(Ed. Note: This article, originally posted in 2006, details the history of polyrhythmic legend and teacher Ralph Humphrey, and looks into the band Babaghanoush, with whom he still plays in Los Angeles.)
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s musical traditions were being torn apart and new ones were taking root. Jazz, funk, rock and soul were colliding, and cross-pollinating with musics from around the world, in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Drummers were experimenting with new equipment, new sounds, new styles of playing, and many bands were pushing the frontiers of jazz and rock with a new music called fusion. No bandleaders were pushing boundaries further than trumpeter Don Ellis. And his drummer Ralph Humphrey was blazing a trail of his own, playing difficult arrangement in odd meters in a way that people had never quite heard before. To young ambitious drummers, Ralph was one of the most brilliant stars in a time that had plenty of them.
Ralph had the distinction not only of playing with Don Ellis at his peak, but he moved from there to take over the drum chair for Frank Zappa at the peak of his career, defining the rhythm for classic albums such as Overnite Sensation. But in the late ‘70s Ralph decided to come off the road and spend time at home with his family in Los Angeles. In the intervening years, Ralph played every conceivable gig, working in the studios on TV shows, movie soundtracks, and pop and jazz recording sessions. In fact, that was Ralph you heard on the all the drum tracks for last year’s American Idol. He also devoted a large portion of his time to education, developing the first percussion program at Percussion Institute of Technology with his longtime friend and teaching partner Joe Porcaro (Jeff’s dad). In the late ‘90s Joe and Ralph moved over to the Los Angeles Music Academy to start a new program, where he teaches today.
Though no longer in the avant-garde limelight, Ralph is very active, touring, doing sessions, and teaching. And, he's still pushing the musical envelope. We sat down with him a few months back to talk about an amazing record he recorded with the group Babaghanoush. We caught up on some of the exciting moments in his 35-year career, and took a track-by-track tour of how Ralph recorded the tunes on Babaghanoush’s debut CD.
DRUM! Ralph, educate me about your early days as a drummer.
RH Well, I grew up in San Francisco Bay Area and learned how to play drums in the high school band. Basically, I played a lot at pizza joints [laughs]. I played the clarinet for a number of years so I knew how to read and I knew concert-oriented classical music. But drumming I learned as I went. I didn’t have any formal lessons. The other day someone asked me “Whom did you study with?” and I always have to say “No one.” I took one lesson from Tony Williams in the late ‘60s when I was in Don Ellis’ band.
DRUM! What was that like?
RH He was teaching in Frank Ippolito’s drum shop. I basically stood behind him for a half hour while he played. I asked him about his bass drum technique, how he did something. He said, "Well you do whatever you have to do." That was it, but what he was really saying was, “Do whatever you have to do to express yourself”, and that made a big impression on me.
DRUM!You also got a lot of good experience during your formal education.
RH I went to College of San Mateo [well-known for its jazz program] where the bandleader was Dick Crest. Jazz was really big up there and we would do a lot of get-togethers where you would compete with different bands. Eventually, I got a gig with Dick's band; we’d play the Russian River festival every summer and the hotels in San Francisco. It was real high society jazz, but it was good band with a good book and a great experience being a young guy, in the union and gigging all the time.
DRUM! How did you hook up with Don Ellis?
RH I played other gigs here and there. [Arranger, producer] Don Piestrup—a wonderful writer –had a rehearsal band in Berkeley with all the top cats and I used to play with them. After College of San Mateo I went San Jose State State. One of the profs there, Dwight Cannon, decided to invite Don Ellis and his drummer up to do a concert with our band. Don had just hit the scene with his album Live in Monterey. Of course we had never heard of this incredible music before Dwight brought him up to San Jose State and he came with his drummer Steve Bohannon. Don sent up the music ahead of time that we were going to play with them. They were really strange charts. He would write out the subdivision of the bar into three—he notated according to the subdivision of the rhythm, not according to the beat. I was scheduled to play the second drum chair. As it turns out Steve missed a plane and missed the rehearsal so Don got a chance to hear me. Steve came up and played the concert.
