|The cover of Marvin Gaye's 1971 What's Going On album. Paul Humphrey played drums on the title track.|
Of all the Dead's members, Jerry Garcia performed the most outside of the band, so the experiences of the musicians he played with in turn became embedded in his music, and that too became part of the Grateful Dead. From 1970 to 1995, Garcia had a working band of some sort where he could play electric guitar on a regular basis, going under various names; Garcia-Saunders, Legion Of Mary, Reconstruction and The Jerry Garcia Band. All these bands played rock music with a sort of R&B feel and a jazzy approach. The core of the band's repertoire was American popular music, whether rock, rhythm and blues or blues. The various Garcia bands were not exactly Top 40 bands, but for the most part they improvised cover versions of songs that people recognized, like bar bands everywhere. Garcia's uniqueness was that he made a major project out of a bar band after he was already famous.
Garcia's various bands were always anchored by bassist John Kahn, and Garcia generally worked with individual keyboard players for extended periods of time if the circumstances were right. The drum chair in Garcia bands was less stable, however, not only because of Garcia's need for flexibility but the difficulty of keeping a good drummer on permanent standby. While Garcia ultimately worked with a wide variety of players, in general his drum chair was filled by exceptionally good musicians who were experienced professionals in their own right. In the interests of contemplating my hypothesis that the music made by Garcia's bandmates was implicitly part of the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, I looked into some of the more popular recordings that Garcia's drummers had worked on prior to or during their tenure with Jerry. It's an impressive list.
Jerry Garcia's Drummers: Top 10 List
Since the various Garcia band drummers were mostly exceptional professionals, it's not surprising that many of them played on a variety of hits. Good drummers usually gravitate to the studio, because they are such rare finds. Given that the Garcia bands played a lot of popular cover versions, it seemed appropriate to try and find the best of popular music that his drummers had recorded. Appropriately enough, my list turns out to be a survey of many of the popular music styles of the mid-60s and mid-70s. Although Garcia drummers thrived with the improvisational freedom they were offered in the band, many of them had played on some of the biggest and most memorable hits of the decade. If Garcia's bands were made up of the musicians' recording past, the bands already had a rich history.
Jerry Garcia is by any account an important figure in American music. Firstly, and most importantly, for the great music he made, particularly in concert, but also for what he stood for and for what he was supposed to (or reputed to) have stood for. It is traditional to frame Garcia as a maverick, or at least a leader amongst mavericks, separate from the mainstream of American popular music. The Grateful Dead certainly carved their own path, and Jerry Garcia's own solo career was equally singular. And yet a review of the recorded work of Garcia's drummers reveals that Garcia was intimately connected to the best of American popular music from the late 1960s onwards, making his contribution to American music surprisingly more integrated than it may initially have appeared.
What follows is a list of huge, memorable hits from 1968 to 1976 where the drummer later played with Jerry Garcia in one of his "bar bands" (Garcia/Saunders, Legion of Mary, Reconstruction, JGB). All the songs are good for what they are, instantly memorable to those of a certain age, and huge hits. This list is an expression of the musical depth of Garcia's bands, rather than a "Best Of" or "Best Selling" or "Greatest Hits" list, although such lists might be interesting in their own right. The song list is meant to be considered as a whole, and the songs are listed in chronological order (note: release dates are approximate, and chart listings are the highest reached on Billboard pop charts).
"Dance To The Music"-Sly and The Family Stone (Epic, Jan '68, #8)-Drums: Greg Errico
Joel Selvin, channeling saxophonist Jules Broussard, described it best: "There was black music before Sly Stone, and there was black music after Sly Stone. Simple as that." With "Dance To The Music," Sly and the Family Stone burst onto world consciousness, with everything great about James Brown and Stax/Volt supercharged by psychedelic guitars and open minds. Music all over the world was never the same after this, and it was all for the better. A black and white band playing black and white music better than anyone black or white: dance to the music, indeed.
