Although Steve Arrington began his musical journey and professional career wielding a pair of drumsticks, he’s paved his own boulevard as a vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and preacher. The fact he’s paved them so well means that his contributions to drumming are easy to overlook. An impressive yet under-documented career on the drum throne saw the Dayton native holding court with the legendary Escovedo family band as a tour drummer in the mid-’70s and the driving force (alongside bass prodigy Mark Adams) behind most of Slave’s monster funk hits at the turn of the decade, before pumping out hits on his own as a vocalist/composer.
Now 60, Arrington continues to trailblaze creatively, a quality he absorbed watching his musical heroes, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But whether it’s captivating rooms full of reminiscing baby boomers or 20-something neo-funk offspring looking for the source, Arrington knows – at the end of the day – it’s all about the rhythm.
Your singing voice and songwriting chops are so revered that some don’t know you started off as a drummer. Were the trap drums your introduction to music? Were you self-taught?
Yes. I started off playing on pots and pans and schoolbooks. Then my grandparents bought me my first drum set when I was eight – a set of Slingerlands. I didn’t take private lessons until later on, but first started playing in the band in school and I learned to read from a basic level.
As you were developing your own playing style, which drummers inspired you the most?
At first, I’d say the James Brown [drummers]. In our hood, if you had your “Cold Sweat” beat together, you’d have some respect. The other song you had to have together was Archie Bell and The Drells “Tighten Up.” You had to play that drum break. C’mon man! Then it moved into Sly Stone’s “Sex Machine,” but by that time my music interest really opened up. At 16 or 17, I started moving into fusion and art rock – Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, the original drummer for Yes. Tony Williams Lifetime and Lenny White from Return For Forever. That opened up the door for me to look back and that’s when I got into Miles, Coltrane – the great Elvin Jones and Papa Joe Jones.
You never had to really go far to be inspired living in Dayton in the late ’60s, though. Not only were there bands like The Ohio Players getting established, it’s a known fact that the high school music programs in the area were amazing: Roosevelt, Nettie Lee Roth, Colonel White and others were known for having a lot of talented bands.
Absolutely. My half brother had a band called The Soul Agents. My mother was the manager and I was a little guy playing percussion in that band. I couldn’t get into the clubs [due to age], but they kept me around and I’d watch them practice. Junie Morrison and Marvin Pierce from The Ohio Players were both in that band. Marvin Craig, the bass player from Lakeside, also did a stint in the band. I’d sit on my steps week in and week out watching these people pass through my basement.
Which high school did you attend? Did you play in any of the bands?
I went to Roth and Colonel White. I moved a lot, so I went to four different high schools. But I ended up at Roth. [Slave members] Danny Webster, Mark “Drac” Hicks, Mark Adams and Floyd Miller – we would all meet up at sixth period, which was our music class. We would play together and talk music, but I was a senior and they were freshman. Mark asked me to join his band [The Young Mystics], but I was a senior [finishing] school and moved to the West Coast. So while the rest of the members were getting together I wasn’t around.
So you knew the Slave members since high school, but didn’t join the band until later. What were you doing between graduation and 1978, when you finally joined Slave?
Well, the same way I was a few years ahead of the guys in Slave, the guys in Lakeside were a few years ahead of me. So we used to look up to Lakeside when they’d have battle of the bands and talent shows in school. [When they graduated], they moved out to LA. Another group that was important on the Dayton scene was Platypus. They went out to LA, too. When I graduated I wanted to go out to the West Coast, but I went out to the Bay Area to make it.
One day I took a ride with a friend, and the great Coke Escovedo was out watering his lawn. So we stopped the car and I said, “I’m not trying to be a nuisance. I see you taking care of your lawn, but yo, that Abraxas album!” I told him I was from Dayton, I play drums and I was just trying to make it. He told me he knew a flute player who was opening for him on the road looking for a drummer and gave me the address. I went down for the audition and got the gig, but Coke was at that audition and heard me play. He said, “Not only did you get that gig, but I want you to be my drummer as well.”
At that point, Coke Escovedo became my next mentor. He was the first person that really took a liking to me at that next level. I started getting into Latin soul and salsa and that [playing] style. I absorbed all that music.
What are the odds of an encounter like that?!
