Steve Gadd: The Ultimate Groove

steve gadd

Chapter One: The Legend

It would be extremely difficult to exaggerate the impact that Steve Gadd has had on two generations of drummers since he hit the scene with tsunami-like force in the mid-1970s. No other drummer is more revered in the drum community and more highly regarded within music industry circles today. At age 63, Gadd has attained regal status among drummers. More importantly, he has maintained his masterful touch — that indefinable, intangible something that allows him to groove like no one else on the planet while instantly elevating the proceedings on any bandstand, regardless of the musical setting. As Chick Corea said in the new Hudson Music DVD on Gadd, which documents his third “Mission From Gadd” North American clinic tour of 2006, “He’s able to take a piece of music and actually compose something for it that makes total sense ... that actually brings the music to a completeness.”

Whether executing chops-busting unisons, swinging at blazing tempos with Corea, laying down relaxed, fat grooves with Joe Sample and The Crusaders, digging deep in concert with Eric Clapton on faithful renditions of “Layla” and “Sunshine Of Your Love,” or demonstrating his inimitable ability to lock it in on tour with the likes of James Taylor, Paul Simon, or Randy Crawford, Gadd continues to make the music feel good every time he hits.

It’s a rare talent that has as much to do with the drummer’s early years in drum corps back in his hometown of Rochester, New York as it does with his legendary technical proficiency on the kit. While playing in the drum corps back in the late ’50s helped form his team-player aesthetic (while also informing what stands as his most famous drum part on record, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”), Gadd is also fluent in many idioms, from bop-fueled swing and shuffle blues to pop, rock, funk, fusion, disco, and Latin jazz, as well as being an incomparable improviser who strikes a perfect balance between orchestration and imagination. As renowned bassist Tony Levin, a longtime friend and colleague who played with Gadd during the late ’60s back in Rochester, says, “Steve is fluent and expert and comfortable in all styles. He’s an artist who has transcended all labels and categories, and invented some of his own in the process.”

Watching Gadd do his thing — the slick, signature paradiddle interplay between hi-hat and snare, the intricate ride cymbal and bass drum patterns, and explosive around-the-kit fills, all executed with uncanny precision and conviction — is like observing a martial arts master holding class at his dojo. There’s the same yin and yang sense of ultimate control yet total abandon to the flow, the sheer economy of motion producing extraordinary power, the Zen-like relaxation underscoring remarkable intensity, and an overall sense of being wholly in the moment.

At a memorable performance a few years ago at the Blue Note nightclub in New York City during a week-long reunion engagement of Corea’s Leprechaun band from the ’70s, the keyboardist made a point of stating to the audience that Gadd is “the best musician I have ever played with — not drummer, musician.” Others who have worked with Gadd over the years in the studio, on sessions or out on tour, concur with Corea’s assessment. As guitarist Steve Khan, a longtime friend and collaborator who hired Gadd for his string of potent fusion recordings in the late ’70s (Tightrope, The Blue Man, and Arrows), puts it, “He is, first and foremost, a great musician. And that is much more than being a great drummer. This is why Steve set a standard for a particular level of artistry, creativity, swing, groove, and musicality, which influenced so many drummers and will influence generations of drummers to come.”

Vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who recruited Gadd for a succession of groups during the ’70s, beginning with White Elephant and including L’Image and Steps, recalls his initial encounter with the kid from Rochester. “The first time I heard Gadd play it was that kind of thing where you get goose bumps and you think, ’Wait a minute! Something’s happening here, and it’s deep!’ He was that good.”

Mainieri has maintained a working relationship with Gadd over the past four decades and, to this day, never fails to be amazed by what Gadd brings to the table. “I can’t say enough about the guy. He always plays with such conviction and a musical sensibility, no matter if it’s Joe Sample or Chick Corea or Luciano Pavarotti — and it’s totally effortless. It’s like watching Muhammad Ali in the ring. There’s a certain grace there that is sort of inexplicable.”

The typically unassuming Gadd remains humble in the face of such high praise. “My goal is to give something to the artist that’s going to be meaningful to them,” he says in describing his role. “If you give them something that helps take their music where they want it to be, that’s a good energy to share. That’s what I try to do when I’m on the bandstand, is to try and be the most supportive that I can be — figure out what’s going on and what I can do to sort of pull it together. And then when it’s time to solo, have some fun.”

