Nevertheless, Gadd started coming down to New York City to do sessions and would invariably stay at Levin’s house in the Yorktown Heights section of Westchester. “Tony had been in New York while I was in the army, so he was already on the scene,” Gadd says. “And he introduced me to people like Mike Mainieri and all those guys. Mike also had a jingle company back then, so he was hiring me to do jingles and he also got me involved in the White Elephant thing, which was basically a late-night jam situation with some of the great young players on the scene at the time. That’s basically how my career in recording got started, from Tony introducing me to people that he knew.”
As Mainieri explains, “Starting my own jingle company gave me access to a lot of the recording studios around town. Jingle studios in those days were pretty much dark at night, so whenever there was a night when nothing was going on in the studio I’d jump in there with members of different groups like [early jazz-rock band] Jeremy & The Satyrs and other young musicians around who were into experimenting. And I’d put out the word, ’Hey, let’s get together and just blow.’ And that small original ensemble grew into this big hang. Whoever was around came in those days. All the studio guys would come by to blow and get high. And that gradually evolved into what became White Elephant.”
Mainieri’s experimental ensemble White Elephant was a sprawling 23-piece hippie jazz-rock tribal experience comprised of such future greats as saxophonists Michael Brecker, Ronnie Cuber, and George Young, trumpeters Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, and John Faddis, guitarists David Spinozza, Hugh McCracken, Sam Brown, Bob Mann, and Joe Beck, pianist Warren Bernhardt, trombonist Barry Rogers, drummer Donald McDonald, and various others in a rotating cast of characters. Their first self-titled album, a compilation of tracks recorded between 1969 and 1972, was released on vinyl in 1972 on Just Sunshine Records. (Mainieri’s NYC Records label would release a CD version in 1996, and in 2007 a two-CD set with several bonus tracks was released in Japan.) Noticeable Gaddisms are apparent on this lone White Elephant recording, particularly on tunes like the whirlwind jam “The Jones,” the groove-heavy “Peace Of Mind,” the urgently funky “Animal Fat” (featuring a mind-boggling tenor solo by Michael Brecker), and the gospel-soaked “Prelude To Sunshine Clean” (which predates the signature Stuff sound). Gadd was making his mark, and word soon spread around the Big Apple about this phenom from Rochester.
Following his experience with White Elephant, Gadd took up with his bass-playing partner Levin, Mainieri, and pianist Bernhardt in an offshoot group called L’Image. While they worked up lots of original material and gigged occasionally around Woodstock, Rochester, and New York City, the group would disband before ever recording. As Mainieri recalls, “We were all living in Woodstock at the time. We actually spent six months in my barn rehearsing material and we got it really tight. We were ready to go record an album and do some touring, but then Steve came to us and said, ’Guys, I’m going to join Stuff. I can’t do this.’ Naturally, we were all pretty saddened by that.”
“We were all committed to that band,” Gadd recalls. “We rehearsed and they wrote some great music. It’s just that back in those years it was hard to get a record thing happening, and so everyone had to take other work to pay the rent. And for me, that meant doing sessions in New York City. But it just got to be too hard to keep it going — going back and forth to the city a few days a week to try and work in the studios, then going back up to Woodstock to rehearse for three or four days with L’Image. It just seemed like I was continuously doing stuff but I wasn’t making enough money in New York to support what I had to do. And L’Image wasn’t really working yet. So we sort of parted ways. It was a difficult decision to have to ... to not commit to that band. But I don’t think it was the right thing for me to do at that time.”
In 1973 Gadd was recruited by his former Chuck Mangione Quintet bandmate Chick Corea for his exciting new band, Return To Forever. The group had already put out a hugely successful album, Light As A Feather, which was largely an acoustic project that featured the Brazilian singer Flora Purim and her husband Airto Moreira on drums. But by ’73 Corea was ready to enter the fusion sweepstakes with a full-blown electric band of his own in the wake of groundbreaking successes by Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and On The Corner, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. For Corea, this would require a radical retooling from soft, alluring, Brazilian tones to a more bombastic attack distinguished by roaring, distortion-laced electric guitar licks and thunderous, slap-happy electric bass lines, and fueled by precision, powerhouse drumming on the order of Mahavishnu’s Billy Cobham or Lifetime’s Tony Williams. Gadd was hired as a replacement for Airto and immediately filled the bill.
“The band was me, Stanley Clarke on electric bass, Mingo Lewis on percussion, and Bill Connors on electric guitar” Gadd recalls. “We did all the stuff that later appeared on Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy and we played that material at colleges and at clubs in New York like the Village Vanguard, the Bitter End, and Max’s Kansas City. We also played at the Bijou in Philadelphia and the Jazz Workshop and Pall’s Mall in Boston. And it was great.” (You can hear a sample of Gadd with Return To Forever on the Verve/Chronicles compilation Return To The 7th Galaxy, which includes live renditions of “Spain,” “After The Cosmic Rain,” and “Bass Folk Song,” recorded in concert at Quiet Village on Long Island and originally broadcast live on Long Island radio station WLIR-FM.)
Gadd’s stay with Return To Forever would be short-lived, only six months. As he explains, “At the same time I was playing with Return To Forever I was getting called to do so many recordings with so many other people. The studio thing just became too lucrative, so I had to make a decision, because I knew that Chick wanted the band that ultimately recorded Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy to be the same band that went out on the road in support of the record. So I decided to leave the band, which was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make because it was some of the best music I had ever played. But choosing to stay in New York and do studio work enabled me to not be on the road as much, which I think was the right decision for me at the time.”
Needless to say, Gadd’s career didn’t suffer for his decision to remain immersed in the New York City studio scene at the very peak of its activity. On his frequent trips into the city to do session work, Gadd would invariably stop by Mikell’s, the intimate nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to sit in with bassist Gordon Edwards and his funky crew of fellow session musicians collectively known as the Encyclopedia Of Soul. That group, which featured the guitar tandem of Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree, pianist Richard Tee, and drummer Chris Parker — first-call studio cats all — would eventually morph into the group Stuff. Gadd began by sitting in and occasionally subbing for drummer Parker. “I knew Chris was real busy too with different gigs, so one night I said to him, ’If you ever need someone to play up here for you, I’d love to do it. Or if you want to alternate nights so that you can do other gigs, just let me know.’ It worked out so we both did it, splitting it up. And occasionally the both of us would play together with two sets of drums in that little place. It was fun.”