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Tuesday, August 31, 2021
The legendary session drummer has never lost his jazz smarts.
Jim Keltner is, in two words, a legend, since the 1960s one of America’s most in-demand session drummers, lending not only impeccable chops but an unequaled touch and tact to a ridiculous number of records, from 1965 (Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “Just My Style”) to 2020 (Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher). He’s probably working as you read this.
Always based in Los Angeles, Keltner hit his stride in 1969 with Delaney & Bonnie’s Accept No Substitute, which led to Joe Cocker’s sprawling Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and double album (1970), Carly Simon’s Anticipation (1971), Randy Newman’s Sail Away (1972) and Bonnie Raitt’s 1973 classic Takin’ My Time. Keltner has recorded extensively with every ex-Beatle except, for some reason, Paul McCartney. A long association with Bob Dylan began with the 1973 single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (“the first time I actually cried when I was playing,” Keltner recalls, “it was such a touching song”), continued through the Christian years, continued to continue with Empire Burlesque (1985) and the Traveling Wilburys albums (1988 and 1990), and finally, but then again maybe not, with Time Out of Mind (1997). In 1972, Jim began a collaboration with Ry Cooder that spans 40 years, perhaps both musicians’ most fruitful association, including John Hiatt’s breakthrough Bring the Family (1987) and the abortive supergroup Little Village (1992). And of course that’s Keltner on Steely Dan’s “Josie” (1977), including the garbage-can lid in the bridge.
And the road goes on, from Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine (2005) through John Mayer’s Born and Raised (2012) to Diana Krall’s Wallflower (2015). And on. That’s Jim, brother.
What is not generally known is that Keltner began his career as an ardent, up-and-coming jazz drummer. The best albums on which to hear Jim’s jazz are Gábor Szabó’s Bacchanal and Dreams (both 1968) and Gabor ’69 (1969). His chops are self-evident on these records, especially Bacchanal, but his smarts, taste, and boundless love of the music shine through equally in his extensive reflections below. Did Jim walk away from jazz too early? You could say he’s never really walked away. That hip musicality is evident in every note, every flam, on the many thousands of records Jim Keltner has brightened.
1. Frank Sinatra
“I Get a Kick Out of You” (Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass, Reprise). Sinatra, vocal; Earl Palmer, drums; with big band arranged by Neal Hefti. Recorded in April 1962.
BEFORE: Is that with the Basie band? Neal Hefti, hmmm. I grew up on that stuff. Is that Irv Cottler [Sinatra’s main drummer for more than 30 years]?
All right, who is it?
AFTER: That’s Earl? I would never have guessed it, never.
Earl said that when Neal Hefti asked him to be on the record, “that’s when I knew that I’d arrived.”
I can hear him saying that.
He prided himself on being better than everybody else. It’s that Black exceptionalism—you have to be better.
Well, in music, it’s like, the poor white guys just don’t have it like the Black guys do. I hate to admit it, but that’s basically true. And that’s why you celebrate someone like Irv Cottler, who’s like your Jewish uncle, but is killin‘ in his way.
Earl wasn’t a chopsmeister, just like Irv wasn’t. You wouldn’t want to be a chops guy playing Sinatra’s music, unless you’re one of those guys who know how to control it. Buddy Rich could swing your butt right down in the ground, and with no use of those amazing chops. Sonny Payne had all kind of chops. He could play real disciplined, but then he’d let it go and you’d go crazy. I’m glad you played this for me.
2. Chico Hamilton
“Passin’ Thru” (Passin’ Thru: The New Amazing Chico Hamilton Quintet, Impulse!). Hamilton, drums; Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Gábor Szabó, guitar; George Bohannon, trombone; Albert Stinson, bass. Recorded in September 1962.
BEFORE: That’s Chico, right? Nobody played like that. Chico’s sound and the way he approached the drums was completely unique. He didn’t play the ride cymbal in a conventional way, and he utilized the drums in a way that people just don’t do. There are young players today who are doing things kind of similar, and they probably don’t know who Chico Hamilton was. He never got the love, the appreciation, that he deserves. Chico Hamilton. Bad-ass drummer.
That’s Gabby. And Charles, obviously, and Bohannon. And that’s Albert Stinson. He was my very, very best friend. He was the guy I told them to hire for this little band that played up in the mountains. The Aristocats. All I knew was when I played with Albert, I sounded great. The whole band sounded great with Albert. He was this strange kid. He was younger by three, four years. He had the mustache going all the way down to here, and the Eric Dolphy beard sticking way out. He wanted to look like no one else. So he didn’t.
We were just kids! But Albert was a monstrous musician. You hear the word kicked around a lot, but he was a true genius. He built his own bass. He died when he was 25, and by that time he had already played with Miles, who asked him to be in his band, and Albert turned Miles down! He subbed for Ron Carter when they were playing in Berkeley, and you can hear that all over YouTube.
3. Miles Davis
“Stuff” (Miles in the Sky, Columbia). Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1968.
BEFORE: Don’t tell me that’s Tony.
AFTER: I would never have guessed that! Wow.