Chapter Two: Rochester Roots

Steven Kendall Gadd was born in Rochester, New York on April 9, 1945. He showed an interest in drumming at the age of three and around that time received his first pair of sticks and a practice pad from his uncle Eddie, who had played drums in the service. “He showed me how to hold the sticks,” Gadd recalls. “We’d put records on and play along with them together — John Phillip Sousa marches and stuff. He also liked jazz. I remember he bought me an Art Blakey album early on and later gave me records by Max Roach and Oscar Peterson. He was a real music lover and constantly wanted me to listen to these different albums.”

By age seven, Steve, along with his younger trumpet-playing brother, Eddie, had taken up tap dancing, entertaining folks at nursing homes and hospitals around Rochester. That same year, 1952, Steve received his first drum set (with calfskin heads) from his grandfather and began formal study with Elmer Frolig at Levis’ Music in Rochester, which was located right across the street from the Eastman School Of Music.

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At age nine, Gadd’s father took him to meet one of his drumming heroes, Gene Krupa, who was appearing at the Ridgecrest Inn in Rochester. This may have inspired the youngster to bear down even harder on his drumming lessons, because he continued to show remarkable progress from this point.

After winning a local talent contest in 1956, at age 11, Steve was flown to Hollywood to make a national TV appearance on Walt Disney’s popular variety show, The Mickey Mouse Club. His segment featured him playing drums and also tap dancing while Mousketeer Cubby O’Brien supported him on the kit. He continued studying drums with William and Stanley Street and by 1959 began lessons with John H. Beck, principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic.

While still in his early teens, Gadd’s parents began bringing him around to local clubs to observe the visiting jazz musicians who came through Rochester. “I got to see people like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Kai Winding, Carmen McCrae, Ray Bryant, and many others,” he recalls. “On Sunday afternoons they’d have matinees, and sometimes the musicians would let us sit in. So I was sitting in with some of these jazz greats when I was just a kid, and so was Chuck and Gap Mangione.” On one memorable matinee, Gadd sat in with jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, and on various other occasions he got to showcase his shuffle groove with Hammond B-3 masters Groove Holmes, Hank Marr, and Jack McDuff.

All through elementary and high school, Gadd played in drum corps, later drawing on that invaluable experience to help forge his groundbreaking style. As he says of those formative years in the Rochester Crusaders drum corps, “I loved it. My best friends were also in the drum corps, so it was a lot of fun. But we were also serious about the drumline. We weren’t screwing around. We wrote our own parts — some really hip four-part things — and we practiced hard. We really listened to each other and really tried to play like one person. And the thing that made it inviting to me was the power of the team together.” That aesthetic ingrained into him at such an early age would help make Gadd the consummate team player on New York’s lucrative session scene years later.

In 1961, as a member of the School Band Of America, Gadd participated in a European tour. After graduating from Eastridge High School, he enrolled in the Manhattan School Of Music and later transferred to the Eastman School Of Music. In early 1965, Gadd was hired by Rochester-based trumpeter Chuck Mangione to play in his quintet, which also featured a young unknown pianist from Boston named Chick Corea. During their tenure with Mangione, Corea and Gadd would get together after gigs for late-night record-listening sessions. As Corea recalls, “Steve was already a great player but his style was coming more out of the old school. So I had him check out more closely what Tony [Williams] was doing with Miles [Davis], and I think that really affected him. It opened up his concept a bit and gave him a looser approach to the kit.”

During the mid-’60s, while still attending Eastman, Gadd also played frequently in a trio with Mangione’s pianist brother, Gap, and an upright bassist from Brookline, Massachusetts named Tony Levin (who would go on to fame as an electric bassist playing with the likes of John Lennon, Paul Simon, King Crimson, and Peter Gabriel). Gap’s trio had a steady five-nights-a-week gig at The Other Side Of The Tracks supper club in Rochester — a laboratory of sorts for Gadd to develop new ideas and work on creating an indelible chemistry with the rest of the band.

Gadd graduated from Eastman in early 1968 and by August of that year found himself on his first-ever New York City recording session, playing on Gap Mangione’s Diana In The Autumn Wind, a collection of compositions by his brother Chuck, arranged for Gap’s trio and a 15-piece ensemble that included such veteran New York session players as trumpeters Snooky Young, Clark Terry, and Marvin Stamm, saxophonists Jerome Richardson, Frank Wess, and Joe Farrell, trombonist Wayne Andre, guitarist Sam Brown, and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, an alumni of the Buddy Rich big band who would later form White Elephant, L’Image, and Steps (later known as Steps Ahead). Mainieri remembers the positive impression 23-year-old Gadd made on that Gap Mangione session.

