Terry Santiel: Keep It Simple & Serve The Song

The current Justin Timberlake tour, Terral "Terry" Santiel says from a stop in Detroit, "is not like any tour I've ever done." That's pretty remarkable considering some of the artists with whom the accomplished percussionist has hit the road, including, in recent years, Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson. Earlier in his decades-long career — to put his comment in perspective — Santiel and his band, Rose Royce, did a tour with Bootsy Collins and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. "I got to see the Mothership land every night," he says, laughing. "It was pretty epic."

Epic is a word one could use to describe Santiel's career as a studio and touring musician. He's played percussion — primarily bongos and congas — with more acclaimed artists, on more notable recordings, than most percussionists could hope to shake their sticks at. His introduction to hand drums came by way of the men in his family. Santiel grew up in Los Angeles, where, on weekends, the porch of his mother's house played host to hand-drum jam sessions, with several generations hanging out and trading rhythms on bongos. He was about ten years old when his uncle Robert Santiel — who later changed his first name to Pondaza — inspired him to nurture his interest in drumming and develop his technique.

"He was pretty much my first influence," Santiel says of his uncle Pondaza, who "never was really, really successful" but "could play his ass off" — and still does. Pondaza Santiel, it should be noted, did enjoy some measurable success. He played percussion in the late 1960s and '70s with a group called Friends Of Distinction, and later with Jeffrey Osbourne and his band L.T.D.

Growing up, Santiel says, "We used to listen to Mongo Santamaria. He was the guy at the time. And all of the things he would play, you would try to mimic. Then this other guy came along. His name was 'Big Black' [Daniel Ray]. I don't know where Big Black was from, but some of his undercurrent rhythms, he would play kind of like Giovanni [Hidalgo] does now, a little, but with different kind of flavor to it. And it was different than what everybody else was doing, so that was an inspiration, too.

Coincidentally, Santiel would spend countless hours practicing along with a recording artist with whom he'd soon find himself working. "I had one single conga that I would play," Santiel says, asking, rhetorically, "And you know what song I would play over and over again? 'Could Nine' by The Temptations." That song introduced him to another early influence.

"Eddie 'Bongo' Brown played on that song," Santiel points out. "I would play that song over and over and over and I got really good at one rhythm. I could pretty much do what I wanted to do within that rhythm. And every time I would come back to my cousins and brothers and those guys, I would be a little bit better than them." Notwithstanding the influences that he found in his uncle Pondaza and in "Bongo" Brown's playing on "Cloud Nine," Santiel explains, "I'm pretty much self-taught." Early on, he got into the habit of recording his practice sessions and learning from what he heard when he listened back to those tapes. Initially, Santiel's teacher was a reel-to-reel machine. Then cassettes came out.

"Before I left to come on this tour with Justin, I was in my studio and I found all of these old cassettes," he says. "And I found some stuff of me playing when I was really young. It was amazing, the stuff that I was playing back then, at that age." Clearly, those tapes showcase the unique musical personality Santiel has developed and continues to bring to his playing.

"The way I end up getting a lot of the gigs that I do now is because, stylistically, I don't play like anybody [else]," he says. "And I don't try to. I love listening to everybody else, but I don't play like them." The Motown producer who'd be largely responsible for launching Santiel's storied career encouraged that authentic approach. "My first record coming out of the block was with The Temptations," Santiel says. "I did the 1990 album with The Temptations. And the producer's name was Norman Whitfield. Norman's philosophy was always to be the innovator — be the one that everybody wants to be like."

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It was in Motown's L.A. recording studios (the company left Detroit in 1972) that Santiel found another mentor, the above-mentioned Eddie "Bongo" Brown. "Eddie, man, he taught me how to make the music basically feel good," Santiel says, explaining that he and Brown would talk not just about technique but also about the recording industry and life in general. "Norman brought me in," he says, "and it was Eddie 'Bongo' Brown and me who were doing a lot of those recordings over at Motown."

In the early '70s, Santiel was a founding member of the R&B group Rose Royce. When he and his bandmates heard on the radio that Motown was looking for a band to back up Edwin Starr, whose oft-covered single "War" had reached #1 on the American pop charts, Rose Royce's guitarist, Kenji Brown, responded to the ad. Not long after that, Starr and Whitfield attended one of the group's rehearsals, Santiel says, "and they fell in love with the band." Within a few weeks, Santiel and the rest of Rose Royce were in the studio laying down tracks for The Temptations' 1990 album, which Whitfield produced. And soon thereafter, they were on tour with Starr — an experience that was as professionally significant and financially unglamorous as one might expect.

"We'd put our gear in two station wagons and drive from city to city ourselves," Santiel remembers, laughing. "We'd make money, but we'd have to pay for our own gas and pay for our own hotel bills. It was just a complete, total rip-off. We thought that's the way it went, so we went along with it. And I do remember coming home and having $3. But it was fun — I think."

