A Different View
The New York–born, Berklee-trained guitarist is part of a small circle of musicians who basically owned the Manhattan studio scene in the ’70s, and whose influence is still being felt today. Drum gods? Yeah, he’s known a few.
by Billy Amendola
John Tropea has collaborated with such legendary figures as bassists Will Lee and Anthony Jackson, guitarist David Spinozza, horn players David Sanborn and Randy and Michael Brecker, and keyboardists Don Grolnick and Richard Tee. He appears on recordings featuring a truly heavy list of drummers, including a pair of bona fide classics with Billy Cobham—the fusion star’s debut album, Spectrum, and Deodato’s Prelude, which features a hit arrangement of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other career highlights include work with the Three Degrees, Ashford & Simpson, Bo Diddley, Peter Allen, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Paul Simon, Alice Cooper, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and George Benson. As a leader, the guitarist has released eleven albums whose tracks run the gamut from rock and pop to jazz, funk, and fusion.
Tropea’s latest solo album, Gotcha Rhythm Right Here, is graced by the cream of the crop of New York drummers. It’s a theme that runs throughout his vast catalog. In fact, Tropea has always seemed intent on getting the most out of his percussive friends. Scan his early solo recordings, and you’ll hear not just one certified drum god, but two—Steve Gadd and Rick Marotta—panned hard left and right. And Tropea’s live performances offer a whole other level of drumming magic. In the mid-’70s, for instance, any musician who frequented clubs like Mikell’s would get an instant education upon paying the cover charge (or, like this writer, occasionally sneaking in!) to witness a set by Tropea, who would always have heavyweights like Gadd, Marotta, and Chris Parker backing him up. The guitarist recently took time out of his busy schedule to share some of the wisdom he’s picked up over the years from these groundbreaking drummers.
MD: You’ve played with so many great drummers. What lessons have you learned from them?
John: I’ve learned about good time and feel, and how to pace the music. I remember the first time I heard a drummer play a fatback beat. I was in Boston at an R&B gig, and the drummer was a cat named Crockett. After the first song, I turned to him and asked, “What’s that feel?” He said, “Fatback.” After that, I met and got into Bernard Purdie, and the fun began. I believe musicians who are exposed to great drummers can only become better musicians themselves. I believe it’s who you play with that shows who you are.
MD: Do you play drums at all?
John: I don’t—but I like to think that I am playing drums when I’m playing rhythm guitar parts.
MD: How do you explain to drummers what you’re looking for when you’re in the studio?
John: I look for the drummer to take the outline of the arrangement and get acclimated to all of the important hits and figures. Then let the band play. It’s very important not to tie his or her hands. Too much in the drum chart can result in that.
I remember doing a date a long time ago with Bernard Purdie where the arranger had written a very complicated drum part for him. Although Purdie read the chart fine, in the end the arranger had written pretty much what he would have played anyway. This resulted in tying Purdie’s hands and the session taking longer.
It’s also important that the drummer is highly aware of what others are playing and knows when—and when not—to respond to it.
MD: Let’s talk about some of the great drummers you’ve worked with, beginning with Shawn Pelton.
John: First let me just say that all of the drummers I’ve had the pleasure to work with are highly professional musicians whose fortes overlap—every one of them would do a great job on just about anything the music might need. Regarding Shawn, he’s one of the most innovative drummers around. He always seems to put something a bit different in the feel. Of course his time is great and he has all the chops anyone would ever need. Simply, he’s got a special thing going for him.
On my latest album, Shawn cowrote two songs with me and [keyboardist] Chris Palmaro, “Soul Surfin’” and “Chili Wa Man,” which is actually named for Shawn. He played live for our CD release party, and needless to say he sounded terrific.
MD: Steve Gadd.
John: Playing with Steve is always special. His musicality is of the highest order. Everything he plays is meaningful. Steve can play so light and simple, yet it’s burning. Then he’ll play an intricate fill that makes everyone in the band look up and smile. In addition, his brushwork is absolutely unique and respected by all.
MD: Rick Marotta.
John: Rick always has a killer laid-back groove—so laid back that we used to joke around that Rick’s snare sometimes arrives the next day. [laughs] The first tour I did with Deodato in the early ’70s was with Rick. We had loads of fun. On my first three solo albums in the ’70s and one live CD in the ’80s, I had double drummers, Marotta and Gadd. They had a special way of playing together—completely respecting each other and never a competing moment. Rick and I also share a birthday!
MD: Billy Cobham.
John: The first time I met and played with Billy was back in 1972, on Deodato’s Prelude album, which had the hit “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” His playing was and is to this day so unique and intricate. At that point I hadn’t played with any drummers like Billy. The combination of the musicians and the difference in their styles was a genius move on Deodato’s part.
