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In the Pocket with James Gadson: An Essential Mixtape

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James Gadson at his home studio | Photo by Oliver Wang
James Gadson at his home studio | Photo: Oliver Wang.

Rumor is that drummer James Gadson has graced at least 300 gold recordings but he corrected me, "it must be up to 500 now." I think he was half-joking...but only half.

If you've listened to pop music over the last 40 years, you've heard Gadson; it's impossible to imagine otherwise. He is one of the most successful and prolific session players in history, having worked with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Norah Jones, Aretha Franklin to Justin Timberlake. However, more than just a drummer-for-hire, Gadson's also written, produced and sang on songs, spanning from 1950s doo-wop up through the most contemporary pop hits. We sat down at his home studio in Hyde Park - next to a mixing board once installed at Motown and adjoining the recording space where he and Bill Withers once rehearsed - and revisited some of the key songs in his audio-biography.

The Carpets: Why Do I? (Federal, 1956)

Gadson was born and raised in Kansas City, MO; his father was a drummer who, ironically, didn't want his two sons following his footsteps. No such luck for dad though: both James and Tom Gadson ended up helping form the doo-wop group, The Carpets, when both were still teenagers. James wasn't even drumming yet. Instead, he served as songwriter and lead vocalist.

I just always liked to sing, and the doo-wop groups fascinated me. I think I was about ten or eleven years old, I would crawl out the window at night when my parents were asleep and go down to the nightclubs and sing. I went up to the band, told 'em I wanted to sing, and they laughed at me and let me sing, and the people loved it. I had more nerve then than I do now.

We heard that a famous record producer [Ralph Bass] was coming to town to sign up some different acts.[Ralph Bass is best known for working as a talent scout for Federal, King, Chess and other key R&B imprints. He's credited with discovering such soul giants as James Brown and Etta James, among many others.] We was staying at a hotel and we went up there and knocked on the door. He had a broad in there, he was kind of mad about that shit. We said, 'man, we wanna audition!' So he heard us sing, he said "you know what? I'm gonna sign y'all. I'm gonna take a chance on y'all,' because we went up to his hotel and did that."

That was before my voice had changed, I had a high voice. This was just before Frankie Lymon. [Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were a massively successful and influential doo-wop group from Harlem. Lymon's high voice became associated with the sound of doo-wop itself.] Our group was just as good, it's just that we were in Kansas City and not New York

The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: A Dance, A Kiss And A Song (Warner Bros., 1968)

Gadson's doo-wop career didn't last long and after a stint in the Air Force, he returned to Kansas City and began to learn jazz drumming by playing with the city's famed organ trios. He moved to L.A in 1966 for a gig opportunity that quickly fell apart but friend and fellow drummer, John Boudreaux, thought Gadson might find work with an up-and-coming bandleader: Charles Wright.

Wright was what rhythm guitarists called a "chink man," for the sharp, angular strokes he could lay down. Wright's band, The Wright Sounds, played the local R&B clubs but Gadson's background in jazz made him an awkward fit at first.

I had become a jazz drummer. I was playing a lot of outside stuff in Kansas City...we could get away with certain things. I couldn't play the R&B stuff...because I couldn't play in the pocket. I didn't know nothing about none of this, so Charles fired me about five times.

Gadson eventually mastered how to lock into the groove and became an integral part of the Wright Sounds and they transformed into the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. None of the group was actually from Watts - the name came from producer Fred Smith - and though Warner Bros. initially signed them to back comedian Bill Cosby on tour, the Watts 103rd soon became the L.A. soul/funk outfit of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their first hit was a lumbering funk chant called "Do Your Thing," but the B-side featured a jaunty mid-tempo groover written and sung by Gadson: "A Dance, A Kiss And A Song."

I don't know what made me write that [chorus], but you know, I always wrote. In Kansas City, I wrote a lot. [I told the group], "I got this song." We recorded it, I sang it, everything was cool. Being truthful with the group, I said, "I listened to "A Dance, A Kiss & A Song," and I listened to "Do Your Thing" and [the latter's] got a better groove. Charles said, "I think you're right, man." And so the next thing we know, "Do Your Thing" was the single."

Dyke and the Blazers: Funky Walk (Original Sound, 1968)

The band's burgeoning reputation brought them moonlighting opportunities with other artists, including Arlester Christian's group, Dyke and the Blazers. Before Christian's untimely death in 1971, they had rattled off a string of hits such as "Funky Broadway," "Let a Woman Be a Woman and Let a Man Be A Man," "We Got More Soul," et. al. Few realized that on most of those songs, it was actually the 103rd Street players backing them. Watts Band trumpeter/arranger Ray Jackson had already been working with Christian but needed more players so he gave his 103rd Street bandmates a call.

