It is a bit ironic that Steve Ferrone is still recognized most as being the Average White Band’s drummer (and only non-white), after the banner year he had for himself in 1984, He crashed the R&B charts in a big way with Jeffrey Osborne’s second album, Stay With Me Tonight, and then hit it big again late in the year with Osborne’s Don’t Stop. He got onto the dance charts with Scritti Politti’s Wood Beez 12-inch, and onto the rock charts on Christine McVie’s solo LP. Then the Ferrone beat helped make Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You a crossover smash. The drummer has put together a track record since AWB’s “retirement” that speaks loudly of the respect he has in the industry. People have indeed been listening.
The Brighton, England-born Ferrone first came to the United States with Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express in 1973. He recorded Straight Ahead with Auger, and then Live Oblivion, which was taken from a Los Angeles Whiskey A Go Go performance. Ferrone took over the Average White Band’s drum chair in 1974 for their Cut The Cake album, following the untimely death of drummer Robbie Mclntosh. Ferrone had earlier followed Mclntosh in the French group Piranhas and in Auger’s band.
The rhythm section remained one of AWB’s strong points, with Ferrone easily settling into the funky mood Mclntosh had created. His off-beat hi-hat work became something of the industry standard in the mid-’70s. Ferrone recorded ten albums with his Average White Band-mates Hamish Stuart (vocals, guitar), Alan Gorrie (bass, vocals), Onnie Mclntyre (rhythm guitar), Roger Ball and Malcolm Duncan (saxes), the earliest of which were classic and effortless blends of gritty R&B, pop, and instrumental facility, which made R&B fashionable again for white rockers. But as the AWB began to lose control over and interest in their own records, Ferrone began branching out to record with the likes of George Benson, George Duke, the Brothers Johnson and Rick James.
Now 34, Ferrone has made his home in New York for the last ten years. Lately, he has been enjoying the drumming of Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman, and says two of his favorite groups are Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo. “There are a lot of musicians who have just fallen by the wayside,” he says. “They just aren’t around anymore. Through death, drugs or unemployment they just got back to doing a regular job, or have gone into A&R or something. I’m very fortunate to still be here and still be playing.”
As long as the drummer continues to put out solid and sizzling tracks, he will not be unemployed. What is his secret for hanging onto that groove? “I listen to my heartbeat instead of my brain.”
SF: I started playing when I was 12. I used to tap dance before that, but when I saw a drummer I said, “Well, I can do that.” So I started doing it. I played with local bands until I was about 15. This was in Brighton, England. Then, we started going over to France and playing on American Air Force bases on holidays and at times like that.
RT: Was the money good?
SF: Not really. The money was awful, and we stayed in these horrible hotels. But it was a lot of fun. Then I went back to Brighton and wanted to get another drumkit, so I took a job and saved my money.
RT: What did you get?
SF: I got a “Loodwig,” or Ludwig as you call them, [laughs] I started playing with a band called the Scatellites. We were doing gigs all over the place. Then I met this band that was going over to Rome, and decided I would go with them. We played there in a club for two weeks. An American named Ronnie Jones was living there. He asked me to stay and play with his band. I agreed. I didn’t fancy the train trip back, so I stayed for three years.
RT: Santana vocalist Alex Ligertwood said he played with you in a band called Piranhas around Europe.
SF: Yeah, that’s right. Alex and Robbie Mclntosh were in a band called Scarlet. Robbie, Alex and I used to stay in the same hotel. Then Robbie went back to England to join Brian Auger. The Piranhas picked me up and I started working with them. Then they went to Nice to do a residency, and I was at the point where I wanted to study some drums for a little bit. I didn’t know how to read, and I didn’t really have any technique. I knew how to play but I didn’t know any rolls or rudiments. So they had this residency at a casino in Nice, and there was a conservatory there. I got to work for three years and go to the conservatory as well. They let me into the school on the condition that I teach the young kids how to play modern drums. I said, “I don’t know how to teach.” The guy said, “Well, you know how to play. Just show them how to play modern drums.” These young kids didn’t want to sit around and play classical stuff all the time. They wanted to play like Charlie Watts or somebody.
