“Just relax man!” … “Are you relaxed?”
I heard these things a few times yesterday during my first drum lesson with a man whom I consider to be one of the funkiest cats on the planet, James Gadson. You might remember him on hits like, Use Me or Ain’t No Sunshine…tunes by the great Bill Withers that James laid down the grooves to. Some of my favorite drumming, as a matter of fact. And he could very well be the nicest person I’ve ever met…certainly the nicest musician. That’s the truth. Anyway, he kept telling me, “The key to it is to relax”. What he meant was in reference to the grooves he was showing me but I also interpreted it as a reference to life itself because James is the epitome of cool and just about as relaxed a drummer there ever was. Just check him out in this video and tell me if I’m wrong…
How did I get so lucky?
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine called to let me know he had a gig over in Hollywood and that I was invited. A fantastic instrumental soul group called The Gimme 5’s that seldom play in town but are a treat to see and hear. The musicians in the band are all very well-respected local heroes, especially their guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, who has the honor of being the guitarist for the lovely, Mavis Staples. I definitely wanted to go. My friend mentioned their regular drummer wasn’t gonna be playing that night but that James was gonna be filling-in. Double bonus! In order to catch James in Los Angeles, (if you’re not psychic) you have to either be his friend or know some folks who are that will let you know when and where he’s playing because as busy a studio musician as he is (James has made more than 300 recordings in his lifetime) he stays somewhat under the radar…there’s no website or calendar of his gigs listed anywhere. You just have to be in-the-know.
Elated, I jumped in my car and raced over to see the band. When I got to the venue, there was no parking available in front, so I had to drive around a bit to find a spot. I had the windows rolled down and could hear them playing their first set and the sound of his drums was filling up the street all around me. I was finally able to see and hear one of my drumming heroes up close and the groove was already deep. Parking the car, I sauntered in, grabbed a club soda at the bar and tried to find a good place to see the master at work, as the place quickly began filling up with local folk who were probably as excited as me that he was there.
The show was great. Solid, tight band and James was smokin’. For a 73 yr old man, he hasn’t lost a thing and still plays that 16th note funk like it was 1975 all over again. He was tremendous. During set break, I went over to shake his hand and he immediately started talking to me as if we’d known each other forever. A relaxed, gentle vibe. I asked him about his drum set…a gorgeous DW kit with a rather exotic wood-grain finish. “They’re Olive wood”, he said. ‘Took me about seven years to get ’em to sound good too but they sound great now! ‘Go on over there and hit ’em man.” No, sir! As nice of an offer as it was, I left them sitting right where they were and let him know there’d be no way in hell that I was gonna go play his drums right there in front of him. He laughed at me, of course. But I thanked him and said goodbye, got in my car and drove home on a soulful cloud. A couple days later, I emailed him to ask for his contact information, which he gave me right away, so I called and setup a lesson.
And that’s how it happened that I got to study with one of the greatest r&b and soul drummer’s of all-time. I won’t bore you with the rest of it but I will say that it was most definitely the best lesson I’ve ever had. His sage-like advice will stay with me forever, as will these three grooves he gifted as my homework. He recommended I work on them for at least 30 minutes a day “…until they’re boring” and reminded me to stay relaxed. He said if I concentrate on what I’m doing, the grooves will become ingrained into my playing and will open up a whole new thing. He said that it was going to surprise me. Then he added, “When you come back next time, I’ll give you some more.”
Long live King James.