Editors Note: Modern Drummer was saddened to learn of the passing of famed Nashville studio drummer Jerry Carrigan earlier this month, at the age of seventy-five. Below is an interview we did with him that appeared in our September 1986 issue.
As a lover of music and the process by which records are made, I am always thrilled to meet someone who has played a part in creating a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times on the radio and sung along with as many times. It was, therefore, an obvious thrill to meet up with Jerry Carrigan during my recent visit to Nashville. His recording career is so extensive that he can’t even remember a good portion of the songs on which he has played, but such classics as “Behind Closed Doors,” “Please Come To Boston,” and “Me And Bobby McGee” stand out, not to mention more recent hits of our time, like “Bobby Sue,” “Elvira,” and “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On.” Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, the Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins and the Boston Pops, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Earl Thomas Conley, Henry Mancini, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley are just random names chosen from a long list of those with whom Jerry has worked.
From his first session at age 13 in Nashville with a band called Little Joe Ellen & The Offbeats, Jerry knew the studio was where he wanted to be. As a native of Florence, Alabama, the burgeoning musical scene in Muscle Shoals afforded him just that opportunity. He and fellow musicians David Briggs and Norbert Putnam went on to lay the entire foundation for the Muscle Shoals R&B movement in the early ’60s, playing on such songs as Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away” (the first R&B hit from the area) and hits by the Tams, Tommy Roe, and Arthur Alexander.
In 1965, when he and his two colleagues moved to Nashville, Jerry was again fortunate to be part of the ground floor of Nashville’s commercial success. As country music grew, so did Carrigan’s list of credits, and by 1977, Jerry was playing approximately 12 three-hour sessions per week.
Admittedly, things have slowed down some for Jerry, but once again, he has seized an available opportunity by working with John Denver on the road, as well as in the studio. It’s just one more phase of many this drummer has entered. And it makes me wonder what’s next.
RF: How did you get into the section in Muscle Shoals?
JC: I was hanging around with Spooner Oldham and David Briggs. We started going over to Tom Stafford’s up over the City Drug Store, and recording, doing demos, or whatever.
RF: What qualified you to do that? What did you know about recording at that stage? How old were you?
JC: I had done a session in Nashville with a band I was playing in when I was about 13. We were recording at Stafford’s when I was 15. I remember that I used to earn my money to go down to Florida every year on vacation with a bunch of kids by doing sessions. My qualifications, I guess, came about because I was one of two drummers down there. There was just nobody else there. We started recording and experimenting with sounds, which got me off to a great start. I’ve just always been in the studio and have never done anything else.
RF: You started playing at a very young age, obviously.
JC: About 12.
RF: You taught yourself?
JC: I taught myself, and then when I was in the 7th grade, I started in the junior high band playing a big ol’ field drum. They let me bring that thing home and practice on it. Before that, I had my granddaddy’s old banjo with a brush taped over it to make a snare sound, and I made a wooden bass drum pedal that I hooked up to a box. I used the old Edison records—those big 12″ discs, which are a quarter of an inch thick—as my cymbals, and I practiced to records.
RF: What records were you into?
JC: I was into Carl Perkins, Fats Domino—the drummers on there were wonderful. Of course, it was all Earl Palmer.
RF: Muscle Shoals started to really happen.
JC: We were recording those things at Rick Hall’s studio. The first hit we had out of there was “You Better Move On”—which was in 1962, I think—by Arthur Alexander. That was cut in a tobacco warehouse, which was where Rick Hall’s studio was. He rented the center portion of it—kind of a triangle-shaped room, which was a little-bitty thing with egg crates on the wall and two mono machines.
RF: What else were you recording down there?
JC: Every black guy we could find who could carry a tune. That’s all we wanted to do.
RF: Any anecdotes from those days?
JC: We had air conditioning in the studio, but it could only run when we weren’t recording. We’d get to doing these things, and it would get so hot in there that you couldn’t believe it. There were flies all over the place. We were cutting something one day, and David Briggs was sitting there. He didn’t have to come in for maybe 16 bars, so he was swatting at these flies. Rick saw him, stopped everything, and said, “Y’all want to knock off for 30 min- utes and kill flies, or do you want to cut records?” It was unbear- able in there—like a sauna.
RF: Didn’t that wreak havoc on your drumheads?
JC: Yes, because they were calfskin.
RF: How did you feel when plastic heads came in?
