The New York Scene
by Cheech Iero
Grady Tate’s slick style can make a big band swing like a pendulum or lay down a groove that’ll smoke like a cigarette. He is at home behind the drum set as well as in front of the microphone singing a tender love song.Grady and Herb are two of the “Big Apple’s” Wiz kids. Grady played on the soundtrack of the movie while Herb played the Wiz during its Broadway run. Lovelle is considered one of the deans of drumming. His south paw playing has stylized the singing of many musical giants. He is also the man who brought the group Stuff together and produced them.
Ralph MacDonald is a warm, family-oriented man whose sleepy eyed look and laid back personality hide a keen sense of humor. He is also one of the heavy-weight percussionists of the recording industry. “The Big Mac” plays on 40% of the LP’s on the jazz charts every week and his song writing talents have boosted eight million sellers.
Bernard Purdie has been called the most recorded drummer in the world. With his rock steady rhythms, he has logged thousands of hours of studio time. “Pretty” Purdie’s sense of timing, melodic cadences, polyrhythms and versatility are the reasons why people associated with the music industry call him the “hit maker.”
HL: I was doing Guys and Dolls. That closed and they had a spot open in this show. I was recommended by quite a few people. Two weeks later I wound updoing The Wiz
MD: Where are you originally from?
MD: What’s your date of birth?
HL: You can find that in the Encyclopedia of Jazz. It’s June 1, 1924.
MD: How did you first become interested in drumming?
HL: My uncles were drummers. One was Arthur Herbert and the other Monk Herbert. Monk was an entertainer drummer and Arthur, a professional drummer who worked with Coleman Hawkins and Jan Savitt. In fact, they used to call him the man with the left hand. He just about originated the shufflle beat with Jan Savitt. He was pretty well known. He taught Shelly Manne and a few others.
MD: Did you take private lessons from him?
HL: He taught me for quite awhile and then I went to the Hartman School for two years and the New York School of Music for three. That’s where I met “Hot Lips” Page. He came down and was auditioning different people. That’s how I got my first professional gig. “Hot Lips” Page, Walter Page, the bassist, Buddy Tate, Earl Warren. My first big gig with them was at Yale University. The curtain opened and my drums fell apart! That was my baptism.
MD: Is there one particular musical experience that you have learned the most from? What has impressed you musically?
HL: No. I wouldn’t he able to pin-point any particular one. They were all important, with different meanings. For instance, prior to being involved in Guys and Dolls, I had been with John Denver for four years. A totally different experience altogether. From playing jazz, rock and roll, dixieland, and then playing for Denver were all marvelous experiences for me. And so was playing with “Hot Lips” Page. In fact, he was the reason I bought a good set of drums. As I said before, mine fell apart, and he allowed me to work with him until I could get a decent set. Normally he would say, ‘Hey, later for you.’ But, he felt that it was worth it. He stuck with me, so that was impressive. Going to Europe and being voted the top newcomer by their leading jazz magazine was impressive in my life. Getting off the plane and being interviewed by the top jazz magazine in England. Studying with Max Roach. We grew up together in Brooklyn, and went to school together. He was a grade or two ahead of me. It was more of a head trip with Max. He used to play classics and showed me where they could be applied to jazz . I t just opened my head. There they were! I was studying with him, but it was more of a friendship. We would just sit there and rap. Oh, we would do a couple of duets now and then, but it was mainly a rap session. He let me be an individual rather than pattern myself after someone else. Many drummers at that time went into a bebop style and patterned themselves after him. He didn’t want that from me. He wanted my attitude. In drumming there are only certain rudimental things that you can do. After that, it’s your own head. He paved the way for me to use my own head. That left an impression on me because not too many drummers were taught that way. They usually go to school and everyone has the same pattern to follow. He didn’t set me up with a pattern. And I used to conduct the orchestra that he was playing with. There were quite a few good musicians there. When Tiny Bradshaw came into town he would steal all the good musicians for his orchestra. Lucky Miller used to do the same thing. Quite a few band leaders came through Brooklyn and picked up on the musicians. Much of my teaching came from being able to play with these kind of musicians. At one time, they wouldn’t let me play with them.
MD: Why was that?
HL: I wasn’t up to par. I had aspirations, but they weren’t coming out that way. When I got up on the bandstand to jam with the fellas they would conveniently take an intermission. In order to play with them, I began running the sessions myself. I asked the owner of the club to give me Thursday nights, the jam session nights. We’d charge admission at the door. I’d have somebody else stand at the door, naturally the guys were getting paid. I was their boss. I was the guy paying them.
MD: Do you remember your first set?
HL: In or out of the service? I had two first sets.
MD: Two first sets!
HL: Right, I learned to play the sock cymbal in the service. That was really a pieced together set of drums. In fact, I made the cymbal stands out of curtain rods and things like that. We traveled all overthe European Theatre Operation (E.T.O.) In fact, we were voted the second best band in the E.T.O. Second to Glen Miller’s Orchestra. In fact, during the time he got lost, we were waiting on him to have a battle of the bands in Paris.
MD:: What was the name of the band?
HL: Les Swingsters International. We were a maverick group really. That’s where I learned to play the sock cymbal. And the first drum set at home was a piece of metal from my uncle. That’s what I played my first gig with, and that’s the set that fell apart.
MD: Do you still practice?
HL: I practice every day. I practice mentally which is something Max implanted in my head. If you don’t have the opportunity to physically practice, then mental exercises are necessary. You can think of what you want to play and how you’re going to do it.
MD: Do you ever use a drum pad?
MD: Then you wouldn’t recommend a pad for practicing.
HL: That depends on the individual. I used to use a drum pad. Kenny Clark used a drum pad all the time. *Klook and Art Blakey were very influential to me. [*At the time Kenny Clark was refining his style, he was playing with the Teddy Hill house hand at Minton’s Playhouse on West 118th Street in Harlem. Clark was getting away from the heavy 4/4 bass drum sound. He was maintaining the time with the top cymbal, and using the bass drum for special accents instead of a regular rhythm. Hill called the new sounds “Kloop-mop”. Musicians later described it as “be-bop”. For some reason Kloop was changed to “Klook” and to this day Clark answers to that nickname.]
They were all my friends. They all sort of wrapped their arms around me. Big Sid Catlett, I met him in Chicago about two weeks before he died. And just him wrapping his arms around me and saying, ‘Hey kid. you’re alright , ‘ that alone set me up for ten more years of hard work. Those were the kind of guys I ran into. Anyway, I found when I used a pillow I did less skating. To me, a drum pad does have response. It kicks back at you and makes what you have to do rather easy. I wanted to strengthen my wrists and have control of my hands so I used a pillow. If I could come out with a half way decent “mama, daddy” on the pillow then I could be much more fluid on the drum pad. And then when I was in the house the family would say, ‘Hey come on!’ The pad made noise. So I used the pillow. It would depend on the individual and his dexterity whether I would recommend a pillow or a pad.
MD: Did you start reading music right from the start of your lessons?
HL: No. I didn’t actually start reading until I came to Manhattan.
MD: The school helped you in that area?
HL: Yes. I wanted to read, and naturally going to school you had to read. I developed most of my reading by actual playing. You can sit and read something while you’re practicing, and that’s fine because you can stop and go back. Like I used to do duets with Max, but of course, they were exercises. Exercises or not, I was actually reading music. The actual application of doing the job. As you know, you’ve got to be four or five bars ahead, a whole line ahead.
MD: What kind of drums are you playing?
HL: I’ve got Gretsch. I’ve used them all along. Personally, I’m a Gretsch man.
MD: Do you endorse their product?
HL: No. They’re just my preference.
MD: What type of cymbals are you using?
HL: Old Zildjians.
MD: A’s or K’s?
HL: K’s, but they’re very old.
MD: Where did you get the K’s from?
HL: Jo Jones. That man used to sneak in and listen to me play. He is the reason I went to Europe with the Basie alumni. It was Jo Jones’ recommendation. And he helped me pick out my cymbals.
MD: What do you look and listen for in a cymbal?
HL: I look for the weight, and listen for the sound. I listen to the evenness from the bell out. The weight naturally determines the length of ring, and with what resonance it might ring. And I use my fingernail or my drum key. If I get a clear sheen sound, I know it will work for me when I give it the right touch. Much depends on the amount of pressure I use and the stroke.
MD: You prefer the darker sound of the K Zildjian to the more brilliant sound of the A Zildjian cymbals?
