Veteran drummer Ben Beckley talks about Bo Diddley, Doobie Bros, Fillmore, Wumbloozo, & the hippie days

"You can’t do John Lee Hooker any better than John Lee Hooker did it 50 years ago, so why’re you doin it now?"

"Uncle" Ben Beckley: The music is magic

Ben Beckley started playing drums at 11, where he was primarily interested in Jazz. In high school, he played in jazz groups, big band, and the Wanderers Drum & Bugle Corps in his home town of New Rochelle, NY. He went to Berklee School of Music and Manhattan School of Music, where he was trained in music theory, arranging and composition. In the '70's he started playing in the eclectic NYC scene with various bands playing Rock, Soul/Funk, Blues, Country, Latin, Scottish, Irish, and Middle Eastern music. This included playing in clubs, and concerts at the Fillmore East, Electric Circus, the Beacon Theater, and Madison Square Garden. He also did an extensive amount of studio work in NY and Nashville at the Record Plant, Bell Sound, Capitol, and RCA studios, at one point signed to Casablanca Records. He went on the road for a few years, in that period touring with Henry Gross as the opening act for the Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac. He finished the last 4 years of the '70's playing with Billy Vera. In the mid 80's he moved to LA. Tired of getting paid "lots of money to play music I didn't like", he eventually retired from the pro music scene and got a day gig (so he could play music he did like). Most recently he played in Blues bands with artists Nelsen Adelard and Mikey Mo'. "I joined Wumbloozo because they remind me of those great eclectic bands in NY. They really understand Blues, Appalachian, Bluegrass, stuff like that. Very evocative music!"

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

From Nelsen Adelard and his bass player John Duzik – I was in Nelsen’s band for  4 years before he moved to Mississippi. They taught me much more about Blues than anyone else. I really miss them. Nelsen and I both shared a love for that Count Basie pocket, where you’re in a slow medium swing and the groove is so fat you could cut it with a knife. Nelsen would love to talk about his idols like Louis Jordan, James Cotton, etc. We’re still in touch. He’s real happy down in southern Mississippi, and he tells me the scene there is so much better for Blues musicians because there’s so much more respect for the Blues.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

A lot of musicians think that playing Blues is easy. I’ve played lots of Jazz, Country music, Middle Eastern music, and everything in between. Well in a way, Blues is the hardest to learn because it seems simple, but there are so many little tiny things that make the difference between someone who thinks he’s playing Blues, and someone who really is. For example, a great Blues guitar player is not someone who can play a lot of notes… it’s someone who can say the most with just one note.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best – New York, 1969 – Soul Night at the Miller Concert Series in Central Park. I was onstage playing with this lady gospel singer who played piano, and an upright bass player. We’re playing this song with real lowdown slow funky groove. I was the only white person there. 3000 black folks in the audience all slowly swayin to the beat. At the end, we get quieter and quieter, hangin on the 4 chord… then stop, and she raises her fist up and sings out “Well it’s the grace of God!” and we come crashin down on the 1 and the whole place just rises to their feet and praisin’ Jesus, etc.  and the energy coming back at the stage almost knocked me off of my drum seat. It was one of the most beautiful music moments I’ve ever had.

Worst – Madison Square Garden, NY, 1976 or so – we were backing up Bo Diddley in one of those shows where you back up eight acts and you hardly get any rehearsal, and have to kind of wing it.  Bo starts this funky New Orleans Second Line thing. I misjudged and came in a whole verse early, and he freaked and I had to stop. It’s not fun being embarrassed in front of thousands of people.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the old days?

Well a lotta blues bands are just doin the same stuff that was done 50 years ago, and I don’t get that. You can’t do John Lee Hooker any better than John Lee Hooker did it 50 years ago, so why’re you doin it now? The difference is if you do it with a little bit of your own thing, put a little of your own style into it, make it something a little new and fresh, then I’m cool with it.

What is the “think” you miss from the ‘70s?

What I miss from the ‘70s is in those days you had very little supply (musicians) for a lot of demand (music lovers) so it was easy to gig steadily 5-6 nights a week and make a decent living. Then DJ’s came along in the late ‘70s and that destroyed a good 50% or more of the live music scene. It never recovered.

What are some of the most memorable tales with Henry Gross?

Mainly just traveling across the country in our bus. Henry was a great band leader, very smart guy and a great songwriter. I also got to play on those tours with my friend Rob Stoner, a great bass player who I played with in several bands. Rob was Bob Dylan’s music director during the Thunder Revue period, and also was the bass player on Don McClean’s “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from the opening act for the Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac?