Six months later Steve left the band and I get a call from Don Ellis. I remember thinking, "There must be tons of drummers in LA. Why would he be calling me?" So, on New Years day 1968 I flew to LA and auditioned for the band at a club called Ellis Island. It was packed. Steve played the first three-fourths of the set and then I came up and played two or three tunes.
DRUM! Were you nervous?
RH On the flight down I was so nervous but it’s funny, once I started to play, I was scared and I knew the band was checking me out but I did okay. On a scale of one to ten I thought I gave it a five. After the gig, we went back to Don’s place, and, he said, “What do you think? And, I said, “It was great, thank you so much.” He said, “Yes, but do you want to join the band?” and I was shocked.
DRUM! So here you were, a young guy, and you’re playing in one of the most experimental bands on the planet.
RH My wife and I moved down a month later. We rehearsed right away for a European tour and then a states tour. It was an opportune time for me. The first record I was on was Shock Treatment. My wife and I moved down a month later. We rehearsed right away for a European tour and then a states tour. It was an opportune time for me.
DRUM! Today, it’s hard for people to understand how out there the music was getting. Did you feel it at the time that you were at the epicenter of something new and big?
RH Yes, but I felt I had been in a normal environment and then suddenly I was in another world with a bizarre band. He did so many things that were pretty new at the time. He wrote using Indian rhythms that he would superimpose over other exotic rhythms. He invented the fourth valve on the trumpet to produce quarter tones, he played the electric trumpet, he wrote modal music, his outfits were wild, his orchestration was unusual, sometimes with three or four drum sets and then percussion, too. He was totally unique in every respect. [Ed. Note. On Shock Treatment, for example Ellis employed six reed players, eleven horns, several pianists, four or five drummers including Joe Porcaro, Mark Stevens and Carlos “Patato” Valdes, and sitar.]
DRUM! You were with Don for five years. What happened next?
RH I did some small band stuff with him, clinics and things. Just after I left the band I was hanging around town, doing rehearsal bands and trying to be active. That’s when George Duke called me and said “Frank Zappa needs a drummer. He has gone through fifty guys and I thought of you because of what you have been doing.” To tell you the truth, I had never thought of playing with Frank and hadn’t listened much. So I went down with no expectations at all but I was confident because after playing with Don Ellis nothing was going to scare me any more. Frank put up some charts that were sort of regular tunes and then we jammed in odd meters and then he put up one of his difficult pieces called “The Bebop Tango,” just to see if I could read.
DRUM! And, how did you do?
RH He hired me on the spot. So again I wasn’t expecting it to happen but it happened.I was just there at the right time. That took me on a whole other journey. It was a great period to be with Zappa. Frank was changing directions and though he hated bebop he needed jazz players who could read and play with his level of perfection, which rock players couldn’t do. There were great players in the band, [violinist] Jean Luc Ponty, [keyboardist] George Duke, [keyboardist] Ian and [percussionist] Ruth Underwood, [horns] Bruce Fowler and [bassist] Tom Fowler, [trumpeter] Sal Marquez. I was with Frank a year and a half. Frank we were on the road all the time. If we weren’t on the road we were in town rehearsing. We played all over Europe, we even did ten dates with Mahavishnu Orchestra.
DRUM! That’s when Billy Cobham was reinventing drums.
RH I envied every one of those players they were at a creative peak. Billy Cobham was unique as a drummer, he was big spike in creativity. If you go through the history of drums over a hundred years, he was a big creative peak.
After Frank I decided to get back into town and try to work my way into the studio. I felt like I had the ability to do that work, I had the background in styles and reading and thought if I take my shot now But I did some time with Seals and Crofts (Jeff Porcaro also played with them) in 1976. I did some touring with Akiyoshi Tabackin Big Band later in the ‘70s and then mostly playing with different people from Joe Farrell to Chick Corea. In 1980 started working with Al Jarreau. I was starting to work more with producer Jay Graydon—he had been in Don’s band so I had known him for years.
