He’s been a jazz-rock drummer, a funky, hit-making disco dude, and a stellar R&B and pop producer whose achievements include twenty number one records and three Grammy awards. His name is NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN, and in truth, there aren’t many CVs in the music business that are able to rival his. But all that success and all those accolades – as impressive as they are – aren’t able to match Walden’s proudest and most recent achievement: being a father. “It’s mind blowing,” confesses Narada, now sixty-three, talking from the heart of his Tarpan studio complex in San Rafael in sunny California. “I never was going to have kids. In 1974, when I became a disciple of Guru Sri Chinmoy, he said to me, ‘just throw your life into your music,’ and so all I ever did was fill my life with music all those years.” His single-mindedness, focus and dedication to his art certainly paid off handsomely but his life trajectory altered and followed a new course a few years ago. “Guru passed away and my life went through a bit of a change, took a turn, and presto, voila, I got children and I just feel really blessed by the whole thing.”
Becoming a family man certainly inspired Narada’s latest recording venture, ‘Evolution,’ arguably his most exciting studio project for many a year. It finds the former Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report drummer putting his dancing shoes back on and reviving memories of his disco hits in the late-’70s and early-’80s when infectious records like his biggest UK smash, ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya,’ blew up big in the clubs and stormed the charts. Packed with strong songs that boast memorable choruses over addictively funky grooves, ‘Evolution’ looks set to ignite an exciting new phase in the Narada’s career, whose solo work largely went on the back burner once he became an in-demand record producer.
In the first instalment of SJF’s two-part in-depth interview with R&B’s hardest working multitasker, Narada Michael Walden tells Charles Waring about his new album. A passionate and engaging interviewee who exudes positivity, humour and, despite his success, great humility, Narada also reflects on his past and the influences, people, experiences and events that helped shape him as a musician and human being…
What’s the story behind your new album, ‘Evolution’?
I’d have to say I’m always making music so I had a big burst of inspiration with the children I have in my life – I waited late to have children, sixty-years-old, and so then when these kids came in my life I just felt like ‘wow, man, all this is going be passed down to them’ and I got to think about evolution and to wrote a song about it. One of my doctor friends said ‘that’s a wonderful theme to inspire children for the future’ so I kind of got in the whole mode of that and out came a lot of music to do with that kind of feeling.
It’s a very optimistic, upbeat album, as most of your music is…
Yeah, I believe that music should be encouraging. As we’re living longer, there’s a lot of threat and violence in life and a lot of uncertainty, too, so I think that music should be something that is uplifting and encouraging and showing the way, and I’d rather take that role.
Compared with the last couple of jazz-rock-tinged albums that you’ve done, this new one finds you going back to your club and dance music roots.
Yeah, I did. I made a conscious effort to do that on this record. I toured with (guitarist) Jeff Beck in 2012 – Jeff and I had a great run – and I made an album after that called ‘Thunder,’ which is in that same vein. I really enjoyed making that music but I felt that people are now doing all over again what we started back in the ’70s, so I just jumped back on the table for a second and just lit it up. I invoked the spirit of Rick James on a jam called ‘Baby’s Got It Going On,’ Curtis Mayfield on ‘Billionaire On Soul Street,’ and Lionel Richie came through on a couple of jams, ‘Tear The House Down’ and ‘Me And My Girl,’ so it’s kind of a throwback to that period for sure.
What about the song ‘Billionaire On Soul Street’ – that’s a great title, what was the inspiration behind it?
Oh man, this is a fun story because right here in my studio, my assistant is Kim Rea. She’s also a writer/musician and plays guitar, and we’re often texting each other throughout the day about different things and one of her texts included a catchphrase, ‘I feel like a billionaire on Soul Street.’ I thought wow, that’s an unusual way to say something and I was thinking about my life and said I feel like a billionaire on Soul Street having these new children. So that was like a new way of saying I feel good in my life. I stuck around with it and she helped me finish the lyrics so really it’s just a new kind of a catchphrase.
