Red Light Jedis: An Overview Of Studio Kings

In previous issues of DRUM! we tackled the evolution of recorded drum sounds (Strother Bullins’ feature in February 2005), drumming in the age of Pro Tools (David Weiss, February/March 2002), and even dedicated an entire issue (May/June 2002) to the subject of recording. Now it’s time to give the drummers some. With all due respect to the technology, the nuts, and the bolts, we need to give credit where it is really due: to the flesh and the blood.

Or, to quote producer/engineer Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake) from Bullins’ aforementioned article, “When artists, record companies, and other engineers would ask me how I got this or that drum sound, I would always tell them, ’The best drum sounds in the world are in the phone book.”

We won’t pretend that this is a definitive list of the “greatest” studio drummers, as we know there are many others deserving accolades (Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Jordan, John “J.R.” Robinson, Paul Leim, Gregg Bissonette, and Larrie Londin fly off the tops of our heads), but these are ten that have enjoyed very busy answering machines. And more importantly, they have given us some of the most memorable drumming ever committed to tape.

Kenny Aronoff

“Don’t let it rock, let it roll.” Kenny Aronoff pummeled his way into the mainstream with the swaggering sixteenth-note groove on John Mellencamp’s “Jack And Diane.” His Massachusetts youth was filled with local junior high and high school bands (even back then his calendar was full), but at 16 the self-taught drummer took a more serious turn towards classical music, taking lessons with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From there it was on to the University of Massachusetts, then Indiana University, where Aronoff was awarded the school’s esteemed Performer’s Certificate. Instead of joining an orchestra fresh out of college, he studied traps for a year in Boston and New York before returning to the Indiana club scene. In 1980 Mr. Mellencamp hired the drummer into his band, and a few years later his groove-centric, less-is-more approach had him splitting time between “John Cougar” and a bourgeoning session career that would eventually encompass hundreds of albums, including releases by: Eddie Money, B.B. King, Dave Koz, Stevie Nicks, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Jon Bon Jovi, Bob Seger, Smashing Pumpkins, Travis Tritt, Melissa Etheridge, Rod Stewart, and Hank Williams, Jr. Aronoff’s not just a studio hound, his touring regimen is the stuff of legend as well, and when he’s not doing either you’ll probably find him teaching somewhere in Indiana.

Highlights.John Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva/Mercury); Iggy Pop: Brick By Brick (Virgin); Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell (MCA); John Fogerty: Blue Moon Swamp (Warner Bros.); Brian Setzer: This Knife Feels Like Justice(Razor & Tie/EMI); Michelle Branch: The Spirit Room (Maverick); Alanis Morissette: So-Called Chaos (Maverick).

Eddie Bayers

Bayers was born in Pautaxant River, Maryland in 1949, to a decorated navy pilot who fought in World War II, the Korean War, and the infamous Battle of Midway. Growing up all over the U.S. (including Nashville, Oakland, and Philadelphia, with four years in North Africa for good measure), the son of a military man was actually trained as a classical pianist before veering towards the drums and less regimented forms of music during his college years in California. He jammed with Jerry Garcia, and both Tom and John Fogerty, and it was through Tom that Bayers got involved in the session life, including a stint at San Francisco’s Fantasy studios in the late ’60s. Surmising that west coast job opportunities were dwindling, Bayers headed for Nashville and landed a gig at Jimmy Hyde’s Carousel Club as the house piano player. That band’s drummer, Larrie Londin, inspired Bayers to play drums professionally. Since then, Bayers has been one of the most in-demand drummers in country music, recording and performing with Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs, John Denver, George Straight, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Steve Winwood, Peter Frampton, Lyle Lovett, and even Uncle Kracker, to name a few. He has received the Academy Of Country Music’s “Drummer Of The Year” award 12 years in a row, has served on the NARAS (National Academy Of Recording Arts And Sciences) Board Of Governors three times, and also serves on the NARAS Educational Committee.

Highlights. Tanya Tucker: Greatest Hits Encore (Liberty/Capitol); Reba McEntire: My Kind Of Country (MCA); Alan Jackson: Here In The Real World (Arista/BMG); George Straight: Easy Come Easy Go (MCA); George Jones: Cold Hard Truth (Elektra).

