Conversation with Billy Cobham, Part 2: Brian Gruber and Ronnie Scott’s

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Billy Cobham

Part 1 of my conversation with Billy Cobham covered highlights from the legendary drummer’s career, along with how earlier this year the live performances of the Crosswinds Project came to be. (Both parts were conducted March, 2018 in Seattle, WA.)

For Part 2, Cobham is joined by his longtime friend Brian Gruber, author of the new book Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation. Gruber has been an innovator in creating new forms of media and is no stranger to interviewing famous individuals. To read more about the breadth and depth of Gruber’s career, view his bio at his web site Gruber Media.

Gruber figures largely in this continuation of our chat, discussing his own role in capturing the story behind the event at Ronnie Scott’s and the numerous stories culled from Cobham’s long and winding musical journey. In the following discussion, Cobham gives a taste of the opinions and experiences covered in Gruber’s book. This includes the revered musician’s insights into how he viewed the output and impact of many of his contemporaries, through personal interaction and as an observer from afar.

There is much in the book that will fascinate those interested in the history of popular music from the 1960s forward, regardless of their familiarity with Cobham’s career. Upon reaching the conclusion chances are that having been swept up in Gruber’s revelations and Cobham’s encounters the reader will find it hard to resist ordering the book: this conversation barely
scratches the surface.

To coin a phrase that Cobham uses frequently, the book is off the hook, man – definitely, off the hook.

MIKE TIANO: Brian, the title of your book belies the astonishing scope that’s contained within. While it stems from the said six days at Ronnie Scott’s, the book provides not just one oral history but really a number of oral histories. Besides the event itself, there’s Billy’s biography from his perspective; Billy’s biography as seen from the perspective of people who interacted with him during their lifetime; and even items I wouldn’t have expected – like about Ronnie Scott himself and how the club came to be. Did you have all this strenuously mapped out beforehand – and, if not, what items presented themselves along the way that you hadn’t planned on?

BRIAN GRUBER: That’s a great question. I’ve known Bill for some years and I’ve seen him play around the world and one thing that always annoyed me about Bill is that every time we got together he would come up with new stories that he never told me before, it was, like, endless.

MIKE TIANO: And that was an annoyance? [Laughs]

BRIAN GRUBER: Not only is he a great story[teller], suddenly it’s like, oh, he played drums with Muhammad Ali in this show called “Buck White” on Broadway, or he was in a dance band with Jimi Hendrix, or just on and on and on. And not only were the stories fascinating but it struck me that it was sort of a panorama of a half century of American music. And for me, very personally I started off the book with the story about my first concert – my parents and my brother were always at war. He was an anti-war rocker alternative guy, they were jazz lovers and the first show I ever went to was a sort of a way for my brother and father to come together. We went to the Fillmore East to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Steve Miller’s Blues Band, and Miles Davis just weeks after Bill recorded Bitches Brew with Miles and, of course, a cast of thousands. So I looked at a number of things there: one, that Bill’s stories in long form have never been memorialized; and the other, Bill invited me to come to Ronnie Scott’s for this show, this extraordinary orchestration by Britain’s probably hottest arranger Guy Barker with these master musicians, 17 guys. I live on an island and was like, “Bill, I can’t go to every show.” But then as we talked a little more we thought it might be interesting to have this sort of micro-view of what happens backstage over the course of six days, including rehearsals a few days before: how a gig like that is put together, how Bill puts his drums together, how he performs as an artist, and overlaid on top of those six days is the six decades of his musical life.

And then of course in terms of Ronnie Scott’s when I was there, I’d find like when Billy mentioned the Village Vanguard, these places are like cathedrals almost. They have this extraordinary history. So, Ronnie Scott’s as a club became sort of a character in the book. Michael Watt was the one of the owners and Paul Pace – the guy who does the booking – became pivotal parts of the storytelling. And as you mentioned it was an opportunity not only to talk to band members there but to talk to people who’d collaborated with Bill to give their kind of filter: Randy Brecker, Jan Hammer, Ron Carter, JeanMarie Ecay. So, originally it was going to be a much smaller project: OK, let’s just do 50- to 100-page eBook backstage at Ronnie Scott’s, and tell some stories. And then it expanded to something that became fascinating to me, the story of Bill’s life and work. And finally, the final point, the use of the phrase in the title of active creation fascinated me from the beginning when – as Bill was talking about Spectrum – why is it that a guy who was so busy doing so much work, playing with Mahavishnu Orchestra, sometimes a few gigs a week, and not doing a lot of music writing [and] was still young in that part of that musical space – would find the energy to create this big hit album Spectrum and now to continue to create. So the motivation for an artist to want to be independent but also to create and to explore where that comes from, from the point of view of this six-day gig.

