By Billy Lee Lewis
Take a moment to consider the names we use to identify various typer of popular music, such as “swing,” “speed metal,” “Afro-Cuban,” and “country.” Each evokes either the feel or source of the particular style. Given this context, what musical idiom can claim a nobler, deeper, or more sincere moniker than “soul music?”
Coming straight out of the African-American churches of the South, soul music is the natural and obvious child of gospel, enjoying its heyday from approximately 1962 until 1974, when it was deemed too unsophisticated to satisfy the musical dress code of the disco era. Thirty years later, when sampling came into practice, producers and DJs turned to their old soul collections to lift beats directly from most of the drummers we’re going to cover here.
Some names will appear frequently, while a few (due to the era’s notorious lack of record keeping) have been proven impossible to trace. Fame or obscurity notwithstanding, the importance of these performances is manifest in their relevance and application to today’s music.
“Try A Little Tenderness“ was originally a Tin Pan Alley ballad from 1932, recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. In Otis Redding’s 1966 version, the venerable Stax house band Booker T. And The MG’s employ their renowned formula of sparseness, tension, and beauty to exemplify the soul ballad. The late Al Jackson Jr. is one of the most highly regarded drummers of the twentieth century. His playing is confident, thoughtful, and almost startlingly appropriate. Don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of much of Jackson’s playing—his musical sensibilities are such that any track he plays on benefits from his touch. In “Tenderness,” his quarter-note side-stick ticks like a time bomb, as the band’s barely perceptible crescendo slowly builds, creating an edgy dynamic against Redding’s exhortations. Only at the end of the last verse, when the band’s musical pot threatens to boil over and Redding pleads “try a little tenderness,” does Jackson bring in the full kit, and all hell breaks loose. The breakdowns on the climax are quintessential Jackson, with a transported Otis sputtering his famous, frenzied, exclamations. All too soon, Jackson was taken from us: in 1975, just two months after taking two bullets in the chest from a disgruntled girlfriend, he was fatally shot in a still-unsolved break-in at his home in Memphis.
Let’s move to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Fame Music (later replaced by Muscle Shoals Sound) was arguably the only credible soul studio in the world with an all-white stable of writers and musicians. Staff drummer Roger Hawkins concocted tracks that were as unlikely as his resemblance to the chairman of 1965’s yearbook committee. In 1967, Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals to record “Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You).” A laid back, sensual rune, to be sure, but also extremely unusual in the way Hawkins breaks up what might be a standard 6/8 feel by putting the backbeat on 3, thereby creating one of the only “soul waltzes” on record. The motion and energy imparted by his unique 3/4 interpretation is a crucial element in what makes this song so distinctive.
In 1960, guitarist Robert Ward (who would later form The Ohio Players) led a group called The Ohio Untouchables. Their first studio assignment was to back The Falcons, a Detroit-based vocal group fronted by a 19-year-old Wilson Pickett. The song was a 6/8 ballad called “I Found A Love,” and the drummer on the date was a young man named Cornelius Johnson. What makes this song important for drummers (aside from a glimpse at a still developing Pickett) is Johnson’s use of extended eighth-note builds, his bouncing, shuffling interplay between kick and snare, and the rolls and grace notes that seem to dance across his snare. His vigorous approach shows us a good way to maintain energy in a slow tune.
Steve Ferrone, whom you may know from more recent stints with Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and others, joined Average White Band late in 1974. (Original drummer Robbie McIntosh was tragically killed by a heroin-dosed glass of wine at a Hollywood party almost immediately after their first hit, “Pick Up the Pieces” went to No. 1). Although rendering the band’s name somewhat imprecise (Ferrone is a black Brit), his musical sophistication honed a sharper edge on AWB’s material. The six young Scots who “wanted to be the Spinners, but play instruments,” did indeed put their own slinky, moody, spin on “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” from their live recording Person To Person. The synchronization of Alan Corrie’s bass and Ferrone’s drums suggests the grace of a martial arts master. They jab with deadly accuracy at downbeats, occasionally stepping over measures to create a reeling sensation of floating time, only to snatch it back at the last second with irreproachable skill.