JC: I didn’t like it at all. They felt very different, so I tried to hang on. Kenneth Buttrey and I went down to a music shop, and we bought all the rawhide heads they had. When those were gone, that was the end of it. We were very sad, because that’s what we liked to use, especially on our snare drums. I had some custom heads made at one time, but it was terrible trying to deal with that again. I had to retune on every song. I wouldn’t go through that again for anything. The plastic heads were a great jump into the future, even though I thought it was terrible at the time.
RF: So what else was happening in Muscle Shoals?
JC: We had our band going, Dan Penn & The Pallbearers. We bought a hearse and the whole works. We were going to bring Dan out in a coffin and have him jump out, but too many people thought that was morbid. We played the college circuit down South—University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi, and Mississippi State—and we played some of the air force bases. We got a lot of experience that way as a rhythm section. The guys who were doing this were the same guys who were saying, “Come on, let’s get the stuff packed up. We’ve got to be back home for the session in the morning.” It was David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, and Terry Thompson, a great guitar player who unfortunately OD’d at the ripe age of 22. It nearly killed us. Then Marlin Greene started playing guitar and singing some with us. Dan Penn would sing some of the time, and so did Jerry Sailor, who blew his brains out.
RF: So you didn’t just go right into the studio and have that chemistry. You really needed to be playing live to get that together.
JC: Oh yes. It was comradery, and that formed the chemistry. We were real good friends playing together.
RF: So many young people say they want to get into recording without realizing that a lot must transpire before one waltzes into the studio.
JC: That’s very true. You’ve got to start somewhere like that. You can’t just learn to play, walk into a studio, and start recording. You wouldn’t have any kind of style, would you? I think your style is developed with other musicians. We played together for a long time and actually moved up here to Nashville together—Norbert, David, me, and Herschel Wigginton, the background singer, who still does the Hee Haw stuff.
RF: When did you move up here?
JC: It was around Christmas of ’64.
RF: Why, when things were so good in Muscle Shoals, didn’t you stay there?
JC: We were already working for a lot of people who lived here. Felton Jarvis lived here, and he’d bring Tommy Roe down there. We were doing Ray Stevens stuff, and these guys were saying, “You guys ought to move to Nashville.” One day we all marched into Rick Hall’s office and said, “We’re moving to Nashville.” He said, “Well, go ahead; you won’t last a month.” He was wrong about that.
RF: Did he really think that?
JC: No. He was just angry. He wanted us to stay. His boys were leaving, and he had to get a new bunch. He didn’t know the new bunch was waiting on the doorstep. Roger Hawkins used to call me every day, it seemed like, asking me, “How do you do this on a snare drum?” I knew he was going to be great. He was eager. He’s still one of my best friends. He’s a great drummer.
So I moved, and David, Norbert, Herschel, and I got us an apartment over on 17th Avenue. Sharing an apartment—mistake number one: Four guys away from home, and it just did not happen there with all of us together. We all began to get a lot of work, so I was the first one to move out and get my own place. They all followed. It was all my furniture in there, and I never did see it again. I got a furnished apartment.
RF: You just walked into Nashville, and it started happening for you?
JC: I had a lot of good people helping me. I didn’t know a thing about playing country. I had my brushes taped for a black sounding shuffle, not a lazy triplet shuffle, which is what country is. I quickly learned. Mort Thomason, the engineer, grabbed the brush out of my hand, flung it open, and spread it all apart. It looked like a peacock’s tail to me. He said, “Try that; it might work a little better.” Okay, so that’s the way you do it.
RF: You had to realize that, when you were coming to Nashville, it was the country capital. What were you thinking?
JC: I started digging on Buddy Harman, because I knew I was going to have to play that kind of stuff.
RF: Did you do anything else to prepare yourself while still down in Muscle Shoals?
JC: I just got in the car and left. At that age, you’ll do that. At this age, I wouldn’t.
RF: Aside from the brushes, what other adjustments did you have to make going from Muscle Shoals to Nashville, playing-wise?
JC: I had to learn that we couldn’t take all day to do something, for one. I’m not on my time; I’m on another person’s time. Someone else has bought my time. I had to learn to be fast.
RF: Down in Muscle Shoals, did you have all day? Weren’t you on another person’s time there?
JC: In Muscle Shoals, we didn’t go by three-hour sessions. We worked until we got it. In those days, somebody would have an idea to do a song he or she really believed in, and we’d show up in the morning and work all day, or whatever it took to get the song the way the person thought it should be. Communication wasn’t great between people back then. They knew how it should sound, but they couldn’t tell you how they wanted you to play it. You had to experiment until they said, “That’s it! That’s what I wanted to hear.” Back then, we’d just get in there, and work and work. We wanted to do that, as well, and get it as good as we could get it.
RF: I would imagine the lack of technology played a part in that.
