JR Robinson on the Michael Jackson Rock With You drum intro: “I made sure there was a hole that you could drive an 18-wheeler through”

Drummer John JR Robinson sat at drum kit, Michael Jackson circa 1984
(Image credit: Richard Eccleston (JR Robinson), Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

There are session drummers, and then there’s John 'JR' Robinson - a legendary name who has supplied the drum tracks for countless other legendary names throughout his career. While JR’s CV contains Paul McCartney, Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Daft Punk, The Weeknd and many others, he’s perhaps best known for his work with Michael Jackson.

In a brand new interview with Jammcard founder, Elmo Lovano for his Go with Elmo Lovano podcast, JR talks in detail about his career, recounting some absolutely golden anecdotes along the way.

It’s only a couple of minutes in before we get our first dose, with JR explaining how his iconic drum intro to Michael Jackson’s Rock With You came about after three average live takes from a team of session titans. 

“We were cutting for the Off The Wall album, the song Rock With You. I was very fortunate to be the mainstay drummer through the entire record. Quincy [Jones] would cast different rhythm section guys and put them around me. So I was very fortunate to play on every song…

“It started after I cut a couple of songs, and then they asked me to come back and do the rest of the record on Monday. It was basically Party Weekend Central before that. I got to the studio [on the Monday], boom, boom, we did Don’t Stop…and then I got asked ‘Okay, what’s your schedule like coming up? We want to get you with a band and record this song.’

Quincy goes ‘JR, if you could come up with an intro fill that the whole world would forever identify with this song, could you do that? Maybe on this next take?’

JR Robinson

“I knew that Quincy knew, that it was a hit record written by Rod Temperton. That song happened to be called Rock With You…We were all cast, it was Hawk Wolinski on keys, Bobby Watson on bass and David Williams on guitar. We were in Westlake B - which ironically is where I cut with Gaga, they wanted the same vibe but X amount of decades later.

“So we go in, we start listening to Rod’s demo…now the drum part? No, there was no drum part, it was just motion. So, take one, I cut it with a click that I programmed. Back then it was a Urei old seven-frame film click…So take one…eh, no magic. Take two, maybe a little better, people are learning their parts.

“Time’s going on and I’m looking in the control room, I can see Quincy and Rod in there - Rod’s puffing on his red Marlboros. Take 3: a lot better, no magic. I see Quincy and Rod get up, come out of the door and Quincy stands right behind me. I’m going ‘Oh, shit’. Rod’s standing there, smoking his Marlboros with his English accent.

“Quincy goes ‘JR, if you could come up with an intro fill that the whole world would forever identify with this song, could you do that? Maybe on this next take?’. I looked at him like John Belushi, and I go ‘Sure!’.  

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I immediately reflected back to Rod’s demo, which was weird, and I thought, ‘What do I hate most about drum fills?’. I hate when it’s straight sixteenth-notes and triplets, and putting them together. It’s just wrong. So I go ‘That’s what I’m going to do!’.

“But I did it more in a syncopated march world. So, I hear four clicks and I have to go. I just did it, used my military training, my march training and I added syncopation, and I made sure there was a hole that you could drive an 18-wheeler through to get to the next downbeat. 

“It all came spontaneously in that one take, and we never did another take…we kind of knew we’d cut a Number One record…all of us looked at each other and went ‘We did it!’.”

In a clip posted to Instagram, JR goes on to reveal that the dry, fat-sounding hi-hats he used on Off The Wall (now-vintage Zildjian models) were actually given to engineer Bruce Swedien immediately after the sessions had finished. However, perhaps not for the reasons we might expect…

“I have a story about that.” says JR. “After we cut a lot of these songs on Off The Wall, Bruce Swedien the engineer, who was a frustrated drummer came up to me and looks at my hi-hats. 

“During the whole recording session Quincy goes ‘Can you get your hi-hats to open up more like [sloshy]?’ And they wouldn’t, they were just old Zildjian hats I had in Boston. So I said ‘I’ll do the best that I can’.

“At the end of the whole record Bruce said, ‘JR, what are you going to do with those hi-hats, can I have them?’. I go, ‘Sure, you can have them’. I know why he took them. He took them so I’d never use them again, they were kind of trashy and they never really opened up. 

Elmo then asks, “So you’re saying that [he asked you for them] because he didn’t like it?” “That is correct”, JR replies. “But obviously he is the king, you can hear it. When I go to the bridge, when I’m opening it up like the ‘pea soup’, Quincy calls it, they don’t really open up. Which is actually hipper than you would think!

Listen to the whole of the Go with Elmo Lovano podcast above, or for an audio-only version it’s available here

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.