How can anyone possibly make Wilson Pickett sound better? Whether laying into a dangerously obese fatback groove, or reaching beyond the expected, Roger Hawkins manages to pull it off consistently. “I’m In Love” is a slow 4/4 cut with a slightly disorienting, implied, 6/8 feel, most noticeable in the chorus. Hawkins adds to the odd, semi-waltz nuance by omitting beat 4 on the snare, while playing 1–e&4& on the kick (Ex. 1). On the bridge, he puts his shoulder to it by cranking quarter-notes on the snare, then reverts back to the verse pattern, and finally takes us out with a few tasteful sixteenth-note snare fills.
The ’60s were also the halcyon days of the “dance craze” songs: the Twist, the Jerk, even the Twisted Jerk. Now imagine James Brown and Co. as a bar band, and you begin to get the essence of Dyke And The Blazers. “Funky Broadway“ is really nothing more than a raw, one-measure ostinato, over which Dyke grunts out his observation that every town has a street, club, woman, or dance known as “funky.” The song ends with 30 seconds of deep, drum-and-vocal breakdown that twitches with more upbeats than backbeats, occasionally unruffling itself somewhat with quick, smooth rolls into boomy bass drum shots. Recorded in less than an hour at a total cost of $45, the record has that fabulously awful sound that, if at all achievable today, would take a genius and cost a fortune.
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste is possessed of rhythmic thought processes that simply don’t occur in most humans, and only a handful can replicate his inexplicably imagined drum tracks. The independence of his limbs on “Cissy Strut,” from 1969, sounds like four strangers, each holding a drumstick, taking random turns whacking a kick, snare, and hat, and in so doing, somehow conjuring a flopping, serpentine-yet-completely-cohesive-groove. “Cissy Strut” is a perennial jam session favorite because it seems so simple and everyone knows it. Well, it’s not, and they don’t. Check it out.
If it hasn’t happened already, at some point your bandleader du jour will turn to you and say, “It’s like ‘Shotgun,”‘ and you’d better know what he means. In 1965, Jr. Walker and his band, with James Graves on drums, returned tenor sax to the top of the charts. (Although the drums on “Shotgun” are rumored to have been played by a Motown staff drummer.) The opening snare drum salvo to this song (Ex. 2), recurs before each chorus, and is pretty much the only fill in the song. Remember that. This lapel-grabbing riff has rightfully taken its place in the rhythmic architecture of soul music, and could well be a contender for “Top 10 Greatest Drum Intros of All Time.”
“Hi everybody, I’m Archie Bell and The Drells… ” begins the intro to what has become a genuine soul music standard. The story behind this band’s only hit single goes like this: Bell’s manager, a Houston DJ, heard a local bar band comprised of Texas State University students, who used a catchy instrumental as their set opener/closer. He brought the “TSU Tornadoes” into the studio to record this song with Archie (sans Drells), who provided hastily penned lyrics. The drummer we hear kicking off “The Tighten Up“ is not the Drells’ drummer, but a young man named Dwight Burns, who is also responsible for one of this idiom’s most immortal drum breakdown/solos. What makes Burns’ four-measure foray so unique in an otherwise fairly standard funk pattern is the accented ah of beat 2, played on the tom (Ex. 3).
We mentioned earlier the strong ties between soul and gospel. Perhaps the most widely known variation of gospel’s “language” is the up-tempo, hand-clapping rhythm often referred to as the “church beat.” Disabusing us of the commonly held perception of “boom-whack, boomwhack” as its foundation, John “Jabo” Starks (later a long-time member of James Brown’s band) takes the church beat and plays the hell out of it (or into it, depending on your perspective) on 1961’s “Turn On Your Lovelight” by Bobby Bland. Picture someone stomping his foot and flicking out a match that just burned his fingers. Now put that frantic energy in time, sustain it for two-and-a-half minutes, and you’ve got some notion of the way Starks nudges the band along. With his snare pattern almost shadowing the sixteenths on the ride, he digs deep, teasing and boosting the track, still building even as the song vamps out.
Another soul music subgenre that’s a little more difficult to categorize, let’s just say it’s the sort of stuff you’d want to hear while flying down the freeway on a gorgeous day. Otis Redding‘s 1965 release “Respect” is one song that is very likely responsible for untold speeding tickets. Powered by Al Jackson Jr.‘s quarter-note pistons and armed with his strafing, mortally accurate sixteenth-note snare fills, Jackson’s powerful and exciting playing compliments, perhaps even inspires the singer’s spat-out vocals, as he drives that machine further up the intensity scale without ever budging the tempo.
