Give The Drummer Some: Steve Ferrone

J-Zone speaks to the Average White Band and Tom Petty drummer

Average White Band, 1978 Ebet Roberts / Getty Images

In the world of Steve Ferrone, the drums are an instrument of service. That outlook is partly why he’s remained one of the most dependable and in-demand drummers across multiple genres for four decades and counting. The sticksman’s undeniable groove and tasteful approach to timekeeping have fueled a musical journey that began in his native England and brought him to the United States and around the world with Average White Band (AWB).

Eventually, he’d thrive in the prosperous era of studio sessions in New York and Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s; find a place in hip-hop production lore with his often-sampled drum break in AWB’s “School Boy Crush” and pocket his way into his current gig with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, where he’s held court for the last 20-plus years.

Life wasn’t always as steady as Ferrone’s sense of time – he’s survived the drum machine, technology and the common vices that derailed many of his peers. With a level head, a knack for making the difficult sound simple and a discography and tour history that seemingly stretch ad infinitum, the ever funky and solid Steve Ferrone is living proof that as long as you do your job, you’ll always have a job.

I’ve heard you mention you were a child tap dancer. Drummers like Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd and Earl Palmer all tap-danced. Would you say that’s how you found your knack for rhythm?

I don’t know if that’s how I found my knack for rhythm, but I certainly found out how to fit [rhythm] into a song because of it. My teacher used to call it “light and shade,” talking about dynamics. That’s where I became familiar with the terms of a chorus, verse and bridge. You’d build to a chorus and then when you came back to the verse, there was a dynamic that had to happen. That gave me an idea of how to play a song.

Instead of seeing how fast I could play, I started playing it with some feel.

Most drummers had one particular moment or event when they knew this is what they’d do. When did the bulb go off for you to make the full investment?

I was [12 years-old] in a kid’s chorus and it was the time The Beatles and Rolling Stones were starting to get big. We’d go to dances and one day Manfred Mann’s Earth Band showed up. I saw the drummer playing and how he played one pattern with one hand and another with the other hand – his motor skills. They play two songs and every girl in the place was swooning over this band, so [my friends and I] said, “That’s what we need to do!” So I took a toy drum kit and we started practicing at a friend’s house.

One of the kids in my band used to hang out in the music stores where all the older musicians hung out and he got wind of a band whose drummer was going into the hospital so he recommended me for this blues band. He said, “He’s black, too!” [laughs] So I auditioned and it was scary; kids my age usually just got beat up by [older kids]. We were an amateur local group and we’d open for acts that would come through like The Who, Freddie and the Dreamers and The Searchers.

You honed your skills in the ’60s, when shuffles, soul, early rock & roll and be-bop/post-bop were what most drummers were cutting their teeth to. Eventually as a studio musician, you had to have it all in your bag, but did any drummers and songs in particular inspire you when initially finding your identity behind the kit?

The first thing I learned how to do was play a Twist beat. Then [Dave Brubeck’s] “Take Five” came out and I said, “Oh, let me have a go at that.” Then it was The Beatles and Rolling Stones. I played with an organ trio and that’s where I learned about Jimmy Smith and Grady Tate.

Ben E King - What Is Soul

I was working on the American bases in Europe and a GI walked up to the jukebox and put on “What Is Soul?” by Ben E. King and I heard the opening drum [beat]. That was Bernard Purdie and I’d never heard syncopation like that before. I’m ever grateful to Bernard for that. [laughs] Al Jackson was a big hero and Clyde Stubblefield later on. I used to listen to all different kinds of music.

You grew up in England, so the British Invasion wasn’t an invasion. It was local. For the most part, The Beatles and Rolling Stones records were very groove-centric and not overly technical from a drumming standpoint. Do you think those records being so prevalent helped you understand the value in playing for the song rather than to showcase chops?

Absolutely. Even though I didn’t sit there and say, “This guy has a great groove,” I naturally gravitated towards [The Beatles and Rolling Stones]. But [as for the British Invasion], we had an American Invasion! We knew more about the American musicians than the Americans did. When I’ve seen documentaries, [American studio musicians] were astonished that people knew who they were because they were sidemen. But everybody in England loved these guys and knew exactly who they were. The first time I was ever moved by music I was five or six years old and my parents took me to see an American close harmony group [touring Europe] called the Deep River Boys.

How did you make the leap to playing professionally?