“That was a very busy time for session players in New York. If you were an A player or even a B player, you could work 24/7, as they say. It was the kind of thing where you’d get a call for a date and you didn’t know whether it was for an album or a jingle, but you’d show up and play the gig no matter what it was. And one day I got a call from Manny Albam, who was one of my producers. And Manny says to me, ’We got a session for you from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. Bring mallets. You’re playing vibes and a little timpani.’ So I show up and it turns out to be a big band session. All the usual A players were there — all the cats. And this guy was conducting. What’s his name? Chuck Mangione. Never heard of him. And who’s the artist? His brother, Gap Mangione, a piano player from Rochester. Gap brought his own trio down for the session. It was Tony Levin playing an upright electric bass and this kid with a G.I. haircut on drums named Steve Gadd. And all of us guys on the session were looking at each other wondering, ’Who are these guys?’ And we’re thinking, ’This is going to be a long day.’ In any case, all I remember about the session was that the charts were nice, well written. The piano player was okay. I don’t remember too much about the bass player. But everybody walked away from that session saying, ’Who the fuck was that drummer?’”

Shortly after that Gap Mangione recording, Gadd enlisted in the military and wound up playing in the U.S. Army’s Stage Band based in Washington DC, a gig he held for the next three years. “At that time, the draft was on,” Gadd explains. “And if you went in that way they could send you anywhere. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I enlisted before I could be drafted. That was my plan. I auditioned during my last year at Eastman and got accepted into the army band. Then, right after I graduated from college that June, I got my draft notice. But since I had already enlisted in the band before I had to show up for the draft, I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. Instead, I was based just outside of Washington DC, and I stayed there for three years.”

After being discharged in late 1971, Gadd returned to Rochester and began playing in big bands while also gigging around town and occasionally in New York City in a trio with bassist Levin and pianist Mike Holmes. As Mainieri recalls, “Tony invited me down to check out their trio and sure enough it was Gadd on drums. That was the second time I met Steve. I was playing a few nights later with White Elephant, but it was actually called Red Eye then. We had a gig at the Village Gate and Steve came down to hear the band. I talked to him afterwards and said, ’Man, you belong in New York.’ And he said, ’Tony’s trying to get me down here, but my father, my family ... it’s difficult.’ He was a family guy with a wife and two kids and was hesitant about leaving that scene up in Rochester.”

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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.

Chapter Three: New York, New York

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.”

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The chemistry that Gadd struck up with Gordon, Gale, Dupree, and especially Tee, was rare and beautiful. They’d lock in so tight that they would generate palpable waves of joy rolling off that band that swept into the audience at Mikell’s. That magical quality eventually manifested itself on recordings as producers of the day began hiring them as a unit to generate those same infectious grooves behind pop stars like Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, and others. “Stuff was basically a bunch of guys who were in the studio all day, and at night they had an opportunity to play whatever they wanted to for fun,” says Gadd. “There was very little miking done when we were playing up at Mikell’s, which had such a great vibe in the room. A lot of it was acoustic, so we could hear each other well, which made it a very comfortable situation and really allowed us to relax and lock it in. And there was no sound guy that was trying to interpret what they were hearing to make it sound better than what it really was. What the people were hearing was exactly what we were hearing.”

On a recent DVD/CD release of Stuff in concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, one can readily feel the remarkable gospel-soul-funk chemistry that these five kindred spirits regularly generate on their buoyant themes like “Foots” and “How Long Will It Last,” along with covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright” (a hit for Joe Cocker), Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World,” The Isley Brothers’ funky anthem “It’s Your Thing,” and Edwin Hawkins’ gospel classic “Oh Happy Day” (featuring a cameo appearance by folk singer Odetta).

Gadd’s unaccompanied drum showcase during this set is also a must-see for fans. As singer/songwriter Chris Rea states in the liner notes, “The purity of what’s on this video is the true history of modern music. It’s as good as it ever got and ever will get. It’s honest, it’s real, it’s complex, it’s sophisticated, it’s blues, it’s gospel, it rocks, it swings as good as Ellington. While everybody else breaks their knees and ankles trying to get an inch off the ground, these guys just fly. It’s heaven. Game over.”

