Behind the Curtain with Legendary Drummer Billy Cobham

Behind the Curtain with Legendary Drummer Billy Cobham

As we live and breathe, there are monsters walking among us — or maybe rocking around us is a better description.

No, you won’t recognize them by their blood-red eyes or lizard skin or pointed tails. These are not the demons and fiends of mythology and movie lore, but the animals and denizens who reside in the jungles of music. They may look like you and me with the requisite number of limbs, eyes, ears, nose and mouth but don’t be fooled—these creatures are different. These are the musical monsters,  players so supremely gifted that whether you like the type of music they make or not, you can’t help but be staggered by their abilities and talents. You watch them and your ears start flapping and your jaw drops and your heartbeat jumps because you cannot believe what you are hearing.

Billy Cobham is one of those creatures. A drum demon. A mythical, musical mutant.  He is like some fabled chameleonic beast with a thousand limbs, each one playing something different. He is ambidextrous and is capable of dismantling a drum set as either a left-handed or right-handed player, and when you watch him shift profiles you are just blown away by the thought that this human being is not human. He attacks the drums with all the ferocity of a werewolf chasing down his prey and in the next second he switches to the gentlest rhythms like the brush of angels’ wings.

When I interviewed the drummer in September 1976, that’s the type of person I thought I was going to meet — Someone made up of equal parts passion and fire and laid-back coolness — but that’s not the individual I encountered. I didn’t experience much of that quieter side. Cobham may have derived this duality of makeup by growing up in different cultures and hearing and learning all kinds of music. Born in Colón, Panama, William Emanuel Cobham Jr. moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1947 when he was just three years old and a year later was already sitting behind a kit. When he was just eight years old, the young Cobham joined his piano-playing father in and around Brooklyn.

Can you imagine this little kid, who at eight years old already had the chops and right stuff to play alongside his dad in small clubs? Do you remember what you were doing when you were eight years old? Probably digging in the dirt with a plastic shovel and drooling all over yourself just like the rest of us. But Billy was different, and calling him a prodigy was no mistake.

He got his first real drum kit when he was 14 after being accepted to the High School of Music & Art in New York City. Drafted into the military when he was 21, Billy traded a rifle for rim shots when he joined the U.S. Army Band. Following an honorable discharge, he began pursuing his career in earnest. A Tama player from the beginning, he did his early session work on an electric drum kit, which was given to him by the Tama company.

Those drums can be heard on George Benson’s White Rabbit album, Sunflower by Milt Jackson and Soul Box by Grover Washington Jr. Cobham was so insanely good that he became the house drummer for Atlantic Records and a regular session musician playing on virtually all of the CTI and Kudu Records releases.

But he wanted more than simply playing as a sideman. Cobham had a voracious appetite, and it wasn’t being filled by doing session work. Like any true artist, he had a caged beast inside of him and he was the only one with the key to let the animal of creativity loose. In the late 1960s, he formed the jazz rock band Dreams with the Brecker brothers Randy and Michael and guitarist John Abercrombie. He pushed further into the realm of jazz fusion by touring with the iconic Miles Davis and appearing on the legendary Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson albums.

While I was certainly aware of Miles Davis and his contributions to jazz, I was never a huge fan. The music was a bit too tangled and oblique for me but what Cobham did next took my head off like a screaming demon in the night and was one of the main reasons why I wanted to meet and talk with him. In 1971, Billy and John McLaughlin—who had also been a sideman with Davis—left the trumpeter’s band to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the group most people consider was the first real fusion of rock, funk and jazz.

On The Inner Mounting Flame [1971], Birds of Fire ]1973] and the live recording Between Nothingness & Eternity [1973], Cobham defined the role of drums in a fusion world. Then in 1973, he left the Mahavishnu Orchestra to pursue a solo career that began with the release of Spectrum, another groundbreaking album featuring a young Turk named Tommy Bolin on guitar.

I would meet the man with a thousand arms about three years to the day after Spectrum was released. I had a thousand questions—one for each arm—and I couldn’t wait to talk to him about how the Mahavishnu Orchestra worked and what those early sessions were like and how he came to find Tommy Bolin and all that kind of stuff. I was psyched and pumped and nervous.

I was always nervous—more like insanely terrified—in the moments right before I actually sat down with a musician. I could feel my heart beating faster and louder. Many times I would put my hand over my heart and I could feel the little organ pumping through my fingers. A true rhythm of the heart. My blood pressure rose—I never checked it but I knew my pulse went way up—and I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins.