Greg Errico (sometimes spelled Gregg on the backs of albums) was from San Francisco, and he was an original member of Sly And The Family Stone from their formation in December 1966. He had been friends with Mickey Hart prior to that, as he shopped at Hart's drum store in San Carlos, and Errico reactivated that friendship when he quit Sly in late 1971. He played on various Grateful Dead related projects with Hart, Garcia and others, and was a substitute drummer for Garcia a few times in the 1970s, Errico was a full-time member of the Jerry Garcia Band for the Summer 1980 tour and a period during Fall 1982 as well.
|The 45 for Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright," with Paul Humphrey on drums|
Joe Cocker was in the first wave of English acts who became popular from FM radio rather than AM radio. One of the most popular tracks on Cocker's debut album was his soulful remake of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright." What had been a folk-tinged lament on the second Traffic album became a furstrated exhortation in Cocker's hands, while still retaining some of Mason's original ambiguity. Cocker's album With A Little Help From My Friends had been mostly recorded in England with the likes of Jimmy Page and Steve Winwood, but "Feelin' Alright" was recorded in Los Angeles with a crack team of session men. A good choice too--the song got huge airplay on FM radio, and still does, and I hear it on TV commercials and movie soundtracks to this day. Oddly enough, the single was re-released in 1972 and reached #33, but it was always an "FM hit."
I have written in detail about the fantastic musical career of drummer Paul Humphrey, who drummed for Garcia in late 1974, so I won't recap it all here. Suffice to say he had recorded literally thousands of sessions throughout the 1960s and '70s. The great bassist Carol Kaye described how she and Humphrey created the amazing introduction to Cocker's recording of "Feelin' Alright:"
Paul immediately struck up a semi-samba funk drum part and I went a contrasting way with a rhythm for a bassline. The chorus features the bass playing mostly down beats while Paul was accenting up beats, then we switched places for the verse. It was that simple."Okie From Muskogee"-Merle Haggard (Capitol, Sep '69, #41, #1-Country) Drums: Ron Tutt
This bit of country fluff became one of Merle Haggard's greatest hits. Ironically, Haggard intended the song as a sort of joke character study, but the song was taken as a non-ironic expression of "True American" principles. The wily Haggard, pride of Bakersfield, remains a complex guy, but he can write a simple song better than anyone. Besides its huge popularity, the song took on an afterlife with hippies, and there have been all sorts of funny variants, like the Youngbloods' "Hippie From Olema" and Kinky Friedman's "Asshole From El Paso." "Okie From Muskogee" was even performed by the Grateful Dead and The Beach Boys at the Fillmore East (on Apr 27 '71), as it was apparently a regular part of the Beach Boys repertoire.
Ron Tutt, from Texas, was already a successful session drummer in California, Memphis and Dallas when he joined Elvis Presley's stage band. By the time of Tutt's first show with Elvis, on July 31, 1969 (at the International Hotel in Las Vegas), Tutt had almost certainly recorded "Okie From Muskogee" with Haggard. The light, tasteful drumming for "Okie" was in complete contrast to driving Elvis' huge stage orchestra through lengthy versions of "Suspicious Minds," which in turn was diagonally opposite to jamming with the Jerry Garcia Band. Tutt could drum for anybody, playing any music, and do it seemingly better than anyone else. He was Jerry Garcia's drummer from December 1974 through June 1977 (with a brief 1981 encore).
|The 45 for Sly And The Family Stone's 1969 "Thank You" single, with Greg Errico on drums|
Sly And The Family Stone had pschedelicized James Brown's music, but there was more to come. Much of black music from the 70s onward drew from a heavy funk vibe, and the Family Stone started that off too. "Thank You" still sounds modern, thanks to Larry Graham's thumb-popping bass, offset by Greg Errico's snapping drums. Not only was this song absolutely huge on both rock and soul radio stations, it was hugely influential, too, as it was the foundation for funk music, one of the major tributaries of R&B up through this very day.
"One Toke Over The Line"-Brewer and Shipley (Kama Sutra, Dec '70, #10) Drums: Bill Vitt
Brewer and Shipley were a folk-rock duo from Kansas City, by way of Los Angeles, who ended up recording their albums in San Francisco with Nick Gravenites. Gravenites used ace San Francisco musicians, including Jerry Garcia on one occasion (the song "Oh Mommy"). However, Gravenites' "house" rhythm section was John Kahn on bass and either Bill Vitt or Bob Jones on drums. This ode to crossing the line was a huge hit in 1971, and is not just a memorable song but a memorable phrase from the decade. The song was released on the excellent Tarkio album in February 1971, much of which received considerable airplay on FM as well as AM radio.
