You also worked with Donald Byrd in the early ’70s. What was it like working with the Mizell brothers on his Blue Note albums?
It was similar to Motown sessions. We went to work maybe three or four days a week at an old studio called The Sound Factory. I think Fonce (Mizell) had moved from Motown to LA and Blue Note was just beginning to try creating crossover music. We were in the studio just cutting tracks and we didn’t know who the artist was half the time. We just worked for several hours and read some music and it was fun. It was the same guys on all the sessions and we all had a ball. It was very creative – you just went in and played. No one said anything: you just played.
When you listen to those records, they sound so effortless in relation to the rhythm section.
Yes, it was very uncomplicated. They didn’t have stands for music. We didn’t know when we were going to change. They had a piece of paper with the A, B, or C section or bridge or whatever on and as we were playing along they would hold up the charts and then count one, two, three, four and then you’d go to the A section and then go to B and then they would go to C and then they might go back to A. Then they might go back to the bridge and then they put C in and you would just play out. So it was very, very relaxed. You didn’t have to think about reading the music – they just put up a sign when they wanted to change.
Did you imagine when you were cutting it that ‘Black Byrd’ would become such a big seller?
Well, we just made the music. It was just great music and they marketed it well. There were a lot of records in that time that I was happy with. That was one of the first and it was great. It was a lot of fun.
Can you describe what an average day was like back in the ’70s when you were in demand as a session drummer?
Most of the sessions started at 10 am for a record date. But I also did movies and TV films and they started generally at 8 or 7.30 am. So I’d get up and go to a date at 10 or I’d have a motion picture call or a TV call at 8. I generally worked about three sessions a day, even on Saturdays. Sometimes you’re working later than that – you may not start till 8 and might not finish till 12 or something like that. So it was a lot of fun and it was amazing. The music was so varied and it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life because I never knew what music I was really going to be called upon to do. I might go to work with (arranger) Oliver Nelson one day, then I’d work with the TV guy over here (in Hollywood) one day, and then I’d go work with Tom Jones, or Carole King and I come over here (back to Hollywood) and work on a jingle for an hour in between. It was a golden age for recording and I’m so happy I had that experience. It was amazing. I was playing not only drums but percussion as well because that was my training. The first couple of years I lived in L.A. I was playing almost exclusively percussion – not even playing the drums. I think when I started making the Blue Note records and the notoriety came, people started calling me to play drums. Prior to that, I was playing percussion: a lot of percussion. Once, I was playing vibes with (saxophonist) Gerry Mulligan when the drummer didn’t show up and I said ‘I can play until he gets here.’ Then they fired the drummer and let me play drums. There was a session with Dave Grusin that I played on and when he heard me play drums, I became his regular drummer for about 20 years on everything he ever did. It’s funny how things turn out.
You also produced two CTI albums for the group Seawind in the late ’70s – how did that come about?
A friend of mine who was travelling as a music conductor for Trinnie Lopez spent a lot of time in Hawaii and he heard this band that he was freaking over called Ox. He sent me tapes and said: “You have to hear this band, they’re amazing.” I heard the tape and they sounded incredible. I’d never heard a band sound like that so I just started corresponding with them and asked them if anyone had ever recorded them and they said no. Different people like Cannonball Adderley and a couple of other people like George Duke had desires to produce them but no one had done anything. This went on and on and then they finally said we are coming to LA. So they came to LA, we met and I said let’s go work on a record in Bill Withers’ studio. He was going out of town and he was going to be gone for quite a while. He said “stay here and use my studio” so we went to the studio and started recording the record. That’s how it happened. I played percussion with them. They were great, great musicians.
They had a great horn section featuring Jerry Hey, didn’t they?
Oh yeah, I introduced Quincy (Jones) to those guys.
Did you ever have any sessions you had to turn down but now wished that you hadn’t?
I got called to do a record with Chaka Khan, a bebop record, ‘A Night In Tunisia.’ I got a call to do that but then they moved the session and I couldn’t do it. I would’ve loved to have done that record. I would’ve loved to record on the David Sanborn and Bob James album with ‘Maputo’ on it (‘Double Vision’). I almost did that record. Other than that I can’t think of many others. I played one day on a record by Asia but I left. It was too slow for me. I was supposed to work for a week but I worked one day. The recording process was painfully slow to me: I’m not that patient. But I heard the record and it was a great record and I wished I could have been involved but not if I’d have to suffer that pain for that time.