As far as I know, that’s the first song where he played a rock beat.
I don’t own this record and it was probably for that reason. I didn’t want to hear Miles playing like that.
You played me something here that’s important on several different wavelengths. Remember when I told you that I’m a different person now, reading Sartre? I read it in my twenties and it didn’t hold my attention. It’ll be interesting to listen to this again and see how I feel about it today.
Tony insisted that he invented fusion.
I’m not gonna argue with that. But I didn’t listen to any of that stuff in those days. That jazz snob part of me in those days didn’t allow it.
Too much of a purist.
That’s exactly right.
You’re playing straight jazz on that Gábor Bacchanal record from ’68. I love your playing on that.
Well, that’s really nice of you. I have friends who say the same thing, but I can’t listen to that record. I love Gábor, but my playing isn’t connected. I was set free too soon! They loved what I was doing and so I just kept on doing it until I said, “Wait a minute, this is not what I wanna be playing.”
You didn’t make enough jazz records. You left too soon.
I was snatched right out of the jazz world. I shouldn’t say snatched, I went willingly. I ran. From $85 a week to $250 a week, that gets your attention. It was after we did “Just My Style,” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. I was a jazz player that did some pop sessions, for the bread. They didn’t know whether to use Hal [Blaine] or me on it. Hal had just played on “This Diamond Ring.” When I played “Just My Style” I was fortunate to be able to lock in on that little track, and on the playback is when Leon Russell turned to me and said, “Hey, you’re gonna make a great rock drummer.”
I remember I suddenly felt 10 feet tall. Because by that time I had begun to realize that rock & roll was not just dumb-ass playing a backbeat on two and four. I think I heard Bernard Purdie and realized what real pop/rock could be. And when I sat down to play it I said, “Wait a minute, there is way more to this than I thought.” That’s just a simple shuffle on “Just My Style.” But I realized that just a simple shuffle is harder to play than a lot of stuff. That session was a revelation.
4. Elvin Jones
“Gingerbread Boy” (Puttin’ It Together, Blue Note). Jones, drums; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Garrison, bass. Recorded in April 1968.
BEFORE: Is that Elvin? Oh man!
What was special about Elvin to you?
Oh, God. The fact that he didn’t play like anybody else. I’ll go way too long on this, because there’s so much I feel about it. When I first heard Elvin Jones, I had been loving real clean, pretty-sounding drumming. Charli Persip did a small-band thing for a while and he was playing really clean and perfect. And then, and then, by some twist of fate, a friend of mine in Pasadena turned me on to a J.J. Johnson record called Dial J.J. 5 [Columbia, 1957] and I discovered Elvin. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Like, why would he play so loose? And then it just started to rub in on me and it took over and I didn’t want to hear anything clean anymore. It changed my whole thing.
And that was way before Elvin joined Trane. He wasn’t playing polyrhythms. He wasn’t playing the thing that everybody loves with Coltrane. This was Elvin playing his thing. His style. Which was completely loose and totally different from anybody else. It wasn’t swinging in that cool, precision way. It was wider. It wasn’t up here, tight. It was African to me.
When he played on [Coltrane’s] My Favorite Things [Atlantic, 1961], that was the first record with Elvin and McCoy. And it was what I expected from the Elvin I had already been turned on to. And then I went to see them at the Crescendo, on Sunset. I got there early, and I had a perfect view, looking right up at the drums, and I saw an extra pedal, there was one on the [bass] drum and there was an extra one sitting there. I said, “What the hell is that for?”
They came on and played and it was like a freight train ran through the building. I hadn’t heard rock & roll yet, but it was that volume. Loud. They were playing the same songs from the My Favorite Things record, but in just that short time on the road, it had developed into this other thing. That’s when it became Elvin and Coltrane. They had gone from this thing where they were playing neat and confined to where they were letting it explode. Remember when they used to talk about Coltrane’s “sheets of sound”? He had been doing it before, kind of hinting at what he was going to do, just like Elvin was hinting at what he was gonna do. But when they went out on the road, their whole thing changed. And it changed everything. People in my little group, Bobby Hutcherson and people like that from Altadena, everybody said, “We’re never gonna be the same again.” The other time that happened was when Miles came to town with Tony, Ron, Herbie, and Wayne, down at the It Club in South Central. They had the same effect.
So did you ever find out what the other pedal was for?
It was because he was breaking them!
Every time after that show that I saw Elvin, he reminded me of an African prince. Everything about him was Africa. And Thad and Hank, his brothers, were not like that at all. They were classic-sounding jazz guys. Elvin was from some other continent.
5. The Band
“Ophelia” (The Last Waltz, Warner Bros.). Levon Helm, vocals and drums; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Garth Hudson, keyboards; Richard Manuel, piano and vocals; Rick Danko, bass and vocals; horns arranged by Garth Hudson. Recorded in November 1976.
BEFORE: Obviously that’s Levon. I thought it was two drummers at first, which just proves how brilliant Levon was. There was nobody like Levon. Levon Helm—just perfection. And then on top of that, to be playing with those soulful guys, Robbie, Rick, Richard, Garth—just the most soulful dudes.