HL: Depending on the weight, I think the K has a brilliant sound. For me, I couldn’t get any depth from the A because they were already brilliant. But depending on the weight of the K and the stroke used, I could get different tonal qualities. I got more from the heavy duty ping sound. When I say “ping” that reminds me of the bass player that I played with who taught me to stroke the cymbal with a “ping” rather than “chang.”
MD: Playing with the bead rather than using the shaft.
HL: Right, the shaft doesn’t give you too much separation. The ping still cuts through and gives you the separation. In the recording studio it’s much easier to record my sound. I control it (the sound) with the stroke itself. You could have a hard, heavy stroke or up stroke. You’re coming down yet you’re coming up off of the cymbal. When playing jazz, it’s important to separate the strokes. Especially if you’re in a recording situation. It’s easier for them to control my stroke no matter what I hit. That’s why engineers are happy to see me walk in the studio. ‘Oh, here’s the lefty, we won’t have any problems today!’
The young drummers in the studio today play to the microphone rather than play as they would in a live performance.
The equipment today is so sophisticated that you are almost not in control of your own instrument. They’ve got it in the booth. The dials.
I am not trying to come out of that booth to impress or control the rest of the orchestra. I play to the microphone. I don’t have to try to drive the group or slam a point home. The microphones are placed next to the snare, hanging over the cymbals, and stuck in the bass drum. They’re right over the tom-toms. So there’s no reason to go overboard. That’s where the control of the hands comes in.
MD: You’re not saying you hold back?
HL: No, no! This is not a hold back, I’m playing out but not whacking, just stroking. You’re still coming off the snare drum. Let me put it this way, rather than beating a drum, caress it. Instead of coming down on it, come up off it. When playing, rather than beating down into a hole, come up out of the hole. The beat stays on top instead of plodding.
Kids today naturally want to play rock and roll. That’s today’s music. I’m one of those who started it with the back beat. Of course, it got heavier and heavier. But being one of the innovators, I never meant to dig down into the hole. Bernard (Purdie) was one of the fine cats that came through, and was playing out of that hole. You can do more if the beat stays on top. Not getting faster, just staying up on top to keep it alive.
MD: What is your concept of the drummer’s role in the rhythm section?
HL: He is actually the leader and the pulse. His bass drum according to the type of music should be felt by the entire orchestra. It should help punctuate the bass player. The drummer controls and leads the orchestra. He doesn’t conduct or direct it. It’s a very important job. It’s an ironic thing, the better a drummer plays, the less he’s noticed. You know he’s there but it’s not overbearing. His job is to subtly control the orchestra. He can’t just play for himself, he must be aware of the other musicians. You are there to enhance what is going on.
MD: Do you teach?
HL: No, because I’m into production and publishing.
MD: Do you play any other instruments besides the drums?
HL: No. I feel drumming is my job, but I don’t want to be playing drums when I’m 60 years old. And since I’ve helped so many others, and do have some know how, I’d like to produce other people. I think it’s time to get into the next echelon. So I’ve been working at that for the last 8 or 9 years. And then, I have a publishing company, it’s in the small stages right now, but I expect it to expand. Our motto is “Music of Today.”
MD: Have you entertained the thought of doing drum clinics?
HL: No, because I’m too much involved in production and publishing right now. I’m looking at the future. And that would do it. Plus, the fact that I’ve been so instrumental in other people’s success like B.B. King and quite a few others. When they get there they’re gone and they forget that you were the one that put it all together. You see people getting their Grammies and their whatevers. It’s time for me to get a piece of that action. I was not only on that, I put it all together — contract-wise, even in the booth, suggestions, things like that. Like Stuff, that’s my group. I put them together.
Getting back to teaching, I love teaching, but I just don’t have the time. I don’t want to go out soliciting. If I’m worthy, they’ll come to me.
MD: What one individual would you consider to be the most influential as far as shaping the drummer’s role in the past 10 years.
HL: I would say Bernard Purdie. It’s not that he showed me anything new, but he took what was already out there and applied it to today’s music. Which only proved the point that I had in my head.
MD: What’s that?
HL: The way he played, the approach he took. At the time he came along, that was the way I was thinking to go but naturally producers and people don’t want you to extend yourself too far so I was more or less kept from that extent. I went as far as I thought I should, but Bernard came along and took it farther, which opened up the whole thing all over again. Not just for me, but for the whole music business. Purdie’s type of playing opened up the door and kicked me right back on top! The style allowed me that much more freedom.
MD: What other drummers do you enjoy listening to?
HL: Oh, any drummers.
MD: Do you watch other drummers to pick up on their ideas?
HL: All the time.
MD: What do you listen for in a drummer?
HL: Time and touch. A man can have great time but if he’s pounding it into my head, then he’s not playing the music. If he has great ideas and no time, that’s just as bad. Sensitivity to the type of music being played. I think the drummer should paint pictures, use the highs and lows, the ins and outs, the ups and downs. That’s what I like to hear in a drummer. When he’s playing dynamics rather than a steady drive, I know the man is aware of what he’s playing and who he’s playing with. That impresses me. And if the music that they’re playing has a lyric, know the lyric. Know what you’re playing. If you’re accompanying a singer, know the lyric to the song. Interpret the song’s lyrics in your playing. You ask drummers today, ‘What are the lyrics to the tune you’ve just played?’ They have no idea, none what so ever. They lose something. They lose finesse, touch, a beauty. Drums are to be played, to be caressed. They’re an instrument. You don’t honk saxophones that’s boring. You don’t blast on a trumpet from beginning to end. So why should you pound a drum from the intro to the end. You play with dynamics, you change your sound. And if you know the lyrics to the song, it will demand that you change your attitude. You can’t play “I love you”, with bang, bang, bang.
MD: Do you feel you’re still growing musically?
HL: Yes. I haven’t even scratched the surface. That’s one of the reasons I don’t play any other instrument. I’ve spent so much time trying to develop my touch and approach to this instrument
RM: I played it for Chris Parker (the drummer from Stuff) and after listening to it he said, ‘Man it’s a whole learning experience. It made me understand why the music is the way it is today, and why the musicians are playing the type of music they’re playing.’ It shows basically where it all formed. The Path is almost like a tree. You plant a seed and something comes up. You have branches that might go to the west, branches that go to the east, and branches that extend north and south. Maybe the branches on the south are pretty and green while the branches from the north aren’t quite as green. They’re different, but still from the same tree. When listening to The Path many people think it’s some African thing. When that path evolves on to Trinidad it changes into the West Indian thing but also retains its African roots and then moves on to the disco, but retains the calyspo and African flavor. Then you get all the way to the end and it fuses together. All of a sudden it’s not foreign anymore. It’s what’s happening today. I did it as a history of what really happened to my family moving from continent to continent.
MD: Wasn’t part one mainly Syndrum?
RM: Part one is all Syndrum, with the log drums, percussive sounds and voices. The Syndrum is making those low sounds and the high sounds. I’m a song writer so I like melodies too. Percussion right now is big in music. Everybody’s talking about the rhythm. I know how to play rhythm. But it’s where you can take that rhythm and what you can do with it. That’s why the Syndrum gives me a chance to be more melodic with some drums, as opposed to doing it with bells and triangles. I can get on that lighter, airy side of pop music and deal with that too. The Syndrum can be programmed many different ways and allows you to drop your little melodies in there. I have eight of them and get eight notes which is beautiful, because all you have to do is use half of them. People are not used to hearing that. But it’s a new dimension for percussionists. Especially for somebody like me, it’s a haven. It’s what I’ve been looking for all rolled into one. By the flick of a switch you program yourself differently. You have to get into the technical side of it to learn how to program that stuff. You still have to come back and create music. One thing I don’t care for concerning electrical synthesizers is that basically if you are a good programmer, that’s all you need to be. You just stand there, and hit one note which would do fifteen different things. With the Syndrum, I can go beyond, and still retain my creative ability to be a musician. If you can take it and make music, to me that’s the key. Unless you just use something odd one time in the song, then it doesn’t really matter. After you keep hearing it, it doesn’t become odd anymore. With the Syndrum, I can play a little melody for eight or ten bars, then go back to the rhythm and mix it up. Let the different instruments speak as they should. People used to look down so much on percussion. It was unbelievable. It’s nice to know I brought some respect to the instrument. I respect the instrument. The conga drum was never the instrument of the average percussionist in New York, it was just one of the many things he did. When I came along, the conga drum was my instrument. Like a tenor saxaphone player compared to a guy who plays tenor, alto, baritone and other reeds. The average reed player should be able to play them all. But some are so good on one in particular, and that’s what he is noted for. When I came in, I didn’t know how to play any tuned mallet instruments, vibes and instruments like that. I can pick them out but I can’t really play them. There are musicians that can play those instruments, so I hire them. Dave Friedman, he’s a bad vibe player.