I’ll never forget one night in San Francisco, Coke said, “My niece is gonna sit in with us tonight.” I’m thinking she’s gonna sing; I wasn’t sure what she was gonna do. They bring these congas up beside the drum set and this girl starts hitting the congas. She was rippin’ it! And that was Sheila E, that’s how we met.
Billy Cobham was my hero at that time and he was playing in Sheila and Pete Escovedo’s band, but he was about to leave to do his own thing. So one day Sheila says “Why don’t you come and hit with us?” I was intimidated on all kind of levels! I made the audition, but I told them I couldn’t do what Billy does, he’s the greatest drummer in the world. But they told me they liked my feel, so as I got comfortable I opened up and we did tour dates together. Carlos Santana was the featured guitarist; we had Julian Priester on trombone; Eddie Henderson on trumpet; Ray Obiedo on guitar, it was nuts.
So you replaced your idol, Billy Cobham, in Pete & Sheila Escovedo’s band. It’s hard to dream bigger than that, so what brought you out of that gig to go with Slave?
That band went in different directions. Sheila went with George Duke; the bass player went with Santana; the keyboard player went with Billy Cobham and I went with Slave. Mark Adams called me and told me they were about to make a drum chair change, but I first joined as a percussionist.
Was [original drummer] Tim “Tiny” Dozier still on drums at the point?
He stayed maybe a month or two more, and then I became the drummer. The first song I played on was “Stellar Fungk.”
I never knew you played on The Concept album. Tim Dozier is on the back cover photo. I just knew that was your voice on “Coming Soon.”
Exactly, I wasn’t on the [back] cover. Most of that album I just played percussion and did some background vocals. My first actual lead vocal was on the bridge of “Coming Soon.” That’s the first time I ever sung on tape. It was my vocal debut, but I had no expectations of singing or songwriting. I was just there to rock the drums and to get back with Mark Adams to form that bond, because a lot of people think that our lock was very special.
It’s interesting that your singing voice is so distinct and revered, but you were never really spotlighted as a vocalist up to that point.
Right after I left high school and before I went to the West Coast, I auditioned for a lounge act called The Murphy’s. They asked if I could sing and I realized I could, but when I joined Slave I only thought of myself as a drummer that could sing. It took awhile before I saw myself as a singer that played drums. That transition took more time.
That’s pretty crazy considering Slave didn’t have a designated lead singer on the first three albums, then you became the vocal identity of the group on the Just a Touch of Love album.
On Slave’s first albums, they kind of split the vocals up with different people. By the time I joined the band, Starleana Young had just joined and Curt Jones joined shortly after. [Bandleader] Steve Washington was looking for them to contribute for the vocals.
Then one day we did the track for “Just a Touch of Love” and one of the guys was supposed to sing the lead. He disappeared for about two weeks and we didn’t know where he was, so [producer and engineer] Jimmy Douglass told all of us to take a turn at [singing]. I was like “Ah, what the hell?” So I sang [melody for “Just a Touch of Love”] but I didn’t have any words yet.
To me, there’s no better recorded bass sound than Mark Adams’. His bass jumped out the speakers at you and grabbed you by your neck!
[Douglass] said, “Stop! We’ll give you a tape. Take what you just did, go to the hotel, come up some words and come back tomorrow and record.” I was just doing whatever came to my head and [the band] thought it was dope. As time continued on, people started to identify my voice with the sound. Next thing I know, I’m up front singing. I had never been up front, so I had to learn how to move an audience on the spot. So I’d watch the great Roger Troutman, Charlie Wilson [The Gap Band], Larry Dodson [The Bar-Kays] and James “J.T.” Taylor [Kool and the Gang] and mimic what they were doing. That’s how I learned to be a front man and ended up being the primary lead vocalist of Slave.
What about shows at the time? There’s very little video footage of Slave from their prime years. Were you singing from the drum chair or was there a separate drummer for the show?
At first I sang and played from the drums, but everyone thought I should come up front. So Roger Parker – who’s a great drummer who played on Faze-O’s “Riding High” – I suggested we bring him in to play drums live because we came up together and he wasn’t with [Faze-O] anymore. So I continued to play on the records and Roger played live.
The band was full of amazing musicians, but you mentioned your rhythmic lock with the great Mark Adams earlier. How did you approach that being that Adams was such a virtuoso on the bass?