Bill Vitt was originally from Sacramento, but after he playing in regional rock bands he moved to Los Angeles, where he was a session man from about 1967-69. He relocated to the Bay Area in late 1969. He became the substitute drummer for Mike Bloomfield, when regular drummer Bob Jones (who was also his landlord) had a conflict. As a result, Vitt had played with John Kahn, then the bassist for the Bloomfield band. Vitt in turn bought Kahn over to the Matrix to jam with Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia. Besides being the regular drummer for Garcia/Saunders from 1970-73, Vitt was also the drummer for The Sons Of Champlin during the same period (when they were called Yogi Phlegm). Vitt has remained an active musician to this day, and recently released an album.
"Stoney End"-Barbara Streisand (Columbia Dec '70 #6) Drums: Ron Tutt
Barbara Streisand is immensely popular, and has a reputation as American popular music's best singer. Mostly she performs in a highly orchestrated style, in a traditional approach that owes much to show tunes and Las Vegas as well as pop. In 1970, however, producer Richard Perry made a Streisand album in which she sang in a more uptempo, contemporary style. The biggest hit was the title track, her version of Laura Nyro's "Stoney End," which had a kind of R&B feel. If there was any doubts about Streisand's status as a singer, she showed conclusively that she could sing with power and soul any time she wanted, even if she generally tended towards a more restrained approach.
Deadheads who might say "I don't know 'Stoney End'" are probably wrong. If you check it out, you'll realize you have heard it many times on movie soundtracks, TV commercials and on the muzak at the Whole Foods. I'm no Streisand fan, or Laura Nyro either, actually, but even I think it's a great song. Since Barbara was top-of-the-line, her producer could have hired anyone, and he hired Ron Tutt. Tutt plays in a completely different style than he did with Merle, Elvis or Jerry, and of course he's completely great. He really could play with anybody.
"What's Going On"-Marvin Gaye (Motown, Jan '71, #2, #1-Soul) Drums: Paul Humphrey
Amidst all the fine songs on this list, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" may be the finest. Gaye was a bright light in Motown's hit factory in the sixties, and then it turned out that he was an even better writer and producer than singer, and that's saying a lot. Everyone has heard "What's Going On,"and if you don't like it, you should probably seek help. Paul Humphrey's drumming is great, as is everyone else on the track.
Although I can't imagine Jerry actually singing 'What's Going On," I have always thought that it would have made a great Garcia/Saunders jam, but it was not to be. The Grateful Dead did actually perform the song once, on September 24, 1988 at a Rainforest Benefit at Madison Square Garden, with Daryl Hall and John Oates handling the lead vocals.
"Burning Love"-Elvis Presley (RCA, Aug '72, #2) Drums: Ron Tutt
Ron Tutt was Elvis Presley's drummer for almost all of his live performances between July 31, 1969 and June 1977 (he missed a tour in 1970 plus a few other dates here and there). Tutt did not play on every Elvis studio track during that time, by any means, but he did play on "Burning Love." "Burning Love," while easy to parody, was Elvis's last really big hit, and The King's last true rock hit. Tutt, whose career as a drummer would be important and interesting if he had never played with either Elvis or Jerry, anchored the stage shows of two of American music's most iconic figures.
|The 45 for The Pointer Sisters "How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)", with Gaylord Birch on drums|
Oakland had been a great California city, primarily because it was the terminus of the first Transcontinental Railroad, and many other rail lines besides. After World War 2, however, when people could afford private automobiles to drive themselves across the Bay Bridge (opened in 1936), Oakland slowly shrank in importance. Still, along with its thriving container port, Oakland had two major exports in the early 1970s: great sports teams and innovative funk music. Along with the Oakland A's, Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors, champions all, Oakland had some popular and influential funk bands. Tower of Power were originally from Fremont, but had relocated to Oakland by the time they burst onto the world in 1970. Herbie Hancock's groundbreaking Headhunters album and band had an Oakland rhythm section, with bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark. On the popular side were The Pointer Sisters, four Oakland sisters who had learned to sing in church and played catchy soul music, while still keeping it real with some lowdown Oaktown funk.