In 1971 I had to make a decision of what to do with my life because I turned 21. I was trying to figure out if I should go back to school and get a “real” job, because I had been touring Europe for five years just grabbing any girl I could get my hands on and playing music. But then I was working with some musicians who knew their stuff; they were schooled musicians, [the band was called] The Piranhas. It was like a Tower of Power or Chicago type of horn band, a mixture of R&B, jazz and rock. They asked me to play in their residency in Nice [France] for a year and I asked if they could get me into the conservatory there. That was my decision – become Bill Gates or Bernard Purdie and I chose Bernard Purdie. [laughs]

Did you have any formal training up to that point or at least work out of books like Ted Reed’s Stick Control or Syncopation?

No. [In conservatory] they showed me technique, how to play a proper paradiddle, how to read syncopation, etc. I’d set my metronome and see if I could play a paradiddle faster and faster, until one of the musicians I was working with just said, “Hey man, just take a James Brown or Rolling Stone record or whatever you like and read the [music] to that.” So instead of seeing how fast I could play, I started playing it with some feel.

Brian Auger - Beginning Again

By the time the early ’70s rolled around, you played with both Bloodstone and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. You’ve garnered a decades-long rep as a solid player who won’t get carried away showing off chops, but on Auger’s The Live Oblivion (Vol. 1) album you’re doing some very technically dazzling fusion stuff and even the Oakland funk that guys like Michael Clark and David Garibaldi had popularized. The opening cut (“Beginning Again”) has some Tony Williams in it. What was playing in that band like?

I jammed with Brian Auger in Italy and one day he tracked me down and asked if I wanted to go to America [in 1973]. America looked good to me. It’s funny with [Live Oblivion] because I’d listen to Billy Cobham and say, “I should play like that!” But I learned about playing for the song with The Piranhas so I’d try to find a point halfway in between. It was discouraged in the bands I played in to try to get too fancy. It was more “play so that we can play.” The best drummer of my peers was Jeff Pocaro. He had a lot of technique in his hands, but he didn’t [always] use it because it wasn’t about his technique, it was about his feel.

The drummer you replaced in that band (Robbie McIntosh) you would also replace in Average White Band when he passed away in 1974. What was the connection between AWB and Brian Auger’s band?

We were very close friends. I followed him into The Piranhas, then into Oblivion Express and then into Average White Band.

So now you’re a black drummer in a group called Average White Band. Was there ever an issue with race from outside forces despite the band’s affinity for and deep understanding of black music?

When I started playing with Average White Band, people had heard the records, would come see us and see [six] white guys walk out on the stage and me. The thing from the black part of the audience was “these guys are coming in here and stealing our music”; there was a lot of that in the ’70s. So people would have this look on their face like, “Let’s see what these white boys got.” And they’d look at me and say I was white boy, too, or an Uncle Tom or something. [laughs] But then we’d start playing and they’d be convinced that this was genuine and original, but we were influenced by black music for sure.

Stevie Wonder - Keep On Running

The first AWB album you played on was Cut the Cake, but I’ve always felt the Soul Searching LP has a very unique drum sound that sets it apart not only from the band’s catalog, but most of the music out at the time. The grooves are simple and supportive, but your use of hi-hat accents is pretty slick. I’ve always felt you and Bernard Purdie and Steve Gadd were able to master subtlety – you show presence in ways that don’t scream for attention or interrupt the groove.

The hi-hat [thing], that was the way I heard Stevie Wonder play drums. Stevie had this way of playing drums with this rogue hi-hat that would happen. If you listen to the song “Keep On Running,” the hi-hat has a life of its own. That caught my ear and I liked it.

Your drums are so well recorded on Soul Searching – the snare grabs you by the throat!

[Producer] Arif Mardin would really let the artist have a say. I had this idea of the way I wanted to hear a snare drum. With the Cut the Cake album, there was a microphone on top of the snare and that was it. [For Soul Searching], I asked if I could put another mike underneath the snare and put a delay on that track – that’s what you’re hearing on Soul Searching, the delay off the bottom head of the snare. It gives a lot of air to the snare drum.

Average White Band - Pick Up The Pieces

Most records up through the ’70s waver in tempo, but Soul Searching has pretty impeccable time. Were you cutting to a click at that point or did you just really focus on your time while practicing?

