John ‘JR’ Robinson Interview
Learning From the Greatest
John ‘JR’ Robinson has become the most recorded drummer in history, even surpassing the great Hal Blaine. Having played on hits like We Are The World, All Night Long, You Are and Say You Say Me by Lionel Richie, I’m So Excited and Slow Hand by the Pointer Sisters, I’m Just A Gigolo and California Girls by David Lee Roth, Higher Love, The Finer Things and Back In The Highlife by Steve Winwood, Express Yourself by Madonna, Off The Wall, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal, Workin Day and Night and Bad from the late great Michael Jackson, Natalie Cole’s,”Stardust” and Change The World by Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones’ The Dude, Q’s Jook Joint and From Q With Love, Give Me The Night from George Benson just to name a few John has developed one of the most revered resume’s in the world of drumming. In this interview he shares his journey from Iowa to the A-League.
What inspired you to start playing the drums?
I think first of all it was God – I got hit by a big drum god – and then it was my mother and father. My father always played piano as a hobby, but very well. He also played violin and sang in the local chorus. My mother always talked about drums, swing drums and big band drums so I started playing piano at age five and then switched to the drums around eight.
What were your main goals as a kid learning his craft?
I had my first band when I was ten, which was just me and a guitar player. Then I started listening – obviously the Beatles had a big impact – my sister used to love the Beatles but I used to like the Dave Clark Five better because the leader was the drummer. So I got into that and the Animals and started playing guitar a little bit, I also started listening to Cream and kind of emulating that with my trio band when I was twelve, you know, and playing Hendrix and things like that so I think the drive was a band – having a band and the feeling that we three guys were one.
How did you approach your own development?
Starting as such a young drummer you don’t really have any technique – there is just natural technique. I couldn’t take lessons because the guy I was going to take lessons from was 300 miles north of me. It was too far, so I just learned by playing tunes and once I was able to start studying I would study the snare drum. I never really studied the drumset until I got to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I did, however become a teacher at age twelve and by becoming a teacher that helped with the technical aspect of my playing. I was always a very good reader and I think that came from piano and vocals in chorus.
Moving from Iowa to Boston was a shock in itself, you know moving from a little town to the big city, but I put myself out there when I moved to Boston. I started playing in multiple groups and learning music I hadn’t really played before – there was a Miles Davis kind of band, I played in this 50 piece orchestra on the trapset drums which kind of prepared me for Streisand and Quincy, I had a rock band and then I joined bands that would make a lot of money like show bands with singers and basically learning really great tunes. It was from that point that I was introduced to the band Rufus they came in and saw me with a hip band and they dug it – if it was some schlep band they probably wouldn’t have gotten near the front stage and got hammered. Fortunately they all came to the front of the stage and started playing.
Do you still set goals for yourself today?
One of my goals is to start playing piano better again but I just don’t have the time right now to study. With everything that’s going on, you know, I’ve been on the road almost every week this year, which is really unusual for me be- cause I’m a studio player. I’m starting to formulate work on my second solo record – by Christmas time (2008) I want to have at least five tunes done, if I can. That’s a pretty steep goal but If I can get it done by next summer that would be the ultimate goal. I do a lot of records here out of my studio so I want to always keep that functioning and obviously take care of my seven-year old.
What was the turning point in your career?
That’s funny because I was in a band called Turning Point, years ago in Boston! You know, when I got discovered by Rufus in 1978, that obviously got me from the B-League to the A-League. That bridge is very difficult for most musicians. I moved from Boston to Los Angeles within a week and tried to get acclimated into the real world. That was a turning point for me, however, the biggest one was at a concert right after I moved to Los Angeles and I was introduced to Quincy Jones. That particular connection took me into the super A-League and allowed me to become the greatest studio drummer here and that’s the whole key to maintaining that even into my middle age. I think our art form is starting to go away, you know, there’s not a lot of sessions like we used to do in the old days – even though I’m still doing a lot of sessions it’s all very seasonal hear in Los Angeles.
How do you handle nerves?
That’s an interesting question. When I first started playing in the A-league as we say, you know, getting discovered and playing big concerts with Rufus I used to get nervous. I’d come to the gig early and just warm up on a bench, sometimes for an hour/hour and a half before the show yet I’d go out to play and immediately tighten up after the first tune. The point of that is that it’s all psychosomatic – warming up is a bit overrated – it’s really all mental preparation. For somebody who’s been playing as long as me, if your chops aren’t there by now, they’ll never get there. You need to mentally prepare for each gig. I do a little bit of exercise like simple body stretching and stuff just to keep me kind of loose and I do some jumps. I used to jump a lot of rope, but I’m not doing that anymore – I may get back into that.
As far as the jitters go – that’s one advantage for drummers. We’re not standing out front with a microphone, we’re back behind our spaceship and that’s kind of how I look at it.
How do you prepare mentally for a big performance?
You know, with Streisand that stuff kind of came second nature because the show plays itself. The show never varies – we plug in what we need and there’s nothing that can really derail on the Streisand show. When it starts, it goes. With a Rufus kind of situation everybody’s playing off of each other so things are kind of different. I’ve got a new band with similar members – Bobby Watson on Bass, Michael Thompson on guitar and Greg Matheson on keys called Native Sons. We play more hip jazz/R&B stuff and again we just play off each other. With this Quincy gig I’m about to do in Montreux I have to be Mr. Variety, I have to play every kind of music, which has been the key for me. You kind of just go with the flow and you are prepared because you are behind the drums.
What do you think makes a great musician?
Hence the title, it’s the music. A great musician is one who understands and feels deeply within his or her heart what they are playing. Music is life – if you live your life you can be a musician – you have to believe in it and you have to put work into it to get something out of it.
Do you have any good advice for young musicians who are trying to make it?
Obviously believe in what you believe in and stick by your guns – you’re gonna be pulled left and right in the music business – there’s insecurity times, times when you question “should I have done that?” but try to be very assertive without stepping on people’s toes. Master your craft whether it be songwriting, arranging or performance. If you don’t smile anymore or don’t enjoy it, it’s time to get out. And I think the last thing would be never grow up!
Interview taken from The Psychology Of Drumming.