In retrospect, Mainieri believes that Gadd pursued Stuff in order to further develop that style of playing and incorporate it into his ever-expanding drum vocabulary. “We were playing fusion with L’Image, and Stuff was playing more of the funky shit, and Steve was really digging that. So he made his decision: ’Guys, I’m going to do this.’ And the thing was, Steve couldn’t play funk that well at the time. He had all of the mechanics in terms of all the drum corps stuff and swing that he had come up playing. And that was why he wanted to play with Stuff so much, to really refine his approach to funk drumming and incorporate that into his arsenal.”

Gadd confirms that his funk chops weren’t up to par back in those early days in New York. “The closest that I had come to doing that kind of thing back in Rochester was playing syncopated rhythm and blues — we used to call it boogaloo — with Jack McDuff and Groove Holmes. But I didn’t get into real funk playing as we know it today until I got to New York. Funk playing, to me, is just groove playing, and I always like to groove. But I never got a chance to play an even eighth-note kind of groove until I got to New York and started doing studio work, and especially when I got with Stuff. That’s when it really started happening for me. And someone who really helped me get it together was a friend of mine, the great drummer Rick Marotta. Rick’s got a great pocket. I love the way he plays, and I learned a lot about playing funk from him.”

In 1975 Gadd played on his first #1 hit, Van McCoy’s disco anthem, “The Hustle.” It was a harbinger of things to come for the in-demand session drummer who came to personify the essence of groove. Guitarist Steve Khan, himself a ubiquitous figure on the New York session scene during that time, recalls his first encounter with Gadd. “Like everyone else who had migrated to New York, I came here with my various drum heroes all neatly tucked away in their place of honor in my memory. In my experience, prior to that moment, I had never seen a drummer take a lead sheet, not even a specific drum part, and while sight-reading it, interpret it and personalize all at the same moment. As the years were to come and go, I saw Steve do this on countless occasions, each experience more wondrous than that which had come before.”

“It was definitely a busy time,” Gadd says of his prolific output on the New York City studio scene during the ’70s. “And I had a chance to work with people that I admired my whole life.” Among the countless sessions that he played on during that period of unprecedented productivity in the studios, Gadd’s signature groove graced a staggering array of recordings by a remarkably wide range of artists, including Bette Midler, Art Garfunkel, Carly Simon, Kenny Loggins, Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Dave Grusin, Jim Croce, Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, Chet Baker, Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt, Carla Bley, Maynard Ferguson, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Angela Bofill, Joe Cocker, Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones, Weather Report, Gato Barbieri, Tom Scott, Stuff, Charles Mingus, and the soundtrack to The Wiz.

But perhaps his most significant contributions of the decade came on Paul Simon’s 1975 Grammy Award-winning Still Crazy After All These Years and Steely Dan’s 1977 classic Aja, two albums that cemented Gadd’s legendary status among drummers. Regarding the title track to Aja, he says, “That wasn’t one of those meticulous sessions that Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] were so noted for. A lot of that was done live. I think they had been working on this piece with different people the whole week, so a lot of the guys who were in that session that I was at had already played it before, maybe several times, in fact. So it wasn’t like everyone was learning at the same time. I think Donald and Walter wanted to get different approaches from different drummers, so they had different guys come in throughout the week. And when it was my turn they asked for fills between those figures, and that’s how I filled it. It was basically a live take.”

Regarding the evolution of his memorable military march lick that underscored “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” the catchy tune that helped drive Simon’s Still Crazy to the top of the charts in 1975, Gadd says, “We were working on that song, and the chorus felt all right, but we were having a hard time coming up with something that felt all right and was interesting for the verses. Now, I was doing a lot of recording back in those years, so between takes I might be practicing different things that didn’t necessarily pertain to that particular session, only because I’d be shut away in a drum booth and couldn’t easily go back and forth to the control room during downtime. So maybe I’d be working out different things and practicing stuff in the booth that only had meaning for me.

“So as Paul and [producer] Phil Ramone were trying to work out the verse for ’50 Ways,’ I started working on these little patterns with the left hand on the hi-hat, just to kill time. And from there I got into a little syncopated thing between the snare drum, the hi-hat, and the bass drum. It was like a little march beat, but the fact that I was playing the left hand on the hi-hat and playing the foot first made it a little bit different. Anyway, Phil heard me doing some of that stuff and he suggested I try doing that on ’50 Ways.’ So that’s how that happened. And I’m still playing that riff to this day.”

In 2007, at a Kennedy Center celebration of Paul Simon (he was the first annual recipient of the Gershwin Prize, a lifetime achievement award presented by the Library Of Congress), Gadd kicked off Simon’s performance portion of the nationally televised proceedings with that same memorable march beat that takes him back to his drum corps days in Rochester. “Yeah, it’s been a good ride for me,” he says with a laugh.