JC: A big part. We were trying to get sounds like they were getting in New York, which was where most of the big R&B things were being done, and we didn’t know how they were doing it. They had EQ and stuff, but we didn’t have that. You created your own dynamics, by playing louder and softer. There wasn’t a mic’ on the bass drum.
RF: Isn’t that the opposite of everything you’re told to do in the studio today? Aren’t you supposed to play at an absolute even level to peg the needle at the same intensity every time?
JC: Yes. That was back when you really had to play the song, make it breathe, and do it on your own. You didn’t have somebody in there mixing it to make it do that. We had to do it right then. It was cut in mono, so that’s the only pass you had. You had to be sensitive to what was going on, instead of sitting there like a robot playing at the same level all the time. To this day, I don’t try to do that. I still play songs the way I feel about them, punching places and getting off of it in places. I like to play that way, so I guess I work for the people who like me to play that way. I don’t feel music the other way. I feel it in sections, parts, and phrases, instead of just one long, continuous thing.
RF: Back to when you first moved to Nashville.
JC: As I said, I had to learn to get my part quickly and not make mistakes. That just takes experience. And I had a lot of real frustrations that went on.
RF: Like what?
JC: These musicians up here were so seasoned. I was thrown in there at 22 years old with people who were 35 years old, and that was a big age difference. They were mature, very settled, and playing great things. I was boisterous, young, and trying to do this and that. There wasn’t time for that. It frustrated me. I couldn’t get my parts as quickly as they could get theirs.
RF: Yet, they kept hiring you.
JC: They liked me, because I took a different attitude to the music. I played it a different way. I played the bass drum a lot. I used to play triplets against 8th notes and 8th notes against triplets, and they would freak out. “You can’t do that!” “Of course I can. The same number of beats are going to be there, and when you get back to 1, I’m going to be there—just a little different way.” It took a long time for that kind of stuff to start happening.
RF: Coming into Nashville, you didn’t feel you had to conform to the way they were expecting it?
JC: No, no, no.
RF: Most people would go out of their way to conform to the standard.
JC: I didn’t do that, but after a while, I did learn how to play the real clean, clean country thing. I had to.
RF: How did that differ?
JC: In the way you play the shuffle, feeling it as a triplet instead of a dotted 8th and 16th. I learned to settle down, play that, get it real clean, get a good little rim sound, and be Mr. Simple and Mr. Clean. That was great, because a lot of clients demanded that and would not allow that boisterous stuff that I liked to do. I had to know which ones did and which ones didn’t. I used to do a lot of Gospel sessions and still do. They’d say, “Get that long-haired guy. He’ll do something different.” My hair was down to my shoulders. They liked that stuff. I was the first person in Nashville to play the real hard snare drum stuff on country records, and I don’t say that to brag. Nobody else had the nerve to do it. I don’t know why I did, but I’ll tell you, at that time—and I’m not proud of this—I was drinking a lot. I think that brought my inhibitions down. I made a lot of people mad along the way and lost some accounts, but some people didn’t care, as long as I could get through it. I played so crazy at times that, if I could get through it, it didn’t matter, if they could endure me that long. That had to come to a screeching halt in about ’74.
RF: Were you afraid to stop drinking, thinking you wouldn’t be as good sober?
JC: I sure was. I always felt I played better when I was hung over. Your emotions become very raw when you’re hung over. I still think I can play more soulful hung over, but I don’t want to be hung over and feel that way anymore.
RF: A lot of people get very attached to that feeling—afraid if they don’t feel it, they won’t have that spark.
JC: That’s not so. It just takes a little while. You’ve really got more of that spark once the mask comes off. I don’t advise anybody to do that. It’s wild how you’ll do those things drinking and you won’t do them sober—the crazy bashing stuff.
RF: You’re lucky you got out of it.
JC: Some people never do. I wanted to.
RF: What made you want to?
JC: I had a spiritual experience that made me want to come back. That’s what brought me back. I got through it, thank God.
RF: About the technical standards of the times, how different was the actual recording?
JC: We’re talking daylight and dark. Back in those days, there were no headphones and no overdubbing. I mean no disrespect to anybody, but people who are coming up today, going into the studios, don’t realize how they’ve got it made. Back then, when the red light came on, we had to do it right, because we couldn’t go back and punch in. I started back in the mono days, and then went to 2-track, 3-track, 4-track, 8-track, and 16-track; I’ve been through it all. The technology has freed me up, of course. I can be a little adventurous now; if I mess up, it can be fixed because everybody is isolated now. Back in those days, they’d put one microphone on the drums, and if you wanted the bass drum louder, you played it harder. I’ll never forget I had to do that opening bass drum part on “Be My Baby,” and I said, “Rick, I can’t hear the bass drum.” He said, “Stomp it.” I said, “I’m hitting it as hard as I can.” He said, “If they can do it in New York, we can do it here.” He didn’t tell me that in New York they had a mic’ on the bass drum. I was out there pounding that bass drum.