Talking about Billy leads me to a funny yet humbling story. After meeting and playing with him on Prelude, he called me to play on his record Spectrum. The session was at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Billy passes out [the music to] a song and tells me, “Do your rhythm thing on this, Tropes.” I of course nod my head yes. I look at the music and it’s in 7/4 time. Now I’m like, Oh boy… It was the first time I’d played 7/4 on a date—especially with a drummer like Billy. After a run-through or two, he and the rest of the cats caught on that I was struggling a bit and came to my aid with some suggestions on how to look at 7/4. After a few more run-throughs I came up with a rhythm part and we pressed record.
Needless to say there was some ribbing, but it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me. It opened my eyes to what I needed to work on if I wanted to be a well-rounded studio musician. Not long after that I recorded my first solo album for TK Records with Gadd and Marotta, and I recorded two tunes in seven: David Spinozza’s “The Bratt” and Don Grolnick’s “7th Heaven.”
MD: Cliff Almond.
John: I met Cliff in the mid-’90s, when I did a year with the Manhattan Transfer. Cliff is another vastly talented drummer in the studio and on stage. In addition to recording with me on my last few albums, he’s been playing live on and off with my band as well. I especially love his work with Michel Camilo. He’s also terrific playing big band music. Cliff is funky and always fun.
MD: Clint de Ganon.
John: The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Clint is great time. He’s tight and precise. And he has great instincts in the studio and on stage. Clint and I have played a lot together in the Tropea Band over the last ten or twelve years. I love the fact that he always listens to where I may be going with my playing, both in terms of feel and intensity.
MD: The late, great percussionist Rubens Bassini.
John: Rubens was the percussionist with the Deodato band when I started with them. His feel was unique, and it was always a blast to work with him. Playing with Rubens and Deodato was an education in Brazilian music. Rubens was a sweet, gentle man. There was no one who didn’t love Rubens. I miss him dearly.
MD: Charley Drayton.
John: Back in the mid-’70s, when my first record was released, I used to work a lot with Charley’s father, Bernie. After the record came out he asked if I could meet his young son, who was a budding drummer. I believe he was around thirteen at the time. Bernie had mentioned that Charley had learned most of the record and loved it. So we got together between studio dates and he proceeded to play a couple of the tunes on the album. He played one of those songs in seven that I mentioned, “The Bratt.” He not only had the song completely down, he had all the nuances that both Gadd and Marotta had played throughout the tune. Of course today he’s one of the most prominent drummers around.
MD: Steve Ferrone.
John: Amazingly solid drummer. Never overplays. Always has perfect time. And all that with a big smile on his beautiful face. Steve’s a special cat and simply a ball to be around and to play with.
MD: You played on Ringo Starr’s 1977 album, Ringo the 4th. How was that experience?
John: Ringo is an amazing talent in so many ways, not the least of which is his drumming. He is so solid, innovative, and clean. We recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York, and the producer was Arif Mardin. Gadd played drums on the album as well. The rest of the rhythm section was David Spinozza, Tony Levin, Don Grolnick, and me. I remember looking at the double drummers behind the gobo and thinking to myself, This is an amazing moment in history. I couldn’t believe I was a part of it. We recorded four full days in the studio and it went by like it was ten minutes! No smartphones to document any of it. [laughs] Bummer.
MD: Lee Finkelstein.
John: Aside from playing with my band and other various gigs, Lee and I have been playing together for the past twelve years with the Original Blues Brothers Band, along with Steve Cropper, Lou Marini, and others. His nickname in the band is Funkytime. He also has his own five-horn killer funk band, Funk Filharmonik. Along with being one of the funkiest drummers around, he can play anything.
MD: With the Blues Brothers you also got to work with Keith Carlock, during a tour of Blue Note clubs in Japan.
John: What an amazingly unique drummer’s drummer Keith is. I can’t say enough good things about what he has done in his career—and continues to do.
MD: Chris Palmaro.
John: Chris is highly proficient on drums, Hammond B3, piano, synths, arranging, writing, producing…. He and I have been working together for years in the New York area—he’s been the music director of my band since 2002—but the first time I experienced working with him as a drummer was on my new album. Chris is invaluable to me. He’s one of those cats that is so multitalented and deep into music.
MD: Yogi Horton.
John: I loved working with Yogi. He was as solid as anyone and was a cool cat to be around. To this day I can’t understand his untimely death. I cherish the fact that we had time together. I believe the last studio gig we did together was Yoko Ono’s second record. He’s missed to this day.
MD: Chris Parker.
John: The first thing I think of when it comes to Chris is that he’s a true musician in every respect. He’s a drummer, but he also composes and arranges, and he’s a truly “happy to be here” cat. He’s always listening and responding. In addition, his solos are constantly interesting and musical.
MD: Bernard Purdie.
John: I don’t have to say much about Bernard! All you have to do is hear him and you know it’s Pretty Purdie, the one who in many ways defined and led the way with his funky, distinctive playing. The first time I heard him was back in Boston at an R&B club. He was performing with Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, and Chuck Rainey. Loved them all from the downbeat—and to this day!