in the case of the MS Rhythm Section, it is particularly amazing that their story has gone too often untold, since in addition to their playing, they have successfully managed to build this creative environment in their own backyard, offering artists an alternative to the Los Angeles. New York or Nashville atmospheres. As a visitor, it quickly became obvious that this would be much more than the simple story of a drummer’s evolution—he had been such an integral part of an empire.A fine blend of his peaceful physical surroundings (in which he has lived since age two) and member of that special race called musician, Roger Hawkins carries one fourth of the large responsibilities, but has also managed to reap one quarter of its many benefits.Hawkins’ first musical experience began at age nine on the piano. His father played guitar and sang country and gospel music and when he and his friends would gather at the Hawkins’ household to jam, Roger felt the desire to participate. Piano seemed the logical solution, until his distaste for the instrument was prompted by an over-zealous piano teacher who would come down on the top of his fingers with her nails whenever he hit a wrong key. “That made it not fun,” Hawkins understates. “At one of the lessons, though, she brought a toy set of drums with paper heads, like you would see at a five and dime store, to illustrate time. I was more interested in those than the piano, so I took two more lessons and quit after having been with it for around three years.”
At about the same time, Hawkins played his first real set of drums during the summer vacation he spent in Indiana with his aunt and uncle who were very involved in the Pentecost Church. With music being very prevalent in that denomination, Hawkins looked forward to going to church two and three times a week, keeping his eye on the set of drums which sat in back of a grand piano, an organ and various other musical instruments. After finally being allowed to sit in on the church drums, Hawkins recalls that he took his aunt’s knitting needles at home and began to play everything in sight. “I’m sure I drove her crazy,” he laughs. “I played everything that could possibly be played in her house.”
Although his first musical influences stemmed from the country music his dad mostly appreciated, when Hawkins’ interest in the drums began, he began listening to jazz. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was a hit at the time, and Hawkins became excited by Joe Morello in addition to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.
In his “late 12’s,” Hawkins got his first set of drums which was a blue and silver lacquer set of Slingerlands consisting of a small bass drum, a snare and a 12″ cymbal with four rivets, mounted onto the bass drum. Eventually he added an 8″ x 10″ mounted tom, but it altered the balance and would fall over from time to time. A teacher in the neighboring town of Florence taught him to do a double stroke roll and a few other basics, but Hawkins grew impatient with the slow learning process and quit to teach himself. “I wanted to play in a rock and roll band right there on the spot,” he recalls, laughing.
With only a couple of bands in the area, Hawkins’ choices were limited, but at a local talent show where he was participating with a piano player friend, he viewed a performing trio and afterwards approached them to see if they would be interested in adding a drummer. So at age 13, Hawkins joined Spooner Oldham (an association which was to last many years) in a band called The Spooners. Recalling the first time he played with them, Hawkins laughs, “It was so much fun, I just couldn’t believe it. I don’t know if I was good or bad, it was just fun. I must have been bad, actually, because I did rolls every two bars and that had to get on people’s nerves, but at the time, I didn’t know and it was fun and I loved it.”
He admits that he would have liked to play in a big band, and although there was a band that closely met those requirements called the Upsetters, he was unable to play with them since they were reading charts and he had merely taught himself by listening to records. “It’s really strange, because as I look back now, I can listen to those same records today and remember how I played them and I wasn’t playing what they were playing, even though I really and truly thought I was doing it exactly like they were doing it. I would have liked to play with a big band, though, and have that feeling of swinging the band. In my enthusiasm for the drums, however, I had neglected that one little thing I shouldn’t have run off and left, which was how to read music,” he says. “I always thought somehow I’d get into reading music and know how, and that was one of those things you could put off and put off and put off. I think as a drummer goes through his musical career, though, he has to be very careful not to absorb too much of one thing. If you start a drummer out on nothing but the music, he can play what is written dead letter perfect, which is a major, major accomplishment, but there may not be any feeling behind it. What’s very rare, which I really appreciate, is a drummer who has gone through the technique and learning how to read and still retains the feel and knows how to incorporate that feel into the music. Steve Gadd does it perfectly because he has all his technical abilities and he has feel too, which makes him one of the best.”