Of all the songs on the album which one means most to you?
I think my version of (Lennon & McCartney’s) ‘Long and Winding Road’ – that’s the one I listen to a lot. When I was on the road with Jeff (Beck), he always loved that song and I thought about him doing it like a Rod Stewart project. That project never really happened so then when I came to do this record I said I like singing that song. It always touches my heart, too, and there’s something about the loneliness of it – we all are here together but then we miss people who have gone on, like in my case my closest brother Ron, who passed away just a few years ago. He was just one year and three days younger than me, so I just always feel that we’re happy to be alive and we treasure our lives but we also miss those who have gone on and we communicate with them in the spirit world. And so with ‘Long And Winding Road’ I always felt that kind of hauntingness and spirituality. I really enjoyed covering that song.
I take it then that you’re a Beatles’ fan. Were they an influence on you?
I am, because when I was a kid, they came over and conquered America. But it wasn’t just them conquering that I loved about them. The Beatles, John Lennon, in particular, and Paul, and all the cats, they were so outspoken and they set people in America straight. They told the white people of America that their two favourite artists were Mary Wells and Little Richard. Now I’m black, and from Kalamazoo, Michigan, not far from Detroit, so I know about Mary Wells (pictured with the ‘Fab Four,’ left). She was the one who was the first Motown star and Smokey Robinson produced her on ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’ and all those hits that she had back at that time. She was a real soul and bluesy and wide vibrato type of singer and I could hear that influence in the music so I was happy that they acknowledged that. Little Richard was another big superstar in the black community who was the king and the architect of rock ‘n’ roll. He started the whole damned thing. And when The Beatles gave those guys credit, the black community in America were down with them. We thought, ‘thank you,’ because most white people had no idea who Mary Wells was or Little Richard. So when the Beatles spoke like that, it really opened up the education because our country’s strange. You can have Chuck Berry and great black musicians in our country that white folks won’t know anything about. But in the UK, you say ‘wow, look at those great blue guys,’ and they’re big inspirations for Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and all the cats. You guys know Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and all that music but in America they say who are those guys? (Laughs raucously).
What was the inspiration behind your version of Richie Havens’ ‘Freedom’?
I went and saw Richie (pictured left at Woodstock) just before he passed away at one of his last shows here in Mo Valley in California. It was just a fantastic concert because he was in rare form and even to watch him tune his guitar was so musical. He just takes his time to tune the twelve string and he’s a real artist. I’d loved him since my college days and we would do songs like ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Freedom’ and different things he would get into and I always dug his rhythm, he was so fearless. At Woodstock for example, he was the only guy who could stall time because people were late coming on so he had to do six encores and ‘Freedom’ was the sixth encore which he just made up. He started it as a gospel-type of riff and started vamping on it for the audience and out came ‘Freedom,’ so I like that kind of spirit. I’m all about keeping alive the best of the ’60s and re-injecting it into our times now. We need that kind of spirit now from ‘Freedom.’ So I just took Richie’s message and played my drums and wailed it on it, just keeping alive his music. Richie’s another unsung cat but he was a big part of the cloth and the fabric of the ’60s, like Hendrix.
Coming forward to the present day, the title track, ‘Evolution,’ you co-wrote with Jeffrey Cohen, who’s been a long time writing partner of yours.
Yeah, very much so. When I first moved to California, he was the guy who first opened the door for me over here. He worked at a studio called the Automat that was run by (producer) David Rubinson and was one of the hot places back in ’78 out here in California. He said ‘you come over here man, you record and work and do whatever you want to do,’ and that became a home for me. I also worked at the Record Plant where I did the Stacey Lattisaw stuff, and also worked at Wally Heider’s (studio) downtown on ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya.’ But then the Automatic became more of my home-base over the years, when I was doing Sister Sledge, and even the first Aretha Franklin tracks- ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ and ‘Freeway Of Love’ – and Whitney’s ‘How Will I Know.’ That basic stuff was actually cut out the Automat. Just at the same time I was moving to Tarpan Studios so I have a big affection for that place because of my work with Jeffrey Cohen. He and I always stay close. He wrote the verses for ‘Freeway Of Love.’ That was our first Grammy award winner, was Song Of The Year and Aretha’s big platinum seller, so we’ve always been close and I’m happy to have him involved on ‘Evolution.’ He has a way of thinking that always stays current. So I always love working with him.