Hal Blaine

While it’s impossible to pin down a studio drummer list to only ten, there is undoubtedly no way to leave Hal Blaine off of it. By his own estimate he has played on tens of thousands of albums, and we’re not arguing. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1929, by seven he was turning everything in his childhood home into a drum. A love affair with jazz, Krupa, and Rich, and a west coast relocation later, Blaine was playing professionally by 1948, and about ten years later landed a landmark (and door-opening) gig with teen heartthrob Tommy Sands. In the early ’60s he played on Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” which led to a long and fruitful relationship with The King. His “wall of sound” work with legendary producer Phil Spector and The Wrecking Crew laid the foundation for The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Blaine was also the first-call drummer for Brian Wilson, and landed on countless Beach Boys hits including “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows.” His other collaborations would fill an encyclopedia, but a infinitesimal sample includes Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & The Papas, The Byrds, The 5th Dimension, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Johnny Rivers, Joni Mitchell, and Nat King Cole. Seriously, there’s not enough room on the back of his baseball card. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on March 6, 2000.

Highlights. Sam Cooke: Ain’t That Good News (RCA Victor); The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (Capitol); The 5th Dimension: Greatest Hits On Earth (Arista); Barbara Streisand: Stoney End (Columbia); Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia); Steely Dan: Katy Lied (MCA).

Matt Chamberlain

The ’90s session stalwart was born in San Pedro, California, and studied linear patterns with David Garibaldi before he even had a drum set. Chamberlain then went on to take lessons from Chuck Flores, hand guru Murray Spivak (dig that traditional grip), Chad Wackerman, Graham Lear, and Gregg Bissonette, who suggested the drummer have a go at North Texas State. That didn’t pan out, but he learned a valuable lesson — that technique for technique’s sake wasn’t the answer, and it was time to get into some bands. Sleeping on a friend’s floor in Dallas, he soon got into the Deep Ellum Street scene, which led to several opportunities, including the formation of a group called Ten Hands. It was there that through the bassist (who used to be a bandmate) of a group called New Bohemians, he would audition and land the gig to join Edie Brickell for the album Ghost Of A Dog. Chamberlain certainly learned to play well with others after that, as he lists among his session credits: Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Stevie Nicks, The Wallflowers, Elton John, Natalie Merchant, Dave Navarro, Stone Gossard, Macy Gray, Garbage, Lisa Loeb, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, Liz Phair, Chris Isaak, Lisa Marie Presley, and David Bowie. Side note: when Brickell was opening for Bob Dylan, Dylan’s guitarist G.E. Smith brought Chamberlain to New York for what turned out to be a one-season stint with the Saturday Night Live band.

Highlights. Fiona Apple: Tidal (Clean Slate/Epic); The Wallflowers: Bringing Down The Horse (Interscope); Chris Isaak: Speak Of The Devil (Reprise); David Bowie: Heathen (Columbia); Tori Amos: Tales Of A Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection (Atlantic); Critters Buggin: Stampede (Ropeadope).

Vinnie Colaiuta

While he might be better known for soaring over bar lines in a single bound, blasting unthinkable polyrhythms along the way (“Hey Vinnie, where’s five?”), early on young Vinnie Colaiuta laid out pots and pans like the rest of us. However, the Brownsville, Pennsylvania native was a late bloomer — all of 14 when he got his first real drum set and started taking lessons, but he quickly absorbed his early influences (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Dave Clarke Five) along with rock and jazz virtuosos (John Bonham, Buddy Rich, and Tony Williams). After studying with Gary Chaffee and hanging out with Steve Smith at Berklee in the mid-’70s, Colaiuta headed to the west coast in 1978. His immense drumming vocabulary was put on prime-time display when he landed a gig in Frank Zappa’s band, recording the legendary Joe’s Garage (check out the reggae groove of “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up”). He also toured extensively with Joni Mitchell and Sting, showing that he could lay a simpler groove, and didn’t have to be on 11 all the time. Session wise, it could vary from the all-out fusion blowing of “City Nights” from Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets (one of the more unreal first-takes you’re likely to hear) to lighter fare with Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Dave Koz, Shawn Colvin, and Clay Aiken.