MD: Oh, yes!
RM: Everywhere I go, kids come up to me and think jamming on a groove is the end of the world. It’s just a little percussion stuff playing. It’s not only playing, but playing something. It’s playing a whole eight bar phrase. Most percussionists would never think of playing an eight bar phrase. There are different things going on, it’s a whole pattern. Before they realize what’s going on, it’s gone. It’s over man. It’s like a horn section would play. I always treat my instrument as if it were a horn or whatever, depending upon the role I wanted it to play. Sometimes you want to play a supportive role, sometimes you want to play a lead role, sometimes your role is just to color. Many people don’t like to play whole notes.
MD: Sometimes that’s all it needs.
RM: Exactly. One little thing. But most percussionists come to the studio with 19 trunks of stuff. And they set it all up from one end of the room to the other. They want to show the people what they can do. They brought all that stuff, they have to use it. I walk in with a little bag on my shoulder, and hit a little bell. People think it’s great. It depends on where you’re coming from. Many percussionists were limited. I’m talking about Latin players because they were the ones that were in demand. The conga was their instrument. It was their instrument in terms of where it was in the Latin music. Of course, the drum itself comes from Africa. From the beginning of time that’s what we had to deal with, the drum. That was the source of communication from tribe to tribe. That was it from the beginning. Wherever the black slave went, so went the drum. When you get these Latin groups now, they bring their Latin music to the date. It wouldn’t be whatever the other musicians were dealing with. What you have to do is bring what you know, check out what they want and incorporate that so everyone can be satisfied. Sometimes you may be totally unsatisfied but the man who’s paying you will be satisfied. That’s the name of the game. It’s just a matter of taste, we all have different tastes. You may like something, I may hate i t . It’s that simple. The point is, you have to please the people who are conducting the business, so they feel their product is the way they want it. If it doesn’t make it, then I’m wrong. You can’t sit down and say, ‘The guys messed this up, it’s the other musicians’ fault.’ Get out of here, nobody works like that.
MD: That’s like trying to force your preference of style on someone else.
RM: Exactly. And those guys, whenever they would come to a date, would bring their thing. As a result, people would say, “I don’t want a Latin feel.” I’d say, “Wait a minute man, I don’t want one either. Now that we’re cool with that, let’s go with the music.” It was a new day when a guy like me came along and approached the conga drum from a style appropriate for the music. Kids come up to me and say, Must keep on stepping, Ralph, man, what you’re doin is great, we love it.’ And everybody is picking up on certain things. Many cats are working now. It’s opening up and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. No one guy is supposed to have it all. There are too many good musicians out there. Plenty of good musicians. It’s just that some of us get lucky and are fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and have our stuff together. You never hear about the guys who did get the shot but didn’t have their program together. It’s not that they can’t cut it, it’s just that their program wasn’t together at that particular time.
MD: And that shot may never come again.
RM: Right. You never hear about those guys who didn’t cut it. I was seventeen when it happened for me, but I was prepared. I tried to do the job the best I could and kept my mouth shut when I didn’t know what I was talking about, which was often.
MD: One of your first big opportunities was playing with Harry Belafonte, wasn’t it?
RM: I had a chance to work with Harry Belafonte, a man who many people may not be hip to in terms of a name. But this was an artist who was very big. People, especially black people, have no idea of how well respected this man was as an entertainer. Here’s a man who hasn’t had a hit record in fourteen years. Yet, he can go and pack any theater he wants to. This is a man that goes against all of the rules of the business, in terms of having a successful career. Everybody needs a record. Have a hit record, go out and play, and people will come to see you. This man doesn’t need a hit record. People know that when they go there they will be thoroughly entertained. This is what I came up in. I joined him when I was seventeen and left him ten years later.
MD: That’s an education.
RM: That was my education not only in show business, but life itself. On the job.
MD: Did you consider going to school a drag? Were you turned off by some of the compulsory courses?
RM: History interested me, at times. I always said to myself, ‘I don’t need this thing. What the hell do I need history for? What do I care about Ponce de Leon? I don’t have time for that!’ And then, whenever you would read about a black person in a book, they would either be a servant…
MD: Or a slave!
MD: They’re a little bit more hip now, with the black studies.
RM: A little bit, but not much. We’re talking about tokenism. This is where I got turned off to history, because I figured we didn’t make any contribution to it. I had more enjoyment reading the sports section.
MD: That’s where it was happening for you?
RM: Yes, that’s where the cats I could relate to were happening. It’s a trip! Luckily my father was in music. And I was around it all my life, so it was natural for me. I never went to school, never studied. I learned from my family. Just from playing since I was born. It was never pushed upon me. It was a hobby. Everybody played in my family, there was nothing special about playing. Everybody played. My father had six brothers, and they all played.
MD: Osmosis — you just absorbed it?
RM: Exactly! I used to dream music. When my father would play at a dance, I used to go there. I was about five or six, and I’d be there until three o’clock in the morning when the dance was over. By one o’clock, I was sleeping on the bandstand in the middle of a fourteen-piece orchestra. Sleeping on the conga drum. People used to say, ‘Why don’t you take that boy home?’ My father would say, ‘No, he’s alright!’ When we finally got home from the gig and they put me to bed, I was still hearing all the music that was going on. I used to dream the whole dance through again. The whole sequence. Just listening and hearing. All of a sudden, I would pick up an instrument and start playing. People would look at me like I was crazy. I never studied nothing man, I just picked things up and started playing. If I can think a rhythm up in my mind, I can play it on anything.
MD: All those rhythms and ideas were being fed to you unconsciously. Especially at that age, where you were so impressionable.
RM: Unconsciously. That’s what was so hip about it. I t was good for me. And then, growing up in that kind of atmosphere, coming out of Harlem. The drastic change from slum and nobody, to somebody. I was talking to movie stars that I used to dream about and see on T.V. I’d get back home and tell my buddies; they didn’t even know what I was talking about. When I told my friend about Disneyland, he turned around and said, ‘It’s something like Coney Island.’
MD: It’s those people who are the roots!
RM: That’s why I went back and played the Apollo. You understand. Unbelievable. All your friends, your buddies that you grew up with. They all came to 125th St. It was great. One cat who came from Long Island had a great time. He got lost after the show and asked somebody, ‘Hey, how do I get out of here?’ The guy said ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘I just left the Ralph MacDonald concert.’ ‘You were at Ralph’s concert? Follow me.’ The guy took my friend to some after hours place, and didn’t leave him until eight o’clock the next morning.
MD: Instant friendship.
RM: People feel good about me and I feel good about them. It’s nice to know where you come from. People give me compliments and I like that. But sometimes people get big headed, and all of a sudden they believe they were made for this kind of situation. They don’t care about other people. You can’t do that. That’s one of the things I learned behind Belafonte. The same people you pass on the way up, you pass on the way down.
MD: That’s one of the reasons Harry Belafonte was so respected.
RM:: Right. It takes the same amount of energy to be good as it does to be bad. The same amount of energy. It just depends on which way you want to fall. If you’re nice to people, they’re nice to you. Good things happen.
MD: Much of your playing involves studio work, which doesn’t usually call for the drummer or percussionist to stretch out.
