Vicki Randle: America’s Most Visible Percussionist

Vicki Randle: America's Most Visible Percussionist

Vicki Randle wants you to know that she’s 45 years old. That’s right – she thinks our culture undervalues the contributions of those of us who aren’t quite kids anymore. And as the most visible percussionist in America right now, who has grooved hard five nights a week with the Tonight Show band since 1992, there is no question about her contributions to the drumming scene. She has no intention of stopping – not now or in the foreseeable future.

Versatility is the name of her game. Randle plays Latin, Afro-Cuban, West African and Brazilian styles. Her list of instruments includes congas, bongos, timbales, djembe, berimbau, pandiero, shekere, dun-dun and miscellaneous hand-percussion instruments. But it doesn’t stop there.

In addition to the Tonight Show, Randle has played percussion with George Benson, Wayne Shorter, Lionel Ritchie and Kenny Loggins. She has played keyboards and sang background vocals for Sheila E; played bass in Laura Nyro’s band; and sang background vocals on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, to name a few. She has done everything from the theme song for Baywatch Nights to a Prince’s Trust performance for Prince Charles and Lady Diana. With the Tonight Show band she has accompanied artists from Tori Amos to Dweezil Zappa, and all the others in between, including such diverse artists as Bjork, Garth Brooks, Betty Carter, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Julio Iglesias, B.B. King and Curtis Mayfield, among others. Whew!

Randle considers herself a native of San Francisco and currently lives in Venice Beach, California, where she cruises around on her Harley Davidson FXR. It took a couple years for the folks at the Tonight Show to discover Randle’s many talents, and she now regularly sings background vocals with many of the show’s guests, as well as fronting the band during those pesky commercial breaks.

Our interview started shortly after Vicki discovered a conga line of ants in her kitchen.

DRUM!: Do you miss being on tour?
Randle: Well, sometimes I miss it, but I realize that one of the reasons I enjoy touring so much is the same reason why buying a refrigerator was daunting. I just didn’t want to grow up. [laughs] The thing about being on the road is that your world is really, really small. It is really narrow and has very few moving parts. Somebody else is always making the decisions for you.

DRUM!: It’s kind of like having a babysitter.
Randle: Yes. Somebody tells you where to show up. It’s like being in the army or jail. You really don’t have that much control over your day-to-day life, and in a way, it’s kind of comforting. Like when you’re two and you need to know that your mom is there so you can run away and play, but you need to know she’s still there. [laughs] So, I think this was stunting my emotional growth. I’m not going to make the logical conclusion that all musicians feel this way, but I also think that there’s a likelihood that touring does inhibit a certain kind of growth. I think that a lot of musicians really do get tired of having to keep auditioning and keep making it up and keep trying to make a living.

If you’re a musician, you’re almost always the family embarrassment. You’re the one who shows up for Christmas empty handed. Everybody kind of feels sorry for you. For the very few of us, we actually have the opportunity to do something besides be somebody that’s interesting and fun, like the “interesting Auntie.” The Tonight Show has been really amazing in that I’ve actually been able to help my family out and sort of be a productive member of my family unit, which I also didn’t think was going to happen.

DRUM!: Describe your typical routine at the Tonight Show?
Randle: We’re not usually called in until around 2:00 p.m., and most of the time we run through beginnings and endings, openings and closings. They may also need a piece of music for a video clip or a little skit or a theme song for something, so we run through that. In the morning they shoot the video clips and things like that. They also run bits of the show to rehearse and that’s when we show up and do the musical part. Then at 4 p.m. they have their meeting and we get ready for the show. In the afternoon they run the show live. We shoot at 5 p.m. What you see is what we shoot. It’s an hour long, so at about 6:15 p.m. I’m done for the day.

DRUM!: Do you ever have to read music for the show?
Randle: Oh yeah. It would have been pretty harsh if I couldn’t read at all. I’m a really piss-poor reader and this has been like university. I think every one of these musicians is college educated. Many of them went to Berklee.

DRUM!: Do you think that it’s important for drummers and percussionists to learn how to read?
Randle: Yes, if only to try and combat the stigma. Learning how to read and learning how to communicate musically is the difference between wanting to play alone in your room for the rest of your life and wanting to play with other people. I mean, how much time are you going to waste trying to communicate a rhythm or sound with a bunch of musicians? I also think that musicians should educate themselves about percussion. I’ve spent my life listening to people say “just play something Latin”! [laughs] But what they want is something completely different than what I would play, even if I knew what they meant.