After three years, I was about ready to leave Nice, and I always wanted to come to the States. One day I got a phone call from Brian Auger in England. He said, “Do you want to come with me to the States?” And I said, “Oh yeah, terrific!” Then he said, “You’ve got three days.” So I had to get rid of my car, get rid of the apartment, get rid of all the stuff I didn’t want to or couldn’t carry with me, quit my job, and get a replacement, all in three days. And I did it. The next thing I knew, I was in the States. Then came Bloodstone, and after that AWB.
RT: What kind of music had you been listening to as you were coming up?
SF: In the first local band, it was Chuck Berry, R&B, 12-bar blues. In another local band, it was an organ trio. They were into Jimmy Smith, so that gave me a look at something else, you know. Next, there was a reggae band, and I learned a lot about reggae. Then, people started telling me about Coltrane and stuff, and I started getting into Tony Williams and Elvin. I just tried to play it my way. So I wouldn’t say I studied any one sort of style. There are people who I love to listen to. I remember the first time I heard Bernard Purdie playing on “What Is Soul?” I’d never heard anybody play like that, but I liked it. I don’t know if I even have any one particular style. I mean, I am called an R&B drummer, but I like to play anything. I think it comes down to whether or not the song is real good and you can play it well. I’ve never been much for fusion. I mean I like Billy Cobham’s playing and Simon Phillips. But that’s out of my style, I think. I will play it, but I like to play it my way because I can’t play it the way they play it. It’s too much like hard work.
RT: Playing with Brian Auger was kind of fusion.
SF: Well, I suppose. There were a couple of different elements in there, so it was a fusion. Yeah, there’s what I call the soft fusion, like the Cannonball Adderley way of fusing music together. He’s got the real bebop and funk thing, and I think Brian was more in that sort of vein. He didn’t have everything written out with the precise placement of notes. It was a very loose band. One of the nicest times I’ve ever had playing was with Brian Auger. He plays his butt off. I used to love the way he comps with chords with his left hand. That’s real fun to play with.
RT: You would try to fit in with some of that?
SF: Yeah, I got used to the way he played and just did it. It was a good band. We did two or three good tours in the space of 18 months.
RT: I saw you with the Average White Band in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1974.
SF: I remember when we did that tour. I think that was our first tour of “the South,” as you call it. Afterwards, we decided we weren’t going to go anywhere that ended in “ville.” [laughs]
RT: You guys got an enthusiastic response.
SF: Oh yeah, it was just some of the situations that AWB used to find themselves in in those days. The band used to go through hell, man. First of all, most people turned up expecting us to be a black band. Then, when they saw the band, it was like, “Well, convince us.” And the band used to do it so well. AWB wasn’t anything that was contrived to sound like anything. We were all about the same age, and we all grew up listening to Marvin Gaye and the Motown Sound, and the Stax Sound. That was what we liked. When we started playing, we decided to emulate that. White people used to hate us because we sounded black, and black people used to hate us because we sounded black—not everyone, but we used to run into that. There were some out things that went on. Basically, though, AWB was a great band. I really enjoyed that band.
RT: You guys were incredibly tight.
SF: Oh yeah, it was a tight band. I think the downfall of AWB came when we switched record companies, and went to Arista. Clive Davis tried to make AWB into a top-ten pop band, which is something that it never was. We used to do covers of songs, like “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.” If we heard a song and really liked it, we’d give it an AWB treatment. All of a sudden, Clive was coming up with these like Barry Manilow rejects. We’d go into the studio and say, “Well, this is what we’ve got to do,” and just do it. We had no interest in it.
RT: Just looking at those Arista album covers, it looks like they tried to Hollywood-ize the band.
