|Gaylord Birch playing drums for The Pointer Sisters, circa 1974|
Oakland had been a great California city, primarily because it was the terminus of the first Transcontinental Railroad, and many other rail lines besides. After World War 2, however, when people could afford private automobiles to drive themselves across the Bay Bridge (opened in 1936), Oakland slowly shrank in importance. Still, along with its thriving container port, Oakland had two major exports in the early 1970s: great sports teams and innovative funk music. Along with the Oakland A's, Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors, champions all, Oakland had some popular and influential funk bands. Tower of Power were originally from Fremont, but had relocated to Oakland by the time they burst onto the world in 1970. Herbie Hancock's groundbreaking Headhunters album and band had an Oakland rhythm section, with bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark. On the popular side were The Pointer Sisters, four Oakland sisters who had learned to sing in church and played catchy soul music, while still keeping it real with some lowdown Oaktown funk.
The Pointer Sisters were first discovered by Elvin Bishop, who started using them as part-time backup singers when some of them were still in High School. In fact, Elvin alludes to them on the Oct 10 '68 Mickey And The Hartbeats tape, when he says he has some backup singers who "sing like Angels." Through working with Bishop for the next few years, the four sisters (Anita, Bonnie, June and Ruth) started to get known. Not only did they sing like angels, but they were tall, attractive, elegant and great dancers. How could they miss?
They didn't miss. The Pointer Sisters were signed to Blue Thumb Records and released their first album in 1973. They had a great hit with a funky, swinging version of Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can-Can" ("Now is the time for all good men/to get together with one another"). The Pointer Sisters' secret weapon was bandleader and drummer Gaylord Birch. Birch had played in many Oakland ensembles, but he was well-known, by Mike Clark most of all, as the funkiest of Oakland drummers, and that's saying a lot. Birch led the Pointer Sisters band from about 1973 to 1976 (for a glimpse of Birch with the Pointer Sisters, see here).
"How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)" was the Pointer Sisters' biggest and most memorable hit. Anita and Bonnie Pointer, along with producer David Rubinson, wrote the song. It is catchy and hummable, but at the same time Birch drives it along with an irresistible dance beat, pushing and pulling so you can't help feeling the funk. Once again, this is a song that many Deadheads will assert that they don't recognize, until they actually hear it. In some cases, younger listeners may actually recognize the song from a sample (by Salt N Pepa) or a cover (by Queen Latifah), as the song prefigures modern rap and R&B music in all of the best ways. Although the Pointer Sisters have had a variety of ups and downs, they are still together, representing for Oakland and looking and sounding great.
Oakland's primary 70s jazz export was the rhythm section for Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. The Headhunters showed that it was possible to play far out jazz while maintaining an exciting, danceable beat the whole time, and they were hugely successful, even after Hancock moved on. The Headhunters were driven by Oakland's finest players, bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark. Clark recalled Birch's playing in an interview:
When I developed my funk style in the Bay Area there were two other guys who were playing a similar style: Dave Garibaldi [of Tower Of Power] and Gaylord Birch. That was like the Bay Area style. When you walked by a night club, that's what you heard at that time. It was a really exciting period....
The other drummer who was into this Bay Area style at that time was a really great drummer named Gaylord Birch. He was a strong performer who played funk and jazz and he had a red hot spirit. He was so fiercely hot that it was scary. What made him magnificent was that he had hands like Sugar Ray Robinson. To watch him was gorgeous, his movement around the set was so graceful it reminded me of Sugar Ray. He put shots together that were uncanny and he could raise the spirit so high, you would jump for joy. This guy was an amazing drummer.
He played with the Pointer Sisters and with Cold Blood, but really, he played in his own bands and other people's bands and organ groups around Oakland, and that's where you got to hear the real stuff. That other stuff was great but it was produced and he had to do like we all did, he had to deal with the business. But at home, in the back alley, is where you could really hear Gaylord get down. He was frightening.The importance of Clark's opinion can't be overstated. Mike Clark's praise of Birch as a funky drummer is comparable to Jerry Garcia praising a guitarist as an improviser. Clark took Oakland funk worldwide, so his influences were important for that alone. Besides the Pointer Sisters and plenty of session work, Birch also had stints with Graham Central Station, Cold Blood and Santana. Birch played with Cold Blood about 1973, and appeared on the live Vintage Blood cd that was released in 2001. He also toured with Santana from July to October 1976, although I'm not aware of any albums he played on.
Gaylord Birch and Jerry Garcia
Gaylord Birch seems to have been friendly with Merl Saunders, which appears to be true of most of the jazz and funk musicians in the Bay Area in the late 60s and early 70s. Since Merl was signed to Fantasy Records by 1968, I suspect that Merl's connection to Gaylord Birch goes back at least to those days, when Fantasy was located in Oakland. Birch played on at least two sessions with Merl where Jerry Garcia played, so Birch and Garcia must have met prior to Reconstruction. On Saunders' Fire Up album, released in 1973, Birch played congas on "Expressway To Your Heart" (Bill Vitt played drums). That track could have been overdubbed, but Birch was the trap drummer on a January 14, 1974 Saunders track called "Bolinas Brown," released in 1997 on the Keepers cd, which featured Garcia on lead guitar.
JGMF reports the intriguing knowledge that Garcia used to sit in for some of Saunders more low key gigs in the 1974-75 period, and a variety of Bay Area drummers may have played the dates, including possibly Gaylord Birch. So it's not impossible that Birch and Garcia had shared a stage prior to Reconstruction, although hardly certain. However, when John Kahn put Reconstruction together, Birch had never actually been in a true band setting with Garcia, even though they had played together.
Merl Saunders reported that Birch asked him once on stage during a Reconstruction show what an unanticipated cheer was for, and Merl said "Jerry moved his leg." While this story was no doubt exaggerated for effect, the point of it was that Birch had no idea of the devotion of Deadheads to Garcia. Birch was no innocent--he had toured for years with the Pointer Sisters and played with Santana, but Garcia was in a different category. Nonetheless, like all the other members of Reconstruction, Birch answered the challenge and played absolutely brilliantly.
Birch was the drummer for Reconstruction throughout their entire existence, from January through September 1979. Interestingly, Birch made an encore appearance, serving as the Jerry Garcia Band drummer for 10 local gigs from October 7, 1985 through February 21, 1986. I assume that David Kemper was otherwise booked, and Birch filled the chair. Certainly it was a mark of his stature that he was invited back, if only briefly. I listened to his final appearance at The Stone, and it seemed to me, in any case, that Birch favored some fairly fast tempos, giving the JGB a surprisingly lively feel.
Gaylord Birch continued his career as a world class drummer, although he never played with Garcia again after 1986, to my knowledge. He did rejoin Santana for a World Tour in the Spring of 1991, filling in for Billy Johnson on the traps. In that role, Birch was in Santana when they co-headlined the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas with the Grateful Dead on April 27-28, 1991. In a broad sense, then, Birch shared the stage again with Garcia, but not at the same time.
Unfortunately, Gaylord Birch died of cancer in 1996, at the age of 50. Clearly he had a lot of music left in him, but it was not to be. However, his musical legacy is powerful, if not widely known. He drives classic Pointers hits like "Yes We Can Can" and "How Long," and his work with Garcia seems better to me every year, as I become more knowledgeable about what he was actually doing. But don't take my word for it; find a Reconstruction tape, turn it up, and listen to Gaylord Birch playing the drums--the man could lay it down. Like Dave Garibaldi, Mike Clark or Rickey Henderson, he represented and did Oakland proud