How did Walfredo “Wally” Reyes Jr., one of the most in-demand drum set players in the touring and session worlds, wind up on a steady percussionist gig with Chicago, his favorite band when he was a kid?

There are two answers. The second is what you often hear: It comes down to who you know. We’ll get into that momentarily. More interesting in this case is how Reyes came into music along a path that doesn’t rigidly divide genres or instrumental specialties. You could say that his path began in Cuba, where he was born to the son of a percussionist held in high esteem by his peers, and continued through his family’s emigration to New York and then Puerto Rico.

But it might be more appropriate to focus on the home where he grew up, in which simply walking from room to room was an education. “I had a turntable in my bedroom,” he recalls. “I played music there by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grass Roots, later by Jimi Hendrix. But when I went down the hall to the bathroom, I’d pass my dad’s bedroom, where he’d be listening to Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, or Louie Bellson. Then if I went to the kitchen for a glass of milk, my mom would be in there, playing records by El Gran Combo, Eddie Palmieri, Rafael Cortijo, bomba, tumbao stuff from Cuba. It wasn’t hard for me to put all this together and hear Cuban rhythms in Hendrix and Cream.”


Not that Reyes was planning to play music professionally. Not yet. His dream was to become a veterinarian. But he did play percussion all the time, at the beach or the park with friends, in church or at Christmas celebrations, just for fun. Sitting behind a drum set never even entered his mind until the day he took a date to a local dance, where a trio was covering songs by The Stones and other contemporary hits.

“They sucked,” he remembers clearly. “The next day I told dad, ‘I could have played better than that guy — and I’m not even a drummer! I want to learn how to play rock and roll drums!’ So he put me on a practice pad with the Henry Adler book (Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation Of Snare Drum Rudiments), a pair of sticks, and a metronome.”

Meanwhile, his younger brother Daniel was also playing traps and percussion. As fate would have it, he gradually gravitated toward percussion even as Wally was beginning to focus on his kit. Another question: What led each in his particular direction? Simple, Wally responds: “He started working out, so when he played percussion people would go, ‘Oh, my God, look at this guy!’ He was a hit because of his muscles.”

However, both guys kept their hands in both worlds, so to speak. In fact, Wally’s first major gigs were on percussion, with Debbie Reynolds, Juliet Prowse, and other showstoppers after the family had moved to Las Vegas. Even after he became known for playing kit, he often picked up hand drum work or covered both bases on sessions and onstage by integrating timbales, congas, and bongos into his setup.

That’s how he caught Chicago drummer Tris Imboden’s attention one day. “Tris told me, ‘You were rehearsing with David Lindley and it sounded like two guys,’” Reyes says. “I had to do that because David didn’t have a percussionist. But that’s natural for me. The first beat I learned on drums was ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ but because I couldn’t watch The Stones play I didn’t know that Mick Jagger was playing the cowbell. So I played it and the snare part with my left hand.”

This leads to the first answer to the question of how Reyes wound up in Chicago. He was on the road with Lindsey Buckingham in 2011 when a guitar player in the band suffered a serious back injury. The tour was canceled and Reyes was briefly out of a job. Then he got a call from Daniel, who was beginning to work a lot with Zac Brown Band and needed a substitute for a few shows coming up with his group at the time, which happened to be Chicago.

Bear in mind that this was not just a lucky break for Reyes. He was already a drum superstar, having worked with Santana, Traffic, Steve Winwood, Jackson Browne, and other headliners. What made this special was the fact that among all the LPs he was spinning in his bedroom decades before, the very first ones he’d bought with his own money was Chicago’s debut, CTA, and Cream’s Disraeli Gears.

So he said yes and flew out to play with them for the first time. “I had to learn everything 20 minutes before the show,” he says. “I played on equipment that Drew Hessler, their percussionist before Danny, had used with them. Everything seemed fine. Then after the second show, [keyboardist/vocalist] Robert Lamm came into my dressing room and said, ‘Do you get along with your brother?’ I said, ‘Of course. I love my brother.’ He goes, ‘We love Danny, too. But he’s getting rather busy with Zac Brown. And you sound like you’ve been playing with us forever.’ I said, ‘Well, I have been playing with you forever. I have every record you ever made. You guys are under my skin.’”

When Zac Brown invited Danny onboard as his full-time percussionist, Wally became an official Chicagoan. It was his dream gig, to be sure, but it was also a perfect match for the band. While Reyes had plenty of experience with artists ranging from Celia Cruz and Santana to Sergio Mendes and Ricky Martin, he had also worked with acts whose roots had few Afro-Cuban antecedents. As a result, he had become kind of a specialist in adapting percussion to non-percussion settings.