Many drummers with touring and recording bands have not found reading essential throughout their careers, but interestingly enough, Hawkins has gone on to become one of the most successful session drummers without that technical knowledge. Session playing was a conscious choice after several years of club playing. From his first club experience with the Spooners, at age 15, he and Jimmy Johnson began playing together in a band called the Delreys for about a year and a half, after which Hawkins decided to leave town to seek some recognition with a trio since it seemed rather unlikely that a musician could attain fame and fortune in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After a year and a half of that, however, Hawkins recalls sitting in his rented room in Macon, Georgia one night, where he made his decision. “I was seeing at this time that all we were was really a club band doing top 40 stuff, and after a while, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the smell of the club when I walked into it, I didn’t like the club atmosphere, because by this time, I had seen enough of it to know I wouldn’t want to do that the rest of my life. I realized that what I really wanted to do was get into the recording end of it, so that’s what I did.”
Muscle Shoals’ Fame Studio, with Rick Hall at the helm, had had one hit, and Hawkins decided to return home, taking a day job at a body shop sanding car fenders. “I just hung around the studio, went and got everyone cheeseburgers if that’s what it called for, played on demos for free, and if Jerry Carrigan couldn’t make it for a demo session, no matter what time of day or night, I was on my way.”
A session at Quinn-Ivey Studios seemed to be incidental, but it became one of those major breaks for Hawkins who was called in to play drums. With a kerosene heater to keep them warm in this studio with mono equipment, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” was born. Today, Hawkins laughs at the absurdity of a player being regarded as great after merely working on one hit song, but knows how essential that kind of break is in one’s career, having experienced it first-hand.
At the same time as Quinn-Ivey leased the record to Atlantic Records (which became Atlantic’s first #1 R&B hit), Jerry Wexler, one of the record company’s owners, began contemplating changing recording locations. Previously he had been taking his acts to Memphis, but after some friction began to develop, Wexler brought Wilson Pickett to Fame Studios to cut “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally.” “Jerry Wexler said to me, ‘You’re really a good drummer,’ and I could not believe what this man had said,” Hawkins recalls. “Coming from him, an outside person, it just astounded me!”
Hawkins was still playing the clubs at the Tennessee state line, and remembers he would rise in the morning, set up his drums at Fame, play a demo, pack the drums, go to Quinn-Ivey Studio or Fred Bevis’ country studio, set up, play the session, take the drums down, grab a quick dinner, drive to Tennessee, set up, play for four hours, take the drums down and load his car, go home and go to sleep. He was happy, however, to just be earning a living making music.
With Wexler’s continuous patronage, Fame Studios began to produce an abundance of work for those musicians who already included Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Hawkins. Spooner Oldham was supplying the majority of keyboard playing until he began working more and more in Memphis and a keyboardist by the name of Barry Beckett happened to come along with a producer from Pensacola, Florida to record James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.” After spending 24 hours on that session alone, Beckett was the obvious choice to become the new keyboard player for what had become an inhouse band.
Another fateful circumstance altered their lives when Fred Bevis suggested that they buy his studio. He had operated it for two years and realized it just wasn’t a money making situation since Nashville was so close. “Jimmy and I had built two or three thousand studios just sitting in our cars, but all of a sudden the opportunity arose and it felt much too early. We expected it would be years down the line,” Hawkins recalls. “I said, ‘We can’t afford a studio,’ to which Bevis said, ‘Yes you can.'”
It was shortly thereafter that Fame Studios decided to make a label deal with Capitol Records and asked the Rhythm Section to sign as exclusive band with Fame. The players realized that the offer was not comparable to the financial capabilities of proceeding as they had been, independently, and Hawkins began to reconsider Bevis’ idea. “I was sitting around the house one night thinking, ‘Okay, why don’t we get that studio?’ So I called Jimmy on the phone and said, ‘Jimmy, let’s buy Fred Bevis’ studio.’ He said, ‘What?’ And after speaking about it for the next 8 hours on the phone, we decided to do it.”
