Jim Keltner is inarguably a true studio drum god. Highly regarded for his session work on solo recordings by three of the Beatles, Jim could also be considered a close life-long friend of George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr.
Jim met Ringo in 1971, during preparations for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, on which he and Ringo shared drum duties. Keltner later toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and, along with Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, was a member of ’80s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys—playing under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury.
Keltner was born on April 27, 1942 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Though his early drumming experience was focused on playing jazz, one of his first claims to fame was with ’60s pop outfit Gary Lewis & the Playboys. When Jim joined Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen outfit, his reputation as an official member of rock’s royal circle was sealed, and soon he was recording seminal albums with Beatles Lennon, Harrison, and Starr. Since then, Keltner has put his uniquely reliable stamp on hundreds of important releases. Among them are albums by Eric Clapton, Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, Bill Frisell, Neil Young, John Hiatt, Fiona Apple, Yoko Ono, Gary Wright, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, Little Village, the Bee Gees, Ry Cooder, Steely Dan, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Petty, Steve Miller, and Lucinda Williams.
Jim has been a huge influence on countless top drummers, who worship his simple but magical performances and casual but precise feel. Keltner is equally famous because of his enthusiasm for unusual sounds: He’s been known to play with kitchen utensils and rattling chains, and his embrace of electronics has widened his sound palette even further.
A studio legend who never stops looking forward, Keltner has been involved with some truly inventive recordings, such as his 2000 collaboration with his close friend, Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts. The Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project featured the duo exploring multi-percussion, electronics, and unusual orchestrations in the service of a tribute album to jazz drumming heroes. Other highlights of the new century include The Concert For George, which paid tribute to the late Beatle guitarist; Simon & Garfunkel’s Old Friends reunion tour; Jerry Lee Lewis’s 2006 album, Last Man Standing; and recent releases by Phish bassist Page McConnell, pop chanteuse Celine Dion, soul singer Mavis Staples, and guitarist and long-time Keltner collaborator Ry Cooder.
With no let-up in his schedule in sight, Jim Keltner is that rare music legend who is as vital today as he was when he first made his mark, all those years ago.
Jim Keltner needs no introduction to Modern Drummer readers. Jim has played with just about everyone in music royalty, and it's no mystery why: Everyone wants Jim's feel-good vibe on their recordings. And if you ever met the man, you would know instantly that it's not only great playing he brings to the session, it's his warm and giving personality. You just want to hang with Jim.
Recently we spoke with Jim about the new George Harrison studio album, Brainwashed, as well as the Harrison tribute concert at London's Royal Albert Hall that took place November 29, 2002, a bitter-sweet affair held on the one-year anniversary of George's passing.
Jim played and was friends with both George Harrison and John Lennon for many years, so we started our chat on that subject.
MD: One of the questions I asked Ringo for Quick Beats was: Who was a better drummer, George or John? And Ringo said "George." Would you agree with that?
Jim: [laughs] Good question?. Well, I would have to say yes, because, first of all, John never played the drums in front of me. But George did, and he could play very well. He had such beautiful time. When George played drums he had all the basic language. He knew what to do with his feet and the hands. He cracked me up a few times at the drums. I have a beautiful picture of him behind my set at the house.
MD: I saw a film clip of George-which featured you as well-where he was talking about the making of this new record. It brought tears to my eyes as I was watching it.
Jim: I know exactly what you mean.
MD: It's so nice to hear this new music. His singing and playing is so strong.
Jim: That's the thing. He gave it his best shot. He knew he was leaving, he knew he was getting out of here. I had a hard time believing that. But I think he was so prepared, and everything just fell into place the way he wanted it.
MD: I know you had a great friendship with George besides just playing music.
Jim: Oh, God. He was an inspiration for so many things in my life and my family's life. He was an extraordinary guy. He wasn't like most of your friends. I know it sounds trite, like, "Well, he was a Beatle, so of course he was an extraordinary guy." But it's so much more than that. He had such a down-to-earth quality. He was funny and bright, and loved to share stuff. He was a real people person. He genuinely liked people. And yet, he had a tremendous bullshit meter. He could see through you from a long distance. I saw him do that all the time. My family and I feel very fortunate that we came into his life at such an early time.