6. Zach Danziger
“Solo” (YouTube video recorded live at Tamtam DrumFest, Sevilla, Spain). Danziger, drums, percussion, and electronics. Recorded in 2019.
[Ed.: Zach Danziger, a bona fide drum prodigy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, grew up on Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, and others, and often plays with guitarist Wayne Krantz. In the late ’90s he got interested in augmenting his acoustic kit with electronics, and that’s largely what he’s been doing since; for the video linked to above, he has pickups on his drums and cymbals so he can trigger samples of notes, chord sequences, melodies, and random sounds.]
BEFORE: Triggering’s been done for quite a while now. With your drums, your pads, and your laptop, this pad here, or this drum or cymbal, can trigger a bass line, and the next pad can trigger the keys, and you can manipulate all of that on your laptop. The only thing about his sonic palette here is that the snare sound is a little one-dimensional. I’d have wanted it to have been a little more adventurous.
AFTER: I’d have to hear more of this guy before I could understand what he’s trying to do. I was doing this years ago with Ry, not so much on records, but live, and in movie work. I was triggering things from my drums, and having the pads play other crazy little sounds. But I don’t like triggering other instruments. I love the interaction, with the other player listening to what I’m doing, and reacting from that. I came up playing with people, live. And that’s what I want to do.
7. Ghost-Note with JD Beck and DOMi
“Drum Cam” (YouTube video for Zildjian LIVE!). Beck, drums; Robert “Sput” Searight, music director and keyboards; Nathaniel Werth, percussion; Dywane “MonoNeon” Thomas Jr., bass; Sylvester Onyejiaka, baritone saxophone and flute; Jonathan Mones: alto saxophone and flute; Mike Jelani Brooks, tenor saxophone and flute; Xavier Taplin, keyboards; Peter Knudsen, guitar; Mike Clowes, guitar, DOMi, keyboards. Recorded in 2020.
BEFORE: [Keltner turns his head away from computer screen as video plays] It sounds like Vinnie [Colaiuta] playing. Who is it?
It’s a 16-year-old kid named JD Beck.
AFTER: Sixteen? Well, that’s sick! He sounds like he’s been playing for 50 years. The technique is impeccable. If he’s 16 years old, that’s God-given and some DNA thing and a lot of study. Sixteen?
Actually, I think he’s 15 on this.
Okay, so he was 15. He’s not just a technician. I keep wanting to avoid the word but I can’t—this kid is soulful. There was some deep shit going on there. The music is not my cup of tea. But I’m blown away by the art, by the level that this kid is taking drumming to. I mean, it’s sick. I wanna turn Vinnie on to this. If he was in his twenties or thirties I could say, “Okay, he’s been this, he’s been here, he’s been listening.” But to be that young—that’s extraordinary, beyond what I’ve seen. Wow, thank you for that.
He doesn’t have enough of a pocket.
Doesn’t have enough of a pocket? Are you kidding me? Tony! He is a bad-ass. This is some kind of extraordinary genius stuff. Well, they come along like this once in a while. It’s gonna be fun for me to turn people on to him. Just for this last thing alone, I’m glad we did this.
Before you split, I’ve always wanted to ask you: How many sessions have you played?
Good Lord. Well, think about it like this. I’ve been doing this since 1965. And that’s all I’ve done. I’m getting to the stage now where I’m like Hal and Earl. I was 20 years old and I’d ask them questions and they’d go, “Uhh, ahh, I don’t remember that one.” I would say to myself, “Man, I will never be like that. I will always remember everything I’ve done.” And now I’m just like them. I can’t remember shit.
You’ve had one of the longest runs of anyone, period, a half-century-plus. How have you done it?
It’s really simple. You gotta keep yourself in shape. Drums is like a dance with all your limbs, so stay healthy. Nothing to it but that.
by Tony Scherman
Jim Keltner drums for the sort of artists who can be referred to with one name. Neil. Joni. Mick. Elton. Willie. Tom. John…and George…and Ringo.
And, of course, Bob.
In fact, there are few musicians who have worked with Bob Dylan over a longer time period of time than Jim Keltner. They first met at a 1971 session where Keltner’s Leon Russell-led rhythm section backed Bob on “Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It’s continued through the 2000s, when Keltner toured with Bob as a sudden fill-in when Dylan’s main drummer suffered carpal tunnel injuries.
And a lot happened in between. Keltner played drums for all three of Dylan’s “gospel years.” He played on a wide array of albums - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Saved, Shot of Love, Empire Burlesque, Time Out of Mind - and assorted tracks in between. He became Bob’s go-to drummer for strange one-offs, from the Letterman 10th anniversary special to Japan’s Great Music Experience event where Bob played with a giant orchestra to, of course, the who’s-who of stars at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (aka. Bobfest).
Oh, and did I mention Jim was the sixth Traveling Wilbury? George Harrison even asked him to become an official member and Jim said no (but he still got his own Wilbury moniker: Buster Sidebury).
