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Give the session drummer some

If they still awarded grants for projects of genuine cultural significance, I’d want one for research into the great American session drummers of the 1960s. Which Motown records featured the playing of Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen or Uriel Jones? Exactly when did Al Duncan gave way to Maurice White on all those great Chicago sessions (Impressions, Major Lance, etc)? Precisely how did Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine divide the work-load in the Hollywood studios? I’d uncover the answers, and the world would be a better place.

Those questions came to mind when I found myself listening to Chuck Jackson’s “I Need You” a few nights ago. It’s a Goffin/King song (in fact you can find it on Honey & Wine, the second volume of Ace Records’ series of CDs devoted to their compositions), and it’s a beauty. Cover versions would come from the Walker Brothers and the young Wailers, but  none could match the performance of Jackson, one of the greatest of a generation of uptown soul singers that included Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe and Jerry Butler. Recorded for the Wand label in 1965, it was arranged by Ed Martin and produced by Stan Green and Steve Tyrell. In the hit parade, it made No 75 on the US Hot 100 and No 22 on the R&B chart, which was a disappointment for the singer after the success of “I Don’t Want to Cry”, “I Wake Up Crying” and “Any Day Now”.

What stuck out as I listened to this stately deep-soul ballad, however, was not the wonderful lead vocal. It was the arrangement, featuring strings, acoustic guitar and female vocals — and particularly the drumming, which makes use of the sort of emphatic tom-tom fills that Blaine brought to Phil Spector’s records, and Duncan (or possibly White) to those of the Impressions. And something about their architectural precision made me think of one name: Gary Chester.

Chester was the first-call session drummer in New York during those years. He’s the guy you can hear on the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “On Broadway”, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take”, the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By”, Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and many, many others. He was born in Sicily in 1924 (as Cesario Gurciollo) and died in New York 62 years later, having played, by his own account, on some 15,000 sessions.

He wasn’t the only session drummer in New York  in 1960s, of course, but something about the playing on “I Need You” sounded familiar. So I dug around on the internet, and found an email address for one of the producers. I sent a message to his assistant. Sorry to bother you with such a bizarre request after almost 50 years, I said, but could you ask Steve Tyrell if it was indeed Gary Chester on that record — and by the way, were the backing singers Cissy Houston and her nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, which was how it sounded to me?

Forty eight hours later, quite miraculously, the reply arrived, short but very sweet: “Showed this to Steve and he said: Dee Dee and Cissy. Probably on the same session as ‘Since I Don’t Have You’. And it was definitely Gary Chester playing drums. Could have been Dionne as well but he doesn’t remember that.”

I don’t know why it gives me such satisfaction to pass that information out into the world, but it does.

For more great New York session drumming from the mid-’60s, listen to the Four Seasons’ “Dawn”. I used to think that was Gary Chester, too, but it isn’t. It’s Buddy Saltzmann, who also played on Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”, Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. And, of course, countless others. In the drum booths of the New York studios, he, Chester and Panama Francis were the men.

Now, about that grant…

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris Michie #

    Yes, absolutely go for the grant.

    I’m not a drummer and never fantasised about being one until quite recently, so remained fairly agnostic on the topic in my teenage years. But a renewed interest in Frank Zappa in recent decades seems to have tweaked a latent interest and I now listen out for the drummer on every track. (Aynsley Dunbar and Chad Wackerman are my favourite Zappa drummers, which shows my preferences — I like a good swinging beat more than awesome technical chops.)

    It seems obvious in retrospect, but I was surprised to learn how many great UK ’60s hits featured session drummers. The Dave Clark Five? Surely not. But a close listen to the early Kinks hits and albums reveals a level of precision and confidence in the drumming that few, if any, beat group drummers possessed (try “Tired of Waiting” to see what I mean). Bobby Graham and Clem Cattini are responsible for most of the Kinks’ hits and the first two albums, I think, though Mick Avory was much better than most group drummers and probably felt unjustly dissed. He looks pretty convincing on a BBC tape of “Got Love If You Want It.”

    As things turned out, the British rock boom spawned a horde of individual and stylish drummers whose gifts suited the material (Keith Moon, Kenney Jones, Micky Waller, BJ Wilson, Mitch Mitchell, for example) but I’m sure that the pop producers like Cook/Greenaway, Chinn/Chapman, Peter Sullivan, et al were glad to be able to dial up consummate pros like Cattini and Terry “magic snare” Cox when needed.

    If I ever learn to play the drums, which seems unlikely, it would be in large part so that I could play Roger Hawkins’ part on Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of A Thousand Dances.” It’s probably not that hard technically, but the song gets me on my feet every time and the manic snare fills on the rideout make me want to scream. That and being able to play “Going To A Go-Go” would be worth a few hundred hours of practise.

    February 24, 2014
    • Another interesting line of thought is the “related rhythm sections” – i.e. Hunt & Tony Sales, Aston & Carlton Barrett, half of Hi Rhythm was the Hodges brother, etc. Geek out, people!