Another long-time associate of yours who goes right back to your days in the late-’70s is keyboardist Frank ‘Killer Bee’ Martin. What’s his strength as a musician?
Versatility. If I want to do a tribute to Joe Zawinul, he can handle that. If I want to do Mahavishnu Orchestra with Jan Hammer, he can go there. If I want to do pop music – that’s him playing that little Moog solo on Stacey Lattisaw’s ‘I Found Love On A Two-Way Street’ – he can play all that stuff. If I wanted to do string arranging, he can do all that. Frank’s just a versatile kind of a guy and when I first got with him I liked the fact that he could play the funk. A lot of cats can play at the funk but they can’t really play the funk. Frank can actually play the funk. Like Stevie (Wonder) can play the clavinet, Frank can do that really well too. So I like that. I’m a rhythm guy, I’m a drummer and I like guys in my band who understand deep funk, deep rhythm, because in there lies eternity. In there lies the quest for the love of God. If you can’t play (James Brown’s) ‘Cold Sweat,’ then you can’t really play. Frank understands all that. A lot of cats can play at it but they can’t really play it. But Frank can play it and that’s why I like him.
Going right back in time, what’s your earliest memory of being involved with music?
My earliest memories are on Christmas morning I got a Toyland drum set. I was four or five years old and the drum heads were made of paper so you’d play them for about fifteen minutes before they would break. I went on a wild flurry and once the head was broken it was over, but it was orgasmic. Even today I get that same feeling when I play. I also loved watching records spin on the turntable. I used to love to be hypnotised watching the thing going round and round and staring at album jackets, looking at a pretty girl on the cover. They used to make these Latin mambo albums, with these pretty ladies with a kind of a blue tint over their faces dancing mambos in the ’50s. I was crazy, they were so beautiful, these women. I’d stare at them. So, these were all my earliest recollections. If I’m honest, my mother and sisters, they were listening to all kinds of pop stuff like (start singing) “Wake up, little Susie, wake up!” The Everly Brothers and that kind of stuff.
So you were exposed to a lot of different music then?
Yeah, because in Kalamazoo, all there is is music. The Gibson guitar factory is right there, Kellogg’s corn flakes is just down the street in Battle Creek, and there’s nothing else really to do in snow time, wintertime – half the year is snow – and you just get lost in your music and stay indoors and party. So music is really king – and queen – in Michigan. And don’t forget, Detroit’s not far, Chicago’s not far, those are places where almost every person you meet – the person that drives and parks your car, the person that shines your shoes – is a talented musician. Even in Kalamazoo, each bar’s got another genius type cat who plays the piano, the drums, or this or that. It’s everywhere. It’s full of competition.
Was there an album that changed your life back then?