MD: I guess at that level you get afraid because you don't know what people really want from you.
Jim: Exactly. It's the same thing with Charlie [Watts] and The Stones, or any of my other friends with such high profiles. We go so far back, I'm sure that's why our friendships are real solid. We treasure those relationships.
MD: George's son Dhani did a very nice job co-producing Brainwashed with Jeff Lynne. He looks so much like his dad too.
Jim: And it's not just the looks either. His mannerisms and how he moves his mouth, is just like George. Or he'll say something and he'll back his head off just like George. He'll give you a look, a glance, just like his dad. It messes me up.
MD: Let's talk about Brainwashed.
Jim: "Any Road" is one of my favorites. Pure George. He use to quote that line all the time, "If You don't Know Where You're Going, Any Road Will Take You There." I love that song so much. The other one that makes me cry every time I hear it, and probably always will, is "Stuck Inside A Cloud." That's one of his older one's that he used to play for me all the time. It had a magical, misty, very English sort of quality to it. We would be sitting in the studio late at night before shutting everything down, and I'd say, "Hey, George, play 'Cloud' for me," and he would put it on and sing along with it. It didn't have drums on it for many years, just these cheesy little keyboard samples from his E2 sampler, but for some reason it just takes me right to Friar Park every time I hear it.
MD: Were all your drum tracks completely finished before he passed away?
Jim: Yes. I didn't do any more after?. When he called me to come do the drums, it was before the stabbing, and I believe after his throat operation.
I never took gear to his place because years ago I had DW send him a real nice drumset with all the hardware and everything, and then Paiste sent a bunch of cymbals and stuff. So he pretty much had everything I - or anybody - would need. So when I would go to his studio at Friar Park later on, I would hardly ever take anything with me, maybe just a certain cymbal and a snare - little things.
Now, George had this tremendous living room, which was like three stories high, with a balcony overlooking it. My bedroom was on the third floor - "the loft," they used to call it. It was a beautiful place with a kitchen and den and everything. I used to come down in the morning and stand on this part of the balcony that extends out over the room a little bit. A few times over the years I'd snap my fingers to hear the sound, and I'd say to George, "It would be great to have the drums here," and he'd just laugh, because he had a major studio built in another part of the house; why would he want to put drums there? But when I arrived for this recording, I walked in and the drums were set up right in that space. I was so knocked out. He did that for me.
I guess he asked the engineer John Etchells whether the sound would be controllable. So he went out and tested a few things and said, "It would be great." I remember they had a whole bunch of 87's [mic's] out over the room to get the room sound. And I ended up using George's drumset. I didn't even use any of my snares.
MD: How about cymbals?
JK: I might have used one of my cymbals. The hi-hats were a pair of Arbiters that said "602" on them. So they were early Paistes before they put their company name on their cymbals. They were given to Ringo, and he gave them to George. Ringo always played a beautiful Paiste 602 crash-ride, and his hi-hats are 14" Zildjians that are so old you can barely see any logo. He preferred those, so he left the Arbiter Paiste hats with George. George had them in his studio for years. I used those hi-hats on everything I ever played with George?Cloud Nine - everything.
MD: The Traveling Wilburys albums too?
Jim: No, both Wilburys recordings were done in California, so it was all my gear.
Anyway, on the last day of the sessions for Brainwashed, as I was packing up, I was putting the cymbals back in the box like I'd done for so many years, and I said, "George I'm going to take these hi-hats with me." He said, "Why are you taking me hats?" And I said, "I've been coming here for years, and nobody else ever uses them but me. Year after year, I come here to record, I go to the box they're in, and there they are in the same position I put them in the last time. [laughs] Other people who have recorded here, Ray Cooper or Jim Capaldi, they come by and play, and they never use them. They use the new batch that I had sent, or something else. So it's a shame to just leave them here un-played. They're still yours, though, so I'll bring them back." And he said, "Okay." But I never got a chance to give them back to him. So I'll probably give them back to Dhani.
MD: How was this recording arrangement set up?
