Q&A with drummer Derek Hess, one of the true heroes of Southern Rock during the glory days of the '70s

"As far as hopes and fears for the future, man that’s a loaded topic…whether in music or humanity in general. The drug epidemic is so out of control and the violence that comes with is a very scary thing...and it seems to be only getting worse."

Derek Hess: Beat, Rhythm & Roll

Drummer Derek Hess is one of the true “unsung heroes” of Southern Rock. He was smack-dab in the middle of the whole Jacksonville scene during the glory days of the seventies, and after the Lynyrd Skynyrd airplane crash, when Gary Rossington and Allen Collins decided to form a new group called The Rossington Collins Band and Artimus Pyle was unable to play because of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, the job went to RCB guitarist Barry Lee Harwood’s old friend, Derek Hess. The rest is history. Derek talks about his brilliant career of Rossington Collins, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jacksonville scene, and the Blues.

Special Thanks: Bio by Michael Buffalo Smith, Derek Hess photos by Frank Allen Sr.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the rock n’ roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

That’s a deep subject...for better or worse. I think any and all styles and influences of music, including Rock & roll has this magical and fleeting way of transforming and advancing in so many ways that it’s hard to detect until it’s shifted, once again. It’s a phenomenon I wish I could explain or put my finger on...very mysterious. As for how it has molded me as a musician and a person...it has rolled me in   in all the ways synonomous with the good and bad, the pitfalls of R&R culture...the partying, the drugs alcohol and bad behavior, much ‘cudo’s’ to my wife for hanging in and handling it while she did…a true champion for the family keeping it together. It is perplexing how so many era’s and styles of rock & roll have effected me...from downright tear-jerking emotion to outrages celebration and joyfulness. I’m lucky enough to feel and hear every ounce of any song…and it has a profound effect on me…I have always felt very fortunate to have lived my youth and adult years with so many wonderful musical accomplishments by countless artists and songwriters. I’ve been on the greatest ride from Big Band to the beginnings of Rock& Roll, British Invasion...just all of it…so much gratitude. Hard to explain I guess you could say…the Blues has in some ways eluded me intellectually…it’s probably my lesser area of expertise to be honest, although there are a number of blues artist and songs that really nail me...I guess it’s supposed to be a down and out sort of emotion…

How do you describe Derek Hess sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

I would like to think my approach to playing drums was a culmination of many factors and influences such as taking piano lessons when I was very young…being at a very influential age during the late 50’s as I had 2 teenage brothers who loved music, my oldest brother was actually in a cool rock n roll band in 1958..his band rehearsed in my bedroom, where they would leave the drum kit set up, of course who could resist that temptation…my dad played guitar a little, music just seemed to be all around our home. I took piano for approximately 9 years, then picked up the Alto Sax, played a couple of years in school…seemed to have a keen ear to a lot of different styles of music from the great old real country music, classical, big band, Bluegrass and of course the emergence of Rock and Roll. Kind of cool to think I was there as it all unfolded. Through the years, and especially after the British invasion, the early 60’s American pop music...I loved all of it. From early Elvis, Joan Baez, Roy Orbison, Dion on and on...I truly believe it all had strong impression on me..I sensed and felt all the emotion that poured out of that music..The Flamingo’s..man that stuff  would carry me away. I would have made a great vocalist if I had the pipes…lol. As I entered into my early teens, it wasn’t too long that I found myself in my first band...so as you take in and devour the music of your life, it’s almost a sub-conscious event that starts  making various impressions on your mind…I mean I found myself emulating drummers from a variety of artists..just your everyday session player, and little by little they and the big names of super groups seem to separate themselves into what you think you can learn from them. I found myself pretty much mixing up my own brand of of soul, funk, a little blues and would try to evoke a ‘big’ sound when I play. I’ve been told many times by players, studio engineers/producers or sound personnel that mixed our live shows that I had a different style and touch about the way I played..some called it a musical approach..That sounded pretty good to me. I really just try to play the song, and not beat it up with all the chops I know in a three and a half minute song. A huge vote of support and affirmation came from two of the heavy’s of all time…Roger Hawkins, who played on most of Aretha Franklin’s hits..Wilson Pickett..you name em…he really rolled out the compliment s when I was cutting tracks over in Muscle Shaols Alabama some years ago..and a nice singing my praises from Rick Moratta, studio drummer who has played on some Steely Dan Records..not bad company. I like to think my playing is a strong and steady groove that powers the song along without being to forceful or over playing...I prefer a nice nice ‘fat’ tone on my kit.

"Mother than this area was a hotbed of kids in their teens wanting to start their own band. It was like infectious...when I was in high school, this was in late 60’s, I bet there were 40 or 50 bands in Jacksonville...maybe as they say, something in the water. We were just lucky to have some folks that broke out to the big time...it is amazing." (Photo: Derek Hess and Rossington Collins Band)

Which is the moment that you change your life most? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Same answer for both questions…when I was made a member of RCB, and when only after almost 2 years, it was over. My wife has once remarked, the best and worst thing that ever happened to me was RCB...she is probably right...what could have been….I think.  What a shame

Why did you think that the Southern Rock continues to generate such a devoted following?