Yeah, I’d have to say it would be a Ray Charles live album (1960 Atlantic album ‘Ray Charles In Person’). It’s him singing ‘What’d I Say’ and a piece called ‘Frenesi,’ another piece called ‘Tell The Truth,’ and ‘Drown In My Own Tears.’ If you hear that album, it’s complete sanctified, gospel religion. It’s Ray Charles at his finest and I was just a kid in the snow and I just memorised every bit of it. So that was really pivotal. Then, of course, later we heard Little Stevie Wonder and a friend of mine said ‘he’s as good as you on the drums.’ I said ‘no way, he’s blind. How can he know where the drums are?’ They said ‘well, wait till you see him.’ So then I went to the River Theatre in Chicago and saw Stevie Wonder for the first time when ‘Fingertips’ was just getting hot. It was mind-blowing. He had girls screaming for him the way they screamed for the Beatles. I couldn’t believe it. And the way he walked, it was strange, like an alien. But when he got to the microphone, he had such command, harmonically, of his voice, and the audience. He knew how to break it down and touch their hearts. This guy at twelve years old was a master. I was like: ‘get the hell out of here!’ I wanted to say I could compete but I couldn’t compete with him. He was just too good. Then later on, he came to Kalamazoo with my drum teacher playing drums with him and he grabbed my teachers drumsticks and began to play the same thing on the drums that the teacher was playing, which was (starts humming a syncopated percussive rhythm). He goes crazy with it and he was on the drum stool swaying back and forth to the audience and then fell off the stool. He got back up again and then fell off again. He kept falling off, three or four times, and the audience went crazy. The guy was just nuts. I was going: ‘this is a whole other sphere man!’ So that was pivotal if you talking about what happened to me.
How did you get into jazz-rock then?
That all came later. I was exposed to jazz like Cannonball Adderley’s ’74 Miles Away’ and ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ and Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ as a kid. I was very glad that my aunts and my gran and my mum exposed me to all the good music. But where John McLaughlin took it to with the Mahavishnu Orchestra was way far ahead than anyone could ever imagine: where he put a big dose of Indian music in it – and the way the Indians do their time counting is light years ahead of all of us. So Mahavishnu took that and mixed it with jazz and blues and rock, and when we heard Billy Cobham doing ‘Inner Mounting Flame’ and ‘Vital Transformation’ and that music, that was so far off the scale that we had no idea what they were doing. So I just had to take a couple of years and just study what they were doing and listened to it and memorised it and tried my best to digest it. I joined a band in Miami called the New McGuire Sisters, it was a kind of play on words, because the McGuires weren’t jazz-rock at all, but we were, so we took that name and with Sandy Torano on guitar, we just hammered out odd meters: five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, jamming, playing hard rock and that really moulded me to feel free in odd meters. So when I met John McLaughlin later I could play with him and not be intimidated, although he did teach me a hell of a lot. He said ‘you’re not listening well enough, so you’ve got to become a really good listener.’ But because I had so much enthusiasm, I was so excited and I couldn’t contain it. Mahavishnu said ‘okay, which force is stronger? The horse that can run down the mountain fastest or the horse that can run and stop periodically down the mountain?’ I said ‘probably the horse that can run and stop.’ He said ‘exactly. You’ve got to have the power of restraint.’ That taught me a whole other thing. I said ‘man, now I get it – I want to be excited but I want to have restraint with it.’
So, did you have to audition for John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra? (pictured left with Narada at the back, centre)
Yeah but we became friends first. When I first met him it was backstage in Hartford, Connecticut. I just saw him play the ‘Birds Of Fire’ album with Billy Cobham and they had ripped a new hole in the universe. No one in that whole arena had never ever seen anything remotely close to it. What Cobham played that night is still reverberating in the halls. I told Mahavishnu: ‘whatever it is you’re doing in your life, teach me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Just teach me.’ He said ‘I’m going to see the guru (Sri Chinmoy) at six in the morning in Queens in New York for meditation and I’ll tell him that I met you.’ Now him telling me that was a big deal because we’re way out in Hartford, Connecticut, after a concert that I just saw which is mind blowing, and he’s going to hop in a car and drive from there to Queens, which is two or three hours away, and see his guru at six in the morning. He’s not going to sleep. So I thought to myself: damn, they really are crazy! So he called me a week later and said ‘I can’t come tonight to the meditation but I’ve talked to the guru and he wants to meet you so I want you to go there, to Norwalk, Connecticut.’ I said ‘okay,’ and shaved off my beard, brushed my hair back and threw on a little white thing I had, and asked Greg Fells (the New McGuire Sisters’ manager) to drive me down in a limousine and I got there late. I sat in a chair and watched what was going on and I could see a lot of power, and peace, coming off the guru. And I could understand what Mahavishnu was talking about now. He was getting something from that teacher because it was very powerful. So I became a disciple that night and that road led me to become friends with Mahavishnu.