MIKE TIANO: So, you pretty much saw how it’d all come together and there wasn’t anything that kind of happened: “That’s interesting, let’s explore that aspect.”

BRIAN GRUBER: I think in real time as the rehearsals and six days of shows unfolded it gave me a deeper dive or a more depth into how Bill works. Even small things on a micro level: during loading, the way Bill physically is involved for hours in setting up his kit, and thinking, “What are the acoustics of this space?” Working with the techs and then changing things day to day. In one of the interviews with Ron Carter, Ron was talking about the fact that opening night we might have a full house, two days later you might have a half of house and therefore the acoustics in that room will change. So, how does he adapt and how does he work with the crew there to adapt. So in real time seeing how a master like Bill, and folks he was working with, operated, it just was an extraordinary personal experience for me that I’ve enjoyed documenting.

BILLY COBHAM: Can I add something to that?

BRIAN GRUBER: Please do.

BILLY COBHAM: I don’t think we talked about this. At the Blue Note in New York, it’s like a mecca for all people, but Asians come in bus loads, or they used to, especially from Japan, China. It’s a tourist trap and they’d come and they’d listen. At the beginning of the show, they’d come early because there would be a lot of them. The place holds about 250 people, maybe 150 would come on a couple of buses. Buses couldn’t stay on Third Street so they have to leave. People come, [as we’re] playing in the middle of the show, which would be two sets or sometimes three sets. They stay for one and a half sets and this is where their leaving was in terms of the changing of the acoustics. They come in, it was like (whoosh), now the tone would go (claps once) and there would be no tone, it would be almost like that. And all of a sudden on a ballad, perfect: They’d all get up in the middle of the second set a bit imbued with the best single malt you could find, you can imagine 150 people just get up and go. And they were all speaking now as they leave in the middle of a ballad as we’re playing. And it’s beyond glass tinkling. It’s beyond the sounds of Bill Evans playing an amusing and amazing ballad at the Vanguard where people are talking. This is like people groaning. And they walk out and [during] the ballad and I’m playing with brushes. And of course, there’s no sound engineer in the club. He went home after the beginning of the first set! And what can you do? This has happened to me and Ron [Carter] and Donald Harrison in the trio. Bang! “Everybody’s gone! Hey what happened? Play lighter, man.” It’s crazy.

MIKE TIANO: At first, I wasn’t sure about the presentation as an oral history. Oral histories are usually fine from an audio perspective but to read them is a little unwieldy. But I thought one of the highlights of using that format was discovering, Bill, many of your opinions about what’s been going on in the music business throughout your career. Those are the type of things that a book editor would probably say, “That’s not interesting, let’s just pull that out.” And so it was interesting to read your opinions and thoughts of, like, Cream, the Beatles, and some of your comments on Keith Emerson – I’m going to come back to that in a minute – as well as interactions with Big Brother and the Holding Company, which were a really great band.

BILLY COBHAM: [Emphatically] Yes!

MIKE TIANO: Some people thought they were sloppy, but they were a great band. Even after Janis [Joplin] left, they were a great band. Also your interactions with the Grateful Dead, and even Jimi Hendrix. So, I think the way you presented it, Brian, helped preserve a lot that, and that was great to hear; like, “Wow, Billy Cobham, what did he think of Cream at the time?” [To Cobham:] Your opinion came straight from your perspective in terms of being a musical artist and as a consumer as well. Brian, were you ever tempted to edit out some of the more minor items for whatever reason, either for brevity or scope?