There was a guitarist in The Piranhas who was a stickler for tempo and he was a soccer player. If you’ve ever been kicked by a soccer player, you know those guys’ legs have a lot of power behind them. [laughs] So he would kick me every time I sped up or slowed down. That would make me concentrate. I don’t warm up and I don’t really practice, I like to play with people.

If you look at the live album [Person to Person, 1976], we recorded [four] concerts over the course of a year. The bulk of that album was taken from the concert in Cleveland, but when it came to “Pick Up the Pieces” and everyone had a solo, [the band members] all liked their solos from a different place. Arif Mardin said, “I wonder if they’ll match” and spliced them together from those shows, which were months apart. I defy you to find the edits.

Damn! I noticed you’ve appeared in a few Gretsch drum catalogs from the ’70s. What drew you to playing Gretsch? I’m curious to know what the snare on those AWB records was.

When I started playing drums, I didn’t know anything about [brands]. But I got to try all these different drums – Premier, Trixon, Ludwig, etc. I started asking around about what the best drum kit was; the main opinion was a Gretsch kit was the one to have. So when I started with AWB and had the means to get a drum kit I really wanted, I got a Gretsch. They were expensive then. The snare was the wooden Gretsch that came with the set. A 6 1/2" x 14".

That cracking snare was an old wooden Gretsch?! They usually don’t respond well to being cranked like that.

This one did!

Was that the crazy-looking white kit with the black stripes in all the old AWB videos? Questlove told me it ended up in a pawnshop somehow and you got it back.

Yes, it was a custom, the only one they ever made. That kit was in a storage space in New York and the place went bankrupt. The people who were owed the money just sold it. My drum tech told me he got a call about a drum kit and it looked like mine. So I got in touch with the guy who had it. I had an endorsement with Pearl, so I gave him a Pearl kit and got it back.

Pocket was king with most of those AWB records, but then there was that solo on the live version of “Pick Up the Pieces.” What was your approach to the big live shows, where it was almost expected of the drummer to take a stadium-smashing solo? Did you plan those solos or just improvise every night?

No planning, sometimes I was just feeling it and sometimes I wasn’t. I don’t particularly like playing solos. I bore myself playing solos. I like to play the song.

Mike Clark and I used to call up each other and sing drum beats on the phone.

Funk as a drumming style was really established in the mid-late ’60s, but you were one of the main guys to really tighten it up in the mid-’70s. The playing got more precise and disciplined. Guys like the aforementioned Gadd and Purdie, as well as Earl Young, Yogi Horton, Ndugu Chancler, Idris Muhammad, JR Robinson, Harvey Mason and others were all part of this development. Did you ever shed with any of those guys? Who were some of your peers you’d share ideas with?

The only guy I ever shared ideas with was Mike Clark. We used to call up each other and sing drum beats on the phone.

I interviewed Mike earlier this year. He’s a bad dude.

He is. Mike can play his ass off.

You stayed with AWB till 1983, but you did a huge number of session dates in the late ’70s and early ’80s: Chaka Khan, Jeffrey Osborne, George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Steve Winwood, Larry Coryell, David Sanborn and Angela Bofil, to name a few. How did you find the time to balance life on the road with the session player world?

There was a thing in New York back then called Radio Registry. People would call there to book you for sessions and they’d tell them if you were available. Sometimes you would be available but you were dead tired from working all day and they’d say “Triple scale, you’ll be in an out in an hour!” [laughs] “Quadruple scale!” Greed would take over, you’d go down there and play for an hour and leave a very wealthy man. Those were the boom years. But I was never considered a “studio musician” because of my affiliation with AWB. But then when I started joining other bands later, I was known as a studio guy. I was a guy who played in a band who did a lot of sessions.

I hated the metronome. I had worked at my feel so hard for years and my ego took over.

What was the average day like for a session player in the late ’70s and early ‘80s?

One day in particular I had a session at 10 [AM] in the Bronx for an Argentinian thrash metal guy. Then I went back downtown to Atlantic studios and worked with Roberta Flack in the afternoon. Then at night I went down to Power Station to work with Pat Metheny, so I had to wear a lot of different hats.

[Another time] I was in Right Track studio and this Japanese [client] had all these songs to do and I was plowing through them. I got a phone call from registry about a jingle at noon, so I asked the Japanese guys if I could take a lunch break. [laughs] I went to the jingle house, did it and then went back to the session.

How’d you feel about the metronome?