Taking their life’s savings, along with Bevis’ signing on the note with them, Hawkins (24) and Johnson bought the studio, asking Beckett and Hood to join them with a financial guarantee. When after three years, the success of the studio was so phenomenal, Beckett and Hood were asked to come in as full partners so as to reap equal benefits. “At one time when we had been given an office at Fame, the four of us couldn’t even make decisions on what pictures to hang on the walls, which is why I think Jimmy and I decided to buy the studio separately,” he says, explaining that the decision making process has been a learned process for the foursome, during which they have never had totally opposed viewpoints. “We’ve come a long way since hanging those pictures,” he laughs.
With the addition of eight tracks and Wexler’s loyalty to them, Muscle Shoals Sound flourished with the likes of Boz Scaggs, the Staple Singers, Leon Russell, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, and even the Rolling Stones recorded there, although none of the Rhythm Section played on that album. It was not uncommon to play 20 or 30 hours straight every day, and finally, Hawkins was no longer entertaining thoughts of having to leave his home area in order to play music. The foursome had managed to bring the business to their own backyard.
After nine years in the small studio on Jackson Highway, the Rhythm Section moved to large quarters, a former Naval Reserve building, in May, 1978. The complex currently houses two studios, the publishing company (in operation since the purchase of the first studio, but not in full effect until recently), and their own record label. “Naturally, the first thing you think is you want a record company to have a hit, but that’s not exactly the way you go about it. You have to go through growing pains, unless you’re just absolutely out of nowhere lucky, which a lot of times is not good for you. It wasn’t good for me in 1972 to be co-producer with Barry of a million selling record (“Starting All Over Again,” by Mel and Tim). We knew that we didn’t know everything there was to know, but we didn’t know what we should know. After the hit record, we produced a few things that didn’t pan out and they were a very painful two albums for artists I won’t mention. All of a sudden we were producers and in situations with nobody agreeing and nobody was giving us our reign. At that time, we didn’t really know how to take command of the situation. What we should have done was call the record company and say we couldn’t get along with these people and either they do it our way or get someone else to produce it. We were insecure enough to put up with their stuff, which really made the product suffer.”
Production was a natural evolution, however, after working with the abundance of producers, and currently all the members are involved in that aspect. (Beckett has been producing so much that they have added Randy McCormick to play most of the keyboard sessions.) “The desire to produce was there when we first got our studio and if there was time, we could go in and fool around as much as we wanted. I, pretty much, had a creative picture in my mind since I liked studios, I liked microphones, I liked consoles, I liked tape machines and I loved records. I prefer not producing something I’m playing on, though,” Hawkins reveals. “If you’re producing a project, you have your material picked and your artist. You have a million things going on in your mind, and when I’m producing, I’m not a great player with a million things on my mind. I know when I’m playing well and when I’m not, and I can play well as producer, but it takes more time. When you’re producing, you’re sitting in the control room and you’re listening to a set of speakers and you immediately know what’s wrong, what to change, what not to change, what to elaborate on. In the drum booth, you’re there to play your part and get into the music, which can be done, but you have to stop things for a while, or at least I do, although I’m sure there are those who can easily separate themselves.”
Hawkins is producing more and more these days, and in fact, is co-producing the Rhythm Section’s first album along with Beckett, to be released in the Spring on their own label, distributed through Capitol Records. “Barry and I are both discovering that this project is going to be a hard project, but we have a beat on it and we can bring it off. A producer generally walks in with his artist with songs already picked, so now we’re faced with some obstacles. None of us sing, or at least we wouldn’t want anyone to hear it, and we don’t really write songs, so now it’s our job to produce this record on this famous band. So we’re getting together and we’re jamming for a while, and maybe nothing comes and maybe after a two hour jam there will be one lick that could be made into some sort of a pattern. We’re going for a record that, if there’s a party going on, then it’s great background noise, but if you’re in the mood to settle down and listen to some good playing and some expression, it is that too. It’s basically soft rock, and while I don’t want to say with a little bit of R and B inflections, I don’t see how it can’t have that. We really want some honest expression and have it come from our hearts, but still stay in the commercial vein.”
