￼The world-renowned percussionist talks with POST publisher, Mike Calabrese.
Where did you grow up? What street?
SG: When I was born my parents were living with my dad’s parents and my dad’s uncle and we lived on Pearl Street, not too far from Monroe High School. When I was 3, my parents saved enough money to buy their own house on Harwick Road right across from Waldo Avenue, and that’s where I grew up and that’s where both of my parents passed. I went to St. Ambrose grammar school. I went to kindergarten at No. 15 school and my dad used to drop me off at my grandmother’s and I’d walk a block to kindergarten, and then St. Ambrose for grammar school and Eastridge for high school.
Was music a part of your life as a kid?
SG: Yeah, all my roots are here and there was a lot of music happening when I was growing up. I was in drum and bugle corps. ... There were about four or five clubs in town that had live music where you could go hear great musicians play. They were intimate situations. I liked to be able to sit close enough to see what the guy was doing, because that’s how I learn, with visuals instead of just hearing it. There was the Pithod, the Shalamar, the Oxford Lounge. Did you ever hear of the Ridgecrest Inn? This was a place on Ridge Road right off Culver. They were bringing in Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Dakota Statem, Carmen McCrae, Gene Krupa ... On a weekly basis they’d have someone different, all of these great artists. And it was another small, intimate setting so you could sit and watch these guys play. On Sunday afternoons they had matinees from 4 to 6 and these guys would let the kids sit in. So every Sunday afternoon, I’d see Chuck Mangione and Gap, and his parents—their family would take the kids there. My mom and dad and my uncle and my grandparents would take us there and we’d all listen to Dizzy, and Dizzy would let all of us sit in. Dizzy gave Chuck a horn when he was a kid. Art Blakey gave me a cymbal.
Unbelievable. All that history right here in Rochester.
SG: Right here in Rochester.
SG: So I was in the Army and I came back to do that show when Tony Levin was playing bass, so I mean that’s gotta be one of the first big shows in Rochester that I ever did.
It must have been around 1970. It was right after I got out of college. I had worked with Chuck and Gap before that six nights a week at the Other Side of the Tracks and worked with Chuck and Chick Corea while I was in college and worked at other clubs in town, but those were like six nights a week club things, which seemed big to me but the first really big concert I think was “Friends and Love.”
Hard to believe 44 years ago. Do you remember your first aha moment? Like, shit, I feel like I’ve made it?
SG: Tony Levin, who I graduated with, you know for the three years I was in the Army, he didn’t go in the service. He went to New York. So, he got my foot in the door. I went and lived with him and his wife for a while and he introduced me to people he had met in those three years and then, here I am. So after I got to New York I took whatever I could. I took any kind of free gig, any kind of rehearsal band I could do. And then I started getting some calls, some recordings. And at one point, I mean, I don’t know when it was because it’s like it happens overnight. You know, when you’re doing something that you love, you take all these rehearsal bands for nothing.
It’s all part of the excitement, you’re getting to know people and trying to have people hear ya, and then all of a sudden, man, I was getting called to play with people that were my heroes, that I had listened to on records, and now I’m getting called to play recordings with them. It was like a light switch went on. How do you plan that? It’s like holy cow! You know, I couldn’t have, you can’t write that kind of story.
“...all of a sudden, man, I was getting called to play with people that were my heroes, that I had listened to on records...”
Do you think your talent was God-given or tons of hard work?
SG: I think it’s God-given with a lot of hard work. Do you know what I mean? It’s God- given in that you’ve got something that you love to do and then you need a tremendous amount of support from your family, a tremendous amount of encouragement, and you need some luck and good fortune to go with it and I had that because professionals that I met growing up encouraging me and letting me sit in, so having some good teachers. ... John Beck, he was a great teacher. I had Stanley Street before John Beck and Elmer Frolig before that when I was a kid. My uncle and my parents and my grandparents really saw to it that I was with good people.
What did your dad do?
SG: My dad was a salesman for the Rochester Drug Co-op and my uncle worked at the Rochester Drug Co-op too and my grandfather was a pharmacist at Dawe Drugstores. My family was very supportive. They took me and my brother for lessons.
My brother played trumpet, I played drums, we both tap danced and we entertained at, like, you know, the veteran hospitals when we were kids and we’d go to old-age homes and perform for the people there.
