In 1990, when he was 40 years old, Lenny Castro finally realized he was a musician. It didn’t matter that he began playing drums and percussion at the age of three, was trained at New York’s prestigious High School Of Music & Art, and by the time of his epiphany, had played on thousands of recordings and dozens of tours with icons as disparate as Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Boz Scaggs, Toto, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Ringo Starr, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fleetwood Mac. Even more ironic is that this definitive moment of validation came from the one artist Castro always dreamed of playing with, but never did.
“Miles,” he says matter-of-factly, with the understanding that the last name, Davis, is a given. “That was one of my biggest dreams, and I got so close.” Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilbur, informed Castro that the venerable horn legend was considering him for an upcoming tour. “I couldn’t believe it,” Castro recalls. “To play with Miles Davis, the legend – unbelievable! So I put a reel together of all the stuff I’d done. I’ve never had to put an audition reel together, but Miles insisted on it, so I couldn’t say no.” Castro sent the tape and proceeded to wait. And wait. And wait.
“A few months later, I was doing a showcase with Joe Sample, and [producer and record executive] Tommy LiPuma came and he brought Miles with him,” Castro says. “I had no idea Miles was coming. After the performance, I went up to them, and I was more than a little nervous. Trembling a little, I went to shake hands with Miles, and he did the strangest thing: he grabbed my hand rather quickly and turned it palm-up. Then he started touching my palm, just feeling it, running his fingertips over my calluses. After a few moments, he released my hand. He gave me this intense look and said, “Whoa!” And in that one second, I felt an acceptance I’d never known before. To get respect from Miles Davis …” His voice trails off as he replays the incident in his mind. Then he lets out a laugh and says, “The funny this is, I didn’t get the gig. Miles decided to hire one of his sons. Hey, I can’t compete with family, you know?”
Over the course of a nearly 40-year career Castro has had very little in the way of competition. Since his first big break playing in Melissa Manchester’s band in the early ’70s he has deftly navigated multiple identities as an always-in-demand recording and touring percussionist. With his big teddy bear countenance and infectious laugh, Castro is the sort of person folks want to be around. “I disarm people by making them laugh,” he says. “If things are getting heated, I know how to cool everything down real quick.”
But it is his uncanny ability to blend seamlessly into the most unorthodox of settings (one week it’s Dwight Yoakam, the next it’s The Mars Volta) that earned Castro the nickname, “The Specialist.” Castro chuckles self-deprecatingly at the moniker. “What I do isn’t so special,” he says. “The people I play with are special. Drumming is really about being an accompanist, and as a percussionist I’m an accompanist to the accompanist.”
To explain his appeal, he uses a culinary analogy: “Think of it as if you were making a stew. Now, in your band you’ve got your singer, your guitarist, your bass player, your keyboard player, your horn players, your main drummer, whatever – they’re the meat and vegetables and the broth in the stew. What am I? I’m the spice. Take me away and you’ve still got a stew, but it would be bland and tasteless. But if you want a great meal, a stew that’s going to knock you out, you need spice – that’s where I come in.”
Though Castro laughs at his own words, the secret to his lasting success lies in his Zelig-like ability to be something of a musical allspice. “I love straddling different worlds,” he says. “I’m a fan of all kinds of music. A lot of people like to say that, but the truth is they don’t expose themselves to a lot of music, either as a listener or a player. What artists like about me, and why I think they hire me, is that I’m a chameleon: I can change the way I play to fit whatever kind of music I’m playing. Sometimes my wife even tells me I look different from band to band. To me, that’s a compliment. Why put a limit on what I can do, or who I can play with?”