For readers unfamiliar with gospel music and its rich history, imagine the way you might feel about John Bonham or Tony Williams, Jaco Pastorius or Charles Mingus. That’s how much this multitalented musician means to legions of drummers and bass players the world over.
Drummer, bassist, bandleader, and producer Joel Smith has had an almost incalculable impact on the gospel and R&B scenes. While Smith is not a large man in terms of physical stature, his timeless performances on some of the most important gospel records of all time have sealed his reputation as a giant among giants. In this special feature, MD explores the mind, music, and heart of one of the most prolific and influential gospel musicians of the past thirty-five years.
MD: You’ve been well known for a long time as a session drummer, bass player, and producer, starting with your work on gospel records in the ’70s with Edwin and Walter Hawkins. How did your career begin?
Joel: Edwin and Walter are my uncles, so I grew up in a real musical family. When I was thirteen I played drums on a live recording with Edwin called Wonderful. A few months after the recording, we started traveling and even went to the Holy Land for a three-week tour. Shortly after we got back, Walter started recording the first Love Alive album, and it just went from there.
I was doing a lot of drumming at that time. I was playing bass too, but no one really knew it, because I was mainly practicing at home. As time went on, I started laying a lot of tracks on drums and bass, mainly with Walter. Whenever he’d write a song, I would play along with him. I started hearing what his blueprint was, and I was able to color around what his writing was all about. And every time we would record, I’d learn more and more.
MD: Would you record the drum tracks first?
Joel: It was a mood thing, whether I played bass or drums first. I’d usually start with the drums, though. Sometimes I’d play to a click track, and other times I’d play without one. Playing with a click wasn’t really a big thing at that time.
MD: Did you take drum lessons when you were young?
Joel: I didn’t really take a lot of lessons, because most of the time people were kind of tripping on what I was already playing. [laughs] I played in advanced band and jazz band in school, but I was selected mainly for what I was already doing.
MD: Were you reading music at this point?
Joel: The process of reading didn’t dawn on me until a bit later, in junior high school, when I got around Will Kennedy and people like that. A lot of my playing then came from using my ears. I can read, and when I’m in that type of musical situation I’m good with all that. But I still listen more than anything, because I’m more concerned about the feel. I have a really big issue with some people when they read, because they don’t give you any feel. They’ll give you the proper etiquette that goes with the notation, but the feel is what’s really important.
MD: What does it take to develop a good feel?
Joel: Playing with other people. A lot of times people don’t understand that you have to get away from just playing on your own. You have to know how to play with other people in order to make a statement. A lot of guys are virtuoso players who can play all kinds of things by themselves, and they can maybe play with others a little bit. But I’m talking about getting together with other musicians and really putting on your thinking cap and assessing your fellow man for what he can and can’t do.
For example, say I’m on drums and there’s a bass player playing with me. There may be things that I hear that he could do more of, but if it’s the type of thing he doesn’t know, I can make up for it to make the sound bigger. That’s been my focal point, to try to help the other person shine more, which makes the overall music bigger. That’s the reason I freelance a lot. It’s magical to me, because everybody has their own approach. But my thing is looking for what I can add from my experience that maybe they just haven’t had. The key is to allow people to be who they are and then play around what they do to make it more musical.
MD: When you started out playing on the Love Alive records and other albums, there weren’t many references for gospel drums. How did you develop your technique and approach to playing that music?
Joel: When I was coming up, there was only one drummer in the gospel field, and that was Bill Maxwell, who was with Andraé Crouch. We used to be on bills together, so I watched Bill a lot and was able to see him in many different situations.
I love seeing what other people do and checking out their technique and the way they contribute to the music, but I never wanted to get lost in the shuffle when it came to my identity. The only thing that stands true is what naturally comes out of you. So I focused on developing my own sound.
MD: Did you realize that you were helping to create a whole new style of playing gospel music?
Joel: I didn’t know I was even being followed! I was so into what I was doing, I had no idea I was the only one doing it at the time. I was never into trying to do things to get people to hear me. My head was just in the space of trying to learn and doing what I loved to do. Even now, when people talk about me and use terms like legend, it sounds funny to me, because that’s not where I was at all. I wasn’t trying to be a legend or anything else. I was just doing what I loved, learning as much as I could, and enjoying fellowshipping with all the other musicians that I would meet. For me, that’s what it was all about.
MD: Who were some of the recording drummers that influenced you?