      February 24, 2014
  2. Mick Steels #

    Panama Francis was some drummer he could cover anything. Remember seeing him in the 70s with a Tommy Dorsey tribute band under the direction of the great Sy Oliver, effortless propulsive swing
    Another versatile session drummer, equally adept with Allen Toussaint as with Yusef Lateef, was the legendary James Black from New Orleans, of course.

    February 24, 2014
  3. The set up Gary Chester plays that leads into ”I need you to confide in” is so sly and slinky, and immediately followed by a fantastic set of tom fills. Just beautiful.

    February 25, 2014
  4. wkb #

    Re. Motown identifcation reminds me of the snippet in “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” where Richard Allen shows how to differentiate between himself, Benjamin and Jones by their pick up. It’s a nice parlour game to play, however, Jones then goes on to say that Benjamin originated all three so who knows ?

    February 25, 2014
  5. Bill White #

    And is Richard Allen the same Richard Allen who plays on the Evans Bradshaw LP ‘Pieces Of Eighty Eight and who used to play with Jaki Byard. After seeing him in NYC in 1980 with Byard, and having a conversation with him about the then highly unusual practice of using snare/tom tom tension rods on his bass drum rather than T rods, it occurred to me many years later that it just might be.

    February 25, 2014
    • Yes, it’s definitely the same guy. Wish I’d looked a little closer at his bass drum during the Funk Brothers’ first reunion tour!

      February 25, 2014
      • Bill White #

        Hi, Richard

        Wow! That’s fantastic. I really thought it could be him. But what an opportunity missed! There I was talking to him about the eminently sensible and logical replacement of T rods for the bass drum* and I could have been discussing Motown’s drummers. Ah well.

        Really interesting post, again. I too am fascinated by session details, particularly drummers. I’ve played for many years. Obviously the big three at Motown were Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, Uriel Jones & Benny Benjamin in the early days. I have, over the years, gleaned some insight into who played on what (Standing In The Shadows Of Motown was informative) but never much about Marvin Gaye’s contribution as a drummer. No doubt you’ll have information on this!

        Gary Chester’s career was certainly fascinating and his tuition book, New Breed, is a monster. Danny Gottlieb is a big fan, possibly an ex pupil; can’t remember. I seem to recall reading something about him being involved in promoting Chester’s legacy.

        Just in case you are not aware, there are some interesting sources for finding out who played sessions on various pop/r&b records of the ‘60s, alongside ‘50s ‘70s ‘80s & ‘90s too if you’re interested.

        An excellent reference on the sixties is a series of articles in Modern Drummer magazine which ran quite a few years ago. I can give specific details if you want but will have to look them out.

        Three drum instruction books are also very enlightening:

        1. The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections 1960-1973. From the author of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, the book on James Jamerson that inspired the film, Allan Slutsky plus Chuck Silverman, this book cleared up for me who played on what alongside its main purpose of providing drum, bass & guitar parts. Brilliant.
        2. Give The Drummer Some by Jim Payne (ex Ray Anderson) a tuition/history publication also provides fascinating insight and may go some way to clearing up your Al Duncan, Maurice White query.
        3. The Commandments Of R&B Drumming & The Commandments Of Early Rhythm & Blues Drumming, both by Zorro cover a lot of ground too.

        I was fascinated to read that Buddy Saltzman played on Laura Nyro’s stunning Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. A big fan of hers, I tried for many years, pre internet, to find out who played drums so beautifully on this album. Post internet, I discovered who it was and although I’m far from certain, I didn’t think it was Buddy Saltzman but a relatively unknown drummer. I accept what you (and I see, Wikipedia) say but I’ll check to see if I can find the other guy, which will probably turn out to be Buddy Saltzman!

        *the tom lugs for the bass drum Richard Allen was using inspired me to order some custom made from London Drum maker, Eddie Ryan as soon as I returned from the States. Some
        years later they become industry standard so it’s likely the kit Allen was playing on the Funk Brothers tour had them anyway.

        February 26, 2014
  6. #

    Thank you for these wonderful of reclamation – identifying the drummers from the industrial conveyor-belt of sessions which produced such great records. The list of drummers I like is endless but if I could throw in three: Idris Muhammud, Tony Thompson and Ringo Starr.

    February 28, 2014
  7. #

    i meant of course ‘wonderful acts of reclamation’ – sorry typo…

    February 28, 2014
  8. Ray #

    Regarding Buddy Saltzman, listen to “Dawn (Go Away)” for an around the kit extravaganza and not once did he use a cymbal!!! Unheard of as music progressed in the 60’s where all drummers relied on cymbals.

    December 23, 2014
  9. Marty Wekser #

    New York session drummers!! Do you have any idea who played congas on DO YOU WANT TO DANCE by Bobby Freeman. The original vocal track was done in San Francisco but the overdubs were done in New York. Billy Mure played guitar but I am curious to know which New York session drummer was on the date. Any ideas?

    March 25, 2022

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