A great childhood.
SG: It was a great childhood. I was always encouraged to do well in school. I wasn’t a great student. I was more into the music and stuff, not academics. But, you know, I tried to do the other things. My parents encouraged that. And then of course a big motivator to stay in school was Vietnam.
SG: And people in those years would go to Vietnam and not come home, you know what I mean? It was crazy. So that was a motivation to stay in school and I’m glad I did because I had good teachers and I’ve been able to apply things that I’ve learned along the way to what I do today. It’s all been good.
What was the best advice you ever received?
SG: You know, when you’re growing up and you’re unsure ... what am I gonna do? Is this gonna work out? And just different people along the way just saying, “It’ll be OK. Things will work out.” My parents would tell me that. John Beck would tell me that ... encourage me. Or when people called me to do a clinic to teach in front of a lot of people, my first thought was, oh man, I don’t know how to talk in front of a lot of people! But John would always encourage me to take it to the next level and so I did. There was a drummer from Rochester that played with Cannonball and Nancy Wilson for years ... I don’t know if you know him—Rory McCurdy.
SG: He used to play with Chuck and Gap Mangione. I remember being at the Pithod one night just sort of complaining about, “Jesus I don’t know, what am I,” and he said, “Oh come on.” It’s more or less people letting you know that you’re in the shit and it’s not going to be that way forever, man. You’re having a weak moment. So those kinds of words of encouragement in times when you’re feeling down or a little bit depressed or maybe feeling sorry for yourself or afraid, where people just sort of pull you back in reality again.
All along the way, everyone is important.
SG: Yeah, little words of encouragement along the way.
Beautiful. Could you—how do I ask this— could you say who is the most talented musician you have ever worked with? Or most gifted person?
SG: No, you know what I’ve worked with so many that are talented and gifted in so many different ways and so many different genres of music that there isn’t one. Let me tell you something, anybody in the music business today that’s got a career and started back in the ’70s or ’80s and is still doing it has something on the ball. They’re talented musically; they’re talented as being good people. They’re smart. You can’t be asleep at the wheel and have a career in anything today unless you got a good heart, unless you’re treating people the right way, and all of that’s part of it. Talent is one thing but when you combine talent with somebody that’s willing to share how they got there, give you some encouragement along the way. ... I’ve met a lot of people like that, and I feel very fortunate, so I couldn’t pick just one.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a drummer? If you didn’t go down this path? Do you ever think about it?
SG: This is the only thing I really know how to do. I would probably want to be doing some kind of work outside. I wouldn’t want to be punching a time clock. I’d want to be probably doing some kind of business for myself, some little kind of business or working for someone like you. You know what I mean? I was with people I felt comfortable with. I didn’t like that schedule about being in school, the bells and all that. I’m a different kind of person than that. ... I like a freer kind of lifestyle. That’s why I think what you’re doing is great, too, because if I was doing something I’d like to be doing it for myself because I like working hard. I like doing it the best that I can so I’d either have to be working for someone who appreciated that or for myself, but I have no idea what it would be.
You work out? You eat healthy? You exercise?
SG: I think exercise is real important. I like to try and do it every day, but I can’t. I think cardio is important, which I like because I like to get outside and run. If it’s a choice between going outside or having to go inside a gym, I like to try and get outside. I think you gotta watch what you eat when you get older. My wife, Carol, is into healing, holistic healing, so she is constantly reading new things about diet and supplements and how to detox, and so she’s constantly steering me in the right direction.
You ever miss Rochester?
SG: Yeah, I love Rochester. When I moved out of New York, all my work was on the road. All of it was in New York City, except that when you move out of the city, you’re not available if they call you tonight to work tomorrow morning. That’s the way it works there. So when I got out of the city, then all my work was on the road, and this isn’t the easiest place to get in and out of. Do you know what I mean? First you need to get to a major airport and then that’s when the whole thing starts.
That’s a lot.
SG: Yeah, and the winters. I grew up here so I don’t mind the snow, but Carol, you get older and we had four or five dogs and the winters were a little bit rough, especially when I’m on the road and she’s—you know I had Duke and Carlo, kids—going to hockey or soccer or karate and the dogs, and below zero. It was a lot, you know.