When we first started, there was no EQ. If I wanted the drum bright, I’d turn it upside down and play it on the bottom. I did that a lot. A Tommy Roe thing [“Everybody”] had a little sizzling snare drum, and that was played on the bottom of the drum. And the backbeat on that is a box that 45 RPM records were shipped in, played with a mallet. I play lots of boxes, still. Brushes on a box are great. Put the mic’ up inside, and it sounds like a big, puffy pillow.
A lot of that has changed. The tuning was not as critical back then, because you couldn’t hear all the overtones you hear today. When you put a mic’ a half-inch from a drum, you’re going to hear everything that is going on. There are some things that you shouldn’t hear, if you want to know the truth. When you’re listening to me play my drums set up over there, you don’t have your ear on the tom-tom saying, “I hear a weird thing happening about 300 cycles there.” Now your drums have to be tuned real well, and I always thought I was a good drum tuner.
RF: If it wasn’t critical early on, how did you develop that?
JC: I had to learn as I heard the bad sounds come back from what I thought was good. I had to learn how to correct that overtone problem, or whatever it was.
RF: Can you give any tips for that?
JC: There’s at least one spot on a drumhead that’s going to have a definite overtone. The best way to find it is to tap the drum a half-inch off the center and run your finger around the edge. It works like a charm. When you find that spot where the tone goes up or down or deviates, you put a little one-inch square of duct tape there. You are still going to have a ringing drum, which some people like and some people don’t, but from that point on, you have to figure out how much muffling you’re going to need in this particular room to make it sound real good. I found a guy in L.A. who is a master: Ross Garfield, the Drum Doctor. I’ve rented drums from him the last two times I’ve been out there, and it’s wonderful. You walk in, sit down, and they’re tuned perfectly to the room, and you don’t have to touch them. While you’re listening to the playbacks, he’s out fiddling around. It’s wonderful. His drums sound great.
RF: As technology was progressing, were you feeling worried about it or were you into it?
JC: At first it bothered me, and to some extent it still does. I happen to like the sound of pure drums better than I like electronics. I bought Simmons drums and sold them.
RF: Working with Roger Nichols, you are working with Wendell.
JC: That’s great. I like that. He can save your neck.
RF: Can you explain the concept of Wendell?
JC: It’s not a rhythm machine; you’ve got to have a rhythm machine to run it. It’s a bank of stored sounds. You could play the worst sounding drums in the world, but if you ran it through Wendell it would still sound great. Let’s say you have a track and there are places where it doesn’t sound right. What you do is go back and sample two bars, or whatever you need, in Wendell. Then you insert that into the tape.
RF: What is it like working with someone of the sophistication that Roger Nichols has? Roger has worked with Steely Dan, which technologically is one of the most advanced recording situations. Was it intimidating at first?
JC: No, because he’s not an intimidating person. I was a little nervous at first. We were in New York, which makes me a little nervous anyway, but when I finally figured out who this guy was—I was in the studio at night and Donald Fagen had been in there all day—it made me a little uptight.
RF: Was it different working with Roger than most of your accounts in Nashville?
JC: Yes. There are some great engineers in Nashville, too, but Roger is not afraid to try something. If you’ve played something just right except for one 8th note, he’s not afraid to try to punch that one little note in. And he’ll nail it. Another thing is, rather than start to EQ everything to death, he has somebody move the mic’s around before he starts moving the knobs. Let’s give the old drum a chance before we destroy it with EQ. He gets a real clean sound on everything. Roger is real familiar with the digital stuff, which is what I really like. With analog machines, what we hear as we’re running it down is not what we hear as a playback. It has that little veil of muddiness. The digital does not. A lot of people don’t like digital, because they say it ruins the ambient room sound. I don’t believe that. I feel it’s cleaner.
RF: When did you come in contact with John Denver?
JC: Here in Nashville in March of 1981, when I did an album with him. I got along very well with John and his road manager at the time, Barney Wyckoff, so Wyckoff asked me if I went on the road, and I said no. The last time I had gone on the road was in 1973 with Johnny Rivers, and I didn’t want to go again. Wyckoff said, “Would you even talk about it with us? Can I call you?” I said yes, and he called me in May. They made me an offer and I accepted.