Chapter Four: The Arrival Of Steve God

By 1978, Gadd accepted an offer from Mainieri to join the group Steps, which featured former Bill Evans trio bassist Eddie Gomez, pianist/composer Don Grolnick, and Gadd’s former bandmate in White Elephant, the young tenor titan Michael Brecker. “That was a hell of a band,” says Gadd, recalling the excitement that they evoked, particularly in Japan, 30 years ago. The group had its beginnings abroad in Tokyo, where Gaddmania was already in full swing.

“Yeah, it started in the late ’70s, actually a little bit before Steps,” says Mainieri. “In 1978, a Japanese pianist named Jun Fukamachi had invited a bunch of us who were on the scene at the time, playing at places like Mikell’s and Seventh Avenue South, to come and play in Japan and make a live recording of one of the concerts. He invited the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, myself, Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, and Steve Khan to join him on this tour. We played in big concert halls throughout that tour, and that was my first experience with just how popular Gadd was in Japan at the time. Maybe he had been over there earlier with Stuff, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. But when we went over shortly afterwards with Steps, in May of 1979, Gadd had become a star in his own right — like a rock star. It was kind of strange because we’d show up at the hotel and there’d be hundreds of fans outside the hotel, mostly girls. They’d be holding posters that read ’I love you Steve’ and shouting stuff to him. And they’d rush the stage at the concert halls, trying to break through the police lines to get at the band. This is something that only rock bands would experience. So it was strange. It was like Beatlemania or something.”

In some circles around Tokyo, he was known as ’Steve God.’ And Mainieri began to see Gadd’s over-the-top popularity manifest in other ways. “One strange thing I recall was something that I saw while traveling on the bullet train. The Japanese have these little books that they read that have different cartoon characters in them. And one of the cartoon characters in one of the books I saw was Steve Gadd. He had reached that sort of star status where he suddenly was appearing in these cartoon books.”

While Gadd is still quite well known and even revered among musicians in Japan, there was a golden period that lasted from 1977—’87 where he was indeed Steve God. “There was just this surge of energy that happened where the stars were aligned, and it just came together in terms of almost reaching that rock star status.”

Aspiring Japanese jazz musicians, who had never heard a drummer like Gadd before, were clearly taken by his unique talents. “That was the other thing,” Mainieri continues. “Previous to that period, they were mostly into straight-ahead cats. So this whole idea of Steve coming over with Steps and showcasing his unique style, incorporating funk and jazz and fusion with that marching band thing, and also being able to explode and play straight-ahead on the kit. And I think with the Japanese especially, the idea of his impeccable precision playing also connected with them.

“There was just no one playing like that at that time. And the energy — this guy lifting himself off the seat when he’d play — was like nothing they had ever seen before. He was just so charismatic on stage that you could not take your eyes off the guy. Some people have that magical quality. As a kid, when I was playing with Buddy Rich, no matter how much you hated the guy, when he took a drum solo, you had to turn around and look. You knew that he was going to do four solos a night and it was just something that you wanted to watch because it was just that special. And with Steve, he had that charisma that made you want to watch when he soloed. He had a way of connecting with people.”

Gadd’s tenure with Steps lasted only a year and a half. By the outset of the ’80s, his studio work became too plentiful and too lucrative to turn down. There were sessions with the likes of Paul McCartney, Grover Washington Jr., Al Jarreau, Chuck Mangione, James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Manhattan Transfer, along with the soundtrack to A Chorus Line and followup recordings with Rickie Lee Jones, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon (including One-Trick Pony, which was also made into a documentary film of a 1980 tour featuring members from Stuff).

In the early ’80s, Gadd also made a triumphant, worldwide tour with former Return To Forever guitarist Al Di Meola in a potent fusion band featuring former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer and electric bassist Anthony Jackson (documented on 1982’s live Tour de Force). But one of the most significant live gigs of the ’80s that Gadd participated in came earlier in the decade when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel got together for a reunion concert on September 18, 1981 in New York’s Central Park. An incredible 750,000 people attended that free concert, held on Central Park’s Great Lawn. (Warner Bros. released a CD and accompanying DVD documenting that historic event. And yes, Gadd does his thing once again on “50 Ways.”)

