In 1970, the 16th note was the war cry of all funky music in California’s Bay Area. And those holding a musical instrument who were fortunate to be raised and immersed in the cultural and musical melting pot couldn’t help but be inspired by one of funk’s most unique rhythmic interpretations: Oakland Funk.
By the mid-’70s, horn-heavy funk outfit Tower of Power had become one of the primary purveyors of the sound, and revving TOP’s motor was drummer David Garibaldi, a funk master with a signature style that could only be born out of listening attentively, practicing tirelessly and grooving ferociously. Garibaldi’s unique groove, craftsmanship and discipline keep him drumming actively today, doing the “Million Gig March” worldwide with the band he joined and helped propel into the annals of funk nearly 50 years ago.
What first got you into playing drums, and when did you begin to take it seriously?
At 10 years old, for some reason, I got attracted to drums. I was in school bands and started playing in rock & roll bands [in high school]. My first paying gig was playing big band music on a flatbed truck outside of the music store where I was taking piano lessons. But I didn’t make a serious commitment to the instrument till about the first year after I joined Tower of Power.
What types of stuff were you listening to back then? Were there any specific drummers or songs that stood out?
I was 17 and had just gotten out of high school, and my friends took me to see the James Brown show at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. It was like the first time you have sex – it was absolutely unbelievable. We went in the afternoon and there was nobody there but the band – they were rehearsing. It was the same band that was on Live at the Apollo, which was one of our favorite recordings at the time. We walked right up to the front of the stage and saw rehearsal, then the show later that night. It was serious school that night. It set the direction for what I wanted to do musically. I made a decision right then: I want to play like this.
One of James Brown’s drummers, Melvin Parker, was drafted into the service around this time. That’s what brought Clyde Stubblefield into the fold. The Vietnam War also played a role in your career.
I got a draft notice in May of 1966. At that time, if you were drafted, you were going to Vietnam. But as long as you went into the military prior to your draft date and fulfilled your military obligation, you didn’t have to go into the draft. I enlisted as a clerk in the Air Force just to get it out of the way and come back [home] and start playing again. In basic training, somebody asked all the musicians to raise their hands. I went and auditioned for the Air Force band. It was pretty easy duty compared to a lot of my other friends who went to Vietnam. I got out in 1969, a few days after the Altamont concert.
All the social stress that was going on elsewhere, the musicians here in the Bay Area, we never had that.
You mention Altamont. The way that concert went down was always symbolic of the violent end of the ’60s. It seemed like the efforts for civil rights and the whole hippie vibe just floundered in the early ’70s. But the Bay Area had a specific vibe socially at that time. There was a lot of racial tension and unrest nationally, in addition to the war. And in the midst of all that, multi-cultural bands like Sly and the Family Stone and [later] Cold Blood were forming and making this amazing music.
All the social stress that was going on in other parts of society, the musicians here in the Bay Area, we never had that. Everyone was hanging out and living, working and eating together. That’s the environment we came up in. It was great. Music is supposed to bring people together. That’s how we grew up in the Bay Area – an integrated scene.
Then I lived in Los Angeles [in the late ’70s-’80s] for 12 years and it was the most racially segregated place I’d ever been. It was a shock to my system and an uncomfortable situation. I didn’t like it.
In another interview I did, Mike Clark mentioned playing drums for the Black Panthers’ house band.
When I was with Tower of Power we played a Black Panther breakfast. They used to do community breakfasts out on the lawn at the Oakland Auditorium for underprivileged kids. I have a certificate signed by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton for “serving the people, body and soul” from the Black Panther Party. It was awesome; we all got them.
So you’re out of the service and back gigging locally in the Bay Area. When did you land the gig with Tower of Power?
Mike Clark and I were both subbing in this band called The Reality Sandwich. A drug dealer was running the band, and sometimes the horn players from Tower of Power would sit in also. One night, two of the horn players told me they were making a drummer change and asked if I’d be interested. So I checked them out in San Francisco, and they were playing original music and really obscure cover songs that nobody knew unless you [really] knew music. It was so cool, I knew I was gonna be in the band before they did. [laughs] So eventually I met the leader, Emilio [Castillo], played with them, they loved it and I was in. I started July 23rd, 1970. [laughs]
Tower Of Power’s debut album [East Bay Grease] came out that same year. That’s a fast turnaround!