So when we hopped on the phone a month ago, there was a lot to cover. We didn’t hit it all, but over the course of a long, discursive, and fascinating conversation I tried to touch on as many of his times playing with Dylan as we could get to.
Was the first time you met Bob the '71 session with Leon Russell and those guys?
Yes. I was over in England with my family and got the call from Leon to meet up in New York with Carl [Radle, bassist] and Jesse [Ed Davis, guitarist].
I didn't realize at the time how important those guys were in my life, Leon, Jesse, and Carl. We were a rhythm section. I hadn't really done a tremendous amount of stuff yet at that point, but I was doing sessions, and they would be on a lot of them. I always loved the fact that we were all from Oklahoma. There was that little bond.
My memories of that session, they're like a dream really. I was sitting at the drums and Leon was playing and we all joined in. I looked over and I saw Bob standing facing the wall. I could see his lips moving. He was writing on a tablet, I think. I thought, "Wow, he's writing the lyrics as we're playing." He might have been adjusting some of the lyrics, rearranging some things to fit the groove. That blew my mind.
His phrasing and stuff is so unique. I just did an interview about Willie Nelson, and we were talking about phrasing being completely original and very much like a jazz player. As I was speaking of Willie, I felt like I was speaking about Bob. There's such a similarity in that they both are completely unique with their vocals, the way their voices sound, and the way they phrase. I put them both in a jazz category. They don't sing like the typical rock singer.
Hearing the playback was just extraordinary. It was like an out of body experience for me. That little song was “Watching the River Flow.” Even today when I hear it, it just thrills me. It takes me right back. Years later, I always wondered, what would have been if we had been a rhythm section for Bob on many, many things? That's not the way it worked out.
You mentioned him as almost a jazz vocalist. I know you started out doing jazz stuff. Do you think that's one way that you connected working with his music?
That's a strong possibility. It wouldn't have been a conscious thing. For me, playing with Bob has always been one of the most natural things I could do. Maybe you have hit on it. It may be this free-feeling that you get when you're playing jazz, like you just need to know the song, know the form, and then go for it. Don't be afraid.
The thing that I love about Bob is his fearlessness. There's a fearlessness from some artists that translates to the musicians playing. When that happens, you get the best from the musicians, because the musicians are not worried about tempo or about whether they're rushing or they're dragging or whether they're not in the pocket. It’s not about finding a pocket. It's more about searching for the vibe, searching for the thing that makes the song have life.
I love being able to find a pocket and sit in, but I also love the exploratory thing where you're letting the song bump you along instead of you bumping the song. It's a great thing that doesn't happen often enough.
For instance, the other day I was talking to my good friend Matt Chamberlain who’s playing drums currently with Bob. I’ve known Matt for a long time, since he was just basically starting. He was saying that Bob told him one time before they were recording, "Just play. Don’t try to find one thing and settle on it." I may not have gotten that exactly the way he said it, but basically what he was saying was what I’ve been telling you. Just let the music happen. Don’t be trying to find “a part” for the song. That’s pretty jazz-like. That’s the Bob Dylan that I’ve always known.
A couple years later you did “Knocking on Heaven's Door” and the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack. How does doing a session to soundtrack a movie differ from that first session?
In those days playing a song in a movie meant watching the film while you’re playing. I don’t think there’s so much of that anymore. The composer usually has everything mapped out.
With Bob, [“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”] was meant to hit your heartstrings hard, because it was a death scene. The shot would go back and forth from the actress Katy Jurado, this great Mexican actress, to her soulful big brown eyes. She’s crying because her husband is dying at the edge of the river. To watch the scene unfold while you’re hearing Bob’s voice is just-- I cried. That was the first time I ever cried [while playing]. I thought, “Jesus, I’ve got to be careful. I'm going to blow this take.”
To be moved to tears while you're playing your instrument is a gift, I think. Now, conversely, I did a session years later with Randy Newman where the lyrics hit me so hard and I couldn't help but laugh. I couldn't laugh out loud, but I was laughing so hard inside that it scared me again in the same way. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to blow this take.”
Jumping forward a few years again, to the gospel tours, your most extended time with him, three years. I read that you had resisted some invitations to tour with him earlier. Why did you decide to sign on for those tours?
Bob had asked me to join his touring band a few times, and I was always afraid to for various reasons. Plus I was working so much in those days in the studio that I didn’t want to miss things. I always figured, if I don’t go on the road with him, it would be okay because I’ll meet up with him in the studio at some point.
When I’d get a call to go tour with him it would always be an invitation to come down and play. It was like almost like an audition, except that I knew that I had the gig if I said yes.
I went down this one time, and it was a little different. The suggestion was that I come down and sit in the room by myself and listen to his new record [Slow Train Coming]. Then, when I'm done hearing it, come upstairs and see Bob. I thought, okay, well, that's interesting.
I got to his studio on Main Street there in Santa Monica and went in the office. The girl turned the music on and I sat there. One song after the other just started banging me in the head, pulling at my heart. All the corny things you can possibly imagine, they all started happening to me. Here's Dylan again, making me cry - and it was uncontrollable crying! [laughs] By the time the whole record was done, I had gone through half a Kleenex box.