At that point, the work started coming in, and has never stopped. Rose Royce, a group Santiel would leave in the early 1980s, was brought to prominence when Whitfield used the group to record the soundtrack to the 1976 movie Car Wash, a project that signaled the end of Santiel's education at Los Angeles City College, where he'd studied music for a few years. The list of artists with whom Santiel has since worked reads like a who's who of pop history, and includes names like Hal Davis, Marvin Gaye, Janet Jackson, Rick James, Patti LaBelle, Madonna, The Pointer Sisters, Smokey Robinson, Barry White, and Stevie Wonder, to name a handful. Needless to say, Whitfield was instrumental (pardon the pun) in that success — professionally and musically.

"He was a big inspiration for me," Santiel says. "He taught me basically how to use simplicity to my advantage." Obviously, that philosophy is one that he learned on Terry Santiel the job. "I got a lot of that from Norman Whitfield, and working with Berry Gordy," among others at Motown, including Kerry Gordy, Benny Medina, and Rockwell (Kennedy William Gordy). On any given day at Motown, Santiel says, "Diana Ross would be recording in one room and Marvin Gaye would be in another room and Rick James would be in a room, and we'd be in another room recording and Michael Jackson would be there." As one might expect, Santiel says, "Every producer's approach was different." Still, every session and project began with a producer calling to ask, "We have a recording session going on. Can you do it?"

"I never said no," Santiel says, hinting that to decline any such call could jeopardize future opportunities. "I'd show up with my equipment [three congas and a pair of bongos, typically] and set it up and they'd count it off and we'd go. Whatever [a song] called for is what I would play."

Often, being careful not to muddle the sound of a track, he'd use a single drum on a recording — whichever particular instrument's sound and pitch best fit the music. That's not to say Santiel and other artists didn't look beyond the instruments they already had at their disposal for the right, most original, or freshest sound. After helping Syndrum creator Joe Pollard (with help from Gon Bops principals Mariano Bobadilla and his son, John) develop a bongo-specific trigger system in the late 1970s, Santiel became an early pioneer in the use of electronics. His incorporation of futuristic sounds on Rose Royce's 1978 single "Love Don't Live Here Anymore," Santiel says, "was the first time [electronic percussion] was used on a record." Still, the use of those sounds was sparing and reflects Santiel's consistent and continued focus on keeping the accompaniment simple. "You can't play what you want. You have to play what that song calls for."

In live situations, these days, that includes reproducing parts and sounds from studio albums, which he does by taking them from the original tracks and importing them into his live rig. On the current Justin Timberlake project — The 20/20 Experience tour — Santiel's setup includes three congas, bongos, timbales, cymbals, cowbells, and other auxiliary percussion instruments, Pole Pads, a drumKAT, and an iPad loaded with soft synths. "My electronic setup is really pretty intense," he says. "There's nothing that I cannot do." Recreating sounds from Timberlake's 2013 20/20 Experience album was pretty easy given that Santiel played on the record. He's worked on every post-'N Sync Timberlake tour and toured with Timberlake and Jay-Z during the "Legends Of The Summer" tour in 2013. Earlier this year, Santiel worked with Timberlake on a recording of Michael Jackson's "Love Never Felt So Good" — although he wasn't properly credited on the original release, "which is really a drag," he says.

Still, "That was a fun session — just the way we recorded the whole thing," he says. "I got a chance to do some of the stuff we did back in the day, like playing bottles and all of that other kind of stuff that made it really cool." Playing bottles was a nod to his early days at Motown, when he'd often discover good sounds in found objects — even by playing rhythms on the floorboards. While it was fun going back in time for the "Love Never Felt So Good" recording, modern technology has allowed Santiel to maintain his busy recording schedule even when he's on the road. As far back as when the work started coming in during the early 1970s, Santiel has never turned down work, and still doesn't, no matter where he is. Thanks to technology, producers can "fly" him tracks to record on his tour setup, even Terry Santiel while he's on the road (after soundcheck, for example), and he sends them back. He's always sure to ask permission of those running the show and to make sure he's not posing an inconvenience for anyone else. If he can't record something while he's on the road, he'll try to set up a time when he can lay down a track in a studio back in Los Angeles.

While most of the work Santiel has done throughout his career has been in the studio, he says, "I love the live part of it." Among the highlights of his touring career have been recent outings with Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, and Timberlake. Asked what's made those experiences so memorable, Santiel says, "I think the camaraderie and the people who are on the tours." In the studio, too, it's the camaraderie that keeps things so enjoyable — laughing and having a good time while making music. Equally important has been his interest in keeping his exciting career in perspective.

"If you get on these gigs, stay humble," he advises, directing the comments at those who might follow in his footsteps. "The bottom line is, with all of these tours, it's going to always end." Fortunately, for Santiel, it doesn't appear that that will happen anytime soon.