We went in the studio in September and it was out in November. It’s not like today where people take years to record. All the major labels had studios in San Francisco, so you did recordings quickly. It wasn’t too many takes. It was pretty raw.
Between that point and the band’s big breakout with the eponymous third album in ’73, there were a lot of changes with the band, from labels to lead singers. What were the challenges you faced in getting the band to the point where it really hit its stride?
I’m serious. That was a really big obstacle for everybody. It started real innocently with alcohol and smoking a bit of weed, but it got real serious as soon as we started making money. More and more that became an inner theme of the band, as we were moving forward.
But you guys got focused in time for that third album, with hit records like “What Is Hip?”
The third album was the first with [organist] Chester Thompson, [lead vocalist] Lenny Williams and [saxophonist] Lenny Pickett. That was our real first step into the next level. All of those songs on that album had been recorded with [vocalist] Rick Stevens and he quit, so we had to do everything over with Lenny Williams.
Chester came at the very end and overdubbed [organ solos] on “What Is Hip?” Him joining the band gave us [new direction]. We always liked organ trios like Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith, so we developed a vibe of a small organ trio inside of the larger ensemble. Even on our live show, everyone would solo and it would drop down to guitar, B-3 [organ] and drums.
Sonny Payne was my favorite big band drummer with Count Basie and I was totally enamored by the way he played with the band. His phrasing and energy, all that stuff. I used to try to channel Sonny Payne and the James Brown drummers with Tower of Power while I was developing a concept. I’d play with Tower of Power like it was a big band, but with 16th notes.
There’s also a very noticeable advancement in your playing specifically over those first three albums. What do you attribute to the growth as a drummer that got you to iconic grooves like “What Is Hip?” and “Soul Vaccination”?
Around that time there was so much music to listen to, so all these things you were listening to all the time influenced whatever came out of you. With Latin music, I remember thinking, “There’s a serious groove going on, but no drummer pounding out a two and four [on snare drum].” So I got the idea to make up some grooves that don’t have two and four, but it’s a rhythmic pattern. So I started experimenting and came up with stuff like “Oakland Stroke,” “On the Serious Side” and “Soul Vaccination.” They were more like rhythm patterns as opposed to a traditional R&B approach to rhythm.
The Latin influence definitely explains those grooves. But from a technical standpoint, that’s when the drumming on the Tower of Power albums really got deep. I remember reading somewhere that you went back and took lessons again.
I was already doing all the funky stuff and had developed all the ghost notes, but it was very raw. A friend of mine had been studying with [drummer/teacher] Chuck Brown in Oakland. Chuck was revolutionary because he was a black man teaching all these white kids how to play drums.
He was a real disciplinarian, but that was what I needed. My friend told me to study with him, but I ignored him because I was on this trip of “oh I’m with Tower, touring and making records, I don’t need that.” Then I saw my friend playing and heard footsteps – he was really starting to play well. I remember waking up one morning and thinking I hadn’t demonstrated that [drumming] was my life’s work. I felt I needed to get serious, so I started studying with Chuck and all the rough edges smoothed out. He’d have me play along to Miles Davis records to help my ability to swing. You could hear [improvement] on the recordings. We started going in a lot of different directions.
On the following album [Back to Oakland], there was “Oakland Stroke” and “Squib Cakes.” Those grooves were so colorful and distinct. Did you come up with those grooves as jam sessions, then [bassist] Rocco Prestia followed and the rest of the band fell in? Or did you just improvise on top of written charts?
What I discovered after the first album was I didn’t have much vocabulary. I was just jamming all the time. If I wanted the songs to be unique, I’d have to be more serious about the parts I was playing. So I got into creating grooves for sections of songs that I wouldn’t use anywhere else. That made me have to think about how I wanted to approach each song as opposed to just jamming. “Oakland Stroke” was a rhythm section jam at first, but we didn’t have enough songs for the album, so we had to build on that jam.