I hated it. I had worked at my feel so hard for years and my ego took over. I saw Jeff Pocaro one day and said, “Oh, I’m really fed up with the click track.” I was in full rebellion. Jeff said, “You don’t have a problem playing to the click, do you?” I said, “No, it’s easy.” Jeff smiled and looked at me and said, “Take the money.” [laughs]

Between the drum machine, the sampler and metronome, a lot of drummers were out of work in the 1980s. But a peek at your discography shows you worked pretty consistently.

Phil Collins was inspiring because right at that time he came out with “Easy Lover.” [Collins] just didn’t give a damn about drum machines and he got a different sound, a great drum sound. I had a kit and I had a rack with all the cymbals and stuff slung off it. I’d get calls for just live cymbals and crashes or tom fills to make the drum machines feel more like a real drum kit. Sometimes I’d start playing along and they’d turn on the microphones and I’d do a pass on the actual drum kit and they’d end up using it.

Clyde Stubblefield is the most sampled drummer on the planet but since he wasn’t a writer, all the money goes to the James Brown estate.

A lot of musicians fell on hard times in the ’80s with the shifts in technology and music in general. You’ve mentioned the impact drugs and alcohol had on your peers in interviews before. Did you find a lot of musicians struggled with that during that time in particular?

There’s a lot of stupid stuff you do when you’re high on drugs. You’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer to get involved with that stuff in the first place. I was as dumb as everybody else, but fortunately I came through it. Some of us weren’t so fortunate.

Was there anything specific that scared you away from it all?

Nothing scared me. What happened was my life started to tumble out of control. I used to say, “These girls keep getting pregnant.” I kept getting them pregnant. Court cases, child support... lawyers in particular thinking because of the people I worked with that I was some sort of gazillionaire. They’d come after me like they were going after Eric Clapton’s money. There was a point I could go get schnockered and not think about it, but things got so bad I couldn’t even get high anymore. I’d just think about my problems.

So I tried to live my life without drugs and alcohol in 1993 and it didn’t take very long before I started to go crazy. I was detoxing and I had no idea what was going on. Then an old friend of mine flew up from Texas and took me to get some help. So now all those children are mine, I love them all and they made eight grandchildren. [laughs] I finished paying off the lawyers about three years ago; that’s how long it took and how much money it took. But my life is so much better today.

Speaking of drum machines and samplers, one of your drumbeats (AWB’s “School Boy Crush”) became a hugely popular sample source at the end of the ’80s. When did you first hear about people sampling your drums and how did you feel about it?

When I got a check! [laughs] Some people have made some pretty decent music using samples. I just wish it were a bit more equitable for the people who played on it. The thing that does upset me is Clyde Stubblefield is the most sampled drummer on the planet but since he wasn’t a writer, all the money goes to the James Brown estate. I think it’s a little unfair.

The moment you sit there and start thinking about how you’re gonna sound, you lose those other people in the band.

You’d eventually go on to play with Duran Duran, Eric Clapton and land your current gig with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Can you speak a bit about each experience and how the demands are different than AWB or even the studio gigs?

Duran Duran was more of a pop band. With Eric, you have to sense if he’s searching for something and if he needs a nudge to get going, you’ve gotta give it to him. It was pretty much a jam band, but a great band. Tom Petty is probably the best songwriter I worked with, so with him it’s “here’s the song, don’t mess it up.” [laughs] You find the pocket and you play it. Tom Petty’s band is a great rock & roll band – they’re all pros.

I once read an interview with you where you stated, “The drums are an instrument of service.” Can you expand on that statement?

Every once in a while someone will ask me for a lesson, so I do this thing called a recording lesson. They’ll come over to my studio and I’ll have them listen to a song I’m working on. Then I’ll have them play to it and you can see them thinking, “I’ve been playing this beat for awhile, maybe I should do something to impress.” There’s a distraction from the pocket because the drummer is thinking about how to look good. So they’ll play something and when we play it back, it usually sounds like shit. So I say, “You’re not gonna play that one again, are you?”

The drummer creates the comfort zone. He can point attention to anything anyone in the band is playing, so he has to have his ears and radar going at all times. The service position of the drummer is to keep the comfort zone for everybody. The moment you sit there and start thinking about how you’re gonna sound, you lose those other people in the band and they wonder what the hell is the drummer doing! [laughs]

By J-Zone on September 6, 2016

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