I went upstairs and opened the door, and he's sitting there at his typewriter. I said, "Bob, I don't know what you're going to do, but whatever it is, I want to go do it with you." That was it.
Then we rehearsed. We rehearsed a bunch. I remember that at the rehearsals, it felt real natural. He had really great musicians. He had Tim Drummond on base, and Tim was a great natural player. There was no tidiness about his playing. He was exactly the kind of player that Bob loved, in that he wouldn't figure anything out and then stick with it. He just played according to what was going on at that moment. Then he had Fred Tackett playing guitar. Fred I'd known from Little Feat. We had played on a few sessions together before and he was always really easy and fun to play with. Fred and Tim were incredible. Then he had Spooner [Oldham] on the B3 and Spooner was everybody's hero. The man that played the Farfisa on “When A Man Loves a Woman.
The guy’s a legend.
Muscle Shoals legend. But maybe the sweetest person in the entire world. That was the core rhythm section. Oh, and Terry Young the piano player. This guy had chops that were unbelievable.
I just felt surrounded by soul. It was such a soulful band, soulful people. The gospel singing behind him was just absolutely unreal. To me, I was right where I belonged. Then, because of the nature of the music, I started having kind of a prayer life. And the more you pray, the more confidence you have. Which is part of what prayer is about. It increases your faith. I felt like, "Wow, this is just amazing."
Then we hit the road and we got to San Francisco, Bill Graham's place, the Warfield. It's a great place to play. The stage is very close to the audience. The way it's set up is that it goes up in a steep way, so that when you're on the stage, you're almost looking at a wall of people, rather than a sea of people.
I'm sitting there playing behind Bob and looking out at faces. I'll never forget this one guy with a red bandana around his head. I think he was smoking because he had something in his hands, and it probably wasn't a cigarette [laughs]. He would stand up and say, "Fuck you Dylan! Rock and roll!" Then right next to him - man this is my memory, clear as a bell - right next to him was a guy sitting with a little sports coat on. He had his wife or his girlfriend and a little baby. He stood up after the “Rock and roll!” guy stood up and he said, "We love you, Bob! We love your music!"
It was like that ‘til the end of that tour. Like a fight in the audience. Not a literal fight, it was a lot of hollering and carrying on. I just got the impression that Bob loved it because he knew he was hitting a nerve.
Like back when he went electric and caused some of the same reaction.
Exactly. Not that he was trying to. I never get the impression that he was trying to make waves just so that he could get attention or something. He was doing what he intended to do, and his audience was either going to love it or they were going to hate it.
As we went along, I think people realized that the music is speaking for itself. It's not just that he was talking about Jesus. I think people - nonbelievers, I should say - started realizing it's brilliant music. Because it was brilliant music. Those gospel songs are some of the greatest ever written, as far as I'm concerned. You can imagine how much fun it was to be a part of that whole thing. That was the longest I'd ever been with anybody in a band.
We had a night in Seattle that I will never forget. It was a good concert, everything was going well, hitting on all cylinders. We got to the song “Solid Rock,” which I loved playing because it was fast and it had a ferociousness to it. Bob was on fire that night, and the words were hitting hard. At the end of the song, there was applause like you'd expect, but it went on for-- I think I clocked it at almost five minutes. That can be proven; I have a copy of a board tape actually. I must have really talked hard to get myself a copy of that, but that was an extraordinary event for somebody playing in a band. I can't imagine what it was like for Bob. Five minutes standing ovation for one song that wasn't at the end of the concert. There were moments like that.
That’s a long way from some guy in a red bandana yelling "Fuck you”
I guess you'd have to call that a highlight of my playing career. It's just one of those things that you never forget. There were other moments similar to that during that whole time.
Did you feel the tour changed over the three years? I know a few people came and went, especially among the singers, but did the vibe change?
Yes, it changed. One of the things that changed, that made things easier on the audience, [is that] they were given some of his older songs. The first tour, we played only the songs from Slow Train. At each succeeding tour, it seemed like we added more of his classics. I can remember the night that we played “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time. I remember getting chills, because the audience went crazy.
The next thing you did with him after the gospel tours was Empire Burlesque. At this point, you've done a number of albums and you've done a lot of touring. What's the difference between playing with him in the studio or on a stage?
With most other artists, playing live with them and playing in the studio is pretty different. When I'm playing on a record, I normally am trying different things and I try to bring stuff to the studio that's different from the last time I played. It was always like that for me. Playing in the studio is a fun adventure kind of thing. Going on the road means rehearsing and learning songs.
With Bob, I can say that playing with Bob live was not really that different than being in a studio because the adventurous part was still intact. Like what I told you earlier, he doesn't want to have to hear the same thing over and over just like I don't want to have to play the same thing over and over.
There are times when you must play an arrangement exactly the way it's been rehearsed and fleshed out all the time. I did that on the Simon & Garfunkel tour, Old Friends. If the music is really good, then it's not a job really. It's fun, but it’s a disciplined fun.