RM: The trick is not to play a whole lot of your instrument. You should get into the habit of listening to what the others are playing. If people would listen to each other, a more common understanding and musical feeling would happen. Many times you may be speaking to me but I’m not aware of it. Where I could be saying something (musically) back to you as an answer. And I don’t mean listening to it after it’s done, but listening while you’re doing it. Anybody could second guess. The point is to get it while it’s going down. Once you sit back and say, ‘Hey listen to what so and so is playing’, when you go back the feeling isn’t there anymore. The line is there but the feeling isn’t. Whatever made him want to do something at that point is not happening. Most musicians come to the studio and want to show everybody how great they are. I didn’t know much about reading when first going into the studio. What I had to do was listen. I always listened. I grew up listening. That was the only way I could relate to the music. After listening to what they were playing, I knew what to play. When I got to the studio, people would say this is the only conga drummer in New York that can read music. I couldn’t read anything! But, I would keep my ears open. Listening. When I learned what the break was, I would sit there while everyone else was talking and beat the break out to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. Next time they’d say, ‘Check the kid on conga drums!’ They didn’t know I was sweating. The more they’d play the better I knew it. You have to know your stuff and listen to the others. Sometimes the guys will be taking you wrong, and you don’t even know it. Sometimes you may think, ‘Hey, that isn’t right.’ You have an opinion yourself. You have some kind of musical quality, that’s why you’re there. Some people don’t want to use their brains, they don’t even care to figure out what it is, until you say, ‘Hey man, is there something wrong there?’ Then everybody says, ‘Oh, yeah.’ You have to listen and play with the other guys.
MD: It’s a matter of making the other guy sound good.
RM: Good point! Many musicians today never accompanied anybody. How many of them can go out and play with Lena Home, Peggy Lee, Judy Collins or Liza Minelli? How many people can play behind Johnny Mathis or Roberta Flack? These people are soft and warm, you have to be a disciplined musician to do that. Boring, they say. Wrong! The trick is to make songs sound warm, color Roberta where she sings, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And you’ve got people sitting out in the audience crying. That’s what it’s about. You know what thrills me, when Roberta Flack looks around at me and smiles, which lets me know I just did something that goosed her off that piano. That makes my heart go like this. I don’t need ten thousand people in the audience saying, ‘Yeah, Ralph MacDonald.’ I never had that. It’s coming now. I’ve always been in the background. I like that role. I like sitting in the background and making this guy look good. That’s what Ralph MacDonald is about.
MD: Do you sit down to practice, or do you consider your playing part of your practice time.
RM: I’m always playing, I do very little practice. My playing is my practice time.
MD: Did you ever have a practice routine to follow?
RM: No. I used to play along with records and my father. Originally, I began playing trap drums. I always had quick reflexes and a good memory. When I used to hear something, I was able to retain it in my mind.
MD: How did you get your reading together?
RM: I bought a book, had my friends come over and show me a couple of things, give me some exercises to do. For percussion, I don’t have to read any notes. What I read are rhythms. If you have a logical sense of mind you pick it up easy. Math was my best subject and the only one that I loved in school.
MD: That’s basically what it is.
RM: Sure, if you can figure it out mathematically, you’ve got it.
MD: While playing with Harry, I know you got into some odd time signatures. Do you still run into these odd times in your present day playing?
RM: Playing with Harry broadened my scope for rhythms in different time signatures. Harry once worked with this Greek girl. We always had to play everybody’s music that Harry brought to the show as his co-act. She had this Greek music in 9/8, 11/8, and 19/8. I thought I was going great guns until we approached that music. Right then and there my heart stopped. All it is again is mathematics.
MD: It’s a matter of dividing it up, or breaking it down.
RM: There you go. And once we did that and played it, the girl said her music was never played any better by musicians in Greece. Man, this 1, 2, 3, 4, that we play here. Elementary! Dave Brubeck did 5 and they went out.
MD: What about the time some of the Indian tabla players deal with?
RM: Wow! Wait a minute now! I’m telling you about the Greeks in just the teens. The tabla players are into 34 and 44 notes in one bar! That’s a new frontier. I’m getting into it now. You know what’s incredible, if they’re playing in 12, they may play it two 3’s and one 6. In the next bar, they might play it as three 3’s and three 1’s, but they’ll always be together.
MD: They always reach their “sum” together.
RM: Yes, and that’s fact! I’m getting into it with this cat Tom Scott from L.A. who played with George Harrison’s band. Allarahka was in the band too.
MD: Do you do any teaching?
RM: No, I don’t have the time. I would love to teach my son, but I just don’t have the time.
MD: Maybe he’ll gain some knowledge like you did, through “osmosis.”
RM: It’ll seep in. He’ll get it. I say to him, ‘I’m not telling you to be a musician. Use it as a hobby, like I did.’ You can live on your hobby. Your hobby becomes the main stay in the work. Imagine kids who were playing tennis when they were young. I can’t think of any black kid in my neighborhood ever thinking about playing tennis. But just imagine the kid who enjoyed playing tennis and now, if he can halfway play, you’re talking about big bucks. Golf, the same way!
MD: Have you ever considered doing any clinics?
RM: Sometimes. It would have to depend on the time. I’m always so busy, I never have enough hours in the day to do what I have to. I’m married and have two kids. Any time I get, I try to give to them. They’re understanding about what I do, the business that I’m in, and what it takes. They’re used to it . I don’t know if they’re used to the style of it though. So, any extra time I get, which is rare, I spend with them. I just need to take the time to get away and relax for a while sometimes, and get away from the studio and music, because your life can’t be all music. You have to keep yourself open for life itself, especially with other people around, whose life you affect. You know, you’re down here doing what you’re doing and may not be aware of the affect you have on somebody else. You get to a point where you can divide where it will make some sense for everybody involved. If my family life isn’t right, then it doesn’t make any sense for me to bust my behind down here. So I try to keep it in such a way that whenever I find some free time, I go home.
MD: Would you care to pass on any advice to the young percussionist?
RM: I think they should really believe in what they’re doing. If they intend to be musicians, they shouldn’t expect it to happen over night. If you really like it, care, and sincerely feel that you’re doing the right thing, then you have to stick with it for a while. Don’t let anybody or anything turn you around from what you want to do. If you keep at it and believe in what you can do then you’re going to make it in this business. If you can play in this business, people are going to hear about you. If you’ve got talent, you’ll work in this business because everybody wants the best. There are lots of musicians and room for many more. There are some people who get a chance to do almost everything, which might not be fair, but chances are there for other people. People look around and see somebody else doing something, they ought to look at what they’re doing. Why is this guy so special? Look at it, study it. Realize what it is and try to apply whatever they can find to what they’re doing. The best education is experience. Just get in there and check it out!
MD: Are there any unexplored musical ideas you would like to touch upon?
RM: Maybe I’ll make an album using very odd percussion stuff.
MD: Such as?
RM: Like the human body for instance. You’d be surprised at how many sounds the human body can make. The different parts of your body being struck by various instruments.
MD: When you’re in the studio and want to use various colors in your playing, do you use the lyrics as a guideline?
RM: Exactly! When I’m doing a pop ballad for example, I listen to it and have to know the name of the song. If there was no vocal on the tune, I’d have to know if it was a sad song, a love song, or if it was a song that had various changes. Based on that information I would know what kind of mood to set. If it was a sad song, you’d want some sad tones; if it was a love song you’d want some warm sounds. If I can see the words to a song, I can play just as well as if I saw the music. But I think that comes from my experience as a song writer.
MD: Do you find working with some musicians easier than with others?
RM: It depends on who it is, and the situation. Certain musicians on certain dates, like Eric Gale and I usually lock in together. Steve Gadd and I usually work well together. And it’s not so much being used to each other’s style, it’s keeping an open mind. Now, Steve Gadd has got to be among the best three drummers in the world. And I can say, ‘Steve don’t play that man, play this.’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh okay’. Then he’ll play it. It’s about respect, knowing and understanding what he’s doing. The guy that’ll give you a hard time is the one who can’t play and refuses to accept any suggestions. It’s just a suggestion. Try to work it out. Everybody’s enough of a musician to know if it’s better than what he had. Either it works or it doesn’t.
BP: I’ve been playing since I was a kid, and have always liked drumming. I couldn’t afford a set of drums, so I used to play on a bread can until I bent it in. It was like playing bongos, yet I played on the side of the can. They told me I had natural rhythm, so I believed them. I went to watch this teacher, Mr. Leonard Heywood, while he taught his students. He let me sit in on one of his classes. I caused him problems because I used to tell him ‘They’re not gonna learn anything, they’re dumb. They’re not going to learn a damn thing.’ So he said, ‘Well if you’re not going to learn something better than what you’re doing, you’re not coming back.’ It was really bad because I used to show off. So, one day he had a student that had been in about a year, and he wanted me to demonstrate certain things. That’s what he would use me for, to demonstrate. But I wasn’t allowed to talk. This young guy who had been taking lessons for about a year played his ass off! And I couldn’t beat him. Mr. Heywood told me, ‘If you come back next week and can’t outplay him, you don’t come anymore.’ And that was my time to go in and really start practicing. When I went back that following week, I played my thing off. Just so I could stay. He put something in my head which told me there’s always somebody out there that’s better. But that still didn’t do it. What really solved the problem was a kid that was 12 years old, I was 13. I was playing and he wanted to sit in. My head had gotten so big that I thought I was badder than anybody. But he sat down and played my solo lick for lick, note for note. The solo I had been playing for two years. And then he said, This is the way you should have played it.’ I wouldn’t go back and play. I let him finish out the job, because I was too embarrassed to go back and play. Everybody laughed and was making jokes. I have never met him or seen him since that day. I don’t even know who he is.