SG: And when the kids got big, they all moved out West anyway. I have two daughters out in California now, and, at one point, Duke, Carlo, Marybeth and Meghan were all in California. Now Carlo’s in San Diego working for a sound company and my two daughters are in Santa Monica and Duke was in New York, but now he’s in Phoenix with us.
Great. And everyone’s doing good?
SG: Yeah, everyone’s doing good, man. We’re all hangin’. I’ve got three grandkids.
Unbelievable. I can’t believe you’re almost 70! I hope I’m in the same shape as you then.
SG: No, you’re doing great! I keep checking up on you.
I know. I’m blessed, I really am. No question. Do you remember the first time—these are some of the fun questions that I know everybody would love to ask if they were sitting with you—Do you remember the first time being starstruck by a rock star? Being like, “Oh my God, I’m in the room with ...?”
SG: Well, I mean, you know, some of the first jobs that I had when I first started working, I got called to record with Paul Simon. I mean, it’s pretty amazing. It’s not like you’re just in the room with him, but you’re hired to make music with him and it’s like all kind of things go through your head. ... How am I gonna do? Not to mention the excitement and just the feeling of being with someone that’s done such great stuff. This was right after he stopped working with Arty. But that still happens today when you get the chance to work with someone you’ve never worked for that you’ve respected musically all along. There’s a certain amount of reverence there that automatically comes out, that comes to the surface. And I still feel those feelings for people that I’ve worked with for a long time. James Taylor—I’ve worked with him for a bunch of years now, and even with Eric Clapton. I still feel that sort of reverence for them.
Are you and Eric Clapton close outside of work?
SG: We don’t socialize but we work well together. A successful tour isn’t just playing the music well. You’re spending a lot more time hanging off the bandstand than you are playing and that’s all part of it.
I’m just gonna throw some names out there and if you’ve met them before tell me. I know you’ve met Paul McCartney. Have you met Mick Jagger?
SG: I’ve met Mick Jagger, yeah.
Did you meet Hendrix?
SG: No, but Carol knew Hendrix and worked for him.
Really? How did she work with him?
SG: Well, she used to manage recording studios so she was working at his studio, and his studio was Electric Lady and she used to work there when he was recording.
That’s amazing. Janis Joplin?
SG: No, she had passed before I could meet her.
Jim Morrison? Passed also ... I think it was 26 years old or something.
SG: Jim Croce, I knew him. I recorded with him.
Oh, I didn’t’ know you recorded with him. Beautiful.
SG: Well, I mean I’ve recorded with a lot of different people, but they may not be the ones you’re thinking of.
Probably not. But I know the list is long. I mean, when I read you were jamming with Dizzy Gillespie at 11, I was like wow.
SG: Yeah that was unbelievable.
And you think about it, we talk about—me and my buddies all the time—the older musicians still out there doing it like Clapton, Jagger, Paul McCartney ...
Ringo, I mean these guys ...
SG: Mark Knopfler.
I mean yeah, it’s great. Awesome.
SG: These guys are megastars, right? Unbelievable.
Especially McCartney, Jagger and Clapton. There’s something about, they just keep going, it’s almost like legends of that era and you know ...
SG: They just keep on. ... It’s amazing. I mean, Eric will sell out. There will be an arena show and it’ll sell out. Doesn’t make any difference who’s playing with him, just put his name there, and it’s sold out. It’s the same way with Paul Simon and Arty Garfunkel or Sting.
You’ve met Sting?
SG: Yeah, I’ve met Sting. And he’s fantastic too. Arty, I know Arty Garfunkel and I’ve worked with him, and I’ve worked with him and Paul together for their reunion shows.
I mean, you know, they sold out baseball stadiums in Japan. I did the Concert in Central Park with Paul and Arty ...
“Talent is one thing but when you combine talent with somebody that’s willing to share how they got there, give you some encouragement along the way. ... I’ve met a lot of people like that, and I feel very fortunate...”
Unbelievable. A part of history. Here’s kind of a simple question: How are you doing? Right now?
SG: I’m good. I’ve been working hard. I’m just trying to ... My present state of mind is, I’m happy. I’m a little overtired, but you know what that’s like.
You just have to keep goin’.
SG: You just have to keep goin’. You know, I’m still working, I’m glad to be working, I like work, I need to work. I’m not in a position to retire. So thank God I still like what I do.