BRIAN GRUBER: Yeah there’s a few things in what you said that are important. I came up often in the marketing and business side, but I came up on the television side: I was at C-SPAN and I did some startups for TV, and some others. And so it was I came up more on the video side doing interviews where, you know, at 60 Minutes, you might have five or six questions with a 30 second intro in the beginning in terms of what that content is and the rest of it is hearing people in their voice. So, I thought for this project the purpose was to do this in Bill’s voice and also use the word “biography.” And I think that’s partially correct. But we never looked at this as an authoritative complete biography; rather, if you will, a series of improvised conversations as if you were backstage talking with Bill.

While anyone interested in Billy Cobham is going to get five times more information about Bill’s history than he may ever have seen in print before, it was often conversational and in his voice – instead of me only interpreting what he said. There’s a great tradition from Studs Terkel on using the oral history format to preserve things that are important to the person who you are talking to. And I think some of that minutia, I mean to me – and we’ve talked about this – Bill’s feelings about Ginger Baker. Many people think he was a drumming god. Well, not Bill! [Laughs.] And so we talked about Jack Bruce and we talked about Cream and we talked about what [it was] about the Beatles, or Cream, or ELP, or Yes, Bill Bruford, that appealed to him or it didn’t. And so it was an opportunity to explore those things at length and document them so that Bill’s stories in effect could be documented in one place.

MIKE TIANO: It really is very effective. Let’s get back to Keith Emerson, because I did run across this passage of the book where Bill, you said you didn’t “get” Keith Emerson and seemed to indicate that his popularity had to do more with marketing than musicianship.

BILLY COBHAM: Yes.

MIKE TIANO: That’s what I got out of it. That statement reminded me of how those progressive rock detractors back in the day were of the opinion that the record sales – because they had big record sales, and they had big box office and ticket sales – had more to do with spectacle and musical prowess than it did with the fans’ emotional responses to the music.

BILLY COBHAM: Right.

MIKE TIANO: But I was a big Emerson Lake and Palmer fan, because I did have an emotional response to the music. Can you elaborate on [your comments]?

BILLY COBHAM: Yes, I think that their organization was amazing. Their management organization, the concept of promoting these three individuals as a band is fantastic. But the star attraction was what you saw on stage from the individuals being, first, Keith Emerson – a very accomplished keyboardist. When I listened to the musical content, I’m sorry, I didn’t get it. It didn’t get to me. You know, again, what I heard was a lot of notes. Amazing, amazing academic prowess, [sings fast runs] and all of this kind of stuff, but I’m going OK. There was Bach, and when he played he wrote a lot of notes but they all related, OK? The fugal, the canonistic, all of that stuff, it was designed and you could relate to it. What I heard with Keith was a lot of notes. And I walked away with a lot of notes – and then, the bass player. I think he had a good voice; leave the bass home then.

MIKE TIANO: Greg Lake.

BILLY COBHAM: OK, Greg Lake – yeah, no problem. And the drummer [Carl Palmer], I never heard a note he played. And he had an enormous drum set – made of stainless steel, weighing over at least one ton, two tons – that you put in some cage and put on a plane that was the band’s. The plane had all of the equipment on it to take with the band. I’m going to come to another band that did the same thing that I love, because they didn’t know how to do more than what they did. But with this band [ELP], someone was promoting technical prowess. For the drummer a single handed roll – come on, man. And where do you use that in the music? What are you presenting to me? Give me something that I can walk away with. Give me a groove that I can play. I guarantee you I haven’t heard a groove played by Carl Palmer yet, and I love him. I think he’s a great cat. Personally, offstage you think, wonderful person and I don’t have a problem with him. I never had a problem with any of those guys, really, and I didn’t know the other two.

But I heard a lot about it and being [their] opening act in Puerto Rico, Mahavishnu opened for Emerson Lake and Palmer. That’s all I remember about the gig is that Mahavishnu opened to Emerson Lake and Palmer. I didn’t hang around to hear Emerson Lake and Palmer. They didn’t have anything to offer me. The only reason why I loved Cream was for the bass player/singer [Jack Bruce], whom I think is one of the greatest rock singers ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. But that’s my just my personal opinion. And then he was a bull in a china shop when he played bass. And then the guitar player. What a great rhythm player; not necessarily a soloist – for me, that’s how I see Eric Clapton. I saw him back then, but what they had was a great management organization. They were a product; they were a brand. They promoted that band and they became the greatest to the masses – because most of the people in this world, unfortunately, don’t think for themselves. Somebody comes and puts something up on the table and says, “This is what you’re supposed to follow.” Hence, Donald Trump – there you go.