SF: Oh yeah, man, and it never was that. It was much more than that. And even now, in the few weeks I’ve been on the road with Jeffrey, I’m constantly asked, “What’s AWB doing?” I just say we made so much money that we retired, [laughs] It’s incredible how popular that band was. It really made a big dent. You either liked it or you didn’t, but it had an impression, which is the main thing. But by the time it got down to all that stuff with Arista, the band had just gotten lost, man. We weren’t thinking like a band anymore. It was this sort of divide-and-conquer way of going about it that Clive Davis had.
RT: You mentioned, “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” on AWB’s live album. You do some great bass drum licks at the end of that tune.
SF: Oh yeah, one foot, [laughs] Just cop the nerve and the right spot on the pedal, and you can keep going until dawn.
RT: Was that a lick you had planned out to do?
SF: No, because at the end it’s wild. You can do anything you want. It was this whole thing where Alan would be singing over the top of it and going crazy, like a vocal and drum thing just like a big chord, and it would fade out. Usually when I’m doing stuff like that, I’m playing all sorts of stuff with the bass drum.
RT: It’s also nice at the end of “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” where you’re just playing the bells of the cymbals real lightly as it fades out.
SF: Well, you see, when I play I try not to do the same thing every time. You get little bits that you’ll do because you like them, and you’ll keep them. It becomes mechanical. Some nights it would go good and some nights it would go bad. Some nights it would be really happening, and some nights it wouldn’t. The whole thing about that live album—we recorded it at three concerts over the space of a year: one in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh, and one in Cleveland. The bulk of the album came out of the concert in Cleveland. So when we got around to doing “Pick Up The Pieces,” everybody had their little solo at the end. I liked the one that I did in Cleveland, but everybody else liked a bit of their solo from Pittsburgh, and a little from Philadelphia. So we chopped up the whole thing and put it together. It was amazing. The whole thing just slotted right in there.
RT: I love the way Hamish introduces you on the live album before your solo. “Give the drummer some, Steve Ferrone!” That’s kind of a classic.
SF: That was the thing with AWB—some classic moments happened. Even in the studio, there were a lot of things that we used to like. The main thing that happened was when we stopped liking what we were doing. But I just figure that through all that, AWB was a real good vehicle for me, because through that band, with Arif Mardin, I started to do a lot of dates and stuff. I think it was during Chaka Khan’s first solo album that Onnie came over to meet me at the studio. We were going to have a drink at this bar that we hang out at in New York called Eamon’s. Richard Tee, Phil Upchurch, Anthony Jackson, and a whole bunch of great musicians were on the date. By then I had gotten real blase about it. So we finished the date, and Onnie and I got in my car to drive to the pub. Onnie turned to me and said, “Do you believe who you just played with?” And it struck me. If somebody had told me that I was going to do that two or three years before, I would have been all butterflies. But I had become sort of blase about it. It’s not that it wasn’t a great thrill. But you just learn so much from playing with people like that. They just make everything so easy. You can sit back and just rock.
RT: Did the training you received in Nice come in handy when you got into the studio?
SF: Oh yeah, man. I’m still not the world’s greatest reader. I still rely a lot on my ear. One of the hardest things for me is to have charts that are real hard. I used to play in this band called French Toast. Anthony Jackson, Lew Soloff, Peter Gordon, and Gordon Gottlieb were in it. The harder it is to read, the more Anthony loves it. Anthony asked me if I could do the gig, and he said, “But it’s very hard.” So he brought around the tapes and the charts. I just stayed in my basement for two days with the tapes. Sometimes I’d start listening to what was going on, and what I was hearing wouldn’t make any sense with what 1 was supposed to be seeing. So I had to learn it, or I had to stop and just read it. I tend to follow my ear a lot. If I’ve got a part and I’m playing it, and somebody else is doing something that’s great, I tend to go off and do whatever it is, whereas with this music, you’re supposed to do what you have written there, and nothing more or less.
For instance, John Serry is an arranger-composer in Los Angeles, who writes everything out for you. With his music, it’s like, “Forget about everything that’s going on around you. Just read the chart.” I find that pretty hard to do. I hate that, because I’ll be sitting there, playing, and looking at my chart. Then, I’ll hear somebody playing something great, and I’ll look at that per- son, [laughs] I’m not a super reader. I get by mainly by my ear, but my eyes aren’t that bad.