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer that accurately. Will probably come as a surprise to you and your reader’s, I was not much of a ‘Southern Rock’ music fan…although I understood how it penetrated the public at large, mostly the working class. This is not to say I was oblivious to some magic moments across the culture from different groups that fit into that category…I just preferred funk, R&B and music of the Band, which I have expressed my opinion on that. Was heavily drawn in by the British invasion…Hendrix, Cream, Touch...I set my sites far away as regarding my preference in music I listened to, or was influenced by Stevie Wonder is without a doubt one of my very favorite artist...especially his works and albums in the early seventies…he had completely broken away from his early roots and pop hit singles, which were tremendously successful for him. Wow, what  genius. I guess it is a message that many people can relate to...and also I’m sure it’s a perpetual phenomenon...in that once a gathering of people start to gravitate towards a common thing, it just snowballs. As for the continuing affection for the music with new generations…it must be the comfort and contentment the music brings...it’s old school, organic, safe and they can relate.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I would have to say meeting and jamming with Levon Helm from The Band...they and their music completely consumed me in the early seventies... true and one of a kind self-contained song writing band that woke up every rock n roll bone in my body. I was asked to get up and sit in with them in Martha’s Vineyard in the mid 80’s…iconic band without a doubt. A special sound and style like no other…old school Americana at it’s finest. Would also have to include meeting Bob Dylan once while playing drums for a young Derek Truck’s. And have to include a chance meeting of Herbie Hancock...jazz great. And the ‘Muscle Shoal’s Swamper’s rhythm section...history making ensemble. I would have to say the best advice as a player came specifically in my early years in my first real recording situation in a very successful studio in Atlanta, Georgia where we were recording tracks for a group I was in. with considerable attention being given to the group by a couple record labels, Warner Brothers being one of them. The presiding producer, Phil Gernhardt was hard on my case about the manner in which I was playing my drum tracks...constantly stopping the proceedings and pretty much crawling my ass about over-playing. When we would retreat to the control room to listen to our track, good lord he was so right. I learned a lot from a real pro during that experience.

Are there any memories from the Rossington-Collins Band which you’d like to share with us?                                   (Photo: Derek Hess with Rossington Collins Band)

There are several...starting from the start, receiving that late night/early morning call from Billy Powell offering me the RCB gig…mind blowing for sure…and then nervously showing up at Allen’s rehearsal studio at his home, playing the very first ideas for our first album...interviews coming at us left and right..People Magazine shows up in person..spends most of the afternoon interviewing members of the band, 2 at a time. I had to pinch myself…and how quickly and to the band’s contentment how well I settled right in..it was magic

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

There are some bands and artist today that I do appreciate, they’ve found a way to get their message through, good musical arrangements and structure that manage to carry the lyric through...that’s the one thing that has always amazed me when I hear the music and the   words come together as if it were a match made in hit song heaven, whether or not the song is a hit. I guess I miss the ‘whole’ band concept...I realize there are some out there, but not like it used to be. The one head-banging aspect of the airwaves of what was once called the music scene that I will never understand or get is the ‘Rap’ culture. I consider an artist that can add enormous good vibes to a situation such as camping in the woods, boating, fishing or whatever is well worth lending an ear to and great appreciation for their effort to contribute to the culture of music, whatever style. As far as hopes and fears for the future, man that’s a loaded topic…whether in music or humanity in general. The drug epidemic is so out of control and the violence that comes with is a very scary thing...and it seems to be only getting worse. As far as my hopes for the future, the aforementioned crisis would be a wonderful thing to see brought back under control, and the world’s leaders just need to grow up and quit playing games with their people.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Everything…or just go back 30 years…that would be the best

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Lynyrd Skynyrd “family”?

This probably isn’t exactly the answer you might prefer…but myself having watched from the sidelines way back in the beginnings of Skynyrd and the Allman Brother’s...I knew the Skynyrd boy’s pretty well…only a few social hellos with the ABB, but to see it happen right under your nose and in your city, was pretty remarkable...I mean right here in my space, two of the greatest bands in history were right here in my backyard. Incredible, isn’t it? Over the years it has crossed my mind how if not for the plane crash tragedy, I may not have had the opportunity to be a part of such an incredible band...I mean think about it…as fate would have it..the future was pretty much dictated by who or who did not survive. Many folks don’t know that in the early goings…after the Pronounced Album was released and Skynyrd was poised to begin work on a second album, Ronnie and Gary both approached me about joining the band and replacing Bob Burns…I was then heavily invested in a project with Barry Harwood..they knew it..I was hesitant to accept the offer..the rest is history...

"I think any and all styles and influences of music, including Rock & roll has this magical and fleeting way of transforming and advancing in so many ways that it’s hard to detect until it’s shifted, once again. It’s a phenomenon I wish I could explain or put my finger on...very mysterious."

In your opinion what was the reasons that made Jacksonville scene to be the center of the Blues Rock searches?

Man, that’s a hard one to figure…other than this area was a hotbed of kids in their teens wanting to start their own band. It was like infectious...when I was in high school, this was in late 60’s, I bet there were 40 or 50 bands in Jacksonville...maybe as they say, something in the water. We were just lucky to have some folks that broke out to the big time...it is amazing.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Wow, that could go on for days…hmm, of course the priority should be musically I suppose...but with that in mind...I would have to say my early teen’s...Jr High School thru High School…  We lived in a very exciting area of Jacksonville called Holly Oaks…full of woods, a lake and the river…and I did and do still crave boating and camping! We didn’t have much money, but we knew how to cash in on all of the blessings. Met some of my very best friends for life, of which they still are…most of them still here and living...sadly lost a very best friend a couple of years ago to cancer…still shaking that one off...I met some of the best players in the country here and was fortunate enough to play music with them…all and all that period of my life was fun, new, full of adventure..was getting out on my own..no parental supervision I should say.. and finding awesome things to do with my buds...both recreationally and musically. What I wouldn’t give to go back there… Those memories that we made are so incredible to think about now as I get older, but so very thankful for the ride…thank you lord! With all of that said, I’ve had some disappointing periods in my life regarding near misses and shear let downs in the music business...but have to be proud of my wonderful family…3 grown and wonderful children, one of which is just 19 years old..my five grand kids and a generally content and happy life.

Derek Hess photo by Frank Allen Sr.

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