Also during this active decade, Gadd released his first instructional video in 1983 and his debut recording as a leader, 1984’s Gadd About, with pianist Richard Tee, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, and trumpeter Lew Soloff. By 1985, that group had morphed into the Gadd Gang with former Stuff bandmates Dupree and Tee along with former Steps bandmate Eddie Gomez on bass. “It was an opportunity to put a band together because the recording thing was going through its changes with the electronic stuff [i.e., producers relying more on drum machines and less on living, breathing drummers] and Stuff wasn’t happening,” says Gadd. “And I thought it would be interesting for Dupree and Richard Tee to play some of the same stuff we did with Stuff, only with an upright player instead of an electric player. So we did some of those things we did with Stuff, just a little bit differently. It was basically a band with guys that I loved to play with that really liked doing what we were doing, which was grooving. It’s always nice to have a bunch of guys that you really like to play with.

“And it was the kind of band where we pretty much all shared equally. I thought that was important too,” he continues. “Stuff had some issues, business-wise, along the way with record companies and management and things that weren’t cool. Plus, the fact that we were stoned out of our minds most of the time made us easy prey for that kind of thing. But that was the period, man. That was what was going on at the time. It was one long party that lasted through the ’70s and into the ’80s. And if you weren’t taking care of business and you got screwed, it was your own fault. That’s just what happened back then.”

Chapter Five: Further Adventures Of Dr. Steve

At the outset of the ’90s, Gadd hooked up once again with Paul Simon on another landmark recording, Rhythm Of The Saints, his paean to Afro-Brazilian rhythms and song forms. In 1991 the Gadd Gang released its self-titled debut, which featured a soulful rendition of Wilton Felder’s anthemic “Way Back Home,” an old Crusaders tune that Gadd continues to play to this day. For that Columbia Records outing, the drum maestro dusted off his shuffle chops for an earthy rendition of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” and he also demonstrates his patented Mozambique lick on the solo drum piece “Duke’s Lullaby.” That same year, Gadd played on James Taylor’s New Moon Shine. It was the first of many copacetic sessions to come with the lanky troubadour from North Carolina.

By the end of the decade, Gadd began a longstanding working relationship with British guitar hero and rock superstar Eric Clapton, first in 1997 with the all-star band Legends featuring Clapton, bassist Marcus Miller, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, and keyboardist Joe Sample, and the following year on Clapton’s 1998 recording Pilgrim. “I think Russ Teitelman mentioned my name to Eric and when he might’ve been looking for somebody,” Gadd recalls. “I just started playing with him and doing a bunch of albums with him and a bunch of tours. I love working with him. He’s a good guy, and he’s one of those guys who really challenges you to rise to the occasion when you’re playing with him.”


In 2000 Gadd participated in a collaboration with Clapton and 74-year-old B.B. King on the Grammy Award-winning Riding With The King, a dream come true for the blues-loving Brit who came up devouring B.B.’s old Kent Records hits from the 1950s like “Three O’Clock Blues,” “When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer,” and “Ten Long Years,” which they expertly cover here. Another key collaboration that Gadd enjoyed during the late ’90s was with the brilliant French pianist Michel Petrucciani. Along with the drummer’s longtime collaborator on electric bass, Anthony Jackson, they forged an uncommonly tight, highly interactive trio that at times was reminiscent of the delicacy and telepathic intimacy of the classic Bill Evans trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, and at other times was a surging, swinging unit that roared with rare abandon like the Keith Jarrett trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. Their remarkable chemistry together was documented on 1998’s Both Worlds and 1999’s Trio In Tokyo. A recent Dreyfus Jazz DVD release Trio Live In Stuttgart documents a concert on February 9, 1998, offering great insight into the inner workings of this extraordinary piano trio. It also showcases Gadd at the top of his game in a wide-open jazz setting. Petrucciani, who suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta (a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and greatly stunted his growth) died of pulmonary infection on January 6, 1999.

steve gadd

Gadd’s Traps

Drums Yamaha
22" x 14" Bass Drum
14" x 5.5" Birch Snare Drum (with wooden hoops, Steve Gadd sig. series)
12" x 8" Tom
13" x 9" Tom
14" x 12" Floor Tom
16" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
14" K Custom Session Hi-Hats
18" K Custom Constantinople Crash
18" K Custom Session Ride
16" K Custom Session Crash

Steve Gadd also uses Yamaha hardware, LP percussion, Vic Firth Steve Gadd signature sticks, Shure microphones, and Remo drumheads.