RT: You knew Robbie Mclntosh before replacing him in Average White Band. Did you stick close to his parts or just play? What was the feeling from the band?
SF: I just played. Robbie was really good. That was a big loss. I was tied up with Bloodstone then and couldn’t get out of it. They started auditioning drummers. Stix Hooper and I went down to watch the auditions, and there were drummers lined up around the block to play with AWB. It was getting more and more depressing. Finally, the manager came up and put a strangle hold on me. [laughs] I wanted to do it anyway. It was a question of lawyers and stuff. I’d never had to do anything like that before. So we went through that. But it was a great band—terrific.
RT: You mentioned Arif Mardin a minute ago. Who would be on your list of producers you’ve loved?
SF: Arif, of course—he’s a gentleman. AWB made some great albums with him. Russ Titleman—[Christine McVie] and George Duke—a monster. They sort of let you play. They manage to bring the best out of you. Sometimes I’d be sitting there saying, “I don’t know about that. I’m not sure about that.” And they’d say, “It’s great. Take our word for it. It’s great.” After a while, I’d listen to it and really like it. When I came up with that little thing on the bridge of McVie’s “Got A Hold On Me,” I didn’t know if I liked it or not. So we did it and they said, “Oh, that’s great, man.” I said, “Well, maybe we ought to redo it, or take it out.” And they said, “No, we’ll leave it. It’s fine.” I still wasn’t sure, but they said it was going to be the first single. I love it now.
RT: I guess playing with Christine was a little bit different for you.
SF: It was very different for me. With Arif, the way we did the “Feel For You” thing [Chaka Khan] and the Scritti Politti stuff, I’d go into the studio and it would be me. That would be it. They’d have a click track and a drum machine, and I’d have my chart. I’d just sit there and play through it. Arif would say, “Just imagine you’re playing with the band. Here’s your part.” And I wouldn’t even know what the song was. I’d be told, “There’s your part, just go for it.” So then I’d start playing, and I’d be told that I wasn’t hitting the drums hard enough. Then I’d think of Clive Davis and tear into the drums. [laughs] Sometimes we’d do a whole day of drums. We’d get the track done and patch up this, or he’d like it if I played something else a bit further on in another chorus. Then we’d do tom overdubs. It would be a day of nothing but drums coming at you in the can. It’s not like when you’re playing with a guitarist and a keyboard player, or even just a piano. Most things are just like a groove, with an A section, B section and a bridge. Even if somebody just plays a keyboard, you can hear the next section coming, so you don’t even have to look at the chart. You can just hear B coming and look at the chart to see what to play. But without the keyboard, you’ve really got to concentrate on what you’re doing. After most of the dates, the guys would want to go have a drink somewhere before their next gig, but I’d have to go home and lay down. My head would be pounding. It’s really hard to do.
RT: That’s the way you did “Feel For You”?
SF: They played Prince’s demo for me, and they had something like a bass keyboard there. That was it. Then, they didn’t like the sound that they got in their studio in New York. I asked if they had heard of Clinton Studios in New York. So Arif booked the studio, and we went down to do this project for Junior. He fell in love with the drum sound. He called up Atlantic and got them to send down the masters of “Feel For You.” We had to redo the whole drum track. So when we did it, I had vocals on there, synthesizers, handclaps and all sorts of things all over it. It was a little different. I started throwing in some stuff, you know. So afterwards, Arif said, “You know, you were playing some extra stuff there. I wish you’d have done more of that.” I said, “Well, I would have done it if I had this track in the first place.” I became intimidated. I would start thinking, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do too much. We’re still making a record.” But the arrangement is there then. On most of the stuff we used to do before, we had like a free rein. We’d just play, and Arif would write a lot of the arrangements around what the bass and drums were playing. But when everything was there, I didn’t want to start getting in the way and stepping on anything. There’s a big difference now between making music and making records. In certain situations, you’ve got to make a record, and you’ve really got to go about it in that clinical sort of way. I don’t particularly like it. I’ll do it. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do it.