How did you get involved in the Traveling Wilburys? Was that through Dylan? I know you worked with Harrison by then.
That was George completely.George became like a brother. He liked having me around all the time for different things. When he was working on something, I'd be [there]. I think it was [Harrison’s album] Cloud 9 that preceded Wilburys. Is that correct?
Cloud 9 was '87. So yeah, I think it just preceded it.
I was at his studio. H.O.T. Studio we called it - Henley-on-Thames - and we were having a ball. We always had such a ball playing, and especially there at the studio because it was in his home. His home was a massive monastery friar park. Talk about a dream; it was always dream-like.
Jeff Lynne was working with him on the Cloud 9 record. Jeff and George had very similar senses of humor. The crazy English kind of Monty Python humor. The more beers they had, the sillier they would get. We were sitting around one night. I think we had just cut my favorite song on the record, “This Is Love.” They're being funny and started making up names for a band. They kept going and going. Finally they settled on the Traveling Wilburys. They thought that was just hilarious.
Then, after we were done [with Cloud 9], I heard from George that they had gone to Bob's house and cut this song [“Handle with Care”]. The very next thing I heard was, “Hey, we're going to start a band. We're going to be the Traveling Wilburys. We're going to do a record.” So then we started recording.
Speaking of funny names, did one of them give you the nickname Buster Sidebury?
That was George. They expected me to be a Wilbury.
At that time, I was thinking you got Roy, you got Bob, you got Tom, you got Jeff, and you got George. That's five guys. One in the middle, two on the sides. If you put another Wilbury in there, then it's unbalanced. Which side would I be on? It is a funny way to think, but I was thinking like that.
Plus you've got five icons. I may be considered an icon in the drum world, but that's not what we're talking about here [laughs]. It was natural for me to say no. Then it came to me, I'm a Sidebury. George laughed. He loved that. But I had to really convince him a little bit. Then they went for it. I said, "I'm a Sidebury cousin, your first cousin."
You know, I was so close with Tom. He liked that I did that. He always made a big deal out of that in interviews. That’s how I became Buster Sidebury.
The other guys all smoked cigarettes. I had quit. To be in one of those RVs that they have on the studio lot for shooting videos, four guys all smoking cigarettes, it was too much for me. During one of the videos, I jumped off the bus and I went over to Roy. Roy was sitting by himself because he was instructed by his wife, Barbara, "You better not be smelling like smoke when I come to the set!" She had laid the gauntlet down.
I went over to his bus, I knocked on the door. I came in and we started talking. He said, "This is really fun, isn't it Jim?" I said, "Man, it's incredible. You know Roy, the guys are all here only because of you, really. They all just want to hear you sing." He said, "Well, I'm the only real singer in the band. The other boys are all stylists."
I had to suppress a laugh. It was so true, but it was just so funny the way he said it. Just matter of factly. The first freaking thing I did when I got a chance was tell George. He cracked up and then I told all the guys. "I'm the only real singer in the band. The other boys are all stylists." It's absolutely true.
I love it. Was there ever any talk of playing live?
Oh, absolutely. There were plans, big plans to go on the road. We were going to go on a train tour. We were going to take a train across the United States.
What's funny is that everybody assumed that it would be Bob who would nix it. But Bob was on board fully. It turned out to be George. I don't care to speculate on why he didn't want to do it, but he didn't want to do it.
It certainly is. I think Roy had passed already. That may have figured into it a little bit.
Did the energy generally feel different on that second album without the “singer,” as he called himself?
The second album was different than the first album because the first album we did in the classic way of laying tracks down and then overdubbing people. The second album we did live. We played live all sitting in the same room.
More like a Dylan album.
I hadn't really spent a lot of time thinking about what a Wilbury tour would have been. I think George's passing has overshadowed that whole thing to me. With George gone, it took a lot of the wind out of it for me. George is younger than me. George should be my little brother that I see all the time. He loved LA. He loved his Friar Park [home studio in England]. We should be going back and forth like we did all those years. It wasn't meant for him to hang around. Bob is still here, and I'll tell you another thing: George Harrison was Bob Dylan's biggest fan in the world. There wasn't anybody that I've ever known that was a bigger Bob Dylan fan. He knew the lyrics to every Bob Dylan song, old and new.
You ever hear of the tape of the two of them jamming together in 1970, just goofing off having a blast in the studio? I was just listening to that the other day.
I may have heard that. That's another thing to go revisit if I could.
They cover the old girl group song “Da Doo Ron Ron” and they don't even remember any of the lyrics, except “da doo ron ron.” But they're having such a blast just singing it over and over again, it's totally infectious.
That is fantastic.
Moving forward to your next Dylan gig, how did you get involved with the 30th anniversary, “BobFest”?