Highlights. Frank Zappa: Joe’s Garage (Barking Pumpkin/Rykodisc); Robben Ford: Talk To Your Daughter (Warner Bros.); Allan Holdsworth: Secrets (Restless/Intima); Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (A&M); Bill Evans: Touch (Zebra); Vinnie Colaiuta: Vinnie Colaiuta (GRP/Stretch); Steely Dan: Two Against Nature (Giant); Karizma: Document (Hudson Music); Bette Midler: Sings The Rosemary Clooney Songbook (Sony).

Josh Freese

Freese’s beginnings scream “here comes the sun” no matter how you look them. Born in Orlando, Florida on Christmas Day 1972, he has lived in Southern California since he was six months old. The son of a Disneyland band director (father) and a classical pianist (mother) was playing in a Disneyland Top 40 band at 12, and started shredding with The Vandals and Dweezil Zappa at 15. Before you could say The Notorious One Man Orgy (the title of his 2000 solo effort), he found himself playing on many notable albums, and his resume boasts performances with Mike Ness, Wayne Kramer, Tracy Bonham, Devo, Chris Cornell, Shawn Mullins, Liars Inc., Puddle Of Mudd, Paul Westerberg, Suicidal Tendencies, Good Charlotte, Static-X, Evanescence, 3 Doors Down, Avril Lavigne, and Rob Zombie. In 1998 he started to work on the inexplicably-still-unreleased Guns ’N’ Roses record, and met a guitar tech named Billy Howerdel, who introduced Freese to Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. Together they formed A Perfect Circle and released the critically acclaimed Mer De Noms in 2000, Thirteenth Step in 2003, and most recently the cover-laden Emotive in 2004. Freese remains a member of A Perfect Circle and The Vandals to this day, and continues to feel fortunate that he’s paying the bills by slamming the drums.

Highlights. The Vandals: Fear Of A Punk Planet (Restless/Kung Fu); Dweezil Zappa: Confessions (Barking Pumpkin); Wayne Kramer: The Hard Stuff (Epitaph); Paul Westerberg: 14 Songs (Sire/Reprise); South Park: Chef Aid: The South Park Album (Columbia); Good Charlotte: The Young And The Hopeless (Epic); Evanescence: Fallen (Wind-up); Mike Ness: Cheating At Solitaire (Time Bomb); Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: Streetcore (Hellcat).

Steve Gadd

We hope our meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued, and we’ll repeat ourselves at the risk of being crude, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” must be one of the most famous recorded drum grooves, ever. The military-style beat helped further the legend of Rochester, New York native Steve Gadd, who, encouraged by his uncle (an army drummer), started playing drums at three, took drum lessons at seven, and at 11 (!) sat in with Dizzy Gillespie. Later on, he spent his days in the concert band and wind ensemble at Eastman College in Rochester, and in 1972, after spending a few years in a military big band, Gadd began his fabled session career, which encompasses some of the most famous music of the last three decades. His early professional gigs included stints with Chuck Mangione and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. From “50 Ways,” to the linear patterns on Stanley Clarke’s “Silly Putty,” to the dynamic diversity and breathtaking solos on Steely Dan’s “Aja” (rumors are it was a first take), Gadd’s album appearances cover countless styles — a short list of artists includes: Al Jarreau, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bob James, Carly Simon, David Sanborn, Diana Ross, Eric Clapton, George Benson, Hank Crawford, Peter Gabriel, Steve Khan, and Tom Scott. In 2003 Gadd was honored by Zildjian at the second American Drummers Achievement Awards.

Highlights. Jim Hall: Concierto (Columbia/Legacy); Al DiMeola: Elegant Gypsy (Columbia); Chick Corea: My Spanish Heart (Polydor); Paul Simon: Still Crazy After All These Years (Warner Bros.); Stanley Clarke: Journey To Love (Epic); Stuff: Stuff (Just Sunshine); Steely Dan: Aja (MCA); Al Jarreau: The Best Of Al Jarreau (Warner Bros.)

Al Jackson, Jr.