Joel: There were two guys that I really loved at that time: Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd. They knew how to be very musical, but they also knew how to play the structure of a song. They weren’t caught up in playing a lot of licks. That was the biggest thing that moved me, because that’s how I was playing. Until I listened to those cats, I didn’t know that someone else was doing the same thing. What really moved me about those guys in particular is the fact that they were really inside the songs. Then the licks start to develop—not the licks first, the song first. That’s how it’s been for me, and I just kept learning and developing my dynamics and not just playing loud.
MD: When cutting all those Hawkins records, were you concerned about drum sounds and cymbal selection?
Joel: I’m into tones. Colors signify sections within songs. I went for cymbals that weren’t too washy. I would get thin crashes and listen for the decay and sustain to make sure I was getting the sound I wanted. Earlier on I was using smaller crashes. As time went on, bigger cymbals started coming into the picture more, but they were still thin, because I wanted them to be in and out, without a lot of overtone. Sometimes I’d go into the store and sit in the drum department for hours, just checking out cymbals. I knew what I wanted to hear within my sound, and I knew it would take time to find the right fit.
Regarding drums and tuning, I learned that pretty much by ear. As time went on, I started changing my sound on the toms and the snare. Sometimes I would listen to Steve Gadd, and I’d try to imagine what he’d done to get his drums sounding the way they did. Then I’d try to reproduce what I heard from him and what I heard for myself in my head.
MD: Did you always listen to other styles of music besides gospel?
Joel: My uncles had a lot of music around the house, so I grew up listening to all kinds. At around eleven or twelve I started listening to a lot of Brazilian music, Sergio Mendes, Miles Davis, and Pat Metheny, and that made me want to add other elements to gospel. I hadn’t really heard any gospel music that had any of those other elements, so I just took a chance, and it worked. Now look at what gospel has turned into today. It’s wide open; people have really taken it to another level.
MD: It sounds like your uncles trusted you to do your thing with their music.
Joel: They really did, man. That’s one of the things I’ll always be very grateful for. They trusted in what I did, because they knew whatever I would hear would help enhance everything. They’re more writers than players, although they’re really great players as well. But they trusted my judgment and asked my opinion about a lot of things, including what other musicians to bring in. People like Kevin Bond and Jonathan DuBose, they asked me about those guys first, and I helped bring them in. When they asked me about Jonathan, up to that point we’d never had guitar. I was excited because I knew there were some gray areas in the music that guitar could help fill, and it was cool because it gave me something else to play off. It helped me get a better understanding of how a band can work together.
MD: Besides your uncles and the people you’ve named, did you have any other musical influences?
Joel: I always loved Billy Cobham, because he’s a power drummer. He’s always had a sound, and still does. Later on I got into Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers. I first learned about Dennis when he was with John Scofield on Loud Jazz. He was playing all this power stuff that really moved me. I watched as his sound changed a little bit. He just kept growing and growing.
When we play with different people, when we really care about our craft, we take little pieces from all these musical situations, and it begins to define us. Look at people like Horacio Hernandez—he’s another one who has really tripped me out with his independence. But everything he plays is around a musical form, even with all the licks. I respect everybody’s way of doing things, as long as they’re true to their own identity. When you’re true to your identity, you’re not trying to prove a point. It will stand out, and your personality will shine through it. Whatever you learn, learn it. But once you’ve learned it, find yourself in it.
MD: How can drummers show their identity without stepping on someone’s toes?
Joel: Simplicity. I don’t know any other way to say it. The question is, when you’re playing something, are you doing it to be seen? Or are you doing it because it’s what the music is really calling for at that time? I say that because I want guys to think about what they’re playing.
MD: You’ve played on so many great songs. On one particular song, “Until I Found the Lord,” you really changed the game with the feel and energy you brought. How did you conceive your approach?
Joel: Harvey Mason always did these syncopated things with the hi-hat that intrigued me, and I tried that kind of stuff a lot. When that song came about, it kind of developed into a whole other thing. I just went for whatever, because I knew I was going to go back behind it and play bass. So I figured: If I make it exciting now, there won’t be that much more for me to do, since the groove is really based on the drums. You know, I was younger too, and I had a little oats to put out there, so I just decided to let it fly! [laughs]
MD: It’s funny, a lot of what’s popular to play in church today is stuff you were playing on records back then.
Joel: What’s interesting to me is that there’s nothing new under the sun. The bottom line is that we all gravitate to the things that we like, so that’s what’s going to come out of us. But we have to be careful. I love the innovation that some of the guys have, but it’s not like it used to be. In today’s society, some players are following each other to a tee. We have the drum sheds where everybody takes licks from each other, and we have a drum community where we lean on each other, and that’s great. But back then it was different, because what was most important was for each person to get on the drums and go for what they knew, more so than copying licks from each other.