JC: I like John; he’s a great man. I had made my mind up that I would never go on the road again. That thing with Johnny Rivers was too weird for me. It was unorganized and everything was wrong. We went to New Orleans to play, and they didn’t even have his name on the marquee. Jack Williams, the bass player, had to get up there and put it on. It was unbelievable.
RF: I understand the Denver organization is very well run.
JC: It’s wonderful. You could not ask for anything better. John is wonderful, very understanding, and gentle. He’s just as he appears. We have great crowds everywhere we go.
RF: Are you enjoying playing live now?
JC: Yes, I like it. I play with a bunch of really great musicians, which helps, too.
RF: But in studio playing, you have a variety and get to do something different every day. Live playing is not like that.
JC: In the studio, I may go through ten snare drums for different sounds in the course of a day. Then, I go out with this artist to play live and only have one. You really can’t play the little subtleties live, because they won’t project, so you have to figure out, “How am I going to play this to sound almost like that?” That’s an adjustment I had to make.
RF: What about tuning, live?
JC: Live, my drums are tuned much higher and usually wide open, with no muffling at all. They have to have more punch and projection. We have to keep “that great Gretsch sound” going. I use Gretsch drums, which are wonderful. I never dreamed I’d have a deal with them. I love the drums, except the snare drum. They’re missing oomf—body. They’ve got a great snap and a great crack, but no body. The other drums, though, have the roundest, fattest, warmest sound, and when I go to L.A., I rent Gretsch from the Drum Doctor.
RF: What about your equipment, live and in the studio?
JC: In the studio, I use a 14 x 20 bass drum, 8 x 10, 10 x 12, 11 x 13, and 16 x 16 tom-toms, all with clear Remo Ambassador heads, tops and bottoms, but a Pinstripe bass drum head. As far as snare drums go, I use a 6 ½ X 14 Black Beauty, 5 x 14 Black Beauty, 7 x 14 Radio King, 6 ½ X 14 Gladstone, and 7 x 14 Yamaha. I use the DW 5000 chain-drive bass drum pedal, or Premier 252. I use a Pearl hi-hat stand. I have a large variety of cymbals, but they’re all A Zildjian and K Zildjian.
Live, I use a 14 x 22 bass drum with a Pinstripe head, and 8 x 10, 10 x 12, 12 x 14, and 14 x 16 tom-toms. I use the RIMS mounts as well, which I highly recommend. The top heads are all Pinstripe, and the bottom heads are all clear Ambassadors. I use a 7 x 14 Yamaha snare drum. I use one K Zildjian 16″ crash, an 18″ A Zildjian crash, a 19″ A Zildjian ride, and 14″ A Zildjian hi-hats. I use Regal Tip 5A or 5B nylon-tip drumsticks.
RF: How many days a year do you generally work with John?
JC: It varies. The most I’ve worked was about 90 days. It’ll be maybe 25 or 30 days a year. He really doesn’t work all that much with the band.
RF: I would imagine that could present a problem in Nashville with most people thinking you’re off with John.
JC: Yes, it does, as a matter of fact. It has cut into my studio work considerably. My leaving created an opening, which other drummers have filled.
RF: But you must have known that when you took the gig.
JC: I did, but I felt like I wanted to, and I think it helped me in a lot of ways.
RF: How so?
JC: In working with musicians who play with a little different attitude. They play much more relaxed and laid-back than the Nashville players, meaning no disrespect to any Nashville player. When I go out to work with them, I have to get my mind in that mode. To me, that’s the way I think all ballads should be played, and it helped me to really feel that. Jerry Scheff, the bass player, taught me how to play what we call a “sideways feel.” Every beat is very relaxed. It’s not jumping on one and laying back on another. Everything is feeling good and breathing. Of course, now in Nashville, I find you can get away with playing a lot more laidback than you used to.
RF: That rock flavor that has come into country is a little of an R&B kind of thing, and it’s gone back to your roots now.
JC: A lot of the stuff they’re doing now is what I grew up playing. They’re just doing it with different sounds.
RF: Who have been some of the artists you’ve worked for in the latter years?
JC: I did a project not long ago that I really liked with J.D. Hart. He’s real good. I played on most of Mel McDaniel’s album that “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” is on, and I was on that tune. I even played on that demo for Bob McDill.
RF: Demo work has traditionally been a lot of people’s way in the door. Unfortunately, machines have taken over most of that work in L.A.