MIKE TIANO: I think it really has to do with your whole musical core. Because I didn’t see Emerson Lake and Palmer before I heard them on record, and I responded emotionally to the record.

BILLY COBHAM: That’s cool!

MIKE TIANO: Did you have a similar response to Yes?

BILLY COBHAM: Yes, I thought was really off the hook. Why?

MIKE TIANO: Is that bad or good off the hook?

BILLY COBHAM: Oh, good off the hook. I mean, for me. But what I meant by off the hook was they had a groove. When you have that singer, man, [Jon] Anderson, and [Bill] Bruford – you got the band right there. Throw everybody else in the middle, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got someone who can articulate verbally and someone who can articulate percussively. And they know when and where to play what and sing what. Now, you got something. And that’s the argument, OK? But you go to another band that flew tons of equipment all over the place. The first name that comes to mind is Pink Floyd – and guess what? I remember everything. It’s because they’re playing from the heart. They don’t know anything else. They only know what they can do. [David] Gilmour, all these cats are amazing, you know. And, of course, they have production and [it is] what they do. Without the marketing support they could never have been who they are now.

MIKE TIANO: But they also almost stumbled into having one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. If you look at their output before [Dark Side of the Moon] – Atom Heart Mother, and all those earlier albums – they were really very experimental and not very commercial.

BILLY COBHAM: But for me they were trying. They were reaching out; they were searching. They didn’t come as a package. You know, this is no Backstreet Boys kind of thing, where you took these kids and they audition. No, no. And that’s not to say that Emerson Lake and Palmer or any of them did that. I don’t know anything about their history, and far be it for me to say anything. But I know what I heard from Floyd when they came on [with] Dark Side of the Moon, I’m going, “yeahhhh.” And it wasn’t any uptempos – you know, “Money” [sings main riff] but very, very, very strong, that kind of thing. But I love that, because that’s all they got. The Dead, standing on the bandstand with [Jerry] Garcia for four hours and we might play a shuffle, or a solo. But when it came it was like a big red Swedish barn in the snow, and it was coming at you, and everybody just had to get up and go with the band. That’s where I want to be all the time. I want to hear music and feel music that I will remember: not only the notes, but what was going on at the time. That’s where I want to be. In Puerto Rico, I can remember Mahavishnu playing, but I can’t remember opening up and listening to the band that came after me.

MIKE TIANO: There are a lot of bands that try to emulate the Grateful Dead.

BILLY COBHAM: Yeah.

MIKE TIANO: Bill Graham said that they’re not the best at what they do, they’re –

BILLY COBHAM: The only band that does that! [Laughs]

MIKE TIANO: I remember hearing that some fans thought the Marshall Tucker Band were Dead-like –

BILLY COBHAM: No, no, no.

MIKE TIANO: But they’re just [jamming over] the same two chords over and over, whereas the Dead –

BILLY COBHAM: [They were] a whole other thing. That’s what it’s all about.

MIKE TIANO: I was a big Deadhead. [Laughs.]

BILLY COBHAM: Yeah me too, man!

MIKE TIANO: Did you have any reservations about Brian’s taking the approach of an overarching oral history, and did you have any veto power over some of the items that Brian would look into, or ask about? Were there things you had veto power on that you would have wanted to keep quiet? Or did you just let Brian loose?

BILLY COBHAM: I did have veto power, yes. I’m not writing this to hurt people. It’s of no need for me – again, consider me as an artist, an individual artist. I’m independent; every step I take is a gamble. What I want to do is to continue to create something positive and not controversial for the sake of earning a living. No, that’s a stressful thing, more stressful. If you can play from your heart and let your art form speak for you, you’re in much better position. So yeah, we discussed certain things; as a matter of fact, Brian would bring things up: he’d say, “Are you sure you want to talk about this now? Are you sure you want to talk about this at all knowing the truth? This [book] was done before #MeToo – but not really, as #MeToo had been coming for a long time, whatever they want to call it.

