By Phil Hood
A reader of “Behind The Scenes” wrote to ask how drummers think about playing signature tunes, and how they learn songs quickly when they need to get up to speed for a gig.
The more I thought about this question the more I wanted to talk to one person: Jonathan Moffett.
In the late 1980s Moffett was the touring drummer for the two biggest stars in the galaxy, Michael Jackson and Madonna. He became the Jackson family’s drummer in 1979 and performed with all of them over 30 years. He was the drummer on Madonna’s best recording, True Blue, and he worked some of her biggest globe-circling tours. Throughout his career he’s toured with big name artists, from Elton John to Cameo to George Michael.
So I put this question to him: When you rehearse for a tour behind an album like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and are playing the parts originally recorded by drummers such as John JR Robinson, Jeff Porcaro, and Ndugu Chancler, what is your mindset?
His answer? “My goal is to play for the song,” Moffett says. “Initially, I just want to play that track exactly like JR, exactly like Ndugu. I try to reproduce it. I try to become them and master the rhythm and the pattern that they’re doing and replicate the feeling and the articulation. We may make changes on the song and change the pickups and fills when rehearsing for a tour. If it works I’ll do it every night. But I know simplicity is the key to hit records. I keep it simple.”
Big Ears And Handicaps
I thought about the listening skills Jonathan has that enable him to perfectly reproduce every nuance of some of these songs. If you’ve ever seen him play you marvel at the ease and touch of his feet, which earned him the nickname “Sugarfoot” (the King of Pop just called him “Foot”). When Jonathan was young he would sit in church near the organ’s speaker, and watch the organist tapping out bass lines with his feet. Perhaps that’s the source of the melodic deftness in Moffett’s footwork and drumming today.
“It’s all about mindset,” he says. “See, I have a handicap: I don’t read music. I lived my young life putting the needle back, listening to music and putting the needle back again and again, listening intently. That’s how I learned. But by not being able to read music I have sharpness of memory and retention.”
Does this mean he can hear a recording and identify when and how a drummer moves ahead and behind the time? “Definitely,” he assured me. “Remember that in the ’60s and ’70s if you were playing along to a record, or covering a song there was no click track. There was always drift, so you had to drift too you wanted it to sound right.”
Just Learn Your Part
I had another question. Moffett has played for plenty of big events, from Live Aid to Hollywood Bowl charity concerts to Michael’s memorial concert. In these situations, he is backing multiple artists. He not only has to learn songs quickly: the producer is also counting on him to make sure the tune and the whole production go off smoothly. It’s the drummer who sets the table for the superstars to make their entrance. How does he prepare for that?
“First, if it’s a top artist I’ve heard the music, or if it’s on the radio then I know the song. Then it’s [a matter of] learning the arrangement or how they want to cut it up … I can feel an eight-bar phrase or sixteen bars. I feel it intuitively: 24 bars, then 32 bars. It’s like an emotional framework for me. I call it taking an ’emotional photograph’ of the song.
“Sometimes I do write [the song structure] down on a long sheet of paper, like four bars, eight bars, change 1, change 2, chorus 1, chorus 2 — like that. Then I’m ready to go. I have that ‘photograph’ of everything. If it’s a lot of music I’ll keep that sheet and refer to it in a show. With a show like Cirque du Soleil’s Immortal World Tour, we did a month and a half of rehearsals and the producer redid all of the songs so we were constantly making little changes, like adding two bars or removing two bars.
“When you get that [audition] call you can’t afford [being] nervous, so don’t worry. There’s always somebody more capable, so I don’t think about that. I have to really focus on the music. When you get in there to play sometimes it may feel like a weird environment. You get butterflies. But you have to ignore all that and learn the parts. Just learn the parts.”
That’s how it’s done, folks.
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