If what I was describing sounded terrible or unpleasant in any way, it was not. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The feeling was euphoric. It was like I’d had a drink and reached that plateau where the alcohol was shooting into my brain at just the right speed and made everything feel perfect. The sensation was beautiful. Once I sat down and had asked my first question, I would sense my heartbeat slowing down to normal. I would go through my routine: unpack the cassette recorder and place it on the table or whatever space was available; plug in the microphone; lay out my lists of questions; pull out a pen to take notes and cross off questions as they’d been asked.

I have done enough interviews in my life to be able to tell within the first 30 seconds of a conversation how the exchange would unfold. I could tell from the tone of an interviewee’s voice if he was ill at ease, uncomfortable, distracted, focused, irritable, relaxed, suspicious, anxious or any one of a dozen other emotions. These were very subtle things I detected, such as pitch, volume, and stressing certain words, but they all revealed how the person sitting across from me was feeling. Was he fidgety? Did he make eye contact? Did he want the publicist or manager in the room with him?  Then there were the obvious signs like answering a question with two words or answering a question derisively or sarcastically or squirming in your chair like you were waiting for the electricity to be turned on.

What did I observe and hear with Billy Cobham? Oh, man! I met Billy at a hotel in West Hollywood—my brain fails me and I simply cannot remember where—and from the moment I walked into his room, I fell ill at ease. No, that’s not entirely true. I might be saying that now with the benefit of hindsight, but I do recall from the second we met, I wasn’t blown away with the generosity of his spirit. I had brought my brother Mick along because he was a drummer and loved Cobham’s playing and I was happy to share this experience with him. That happiness would ultimately wither like a tomato plant in a drought.

We sat down and I asked Billy about those things I mentioned earlier, and while he didn’t dismiss the questions or try to avoid them, he also didn’t provide a whole lot of insight. He just didn’t seem invested in the moment. He sat there across the hotel room table with his huge forearms folded across his chest—forearms and biceps bulked up from years of swinging drumsticks around a drumkit—and his presence was a bit intimidating. Not that I felt threatened or in jeopardy in any way. No, not at all. But Billy just seemed—what’s the right word?—detached. As if nothing I said meant anything to him.

To my astonishment, however, at one point in the conversation Cobham asked my brother if he played. At the outset, I introduced Mick as my brother and mentioned that he played. While looking at my brother, Billy said, “Do you play?” Mick turned 14 shades of crimson and was taken aback by the question. I knew the feeling. When I interviewed guitar players, they would occasionally ask me if I played. There I am sitting in a room with some fiend of the fretboard, some savage creature of the six string—in other words, a monster—and they would ask, “Do you play?”

How can I explain this? You are so embarrassed by the question because the space and scope between your playing and theirs is so astronomical that you really don’t even deserve to call yourself a guitar player in their presence. Yet at the same time you feel honored and singled out that this towering giant of the guitar would even care enough to ask you the question.

So, I knew the inner turmoil Mick was experiencing. He managed to squeak out some short and quivering response like, “I do but nothing like you” and then to cover himself, launched into a question of his own. He asked Billy why he didn’t use more rudiments in his playing or something like that. If I thought the drummer had been unfriendly with me, he almost rose out of his chair with that remark.

He proceeded to lambast my brother by saying everything he did was based on rudiments and that he should come and see him play to understand that. I spoke with Mick while I was writing this story to see what he remembered about that day, and he said Cobham had every right to be angry with his question. He said in hindsight it was a dumb question and he shouldn’t have asked it.

Still, Cobham didn’t have to react in such an overtly antagonistic fashion. We spoke for a while longer and then he said he had to get ready for a gig that night. He was playing at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard with George Duke. My brother and I went to the show and his playing was superhuman.

I would interview Cobham again some 37 years later and he couldn’t have been nicer. Those mean parts of him had faded away over the passing of time. He was soft-spoken and seemed genuinely interested in talking about his past. The conversation was wonderful and I was encouraged by it. I thought I could say anything to him, and I did.

I wasn’t going to do it and I told myself not to bring it up but I couldn’t help but mentioning our interview years earlier. I told him that he hadn’t been very nice and how much he had changed. Well, he hadn’t changed entirely. He didn’t like that comment, and his tone turned frosty and I knew I had messed up. I had poked the monster a little too hard and he had come at me with fangs bared and claws opened. Luckily this was a phone conversation so I didn’t have to endure the steely stare and the menacing posture. Twice in one lifetime would have been too much to take.

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