Mark Adams made a lot of moves on the bass, but when you listen to him nothing sounds forced. It’s effortless. He was just very emotional on his instrument. To me, there’s no better recorded bass sound than Mark Adams’. His bass jumped out the speakers at you and grabbed you by your neck! He had his influences – he loved Verdine White – but his influences didn’t dominate his playing. He had his own voice on the instrument.
Were you guys playing to a click?
By the time we go into the Aurra stuff, we had clicks. But the Slave records, while I was in the band, it was thump or go home. No helper on that.
The drumming on those Slave records was solid and in the groove, but every now and again a crazy hi-hat chirp or kick and snare fill would blindside you! The quick open-close hi-hat work on a lot of Slave cuts like “Just a Touch of Love” and “Roots” is like that. “Stone Jam” also has some nasty fills during Drac’s guitar solo. They’re pretty exotic fills, but they don’t disturb the groove with all the stuff going on in the song. Were those little licks things you got from your days playing Latin stuff?
Absolutely. There was a tremendous influence on me from playing with Coke, Pete and Sheila. I had that hi-hat thing going and it became a signature. I would play these cadence-type beats so Adams could do his thing. I kept spicing but I didn’t get in his way. We had played together before Slave but our styles had matured [by the time the albums were coming out]. What I think about the rhythm section of Slave – not only were we having fun, we were completely inspired by each other. That’s why the interplay was so strong.
And most people don’t know this: That’s not Drac playing the solo on “Stone Jam,” it’s [keyboardist] Ray Turner playing his synth that he programmed to sound like a guitar. People to this day think it’s Drac, because he was mimicking his style. We were freaking out! Ray Turner was a great player as well. He could program anything on his synth.
Whoa! How much input did [producer/engineer] Jimmy Douglass have on how you played in the studio?
He would come to our rehearsals and suggest certain things like “take a little color out of the chords so it doesn’t become a jazz thing.” We all could take things further into a fusion mindset, but Jimmy Douglass and Steve Washington helped us harness it. It would’ve been much less interesting if it was a fusion thing, and he helped us keep things funky, danceable and locked up.
Do you remember how you were miked or how your drums were treated in the studio? The general practice at the time was to muffle everything and mike it closely, but your drums always sounded so full and fat without any loss of tone.
[At the time] everything was super-compressed, from a James Brown point of view. We were more from a rock point of view with James Brown’s mindset. Jimmy did a lot of engineering. [He engineered] stuff for the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Billy Cobham. He was all over the place in terms of his interests and likes, so he knew how to open it up. Our stuff was stomping and big, so we didn’t [compress it] too much.
Same thing with Mark Adams; we didn’t bite down on his sound to try to hide the fret noise. We didn’t try to harness the raw funk, so my drum sound was wide open and how I played. That was from Jimmy’s rock point of view. I played tight, but I played fat, so we got both worlds.
The deeper I got into music, the more I realized the power of God and my spirituality. And I did that for 25 years.
Were you using matched grip to get that kind of power? What type of drums were you playing? I know Rogers drums were Dayton-based at one point.
I used [traditional] grip on “Stellar Fungk,” but on the Just a Touch of Love album I played with matched grip and [open-handed]. Again, inspired by Billy Cobham. And I was playing some yellow North drums.
Those crazy horn-shaped drums?!
I saw Billy Cobham with some North’s and I said “If they’re good enough for Billy, they’re good enough for me!” Nobody was using them outside the fusion realm, but they really project and jump out at you.
“Warning” was one of Slave’s most unique records because of the use of pitch-shifted vocals and special effects like reversed tape. The experimenting with special effects was whose idea?
A lot of that was Steve Washington. If you listen to the drive at the end of “Stellar Fungk,” that’s actually the front riff flipped backwards. We were listening to it one day and the tape got turned inside-out. We tried to flip it back over and thought we had it, but it got to this section and all of a sudden we were hearing it backwards. Steve said “Wow, that’s crazy!” So we learned to play it backwards and played it that way [at the end of the record].
That is crazy! How did the “Summertime Lovin’” b/w “Special Effects From Mars” 12" in 1980 come about? It was on Salsoul Records, but you were still with Slave, who were signed to Cotillion Records and your solo records years later were on Atlantic Records. Was that a one-shot single deal?