RT: You’ve been doing work, like on “Feel For You,” where you play along with a programmed drum machine.
SF: There wasn’t a drum machine on “Feel For You.” The hi-hat pattern, I think, is the drum machine, and that’s it. On the Scritti Politti stuff there’s one little break that’s like a bass drum lick on the drum machine.
RT: Are you getting more calls now to go into the studio and add a little bit on top of a drum machine part?
SF: Oh yeah. I’ll try to make it feel good. I’ve got this big thing about drum machines. People have said to learn how to program one, but it’s the same as what I was saying before. When you go into the studio, you don’t know what the song is. How are you going to know what to put in there until you actually get all the stuff in there, or until you’re playing with someone so you can get some sort of feel? It’s like making records. You’re not thinking about what anybody’s going to play around it. But now people are getting tired of the snare drum sound of the drum machines, and just don’t like the way it feels—it doesn’t swing—but they like the bass drum sound. So I’m getting called just to go in and slap on a snare drum, or replace the hi-hat if it doesn’t flow enough. It’s out there. I think you’re going to see the real big damage in a little while. A lot of the young drummers used to get their starts doing demos. A producer would hear it and say, “Yeah, maybe we’ll let the person who did the demo do the album.” If they did well on the albums, then they’d go from there to another thing. Nowadays, all the demos are done by machines. It’s like a bit of the industry is dying off, but it’s really a bit of the music that’s dying. I was in a cab going through Central Park the other day, and “Louie, Louie” came on the radio. I was grooving to it. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened closely to the drummer. The guy just went for it. Anything that he could possibly go for, he went for. They sounded like they were having a great time. The sound is fun. I said, more to myself than to anyone else, “Those guys were wailing!” The cab driver turned around and said, “Yeah man, I’m fed up with all this electronic bullshit.” I gave him five bucks.
RT: Russ Kunkel said he got his start by doing demos.
SF: I’d hate to be starting off now, man. I really would. The drum is a great instrument. If you learned how to play it and have a good time playing it, it’s really great. I love to play the drums, but it looks like a dead-end street right now. [laughs] But most of the drummers who are there, like Porcaro, John Robinson, and Gadd, haven’t really been affected. It hasn’t affected me, really. My business is probably better now than it’s ever been. I think you have to be able to play with a machine, and that isn’t easy. It’s something that you have to work at. One of the hardest things to learn how to do is get into a tempo, lock it down, and just stay there. That’s one of the hardest things to learn to do, but once you’ve done it, it’s there. It may take you a year of working on it, but one day you’ll have this great revelation: “Oh, so that’s what it was.” Then you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s there. I suppose there’s always the danger of losing it, but I haven’t gotten around to that. I haven’t even thought about it.
RT: After AWB went to Arista, you worked with producer David Foster.
SF: I spoke with David recently. He’s a friend. I think he’s up in Canada right now doing some stuff with McCartney. About the album Shine, which he did with us in 1980, I think that he overproduced it a little. But he’s great to play with, and a real nice cat. When you listen to his song, “After The Love Is Gone,” what can you say bad about it? I mean, that song is great. I heard it the other day on the radio and said, “Man, this thing still holds up four or five years later.” There were a couple things about what happened with us that I wasn’t all to keen on. That was the first album I ever did with AWB that was like running in, doing a date, leaving, and not knowing what it was going to sound like until it was finished. With every other album, the whole band was there all the time. But with the Foster album, everybody wasn’t there all the time. I called him up one day to see how everything was going. He said, “Oh, the album’s finished. We’re having a listening party this afternoon.” How can you get enthusiastic about something that you haven’t even worked on?
The first four tracks that David produced for us went on the last album we did on Atlantic [Average White Band Volume VIII], and I liked those. I thought we were going into a nice direction. But then when we switched to Arista and had to start over again with David, things changed. But if things had continued like they had on that last Atlantic album, I think we’d have had a great album with David.
RT: David Foster is sort of notorious now for bringing in horn players to perform on Chicago albums.