MD: Did Leonard Heywood teach you reading as well as technique?
BP: Yes he did. Leonard Heywood was a fantastic individual. I dedicated my school to him, and everything that I’ve done. He also told me that I was going to be a teacher. I told him, ‘Please don’t wish anything like that on me.’ And you see what happened, I wound up teaching anyhow. There’s got to be love to want to teach, because it’s very frustrating. Sometimes, you can’t get across to some of the people, you hit, pound, drill and they really don’t understand it.
MD: Each student is different. No two students will progress at the same rate of speed.
BP: Yes. Every student has their own individual time. No two people are alike. There are similarities in all, but when it comes down to how fast one can do it, it’s an individual thing. For instance, students who are excellent readers but can’t execute, need to be in the kind of class where they can learn from the others. Yet, they’ll give so much more than they’ll get out of it. Because they know more than the others do. The little bit they need will take awhile to get, because they were slow getting it in the first place. One hand washes the other. It takes awhile to learn the feeling and go about getting a thing across. They play off one another.
MD: Do you recall your first drum set?
BP: I sure do. It took me two years to pay for it.
MD: Did you pay for it with your newspaper route?
BP: Yes. The mayor of the town owned the newsstand, and he got it for me and let me pay it on credit. Took me two years. Cost me five dollars a week. It was a Rogers set. Single tension.
MD: Do you still have it?
BP: No I don’t have it any longer.
MD: What kinds of music did you listen to when you were coming up?
BP: Big bands. Everything at that time was big bands. I tried to apply what I was doing with all types of bands. Leonard Heywood told me that it would work. He would say to me, rhythm is rhythm no matter who plays it or where it comes from. You have the one thing that guys would most love to have and that is rhythm. Melodic rhythm is the key to any kind of playing. You can play in any kind of groove, jazz, rock, rhythm, blues, country or Latin as long as you play melodically. What I love the most was to be able to play Latin with jazz overtones and add into the new thing that was trying to happen, rhythm and blues. I put them all together to make one, which they call rock and roll.
MD: Who were some of the drummers you were listening to when you first began playing?
BP: Everybody. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole, Joe Marshall. I mean these were people I had heard of, but I never knew them. Anytime Art Blakey would come near Philly or Baltimore I was there with my mouth wide open. I never knew how he did it. I thought he did it cause he used to open his mouth when he played. I would be looking at his mouth, cause he was into it. Sure, I heard everything he played but I didn’t see a damn thing, cause I was looking at his mouth. Another guy that I learned from was Pernell Rice. He learned how to play on a pillow, because they wouldn’t allow drums in his apartment. That showed you just how fast he had to be, to make a sound come out of a pillow, cause there is no sound.
MD: There’s no response.
BP: There’s no response but he did it.
MD: Do you still practice?
BP: Yes, but not like I should. I should practice every day. Because I got involved in business, I became extremely lazy. I’m a lazy player, so what I’ve learned to do is take the short cuts to the easiest way. Take anything hard and make it easy. And this way it helps me when I don’t get a chance to practice. I’ve learned to take short cuts in getting to that central point. I have found that you can only play one beat at a time, if you want it to be recognizable. Now, that might sound very strange but basically I emphasize one particular thing, and use all my limbs to make that one thing happen. So, I use it as an extension. Each hand, each leg, becomes an extension of the other. You play something that’s going to compliment the left foot, the right foot is going to play something that’s going to compliment the right hand, etc. So you’re complimenting each thing that you’re doing.
MD: Is that your example of the short cut?
BP: That’s the example of the short cut. You’re molding that one beat to be so big that it’s gonna sound like several things happening. And that is why my beats come out heavy. You hear one thing that’s dominant. Whatever that’s going to be is the thing that you are going to harp on. Whether it’s the bass drum that is the sound people want, whether it’s the snare, whether it’s the right hand or the left foot.
MD: What did your practice routine consist of when you had time to practice?
BP: There are things that I should always work on and one of those things is a roll. I make one of the sloppiest rolls in the world. I mean it’s better, but it will never be like it should, because I don’t take enough time to make it work. Some guys used to kid me about my biscuit. I made biscuits for rolls, but I got across because I learned to take some of the lumps out of the biscuits. It’s better, but I’m no Louie Bellson. I’m no Joe Morello. When it comes down to rolls they can do it. One of the best rolls in the world comes from Buddy Rich. I’m a time man. Time has always been my key. When I want to do something, I think of time first. And to me rolls were something that time got in the way of. You couldn’t do them often and still play time. So that was my excuse. And that’s all it was, an excuse. I should have practiced more on the rolls. The time wasn’t going anyplace, because I was always thinking of that. I needed to practice on what I really didn’t know the most, which were the rolls. Consequently, it suffered after so many years. I didn’t practice as much as I should. When I practice now, I take five or ten minutes out and do a little roll. I practice on things that I’m trying to work out. Something that I’ve heard somebody do, and they did it so hard. I try to make it easy. How can I make what he did easy and less complicated? So I work on things like that, to bring out new things. I’m always looking for something different.
MD: Do you do anything special since you don’t practice as often as you would like to?
BP: I try to play as much as possible. That’s the only way to stay in shape. You can’t do anything unless you play. There’s no way for you to stay in shape unless you play. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve played all my life. I’ve played practically every day.
MD: Do you play any other instruments beside the drums?
BP: I do, but I don’t. I’d never take a job playing the vibes, xylophone, or piano. But I can “two-finger” on them.
MD: What’s your opinion of practicing on pads?
BP: There’s nothing like pads. There will never be anything like pads. Pads give you speed, precision and also durability. I’m into sound so I like to practice on the drum to change sounds. To fluctuate. I work with sounds in order to create different moves, different beats, different things I have to do. I used it to learn how much pressure I should apply to make a certain sound come out when I’m playing on an unknown set of drums. Why, and how, would I make this come out? I listen for sounds basically. I basically play on a set of drums instead of pads. But I find that pads are the greatest things in the world. If you play on a set of drums all the time, you can’t help but become good at it. So I basically have to listen for the sounds, because I never play on my set when I’m in the studios around the country.
MD: What type of set-up do you use when you play live?
BP: I have a bass drum, two tenor toms, a floor tom, snare drum, hi-hat and basically two cymbals. I’m stretching out a little, I’ve added a third and fourth cymbal. I’m having fun with them.
MD: Why two more cymbals? Do you find the need for different colors in your playing?
BP: Yes, mainly for different colors. But now I’ve got to learn to play with four cymbals. I’ve never played with all of them. I’ve been playing 30 years with just two cymbals. And now in the last year or two adding two more cymbals. That’s like starting from scratch. I don’t even know where they are. I’ve got to look for them. I never had to look before. I knew where the cymbals were.
MD: What do you look for in a set of drums?
BP: I listen to the sound of the wood. I also listen to the feel it brings across, because I am keyed into sound. I don’t basically have the problem most guys have when they hit the drum, knowing about overtone, ring, undercurrent, things like that. I know, because I’ve experienced it. So when I sit down to play, I listen for overtones all the time.
MD: What size tom-toms do you use?
BP: Well, I’ve just graduated. For ten years, I had 12″ 13″ and 14″. I’m now using 13″, 14″, and 16″ and a 22″ bass drum. I had an 18″ bass for ten years. So I’ve got a bigger set now. And I’m catching hell there too. I have to get used to reaching. I didn’t have to reach for ten years.
MD: What type of drum heads do you prefer?
BP: Regular plastic heads.
MD: For what reasons?
BP: Because they breathe better than the harder heads, and I’m able to play all kinds of time and rhythm. I control my weight, how I hit it and how much pressure I want to add to it. I’ve learned to work with the regular heads better than the black dots, the smooth heads or the heavy rock heads. I don’t want to be tied down to one type of playing, ever. Because I like everything. And I want to be able to have some kind of control over what I do, and the sound that comes out.
