BY JOHN PAYNE | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
What with the generally weird state of the world, a bit of that good old, life-affirming, funky uplift — say, like Earth, Wind & Fire used to do — might be just what the doctor ordered. Enter former Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Sonny Emory and his Cachet band, whose new album, Love Is The Greatest, is a musical manifesto on our planet’s crucial need for love and unity.
“You can never have too much togetherness,” says Emory. “We’re just doing our part to cast some bread out on the water, and hopefully it’ll lift people’s spirits and take their minds off all the madness that’s going on — for a few minutes anyway.”
Emory is the much-in-demand session man who’s also played with The Crusaders, Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, Bette Midler, Jean-Luc Ponty, David Sanborn, and Jeff Lorber, along with a recent guest stint as drummer for the TV show Late Night With Seth Meyers. His new solo album is a stirring cornucopia of the myriad pop, funk, R&B, jazz, gospel, and soul influences Emory soaked in as the son of a music teacher in Atlanta.
“I’ve been hearing music since I touched down on the planet,” he says with a laugh. “My earliest recollection of music was listening to an eclectic mix of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane with Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy Haines, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, and Pharoah Sanders.”
Emory’s first instrument was saxophone, but he gravitated more to the Japanese Zim Gar miniature drum kit his dad got for him when he was five years old.
“And the rest is history,” he says. “I never looked back.” Along with his mother’s daily blasts of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and other soul and R&B greats, Emory’s curiosity about rhythm was further stretched by progressive jazz players like Billy Cobham, Lenny White, and Narada Michael Walden. Herbie Hancock had a major impact, Emory says, not just for the great drummers he employed but for Hancock’s distinctive harmonic sensibility.
The idea that a musician can gain knowledge about compositional structure and arrangement from drummers is one Emory zeroed in on early in life.
“I learned a lot from Elvin Jones, listening to how he applied the triplet thing to how he swung — really, it was an African thing he was putting on those tunes,” he says. “But I learned a lot about song form from Elvin, too, like by how he builds solos. When I say ‘builds solos,’ I mean the way he was comping behind Coltrane, and keeping that fire going without getting in the way. Roy Haynes and Art Blakey taught me a lot about that as well.”
Although studying the high level technique of drummers like Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden considerably expanded Emory’s drumming vocabulary, “Steve Gadd did the same thing for me, but it was more of the groove thing — I just fell in love with how he made everything feel,” he says. “That is where I live more than anywhere else. I love just sitting in the pocket, holding the groove too, and if it feels good, I’m really happy about it.”
Gadd’s drumming imparts a lot about the proper use of space and simplicity, knowledge of which Emory drew upon in gigs with bands like Cameo. “That translates into things being a helluva lot more musical,” he says.
“Even though Gadd is the furthest thing away from Cameo, because I was studying someone like him, when I got with Cameo I was honoring the space — playing the pocket and playing the space as well. It all works together to make the song do what it does.”
Emory played in the school bands through high school and at Georgia State University, where he earned a degree in jazz and classical performance. Yet by age 15 he’d already been working in the studios around town, doing commercial jingles and playing club dates seven nights a week, gigs that eventually got him the call to play with Cameo, Jean-Luc Ponty, The Crusaders, David Sanborn, and a massive list of others, all the way up to his primetime stint as drummer for Earth, Wind & Fire.
The chance to play with his musical heroes proved invaluable for Emory, who took away drumming and composing wisdom that bears tasty fruit on Love Is The Greatest. Rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically, the album’s original songs pay heavy tribute to the expansive, heart-tugging propulsion of Earth, Wind & Fire. Two choice covers, Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and Mavis Staples’ “Eyes On The Prize,” add to the album’s glorious sound.
“I chose ‘Eyes On The Prize’ because I remembered it as a poignant song that got a lot of airplay during the civil rights movement in the ’60s,” he says. “We seem to be entering that kind of era again, of racial unrest, so that song resonates with me, as far as what we all need to do and keeping our eyes on the prize.”
Emory had kept his eyes and ears focused on Mavis Staples when he backed her at 2017’s I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration and again when he played with Staples on her performance of “Celestial Railroad” on Bruce Hornsby’s 2016 Rehab Reunion album. Emory points out how a drummer’s feel can be affected by the vocal techniques and personal dynamics of the singer he or she accompanies.
“Mavis is a powerhouse, and that style of singing allows me to relax and play how I want to play — I don’t have to be so worried about overshadowing the vocalist,” he says. “Of course, a drummer always has to be dynamically conscious when he’s playing, but when Mavis fires it up, I can go ahead and light into the drums, and she loves it —she loves the feeling of that music and she wants those grooves to be rock solid.”
Emory calls Love Is The Greatest a “collective family effort.” It was produced by Emory, who co-wrote some of the material with his son Nicholas Emory (who sings lead on “Eyes On The Prize” and a couple of other songs), with additional mixing and rapping from Nigel, another of Emory’s sons. Tracked at Sonny Emory’s Recording Angel home studio in Atlanta, the album took a while to cross the finish line owing to Emory’s chock-full touring and session schedule, and for the particular vision he had for the project.
“I wanted to do good-quality work, and I really wanted to do a good group project,” he says. “I didn’t want to do a drum record — that was the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve done countless clinics all over the world, and there’s so much solo footage of me online that I didn’t feel like I had to prove to anybody that I could play. I just wanted to write and produce some good, solid songs and to focus on that part of the craftsmanship.”
A dedication to the art and craft of becoming a complete musician is evident in Love Is The Greatest’s triumphant grooves, a quality for which Emory will always gratefully thank mentors like pianist-composer Bobby Lyle and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White.
“These guys taught me life lessons, like how to travel, take care of your body, things a young musician needs to know in order to have longevity in the industry and not get taken out by the things that can easily take you off course,” he says. “And it’s funny, because before Maurice passed, we were in the studio and he looked at me between takes and said, ‘You know, I’m passing the baton to you.’
“It wasn’t until I finished Love Is The Greatest that it really hit me what he was saying to me. He was saying, ‘I notice you’re prepared to do it. So, go. Do it!’”
“Step In It”
Love Is The Greatest is a super funky new solo album by iconic drummer Sonny Emory. The moment you start listening to track six, “Step In It,” you become mesmerized by the warm, punchy pop of the snare, but then Emory’s tight sixteenth-note groove come into focus. Check out his strategically displaced backbeats, intermittent hi-hat accents, sparsity in measure four (spotlighting a thirty-second-note-layered fill), ghosted notes in measures three and four, and jaw-dropping open hi-hats in measures seven and eight.
BAND Sonny Emory’s Cachet
CURRENT RELEASE Love Is The Greatest (GRP/Universal)
WEB SITE sonnyemory-cachet.com
BIRTHPLACE Atlanta, Georgia
INFLUENCES Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Narada Michael Walden
DRUMS Yamaha Recording Custom series
STICKS Vic Firth HD4 American Classic
HEADS Remo Emperor Ebony; Remo Powerstroke Coated on snare, Remo Powerstroke Clear on bass drums
GO-TO GEAR Yamaha DTX