Producing however, has also presented some new challenges to Hawkins. “I want to be able to work with other drummers and in some way, maybe I can help them. I like working with other musicians on a different level than just playing. It’s very satisfying. It satisfies me to produce a record because it’s still a record—I love records. I enjoy playing drums very much, but the next step for me is production because I know the younger guys will be coming along and they’ll be good at things that I won’t be able to do, and I might find that they have a sound I’d like to incorporate into a record. You take a guy who is 14 or 16 and starting out on a kit like they make today, and one of those guys who is turned onto it and has decided that’s what he wants come hell or high water, has got to produce something that I’m not familiar with. I started with two drums and look what I did with that, so that only tells me that I’d better watch out,” he smiles.
To him, a good studio drummer is one who “makes every effort possible to give the producer what he wants, as far as sound and style, which may be lots of different styles, and who has the ability to play those styles well and has an open mind and is willing to try anything, no matter how much it goes against his grain. He can’t be afraid to experiment or bomb out, so to speak, and you have to really like all the different styles for what they are, which I did. From liking them and being a player, you want to be able to sit in with a country band and play that well, you want to be able to sit in with a R and B band and play the funk, you want to be able to be a good rock and roll player and a good jazz player. The jazz, as much as I liked it, I never did get entirely. I can hit around it and have fun doing it, but I never mastered that. A good studio drummer has to have good ears, to listen not only to what is going on around him musically, but conversation about the music that somebody is having in the studio. It’s very important to know the lyrics so you can phrase them properly also. If a singer has a certain style of phrasing, I want to get into that style so I can compliment it and put the drum right in the pocket, so to speak. I try to think of what would that artist’s drummer be like? What is it like to be Art Garfunkel’s drummer? Art Garfunkel really doesn’t like drums. He is a very sensitive and intelligent fellow and is very conscious of what is going on around him. Doing the Watermark album with Artie, I did a lot of the run-downs with pencils so as not to play the drums too loud because we were kind of set up in the studio as a group. Playing in the drum booth all the time, you kind of get used to playing with a good intensity, so here’s Art Garfunkel singing in his technically beautiful voice, and he tries for perfection every time, even if he’s just running the song down to let the musicians know what the song is going to sound like. I sat down to play and I hit the drums, which were completely out of character with his songs, so I got two yellow lead pencils and started playing different parts with the pencils, just barely audible to the rest of the band. I think that’s one of the things you have to be aware of as a good session player. I don’t think you should ever walk in wondering how many songs are we going to do? What time will we be finished? I don’t think that should ever enter into a session player’s head because he’s there to give, and for giving, he is well compensated in many ways.”