JC: Demos were one of my first things, too, and people said, “Who is that?” Most of the things I’ve enjoyed doing recently have been the demos with Bob McDill and those people. It’s a real chance to create, because all you have is somebody playing the guitar, instead of a tape with every instrument on there. A lot of times, they’ll play the demo and want you to copy it. How are you going to copy it? It can’t be done. You can’t copy another person’s feel. It’s impossible. I can’t copy my own from day to day, because my body rhythms are different from day to day.
RF: You just mentioned creativity. As a session player, you’re not always allowed to be creative.
JC: No, because a lot of times, they’re telling you exactly what to do.
RF: What, to you, is a very positive session, as opposed to a mediocre or lousy session?
JC: When the artist knows the material, can sing the song, and can give you a genuine feel for it, instead of just sitting there and reading the lyric off into a microphone. It’s where the artist has it together and the producer tells you, ” I want it to be this way or that way.” I like a direction.
RF: Then where does the creativity come in?
JC: If they want it to feel southern R&B, that’s a very wide place to be. I can play a lot of different things until hands are spanked. I like someone who will tell me, “I do like this,” or “I don’t like this.” So many times, you’ll go in and they might not like it. Then, they’ll go out later and say, “Listen to what so-and-so played here. I don’t like it.” Don’t tell me a month later that you don’t like it. Tell me now and we’ll do something about it, instead of just letting it go. A bad session to me is when you go in and nobody is prepared. The singer doesn’t know the song, so you end up tracking it, a lot of times, without even a scratch vocal. What kind of emotion am I to put into something where I don’t know what kind of emotion this singer is going to put into it? How can I do my job? I can play time.
Is that what they want? To me, that’s not making records. That’s business music, not music business. That’s another thing about Roger: He’s prepared. Everything is prepared. All the charts are there, he knows how he wants it, and that’s great.
RF: How would you say your style has developed through the years?
JC: I just play so much simpler now than I used to play. I used to play a lot more fills, with a lot more craziness. I think my playing is stricter, and I’m able not to do something when I want to. Now, when I start to go to a place where I want to do a fill, I’ll let it get to where it’s about to go and then really let it explode, rather than doing all those little nothing things and playing something just to be playing it.
RF: Then, when you make the statement, it really means some- thing.
JC: Right, and I’m not telegraphing every little change that is about to happen in the song. I used to do that a lot.
RF: “Used to” meaning when you first came here to Nashville, or when you were first starting in Muscle Shoals?
JC: When I came here. I didn’t do it in Muscle Shoals. I can still listen to those records and find that they were pretty simple. I just don’t play as busy now. I really try to play more for the songs and the artists, and how they feel the song. I used to play more for me. You can’t play for yourself. Of course you’re going to have a little satisfaction out of it, but it’s satisfying to know you played the right thing. The number-one priority is to make the producer and artist happy. You’ve got to listen to everybody and find things that complement what everybody else is doing. You’ve got to keep the pulse and the beat going. That’s how my style has changed.
RF: I think, when you’re young, you are just naturally more self-centered, too.
JC: That’s one of the things I truly try to work on: selfishness. When you’re playing all that crazy stuff, that’s way too much. That’s selfishness: doing just what you want to do—ignoring the artist and the song.
RF: Let’s talk about some specific artists. I’ve extracted a minute list of people you’ve worked with from the extensive one you sent me, and I would like any comments you have about working with each individual. Chet Atkins and the Boston Pops.
JC: That was about 1967, and it was a wonderful experience. We did three concerts and an album. We’d do these tunes, and Arthur Fiedler would stop us and say, “You’re not following me.” Chet would say, “He’s not used to following people. He’s used to people following him.” Arthur just said, “It’s going to be different this time. He’s going to follow me.” That was a wonderful experience. I had always imagined doing something like that, and I couldn’t believe it was really happening.
RF: Lee Greenwood—what did you do with him?
JC: I did his first album in about 1981, which had “Turns Me Inside Out” on it. He was great to work with. He has a really powerful voice.
RF: He’s an old R&B singer, so that approach must have felt familiar to you.
JC: It had that down-home feeling to it. They called me to do the second album, but I was going out with John Denver, so James Stroud started playing his albums.
RF: What about Larry Gatlin?
JC: My experience with him goes back a long way. I worked with him the first time he was in a studio here. He was awfully big-headed at the time, and I told him, “If you ever become a star, which I know you will, you’re going to be unbearable to be around.” Now, he’s more humble than I ever have seen him. It’s funny how that worked.
RF: Kris Kristofferson.
