First things first: if you’re a fan of James Gadson and would like to see him get more shine, vote for KCET to do a video segment on him. This doesn’t benefit me at all; it’s all J.G.
So yeah: I recently interviewed drummer James Gadson for KCET’s ArtBound series. This is the second time I’ve interviewed him; the first time came about 4 years ago when I was working on the liner notes to two new Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band archival compilations.
It seems insufficient to say “I have a great deal of respect for the man” considering he’s a living legend. He’s one of the most prolific studio drummers in the history of pop music. The number of incredible songs he’s graced is mind-boggling. He’s also affable, a good storyteller, and someone whose career has charted the kind of serendipitous path that is deserving of a memoir.
Strangely though, I feel like Gadson hasn’t always been mentioned in the same breath as someone like Bernard Purdie or Clyde Stubblefield. I’m not certain why: he certainly is as accomplished a drummer and it’s not like he was playing on obscure tunes. But really, for me at least, it took B+’s Keepintime to give Gadson a richly deserved boost in recognition.
I discuss some of his most important/famous songs in that ArtBound piece but I wanted to use this space to highlight a handful more and add some backstories to ’em.
Charles Kynard: She
From S/T (Mainstream, 1971)
As far as I can tell, Gadson only recorded with keyboardist Kynard on this album, Kynard’s first for Mainstream after a string of Prestige LPs. Kynard and Gadson actually had history together prior, about a decade back in Gadson’s native city of Kansas City. Organ trios were a big part of the city’s jazz scene in the early 1960s and it’s where Gadson – previously a doo wop singer – learned his initial drumming chops.1 During this time, Kynard (a St. Louis native) came through K.C. and the two men played together.
Personally, I dig all of Kynard’s LPs from the mid-60s through mid-70s. For one, he had superb taste in studio musicians. Besides Gadson, Kynard’s most frequent drummers included Bernard Purdie, Idris Muhammed and Paul Humphrey – a rather all-star line-up for that era. And Kynard had a real feel for soul jazz, especially on “She” which unwinds with a leisurely intensity (or was that an intense leisureness?).2
James Gadson: Let the Feeling Belong
From 7″ (Cream, 1972)
Gadson’s two singles for Cream were these tantalizing teasers of what a solo LP by him might have sounded like.3 His personnel was top-notch: mostly Watts 103rd guys, including Ray Jackson (arranger/trumpeter) and Al McKay (guitarist). Lovely, moody mid-tempo tune here, showcasing Gadson’s piercing falsetto. If you don’t own this and “Good Vibrations,” you’re missing out.
Dyke and the Blazers: Funky Walk
From 7″ (Original Sound, 1968)
It didn’t realize until more recently that most of the session players who recorded Dyke and the Blazers’ songs were actually Watts 103rd guys. So many of them were moonlighting with Dyke that supposedly, Wright got annoyed and began threatening to fire/fine folks over it. Gadson describes “Funky Walk” as his attempt to create a JB-style rhythm but even he admitted it was a pale facsimile. (Still sounds good to us!)
Michael Kirkland: Together
From 7″ (Bryan, 1971). Also on Hang On In There.
I don’t know for a fact that this is Gadson but an educated guess says “yes.” For one, Ray Jackson arranged the tune for Michael (aka Mike James) Kirkland and Gadson was the main drummer for Kirkland’s Hang On In There. Just another example of Gadson’s presence on so many records coming out of L.A. in that era. (And even if it’s not him, great song regardless!)
- As it were though, his jazz drumming didn’t serve him well when he first worked with Charles Wright and Gadson had to unlearn his jazz styles and master R&B rhythms instead. ↩
- Yes, “Melodica” fans will also recognize it. ↩
- The failure of Gadson’s solo career is a worthy topic, all its own. Cream didn’t seem to have the most robust of marketing resources. Gadson also ran into trouble with “Got To Find My Baby,” a remake of “Love Land” that Warner Bros. apparently cease-and-desisted. Gadson claims to have written “Love Land” but was never given publishing credit, thus leaving him open to such a legal block. ↩