DRUM!: Something green, maybe?
Randle: Yeah, that’s what they could be saying, because most musicians will take the time to learn different genres of music and styles, but when it comes to percussion they won’t pay attention to the difference between a samba and a rumba and a mozambique. They won’t listen to what is African-influenced percussion and what is Brazilian-influenced percussion, and what these rhythms are. So most of the time, percussionists have the responsibility of being the origin of all that knowledge.

DRUM!: So you end up teaching the other musicians what these differences are?
Randle: Right, and most of the time they don’t care! [laughs] Which is fine, because percussion is an incredibly difficult skill. It’s an incredibly difficult instrument to learn because there’s no direct line. You can start taking trumpet in grade school – granted your grade school still provides musical instruction, which is kind of retro thinking on my part. But, if you want to learn how to play Latin percussion, you have to go out and find somebody to teach you. You have to hang out in a club or with people in a yard or at UC or down at the beach in Venice. You beg someone to teach you because there’s no direct way to learn it. I mean, there are more opportunities now for sure, with private schools and instruction. But when I was starting there was just no way to learn this stuff. So I don’t blame musicians for not knowing. It’s like a big mystery.

DRUM!: When did you take up percussion?
Randle: When I was around 17 or 18. I actually started playing percussion pretty late. I had been playing guitar and bass. I fancied myself a singer/songwriter in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. That’s where I was coming from – don’t ask me how I got there! My dad was a jazz piano player; my mom wanted me to go in the classical direction. I have a brother who’s an opera singer, and somehow I ended up being a singer/songwriter type. I realized a few years later that that wasn’t going to support me. The writing was getting really thick on the wall and I was starting to see it – duh! A couple of times people would ask me to come and sing background vocals for them, so I also realized that I could probably make a little money working for other people. But I learned that nobody respects singers, for the same reason that nobody respects drummers. Most singers don’t approach music as a musician does. They don’t learn how to read, they don’t learn how to communicate with other band members, they don’t learn how to count off measures, they don’t spend all those years playing in garage bands so they learn how to play with other people. A lot of singers have brought this legacy upon us. The same thing with drummers. You know the joke, “Do you want me to count this off too fast or too slow.” It became clear that I didn’t get the same kind of respect as a singer alone that I did as a musician. My ego being what it is, I decided I wanted to try and play another instrument in addition to singing. It would make me more marketable and I wouldn’t get as bored. And people would talk to me as if I was a musician instead of, “Oh, she’s just the singer.”

DRUM!: Have you ever played a drum set?
Randle: No, I never really had any interest in it, interestingly enough.

DRUM!: You’ve played just about everything else.
Randle: Well, yeah. I just never really had any interest in it. It just didn’t seem like that much fun. Isn’t that funny? When I started playing I didn’t start playing the drums. I started with percussion and there’s something about hand drums that’s really, really visceral. To me, it’s very much like singing. There are so many sounds that you can get from the head of the drum and with just a little bit of movement of your hands you can make all these different sounds. That’s the language that you use when you’re making rhythms, when you’re playing percussion. To me, playing with sticks wasn’t as interesting. There isn’t that variety of subtlety. You’re basically communicating sets of rhythms, but not that much subtlety. When it comes to hitting a drum with a stick, louder or softer is pretty much your range of motion. I know that there’s a lot more involved, but I felt I had a larger pallette with hand drums.

DRUM!: Do you play any percussion instruments that involve sticks?
Randle: I play timbales. I don’t play timbales that well, [laughs] but maybe that’s part of the reason that I really don’t like playing with sticks very much.

DRUM!: Do you get to improvise, kind of “do your own thing” on The Tonight Show?
Randle: Yes. That’s pretty much what most of us do. The nice thing about this band is that Kevin (guitarist Kevin Eubanks) is not the kind of bandleader who brings in charts and that’s exactly what we play. He expects all of us to participate and bring our skills. He just says, “Okay, here’s the song,” and everybody sort of falls in and comes up with ideas. Now if he doesn’t think the idea is appropriate, he’ll reign it in. He molds what we bring. But for the most part, we’re on our own.

DRUM!: Do you have a special relationship with Tonight Show drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith?
Randle I have to always.