JC: That really goes back a long way as well. Kris Kristofferson was the janitor at Columbia Studios. He used to take our orders for coffee and sandwiches. He lived in a little dump apartment off 17th Avenue. Here’s a man who has not changed one bit, ever. I’ve worked with him since he’s become a big star, and I’ve done some shows with him. He’d actually ask me if he could get me a cup of coffee or something. He’s a wonderful man.
RF: What records did you cut with him?
JC: I cut “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and I can’t remember what else.
RF: What about Henry Mancini?
JC: I did a country album with him called Mancini Country. He had the parts all written, and he sat down at the grand piano and played and conducted. It was another highlight. That was with a full 40-piece orchestra.
RF: Barbara Mandrell.
JC: I did all of her first things when Billy Sherrill was producing her. I can’t remember any of those titles either. I always thought she was a great singer and a really nice person.
RF: The Oak Ridge Boys.
JC: I love them. I did their things back when they were a Gospel group, as well as their pop-hit things like “Elvira.” I’m the one who told them what the bass singer should say: “Oom papa, oom pop, oom papa mow mow.” I knew what it was because I played on Dallas Frazier’s original version of it. I also did “Bobby Sue” and “Fancy Free.” It was lots of fun.
RF: What about Dolly Parton?
JC: Goodness. I worked with her years and years and years ago. We did “Sixteen Candles.” That had to be in 1966, because it was downtown at the old Sam Phillips Studio before they tore it down. Then, I worked with lots of her stuff when she was with Porter Wagoner. She’s a great writer. I have nothing but good to say about her.
RF: Speaking of Sam Phillips, what about your work with Elvis Presley?
JC: I first worked with him in 1970. What a thrill that was! The first thing we did was “I’ve Lost You.” I never was crazy about what I played on that stuff, but he always wanted you to have a charging feeling about everything. He wanted you to push him to the wall. I thought it sounded like I was rushing all the time, but they loved it. He would stand out in the middle of the studio, just like being on stage, and he would face you. He would wiggle and point to you when he’d want you to do a fill or something. The first week I worked with him, we did 35 tunes. One of them was “Letter To Sylvia.” We blasted through that stuff. We started at 6:00 at night and worked until 6:00 the next morning. He was definitely nocturnal. He was wonderful. I’ll tell you, when he walked into that studio and I saw him for the first time, there was no doubt that a real star had just appeared. He used to change clothes three times during the evening. It was like a performance.
RF: Just to get into different moods?
JC: Yeah. One time I did a Christmas record with him in July. We walked in, and there was a Christmas tree in there with presents under it.
RF: What about Earl Thomas Conley?
JC: I like him. I think he’s soulful, and I like his tunes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember titles, but I do remember doing “Angel In Disguise” with him. I’ve done lots of things with him, and everything I’ve ever done with him has been a hit. I think he’s a great artist.
RF: What did you do with Don McLean?
JC: Two or three albums with him after American Pie. Larry Butler produced them. He was good, and it was very different. He’s one of these guys who wants you to play the dynamics of his songs and not just hammer it all the way through at the same level. He wanted some finesse along the way, which was wonderful.
RF: What about Waylon Jennings?
JC: I did many early things with him like “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line,” and then he started to have monster hits when he started to use his own band. We always wanted to play his music real raunchy, but we were held back by the producers who wouldn’t let us do it. It was not cool then to do that. I didn’t want to take out a brush and a stick, and play country licks. I wanted to take both sticks out and play raunchy—almost rock ‘n’ roll—but I was never allowed to do that. It was a hit when he decided to do it with his band.
RF: What about George Jones?
JC: He was always my favorite country singer. I think he’s the best pure country singer who ever lived. I did “The Door,” and I did a CBS showcase with him. They had a little miniature sound-effects door by my drumset, and when the time came for the sound of the closing of the door, I reached over and closed the door. It was great. He used to miss sessions, though, back when he was drinking. We’d come to the session, there’d be no George, and we’d cut tracks all day. That was not too gratifying. But when he was there, it was truly wonderful, and I understand that he has all that straightened out now.
RF: Is there anyone we must add?
JC: Tony Joe White and “Polk Salad Annie.” We must have that in there. He’s a funky character, and he’s good. I still see him all the time playing golf, although I haven’t recorded with him for a long time. We had some great times on those sessions, and if you go back and listen to those records, you can tell that. We had a lot of freedom, and they had some feeling about them.
RF: People say that there is X amount of time that you’re at your peak, and then it goes away. I think Hal Blaine was the first one to tell me that studio players have five good years, if they’re lucky.