MIKE TIANO: “Times up.”

BILLY COBHAM: Yeah.

MIKE TIANO: Sounds like you [Brian], being a friend not just a third party coming in and just writing this [and upon learning something contentious] saying, “Aha, I’ve got this information.” [Laughs.]

BRIAN GRUBER: Yeah, there was a great trust actually. As Bill said, sometimes I would be the one saying, “Are you sure you want to say this?” And ultimately the agreement that we had was Bill gave me free reign to write the book with extraordinary access. I interviewed his brother and his wife into a lot of people. I spent a lot of time with him in the course of his of his life and career, and we agreed upfront that if there’s anything too delicate or sensitive in terms of personal life information, or that would hurt or upset someone that Bill had to played with, that those things Bill should have in my view the right to make a judgment about. But short of that Bill gave me complete, open access and answered anything that he wanted to talk about and [I would] deliver the draft to him. And then we’d have a series of conversations where we looked at, do you want to say this or not? And ultimately he was very generous and supportive in terms of providing creative freedom, but also agreeing that if there is anything that would be hurtful or something that’s inaccurate then the book would be better served if Bill had that ability to interject there.

MIKE TIANO: I was going to suggest that maybe this was a collaboration. I guess that’s not really the case?

BRIAN GRUBER: I think it’s true in ways that we worked out in the beginning where I did the heavy lifting, doing all the interviews and transcribing them, and working with Bill. And as you see, a lot of the book – whether we use the term oral history or not, or improvised series of conversations, or backstage conversations – it’s in Bill’s voice. And I also thought Bill should have, as a legacy, all these stories recorded. Then I take all these recordings and give them to him to use as he wants to for his own legacy, because I thought as a friend and an observer that this is important musical history it should be memorialized, and I wanted Bill to have that. So it was in that sense of collaboration, and Bill was extremely generous in providing the time and thinking through where the story lines and threads were that were relevant in his life.

MIKE TIANO: Even though it wasn’t a strict biography, it gave people’s biographical information, so [to Cobham] now you don’t have to write your biography! [Laughs.] I think it’s great from that perspective. [To Gruber:] Did you have to clear speaking to any people with Bill? Did you say, “I’m not sure I want to talk to that person?”

BRIAN GRUBER: I shared with Bill who I was going to contact, and Bill shared with me some ideas of people who to contact. And so that’s the way that went. Contacting Ron Carter or Randy Brecker was an obvious thing and of course those folks were very willing to talk to me because they adore Bill and were willing to have access. Same thing with Bill Bruford, at first he’s like, “Who the hell are you, man?” And then he said, “Oh, OK, you’re for real,” and, “Bill had a remarkable influence on my career and I want to tell you this story.” And I was a big Yes fan from back in the day. It was delightful for me to get that from Bill.

MIKE TIANO: Yeah, Bill Bruford’s very, very wary of people coming at him unless he knows your intent. When he knows where you are coming from, then he can be very, very open.

BRIAN GRUBER: And also, Mike, there are a lot of really funny serendipitous kind of threads and moments in there, like Steve Hamilton – who is a keyboardist that played last night’s show and longtime collaborator with Bill. As it turns out, the guy who funded his musical education – whom he’d never met – was Phil Collins, just on the basis of a letter, who Bill [Bruford] really has a great regard for. Then also a lot of Bill Bruford’s early work was co-written by Steve Hamilton, which I never knew. And then when I said [to Hamilton], “Oh, is it because you were excited about working with him from his Yes and King Crimson Days?” Steve said, “No, it was because I didn’t even know about King Crimson and Yes, and [conversations with Bruford] wouldn’t be peppered with questions about Robert Fripp. That was one of the reasons I was hired!”

MIKE TIANO: I think contrary to some of the comments you made in the book, Bill, I think there are fans out there who’d be interested in hearing some of those Mahavishnu Orchestra compositions, to have you recreate them. I mentioned Steve Hackett [in Part 1] and he’s really done a great job as far as bringing back progressive Genesis for the fans: I, as a fan, really appreciate that – because if Genesis ever came back, they’d be playing “Invisible Touch” and the more commercial stuff. So, would you ever entertain doing something similar with your favorite Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes? Maybe not a big recreation or anything, just throwing in tunes from Birds of Fire or The Inner Mounting Flame?