MD: I know you play Zildjian cymbals. Did you personally select the ones you are currently using?
BP: I’m fortunate enough to be able to go up there and select mine from the factory.
MD: What do you listen for in a cymbal?
BP: I listen for the overtones. Not the ring, the overtones. The overtone is what most guys fail to realize they have. The overtone is different from the ring. I look for them to die quickly. So I can control how much cymbal I want, and how much is to be used. Most guys do not know this, because they can’t hear. Maybe because they hear the ring, and basically because of what they’re listening for. No one has really taken the time to explain the difference in the cymbals, and where the overtone comes in, and dies out. I was fortunate because my first teacher explained that for me, 25 years ago. Of course, I didn’t know what he meant, but eventually, during the course of the years, I started listening and hearing. My ears got very acute to hearing things that most drummers didn’t hear. There are a few drummers in the world who can make cymbals sing. One of those guys who happens to be a super drummer, and also works for the Zildjian cymbal factory, is Lennie DiMuzio. He’s really good! And he makes those cymbals sing. He really makes them sing. But don’t forget, he’s gotten good, because he had a chance and opportunity to experiment on them. And they really sound good when he plays them.
MD: What are the sizes and types of cymbals that you are currently using?
BP: They vary. I like the 13″ for the hihat. 17″, 18″, 19″, and 20″ for ride cymbals, sizzles and things of that nature.
MD: Do you use different cymbals depending upon the type of recording session you are involved in, or depending upon the studio?
BP: No, I play what’s there! I don’t have to worry about carrying cymbals all around, because I learned how to approach all cymbals. And when you have some that have too much overtone or ring, you can put some tape on it. Kill some of it.
MD: What model sticks do you prefer?
BP: Mine, I finally got my own. They are the Bernard Purdie model.
MD: Nylon or wooden tips?
BP: Wooden tipped.
MD: What grip do you find most comfortable, matched or traditional?
BP: Both. But my matched grip is matched grip.
MD: Didn’t I see you turn the butt end around in your left hand?
BP: Yeah, I use the butt end in my left hand.
MD: In your left hand? You mean you use the bead on the drum head?
BP: No, I use the butt on the head.
MD: That isn’t matched grip, is it?
BP: Well, it’s not called matched grip, I forgot what I call it now. For me, in order to balance the stick out and play what I want to play, I beat on the butt with my left hand, because it gives me better control. The feel is right in my hand. That to me was matched grip because then the stick became level by holding the small part of the stick and letting the stick be able to rebound. The stick does very little rebounding in matched grip.
MD: Do you also use this grip when soloing?
BP: I use it whenever I want to. When I’m playing hard, it’s easier to go that way for me. I use the traditional when I’m lazy, when I just want to groove and not do anything.
MD: Have you ever used the double bass drum set-up?
BP: Sure. I had fun with it too. There were no set patterns to use and most guys only play a certain kind of pattern. But I did whatever I felt. It worked out fine.
MD: I noticed your drums have both top and bottom heads. Have you ever used tom-toms with just a single head?
BP: No, because I lose the sound. In the studio, I don’t fight with the engineer anymore about keeping the head on the bass drum.
MD: Wouldn’t you prefer to have both heads on the bass drum?
BP: Oh, I’d always prefer it! But, it’s easier for the engineers to get what they want with the head off. You don’t fight engineers anymore, I learned that the hard way. So you go along with the engineer.
MD: What are your thoughts on the electronic revolution happening in drumming?
BP: I think it’s fantastic. They’re good gimmicks. As long as you use them as gimmicks, and not as a set of drums. That’s what they were built for in the first place. Not to take the place of drums, but to add to them. If guys face that then it will work fine.
MD: Have you used some of the new electronic percussion products?
BP: Oh sure, the electronic drums, the tuneable timbales, the concert toms. I played on all of them, and had fun. It just means more work for me. But, I don’t need extra work. I’m very lazy. All I want to do is groove. I’ll groove all night long. I don’t need solos, for what? Let me have some fun listening to the rest of the folks, and make them happy.
MD: Do I detect a negative view on drum soloing?
BP: I think soloing is great as long as you limit it. It’s boring, very boring. But that’s my opinion.
MD: Well, if you had to do a solo, what would your approach be?
BP: I like rhythm solos. I don’t mind having the rhythm continue while I play my solo. I like to play my solo inside of rhythms, so it makes my job easier, and it makes me sound good. There’s something there that offsets what I’m doing. So the people feel very natural, very happy, where they can still dance, and still move while my solo is going on.
MD: Do you have any favorite drum soloists?
BP: No, I like too many drummers.
MD: What is your concept of the drummer’s role in the rhythm section?
BP: He is the backbone of the band. If you take care of that job, then you can do anything you want. Your job is to hold the band together. Your job is to support everybody in that band. It’s your job to give the band what they want, when they need it. And in return, they’ll give you what you need. But, you’ve got to give it to them first. Always, that’s your role.
MD: Is there any one person that you would credit with being the most influential voice in drumming styles in the past 20 years?
BP: There are many good drummers who teach. A drummer who can teach has my support all his life. Because then he’s giving something away that young people need. That to me, is one of the greatest roles a drummer can play. Being able to pass the knowledge down to somebody else. Giving them a chance to learn what is going on and what is happening. I appreciate any teacher.
MD: What do you listen for in a drummer?
BP: I listen for precision, a nice sound, how he carries himself, when he wants to get his point across. I also listen for him to be the backbone of the organization.
MD: Do you have any words of advice for young drummers just starting out with hopes of one day filling your shoes?
BP: Learn the basic elements of drumming. Learn it, don’t bullshit it. It will take you far into the music world. I begged. Finally, someone gave me a chance. I mean you can’t just walk in and expect it to happen. You have to be ready when the time comes.
GT: I became 47 on January 14.
MD: In your early days in North Carolina did you study drums with a private teacher?
GT: No, I just picked it up. I’ve been playing drums since age five.
MD: What about reading, did you just pick that up also?
GT: My first contact with reading was in high school. That was in the high school band. There wasn’t anyone to teach percussion because there were no black percussionists in the area. And the black drummers who were there had the same fate I faced. They didn’t know what they were doing. When I got to high school, fortunately I had a knack for playing from hand to hand. If I wanted to do something it was easier for me to play it with alternate sticking than to punctuate with one hand and play the balance of the figure with the other. So I just naturally played almost correctly. In high school, I ran into a reading problem and asked a trumpet player, ‘How does this figure go, what does this sound like?’ Once they hummed it to me, I’d remember it. From then on, each time I saw it I’d know what it sounded like. That’s the way I learned to read. If I saw a figure and didn’t know what it was, I’d ask another musician. Each time they hummed it to me I’d catalog it. I read by remembering everything that I see. I’ve never been involved in the 1 E AN DA’s, 2 E AN DA’S and what have you. I’ve never had to concentrate on reading while playing. I know what it sounds like before getting there. I don’t have to read it as such. I see it and play it. That style has been it for me, because the reading doesn’t interfere with my playing.
MD: So you’re able to read ahead. There are only so many figures that you’re going to see.
MD: Do you feel you’ve missed something by not having that rudimental background?
GT: Of course. If I ever thought of becoming one of the world’s greatest drummers I realize that my lack of a rudimental background would be a drawback. But, I’ve never really been concerned about playing that much. I’m not a soloist. I would be very happy to never solo in my life. I don’t think solos and I’m not prepared to play solos really. I’m not a solo drummer. If I have to play a solo, I put something together. I’m not at all satisfied with it because I recognize my shortcomings. When I play solos, I’m slightly inhibited. I realize just what it is that I can’t do. I don’t get all over the drums. I’m basically a time player. I play time, colors, and play with my environment. I play whatever is called for at the time, as authentically as possible. If it’s the rock thing, I’ve listened enough to make the switch. It took a hell of a switch from a dotted eight, sixteenth note to a straight eighth note basic pattern. It was difficult. That’s why many drummers my age, who came up during my era and a little before me, just don’t make the transition. I don’t deal with nostalgia because that’s not me. I’m out here to make it today and tomorrow. Yesterday took care of itself. It’s gone.
MD: Who were some of your early influences? Who did you listen to?