SF: Oh man, we had every horn player in L. A. I think we had the whole of Johnny Carson’s band on that album. The other thing was, Foster got Jerry Hey to write a lot of the horn parts. All of a sudden, it went from Roger Ball writing the way he used to write for AWB to a contest to see who could write the hardest brass part. The band just wasn’t there anymore. I was sitting there one day, saying, “This doesn’t sound like the AWB that I used to know and love.” I mean, I know that things have to change, but when the actual essence goes . . . . Sometimes things don’t have to change. Look at the Stones, man. We were together for about ten years. We still are together. We still talk. Maybe one day we’ll do another album. I hope so, because I miss the band terribly.
RT: You worked with bassist Alan Gorrie in AWB. What other bassists do you like?
SF: Anthony Jackson, Will Lee, Freddy Washington, Abe Laboriel, Neil Stubbenhaus, and Marcus Miller. Also, Louis Johnson is bad. I’ve never heard anybody pop like that. As you watch him play, he’s bringing his hand up so high that he’s slapping the shit out of the bass. You think it’s going to sound dirty with all sorts of weird noise, but it’s clean. Louis does most of Jeffrey’s stuff, and I did Blast with the Brothers Johnson.
RT: You worked with George Benson on his In Your Eyes album.
SF: George is terrific. The thing that amazes me about George Benson is that he has the facility to play anything that he thinks of, cleanly. He doesn’t fake it. He just plays it. That’s why he scat sings so well.
RT: When you recorded with George, did you track by yourself or with the group?
SF: We did everything with the section. Will Lee was playing on the stuff I did with him, I think, along with Paul Jackson, Jr., and Robbie Buchanon.
RT: You’ve played on all three of Jeffrey Osborne’s solo records.
SF: He’s a great singer. I’ve been trying to get him to play the drums again. He used to come out on the road with AWB when he was in LTD. One night, we finished the gig in Bowling Green, Ohio, and we were back in this hotel. Everybody was partying and going crazy. Jeffrey came staggering up to me, and said, “When I do my album, you’re going to play on it.” And I said, “Yeah, sure, Jeffrey, go on.” And three years later he called me up. He was doing his first album with George Duke. He’s got an incredible voice.
RT: Was that how you first got hooked up with George Duke?
SF: Yeah. George is terrific. I’m going to Japan with George soon. We have this little excursion that we started last year. It was Louis Johnson, Paul Jackson, Jr., Robert Brookins from Sacramento, George, and myself. And we’re going to have France Joli, Lynn Davis, and Phillip Bailey.
RT: What’s the name of this aggregation?
SF: The George Duke All-Star Japanese Tour Band. [laughs] It was fun. He did a Laser-disc and it’s really good. Tommy Vicari, George’s engineer, did it, and I liked working with him. Tommy did Mike Sembello’s “Maniac.”
RT: On the AWB Warmer Communications album, there is some really nice cymbal work you do on “Your Love Is A Miracle.”
SF: I copped it from Steve Gadd, from the song “Silly Putty” that he did on Stanley Clarke’s album Journey To Love. It’s a direct steal, but I don’t care. If it’s good, steal it. [laughs]
RT: I’ve noticed a kind of trademark lick of yours. After a fill, you’ll come back to the snare on the 1 &. “Whack, whack.”
SF: I stole that one from Purdie. Yeah, I’ve stolen a lot of stuff. I steal from everybody. That’s the way I make up my own style. You can’t just steal from one person. There’s nothing worse than that. You can’t cop everything that somebody does. It’s like in Japan, there are a million drummers who sound just like Steve Gadd—just like him. They even look like him.