Mike Clark, Gaylord Birch, Greg Errico, Sandy McKee and yourself all contributed to what became known as the Oakland Funk style of drumming. Did you guys ever trade ideas or shed together?
Yeah. There was a lot of that going on. Sandy was a total free spirit. He played by the seat of his pants a lot. He had great technique and played very lightly. He was very fast; he’d do fills and grab cymbals. He’d have his hi-hat set up beneath his snare drum, with his right hand underneath his left. It was just sick!
Greg Errico is a good friend of mine. We spent a lot of time together and hung out. Gaylord and I were in competition with each other because he was [Sandy’s replacement] in Cold Blood. When Tower of Power and Cold Blood played gigs together, it was like the NBA. We’d talk shit to each other and try to kick each other’s ass. But when the gig was over we’d be hanging out. We’d all check each other out, but because of the bands we were in, sometimes it was real competitive.
The only one I wasn’t really competitive with was Mike. We enjoyed each other’s company and I always deferred to Mike anyway because he was a really skilled jazz player already. To me, Mike had skills that none of the rest of us had, so he was always the lead dog.
You all play uniquely, but there’s this common thread of playing around the beat and over the bar line. There’s also a jazz sensibility in the syncopation, independence and left hand action. The 16th note ghost note was the glue of those Bay Area grooves.
That was because of how we came up [in the Bay Area]. It was in the air with all the different type of music. A lot of jazz, Latin, funk, rock & roll and classical. The way we made music was to mix it all together. I look at it like regional accents or cooking. If you cook the same dish in Alabama and California, it won’t taste the same because there are so many different influences on how the dish was made. Regional sounds were even more regional then, because there was no Internet, no DVDs or any of that stuff. You were influenced by the guys in your neighborhood.
I left Tower of Power because of [the drug use in the band]. It was driving me crazy.
Your left hand was always very controlled and precise. You have a way with dynamics. Were you playing traditional or matched grip at the time? It seemed a lot of drummers were switching over to matched grip in the early ’70s.
On all those early recordings up until 1974 I was playing traditional grip with heel down [on the bass drum pedal]. I played real light, like a jazz player. When I started adding more drums around 1975, I started playing matched grip. The difference in those two techniques is there’s a feel to all the ghost notes and a texture you get with the light stuff that you don’t get with matched grip. You have to work really hard to get that same thing with the matched grip. I still miss that, but I play matched grip most of the time now. I became comfortable with it. But I have to redo some of the parts on the old songs because they don’t feel the same with matched grip.
I want to discuss the in-studio side of things a bit. Funk drumming in the ’70s required a pretty dry and dead sound with a tight snare, but there was still a tonality to your toms and bass drum to where it’s obvious more went into tuning and treatment than a bunch of blankets and tape.
[laughs] I didn’t have a lot of experience. I really struggled in the studio then. We all did. We could play well, but we didn’t have really good studio chops yet. We’d have to do a lot of takes and there was a lot of splicing going on. No one knew how to get a great drum sound, so if you hear a sound that’s good, it might have been a mistake. [laughs]
So it was all trial and error?
Pretty much. There wasn’t a formula. On Back to Oakland, I took the bottom heads off my drums and front head off the bass drum. That was the only way you could get a bigger sound out of my drums.
On 1975’s Urban Renewal album, you only played on one cut.
I left because of [drug use in the band] and it was driving me crazy. It was overtaking the creativity and even ruining our friendships. I had to get out of that for a while.
A lot of bands fell apart because of drugs.
I got involved like everybody else did in the beginning. But when I started to go deep with it, I literally thought, “What if my dad saw me like this?” I love my parents; I felt shame, and that really sobered me up. As soon as I had that thought, I scared the hell out of myself and completely went the other way.
David Garibaldi Set-Up, The Early Years
I had a white satin flame pearl Slingerland kit. It had a 20" bass drum and 12" and 14" toms. I had two different Ludwig [Supraphonic] snare drums. One regular 5" snare and one 6" concert snare that I had all taped up. I’d crank ‘em up real tight to get that sound like James Brown.
Later that year, you returned for the In the Slot album and were in and out of the band repeatedly through the end of the ’70s.
