hand-drum

Lenny Castro: The Art Of Accompaniment

Percussion Prodigy

Born and raised in New York City, Castro grew up comfortably on the Upper East Side. A self-described “special kid,” he had little interest in the games and usual activities of childhood. “Since I can remember, music was all I ever wanted to be involved with,” he says. By the time he reached the first grade, he was proficient on drums and the phalanx of instruments that comprise Latin percussion. “My parents bought me drums and really nurtured my development. I think they could tell that music was just cruising through my bloodstream. My favorite instruments to play were congas, bongos, and timbales – anything that was in the Latin circuit, that’s what I wanted to master.”

He was already well on his way to percussion mastery when, on a bracingly cold February night in 1964, he sat up with his parents to watch The Beatles annihilate America on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – and hearing!” Castro laughs. “Ringo Starr became my idol that night. To see him up on the drum riser, shaking his hair and pounding out that big, steady beat, he was phenomenal. And all the girls screaming like crazy – who didn’t want to be Ringo Starr? I know I did.”

Although Castro continued playing percussion instruments, the impact of The Beatles left an indelible impression. “I went back and got comfortable with a proper drum kit again,” he says. “I studied those Beatles’ records back and forth, over and over. I knew Ringo’s every move. Even back then I knew he was a huge talent. There was so much artistry and humanity to his playing. He’s one of the most clever drummers of all time.”

Castro credits the High School Of Music & Art’s curriculum with helping him to learn how to read music (“very important when you get into the studio and they hand you a chart”). He cites another source as being equally important: the radio. “As a teenager, I was constantly listening to the radio,” he says. “You have to remember, it was an exciting time back then in the ’60s. Jazz, blues, Latin jazz, pop, rock, R&B, girl groups, country & western – you could hear it all on AM radio. It wasn’t like now, with these rigid playlists. Back then disc jockeys could play what they wanted. You turned on the radio and great music just jumped out at you. If you weren’t inspired by that, my God, you must’ve been dead!”

After high school, Castro floundered around New York City, struggling to jump through the fiery hoops of the session scene. “It was like this secret club,” he recalls, “If you weren’t hooked up with the right people, you wouldn’t get your foot in the door.” It seemed as if a secret password was necessary to score auditions, and for one reason or another, nobody would give Castro the code. “I was starting to get discouraged. I had ambition, I had ability, but something was lacking, and I didn’t know what it was. Luck, I guess. But how do you get lucky? That, I didn’t know.”

By the mid-’70s he was working at Frank Ippolito’s Drum Shop, where he was able to play all of the latest products. “I was a good worker,” he says, “but it was hard. I didn’t want to be a retailer, selling drums to players who were doing what I wanted to be doing.” One day, Castro received a call to audition for singer Melissa Manchester’s band – somebody from Melissa’s camp called Ippolito to ask him if he knew any percussionists. Ippolito recommended Castro without hesitation. Before leaving for the audition, Castro received a constructive piece of advice from his boss: “If you don’t get the gig, don’t come back here!” Castro lets out a laugh. “Frank meant it, too. All in all, it was a good boot in the ass.”

Castro landed the Manchester gig and toured with her for a year. “It was my first time seeing the world, getting real money, and playing in front of big crowds. I knew immediately that this was the life for me.” But when the New York-based Manchester decided to move to Los Angeles, Castro had to choose: relocate with the singer, or lose his first high-profile job. “It took me all of one minute to weigh my options and pack my bags for L.A. I had no idea how advantageous the move would be.”

Go West, Young Man

In Los Angeles, the invitations that seemed so elusive in New York came Castro’s way with an ease that stunned the young percussionist. Within weeks he was working with Diana Ross on a session produced by Richard Perry, where he met the hottest drummer in town, the late Jeff Porcaro, who would soon form, with other L.A. session monsters, the venerated rock group, Toto.

“Jeff and I clicked immediately,” says Castro. “We were two peas in a pod. He and a bunch of the guys who would eventually be Toto had just played on Boz Scaggs’ album, Silk Degrees, and the buzz on the record and the players was strong.” One day, Castro’s phone rang. It was Porcaro. “He said, ‘Hey, do you want a touring gig? Boz is getting ready to hit the road and I think he could use a guy like you.’ So he told me to come down to this soundstage where they were rehearsing. I ended up going with [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather, who was also being considered for the band. I set up my stuff, and we played a few songs with Boz and the band. Things sounded good to me, but after it was all over nobody said a word; Boz was up and out the door. So I went to Jeff and said, ‘Well, what do you think? Did I get the gig?’ Jeff looked at me and said, ‘Man, you had the gig before you even walked in!’

Touring with the Boz Scaggs band proved to be an even bigger adventure, musically and otherwise, than playing in Melissa Manchester’s band. “We had a lot of fun in those days,” says Castro. “Lots of practical jokes, lots of good times – some of which I probably shouldn’t speak of.” Castro remembers Scaggs as being “an incredible bandleader, very generous as far as giving us room to stretch the music. I learned a lot from him. He knows how to write great pop songs, but he appreciates virtuoso players who can take his music somewhere else. A lot of times, you’ll play something that a singer isn’t expecting and you’ll get a dirty look. Not with Boz. He welcomed surprises – as long as they sounded good.”

While on tour with Scaggs, Castro met a singer named Paulette Brown. After a “quick but very romantic” courtship, the two married. They have two children: a son, Tyler, who currently plays drums in a heavy metal band, and a daughter, Christina, who sings and is pursuing a career in culinary arts.

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