So rather than reconfigure the arrangements of classic Chicago tunes, Reyes concentrates on buttressing and coloring the original grooves. First of all, he works as unobtrusively as he can. “It’s what I call invisible playing,” he explains. “I’m not going, ‘Hey, look at me!’ It’s more like, ‘Don’t notice me. Feel me.’”

His pursuit of this mission varies depending on the song. “We start our shows with the tune ‘Introduction.’ Robert wanted a lot of syncopation, so I’m playing bongos, congas, tambourine, and shaker. On other songs I’m playing basic conga grooves. Then on ‘Mongonucleosis,’ which is basically Tito Puente style, I play congas and a timbales solo. The guys all play percussion with me on ‘I’m A Man,’ where Tris and I do our big solo together. On some ballads I play shaker or sound effects on my Roland Octapad, like crotales, wind chimes, or swish cymbals going into drum fills.

“Actually, there are some ballads where I’m not needed at all,” Reyes continues. “For example, anything I would do during ‘Colour My World’ would be really distracting. But to leave the stage I’d have to go down these stairs and back up again when they’re done. It’s easier to just stand there and play the shaker — as little as possible. See, if you put too much salt in the egg, it’ll ruin the meal. But if you’re just cooking some eggs, you hardly need to add anything. The natural taste is good enough.”

One unique aspect of working with Chicago is that the band operates collectively rather than under the direction of a single leader, as with Santana. “I have three bosses,” Reyes points out. “With Santana, I was playing for just one guy. Here, I have to please as many people as I can. Robert will ask me to come up with sounds he’s never heard before. I’ve taken an Anvil case or a trash can into a bathroom at a stadium where we were playing; you know, with the showers? I’d hit it really hard — baaa! — and store the sound on my electronics. He loves that kind of thing. “Lee [Loughnane, trumpeter] is more traditional. He wants it to groove and sit in the pocket. Jimmy [Pankow, trombonist] loves drums and the bottom end. Sometimes he’ll play timbales with me on ‘Mongonucleosis.’

He likes specific things in his arrangements too — but all of the guys really just let me be me.”

It seems paradoxical, but traditional Afro-Cuban settings require less gear than bands like Chicago would require, mainly because coloring can be more important than establishing a rhythm bed. This can be especially challenging because nine musicians share the stage at Chicago shows, leaving Reyes a smaller than normal space to setup his gear.

“I would say it’s probably no more than six feet from the tray table on my left, which is full of percussion toys, wind chimes, and hanging stuff, to the congas and bongos in front of me,” he estimates. “The Octapad and my timbales are to my right with my tambourine. If it was up to me, I’d also have a djembe and another conga drum up there. This is where the electronics are so helpful. For example, we’re putting a show together now for PBS where we’re playing the entire second album [Chicago, 1970] together; I’ve programmed more than 600 percussion sounds into the Octapad for it, including timpani and concert cymbals.”

Because his setup is so constricted, Reyes has had to get rid of the giant rubber hand he had set up for his Steve Winwood tours. The idea was to get a more natural sound by batting the tambourine against it rather than against the rim of a drum. Luckily, he found a more space-efficient way to get these results while doing a session in France with Lenny Castro. “Lenny has a little bigger belly than I do,” Reyes says, smiling. “So he was playing his tambourine pattern with his belly instead of his left hand. It was fantastic! Now I can do the same thing and play something else with my left hand.

“Even though,” he hastens to add, “I’ve been doing sit-ups lately to tighten up.”

For all his gigs these days, Reyes insists that being grounded equally in drum set and percussion sharpens his insights into finding the most effective parts. “I know that percussion can get in my way when I’m playing drum set,” he says. “This is why Tris is the meat and potatoes with Chicago and I’m the parsley, the butter, and the seasoning. Man, I have a whole cabinet filled with spices and herbs from around the world.”

He extends the metaphor into real life. “I went to Morton’s once with a party of three vegetarians,” Reyes says. “I ordered a ribeye steak, and my party all got dinners they could love, too. So I’m like a chef in my own kitchen. You ask for pizza? I’m gonna prepare you a pizza. Your kids want hot dogs? Hot dogs it is. You want Cuban food? Black beans and rice? I can do that, too. So it’s not about Afro-Cuban only. Congas, to me, can be Motown, Al Green, Aerosmith, Osibisa, Traffic, rock and roll, sometimes country.”

In other words, as Reyes sees it, music is a vista of unlimited possibilities, much as walking from his bedroom to the kitchen was like a trek through a varied landscape. That childhood fascination lives with him today, especially when he gets ready to perform with his first and all-time favorite ensemble.

“I feel it every night, man,” he says, shaking his head. “When we started rehearsing ‘Fancy Colours,’ it took me back to eighth grade in Puerto Rico, when I first heard this music. I mowed lawns for money until I could go out and buy CTA, the first album. When I play ‘Beginnings’ and Robert plays that piano intro, I get goose bumps. I actually got goose bumps right now from talking about it.”