It was like having a relationship with a woman that’s never gonna work because there’s extenuating circumstances. But you keep going back in the hopes that something’s gonna happen so that you can have a relationship again. Every time I’d go back, there was still all this dope and gangster stuff going on. Tower, we were great musicians, but everyone wanted to be a little hoodlum or a gangster. All the people all around us, that’s what they were into. So I’d come back and leave again, because I couldn’t stand to see my brothers do this to themselves. I came back again in 1979, left in 1980 and was gone for 18 years.
Post-1976, the records were still funky, but began to get a little straighter rhythmically. Disco was in. Did you find it was seeping into your playing despite you having a signature sound?
It changed the way everybody played, man! James Gadson was one of my super favorites from all those Dyke and the Blazers records. He was an underground favorite of everybody. Then when I met him in Los Angeles, he was doing the Bee-Gees, playing like a drum machine and making thousands and thousands of dollars. It was what you had to do.
On an early Tower cut like “Knock Yourself Out” [on East Bay Grease], the tempo ebbs and flows a bit with the energy of the song, but it sounds natural and the time still feels solid because everyone is clicking together. But by the end of the ’70s, the metronome was in heavy use. How did you feel about it? The click discouraged that type of elasticity in groove.
I started to encounter [the metronome] in Los Angeles. It was how music was put together and helped with overdubs. With Tower, a lot of our music is real organic. It goes where it goes and we don’t fuss about the click. We use a click in the studio, but not for everything. We never have discussions about how each other play.
When I was in Los Angeles, guys were always talking about how each other played. That’s counterproductive and inhibited everyone. You couldn’t interpret music the way you were born to do it, and that’s your signature, your handwriting. Nobody argues about handwriting. But good Lord, if the time moves a bit, there’s an earthshaking discussion that has to go on. The bottom line is: This is art. I want the freedom to express art the way I feel it. With Tower, we give each other that freedom. I think that’s where music is at it’s most productive – when you let people be who they are and do it together.
You played on a few records in the late ’70s and ’80s from artists like Tom Johnston and Gino Vannelli. The Johnston cut [“I Can Count On You”] is unique because it sounds like vintage Tower of Power meets the disco sound of the time. Was that you taking your signature sound and meeting the trend of the day halfway?
Tom was a Bay Area guy. He was in the Doobie Brothers and a Tower fan. So what we did just ended up being a mix of all that stuff. I don’t remember the session being particularly memorable because for me, anything that wasn’t Tower of Power was hard to enjoy. I say that respectfully, because I worked with a lot of really great folks. But nothing to me was satisfactory unless it was Tower. That’s my heartbeat.
I figured you would’ve been a pretty prolific session player given your reading and technical abilities.
I did some. But I had too much of a signature in my playing. Doing session work you can’t have a personality that’s real dominant in your playing. You have to be a chameleon. The guys who did a lot of sessions like JR [Robinson], Jeff Pocaro and Harvey [Mason] – they had a really unique vibe in their playing, but when they had to turn that off, they could do it. I never liked turning myself off. I tried it. No amount of money could make me not be myself. It just wasn’t me.
Were you still gigging often between when you left ToP and the time you returned in 1998? How did you sustain?
I was in Los Angeles playing whatever gigs there were to do. I was [also] teaching at the Dick Rowe School of Music for nine years. There was a lot of demo recording going on in the studios and that was the minor leagues to get bigger gigs, so I was in a lot of rhythm sections. We’d go in every week and cut demos. In 1989 I moved back to the Bay Area to reconnect to my roots and get back to my musical environment.
Your instructional video from 1994 [Tower of Groove] is pretty legendary.
I did hundreds of clinics. I enjoy teaching and helping younger drummers. Teaching is a big part of my music life.
And you eventually got back to Tower of Power in 1998 and have been out there doing it ever since. What brought you back permanently?
I missed those guys; they’re like family. I saw there was no more dope or gangster stuff going on. I started rehearsing with the band for a tour of Japan to test the waters and see if we still liked each other. But the tour got moved to a different time of year, so we just started rehearsing, doing gigs and playing everyday. We called it the Million Gig March. Everyone had their stuff together. We had one show at the North Sea Jazz Festival where everything just clicked and I realized, “Wow, this is my home again.”