GT: I don’t really know, because until I was about 18, I didn’t hear anybody. On the radio, the musicians were unidentified, so I didn’t know who I was listening to. If you’re a leader, you know, this is the Benny Goodman Band, or this is the Inkspots, or this is Lionel Hampton or somebody. They didn’t say the drummer was Buddy Rich or Shadow Wilson. I listened to the sound for the first few years. The first 15, 16, 17 years of my life. Then I went into became involved with musicians who, prior to their coming into the service, had been professional. They brought records with them and knowledge of who was doing what. I heard what they had to say about everybody and began to buy records because they were accessible. I began to listen to Max and Bo Hana, Philly Jo, and the fella that I saw when I was a kid, Jo Jones. And that just wiped me out. I had never seen anything like that in my life. This man was playing drums but he didn’t sound like a drummer. Basically, I don’t like drums. Just drums. Because drums are noisy and quite often, not melodic. But Jo Jones played drums with the Basie band and made colors. He made the band happen at the same time, but it wasn’t that machine gun kind of sound. That constant barrage of bass drum, tom-tom, snares and cymbals. That wasn’t there. He was playing music, colors, and swinging all the time. Once into the service I started listening to individuals, as opposed to the overall sound of music itself. I’d go out and pick up everything by Philly Jo, Max and Bo Hana. Since that time, my whole life has been just day after day of listening to different musicians and drummers. You get a lot of things from other musicians. You get a lot of rhythmic figures from a cat like Dizzy. Dizzy is one of the most incredibly rhythmic persons on the face of this earth. He is a drummer. He plays on his horn, all those beautiful rhythmic patterns. Miles lays back on his figures, he plays slick figures. Clifford plays those long, lilting passages.
MD: Grady, you told me that you came to New York around 1946. Why did you go back to North Carolina?
GT: Yes, but that was for about four days. Grady in Wonderland! I finished school and then moved to Washington in 1959. I worked the Post Office and did some substitute teaching for a couple of years. A friend of mine, Herschil McGinnis, was a sax player in Washington. He asked me to go to a club with him because there was an organist down there named Wild Bill Davis. Wild Bill was looking for a saxophone player. Bill was dropping his sax player in Washington, so Herschil wanted to see if he could get the gig. I was driving so he said, ‘Come on man, take me down to the club and we’ll hang out.’ We went and he auditioned. I said, ‘Let me play. Can I play some?’ Bill let me sit in. I hadn’t played in a long time because I never really considered being a professional musician. I sat in and it felt good. Bill called me the following morning and asked if I wanted the job. I didn’t have any drums or any bread. I said, ‘I’d like to have a job. When?’ He said, ‘Startin’ tonight.’ ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ So, I went to a pawn shop and got a set of drums, cymbals, everything for 90 dollars. Everything. I didn’t have any spurs on the bass drum, the thing was rolling around. I put a rope around it, tied it and anchored it to my seat. But I made the gig. I played on those same drums for almost six years. The same drums.
MD: Did you finally get some spurs?
GT: I finally got some spurs. And that bass drum is in my home now, it’s a coffee table.
MD: After you hooked up with Bill in D.C., did you come to New York with him?
GT: We did the summers in Atlantic City. Then I came here to audition for a Broadway show.
MD: Did you have to do any reading with Bill?
GT: No, none at all. I didn’t do any reading from 1955 when I got out of the service, until 1963. I guess most people think I’ve been in this business for 30, 35 years. But I haven’t. Most people think I’ve been recording since the 40’s. My first recording was in 1963 with Melba Liston.
MD: How did you get into doing studio work?
GT: I broke through with Jerome Richardson. I was still living in Washington, but we were working in Atlantic City. Bill didn’t have a regular sax player or guitarist so we used different cats. We left Atlantic City and went to Baltimore where we picked up Jerome. He asked me to work with his group in New York. ‘I can promise you 11 weeks of work the minute we get there,’ he said. So I moved to New York. I moved into a hotel that was on the corner of 52nd and Broadway. I worked with Jerome at the Old Five Spot and the Jazz Gallery. Jerome was Quincy’s (Jones) right hand man. Jerome told Quincy about me, and Quincy needed a drummer. I went on in there and braved my way. That’s really the first time I had to do much reading.
MD: After reading did you find it difficult to get back in the groove?
GT: I found out that all Quincy wanted was somebody to play time. Quincy loved the shuffle. With all that he’s doing now, he still loves that shuffle feeling and I can shuffle. I can play a back beat. I’m really not a drummer as such. I don’t consider myself that. I hear cats around me everyday who are incredible drummers. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve got a certain amount of taste, intuitiveness, and fairly good time. That’s all.
MD: What are some of your thoughts on soloing?
GT: I really don’t know. I have involved myself so infrequently with solos. When it comes time for me to solo, I almost panic. I don’t know what I’m going to do until I hit the first beat of the first bar of the solo. I drop my hands and whatever comes out, comes out. There are cats who work out things, work their hands up, work patterns and what have you. But I’m basically very lazy where drums are concerned. If I can’t just sit down and do it, it doesn’t get done.
MD: You once said that you don’t even own a drum set.
GT: Well, I do have a set that I use for emergencies but they’re never set up. I’ve given most of my things away. I needed the set that I have now. I have a set of Fibes.
MD: Do you endorse them?
GT: I did. They were sending me set after set, but now my drums are spread all over the place.
MD: Do you have any helpful words for a drummer entering the studio scene?
GT: The only real tip I have for any aspiring studio musician who wants to make some bread in this particular area, is listen to every record possible. Records of all eras. In the studio you never know what you’re going to run into. You have to listen to Broadway, two beat music, classics, the top 40 and MOR stations. You have to be musically ready. You don’t just come into studio work and do it. I know many musicians who do studio work, spend a lot of time with a particular studio drummer, and just go around from date to date observing. Studio playing is different from playing live. You have to be more attentive, more concerned about everything that you play. You don’t just experiment. You must have it down because the tape doesn’t lie to you. It picks up everything you do, and everything you don’t do. You have to be very, very careful. That’s one of the problems in being a studio drummer. You’re out there by yourself and everything you play is going to be thrown back at you and thrown back at everybody else. On a live date if you play and it doesn’t come off, so what, that’s gone. In the studio, it’s documented. You have to know what’s going to happen before you get there. You have to be on top of things man…it’s nerve wracking. You’re not allowed the luxury of being wrong, ever.
MD: Do you practice?
MD: Did you ever have a practice routine?
GT: Routines get you into trouble in that many times when you sit down to play you sound like one of your routines. The name of the game to me is spontaneity.
MD: What kind of cymbals do you use?
GT: Generally, I don’t carry anything.
MD: Just your stick bag?
GT: Yes, I carry a stick bag. I prefer studios that have drums in them, but if I’m playing a small group gig, I like Zildjians. I love my K. Zildjians. I also have some Paistes.
MD: Do you find a difference between the K Zilkjian and A Zildjian?
GT: I don’t really know.
MD: You bought them yourself?
GT: No, they were sent to me.
MD: By the company?
GT: Yeah, they send me what they think I’d like. I’m not very picky about things. I don’t have to have anything specific. The only thing I’m very particular about is my sticks.
MD: What size do you prefer?
GT: I use a Jake Hanna, regal tip.
MD: You like a medium weight?
GT: Yes, it’s a medium weight and can be used for anything. I don’t play loud anyway, so if I need some extra weight, all I have to do is turn it around. If you’re playing rock and you turn it around, you’ve got a fairly decent wack. Other than that, I’m not that particular. I travel all over the world with the stipulation that wherever I go there are drums provided. I don’t make specifications because in different areas it’s hard to come by a particular piece of equipment. I play whatever is there. If it’s a workable set, I can play it. If you can play you’re going to sound about the same on any cymbal. It’ll sound different to you but to everyone else you sound about the same. It’s your approach to the cymbal, your approach to the snare. Philly Jo can take a field drum and make it sound like the most precisely tuned instrument in the world. It’s just the way he plays a snare. When he’s right, there’s nobody in life better. He can take a snare drum and make it sound like a full set. He’s incredible.
MD: No matter what you play, your own individual style is going to come out?
MD: Have you ever experimented with electronics?
GT: No, I’ve had to play them at times. I had to do some Syndrum playing on a couple of things for The Wiz album. It’s just another sound and being electronic, it is controlled basically by the board inside. I don’t find any great thrill in electronics at all.