Jim: We'd sit out on the ledge talking until we got around to recording. Then George would sit in the control room with John the engineer and they'd talk to me over the phones while I was out in the big room. They couldn't see me and I couldn't see them. Once we started it was just one song right after the other.
MD: Would he direct you to play a certain way?
Jim: Oh yeah, George had a lot of set ideas, so he would tell me pretty much what he would want. Basically he would tell me what he didn't want. He didn't want fancy fills and he didn't want too much quirkiness. It was hard to do that sometimes, because he would always talk to me about Ry Cooder and how he loved Ry's records, which I played on. And he loved the quirky side of my playing, which he always got a kick out of. But when it came down to playing on his songs, it wouldn't work for him, so he would always have me kind of straighten out things and play more conventional and basic. Of course I never had any problem with that, because that's the job. I always want to play something appropriate for the song. I don't need to play something that tickles me. That's not what music is about--unless you're doing a clinic or a drum record.
MD: Would George ever say to you, "Play this one with a Ringo feel"?
Jim: No, he never, ever did that. But I would always do that. Every time I played with George I would think of Ringo. George and John would've had Ringo play on a lot more of their stuff if it hadn't been for the fact that those were supposed to be their "solo" efforts. It wasn't meant to be "having the mates," you know what I mean.
MD: I can hear the Ringo influence on "Rising Sun." If anyone can get it to feel like Ringo, it's you.
Jim: Well, thank you, but I don't know if anybody can really do Ringo. It's like nobody can ever do Charlie. You just can't do it. It's impossible.
MD: Did you hear the songs beforehand? Would George give you demos?
Jim: He didn't send me any demos, but he would have ideas on tape. He would call me and ask, "What are you doing in February? Can you come over?" I'd say, "What have you got?" and he'd say, "I've got some new ones and some of the ones you've heard over the years." It was always such a thrill when I'd first hear them. Sometimes he would say, "Um - I don't know about this one," but I'd be like, "God, I love that one, George. Let me put drums on it," and he'd say "okay." So we'd put drums on it, but then I'd never be sure whether he was going to use it.
MD: I heard there was a pretty ballad that was left off this record that George wrote with Jim Capaldi.
Jim: Yeah. Capaldi is a gifted songwriter and drummer. Jim wrote a lot with Stevie Winwood in the "Traffic" days. We've been friends for many years, so I was happy that they hooked up.
MD: So obviously there's more stuff in the can.
Jim: Well I hope so, but I don't know for sure - I really liked the song they did but apparently George didn't feel it was quite finished yet.
MD: Some of the other tracks you're on are "Pieces Fish," "Never Get Over You"-- what a great feel--and "Vatican Blues."
Jim: I hope that song doesn't upset a lot of people. George was pretty outspoken about stuff. But he wasn't mean-spirited.
MD: On the song "Brainwashed," you could tell he was mad at the music business. Though, even when he's angry and disgusted, he still sounds peaceful.
Jim: He was annoyed at a lot of things during the period when he wrote that song. He went through some pretty heavy stuff man. But you're right, he had a calm and soothing way about him that makes it difficult to actually remember ever seeing him truly angry with anybody or anything.
MD: How was George's tribute concert?
Jim: It was a very emotional night. People told me it was both powerful and intimate. Eric [Clapton] put together the band based upon people who were close to George and who had a history with him over the years. [Besides Keltner and Clapton, the players included Dhani Harrison, Anoushka Shankar [Ravi's daughter], Tom Scott, Jim Horn, Billy Preston, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Chris Stainton, Albert Lee, Marc Mann, Jools Holland, Klaus Voorman, Gary Brooker, Jim Capaldi, Tom Petty (with Steve Ferrone), Sir Paul McCartney, bass player Dave Bronze, percussionist Ray Cooper, and drummer's Henry Spinetti, and Ringo Starr.]
MD: How was it playing with Ringo again?
Jim: Oh Man! Playing with Ringo is something everyone should have a chance to do. He's so honest. He just grooves, and when it's time for a fill, he fully commits. I would look over at Henry, and we'd be amazed at what he does to the beat--the way he pulls it back. There's just nobody like Ringo.
by Billy Amendola