The Pointer Sisters were first discovered by Elvin Bishop, who started using them as part-time backup singers when some of them were still in High School. In fact, Elvin alludes to them on the Oct 10 '68 Mickey And The Hartbeats tape, when he says he has some backup singers who "sing like Angels." Through working with Bishop for the next few years, the four sisters (Anita, Bonnie, June and Ruth) started to get known. Not only did they sing like angels, but they were tall, attractive, elegant and great dancers. How could they miss?
They didn't miss. The Pointer Sisters were signed to Blue Thumb Records and released their first album in 1973. They had a great hit with a funky, swinging version of Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can-Can" ("Now is the time for all good men/to get together with one another"). The Pointer Sisters' secret weapon was bandleader and drummer Gaylord Birch. Birch had played in many Oakland ensembles, but he was well-known, by Mike Clark most of all, as the funkiest of Oakland drummers, and that's saying a lot. Birch led the Pointer Sisters band from about 1973 to 1976. He also had stints with Cold Blood and Santana. He played on a Merl Saunders session with Garcia in 1974, but he did not play live with Garcia until he joined Reconstruction in 1979. Birch had an encore appearance in the Garcia Band in 1985, as well (Oct 7 '85 through Feb 2 '86). I am working on a more complete Gaylord Birch musical biography, but check out any Reconstruction tape --the man could lay it down.
"How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)" was the Pointer Sisters' biggest and most memorable hit. Anita and Bonnie Pointer, along with producer David Rubinson, wrote the song. It is catchy and hummable, but at the same time Birch drives it along with an irresistible dance beat, pushing and pulling so you can't help feeling the funk. Once again, this is a song that many Deadheads will assert that they don't recognize, until they actually hear it. In some cases, younger listeners may actually recognize the song from a sample (by Salt N Pepa) or a cover (by Queen Latifah), as the song prefigures modern rap and R&B music in all of the best ways. Although the Pointer Sisters have had a variety of ups and downs, they are still together, representing for Oakland and looking and sounding great. Gaylord Birch passed away in 1996, unfortunately, but he had a great musical legacy.
"Fooled Around And Fell In Love"-Elvin Bishop Group (Capricorn, Feb '76, #3) Drums: Don Baldwin
Guitarist Elvin Bishop had first come to San Francisco as a member of the groundbreaking Butterfield Blues Band in early 1966, but when he left the Butterfield band in mid-1968, he moved to the Bay Area for good. The versatile Bishop always had a "soul" side to go with his blues, and his albums owed as much to R&B as Chicago, even if that was only known to his loyal fans, most of whom resided in the Bay Area. In 1976, however, Bishop busted out wide with "Fooled Around And Fell In Love," sung by Mickey Thomas. Bishop had usually had a co-vocalist in his band--prior to Thomas it had been singer Jo Baker, later in Stoneground--but when he switched to Capricorn, that premise was temporarily dropped for an Allman Brothers style approach. Bishop reverted to his roots with this song, however, and had the biggest hit of his career.
"Fooled Around And Fell In Love" is fun, catchy pop, but if you are of a certain age the song title is an ubiquitous phrase. At this point, the phrase is a conventional English idiom, often heard in commercials or sports writing (as in "the defensive co-ordinator fooled around and fell in love with the nickel defense"). Although I don't think the song is deep, and it wouldn't even make my Top 10 of favorite Elvin Bishop songs, it is instantly memorable and a pop classic by any formulation.
Elvin Bishop had been signed to Bill Graham's Fillmore Records label, distributed through Epic, for his first three albums (The Elvin Bishop Group, Feel It! and Rock My Soul), from 1969 through 1972. Bishop reformulated his soul stew into a more Southern rock feel, appropriately enough since he had grown up in Tulsa, OK, and signed with Capricorn in 1974. His lineup from that period onwards was anchored by second guitarist Johnny Vernazza, bassist Fly Brooks and drummer Don Baldwin. Baldwin was still the drummer in 1976 for the Struttin' My Stuff album which featured "Fooled Around And Fell In Love". Baldwin remained Bishop's drummer through at least 1979, by which time Melvin Seals had joined. Seals went on to the Jerry Garcia Band, and Baldwin joined Thomas in Jefferson Starship. Eventually, Baldwin joined the Jerry Garcia Band, presumably brought in by Seals, from 1993-1995.