Says Gadd, “I loved playing with Michel. We had a lot of fun doing that trio and we were going to put a lot of energy into writing some material and really putting our heads together and pooling our energy to try to get something happening with that. And the next thing I know Michel had passed away. Unbelievable! Michel was an amazing musician and a lot of fun to be around. He was so funny. I never laughed so much in my life on the road than when I went out with him. He had a great sense of humor and loved to pull pranks and shit. That was going on the whole time. We had a ball, man. We made each other laugh and just had fun all the time. I really miss him.”

In recent years, Gadd has had some special reunions with key colleagues from his earliest years in New York. In 2004, he performed at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival with a special reunion edition of Steps Ahead featuring founder Mike Mainieri, guitarist Mike Stern, keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist Daryl Jones, and tenor sax great Michael Brecker. While the tour was a musical triumph, it also marked the early symptoms of the grave illness (myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS) that would ultimately take Brecker’s life on January 13, 2007. “After one gig, I remember Mike coming off stage and complaining about a severe backache. When he got back to the States he went to get it checked out. And he never really got better after that.”

In 2005, the silver-haired sage was accorded an honorary doctorate degree from the Berklee College Of Music. “Now I need to get my MD plates,” he laughed after receiving that honor in recognition of his outstanding contribution to contemporary music.

In 2006 Gadd had a series of recorded reunions with other old colleagues like Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Joe Sample, and Paul Simon. Then, in 2007, the year he moved to Arizona with his wife, Carol, he participated in two other nostalgic reunions with old colleagues — one a recording with his fellow ’70s session player, guitarist John Tropea, on the slamming funk album Take Me Back To The Old School, which was fueled by Gadd’s inimitable deep-pocket playing; the other a re-creation of Chuck Mangione’s orchestral recording from 1970, Friends And Love, at a gala performance at his hometown with the Rochester Philharmonic. This year saw two other notable releases that he plays on with longstanding friends and colleagues: Tom Scott’s all-star tribute to the late, great alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (Cannon: Re-Loaded) and alto saxophonist David Sanborn’s blues-drenched Here And Gone, which includes stirring renditions of R&B staples by Ray Charles and Percy Mayfield, and also features Clapton singing on a soulful rendition of “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town.”

“You know, in this business you run into people who you played with years ago,” says Gadd, “and when you finally get together with them, you pick up right where you left off, you know what I mean?”

Gadd’s latest endeavor, Steve Gadd & Friends, has the legendary drummer collaborating with some new colleagues, including Hammond B-3 burner (and fellow Arizona resident) Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Paul Bollenback along with his longstanding baritone sax partner Ronnie Cuber. Meanwhile, he’s just finished new recordings with James Taylor and Randy Crawford, and as of this writing was about to go into the studio with Mike Mainieri and the original members of L’Image to finally record that album that they had prepared for 35 years ago.

Still busy after all these years, Gadd enjoys his status as an elder statesman of drumming. But even though generations of drummers have been awed by his technique and musicianship, Gadd is careful to credit those giants upon whose shoulders he stands. “The stuff that I play is the stuff that I heard other people play,” he says. “For example, on a quarter-note swing pattern, I try to sound like Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Jack DeJohnette. Those were the guys who inspired me to want to play that stuff. I just try to copy the way I think they would do it. It just sort of brings it out of me. And if I can share that and sort of pass it on to other young drummers out there, then it’s nice. Because we’re all in this together.”

Next Page: David Sanborn and Lee Sklar talk about playing with Steve Gadd

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David Sanborn: How Does He Do That?

“With Steve, it’s always about picking up where you left off,” says alto saxophonist David Sanborn. “We’ve known each other for over 30 years, and we’ve been through a lot together.”

Perhaps more than any other musician Steve Gadd has played with, Sanborn has been a veritable constant in the drummer’s personal as well as professional life. “I am friends with Steve,” Sanborn notes, “and consciously and unconsciously we share the same values about music. I certainly have a personal rapport with him.

“We were both on the road together with Paul Simon back in the mid-’70s during Paul’s Still Crazy After All These Years period. Playing with him night after night on the road, I loved the extraordinary connections he made. His playing was so simple it had everybody going completely fucking crazy! It was about the groove, that sense of swing, which was and is so profound in Steve’s playing. He made [Paul] McCartney, Carly [Simon], and Paul [Simon] swing.”