He called us: 'Hey man, you wanna do a session?" Okay. So we do the session. We did a song called "Funky Walk," it was reminiscent of what James Brown was doing. I didn't even know it was a hit record. [Famed oldies DJ] Art Laboe called us back and said say 'Hey man, you did a hit record!" In my hometown, [friends called]: "we heard you on that record!" I had no idea it was that big. We had a great time because we got to experiment. It was altogether different from the Watts band stuff. We had a controlled situation with the Watts band, we couldn't really use our ideas.

Bill Withers: Kissing My Love (Sussex, 1972)

In 1971, at the height of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's success, creative and business disagreements rendered the group apart; they never reformed. Instead, almost all of the rhythm section went to work with Bill Withers who had already minted one hit with "Ain't No Sunshine" and was at work on his second album when Gadson and the crew came through.

We met Bill Withers through Charles Wright...he managed Bill Withers for maybe a week or two. Bill had a great sense of timing, the strum on his guitar, we locked in. See, we had already been playing together, the rhythm section. So to have a rhythm section like this, you couldn't ask for nothing better! We worked hard. Everybody was cool 'cause nobody was a star yet.

"Kissing My Love"...we were in the studio and that was the last song we were recording, and it was supposed to have been a shuffle. But...it wasn't working. So I had to come up with something, and Ray [Jackson] and I would be talking, I'd say, "What about this?" [Gadson taps out a rhythm on his knees] Next thing you know, there it was.

One of James Gadson's drum kits | Photo: Oliver Wang

James Gadson: Good Vibrations (Cream, 1972)

Around the same time, Gadson also landed a solo deal with Cream Records, one of Alvin Bennett's many imprints over the '60s and '70s.[Bennett was a record exec par excellence, having run Dot and Liberty before creating Cream, which then bought out Hi Records and a host of other labels.] It could have been a turning point for Gadson; he finally had full creative control and several of his former bandmates in the 103rd backed him in the studio. The sides he cut with Cream are uniformly excellent - lush and soulful, using Gadson's sweet tenor to good effect - but Cream never delivered enough muscle to help mint a hit. Notably though, "Good Vibrations," originally written by blind Seattle DJ-turned-songwriter/arranger Gordon DeWitty, ended up being covered twice: once by country artist Bonnie Bramlett and once by singer Johnny Nash of "I Can See Clearly Now" fame.

E. Rodney Jones, who was a big personality in Chicago, [on] WVON, was from my father's hometown, Texarkana, Texas. I'd seen him a couple of times when he'd come through Kansas City. He got me the deal. I met Gordon DeWitty in Seattle, Washington when we toured there with the Watts Band and later, he moved here and worked with Bobby Womack.[Watts 103rd bassist] Melvin [Dunlap] was on there playing bass. Ray arranged the stuff for us. I think Ray might have been playing keyboards too.

Marvin Gaye: I Want You (Motown, 1976)

Even if Gadson's solo career foundered, his reputation as a session player was only climbing. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, Detroit's Motown Records was steadily moving their operations to Los Angeles, eventually opening up a full-fledged studio in Hollywood, aka MoWest or Hitsville West. Gadson became a favored session player at MoWest but first, there was a learning curve he had to master.

I was producing Stu Gardner at The Record Plant and they had this [studio] contractor - he was a big contractor, the biggest - Ben Barrett.[He contracted musicians for records and movie soundtracks.] He said, "James Gadson, we've been looking for you for two years! Man, we need you over to Motown, can you read?" I said "Yeah!" I was lying. I couldn't read no music. I learned though when I finally went into Motown and I saw Joe Sample and Wilton Felder, the who's who, these big guys. And [the music] was written out, even open and closed hi-hats, the different toms you hit, and all that. James Carmichael, bless his heart, he kept me.[James Carmichael was a prolific, accomplished R&B arranger/producers.] He said, "We need to keep him because he's got good timing. He's got a good groove."' So I took advantage. I'd come home every day and study and get the reading thing together.

Gadson worked on dozens - if not hundreds - of Motown sessions during the 1970s, including Marvin Gaye's I Want You. The expectations on that album were massive - Gaye was riding off back-to-back epochal hits with What's Going On and Let's Get It On. I Want You shifted things in a new direction; rather than play off the sounds of the last two LPs, producer Leon Ware took things in a more mellow, disco-brushed direction. Gadson had his own contribution to the album's title cut:

How, "I Want You" came about. We was waiting on [arranger] Paul Riser to bring the music and I felt kind of guilty. I'm in here, getting [paid] double scale, and I'm waiting. I just start playing [taps out a rhythm], Chuck Rainey started, next thing you know, everybody was playing, we had a groove. Leon Ware came out [waving at us], "keep going! Keep going!" It felt good.

James Gadson's monogrammed kick drum | Photo: Oliver Wang
James Gadson's monogrammed kick drum | Photo: Oliver Wang

The most recent album James Gadson appears on is Kelly Hogan's I Like To Keep Myself In Pain.

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