DRUM!: Do you have to talk about parts or is it pretty much instinctual after all this time playing together on the show?
Randle: We have a sort of symbiosis going on. Most of the time, drummers and percussionists can hear the things that the others can’t play at that time. Smitty is an amazing drummer and can play almost everything that I can play, plus what he’s playing. With him, it’s a matter of going, “Well, let’s see what I should not play.” It’s a relationship where we’re all completely dependent upon each other, drums and percussion. We’re a lock there with the bass player. We’re sort of riding that “thing” and everybody else puts it on top. When I’m in a band, I consider myself an extension of the drum kit. We’re like a unit and I’m filling in the blanks where he’s not able to.

DRUM!: Do you feel like you’re a role model for young percussionists?
Randle: Oh yeah, and especially women and girls. Once a month or so I get a note from a woman who is studying orchestral percussion somewhere in the Midwest and just wants to tell me that it inspires her to know that there’s at least another woman playing percussion that you can see. I also have had young girls tell me that their mother’s wouldn’t let them take drums in band, because they would say “girls don’t play percussion, girls don’t play drums.” Then they made their moms watch The Tonight Show and their moms relented.

DRUM!: That’s great.
Randle: Yeah. I feel like I’m subverting these little minds.

DRUM!: Do you have a regular practice schedule for yourself right now?
Randle: No, I’m not really interested in that. I have enough discipline in my life at this point. [laughs]

DRUM!: What about warming up before the show?
Randle: I always stretch my hands out before I play. I discovered some time ago that I need to treat myself like an athlete when I’m playing. I don’t know if it’s the same for any other instrument. But especially for me, playing hand drums, I need to be in top physical condition. I’ve actually injured myself playing drums in ways that athletes do. I’ve had rotator cup injuries from playing djembe, and of course my hands are always in various states of disrepair. I get bruises and calluses. I don’t really get calluses that much anymore, which is really fortunate, because I could have really ugly hands instead of just sort of ugly hands!

I used to body build and then I stopped for a number of years and I found that I just kept injuring myself. I got tennis elbow and all sorts of weird things. The last couple of years I’ve started really exercising, stretching and bodybuilding again, and it’s really helped me. There are all kinds of physical things about drumming that people don’t think about. They don’t think about their posture. They don’t think about the height of the chair in relationship to where your arms are laying on the drum. After a while, all those things add up, especially for someone like me who plays every day. Even if I don’t play a lot, I play enough to hurt myself. I’ve had to learn ergonomics over time and I’ve had to keep my body in good shape.

DRUM!: Do you use cowhide or synthetic heads?
Randle: I use synthetic skins now – especially in that room (Tonight Show studio) because it goes through such extremes of temperature. I’d just go through heads and heads and heads on the bongos. Synthetics really work well in temperature extremes. They’re also a lot easier on your hands.

DRUM!: So you used to use cowhide heads?
Randle: Yeah. Now they use water buffalo and I can’t really tell a significant difference. The heads seem to be a little thinner. I’m used to a certain kind of feel with the thicker, natural heads. The sound is a thick, ringing tone, which is very nice to hear. But the natural heads really wear out fast when you go through those kinds of temperature extremes. It happens in the studio or on the road, really. It’s hard to keep your drums in good condition in a place where the temperature fluctuates between 80 and 40 degrees, several times in one day.

DRUM!: Are there any favorite artists you’ve backed up on The Tonight Show?
Randle: Well, there’s just so many that it’s really hard to pick a favorite. It’s just been the experience of being able to play with so many different people. There have been some real legends and some really amazing things have happened. Most of the time I’m just looking forward to the next opportunity. That’s how I’ve always looked at music. It’s easy for me to get discouraged about other aspects of life - but I never get discouraged about music. I always wake up thinking that the next thing that will happen will be just great.

DRUM!: That’s a great attitude.
Randle: I think sometimes that how you view your life is how you end up living it. It just always seems that there’s something better that can happen. I couldn’t go to The Tonight Show everyday if I didn’t believe that. There have been times that it’s been really hard for me to go there every day. For a musician who is used to having days and days and weeks or months off at a time, it can be hard to just sort of gestate. This is a big discipline. Five days a week, and getting no more than a week off a few times a year. Most people just accept that that is what they’re going to do with their lives in terms of work. But one of the lures of being a musician is knowing that we’re not going to work that way. We’re not really good at it, you know? So it’s been a real struggle to just keep reminding myself that this is a discipline, that this is good. Part of it’s the optimism, but part of what really works for me is the idea of music as service. That’s the way I look at it. It’s not all about my ego. If this were about my ego, I’d get bored. Anything that is about your ego means you have to keep trying to top yourself - and what’s the point of that? What is the point of gratuitous wanking?

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