MD: Tuning drums is a matter of personal choice. What are your thoughts on tuning?
GT: It’s where your ear takes you. It’s your preference. It’s how you hear the instrument. If you hear your instrument in a certain tone with a tuning that is abrasive or offensive to others around you, it’s up to you to make a change. Basically, what you hear is what you have to tune to.
MD: So you don’t deliberately try to tune your drums in thirds or to get close to a particular note. You just tune them to what sounds good?
GT: Many times cats will tune their tomtoms if they are playing three toms. They’ll maybe tune the lower tom-tom a minor third from the higher tom, and the floor tom will be a fourth below the minor third. In certain instances that’s okay. But when the tonality of the band changes, at times that can be abrasive because it will go against the changes the other musicians are playing. So I try to tune my drums somewhere in between. With the muffling that we do now it cuts out so much of the tonality you get a difference in thud.
MD: Are the overtones cut down?
GT: Yes, you cut down many of the overtones so you’re getting a difference in thud power. And it’s good especially with the rock things. You don’t hear that big tonality. You hear the big tom-tommy thud sound.
MD: You feel it more than you hear it.
GT: Right, right. You feel it.
MD: Are there any particular type heads that you prefer?
MD: For brush work, do you use a snare head with a texture to it?
GT: The clear plastic heads don’t make it with brushes on live dates because the swish is not there. You get nothing out of your left hand if you’re swishing. Right? In recording, that swish is good with a clear head because the mike picks up that little swish sound. If you have a new head and you’re playing on a recording, the swish is like taking a piece of sand paper and rubbing it on the microphone.
MD: It’s too much?
GT: Yes, it’s too abrasive. On live playing it is not good, but I find that in studio work the clear plastic, the very smooth plastic, is good.
MD: What are some of the things that you look for and listen for in a drummer?
GT: Time and sensitivity. That’s it, and in that order.
MD: When you’re playing behind someone, like Ella for instance, do you listen to the words of the song as a key to using different colors and textures?
GT: Not necessarily. The colors to me are more easily generated by listening to the rest of the band or the rhythm section. I don’t really concentrate on the lyric as much as the feeling. There’s a feeling that a lyric gives you. If you listen to French tunes, you don’t know the meaning of the words but you notice the implication. It’s implied that this means love or this means hate. So I react to the feeling that is implied more than the words. I listen to what it feels like and color accordingly.
MD: Do you teach at all?
MD: Have you ever considered it?
GT: No. I wouldn’t know what to teach. I’ve never been taught. I wouldn’t know how to go about it.
MD: Have you ever considered doing a clinic?
GT: I’ve done clinics but they’re all verbal. At one clinic, I ordered double bass drums, six cymbals, six or seven toms, small tympani on the left, a gong, and different accessories like triangles, wood block and finger-cymbals. I walked on stage, took a stick, and hit everyone of those things one time. I said, ‘Now that I have totally astonished you with my technique, we can get down to some of the finer points of playing this instrument.’ And that’s all I played the entire clinic.
MD: So your clinics are rap sessions?
GT: Yes, a rap session. Because I’m not a clinician. I don’t operate well under anything but battle conditions. I’m terrible at a rehearsal. I cannot find in myself the energy to put out at a rehearsal. If it’s a rehearsal, then it’s for my benefit too. I use that time to acquaint myself with what’s going to happen.
MD: Do you prefer singing to playing the drums?
GT: Because I’m in control of the melodic content and the verbal communication. There’s no way you can mistake what I’m saying if I’m singing to you. I’ve never been that good on my drums. Many cats are, but I’m not.
MD: Do you believe that your feeling, as opposed to technique, is responsible for that status you’ve obtained in the music field?
GT: It’s not my technique. I don’t have any technique.
MD: Then you feel you are a good back up drummer for a singer?
GT: Yes, for a vocalist or a band. I can do whatever is called for at the time. Many times people hear more than I’m actually playing. What they’re hearing is the feeling. There are ways of placing things. I can’t explain or teach it to anybody. There’s a way of placing something with a combination of things. It’s the way one plays a cymbal with the right hand and a sock cymbal. When you’re playing and the sock comes down, if it’s not totally synchronized, there’s a looseness about your playing that’s irritating. I can play my sock and my ride cymbal very softly, and because of the synchronization, the intensity is not to be believed.
MD: The right foot and left hand are almost not needed.
GT: You’ve got it, that’s where the time is, and it’s so precise that it cuts through everything. You’re not forcing anything, you’re just laying everything in its proper place. When you can play the ride cymbal and left foot with that kind of synchronization, and then play something off that with your left hand, it sounds incredible. It’s just that everything is properly synchronized. It’s the way I play. A lot of cats hear things I play and say, ‘Damn, man that was a gas.’ I know it’s the simplest thing imaginable to me. I find the simplest thing I can possibly play and make it work.
MD: Then it’s possible to create the illusion of something being more complicated by playing it correctly and accurately.
GT: Absolutely. It sounds complicated because it’s right, because things are properly spaced.
MD: And properly placed?
GT: Yes. It was the right time for it. I played it when the space was made available to me.
MD: Don’t you find that a good part of that comes from listening?
GT: Darn near all of it comes from listening. That’s right, being sympathetic and compatible.
MD: The role in the studio is to make the other guy look good?
GT: And at the same time make yourself look good. By making the singer or what have you look good, you come off with five stars.
MD: So instead of saying with your instrument, ‘Listen to me,’ you…
GT: I don’t have that problem. I don’t have the need to be recognized. I’ve never had the need to be recognized.
MD: Do you find many drummers have an ego thing which somehow surfaces through their playing.
GT: Your playing is indicative of your personality. Always. If you let me listen to a cat, I’ll tell you what kind of person he is. And it’s gonna be right. Look at all the drummers you know. Think about their playing. Think about having met them and the impression they gave you. They’re the same people, on and off their instrument. They’re the same cats. You find very nice, mild mannered drummers and they play that way. The never stir up a storm. Even when it’s called for they don’t rise to the occasion. It’s just not them. When they try to achieve what is called for, they fail because it’s not real. Look at the cats you know. It’s true.
MD: Are you still growing musically?
GT: I’ll always grow. I hear things. I hear what other people are doing. I hear what I’d like to do. There’s constant growth. I’m not growing on the drums as much as possible because I don’t involve myself totally with them anymore. I don’t think about drums anymore. I sit down to play and when that’s over, I’m through. I don’t think about my next session. But let’s face it, I want to be a singer. That’s what it boils down to. I think about that and work at it.
MD: Then you’re getting more involved with singing?
GT: I’m involved whether working or not. Because I work with my equipment, my recorders and what have you. I work on ideas and things like that. This has taken the place of my earlier days when I was thinking of what I was going to play on my next date. I remember if a call came to do an Oliver Nelson date or something, I’d sit down and listen to all the things I had by Oliver. And I’d say, ‘Well this is where Oliver’s head is at.’
MD: Is there any one musical experience that stands out in your mind?
GT: The most bizarre experience I ever had was in 1965. We were playing with Quincy’s band. Snooky Young was playing lead trumpet and we had this incredible figure to play. I had a set up to do, and this particular night everything seemed to be right. The band was just romping. This set up was something that we all waited for every time we played this thing. The trumpet section and rhythm waited for it. So I made my big set up and hit the figure. Immediately I was angry because it was set up perfectly and the cats didn’t play. I looked at the trumpet section and noticed they were looking at me. We were both looking at one another with the same kind of expression and irritation. I played the figure and in my ears, cancelled the brass section out. When they hit the figure they cancelled me out. It was hit so perfectly, there wasn’t a millionth of a second difference. It was as though for that split second there was a vacuum. Quincy and the saxaphone section turned around in amazement. It was like the Twilight Zone. I’ve never had that happen since.
MD: Those set ups are so important. Catching those figures helps to punctuate the brass parts so the trumpet section doesn’t have to blow their brains out.
GT: Set ups are very important. In most instances, they’re looking to you for the time. Sometimes there’s twenty men, and each one of them has a different tempo.
MD: A different inner-clock.
GT: Yes, a different clock. So they look at you. You are to be their time machine. If your tendency is to rush your set ups, it throws everybody into a little panic. It pushes everybody ahead, and people don’t like to be pushed. It doesn’t feel good. So you have to be careful of set ups and things.
MD: Do you have any unfulfilled musical goals?
GT: Not really. I just want to go on playing and being involved with good music.