I often get asked who my favorite drummers are. I have an affinity for so many because of their individual styles and innovations, so it’s tough to narrow down. But there is a line of drummers I continue to circle back to for inspiration, and I’ve begun to realize that they all share one trait in common: selflessness. The deeper I researched my list, I was surprised to learn that in addition to being great drummers, most if not all of them are great singers as well.
Grady Tate is one of the most underrated drummers of our time. I first learned about him when I began to research drummers that play well with Hammond organists. With organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery on their Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo record, Grady swings so hard with just simple quarter-notes on the ride cymbal, and sets up the Oliver Nelson big band as well as anyone could. No pyrotechnics, no “look at me” vogueing, just sweet supportive groove. Then I found out that drums are really his secondary instrument. Tate has several albums out as a singer that will knock you out.
Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite, yes drummers of all time. Many people don’t realize that it is indeed him playing those amazing grooves on “Superwoman,” “Living For The City,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” “Superstition,” “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” and many more. Stevie knows exactly when to slide a fill in and when to just lay in the cut because he wrote and sings the song too!
James Gadson is one of the most prolific session drummers of our time and continues to be in-demand because of his infectious grooves and amazing instinct for finding the perfect drum part without calling attention to himself. Upon further digging and reading interviews with Gadson, I learned he started as a lead singer in a band called The Carpets, which he started with his brother Tom in Kansas City.
Brian Blade has always been one of my favorite drummers of my generation. Blade kept his singing talent a secret until 2009 when he released his record titled Mama Rosa. I am blown away by his beautiful voice and songwriting but not surprised. Blade plays with such fire but always laying down a bed of support and groove. His priority is always to serve the song and make the message the focal point. This is why he is able to play with everyone from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to Bob Dylan and Seal.
Levon Helm, Ringo Starr, the list of great drummer/singers goes on and on. The lesson to be learned is that we should always be singing the song we are playing so that we never risk overplaying or burying the message of the song. When you learn a song’s lyrics and the story behind them, you take the song much more personally and play the drums not only more sensitively but also with more intent. So even if it’s just in the shower, go ahead and sing. You’ll be a better drummer for it.