Hawkins, however, admits that it has not been easy to retain that attitude and keep the music fresh and unmechanical since MSS has become a rather large business, but he has come full circle in terms of that obstacle. “It all goes back to that feeling you get when you first play and when the band is cooking and I think that the playing is actually coming from the subconscious at that point. You sit back and listen to the instruments and it’s almost as if your instrument is playing itself. When you arrive at that point for the first time, you might not recognize it at 12 or 13 years old, but you know that it feels awfully good and that you feel good from it. That feeling is the reason I started. But years go by and you become a better player. You strive for that feeling, but playing clubs six nights a week, there are nights you don’t feel like playing. It starts to become work and maybe there are 2 or 3 nights a week that you get that feeling again. You go into recording, and at first, I was very intimidated and knew that I didn’t know what to do. That is a concern for any musician going into the studio the first few times. So right away, that’s a business, because you want to be able to learn things and try to update yourself and try to learn why the drummer played what he did on the record. After all the club work, a musician figures he can execute pretty much what he wants to. So I got in the studio and I was a good technical player and fast and everything, but I just wasn’t playing the right things for records. So I got into the thinking about records and I would buy and listen to them, and at first, the attitude was, ‘Hey, I’m better than the guy who’s playing on this record. Why is he playing this session and here I am without much happening?’ Well, I had to go through the whole process and really understand why. You play for the records and not for yourself, and through those records I was listening to, I started loving the records, just as records and not just as a drummer or thinking, There’s a good guitar lick there,’ etc., but the entire record. So you start getting good at it, or you start getting lucky, whichever you want to say, and you become in demand. And then you become the ‘hip studio cat,’ ” he says in a mocking tone. “And in being the ‘hip studio cat,’ the object of the game is to go into the studio, get it as quickly as you can and leave to another studio, or in my case, go into another session, because after all, you are a professional and it’s expected of you to get it over with quick. You read articles often where a studio musician is put down as a feelingless technician, and I can see why. I think what makes musicians that way is they do too much of it and try to take on too much because they are in demand and the money is there to be made and dreams are coming true. They play so much that it starts to become mechanical. Most of the time I was in my ‘hip studio cat’ frame of mind, I didn’t experience that feeling anymore, and it was a feeling I had almost forgotten about. All of a sudden, you’re not going there for the fun of it, you’re not going there to have a good time with other players, you’re going there to get the thing cut quick because that’s what they want. For this you receive pay that you like, so you start doing so much of that that it can’t help but become mechanical. I went through that phase of it, and then in 1972, we had been recording with Chris Blackwell of Island Records doing Jimmy Cliff’s ‘The Harder They Fall.’ Chris asked David and me if we’d be interested in going out on the road with Traffic since they were also on the label and had just lost two of their players. So we went, and it was the first time I had played on stage in 5 years. I really wasn’t looking forward to it because I had been part of a band that had been in kind of a business attitude and wanted to make good products in a reasonable amount of time, and frankly, I had gotten a little stale from doing too much of that and not playing live. I hated it at first. I was intimidated. I was used to getting things right, or what my conception of right was at the time, and it was very uncomfortable to go out and play in the band and,” he says with a somewhat sarcastic smile, “They weren’t taking it as seriously. David and I were trying to get it dead center and the other guys were kind of screwing up right and left and it didn’t seem to make any difference to them and it was frustrating to me. Nothing really happened the first few shows, but by the 7th or 8th, David and I knew the material pretty well and we started stepping out and elaborating on what we had been playing. It had been so long since I had done that, that by the time the tour was over and I got back to the studio, I had a whole total new outlook, which wasn’t really new—it was the same outlook pretty much as at the very beginning. At that point, I realized it had to be incorporated back into the recording situation because tape does not lie. If guys are just sitting there playing their parts, you can tell. A lot of times it’s passable and nobody ever knows the difference, except the real astute listeners who are wondering what kind of frame of mind the musicians were in when they made the record. It’s frame of mind and attitude. It was really hard to do and I don’t do it all the time, but since then, I try to arrive at the session looking forward to playing the drums, to sitting down with other musicians and forgetting about the fact that so and so record company and so and so producer is there. Playing for a long time, 21 years, you go through those phases with different outlooks on the instrument. Somehow I have arrived at this point where I am just as enthused about drums as when I was 13. I really appreciate that since I wasn’t very happy being the ‘hip studio cat.'”
Equipment is something that can also add new dimensions, and while Hawkins admits that he tends to be set in his ways, he tries to keep an open mind in knowing something new can add inspiration. He replaced his primitive Slingerland set at age 15 with a Ludwig Hollywood set with a 20″ bass drum, a 8″ x 12″ mounted tom, a 13″ tom, a 16″ x 16″ floor tom and a 5 1/2″ x 14″ chrome snare, and his early hits were made with an identical set he purchased four years later.