I think a lot of drummers seem to let the time thing go by. They concentrate too much on how much they can play—how many rudiments, how many rolls, how fast they can do a single-stroke roll, how many paradiddles and paradiddle-diddles. But all of that is just an aid to making a statement if you want to make a state- ment. I still think the basic thing has got to come down to tempo— to time. I saw Zappa’s band the other night, and they were smoking. Chad Wackerman was playing a lot of stuff, but that pulse was there all the time. You couldn’t miss it. Everything he was playing was real nice. It’s great to watch someone get off like that. You can’t get off like that if you’ve got to sit back there, listen to some- thing go “click-click-click,” and be worried about that. Take that thing off. My tempo is good. I don’t need that. You’re never going to be able to tell any different anyway. A song breathes. I think things have to sit there, but a song breathes. Arif was telling me about this session that he did where he cut a ballad with a click track, and nothing happened. It went straight into the chorus, and he wanted it to lift. He said he had a hell of a time. He was trying to add strings, this, that and other. Why cut a ballad with a click track?
RT: I guess what Arif discovered was that it needed that little human increase in tempo.
SF: Yeah, it does. And then the thing is, you can always play a little bit ahead of it. You can bend the click. I think they cut it with a drum machine, so it’s not real hard to put a little edge on it.
RT: On Jeffrey Osborne’s stuff, does George Duke have you tracking to clicks?
SF: Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right” was done without a click. All the ballads were done without one. But on “Stay With Me Tonight,” he cut it with a click and real drums, and replaced it with Simmons. We did “Borderlines” with the SDS7s.
RT: So you’re using the Simmons SDS7s?
SF: I’ve got the 7’s and a 5. They’ve all got something. I just try to find something that’s going to sound fresh. A lot of the stuff you hear on the radio sounds the same. Bowie’s album sounded like a breath of fresh air. Ahh, Omar Hakim. As far as electronic drums go, I like the new Pearl DRX-l. They travel very well, and they’re easy to program.
RT: How did you come up with the groove to Jeffrey’s “When Are You Comin’ Back?”
SF: That’s guitarist Johnny McGhee’s groove. He came up with that. He’s a good guitarist and that’s a good song. There’s a song on Jeffrey’s first album called “Congratulations” that I really like. I don’t understand why nobody picked up on that song. One of these days, I’m going to do an album of all the songs that I think everybody should have picked up on, but never did. You never know, man. That’s what happened with Peter Frampton on that live album. He had five albums that he’d done over five years, and he took two songs that he liked from each album and did them live. He sold 13 million records. I met him shortly after that, and he said, “They’re after me to do another album. It took me five years to put this one together, and they want me to do another one.”
I know a producer I forgot—Nile Rodgers—damn, how could I forget him? Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. I did the Simon & Garfunkel stuff, which ended up being the Paul Simon album. Russ Titleman produced it, but I think Nile had something to do with it. And then some of the new Mick Jagger stuff—everybody was on that gig. We did two songs. One we got in about 20 minutes, and Mick loved it. The other we worked on for two days, and I couldn’t tell you what he wanted out of that at all. Everything that he wanted to do, we went for. We had a couple of real good takes, and then he’d listen to it and say, “Well, we’re almost there.” It was a real good one and I said, “What the hell was wrong with that?” “You’re almost there.” So we went on for two days and then gave up. Then, he got Steve Gadd and even that didn’t work. The last I heard, Mike Shrieve was doing it. He was looking for something. It’s just that no one quite knew what. A guy like that is used to working with his band for the last quarter of a century, and maybe he was having trouble communicating what he wanted to hear. So he was going through rhythm section after rhythm section.
RT: How long have you been living in New York?
SF:Ten years. You know, there are not too many albums done in New York anymore. Most of the people who record there have self-contained groups. More of the sessions are in Los Angeles. I like to live in New York. I do mainly jingles here. That seems to be the order of the day in New York.
RT: You’re playing Pearls out on tour with Jeffrey Osborne.
SF: Yeah, it’s a Pearl drumkit with Sabian cymbals. I broke all my K.’s. I like the Sabians. They’re nice and bright. But I really like this Pearl Rack. It’s really handy, and it keeps my roadies happy. They can set it up and not have to worry about anything having moved. They can also break it down pretty quickly. It holds every- thing. Cymbals, mounted toms—everything goes on there.
RT: What sizes are your drums?