BILLY COBHAM: No, not for me, directly. As close as I would come to doing something like that, what I did do was I decided to record a project which is called Meeting of the Spirits. And actually it wasn’t my original idea; it was done by a writer named Colin Towns. [Towns participated in the solo projects of Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan in the 1970s and early ’80s.] He was a keyboard player and he moved back to England and became an orchestrater for German government television. And he decided to record the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra with the Frankfurt Radio Jazz Orchestra.

In that band at the time was drummer/keyboard player named Gary Husband, and Gary said to Colin: “Well, why don’t you just have Billy Cobham come and play this?” Because we were really great friends, and I had no idea. But he also knew that I hated to do anything [having to do] with Mahavishnu, because our parting was not very positive. And so they thought to ask me and I said, no, I don’t do that. And then Gary called me and said, “Man, did you ever stop to think this is thirty-something years ago when you did this? How would you treat that music now, as opposed to when it was when you first did it 30-plus years? Would it be the same, or more complex? Or would it be more complex by playing less?” And that’s where I got hooked, because now I had to search for the right notes to give everybody the impression that I was playing more notes than I actually was playing.

MIKE TIANO: He posed a challenge to you that you thought was creative.

BILLY COBHAM: Yeah, and the rest is history. We made this record Meeting of the Spirits – you speak of Steve Hackett. [After Meeting of the Spirits], my employer at the time that I’m thinking about is Peter Gabriel. And I’m in Adelaide, Australia with WOMADelaide and we started joking while having a coffee on location, and someone comes in and says, “Wow that’s amazing: Herbie Hancock is coming here to play the music of George Gershwin.” I said, “I wonder what would happen if we took the Adelaide Symphony and we played the music of Mahavishnu?” It was a joke! And somebody said, “Hey, be careful what you wish for.” And I went, “Naw, man… OK, let’s take it another step farther and we’ll have sixty violin players play the guitar parts of [John] McLaughlin!” Everybody broke down, fell down laughing. And then we thought, you know that’s not so funny. and it became one year to the day from the joke, it became reality. I was back in Adelaide with the orchestra, with Ernie Watts, Guy Barker, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, and Frank Gambale on guitar; they were my guys, my special guys to play the solos. And we did it. It was just something I actually sponsored.

I would have loved to have recorded it. It was a very cheap situation: “Yeah, sure, we’re was going to do it, it’ll be a lot of fun.” Then all of a sudden, somebody started to think about this: “Billy’s not making any money from this,” I’m just [doing it] for love. It’s none of my music, it’s not my arrangements. I’ve paid [for], I’ve organized and produced the project, so Colin Towns is being paid by me. He is the writer. He’s being paid to arrange the orchestrations. He’s being paid a salary to come in and do the job. I just wanted to do it just to see what would happen and I thought I could record it but as soon as we got there the deal that was made. The guy said, “Well I’m not going to bring my stuff.” First he said, “I can do it for 2000 Australian dollars,” and all of a sudden it became 20,000 Australian dollars [snaps his fingers] like that. I said [claps hands], sorry.

MIKE TIANO: Dollar signs in his eyes?

BILLY COBHAM: Oh, yeah. He wouldn’t come and do anything, and we just did it with what we had, which is like a Zoom. [Laughs, as he’s referring to the device I’m using to record our conversation.] And I just have the recording of it that way, and that’s enough for me. And maybe it wasn’t a bad idea because I got no thank you’s from anyone and I mentioned no names except I got one interest to get a copy. but nobody else cared. But that’s life man, it’s OK. Here I am.

MIKE TIANO: You can’t capture everything.

BILLY COBHAM: Well, you could look at it that way, but there is a point where you have to look at reality and go OK, you know –

MIKE TIANO: You had to be there.

BILLY COBHAM: Yeah, you had to be there; you know who’s involved. Words don’t necessarily have to be said, you know where it leads to…all roads lead to Rome in one way or another.