Three years ago, however, he switched to Pearl Drums. “They’re really built well, and at the time, the Ludwig shells were really getting thin. I had heard that Pearl was really serious about getting the drums right and they had concern for the drummers as well. I’m sure Ludwig has concern also, but I just never did seem to link up with Ludwig. Jerry Carrigan was playing Pearl drums in Nashville and I had spoken with him on a few occasions about them and finally inquired into them. I started endorsing them and I’m really happy with them because I like the company and the company listens to what the drummer has to say. I’m sure all of them do, but it’s the first real connection I’ve had with that.”
He has a red set and a blue set which are identical except the red set is all fiberglass and the blue set is fiberglass and wood, and he uses them as visual playing stimuli. “This is not a rule, but just a thing I wanted to try and it really worked. If you’re sitting down to a red set of drums, it seems like it would get you going fast in tempo. I like red and it makes me feel good, so that kind of stimulates me. For hot music, there’s nothing better than a red set of drums. If the session is kind of laid back, then I’ll use the blue set. I try to keep the two sets ready to play because unless they’re attended to every single day, they won’t be ready. You can have them set up and leave them and leave the session, knowing that the drums sounded great and perfect, and then you can go play another set of drums and a week later come back to that perfect sounding set and they sound nothing like that anymore. To accomplish a good sound and to be consistent with a sound, I think you have to be consistent with the tuning. There is no ‘set and forget’ with the drums.”
The sets consist of a 20″ bass drum with a set of 6″, 8″, 10″, and 12″ concert toms, a 8″ x 12″ and a 9″ x 13″ mounted tom and a 16″ x 16″ floor drum. He uses Remo’s Fiberskyn 2 heads and while he prefers double heads, he varies on usage for different reasons. “I’ll go six months or so with a double headed set of drums and then I’ll want to try something different and I’ll take the head off. I’ve done this two or three times during my recording career, because each time I took the bottom head off, it was for a different reason. The first time it was for sound and striving to get a different sound. The second time was just laziness, because you have less overtones to contend with. The third time I went back to single heads was just to change again. The fourth time was for impact, which I found will give you a nice hard sound in the studio. It permitted the engineer to bring up the tom toms fairly loud, or as loud as you wanted them in the mix with no overtones. You have to be careful of the overtones when you’re using both top and bottom heads, but when you get them right, there is nothing that sounds better.
“There’s nothing better than an unmuffled set of drums, too, with a little bit of muffling on the bass drum, but nothing else, so the snare drum is allowed to speak naturally. That was the sound Buddy Rich had, and still has. Joe Morello’s drums were that way pretty much, and I’ve always liked that sound. In the studio, though, you can’t have just one sound all the time and you can’t always go along with the preference of loving the ring, so you get into all this taping and padding, and padding and taping. The questions of how much tape and how much padding, what kind of tape and what kind of padding and on what kind of song you do it, are still the questions that have no answers. It’s just really variable and you try to get your drum to sound like what’s happening around you. Drummers have read in these interviews a thousand times, there’s no set rule. I wish I had the answers to the questions for those who want to know, but I think it’s really a matter of experiencing it yourself and being in that situation to know how to do it. It’s just hit and miss, trial and error. I’ll have what I think is a good drum sound and then I’ll go into the control room and discover that one of the toms might have too much muffling on it. To me, in the drum booth, it sounds like they’re all even, but on tape, it’s a different story and that’s what I have to tune my drums for, of course.”
He maintains a standard cymbal set up with a 21″ ride cymbal, 13″ hi-hats and 2, 8″ cymbals with different tones for “little splashes here and there,” all Zildjian except for an 18″ Paiste he presently uses.
