Hitting the stage
It’s early evening, and away from the bustle of rush hour traffic dominating the damp streets around Covent Garden, Neal Wilkinson is sat in a cafe discussing drums over a cup of tea.
He’s here to talk about his long and diverse career, but the clock is ticking and trying to cram 30-plus years of professional playing into 30 minutes is hard, especially when your subject is bursting with insight and great stories, but is any minute due to go and bash through two hours of Carole King classics at the Baroque-beautiful Aldwych Theatre down the road.
Wilkinson has held down the drum chair on the award-winning Beautiful musical now for two years, so naturally, out of an initial conversation about Kenny Clare, the two Ronnies (Verrell and Stephenson) and all the other great pro-end TV and pit players of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s our first point of discussion.
“I think being in London and part of a scene that I’ve always been involved in, being able to read charts and cover a lot of styles, you’re sort of ripe for the picking for a West End show,” he says. “When I got the call to do Beautiful I was still waiting to find out news on a potential James Morrison tour. The contactor asked how I felt about doing a West End show, and at first I got that sinking feeling of, no, I don’t want to do a show, until she told me it was Carole King. Then I thought, hang on a minute, this could be quite nice.”
What was meant to be a great gap-filler until things kicked off again with Morrison turned into something a little more long-term when he and the rest of the singer’s touring band received an email saying they were going to make some personnel changes in the group.
“In effect I was fired, and Beautiful was kind of a life saver,” he remembers. “But what it also meant was I was back in town, and not on the road, which enabled me to pick up on more sessions again.”
Flipping between do-wop rock’n’roll, breezy soul, gospel and even a bit of Basie-style swing, Beautiful is a dream gig for any drummer, especially one as versatile as Wilkinson. Often straight after a daytime gig or session somewhere, he plays up to eight shows a week in a small soundproof room below all the action on stage, adjacent to the rest of the band coming through loud and clear in his cans.
“The music is incredible,” he enthuses. “I remember when I first saw the pad it was like looking at half of my record collection! I’m a huge fan of the whole Laurel Canyon scene, Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills And Nash, Joni Mitchell… so in a way, I felt like I could just walk in to the gig, take my jacket off and just play.”
Of course, having a love and understanding of the music you are playing is one thing, but how does he keep things fresh when he’s essentially playing the same charts night after night?
“The songs are set in stone but there is still lots of room for creativity within the rhythm section,” he explains. “It’s not like I’m going to change the patterns or the parts hugely, but some nights I might set things up differently, or try and bring a different energy to it. With a gig like this the music is so great there’s so many ways to approach it.
“The thing I find most challenging, not just on this gig but every gig, is to play creatively in a song setting. Rather than playing millions of notes, what I’ve always been focused on is the flow, the groove, the choices of things you play and the palette you choose from. Even my sound, drum sizes, tuning, it all goes together to make it work.
“It’s what makes Purdie different to Gadd. It can be the simplest thing but often it’s to do with the fact that you’ve chosen to either play something or not play something. It’s a deep subject and something far deeper than playing a load of notes. I think your actual subconscious or conscious choice of what you play, or don’t play, is what defines you as a player.”
Success on both sides of the pond
As well as being one of the most in-demand players in the UK, Wilkinson’s lofty reputation is also recognised in the US, where he’s played gigs with legendary bassist Leland Sklar, and also shared the stage with top-drawer sessioners like Tom Scott, Deantoni Parks, Luis Conte and Paul Jackson Jr. Not bad for a kid from Coventry that first made waves in a seaside talent show at eight…
“That was one of those weirdest moments,” he recalls, smiling. “I was a very shy kid and unknown to my mum and dad, who were in the same room; I just got up on stage and said I could play the drums! I came second, I think, and a guy called Chris Hayes [then star writer for popular music paper Melody Maker] walked over, handed my dad a card, said I was good and that I should have serious lessons. This led to me having six lessons over the next few years with the great Max Abrams, and by the time I was 16 I was ready to get out there and play.”
While Wilkinson confirms it was his drummer uncle that first encouraged him to get behind the kit, he’s quick to point out that it was in fact his older brother, and all the great music constantly aired at home, that largely influenced his taste and approach to playing.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have been brought up in the ’60s and ’70s, during what I believe was the golden age of pop music and songwriting,” he says. “Being at home was like being locked in this dream cabin with this incredible music like Motown, the Beatles, Stones, The Who and The Kinks. That time was amazing - I feel like I still carry that music with me as a player.”
Indeed, the incessant flow of fine music that soundtracked Wilkinson’s younger years has been a source of inspiration he’s professionally profited from since, be it a live show or studio date.