DRUM! He’s the guy who played the amazing solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg”.
RH Yes, Jay is a great guitar player. He produced a lot of music at the time, so my studio work was building and I was suddenly in the company of my favorite drummers like Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd, and being on high quality records. I was on a lot of B records, not huge sellers, did a lot of recording and started working TV and movies. In Hollywood there is a real separation between doing sessions, TV and movies. I was trying to cross over and do everything. I was teaching, doing sessions, the whole thing because I enjoy it all.
DRUM! Some drummers would hate it if they had to play a swing gig one day and a rock gig the next. Others want to play funk at night, jazz, the next day, avant-garde the next night.
RH That’s me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve imitated Krupa on a session gig. It’s just fun doing a good job. So many times I’ve done TV or recording and to me it’s a job to do and I want to be professional. The music may not be that fulfilling or what I would choose artistically but I still want it to be good. I keep art and business separate. Some people can’t do that.
DRUM! It was about this time you got into education. How long had you been teaching?
RH I started teaching privately when I was with Don. People would want lessons after hearing the band. I took lessons with Hari Har Rao, an Indian teacher. I learned from Don, Emil Richards, Tom Scott, Roger Kellaway and, also Milcho Leviev. Don’s pianist from Bulgaria was a strong influence. from Bulgaria was a strong influence. Then in 1980 I wrote Even In The Odds. Joe Porcaro had a book out called Odd Times before my book came out. And [former Tonight Show drummer] Ed Shaughnessey was experimenting with Eastern drumming. So, that was all the things I was learning and trying to do and then Joe Porcaro and I got the opportunity to open the drum school at Musicians Institute in 1980.
DRUM! What caused you to move from there to Los Angeles Music Academy?
RH In 1996 there was a change of ownership and during the next year there were changes going on and those included the structure of the school and the relationship we had.It was our choice to leave. At the same time the LA Music Academy was becoming established and Joe and I came in and rewrote our curriculum. It’s been great.
DRUM! Have you considered publishing any new books?
RH I’m working on a new book that basically will be what I’ve learned in the 20 years since the first book. I got to learn everything about odd meters by playing it live. A lot of young players don’t have the opportunity so it’s different learning from a book. I want to put it all in a perspective that people can easily understand, and I really want it to be the last word in rhythm. There aren’t too many books that tell you how to play, form the physical coordination to the sound of the instrument to the mental condition. It’s going to take some time.
DRUM! I’ve just been listening to Babaghanoush, which is a fabulous recording. How did that come about?
RH Well I knew about Jimmy Mahlis (the guitar player and leader) through Tos Panos (another drum instructor at Musicians Institute) who was a member of the band. And, I knew Jerry Watts, the bass player, because we use to play together at a place in Santa Monica. I had never met Antti Suzuki, the saxophonist, but I was hearing about him more and more around town. I had a chance to do a gig with Jimmy, before the band was called Babaghanoush. We really hit it off, and then Jimmy called me back and said, he wanted to get serious and record the band.
DRUM! The musicianship is at a very high level.
RH Jimmy is not one to say, “Here’s what I want you to do.” Instead, he gives you the lead sheet, and a lot of the bass and drums is made up as we go along.
DRUM!That’s why we need royalties for drummers, Ralph. You’re giving away your creativity [much laughter].
DRUM! The music is a real fusion to me. It’s not just rock or jazz with something worldly laid over it. A lot of so-called fusion has really been sort of rock with a little quoting other styles or ethnic instrumentation mixed in.
RH Right, it’s mixed like babaghanoush. The styles are really mixed until you create something new. That’s fusion.
See BABAGHANOUSH TRACK BY TRACK Ralph Humphrey details how he recorded the CD.
Ralph Humphrey Discography Ralph has played on hundreds of records by everyone from Al Jarreau and Manhattan Transfer to Frank Zappa and Wayne Shorter. You can find a pretty good list here.