Born in Memphis in 1934, groove-master Jackson began drumming with his father’s ’40s-style big band at the tender age of five. He spent many late nights at the Manhattan Club playing with Willie Mitchell, who as a producer at Hi Recording Studios, worked with Jackson on several hits by Al Green, Ann Peebles, and many others. However, Jackson’s moment of truth came in 1962, when he joined illustrious keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and guitarist Steve Cropper, forming the Stax house band (a.k.a. Booker T. & The MGs). His signature feel and deceptively straightforward style graced everyone from Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas (“Walking The Dog”), Wilson Pickett (“Midnight Hour”), and Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”), to instrumental hits like the MGs’ “Green Onions.” When Booker T. moved to California in 1971, the MGs went their separate ways, but Jackson’s calendar was soon filled with the likes of Freddie King, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, and the notable sessions for Elvis Presley’s 1973 album Raised On Rock. Notable because, as legend has it, Presley decided to return to his Memphis roots — and the Stax studios — to record, and the house musicians were evidently so nervous about playing with The King that he had to … leave the building. Simply put, he is the quintessential soul drummer of his era. On October 1, 1975, at the age of 39, he was tragically shot and killed at his home.

Highlights. Al Green: Let’s Stay Together (Hi/Get Back); Booker T. & The MGs: Green Onions (London/Atlantic); Wilson Pickett: Greatest Hits (Atlantic); Otis Redding: The Immortal Otis Redding (Atco/Rhino); Eric Clapton: 461 Ocean Boulevard (RSO/Universal).

Jim Keltner

A big part of lasting in the session business is simply getting along, and few have endeared themselves to more than Jim Keltner. The terminally humble drumming giant took on the Los Angeles club scene in the ’60s, landing a job with Gary Lewis & The Playboys and playing on the single “Just My Style.” A few years later he played on Accept No Substitute by Delaney & Bonnie And Friends, and thus began a simply phenomenal recording career. His list of collaborations includes: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Joe Cocker, Cal Tjader, Don Henley, Ry Cooder, Rita Coolidge, George Harrison, John Hiatt, Steely Dan, Judy Collins, Ron Wood, Elvis Costello, The Beat Farmers, Jack Bruce, Indigo Girls, Nick Lowe, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. In 1988 he helped lay the foundation for the first album from a “new” group called The Traveling Wilburys (comprised of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison). In 2000, he teamed up with Charlie Watts to release The Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, a rhythmic homage to a host of legendary jazz drummers, including Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Tony Williams. On “Tony,” Keltner also contributed spoken word vocals, reading quotes from an interview with the late jazz legend. He continues to leave trails of kindness in studios everywhere.

Highlights. Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen (A&M); John Lennon: Imagine (Capitol); Ron Wood: Gimme Some Neck (Columbia); Don Henley: Building The Perfect Beast (Geffen); The Traveling Wilburys: Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (Wilbury/Warner Bros.); Eric Clapton: From The Cradle (Reprise); Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner: The Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project (Higher Octave).

Earl Palmer

You say New Orleans, but second-line flame stoker Earl Palmer was born in N’awlins in 1924. His mother was a vaudeville performer, and Palmer took to tap dancing by the age of four. The logical progression to drum set followed, and after his initial love affair with jazz drummers like Panama Francis and Big Sid Catlett, he started making ends meet in 1947 by joining “Big Beat” inventor Dave Bartholomew’s band. From 1950-1957, as the anchor of Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios, Palmer fused his bebop swing with heavier R&B/blues sensibilities, and a healthy dose of red beans and rice, and laid the pavement for the first generation of rock-and-roll drummers. In 1957 Palmer hooked up with Eddie Mesner and took an A&R job at Aladdin Records. Relocating to California really opened the session floodgates — rock and roll, Motown, jazz, R&B, and soundtracks were fair game, and he did it all. A small sampling of the resume includes Fats Domino (“The Fat Man” and “I’m Walkin’”), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”), B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Lou Rawls, Smiley Lewis (“I Hear You Knockin’”), Taj Mahal, Lloyd Price (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”), Professor Longhair, The Beach Boys, Tom Waits, Sam Cooke, The 5th Dimension, Randy Newman, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Tony Scherman penned Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story in 1999, and the drummer was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on March 6, 2000.

Highlights. T-Bone Walker: T-Bone Blues (Atlantic); Tim Hardin: Tim Hardin 1 (Verve); Tom Waits: Blue Valentine (Asylum); Elvis Costello: King Of America (Columbia).