Currently he is using Regal tip 7A’s with the nylon tip, although he has used the 2B’s and the Bunken 2B’s. “I’ve always tried to be a forceful player, not forcing the drums, but I like it when you can turn a record down on a little small speaker and you can really hear the drums snapping, really on the job. If you loosen your drums up, you can get good, fat sounds, but sometimes if you play too soft in the studio, it sounds like you have enough impact, but later on, the record comes out. You can very easily be fooled about the level of impact that you play in the studio because in the studio, with the big monitors, drums can sound really great and very forceful, but if you happen to be out laying on the beach with a $2 portable radio and you hear the record that you played on, the drums may sound mushy back behind everything else. So I try to achieve a tuning that will have just the right cut through and the right intensity that will cut through, no matter what, and won’t sound abrasive even if you have it up on big speakers. That requires playing a little harder than normal. Sometimes a little harder than you feel comfortable doing. I had gotten off into a bad habit. I had achieved my right intensity, but instead of stopping there and being comfortable with that, I got into the attitude that even harder was going to be better, which didn’t work. That’s why I used the 2B sticks, to try to achieve a higher intensity, which it didn’t really achieve. So now I’m back to my 7A’s, which I can play with better technique because I’m not playing so hard and I don’t have such a big stick to control. Although, if you do use fairly light sticks, like the 7A, I think it’s good every now and then to go buy a set of Ludwig 2B sticks like they first give you in the marching band in high school. It’s kind of like when you’re in the first grade and they give you those big pencils, they give you these big sticks which you think you’ll never be able to use. Having gone from the big sticks to lighter sticks, and going back to my softer intensity, I find the intensity is still there, but using the big sticks has made my hands and wrists stronger, so I can move around quicker now. I think it’s a good exercise, actually.”
Two months ago Hawkins began using Pearl’s Vari-Pitch set because of the multitude of sounds it can get. “This is strictly studio speaking, because I haven’t played the drums live anywhere and I don’t really know how those drums project, because for one thing, they’re not big drums. The biggest one of the toms is 14″ and I don’t know how that would be on stage, but in the studio they’re great. Usually in the studio, the floor drum is the hardest to get a good sound. On all your smaller toms you have nice, round full tones, and you get down to the floor drum and it’s either dead sounding or it just doesn’t sound in tune. At least that has been my experience with floor drums. The only thing I know is to just keep fooling with the drums, adjusting the drums until you start hearing the sound you’re looking for, but with the Vari-Pitch, there is no floor tom, so it’s much easier. Actually, my first contact with the Vari-Pitch was negative because Pearl sent me a snare drum model, which I didn’t like. It seemed a little too noisy and it didn’t sound better than my regular snare, so I sent it back. When I noticed that they were making toms that looked just like the snare they had sent me, I was biased about them because of my experience with the snare. I didn’t try them until James Stroud used them on Lenny Le- Blanc’s album on our label. It was Friday when I heard them and I had myself a set on Tuesday after calling Pearl and driving to Nashville. I love them because they sound like they’re kin to one another. It’s not a sound I’m going to stick with forever, but it’s a sound I’m going to use for now.”
His equipment often changes due to a particular artist’s needs, for rarely does an artist dictate the musical parts, but rather allows the musicians in the Rhythm Section to create their own. Hawkins, himself, does little research, however, before a session. He may listen to that artist’s latest album, just to see what kind of style he is leaning towards, but as Hawkins says, he has often found that the artists change so much from record to record, the research is often worthless.
Warm-up, however, is crucial in Hawkins’ opinion, and about 30 minutes before the session, he gets his sticks out and starts some kind of repetition to start moving around and to let his body know what is about to happen. “You can hurt yourself if you don’t do that, and I did once by not warming up. I hadn’t played in a couple of weeks and hadn’t tended to my wrists and feet. I sat down to play and at the end of that day, my arm was hurting. I tried it again the next day, and by the end of that day, it was hurting and had swelled up. By the third day, I couldn’t play at all. From not being in shape and not warming up, I had developed tendonitis in my arm and was out of commission for six weeks and had to have my wrist immobile for six weeks. It was really hard to get back what I had and it took about a year, I would say.”
