As far back as I can remember I had a strong connection to music. I was also very curious about how music was created.
As a child, I sang all the time. I would often make up songs about where I was and who I was with. My grandmother would tell the story about a night that I was staying with her and my grandfather, when I was discovered standing in my crib and singing, “In the night, in the night, in the night at Pawpaw and Lorlie’s.”
My earliest experiences of participating in musical activities were singing hymns in church and being in the school chorus. I liked the idea of my voice blending with others, and I’ll never forget following along with my grandmother’s voice as we sang from the church hymnal. These melodies along with the songs my parents sang to me are some of my earliest recollections of expressing music.
I was also a fan of popular music. I learned about it from television, and by listening to the records my parents or my baby-sitters would play. The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train and countless variety shows featured the top artists of the day. There were also tv shows like The Monkees and The Partridge Family, which were about people who formed bands I was also introduced to rock and roll music by the teenage girls who often looked after me. Girls like my cousin Donna and Jill, the girl who lived next door. My friend’s older sister Jan, as well as a pair of distant cousins who I met when I was visiting my grandparents in the mountains, also introduced me to new songs and artists. I also listened to the radio all the time. When I heard a song that I liked, I would try to get a 45 r.p.m. recording of it. All of this was like a course in popular music appreciation. By the age of five, I knew about the Beatles, and I knew that a combo consisted of electric guitar, a bass, keyboards, and drums.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, I had the chance to get a firsthand look at drumsets and drummers playing them. A friend of mine named Finley had an older brother who owned a gold sparkle drum set that I was allowed to fool around on. There were also two bands that rehearsed in the basements of nearby homes. My friends and I would sometimes go watch one of the bands through the basement windows of the house where they practiced. When the teenage boys took a break to smoke cigarettes, we were invited in for a closer look at their instruments. Once, a different band set up in the driveway of the home down the street, where they put on a short concert for the neighborhood – I remember them playing “Come Together,” by the Beatles. At that time I thought that playing music was very cool.
Then there was my third-grade teacher Ms. Carter, and her colleague Ms. Neely, whose classroom was across the hall. These two African-American teachers introduced me to African-American culture in 1969: The Jackson Five, Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali and soul music. I didn’t spend a lot of time learning the traditional school subjects that year; but, as I spent my time going back and forth between their two classrooms, I learned about different things, which were outside of my white middle-class world. These things would continue to shape my interests. My parents felt differently. They put me in a private school the following year.
With so much of it around me, I thought that music was another one of the elements in the natural world. And learning to play a musical instrument was the next step in the process.
My father bought me a snare drum and cymbal for my eighth birthday, I guess it to see if I’d stick with it before he invested in a full drumset. I don’t remember taking any music lessons, nor do I recall playing anything musical on that drum and cymbal; however, I must have demonstrated something, because the following Christmas day, I got my first drumset! Soon after that took my first lessons from a drummer in one of the neighborhood bands. At the age of eight, I became a drummer.