Years from now when historians take stock of the major musicians of our era, you can lay bets that the name Steve Gadd will be on everybody’s lips. The modest and retiring drummer who burst onto the New York scene in the early seventies quickly went about his quiet work of redefining the nature of modern drumming. His influence became so vast that it would be difficult to measure. In Japan they called him “God”, while in Cuba, he was the “Papa”, such was the pervasiveness of Gadd’s effect—on the musicians with whom he played and on other drummers, many of whom copied everything from his fills and his unique drumset to his clothing and beard!
Born in Rochester on April 9, 1945, Steve showed an interest in drumming as a toddler. By age eleven, his drumming prowess earned him a spot on television’s The Mickey Mouse Club. In his teens he would sit in at clubs with visiting artists including Dizzie Gillespie and Groove Holmes. Later, after high school marching bands and a stint in the army, where he gained experience in combos and big bands, he toured with Chuck Mangione, recording the album Alive, on which his stirring version of “St Thomas” reveals Latin and jazz influences melded with his military rudimental training. It was in Mangione’s band that Steve met Chick Corea, who would be an influence and long time collaborator.
When Steve moved to New York City, he became a peer of musical giants such as Rick Marotta, Warren Bernhardt, Mike Manieri, Tony Levin, and Michael and Randy Brecker. Almost instantly in demand in the flourishing studio scene of the day, Steve seemed to have the knack of injecting a novel combination into his drumming: simplicity of groove, complexity of fills, and an intensity that had not been witnessed since the golden age of bebop. But Gadd was no bop drummer, no Latin drummer, no rock drummer. He was first and foremost a musician whose drumming accurately complemented disparate musical contexts. When he played a jazz ride cymbal pattern, he seemed to breathe the spirits of Jimmy Cobb and Tony Williams. When he played Latin, he alluded to the master timbaleros such as Tito Puente and (later) congueros such as Giovanni Hidalgo, single-handedly carving out a Latin drumset style that incorporated funk and salsa in a manner that made Gadd a favorite across the Caribbean and the rest of the world. His cowbell work alone became a study: It seemed to speak a wide vocabulary of rhythms derived from mambo shout choruses and cascaras. Gadd is generally credited with creating a style of “NYC Mozambique” rhythm, so much so that a variation, characterized by authoritative bass drum punctuation, carries his name. And when Steve Gadd rocked, as he did with Eric Clapton, there are few drummers who could match his steamrolling power, often made thunderous by unison fills on double suspended floor toms, the latter a Gadd signature.
Possibly the most recorded drummer ever, Steve Gadd avoided the safe route in the studio. With Rickie Lee Jones, for example, Steve’s drum tracks on “Chuck E’s in Love” and especially “We Belong Together” reveal alternately playful and dramatic tendencies while contributing quasi-orchestral compositional value. In Steely Dan’s “Aja”, as complex a chart as one would ever encounter in pop music, Steve’s drum part is frightening, as much for its negotiation of a long series of accents and syncopations (that would have wilted many a drummer) as for its being allegedly a first or second take! On Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, recorded in the seventies, Steve’s verse pattern, incorporating rudimental five-stroke rolls and closed hi-hat where least expected, was so innovative that it became a practice exercise for generations of drummers to follow.
Performing over the years with artists as diverse as Eric Clapton. Paul McCartney, Wilbur Ware, Aztec Camera, Ashford & Simpson, Gato Barbieri, Ray Barreto, James Brown, Chet Baker, Joe Cocker, Lucianno Pavarotti, Sadao Watanabe, James Taylor, Dave Liebman, Barbara Streisand, The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, The McGarrigle Sisters, and Weather Report, Steve Gadd has left his special touch on each track. In 1976, Steve became a member of the group Stuff, along with drummer Chris Parker. In the eighties, Steve formed The Gadd Gang, which delivered covers of R & B, soul, and funk tunes on worldwide tours.
In September 2003, in the midst of touring commitments with Eric Clapton, James Taylor, and Paul Simon, Gadd was honored at the Zildjian sponsored American Drummers Achievement Awards held at Berklee College in Boston. Questioned backstage following an exhilarating and intuitive drum duet he had performed that night with James Taylor, he replied, “All I do is listen to James and to the musicians around me. It’s no great secret. If you listen, everything will fall into place.” Many stellar Gadd performances were immortalized that evening on a Hudson Music double-DVD, American Drummers Achievement Awards Honoring Steve Gadd. www.hudsonmusic.com.