It takes a lot of hard work, just as much determination, and perhaps a little bit of good fortune to become a session drummer on a high profile gig. So, imagine what it takes to become recognised as one of the first-call drummers for not one, but multiple household name legends.
Steve Jordan is one such drummer, with a unique feel behind the kit, a dynamic sense of touch, and a deep understanding of the drummers’ place in a song have earned him stage and studio slots with the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, The Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen, Donald Fagen (to name a few). He was even a weekly fixture on TV via his role in the Late Night with David Letterman house band.
Now, in the wake of Charlie Watts’ passing, he’s taking care of groove for one of the biggest bands rock ’n’ roll has ever seen with The Rolling Stones, a position personally signed-off by Watts himself years prior to his death, telling his bandmates, “Steve Jordan’s your man” if anything should ever happen to him.
Steve’s success isn’t just owing to his standout drumming style, though. He’s also a dab hand behind the glass as a Grammy award-winning producer. Perhaps it’s this which helps inform his approach to the drums sonically as well as the notes he’s playing, with many ‘Jordanisms’ spurring new trends in the types of gear we play.
Large hi-hats, stone-dead snare drums, wood hoops? It’d be a stretch to say he invented them, but they’re all often-imitated, close associations. Yamaha even enlisted him to help co-design its short-lived, and now sought-after modern Club Custom range.
Distilling a prolific discography of songs and performances which spans decades into five choices is no easy task, and this isn’t a case of ‘Five best’. Instead, we’ve gone for five songs that hopefully show the diversity and gravity of Jordan’s career. Dip your toe, then dive deep into the career of a modern groove master.
John Mayer - Vultures
We could have filled this article many times over with Jordan’s output with Mayer alone, and we’d say that his performance with the John Mayer Trio from live album Where The Light Is (as well as the studio albums) is not only essential listening, but also provides a pretty comprehensive cross-section of what makes Steve Jordan’s playing so addictive.
There’s blues, soul, funk and rock, all instilled with his bouncing groove and impeccable drum sounds. That last point is largely why we’ve chosen Vultures (originally recorded for 2006’s Continuum) to kick off.
On paper, the simple kick-snare pattern is straight out of Drum Beats 101, but the execution and sonics are what elevate the groove that we’ve heard a thousand times to a new level of interest.
This is quintessential Jordan - oversized, sloshy hi-hats, an intentionally dead snare that’s so fat it’s risking a coronary, but the only pacemaker here is Jordan himself. Together with partner-in-time, Pino Palladino, it’s a masterclass in laying a groovy foundation for a guitar hero to build their house on.
The Blues Brothers - Soul Man
The Blues Brothers released Briefcase Full of Blues before the film came out, and therefore this live album pre-dates the studio-recorded soundtrack. However, it still netted Jordan a Billboard Number One, thanks in part to singles Rubber Biscuit, Hey Bartender and the BB’s version of Sam & Dave’s classic, Soul Man.
“I was in a gas station, and I heard the original version again and I almost passed out. Because it was so incredible, and Al Jackson was so unbelievable. Our version just paled in comparison…I’m talking about Al Jackson’s groove, his pocket on that is so bullet-proof, iron-clad, compared to what I did which was the contemporary version. It’s almost embarrassing, it was such a lesson in humility.”
Despite this —which Jordan claims was the catalyst for a more 'humble' change of approach in his playing — we’d argue that Jordan’s version holds up brilliantly. and is well worth a listen for any covers band player looking to learn the song.
Elsewhere, the album is a study in soul, blues and R’n’B drumming with Jordan moving effortlessly between straight grooves, gospel beats and shuffles. A must-listen for anyone playing with blues-obsessed six-stringers.
James Brown - Late Night with David Letterman
Ok, so this is a TV performance rather than one of the hundreds of studio recordings Jordan has appeared on, but it’s certainly a career standout. When James Brown came to Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, he performed three songs with ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Band’ — Paul Schaffer (keys), Will Lee (bass) Hiram Bullock (guitar) Sinaclair Pinkney (sax) and Hollie Ferris (trumpet) — and of course, Steve Jordan on drums.
Ironically, due to the camera work and stage setup, we barely catch a glimpse of Jordan, but that’s made up for by the incredibly tight (and clearly audible) playing. Brown, notoriously tough on his band, specifically drummers, dished out a set of performances for the books, propelled by Jordan and co.’s funky backing.
Jordan reflected on playing with the Godfather of Soul in an interview with Guitar Center, and it seems that it wasn’t just the audience who were impressed. “The first time James Brown appeared on the Letterman show in 1982, it was incredible. We blew his mind because he didn’t think our band was gonna be like that.
"We had been waiting to play with James Brown our whole lives…so when we got the opportunity to do it, we were so freaking on it. He couldn’t believe it…it was really an amazing thing.
“After the show, I went back to meet him [to get his autograph]. He was sitting under a hairdryer…Al Sharpton was standing right behind him, because Al Sharpton used to do his hair!
"Anyway, he gets up, he grabs me and he says ‘Brother, you’re high!’ I’m saying to myself ‘I’m not high!’. He goes, ‘You’re high, your energy is high! This is the best show I’ve done in front of cameras since the TAMI Show!”. For him to say that was the greatest compliment that I think you could ever receive.”
John Scofield - Busted
Blues doesn’t often scream ‘Drums!’, mainly due to the fact that the appreciation lies with the subtleties of the genre. But, it’s a style that we’re all likely to find ourselves playing at some point.
Steve Jordan has been a consistent ambassador for great blues drumming, accompanying notable blue legends including Buddy Guy, BB King, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Robben Ford and more, so if you’re trufflin’ for a shufflin’, Steve Jordan’s swingier output is a great place to look.
This choice steps slightly outside of the standard blues shuffle style, as Jordan sits in with fusion/jazz/funk/blues shapeshifting guitar virtuoso, John Scofield for an album’s worth of Ray Charles appreciation (That’s What I Say).
Jordan takes the straightforward shuffle of the original and gives it a jazzy makeover with a swinging ride pattern, but it’s mixed with stomped hi-hats, a busy, weaving bass drum and that unmistakeable ‘crack’ and ghost notes from a tight snare.
The Rolling Stones - Angry
Steve Jordan’s association with The Rolling Stones began in the ’80s after he joined Keith Richards’ project, The X-Pensive Winos - originally devised to pay tribute to Chuck Berry for the Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll documentary and concerts. Jordan produced and co-wrote three albums with Keef, and when Charlie Watts sadly passed in 2021, there was no question within the band as to who could fill the role.
Here, we’re treated to the first single from Hackney Diamonds - the Stones’ first new album of material in 18 years (unreleased at the time of writing). Jordan plays drums on all but two of the album’s songs which are of course, played by Charlie Watts (Mess It Up and Live By The Sword).
It’s a straight-ahead Rolling Stones tune that, like a familiar pair of shoes neither amazes nor disappoints. Instead, it delivers exactly what we’d hope to hear from a band whose career is now into its seventh decade.
Jordan plays it straight, with a Watts-inspired beat and an incredibly appropriate drum sound, complete with a crystal clear ringing snare. We imagine that playing for The Rolling Stones is likely to keep Jordan busy, but the good news is that there’s plenty more to come.