Lenny Castro: The Art Of Accompaniment

Succession Of Stars

After touring with Scaggs and playing on his follow-up to Silk Degrees, the album Down Two, Then Left, Castro next worked with another maverick singer-songwriter, Randy Newman. “Randy was a flat-out gas,” Castro says. “We did the song ‘I Love L.A.,’ and I knew right away it was going to be a hit for him.” While cutting the track, an engineer was fiddling with a Linn Drum machine – it was the first time both Castro and Newman had seen the device.

“Randy went ballistic,” says Castro, laughing. “For one thing, it was taking hours for this engineer to try to get the damn thing to work, and that didn’t please Randy at all. Plus, he had a total aversion to the idea of a machine replacing a real live drummer. I remember Randy jumped up – this was after four or five hours of nothing getting done – and started yelling, ‘Enough! That’s the devil’s machine! That’s the devil’s work! I want real drums. Throw that thing away right now!’” Without further ado, the drum machine was toast.

During the next few years, when Castro wasn’t on tour, he would play with Toto both live and in the studio. “They were always very gracious and accommodating to me,” says Castro. “Whenever they were making some of their big hits, you know, like ‘Africa’ and ‘Rosanna,’ they wanted me right there with them. I used to watch them come up with their parts; a lot of the time they would bounce ideas off of me. It was a great collaboration, which is why so many musicians respect Toto. You can hear the difference when real players are communicating with one another.”

For a time it looked as though Castro was destined to become a permanent bandmember, but “political issues” stood in the way. If Castro was disappointed, his hurt feelings were soothed when Porcaro took him aside and told him it was a blessing in disguise. “I remember Jeff saying, ‘Listen, man, you should be glad you’re not in the band, because once you’re a member, you have to get permission to do anything.’ And it turned out to be true. In fact, the Toto guys started to envy me. I could go off and play with people like Stevie Wonder and do all this other stuff. Meanwhile, they weren’t working; they were always waiting for tours to get booked or albums to come out. They were tied down by the machinery of the band, whereas I was free as a bird.”

Performing with Stevie Wonder would prove to be one of the bigger challenges Castro had yet to face. The percussionist played with Wonder on the Woman In Red soundtrack, as well as two world tours. “He’s a pretty intimidating guy at first,” Castro remarks. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly – or at all. And if you’re going to keep up with Stevie, you have to know his whole book, every song he’s ever done and then some, because he’s likely to call a tune out at the drop of a hat. You have to be right on it, and he knows if you’re not.

“He would constantly surprise the band, too, calling out covers that we hadn’t even talked about, let alone rehearsed. I remember one time we were playing, and out of nowhere he yells, ‘Alfie!’ You know that song – ‘What’s it all about?/Alfieeeeee ……’ I had never played it before in my life. I turned to the guitar section and they had this deer-in-the-headlights look: ‘We don’t know this song. What do we do?’ And we’re talking about a concert in front of 250,000 people. You can’t bonk in a situation like that; you just go with it.”

Castro’s 14-year association with Bette Midler proved to be just as much of a struggle. On four separate tours with her, Castro became, in his words, “a comedic actor posing as a musician.” During the course of any given show, Castro and the rest of Midler’s band would be called upon to perform songs that spanned and sometimes mixed genres. “Burlesque, vaudeville, blues, R&B, swing, rock, disco – you gotta know it all,” Castro says. “To play with Bette, you had to have Broadway chops. You had to read charts. And to top it all off, you had to have a good sense of humor, because she had these comedy bits in the show and she liked to include the band.”

A more relaxed collaboration with Stevie Nicks – “a girl who’s 100-percent rhythm; a total joy to be around” – led to Castro joining Fleetwood Mac on their massively successful reunion tour, The Dance. “Stevie suggested me to Mick Fleetwood, who welcomed me with open arms. A few weeks before the tour, Mick and I got together in a room, and we just locked. You know, you have your technicians, your Vinnie Colaiutas and people like that, but when it comes down to just laying down a big fat 2 and 4, Mick finds that pocket like nobody else. And the things he does on the hi-hat … the guy has nuances for days.”

Fountain Of Youth

Of all the acts Castro has performed with over the years, perhaps none seems more anachronistic than the youthful prog-rock outfit, The Mars Volta. But the veteran percussionist feels perfectly at home with the frenzied concept kings. “Oh, man, Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] and Omar [Rodriquez-Lopez] are my boys! Talk about high energy. I have to work out for a whole week before I play with them. But I love running with the young guys; it keeps me on my toes. What’s funny is, as intense as their music is, they hear the room for different kinds of percussion. They like nuances and different shades. Without generalizing, I think it’s because of their Latin heritage: Percussion is in their blood.”

Castro credits his metalhead son with keeping him up to speed with some of the more current acts on the scene. Bonding together at Slipknot concerts might not be every father’s dream, but to Castro, “It’s the coolest thing ever. My son has turned me on to so many cool groups. Mastodon – my God, those guys are off the hook with their riffs and their crazy lyrics. I might have to work out for a month, but I’ll tell you, I’m putting the word out right now to those guys: Give me a call. I can add some cool stuff to what you do!”

And what if he was asked to join Mastodon? “That’d be okay,” says Castro, laughing. “They’re definitely nuts!”

Castro’s Setup

1. 12.5" x 25" Djembe (Original African)
2. 11" x 30" Classic Quinto
3. 11" x 30" Classic Quinto
4. 11.75" x 30" Classic Conga
5. 11.75" x 30" Classic Conga
6. 12.5" x 30" Classic Tumba
7. 12.5" x 30" Classic Tumba
8. 7.25" Classic Bongo
9. 8.625" Classic Bongo
10. 14" Tito Puente Timbale (chrome)
11. 15" Tito Puente Timbale (chrome)
12. Hi-Lo Cowbell

A. SpectraSound Mark Tree
B. Caroll Music Bell Tree
C. Ludwig Vintage Tambourine
D. Vaughncraft Woodblock
E. Homemade Shaker

F. 15" Crash
G. 14" China

Lenny Castro also uses Remo drumheads, and Rhythm Tech shakers.

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