It might've been Bob that asked me to do it. It was either Bob or George. Or both. Let’s see. [Jim flipping through datebook] On the 7th [of October], we had a rehearsal with Tom Petty. On the 12th, we had a rehearsal with Sophie B. and the O'Jays, and Johnny Winter. On the 13th, we rehearsed with Clapton and Stevie Wonder, Sinéad, Bob, and the band. Then the 14th we rehearsed with Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, George Harrison, and Lou Reed. Then on the 15th, we rehearsed with Neil Young.
That's quite a week.
Yes. Then on the 16th was the gig. On the next day, I started an album with Willie at the Power Station.
Does anyone on that list jump out at you, that you particularly remember?
I remember rehearsing with Neil and then the delight of rehearsing with Stevie. Stevie Wonder was like from another planet. And Clapton. I always loved Eric.
What is it about those three?
Imagine what it would be like, you're at this big deal thing honoring Bob Dylan, and then suddenly there's everybody, the biggest artists of the day. You're playing Bob's music with them. To see them all come together for Bob, that's what knocked me out.
That was the beginning of us playing with Neil Young. Me and [Steve] Cropper and Duck Dunn [both also in the BobFest house band]. We went on tour with Neil [the following year] and the band was half of the MGs. Cropper and Duck. It was unbelievable to be playing with those guys live.
Neil is another artist that's very much like Bob. There are just a few of them. Neil is definitely one. Neil, he just wants you to interpret his music. He wants you to listen to him and get with him. That's what we did.
Playing with Duck Dunn on bass was like a dream. Then Cropper's rhythm was unreal. There was a little tension there once in a while. I mean in the music, because Cropper is so strong with his groove and Neil really likes to swim. I was in heaven. I was being able to be as expressive as I wanted to be and float in and out of this incredibly pocketed thing and [then] into the deep part of the water and swim with Neil. It was a great tour. It came together because of BobFest.
One more session we have to hit on, Time out of Mind, one of the great latter-day Dylan albums. Both Bob and Daniel Lanois have talked about the tension between them. Were you one of Bob’s people he called in to help?
Yes, Bob called me, or somebody called me from Bob's camp. I was definitely there for Bob. Bob and Lanois were not seeing eye-to-eye on everything. There was a tension there. I've got to say, Bob is not alone in being like this, but I think there are some people who feed off of tension. I'm one of those people, in a way. When there's tension, there's more the reason for things to change. I didn't have any problem with Lanois at all. It was actually more fun for me in a sick kind of way.
What I always loved about that record is the voice was so big. There were a lot of musicians playing all at the same time and, the way it was mixed, so that the music was all in the back, almost blurry in a way, and with the voice really big up in the front, I've always marveled at that.
I remember that Bob asked a question one night when we were all standing around. He said, "What do you like? Do you like the bits or do you like the overall thing?" What he was referring to was there were so many individual pieces to the music. That's what I think Bob meant about the bits. There were little things musically that were really cool. I said, "I like the bits." Later when the record came out, I knew what had happened. He got the bits that we were referring to. The little musical bits all became like this wall, this background for this huge voice so that the lyrics stood out beautifully and the voice sounded incredible.
Eric Clapton, not long ago we were playing together, and he said one of his favorite songs ever is “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.”
David Bowie covered that one too.
Oh, yes. That record is a very, very much loved record by a lot of artists because it's just great. I mean the music is killer. The way it was mixed, his voice so big like I said, it's incredible. It's one of my favorite things.
The way the record sounded when it came out, when I first heard it, I thought, "Wow, Bob got what he was looking for.” Only it didn't happen until later. In the mix, they made it work.
The last tour you did with Bob seemed pretty spontaneous. In 2002, George Receli, Bob's drummer, came down with an injury and you pinch-hit for a few weeks there.
Right. He got a serious carpal tunnel problem. So when they called me, I was like, "You mean you want me to come and no rehearsals?" Bob wanted me to be in Milan tomorrow. I said, "Wow, I don't know if I can do that. I don't think I can get there that soon." I made it the day after. My first gig was April 21st in [Zurich] with them. George, a great drummer and really good friend, stayed so that I could-- Let's see, what happened? Maybe he played at the sound check.
It looks like for the first show you were at, he played half the show and you played half the show. Then subsequently you just took over.
Right, that's what it was. He played half the show, so that I could get a feel for what they were doing volume wise, just the vibe of the whole thing. Then I finished it. That's right.
Even still, it's not like he's playing the same songs you're going to play. You're just thrown on stage to play other stuff.
Yes, exactly. There again, that's the faith Bob had in me. The trust Bob had in me that I could do the thing that he really loved, which is to just play the music. Just fit in with the music somehow. Don't worry about trying to find a part to play and all that other kind of stuff. Don't worry whether or not you're totally accurate with everything. That doesn't matter. Bob is a real champion of that kind of thinking and so that's why it was easy for me.
Had you ever had to do something like that before with anyone where you had literally no rehearsal?
No. No way. Like I said, that's Dylan. That was incredible, man, now that I think about it. I wish I could remember details. We played two gigs in Paris. I can see myself sitting behind Bob at the drums. I remember that it came off good. Tony was playing, his band members, they all-- Was Charlie Sexton on that gig?