When did you get to play together?
The first time we played together I played on his guitar case as he would play on his acoustic guitar in some odd meter and he knew I could at least hang with him a little bit. The next time we played was in a disciple’s basement. I played on a disciple’s drum set and we had a good time. And the third time we got together, he came to my farm (in Canaan, Connecticut) where (guitarist) Sandy Torano, (bassist) Ralph Armstrong, and all my crew was at, and we jammed hard then and it was like ‘ooh, okay.’ And then Mahavishnu played a devilish trick on me. When it was his turn to play his solo, he waited till last and we were all playing really fast funk – so fast we could barely hang on. And when it was time for Mahavishnu to play, he turned towards me and made this kind of a stone face, but out of his fingers was this terrifying, speedy, loud riff-solo that went on and on and on – but on his face was nothing, no expression. I wasn’t used to seeing that. I was always used to seeing some guitar player with agony and passion on their face, in some kind of contortion where they’re trying to make things happen. There was all that same sound, all that same intensity in his playing, but on his face there was nothing to give me a clue. So then I said ‘okay, fine, I’ll close my eyes and won’t even look at you anymore.’ And then I was okay. But if I looked at him, I was completely wigged out. (Crazy laughter)
But you passed the test.
A true story my friend.
After that you joined Weather Report as well. What was that experience like?
I didn’t properly join them. I was asked to join but I went there to make a recording called ‘Black Market.’ (Drummer) Chester Thompson had recorded it and it was brilliant but then they wanted some extra thing to happen on some spot of the song and I just played it through and then they edited it later. I came in on the bridge and from there on it’s me, and we had fun just jamming. (Saxophonist) Wayne Shorter was over there in the corner jamming, I could see him, and (keyboardist) Joe Zawinul’s right next to me. Alphonso Johnson played the bass, and on percussion was Alex Acuna. We really jammed and that became ‘Black Market.’ Then, they said would you consider joining and bring a bass player because Alphonso is going on a solo career. I said ‘well, I know a bass player for you called Jaco Pastorius, he’s a friend of mine from Florida. Maybe we should fly him in and see how things go.’ So we flew in Jaco the next day, it was just that fast, and Joe taught as us a song called ‘Cannonball,’ which is a slow song, and don’t forget, I can’t read that kind of music, so I had a tape on my cassette machine and would go in the hall and memorise it and then try to record it. Then Jaco learned the piece and added all these inflections on the bass, because he was just trying to show Joe how badass he is because he is, and then Joe says to him, ‘don’t play that shit on my song.’ That stopped Jaco in his tracks. Jaco Pastorius at a young age was a bad mo fo. You don’t just talk to Jaco and say ‘don’t pay that shit on my song’ unless you’re Joe Zawinul. And what Joe said to him changed Jaco. And now Jaco, when he played a little riff or whatever, he really, really meant it as opposed to just doing it because he could. That’s what I remember about that session and then Jaco was asked to join and when he joined, I told Joe that I loved him but I wanted to go and have a rock experience. Having done two and a half years with Mahavishnu playing jazz-rock fusion I wanted to go and get more experience with screaming girls, which I never had a chance to experience. (Guitarist) Tommy Bolin was going to go on tour so I decided to join his band and experience all the girls and all the fun stuff for a minute as opposed to serious music. And that’s what happened…
In Part 2 of SJF’s interview with NARADA, he talks about working with JEFF BECK, his solo career at ATLANTIC RECORDS, and producing ARETHA FRANKLIN and WHITNEY HOUSTON.
‘Evolution’ is out now via Tarpan Records.