MD: Do you think the music is better for the change in the drumming community, or worse?
Joel: I’d say both. In a lot of ways it’s good, because guys can get together and learn from each other. But you have to be careful. You can have the ability to do a lot of different things, but you can destroy the song with your abilities if you don’t have the sensitivity to know what to use within the song itself. Sometimes you’ll overcompensate because of all the tricks and stuff that you know how to do. You have to know what’s really tasteful and what’s being called for, which may mean you have to omit some things to bring breath to the song. You can smother it if you’re not careful.
MD: You’ve always had a great sound on ballads. How did you develop your ballad approach?
Joel: My ballad playing is based on the keyboards, because there’s a lot of color in the chords. Ballads allow me to create a lot of colors through my cymbal work; I’ll use certain crashes for their decay, for instance. Ballads are usually so laid back that if you color them a certain way, they can’t blossom. It all goes back to listening and playing within the form and adding what’s right for that song.
MD: When you do sessions nowadays, do you change up your gear a lot, or do you play differently to get the sounds you want?
Joel: For the most part my setup stays the same. I change snares from time to
time. Doing that helps make you well rounded, because there are times when you’re not always going to have extra gear. It’s always best to have a good imagination and use a different approach to get sounds on your instrument. Being flexible and having a good imagination will take you a long way, because when you end up in a situation where you can’t get the gear you want, it won’t really matter, because the sound is inside you.
MD: You’re often called on to play sessions with artists or choirs that have a regular live band. How do you deal with meeting a drummer who’s been around a long time but now has to sit and watch you play on the record by the group he works with?
Joel: I’ve been in that position so many times, man! [laughs] It’s been a blessing, because most of the people who’ve been the artists’ regular players have been really gracious with me. I thank God for that, because it could really be a mess. A lot of times you’re dealing with people’s egos, and sometimes the artist is bruising them by getting outside players.
When I come in, my first thought is, I know I’m sitting in his chair—let me make sure he knows I’m not trying to take his place. Sometimes guys are really hurt by that. I’m coming in from the outside, not knowing whether the artist has been dogging him or what’s going on. It’s not me; it’s the artist that they’re working with. So I try to come in with an open heart and say, “Hey man, let’s hang out.” It gives me a chance to get to know them and them to get to know me, and from that point it’s not about me being there to take their place; I’m just there to do a job. And hopefully I can teach them some things and they can teach me some things, and everything is cool.
MD: Besides all the gospel and R&B you’ve played and produced, you also toured with a Grateful Dead–related band. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it came about?
Joel: I was working a lot with a guy named Melvin Seals [keyboardist for the Jerry Garcia Band, who’s kept that group’s legacy alive after the death of Garcia, via the group JGB]. One day he told me he was preparing to go out on a tour and needed a drummer. I asked what kind of tour it was, he told me, and I figured, why not?
MD: What was that like, coming from the gospel world?
Joel: I believe that God gives us all talents that He wants us to use. I knew there were other sides of my playing that I needed to challenge, so I decided to try it and wound up doing the gig for two years. It was interesting, to say the least. [laughs] It was like going through a time warp to 1969, with the tie-dye and the hippies. It was cool, but after two years I had to go back. The thing is, I like to create, and that wasn’t really the setting for that. It’s mostly folk music and that kind of thing. It was different for them because they’d never had a black drummer—so it was different for all of us. [laughs] But it was cool.
MD: What message do you want readers to remember from this interview?
Joel: I am a person with certain gifts, and what I’ve been doing is all to give thanks to God. You’ve got to give God the thanks and keep Him first, because when He gives you a gift, He expects you to use it in a way that gives Him glory. You can’t get a big head and think about the fact that a lot of people know you. We all have things that we want to achieve, and sometimes we don’t even know how we got where we were trying to go—we just ended up there. Well, I believe that’s because God orchestrates things like that to bless us. But when you get there, you’ve got to remember to be a blessing and to try to help other people. Because that’s the reason God put you there. It’s not just about you; it’s about helping other people see the vision that you have, which can help them evolve to be even better.
I’ve seen a lot of guys accomplish certain things, and then, when you see them, you can tell they think a little too highly of themselves. [laughs] They might have a great gift, but you’ve got to be careful, because God can stop that. I’ve seen it happen with certain people. Don’t be concerned about people watching you—they’re gonna watch you. Just do what God has given you to do, and let God bless it. There are a lot of things that I’m still learning. You’ve got to stay in a place to keep learning.