Having appeared on countless Sanborn recordings, Gadd is once again the saxophonist’s drummer of choice on his new Here & Gone CD, an album of blues, R&B, and jazz that features, among others, Eric Clapton, Sam Moore, and Derek Trucks. “Whatever situation I am in,” Sanborn relates, “I can relax because the shit is there, because Steve’s being creative. He frees you up. He makes that stuff happen. You can leave a space and he can make that space make sense — that’s magic. He knows how to use space like Miles, Hank Crawford, Ray Charles — Steve is a living manifestation of that. That’s why, to have moments like that with Steve, it’s addictive, better than anything else.

“Steve is one of those guys who’s got real humility as a musician,” Sanborn continues. “He plays in the service of the tune. It ain’t about showing off, about ’me.’ And he’s got incredible chops that blow you away even though he’s not a flashy drummer. He can elevate the situation he’s in, make you want to play and be in the zone with him. His momentum and groove are so strong, he makes me feel I can play, man! A good measure of what that is, is you’ve got this guy listening to everything you are doing, and he makes you sound good.

“With Steve, it’s about reconnecting to the essence, reminding yourself why you do this, making music. When I heard Ray Charles growing up, I realized there’s a world out there that I have to be part of, even if I can only be on the fringes of it — that’s the thing that Steve has had over the years. He retains that, always listening, always learning. He’ll come up with these things that will turn the corner, thinking, ’What can I do to make this happen?’ He’s a real collaborator. He infuses everything he does with the jazz spirit, because he’s a jazz drummer.

“Steve’s always coming up off the beat — it’s so natural. His shit with independent motion with all four limbs — how does he do that? I’ve been watching him do that for 30 years and I still can’t figure it out!”


Lee Sklar: “He Goes With His Gut”

“I’ve always been a huge fan from his recordings.” Colleague/bassist Lee Sklar has that much respect for Steve Gadd going all the way back to their early days of the mid-’70s. “I met Steve when he was in the house band for Saturday Night Live,” says Sklar. “I’d be touring with Bonnie Raitt, or Jackson Browne, or James Taylor, and we’d hang out and get to know each other.”

Since Sklar has always been an L.A.-based musician, working with the New York-based drummer hasn’t resulted in a lot of face-to-face work. Case in point: A recent “collaboration” between the two musicians came at the urging of producer Richard Perry. “It was for a Ray Charles record on [Leon Russell’s] ’A Song For You,’” Sklar remembers. “Richard called me up to see if I’d do the bass part since he wasn’t happy with the bass and drums. He sent me the track with Steve’s overdubbed playing. I listened and just basked in the coolness of his part while I added mine. We did end up in the same place for a Livingston Taylor album about four years ago in Nashville. It was great. He and I looked at each other and basically said, ’I can’t believe we actually recorded a record in the same studio together!’ He’s got a unique ability to take the mundane and make it special. With just the simple placement of a beat, he can change a song from night to day. Steve reminds me a lot of Jeff Porcaro: He’s a brave musician who goes with his gut. What Steve played may have sounded pretty basic in the studio, but you go back and listen to the tapes and realize his playing was fantastic.”

A familiar name on scores of records in his own right, Sklar has vivid memories of listening to “so many records where I asked who was playing drums; I knew, but I wanted to reaffirm it.” Along with Raitt, Taylor, and Browne, Sklar has worked with, among others, Billy Cobham, Toto, Phil Collins, not to mention being part of one of the great rock and roll backup bands of all time: The Section, with Danny Kortchmar, Craig Doerge, and Russ Kunkel. You could say Sklar knows a thing or two about great musicians. “You just sit there and listen,” he notes, “and you go, ’This cat’s so good!’ Steve is part of that old school, from the ’60s and ’70s. He’s one of the guys who came in as part of a full rhythm section cutting records, pre Pro Tools, pre-click. He has an organic quality of laying down the beat. It’s a heartbeat instead of a brainwave, a living and breathing beat instead of a click machine. Steve’s pocket is so deep.

“Like Jeff,” Sklar continues, “Steve doesn’t do what’s expected, but exactly what’s needed to make it special, not pedestrian. You go anywhere in the world, and there is a reverence for him, a kind of ’Oh yeah, Steve Gadd!’ He carries a ton of credibility. He’s an all-around musician — you can’t cubbyhole him. And he has appeal across generations. If a kid is serious about being a drummer it’s imperative that he or she to listen to Steve.” As if to sing his praises endlessly, Sklar adds, “Steve’s the cream of the crop when it comes to great drummers. If the chance comes along, I will jump at it in a second to play with him.”