SF: Well, the bass drum is 22″ around. I don’t know how long it is. And I’ve got two of those Pearl free-floating snare drums. They’re happening. They have a “crack.” There’s nothing on the shell itself. None of the lugs are attached to the shell. If you take off the top rim, you can pull out the shell. I’ve got a brass shell on mine. And the tone is unbelievable—no dampers or anything. I might make a little pad to put on the side. And they really kick. My toms are 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″.
RT: What about your cymbals? I know you’ve got two fairly good sized crashes right up front.
SF: Yeah, I’ve got a 20” medium crash, and another medium crash that’s about that big. [holds up his hands to show the size, then laughs] I don’t know what the hell they are. 12”? 14” ? I’ve got two of those crashes—a medium-thin and a medium-heavy—and a 22” ride.
RT: Are the hi-hats Sabian too?
SF:Yeah. Sometimes I use a riveted hi-hat. It seems to give more high end if I need more. And it’s pretty too. If I’m playing ballads or something, I can just tap that thing and it goes, “ssssssssssss.”
RT: How about your sticks? Are they anything special?
SF: Bernard Purdie model. Sonor used to make them, but I’ve been getting them made up by Sam Ash or Manny’s in New York. It’s like a 5B, but a little bit longer, I think. It’s a nice stick. I’ve been using it for years now.
RT: What kind of heads do you use?
SF: Pinstripes on the top, clear Ambassadors on the bottom, coated Ambassador on the snare drum, and I don’t know what’s underneath. It could be anything. It could be the factory head. I tend to use the ones that are underneath until somebody drops it and puts a hole in it somewhere.
RT: What kind of kick pedal are you using?
SF: It’s the Pearl, but it’s not the real heavy one. It’s the one in between. I felt that the real heavy one was a little bit slower. The one in between is real nice. It has a nice wide plate.
RT: You seem to prefer playing with a traditional grip on the sticks.
SF: Yeah, I switched 13 years ago.
RT: So you started off playing matched grip. Why did you switch?
SF: I just felt that I had more control over the sounds that I wanted to get out of the snare. I mean I’m not a big tom-fill sort of person. I’m mainly hi-hat, snare drum, bass drum, and I sort of work between that. I like to pull a lot of colors out of that. I like to make my dynamics more with the sound of the actual drum itself. Sometimes I like to pull back to the rim and use a real short piece of the stick, especially on something quiet, like on “Love Ballad” in Jeffrey Osborne’s show. I make it real tight. I just felt like I had more control over my dynamics playing this way.
RT: You’ve gotten to play quite a bit with horns in the band. What advice can you give drummers who are getting into a horn-band situation?
SF: I love playing with horn sections. Use your ears. Hear how they’re playing it, and just try to put out what they want to hear. They do so many things with dynamics—swells and stuff. You can pull all of that out of the drumkit. Listen to the arrangement and see what you want to cop. Then go for it. Steal my licks.
RT: You mentioned the tour you had to Japan coming up with George Duke. What else have you got going in 1985?
SF: There are a few albums in the beginning of the year, and then we’ll see what goes on from there. I’d really like to get back to doing something that I can be involved in. Strangely enough, about a month ago, George Duke called me out to Los Angeles to do something on his new album. Normally when you go into the studio, you get a stock studio sound—whatever anybody wants. This time, George said, “I’m going to go upstairs.” The studio is in his house. “And when you get a drum sound, call me.” So he gave me a chance to get involved with it more, to listen to the demo and to see what sort of sound logo for. I’m pretty happy with it. It sounds pretty different.
RT: I hear that you have a son. How will you feel if he starts playing drums?
SF: I’ll let him play. He’s four, and he likes music. He’s seen me play, and sat by the side of the stage. He wanted to come out on the stage with his daddy. He loved standing out there. I won’t mind if he picks up the drums. I think it’s good for any kid to have an instrument. It’s fun. I love to play. There’s nothing I love more than playing. I really would like to have another band. The best times I’ve had were with a band. The times with Brian and the Oblivion Express, and with AWB were real fun times.