In 1971, following a somewhat mellow and sappy three-year sabbatical from soul, Aretha Franklin unleashed the dark and fiery “Rock Steady.” Session great Bernard Purdie‘s slamming track begins innocently enough with “peasoup” sixteenths on the hat, open on the &2 and &4 of every measure, with the backbeat on the kick drum (Ex. 4). Bringing in the full kit, the verse simmers over the low flame of his groove, until he cranks it up for the horn-driven bridge by switching to the ride and nailing a 2& figure on each measure. Then comes “the Purdie lick.” Like three rapid-fire body blows, this incredibly effective two-beat fill played with kick and choked hihat (Ex. 5), has become a stone in every funk drummer’s slingshot. Purdie and bass player Chuck Rainey enter the second horn solo with a tandem 1e&ah that boots the entire song upstairs.
“Soul Man.” There, I’ve said it, and if you’ve finished your smug snickering, ask yourself if you’ve ever really examined the drum part on Sam & Dave‘s defining piece of soul music from 1967. Beneath that universally familiar opening guitar line is our man in Memphis, Al Jackson Jr., layering an unusual (and typically understated) intro with bass drum, cymbal bell, and tambourine, all on the 2 and 4. In the verses, he plays a stuttering bass drum pattern (Ex. 6), smacks each designated stop with a grand flam, then dives back in with a crisp and abrupt sixteenth-note triplet, until reaching the bridge, where he connects the dots with a startling &4e&ah line drive. On the choruses, he belts it out of the park with a pumping eighth-note bass drum pattern.
As long as we’re driving, we might as well go someplace cool, so how does New Orleans sound? For the uninitiated, the term “second line” refers to the African-American jazz funeral processions of New Orleans. Having buried their sorrows with the deceased, the mourners return from the cemetery (hence, “second line”), discard the dirge, and break into a funky parade beat, celebrating their loved one to paradise. “Hey Pocky A-Way,” from 1974, is an irresistibly undulating example of second line, performed by practitioners of the first order, the super-bad Meters. Zigaboo Modeliste‘s rolling flow demonstrates how he allows his band to cakewalk confidently on the greasy rope of his groove.
Much of the attraction of New Orleans soul was the unfamiliar rollicking approach of the drums, as played by (among others) Modeliste, Idris Muhammad (nee Leo Morris), Charles “Hungry” Williams, James Black, and John Boudreaux. Because drum parts that wouldn’t be considered commercial elsewhere were encouraged here, some mad tracks resulted. In Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit, “Working In A Coal Mine,” Modeliste runs a puffing, slightly jerky, contraption that clanks metallically on beat 2 of every other measure of the chorus (Ex. 7).
The sultry side of soul is represented here by what we refer to as “greasy listening,” and the king of that realm just might be Al Green. Two drummers receive credit for virtually all of his studio recordings: the lamentably under-appreciated Howard Grimes, and the ubiquitous Al Jackson Jr. One could say the Grimes’ dilemma was not unlike that of The Beatles’ George Harrison, who was an excellent songwriter, but forever overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney.
The pleadingly romantic “Let’s Stay Together“ (co-written by Jackson) possesses another of Jackson’s prized contributions to the soul groove: the combination of rack tom and snare on backbeats. Beginning with a clever side-stick, bell, and tom pattern that emphasizes the & of beats 3 (tom) and 4 (snare) in every other measure, he slips into a gentle gallop, enhanced by what sounds like an overdubbed conga, playing 1&ah2&ah3&ah4&ah. During the “B” section of this piece, Jackson’s employment of quarter-notes on the snare is rendered even more effective by the retention of the tom/snare combination only on beats 2 and 4.
With a voice that compliments her nickname, Dusty Springfield reflects unblushingly on the unmatched passion of her first youthful affair in 1969’s simmering “Son of a Preacher Man.” Fabled session aces the Memphis Cats lay down a loose, smoky feel that exudes sexual innuendo, and at the bottom of it all is drummer Gene Chrisman. Pushing the song along by emphasizing beat 1 on the hi-hat, Chrisman presents us with a glimpse into what will later become a template for numerous funk and hiphop rhythms to come. His smooth, authoritative playing expands almost imperceptibly in the vamp, where he graduates to a kick/snare/bell pattern that manages to shift the whole track up two gears, without losing a drop of its essential fluidity.
