At the age of three Steve Gadd was given a pair of drum sticks. Not only did it stop him using the family’s cutlery for the purpose, it set in train a process that would result in Gadd becoming the only musician on any instrument ever to play at the pinnacles of both rock and jazz routinely. He also became the world’s most imitated drummer, to the extent that there’s a lame “how many drummers does it take to change a light bulb” gag going around with a punchline of “and 10 to talk about how Steve Gadd would have done it”.
His 600-plus albums include work with Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Chick Corea, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, George Benson, Steely Dan, Kate Bush, Chet Baker, Joe Cocker and BB King. The one common denominator is Gadd’s ability to play grooves that make the music feel good, alongside his distinctive sound, impeccable taste and perfect time.
Now 71, he has left what was once non-stop recording work in New York for a quieter life in Arizona. He still tours with Eric Clapton and James Taylor, plus occasional others like Corea, with whom he made several 1970s albums that were bibles for many drummers.
Gadd began rubbing shoulders with superstars early. His father regularly took him to the Ridge Crest Inn in Rochester, New York, to hear a stream of top-shelf jazz musicians. Among them was the great swing drummer Gene Krupa, with whom Gadd, still too small for a full-sized kit, played when he was about eight.
“We’d sit right next to the bandstand, so I could watch the drummers,” he recalls. “My parents took me into this place a lot, so we knew the lady that ran it, and got introduced to Gene Krupa. I’d brought my little set of drums in and we played together, and then he played my little drums. He was great.”
After college and Vietnam-era compulsory military service Gadd slotted into a New York studio scene that, aside from jazz, involved advertising jingles and all kinds of pop and rock. Two songs that made him especially revered were his rather martial figure on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and his thundering density on Steely Dan’s Aja. But adulation (including being called “Steve God”) never diverted him. “There was so much going on that you really didn’t have a chance to stop and think about that kind of stuff,” he says.
Across his career he describes recording with Sinatra as “a big one”: “Quincey Jones was producing it with Phil Ramone, and it was like an all-star band. I’d always been a big Sinatra fan, so it was just nice to be a part of his musical life for me. There wasn’t a lot of hanging out or stuff. He just came in, said hello and did his thing.”
After decades of making other people sound good, Gadd can now concentrate on the Steve Gadd Band, with Michael Landau, Walt Fowler, Jimmy Johnson and guest Kevin Hays. They’d been Taylor’s backing band for some two decades before their wives suggested starting a side project.
Gadd says that the wonder of musicians of this calibre is the lack of ego and the intensity of listening: “When you can share that with an audience – not only how good it feels from how it sounds, but visually the love and admiration and passion and joy that they’re getting from doing this thing – I mean it can become spiritual when you can line all those things up. And I have been lucky enough to have been able to feel that, and it’s great. It’s what makes you keep going back.”