Sorry about my elongated absence. I’ve was at a work thing from Thursday to Sunday and it wiped out my blogging time. Back now.
Fred White knew something many drummers don’t. You may have the loudest instrument in the rehearsal room, you may have half a dozen cymbals, two kick drums and a battery of toms, and maybe even a 12-foot gong behind you, but if you’re a drummer, it ain’t about you. However big your kit and however loud you play, you’re there to serve the song. The most important aspect of your performance is not the bitchin’ fill you play coming out of the second chorus or your tricky little hi-hat variations. It’s your groove. Your feel. Your dynamic. Your consistency. The tone and timbre of your drums. All of that has to sound and – even more crucially – feel good.
Fred White, drummer of Earth, Wind & Fire from 1975 to 1983, knew this stuff. Whether he was playing funk, disco or a ballad, his hallmark was the same: a solid groove with only the embellishment that was needed, and only that which was driven by the emotion of the music in the moment. In uptempo disco songs, White frequently played 60- or 90-second stretches of two and four with no fills whatsoever, not even a cymbal crash. OK, you might say, EWF had such a maximalist sound that there wasn’t space for him to play lots of drum fills. True, but I can think of many drummers who wouldn’t have let a little detail like that stop them trying.
The band’s ballads gave White a little more scope to add ornamentation to his grooves, and on After the Love Has Gone (written by David Foster, Bill Champlin and Jay Graydon – yep, he of Steely Dan Peg solo fame) he does so while remaining tasteful and sympathetic to the song. He was only 24 when he played on After the Love Has Gone, but he’d been in training a long time already. At the age of just 16, White had appeared on Donny Hathaway’s Live album (recorded at The Troubadour in LA and the Bitter End in New York), on which his playing was superlative. He’d had the opportunity to learn from players like Willie Weeks, Cornell Dupree and Hathaway himself when to play licks and when to just keep the groove. Consequently he always came down on the side of the groove.
On After the Love Has Gone, White plays steady 16ths with his right hand, two and four with his left and a bass drum pattern that’s notably lively and light on its feet – not the big, obvious one and three. His attention to detail with his right foot, and his flawless execution of it, is where this song really shines.
We’ve noted before how Walter Orange’s similarly syncopated bass drum work kept Commodores ballads like Easy and Sail On from becoming rigid and plodding, despite rather stately tempos. White does the same thing here, resulting in a compelling, great-feeling track, even before you add Phillip Bailey’s skyscraping harmonies and the Phenix Horns’ beautiful, sleepy-sounding countermelodies (a sound created through the use of flugelhorns instead of trumpets). So while After the Love Has Gone is brilliantly played by everyone involved in it, it still seems to me especially dependent on the stellar contributions of its drummer, the great Fred White. Almost any drummer could learn a lot about playing for the song from him.