Naturally, he is proud of all the hits on which he has played, although there have been some hits where he wasn’t particularly proud of his performance, but only proud that it was a hit. “I’ve only considered myself a good drummer at times. To me, I’m a good drummer when I can sit and listen to myself play and really love it. When it’s really good, I love it. When it’s not as good as it can be, I don’t like to hear it. I don’t like to hear myself play unless it’s perfect, and I don’t play perfect all the time. What I mean by perfect is if it comes off exactly the way I wanted it to, then to me, it’s perfect. There may be a little bit of tunnel vision there,” he concedes with a laugh, “But that’s the way I am.” He is particularly proud of the Aretha Franklin records (done in New York) and the Staple Singers record. “I’ll Take You There.” He is also extremely proud of the part he played on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like A Rock,” “It was just a lick the bass drum played two times on the whole record which made me feel as good as if I had played a 30 minute solo,” he says.
He also carries a great deal of pride for his one and only L.A. session, Eddie Rabbit’s recent hit “Suspicions.” “Everybody was tired and had gone to eat and the only people in the studio at this time were Even Stevens. Eddie Rabbit. Randy McCormick, myself and the engineer, and the drums were sitting out on the floor and there were no headphones on or anything. I heard them working on this song and listened to what they were doing. I learned the song and even down to play. I was getting Randy’s piano literally off the walls, because there were no headphones on. I played the drum part to that song and they ended up overdubbing everything else around it and keeping what I did. That was a really great feeling.
“I’ve been very lucky and there have been a lot of personal highlights,” he says. “This article will be a personal highlight. I can remember when I could just barely get my hands on a drum catalogue just to look at the drums, let alone ever having my picture in a drum magazine, so this is definitely a highlight. There have been a lot of playing highlights, but I think there will be more to come. When I played with Art Garfunkel and the Rhythm Section in Buffalo, New York, with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra of 100 pieces about four years back, that was a musical highlight. Meeting Spooner Oldham was a highlight. The first studio coming into being was a highlight. All the hit records are highlights. I don’t really toss off any of these things that happen because I know that they’re just not things that happen every day, so if a record comes out and I played on it and it’s a hit, that’s a highlight. That’s like more dreams coming true and reinforcing it.
“The whole thing of being able to create this in our own backyard has been incredibly lucky. One of the major advantages of being here, to me, is that there are no distractions. All musicians like a party, so to speak, and I’m sure if I were a session player in New York City, that after a session I would be prone to hang out and maybe I would hang out a little too long, I don’t know. I think now I have command over myself enough not to, but in the whole evolution of it all, it would have been very easy to get distracted. There are no distractions in this place. You can go in and do your music for as long as you want to. There aren’t any wild people to hang out with, which I never really desired, but I could see that if it hadn’t worked out this way, being out on the streets, it might have happened. I think it’s a shame that many young musicians get caught up in that. They think that that’s the thing to do, but the thing for them to do is what they want to do musically and be careful of the excess recreation.
“To become an in-demand session player, you have to dedicate yourself and get into things other than just a set of drums. You have to get into circumstances and you have to get in there and see how you can contribute to the people you’re working with or for. A lot of times that’s hard to do because first you say, ‘How do I do it’?’ And there’s this guy in this recording studio saying, ‘Experience! You have to have experience before we’ll use you.’ And you say, ‘How can I get experience when I have to have experience before anyone will use me?’ The answer for me was to hang around a studio so I could get experience. There are thousands and thousands of small studios and large studios that would welcome the right people if their attitudes were right, even if it means playing on demos for free. To me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, because when I was doing it, I was looking at it as if I were getting a free education, on top of enjoying it. My advice is don’t give up under any circumstances, no matter what. A lot of it is timing and being at the right place at the right time. You don’t get breaks like that often and if you do get a break, you must be prepared to do it. If you have a break and you don’t come off, you might not see another break for 20 years, you never know. But most important,” Hawkins advised, before concluding, “Don’t give up. I repeat, don’t give up!”