JC: You’ve got more than that. My work has slackened off from what it was, but that comes from a number of things: More drummers have come into town, and there are a lot of very good ones; going out with John Denver makes people think I’m unavailable, and this is a terrible thing to say, but some people would like me gone all the time. I understand what Hal said, though. You do have peak years, but I had more than five, I think. Then you kind of cool off, and someone who has come to town plays a little differently; they’re going to want that. You’ve got to be able to understand that, accept that, and not take it as a put-down to yourself. That’s hard to do. There was a time when I wouldn’t have had time to do an interview.
RF: But it must be nice to have the time to breathe and spend time with your wife. The Denver situation should help that, and you’re even getting the chance to travel a little.
JC: That’s true. Last year, we went to Chile, and this year, we went to Australia. I’ve got to be doing something, though, because I’m a hyper person and I love to work.
Wendell The Drum Machine
by Robyn Flans
It’s not hard to imagine that a drum machine that costs $80,000 to build would be superior to one that costs the consumer $2,000. If dollars and cents don’t make the impact, then perhaps knowing that it was the expensive drum machine that helped create the technically acclaimed Steely Dan albums and Donald Fagen’s Nightfly would get the point across. In 1976, Roger Nichols masterminded the state-of-the-art computer from scratch for his Steely Dan projects. Many of its components were indeed unique.
“The chips in most of the drum machines are a finite length, 32K bits, which would be 4K bytes,” Nichols explains. “That’s 4,000 samples of 8 bits in one of these little chips. A snare drum in one of these other machines will fit in that size of a chip. A snare drum in Wendell takes 64K words: 64,000 16-bit words, which is 128,000 bytes. That would be about 20 of those little chips. So it would take 20 chips for one snare drum beat.
“As far as editing, in Wendell you can actually move the beats around in increments as small as one sample time. That means in a pattern that is playing, you can make the snare drum a 50,000th of a second later or earlier, which is hardly measurable. It doesn’t have to be all of the snare drum beats; you can move just the snare drum beat on 4 of bar 15. You can make it just a hair earlier, or any combination, so it’s always in high-resolution mode. What I’ve used it a lot for is replacing drum sounds. Somebody would write a tune that is done with a Linn machine, DMX, or the Yamaha, and we’d just play the tape.” With regard to snare drums, they are sampled in as right-hand and left-hand hits, taking into consideration that the sound would be slightly different if played by a real drummer with two sticks. Cymbals also sound terrific. “We wanted it to be exactly the way a real drummer would do it, so you wouldn’t have a ride cymbal that just went ‘ding’ and quit,” Roger says. “It would ring through the two-bar break, until the drummer started playing again. With a regular drum machine, when something is re-triggered—like a ride cymbal that is going ‘ding, ding, ding, ding’— it just cuts off what’s there and starts over again, so you can actually hear the little breaks. With Wendell, it does cross-fades. It keeps playing what the cymbal is doing, plus it starts over again, so there’s no difference between the computer and a drummer.” Also, Wendell is fast enough at triggering off of the sound that is on the tape that it can start putting out the sound in less than one 50,000th of a second, instead of having to memorize the information first.
The good news is that Nichols has finally manufactured Wendell, Jr.’s, and they should be available as you are reading this. Many of Wendell, Sr. ‘s good traits are preserved, but there are some differences. “Wendell, Jr. is a one-channel device,” Nichols says. “If you need eight drums to happen at the same time, you need eight units. Each one is one rack-space high, and the drum sounds are in cartridges that are about the size of an 8-track tape that plug into the front, so you can put in a snare drum and then trigger it off the snare drum that is on tape.
“There is an advantage to this over the big Wendell, because you can have more than one. Snare drums always sound bigger and meatier when you slow the tape down a little bit, and they have more crack to them when you speed the tape up. You can put two different snare drums into two different Wendell Jr.’s, and trigger them off the same source. You can tune one of them down a little bit to get the fullness, you can tune the other one up a little bit to get the crack, and then mix them both together.”
If this is sounding cost prohibitive, do not despair. Each Wendell, Jr. costs $1,000, and comes with snare and kick drum sounds that cover a wide range. “It’s good sounding, and you can use it along with a live snare, a drum-machine snare drum, or in place of a drum-machine snare drum. There are a bunch of different combinations, so you don’t have everybody’s album sounding exactly the same. There are 25 other sounds, from the long-decaying ride cymbal, to different snare drums, to different percussion things that can be purchased. Wendell, Jr. is playback only, so you have to have the sounds in these little cartridges. But we do offer a service where you can supply your own sounds that we can make into cartridges.
“This took a long time to get into production because the big Wendell was $80,000. The goal was having one that was $1,000 or less. We had to wait for technology to get to where it would be feasible to do.”