Lenny Castro: The Art Of Accompaniment

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?”

The Specialist

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?”

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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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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

DRUMS LP
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

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

CYMBALS Paiste
F. 15" Crash
G. 14" China

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