Here’s what’s interesting that people really don’t know: Myself, Roger Parker, Starleana Young, Curt Jones and The Carter Brothers... None of us were actually signed to Slave. We were all sidemen.
Ah. I’ve always wondered why you, Curt Jones and Starleana Young were listed separate from the rest of the band on the credits of the Just a Touch of Love album.
Steve Washington was very influenced by George Clinton. There was so much talent in P-Funk that’d he’d do [solo] records on everyone. So Steve did the Aurra album and then we did “Summertime Lovin’” and “Special Effects from Mars.” Slave is playing on both of those tracks. But on “Summertime Lovin’” I started to get more involved with the music. If you listen, there’s a spot in the bridge section where I do a tom-tom thing on the drums, and that’s an early perspective on “Way Out.”
You eventually went solo in 1982, with Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame. Steve Washington formed Aurra with Curt Jones and Starleana Young, and then later he formed Civil Attack with Mark “Drac” Hicks. Slave was splintering off into smaller bands.
When Steve Washington left with Tom Lockett, Starleana and Curt [to form Aurra], it was after the Stone Jam album, but they never toured that album with us. That was a big chink in the armor because we had to change leadership. Drac was no longer in the group, either, and Ray Turner was headed out the door. Mark Adams became the leader, but he wasn’t groomed for that. Steve was our leader. We had management problems and financial problems and it took a toll. There was never a Slave album where the same people were there all the time; there were always people coming and going. I left after the Showtime album.
The early Hall of Fame records like “Nobody Can Be You” and “Weak At The Knees” eventually found second lives on hip-hop records via sampling. Were you splitting the drum chair with Parker and planning to move strictly to vocal duties and other instruments? Do you remember who played drums on those two cuts in particular?
That was Roger on those. I was playing bass on “Nobody Can Be You.” I was more into the songwriting. The Hall of Fame stuff was more streamlined than the Slave stuff. It was almost the reverse: the bass stayed home more and the drums were allowed to step out more. The record company wanted another “Watching You,” but I’m from the school of Miles Davis – having the willingness to change and do things different.
It seemed like you moved away from drums a bit and got into other aspects of making records with the Hall of Fame stuff.
I was into playing percussion and the other instruments. I played guitar on “Beddie Biey.” I did some keyboard work as well. I enjoyed Roger’s playing so much I told him, “Handle your business, dog.” On “Way Out,” I showed him the beat, but he played it.
You continued to release solo albums through the ’80s, then your last release was a New Jack Swing cut called “No Reason” in 1991. After that you dropped out of sight for almost 20 years. What happened?
I was starting to feel a much deeper call to get into my spiritual side. My interest was to have an in-depth relationship with God. My heroes are people who take chances. There are people who say John Coltrane, when he went avant-garde, and Miles Davis, when he went electric, singlehandedly destroyed jazz. I dug Coltrane because he had exhausted what he was hearing and feeling and decided to change his direction due to his spirituality. My heart said I didn’t have anything else to say [musically]. The deeper I got into music, the more I realized the power of God and my spirituality. And I did that for 25 years.
But then a whole younger generation of people discovered your stuff via sampling while you were away. What was your initial reaction to sampling and when was the first time you heard your stuff sampled?
I enjoy hip-hop. One of the last things I did [before leaving the music business in the early ’90s] was with 3X Dope, when they did a remake of “Weak At The Knees.” Then I did some work with Kool Moe Dee on the Funke, Funke Wisdom album. As hip-hop gained momentum, they embraced me and I was a part of it. When sampling came in, the only problem I had was people weren’t getting paid. But once that was straightened out I was able to fully embrace it. It’s a natural progression, no different than synthesizers or drum machines.
I loved the way Brand Nubian rocked “Nobody Can Be You.” And how Ice Cube used “Weak At The Knees.” In my mind, it was no different than Miles Davis did with jazz. He allowed people to influence him.
With all the musical lanes you’ve driven in, do you still have time to play drums? How often do you sit down and just groove? Do you see yourself as a drummer first?
I’m always drumming. Live, I’ll always play my percussion. There are times I start feeling really good and I’ll start playing a Texas shuffle. My thoughts went more into songwriting and arranging. But I’ll never stop drumming.