Before we move on, let’s take a glimpse into Marvin Gaye’s candle-lit domain, where funk has never been sexier (and vice versa). It’s with good reason that we find 1973’s “Let’s Get It On“ on the universal shore list of “greatest make-out records of all time.” Paul Humphrey (whose resume runs from Albert King to Frank Zappa) contributed heavily to this considerable accomplishment with a concept that is equally elegant and earthy. Alternately rolling and lunging, Humphrey’s drums weave vital threads into the seductive web of Gaye’s imploring vocals.
Let’s start by checking out how the always amazing Al Jackson Jr. put the saunter into Wilson Pickett’s No. 1 hit from early 1966. The sanctified swing of “634-5789“ is miraculously accomplished with a 1&3 on the bass drum, and 2&4 on snare and hat! In fact, it’s only in the “B” section of the second verse that Jackson raises the stakes by switching to a quarter-note hat, where he remains until the last verse, at which point he reveres to the 2&4 thing again. One tiny snare pick-up and a couple of two-beat triplet builds are all you’ll find in the way of embellishment here, because that’s all it needs, and that’s the sort of thing that Al Jackson Jr. intuitively knew.
Like an eccentric, brilliant geneticist “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown made the world a better place when he spliced the genes of soul and funk. Ironically, though everyone knows and plays his songs, most of us don’t know the actual drum parts. For instance, on soul bombs like “Out of Sight” (1964), and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965), drummer Melvin Parker squeezed vast amounts of funk out of a sublimely simple 2&4 side-stick pattern. Diametrically opposed co this is Clyde Stubblefield‘s spectacular demonstration of syncopated, bubbling funk drumming on 1968’s “I Got the Feelin'” (Ex. 8) The man known as “The Most Sampled Drummer in History” crackles like a pan of hot grease, occasionally flaring up with blistering fills that lead the band in and out of the song’s various passages. Incidentally, for those who still don’t believe that Brown knows exactly what he wants from a drummer, check out 1961’s “Night Train.” That’s James himself on drums—jazzy, hipster, snare fills and all!
In the ’50s, tenor player King Curtis was a New York session man and sometime bandleader. The ’60s found him with a moderate hit single, “Soul Serenade,” and later, leading Aretha Franklin’s road band. The funky jewel in King Curtis’ crown, however, was the 1971 release Live At Fillmore West (which actually was Curtis and his band opening for Franklin). Curtis spends the first five-and-a-half minutes of “Memphis Soul Stew” introducing the “ingredients,” who fall in one at a time. Following Gerry Gemott’s “half a teacup of bass,” Bernard Purdie proceeds to take our heads right off our unsuspecting shoulders with “a pound of fatback drums,” or four-and-a-half measures (he ends with a fill that carries over to beat 2 of the fifth measure) of searing funk. Slamming the lid right back down, Purdie percolates beneath the rest of the intro, until Curtis instructs the band to “Beat, well,” and the pressure cooker blows.
Stevie Wonder‘s second solo effort from 1972, Inner Visions confirmed the suspicion that this guy sees music in a very different dimension. On “Superstition,” from 1973’s Talking Book, he plays every instrument (save trumpet and sax), and does it well. The instantly recognizable 4&ah snare pickup kicks off a swaggering four-bar drum intro that owes its bopping momentum to a hi-hat pattern that plays roughly like &ah1&2&ah3e&4, swung heavily, with a straight quarter-note kick and 2 and 4 backbeat. Many drummers underestimate the potency of the swung hat and attempt to duplicate the bounce with complicated funk patterns.
There’s so much more! Hopefully you’re sufficiently intrigued by what you’ve read to seek out the genesis of that badass loop you just made, and get better acquainted with its creator. The pest way to pay them back is simply to acknowledge and dig them, don’t you think?
This article originally appeared in the Feb/March 2004 issue of Drum! magazine. Please note the above article includes affiliate links, meaning Drum! will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!