“Nearly every session I do somebody will say, ‘We’re going for a Ringo or Bonham thing,’ or maybe a Curtis Mayfield or Al Green-like groove. There’s always a reference point.” he explains. “ They never say, let’s just record your drums, and for me that’s great because I tend to always know what they’re talking about, and what they’re looking for.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve always listened to tons of music, and having that ability to understand what somebody is referencing is a massive tool to have as a musician. A producer might mention, say, an Isaac Hayes hi-hat thing or a particular James Gadson beat and you know where they are coming from, you can immediately plant your flag pole and reach for the right snare or pair of hats. It’s so important that musicians are listening to as much as possible, researching this stuff…”
As the conversation see-saws between skills in the studio and simplicity at the set, Wilkinson uses the moment to talk about a period in the mid-1980s when jazz funk was in vogue and he was briefly and somewhat idly labelled a ‘fusioner’.
“Everybody was writing really complex tunes with crazy time signatures,” he says, demoing a tricky lick with his fingers on the table in front of him. “And to a certain degree I kind of enjoyed it for while, but never really felt it, if I’m honest. In fact, the reason I eventually stopped working on all the crazy chops stuff was I didn’t like the music, and I quickly realised the only opportunity to really play most of that busy drum stuff was in that music.”
Again through his drumming uncle, Wilkinson says he was, and still is, more attracted to swingers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Buddy Rich, but admits he’s never considered himself a jazz musician, per se.
“I definitely have a jazz sensibility in touch, and in a way that I can be in the moment and reproduce the same part over and over. I mean, I love Tony [Williams] and Elvin [Jones] because when you hear them play behind Miles or Coltrane the time is so strong. The time is undeniable but people tend to forget about that in those guys, they tend to think of them as these monster drummers that always played millions of notes.
“When I listen to certain players of today’s generation, a lot of it is about chops and while it’s all impressive I think the reason I’m not completely moved by it is the flow isn’t what I like to hear,” he continues.
“Also sonically, the sound doesn’t usually appeal to me, and I am very aware of the sound that you can make in a song. Not many people think of that. I’m always considering what kind of sound a song needs and then it’s the flow, the note placement, the note length. There are some many things that will make up the groove, whether it’s complex or very simple. I remember one of the best things I ever read was a quote from Vinnie Colaiuta where he said he didn’t do this stuff to impress people; he did it because it’s how he thinks the drums should sound. And that’s why he’s so good. He plays the way he thinks the drums should sound. Everybody could learn from that.
“For me it’s about listening to the masters,” he maintains. “In my mind there’s an undoubted group of players that have thankfully left a legacy for us to study, and I think what a lot of younger drummers today are not aware of is just how good those musicians really are. They really showed us just how high the bar could be set. Not just in ability or how many notes you play but, with guys like Porcaro and Jim Gordon, real deep musicianship.
“It’s getting to the point now where a lot of young players are dismissing it. They are into busy players that often have no real depth to what they do. I’ve spent a lifetime, and I’m still a student now, listening, and there are still certain records I stick on that can reduce me to tears in how good they are. The bottom line really is my favourite drumming is always in my favourite music. This is why I’ve always gone back to Motown, Zep, the Laurel Canyon stuff, Stevie, the Beatles.”
Wilkinson insists there’s a certain flow and time placement that he hears, that he describes as “the gold”, believing also that it’s far easier to attain an athletic approach to playing than it is to make something feel good and make everybody else in the band feel good.
“Why was Steve Gadd suddenly on hundreds of records? It wasn’t that he had a great manager or he was on social media, it was because the guy had an incredible feel. It’s concept over technique, meaning you could have Ringo or Levon Helm be just as important as Buddy Rich. I think the concept can be more important than the technique. You could have all the technique in the world but people don’t want to play with you.
“And then you could have somebody with this strong identity and idea of how you want to create music that may be very simple and suddenly people go, ‘I love that guy!’ That’s the concept. People like Levon Helm, Ringo and all the great song-drummers, even Gadd, as complex as he could be, I think he threw a lot of it away. It seems every year that’s gone by he’s got simpler and simpler, to the core of what’s really necessary, and that’s a wonderful thing to see.”
It’s nearly show-time, and so we leave the cafe and our conversation continues down the road to the theatre. Waiting by the stage door, Wilkinson converses more about Coltrane with Elvin, Colaiuta with Joni and his love for Sonny Payne. He also shares some more on his love for Steve Gadd.
“Gadd is like a Zen master” he says. “There’s a thing about a Zen master that explains him as a great warrior in the way he does everything. He doesn’t need to go and fight because of the way he lives his life, and I get that with Gadd in that whenever he sits on his drum stool it’s like. ‘Okay…’ He doesn’t need to play; you can just see it straight away. It’s like totally mastery of the instrument without really doing anything.”
Come showtime, watching him recline into the opening song in his sound-proof room, you could say the same about Wilkinson. Lost in the music and loyal to the groove, he has a passionate involvement with his instrument and with this remarkable band, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.