SG: I’m doing more producing now. I got a band with Jimmy Johnson and Larry Goldings. Mike Landau and Walt Fowler, all these guys played with James Taylor and we’ve called it, I call it the Steve Gadd Band because we just do instrumental stuff. So, we just finished our second album. I’m mixing that.
Excellent. When will that be out?
SG: Probably within nine months. There’s not a rush because we’re going out on tour with James Taylor so we’ll release it logistically when it makes sense. We just did a third Gaddabouts album with Edie Brickell, and Pino Palladino and Andy Fairweather Low.
So that’ll be coming out hopefully in the next few months. And I’ll be on the road with James Taylor. He’s got a new album coming out which we worked on so there’ll be an extended tour there and a few little things here and there with Eric Clapton. So you know, it’s good.
Yeah sure. Especially when you’re lucky enough to love what you do. Um, what was, do you remember the last song you listened to? Whether it was today, or ...
SG: The last song I listened to was one of the songs from the new Steve Gadd album. I was just checking it out and I listened to it in the car. We don’t have a title for it. It’s one that the whole band came up with and wrote together.
Do you have a favorite artist or band that you’ve always listened to that you never get sick of?
SG: Oh I never get sick of Ray Charles, I never get sick of Aretha or I love Sinatra, I love Louie Armstrong, I love Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. I mean, you know, I like a lot of different kinds of music. I love Miles, and the new stuff, I like classical music too. I like that. I listen to a lot of what Carol’s listening to. She’s always listening to new things. I’ve been working on things that I gotta make a lot of decisions about and listen to over and over again so I don’t have the opportunity to just sort of listen to new things. But whatever she’s listening to, I listen to. Or whatever my son Duke has got on, I listen to that.
He’s tuned into what’s happening I’m sure.
I’m just gonna do a couple of questions that you can just answer one or the other or it could be both of them. Whatever comes to mind first. Whatever, you know.
Coffee or tea?
SG: I like the spring and fall, and I also love a good snowstorm too. I like all the seasons. I like ’em all.
East or West?
Dog or cat?
Breakfast, lunch or dinner?
SG: Probably dinner.
Keith or Mick?
Paul or John?
SG: Paul. I know Paul, so I mean, you know what, I love ’em both. Both of those guys are tremendous. I mean John was, I never had the opportunity to know John, but Carol worked in studios so she knew him. So both of those guys, and Keith and Mick, I love both of those guys. I’m good friends with Steve Jordan who produces Keith Richards’ stuff and I’ve met Keith in a studio in New York and I felt more of a connection with him than I did with Mick. But both of those guys are icons, aren’t they? What they’ve done? I mean, it’s just incredible.
Paris or New York?
SG: New York
Ocean or mountains?
SG: I like ’em both.
SG: I’m still lookin’ for my favorite decade.
SG: I wear black a lot. Is black a color?
Absolutely. One life or many lives?
SG: Many lives
Favorite time of day?
SG: You know I like the whole day. Right now, if you asked me, right now is my favorite time. If you asked me at 7:30 in the morning, if we were sitting here, I’d say that was my favorite time of day, you know what I mean? Whenever I can stop and put myself in that moment is my favorite time of day.
Well, I think you’re a life lover. You have that energy of everything’s going to be OK—like you feel that.SG: Yeah everything’s great when everything’s great. But it’s to try and find that peace at the center of the storm, that inner peace, that’s the challenge. But I think that that’s what spirituality tries to get us to do. We’re not floundering at all of the outside shit. And if I can reach that part of me that’s a part of all of us, that’s part of the whole, then I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. Thank God we don’t have to be responsible for making the sun come up. You know what I mean? It’s like all that stuff’s gonna happen automatically.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been great talking to ya. What time you take off tomorrow?
SG: We’re driving so probably 10, 11. ... If you need more we can talk on the phone.
We’d love to shoot you for the cover, but you’re busy and if it can’t happen you know ...
SG: Well when do you want to do it?
Whatever works for you. We would make it happen. We would do it tonight, we would come over in the morning, we’d do it 10 minutes before you get in the car. Anywhere.
SG: How late are you up at night?
All night. Makes no difference.
SG: I’ll call you.