Okay, those guys all took real good care of me. They would give me signs.
You were cueing off them to some degree?
Oh, yes. They were helping me out for sure.
In typical Bob fashion, you're also not playing the same show every night. Every night, there's new songs you're being thrown into. It's not like you get through the first show and smooth sailing after that.
Yes, that's right. With Bob, you didn't know a lot of times. That's the way it should be really, if you think about it. There's nothing wrong with having a real good, well-rehearsed show. But I think real artistry is a little more than that. I think that putting the little element of danger or tension or whatever you want to call it into the situation is a good thing in some cases.
Again, that's that fearless thing. If you're not fearless, you're going to be afraid. A lot of the musicians I know, we can smell fear. I know that sounds funny but that comes from being in a studio with artists, making records where everything is on the line. Time is money, people's careers are being shaped or created. There's a lot of responsibility there. If you sense that somebody is afraid or reticent in some way, then you put that other hat on. The fun ones, the really, really fun ones, like Bob, Willie, Neil, Clapton, [they’ve] got that fearless kind of thing. That really makes it fun for the musicians.
The playback is what I'm in the game for. I love hearing the playback to see, "Did we do good? Okay. Well, let's try it again" or "That's fantastic, we'll never be able to do it that good again."
Is that how it works at a Dylan session, typically? You'll do a take or two, then everyone goes into the control room?
Yes. They're all a little bit different. With Bob, he'll be a little more conventional. The most unconventional is Neil. With Neil, there's what’s called a rundown of the song, and then the first take. Before the rundown, you were just messing about. I have played with Neil Young on records where the messing about is the take! You don't even get to the rundown. That can be a little shocking.
Your most recent time playing with Dylan to date comes full circle, because we've talked about Willie Nelson a lot. The last thing on my list is you performing with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at the same time, which you did a couple of times. You recorded “Heartland” with them in the '90s and then a decade later, there was this TV special where Bob came out and they do “You Win Again,” May 2004.
That's a great pairing. In this [Willie] interview, the interviewer had asked me - and this is an official documentary and I'm on camera and everything - the guy asked me, "Did you play on ‘Heartland’?" I said, "You know what, I'm not sure. I don't know if there's any drums on that." When I got home I listened and sure enough, there's the drums. I'm going, “Oh no. I'm a freaking idiot.” If you've been playing for 50 years making records, there's certain things just pass through and you just can't remember.
With “Heartland,” and it's too late to say it on the Willie interview but I can certainly say it on this interview, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan are two of the most distinctive voices in the music business. Wouldn't you say?
You know immediately when they're singing and to hear them sing together is beautiful. I love how they sound on “Heartland” together. I don't think they did enough of that. I wish they'd do it again. They're both here, man. They're both on this planet, still commanding all the attention they've ever commanded. Somebody needs to-- I'll tell [Dylan manager] Jeff Kramer that. I'll call him. In fact, I'm going to call him as soon as we're done.
You're in a very small group of musicians who Bob calls back again and again, over decades. Why do you think he keeps calling you?
I think it's because of our track record together. The very first time meeting him, playing on - it wasn't a gigantic hit, but it certainly was one of his memorable songs - “Watching The River Flow.” Then, “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” was iconic. Then the gospel years. I think with that kind of track record, he's always going to be thinking of me like that.
One of my favorite times with Bob was during the Wilburys. He was so funny. I wish that people like you and other people who are big fans of his, I wish they could know or see that side of Bob, but you're never going to have that without special times like that. He used to crack me up like. I told him one time, I said, "Man, you're like a Lenny Bruce throwback." He's just way more personable than what people get to see.
Wonder if that was before or after you recorded a song about Lenny Bruce with Bob?
Me and my wife, we used to go see Lenny Bruce when we were just going together. Before we got married, we'd go see him clubs in LA. People from our generation were huge Lenny Bruce fans.
He was playing that on his last tour. He brought it back and was playing it.
He did? He played “Lenny Bruce”?
Yeah, on the last tour, with Matt Chamberlain. It was like a slow thing, really cool.
Oh, fantastic. It's too bad that they got stopped in their tracks because this band will really be a good band.
Yeah, and Bob Britt, who worked with you on Time Out of Mind too.
Oh, he's got him?
Yeah, he and Matt joined just for the last three months and then COVID hit and it stopped.
That's great. He's thinking all the time.
Bob Britt would be another one who pops up again and again. Time Out of Mind then, 25 years later, now he's in the touring band. I spoke with Duke Robillard a couple of weeks ago. Same thing with him. He did a couple of sessions and then decades later toured with him.
From what I understand, Duke came in on Time Out of Mind because of Bob. The ones that I know for certain are myself, Jim Dickinson, and Duke Robillard, other than his core band, that were called in by Bob that had nothing to do with Lanois.
For me, I felt as long as I'm there for Bob, I'm there for Bob and that's it. I know why I'm there and I know what I'm going to do, which is I'm going to feel Bob out. I can feel it through the playbacks, through whatever he might say, but I'm there because Bob Dylan wants me to be there.
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