"Fooled Around And Fell In Love" isn't as great a song as "What's Going On" or "Dance To The Music," but it's just as iconic, and one of Jerry Garcia's drummer played on it as well. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are usually invoked as American musical outlaws, working outside every kind of mainstream in order to find success on their own terms. Garcia's paradoxical desire to start and continue a "bar band" playing cover versions after he became famous is usually invoked as one of the many ways in which the Dead were in opposition to American popular music. And it's very true that the Grateful Dead's economic history charts a willful course to refuse to take many paths that had already been trod on. From a business perspective, the Grateful Dead had more in common with a Pirate ship, and Jerry was their Blackbeard.
Yet from a purely musical perspective, Jerry Garcia's 25-year excursion as the leader of an enormously successful bar band that mostly played covers put him right in the mainstream of American music. Rather than limit his musical partnership to his fellow pirates, brilliant as they were, Garcia tapped into the best that American music had to offer from the 60s to the 90s. Not only did he play great songs, albeit in his own inimitable style, but his drummers had played on some of the best an most memorable pop music of the rock era. I assure you, I just picked 10 songs that I liked that I thought everyone would recognize, but you can make your own list of songs and it too will be great. Ron Tutt, Greg Errico, Bill Vitt, Gaylord Birch, Paul Humphrey and Don Baldwin weren't just great drummers, they were essential participants in great American music, and as such they were a hidden pipeline from AM radio to Jerry Garcia's music.
The Ron Tutt Hall Of Shame
Great drummers often gravitated to the studio, where their skills insured that they worked regularly. Ron Tutt was a first-call session man in both Memphis and Los Angeles, so he played on too many records to count. I have identified some legendary classics above, but like all widely-recorded drummers, however well he played, he couldn't help it if some of the songs he played were legendary turkeys. One reason I did not focus my list on "Greatest Hits" was the discovery that Tutt had played on some of the hits that I most disliked from the early '70s. If you were not listening to the radio in this era, you may not recognize these songs, but they were all extremely popular, I can't stand any of them and Ron Tutt was the drummer for all of them.
"Easy Come, Easy Go"-Bobby Sherman (Metromedia 1970, #9)
Bobby Sherman was popular with teenage girls, and he kind of created the market for the likes of David Cassidy, which was not a good thing.
"Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves"-Cher (Kapp 1971 #1)
Not as dumb as "Halfbreed," but close.
"Peace Train"-Cat Stevens (A&M 1971 #7)
Never could stand Cat Stevens.
"Rock The Boat"-The Hues Corporation (RCA 1974 #1)
This song was the first disco song to cross over to mainstream pop radio. I absolutely hated this song in High School, although I have to admit then when I occasionally hear it now, it seems harmless compared to these other four songs.
"Piano Man"-Billy Joel (Columbia 1974 #25)
Many people like Billy Joel, but I am not one of them.
Ron Tutt played on all these songs. Are any of these the dumbest hit single a drummer for the Jerry Garcia Band ever played on? In my opinion, no. That dubious award would go to the Starship's execrable "We Built This City" (RCA 1985 #1), with drums by Don Baldwin. All of this shameful pop candy, however (don't think I've forgotten "Sara"), serves to prove my point. Trivial, repetitive, cloying songs that appeal to the lowest common denominator are an essential part of American popular music as well, and Jerry Garcia's drummers were tapped directly into that just as they were for the good stuff. For all of his reputation as a musical pirate, Garcia had a much more intimate relation with popular American music than most of us recognize. His drummers had played on the best and worst of American music, so even when they were jamming out to "Mystery Train" or "The Harder They Come" or anything else, Jerry's pulse was connected to the likes of Elvis Presley, Sly and The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye and the best and worst that American popular music had to offer.