Your next album was ‘Groovin’ You’ and the title track proved very popular with clubbers.
Yeah, that was a disco hit. All the time I had been guided by the label (Arista) to really tap into the crossover market and the disco thing was happening at the time and I was playing on a lot of those records. I had my finger on the pulse because I was making so many records and working on so many projects and I kind of knew what was going on at the time. And then when I made my own album I was definitely influenced by those things and I tried to make my records in my own way but using the influences and the knowledge that I had from working on the other projects.
There’s a very nice version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Wave’ on that album.
There again, it was Jeremy Lubbock. I told him that I’d decided to record this song and we got together and conceptualised it. He went to work and put all the touches on it and it was nominated for a Grammy.
Your next and final album for Arista was ‘M.V.P.’ It was quite a stylistic departure from your previous work, wasn’t it?
That was almost all commercial, wasn’t it?
Yes, definitely. What was the reasoning behind it?
Well, when you’ve just about broken through and achieved major hit status (with ‘Groovin’ You’) the record label said give us more to work with. So that’s where the album came from. I just gave them more to work with.
What prompted the album’s title, ‘M.V.P.’?
I was looking for some kind of a hook. Something interesting. And at the time I was winning these the ‘most valuable player’ awards as a drummer in Hollywood and I won a couple of those as I started to put the album together. Also I was heavily involved in sports. I loved sports. I was running hurdles, playing basketball, skiing and all that stuff. I put those two ideas together – ‘most valuable player’ with sports – and that was the theme. You’re always looking for a title for an album and that was the tie in. ‘M.V.P.,’ most valuable player, was the music influence but everything else came from sports.
Did all those pictures on the back cover of you running, horse riding and skiing truly reflect your own genuine leisure interests then?
Oh, yes. Definitely. I used to run track and played basketball in a basketball league. My daughter rode horses but I took lessons for the picture because I wasn’t a regular horseback rider. I was a recreational rider. I rode and jumped a couple of jumps.
Your brother Kenny had quite a prominent role on the album. Can you tell me a little about him?
Kenny is six years younger than me. He graduated from the New England Conservatory also. I recommended him to the school and they gave him a scholarship. He’s a good trumpet player and arranger and when he got out of school I had him come work with me a lot. So he was working with me and we wrote together. He was writing arrangements. I let him step up to try and help him in his career because he was so close to me and stayed with me a lot and at the time I think he was working with Mandrill and Marvin Gaye – in his band as a trumpet player – so he was starting to get studio work. I trusted him; he knew exactly what I wanted. He did a couple of arrangements and wrote with me. I relied on him.
You recruited an unknown singer, Karen Floyd, for the album. How did you hook up with her?
I was writing with different people like Deon Estus and I met a lady called Marti Sharron. As an artist, songs always come to you. A song came to me from a girl called Marti Sharron as a demo for my record. I heard the song and the girl singing the song was a girl named Karen Floyd. I loved the way she sang. She sang differently from anyone else I’d heard. So I cut the song and used the singer that was on the demo. That was probably the last time I’ve seen her but in recent years she tried to get going again and she sent me a couple of songs. She still sounds wonderful but she’s got a whole different life outside of music and now wants to move back into music but I think the bar might have passed and the window of opportunity has gone. But she still sounds great and is a wonderful singer.
You also you had Deon Estus, who you mentioned, playing bass for you. How did you find him?
I worked on a record with the band that he was in. They were called Brainstorm from Detroit. I was playing drums because a lot of times drummers in a band aren’t really studio savvy. So that happened a lot. I was working with his band and because of that, we hooked up. He was great, very enthusiastic. I loved playing with him. So I had him on a couple of record dates and he pushed a couple of songs on me. I had to do a couple of live gigs, and he played with me. He could sing and play so I used my record as a conduit to try and get him out there. He hadn’t done an album and no one knew anything about him. So I did one of his songs and he sang on it and it was a good relationship. Shortly after that, I think he moved to London and played with George Michael, Sade and a few people like that.
So what happened at Arista after ‘M.V.P.’ as it turned out to be your final album for the company.
I think at that point I was getting frustrated and don’t think I wanted to really record with the sort of constraints and demands that Arista had put on me so we mutually agreed to part. I think I had one more album left to do on my contract but I didn’t do it.
If I can take you back a bit earlier than your Arista career, to Herbie Hancock’s ‘Head Hunters’ album; how did you get to play on that album and how did you get to meet Herbie and play with him?
I’d met Herbie years before because I was an ardent Miles Davis fan. I’d travel around to hear him play. When Herbie formed his band Mwandishi, the drummer in the band was an old friend of mine whom I’d met as a kid, Billy Hart. I stayed in touch with him and went to different gigs and he knew me as a young drummer. He recommended me to Herbie when Herbie started his new band. So when Herbie was forming his new band after Mwandishi he called me and asked me to come over and play. So I went to his house and played and we fell in love together. After that, we started trying to find a bass player. At that time I was really involved in recording a lot and I think that that interested Herbie because I played on a lot of big records at the time and he was looking to crossover and was trying to move in that direction. He’d been travelling up and down the road with this band Mwandishi and financially he was probably scuffling but musically it was very, very rewarding. But he was interested in reaching new audiences and that was happening with a lot of guys that he knew, in particular Donald Byrd. At that time I was very, very busy but I devoted almost all my time to rehearsing and hanging with the band and we did some live gigs prior to doing the record. We almost lived as a family. It was like a commune. Then we went in and did the record (‘Head Hunters’). Following the record, I went back to my career full-time despite requests to travel with the band and go on the road. I didn’t go because I knew my future would lie with what I’d already been doing, in the recording studio. So I finished the record with Herbie and then went right back into doing what I was doing full-time and never thought about going on the road.
You’re credited as a co-writer of the classic track ‘Chameleon’ from that album – do you recall how it came about?
When you write together in the studio together you’re coming up with grooves, you’re coming up with lines and everybody’s contributing. There wasn’t anyone who brought any music. We were creating as we went along. Sometimes you’re playing a particular song and something else will come out of it and when you’re in the creative process it happens a lot of different ways. We could be playing and then one guy might play a groove and say “wait a minute, wait a minute! That could be a song.” You stop playing and you go from there. This guy will put this in and that guy will put that in and the next thing you know you’ve got a song. You create it, then hone it, edit it and add to it and that’s how we created that song. I don’t know where the groove came from – but they just started playing along with it. It’s just one of those creative moments that just happen. I think with every song on the album – regardless of who the composer was – everyone chipped in and took it to a different level. I remembered helping to create a couple of songs on Herbie’s next record (‘Thrust’). ‘Butterfly’ was one. As a matter of fact, I was a little bit jealous when that album came out because I had helped to create a lot of that vibe and had special feelings about the way to play those songs. But it was a great time and I was very happy to be involved in that.
Weren’t you responsible for the updated arrangement of Herbie’s ’60s hit, ‘Watermelon Man’ on ‘Head Hunters’?
Yeah, I was in the shower and at the time we were creating new music and of course, this music was just playing in my brain all the time. I remembered one of Herbie’s songs, ‘Watermelon Man,’ and kept thinking about it. So I was in the shower and heard music in my head – running water creates something in the brain where you hear music and I heard this arrangement and I put it together and took it to the band and Herbie loved it. The idea of having the African Hindewho whistle came from (percussionist) Bill Summers. He was an ethno-musicologist and he was heavily into African drumming in a traditional sense. He had this whistle and we decided to put it in at the front (of the track). Again, it was a collaborative effort.