In those days we were long-haired hippies. One night we stopped at a huge truck stop in the middle of nowhere in Arizona. The place was full of red-neck truck drivers. When we walked in, the place went dead quiet and they were all staring at us. Fortunately, our bus driver was a 6 foot 4 inch 300 pound ex-sheriff from Georgia, and he smiled at these rednecks and said , “Y’all ain’t gonna mess with my boys…”  We got outta there fast.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I guess the ‘70s and early ‘80s because I was playing so many types of music then. The last 4 years of the ‘70’s with Billy Vera were a ball. Billy was a great bandleader, singer and writer. But most of all to me , a brilliant showman. Man he knew how to get any audience into the palm of his hand. I swear he should write a book about it cuz that cat knows the subject better than anyone I know. Also it was a great band… for the first year or so on bass we had Chuck Fiore, then Gary Ferraro, and then Billy Walker, then the last 3 years with T-Bone Wolk. Billy took me and T-Bone down to Nashville to record his “Out of the Darkness” album, and we got to play with these Nashville greats like Pete Drake, Jerry Shook, Johnny Christopher (he co-wrote “You Were Always on My Mind” for Elvis), Ronnie Oates, and Reggie Young. In Billy’s band, on guitar we also had John Leventhal and Marc Shulman, both of whom are wonderful musicians.  I remember Marc calling me the king of the million dollar rimshot. I loved that!

What's been their experience from “studies” at the Fillmore East, Electric Circus, and the Beacon Theater?

I enjoyed them, they were great places to play… especially the Fillmore.

Are there any memories from Wumbloozo, which you’d like to share with us?

Not really. I guess really just that sometimes with Wumbloozo the music can get quite magical, more so than other bands I’ve been in.

What characterize the sound of Wumbloozo?

More than anything else people seem to say we’re “authentic”. I guess that means that we have a true “American roots” sound. At one of the festivals last year we heard a Blues fan say, “This band’s from Los Angeles? They sound like they’re from Mississippi.” In a town like LA where you have a million very slick pro musicians, each of the guys in Wumbloozo has his own distinct gritty style which gives Wumbloozo its unique quality. But it all really comes from Mike. He’s this gruff guy from the streets of New York who’s deaf in one ear, spent time on a chain gang in Florida, and  he’s one of the most perceptive and talented people I’ve ever known. His songs and the way these guys play them are the reason I joined Wumbloozo.

What are you thinking when you guys are on stage?

Well if it’s a good night I’m not really thinking at all… I’m sort of floating with the music. That’s where you want to get when you’re playing… the music just washes over you and you flow with it and it takes you to another place. If it’s a really good night like that, then sometimes I have a hard time talking with people in between the sets because I’m just out in this weird zone from playing.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
Already covered that.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Blues music is the roots of Jazz.  Blues and Country are the roots of Rock. Blues and Gospel are the roots of Soul music.  Without Blues, you never would’ve had Jazz, Rock or Soul. No Miles or Coltrane. No James Brown. No Eric Clapton. No Tower of Power, no Pearl Jam, no Green Day, No nuthin. (All you would’ve had besides Classical was Country, which came from Appalachian music, which came from Scotland and Ireland.) Blues is the main root from which sprang most forms of American music.

Give one wish for the BLUES

The problem with a lot of people the Blues community is they’re against any innovation, they want Blues to sound just like it did 50 years ago. The trouble with that is if a music form ceases to change, it eventually dies. Every time some well known artist from another genre crosses over into the Blues and does something different with it (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray) , a whole generation of fans gets introduced to the Blues and suddenly Blues CD sales go up. And then you hear the so-called “true” blues fans complain that Vaughan and Cray are changing the Blues.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
It’s much harder.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

How good a musician you are doesn’t matter as much as people think. What matters is how well you network with other people in the business who can help get you gigs, such as other musicians, producers, booking agents. etc. It doesn’t matter that you’re the greatest musician in the world if your only audience is your practice room walls.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……

Happiness is a night when everything is right, the grooves feel so good, the music is magic, everything I’m playing is sounding great, the audience is hanging on every note and just loving it, every head and foot in the place is moving to the music… to me it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a small club or a huge concert venue.  Of course it would be great to get paid a lotta money to do that. But I would rather get paid nothing to play great music, than get paid $10,000 to play music that I have no respect for.

Ben Beckley - Wumbloozo

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