MIKE TIANO: Yes is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and now there’s two bands – you know that, right?

BILLY COBHAM: Mm-hm.

MIKE TIANO: Two Yes bands. That was a joke of mine a long time ago, that there were enough musicians who have gone through Yes where they could form two bands, but I never dreamed it would actually happen – now, under contentious circumstances, obviously. Mahavishnu Orchestra did influence Yes to some extent. If you look at the introduction to the composition “Close to the Edge,” the frenetic opening. That’s very, very Mahavishnu-ish. So, since Mahavishnu opened for Yes for a number of times including the big premiere of “Close to the Edge” after Alan White took over for Bill [Bruford], do you have any memories, humorous or otherwise, about interactions with Yes members?

BRIAN GRUBER: Bill Bruford talks about how – I sent you that except, and there was a lovely story …

MIKE TIANO: “Murray Vishnu”? [Bruford had misheard “Mahavishnu.”]

BRIAN GRUBER: That’s right; that’s right! [At one gig,] he just stumbled on the drums and, [upon] hearing them rehearsing, brought Rick Wakeman down – and then not only was he impressed and blown away by the music, but he then gave a very generous tribute to Bill, saying that he got the courage and inspiration to go out on his own and do his own thing from looking at what Bill did in Spectrum. So, that not only was a charming story that told that was included in the book, but I think there’s some legacy there that provided inspiration for Bruford as well.

MIKE TIANO: I thought for fun we’d close with a quick lightning round. I will give you the names of two drummers and get your thoughts from a historical perspective, in retrospect. Let’s start with Ringo Starr.

BILLY COBHAM: I think from the heart I was more of a silent supporter of Ringo for his position. He played a part; he fit a specific thing that they [the Beatles] needed him to do and not just on stage. He had to play a part offstage as well, and that part became whom we see, and only in later life did the real Starkey come out of for whom he is, and that’s cool. On the White Album [the official album title was The Beatles], I think he played his best work, as far as I’m concerned. He did some things that I really enjoyed, and that’s from the heart. I really enjoyed him because he played simply, he played who he was. I say this because I’m not sure what goes on behind the scenes, so sometimes I feel like after all of the other stuff that he was doing – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” blah blah blah blah – is that really him playing the drums on the White Album? I don’t know, because I just got a feeling that there was a little bit –

MIKE TIANO: Paul was doing some things there.

BILLY COBHAM: Somebody else is playing it, but no one will know. But that’s the feeling I got, and I’m just trusting my gut. But what was left was the name and the relationship to that record. I think for me that that record is the best record for me, of all those records. I love that album, yeah.

MIKE TIANO: I’ll give you one more name: Mitch Mitchell [from the Jimi Hendrix Experience].

BILLY COBHAM: [In a low growl] Craaaaaazy guy. Didn’t play well, but what a personality. And I would have loved to, if I could have, spent some time with Jimi. They were two floors below us, Dreams [a band Cobham was in at the time]. They were rehearsing; Janis [Joplin] was in the middle [floor]. Harvey Brooks is a really close friend of mine. He lives in Israel, in Jerusalem, and we kind of talk about those days because we were in a building that was condemned. But somebody was making money because they couldn’t get around to it, in Soho, to knock it down, they couldn’t get the permission, or something. And that building’s still there! Now it’s amazing, they restored it. But that was Baggy’s Rehearsal Studio and that’s where we all were. It was us, the Band of Gypsies with Buddy [Miles] and Billy Cox. Mitch wasn’t in that band. And then you’re there and whoa – off the hook, man.

MIKE TIANO: As good as Buddy Miles was, he couldn’t hold a candle to Mitch Mitchell.

BILLY COBHAM: Mitch was a drummer. Buddy’s a singer. But Buddy had that thing, man; he had that feel. All of these things, you just go, OK. And thank God for Buddy Miles, because he brought it to Santana. And, oh boy, you know with him and [Santana vocalist Alex] Ligertwood, and all – what an amazing band that was, man. It was off the hook, man.

The book ‘Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation’ can be purchased from the Something Else! Music Shop below.


Special thanks to Nancy Balik, Faina Cobham, and Suzan Douglas.

© 2018 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

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