Friday, May 11, 2012

David Kemper-Drums: Highlights

David Kemper, drums
David Kemper was the drummer for the Jerry Garcia Band for longer than anyone else, from July 1983 until December 1993. He played more shows with the Garcia Band than any other drummer, and probably more shows than all of them put together. I believe only John Kahn and Melvin Seals played more shows with Garcia outside of the Grateful Dead. Kemper, born about 1948, was contemporary in age to Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, the younger members of the Grateful Dead. However, in contrast to the Dead's strange oddysey, Kemper went directly to Hollywood studios in 1966, and has been nothing but a successful musician ever since.

David Kemper's story is best told by David Kemper. A legendary interview by Barry Smolin that appeared in 1996 in the magazine Dupree's Diamond News not only tells Kemper's story but gives the best insight into life inside the Jerry Garcia Band. Kemper is witty, nostalgic and clear-eyed all at once. (anyone who hasn't read the interview should do so now).  Kemper summed up his experience in the Jerry Garcia Band with the words "there's something about having a foot on the gas pedal and a foot on the brakes at the same time that's utterly exhausting." Nothing more clearly describes the unique tension of the Jerry Garcia Band than having one foot on the gas and one on the brakes.

Given how well Kemper described his own time with Garcia and how vast his musical experience has been, I thought I would approach my picture of Kemper's drumming differently. When I reviewed the careers of other Garcia drummers, like Paul Humphrey and Gaylord Birch, despite their fantastic musical pedigrees they were just names on the backs of albums--a lot of really great albums, I might add--and building a brief but structured biography made good sense. However, I am going to take a subjective approach with David Kemper, and point out some of his musical contributions that I am aware of. Thus, my post on David Kemper's music will be a few snapshots rather than a continuous movie, but it will give a good picture of the breadth and depth of his music, and it will show how his contributions to the Jerry Garcia Band were not just luck.

The cover of Prisoner In Disguise, Linda Ronstadt's 1976 album on Asylum. David Kemper played drums on the song "Tracks Of My Tears."
"Tracks Of My Tears"-Prisoner In Disguise: Linda Ronstadt (Asylum Records 1975)
David Kemper was born in Chicago in 1947 or '48. His father was an engineer, and Kemper spent most of his youth in Ogden, UT. He learned drums at age 7, and never wanted to do anything else. He was both a member of the school orchestra and in local rock bands, so he was both trained and a rock and roller. In 1966, Kemper graduated High School and just barely escaped the draft. He promptly moved to Hollywood and started working in recording studios. Good drummers are always in demand so he found work immediately, although initially it was on the usual low-level stuff. Although Kemper preferred British Invasion style music to psychedelia, he did see the Grateful Dead somewhere in Los Angeles in 1968, and while he enjoyed them, the details are fuzzy thanks to one Mr. Owsley Stanley.

By the mid-70s, Kemper was a regular drummer for some of the top artists in the record industry. At the time, there was hardly a bigger act than Linda Ronstadt. In particular, Ronstadt was the best selling artist who didn't have her own band. No one "got a call" for an Eric Clapton or Elton John album, as they had their own drummers, but Ronstadt used different musicians on every track. Her sessions paid well and her producers could get any player they wanted. The mere fact that Kemper played on an album like Prisoner In Disguise was a sign of his status in the Los Angeles session player world.

Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears" is one of the great pop songs of the 60s. It's a daunting task to cover it in a country style, but Linda Ronstadt pulled it off. Ironically, the record sounds more contemporary today than it did at the time. Most of the popular 'modern country' singers like Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood are just taller versions of Linda circa the 70s. In her time, however, Linda Ronstadt was too rocked up for Nashville country, yet she had what sounded like an unvarnished throwback sound by the standards of slickly produced 70s rock radio. The twist of switching the narrator from a man (Smokey) to a woman (Linda) added a neat angle to the song.

"Tracks Of My Tears" was the only track on the album that Kemper played on, but the song had a wide impact. Ronstadt's version made the charts in rock (#25), country (#11) and adult contemporary (#4). It is conventional now for country singers, particularly female ones, to have a sort of Motown edge to their ballads, and much of that stems from the success of "Tracks." Of course, most of the credit should go to Linda's fantastic vocal and the powerful yet understated production by Peter Asher, but Kemper's the man behind the band. His easy, soulful drumming keeps the beat going without funking it up and copying the Motown record, a lot harder thing to avoid on a classic than you might think.

David Kemper played drums on the 1975 Atco album Mother Focus
Mother Focus-Focus (Atco Records 1975)
In complete contrast to the spare drumming required for Linda Ronstadt's country rock, shortly afterwards Kemper recorded and toured with the Dutch progressive jazz rock group. I admit I have not heard a Focus album in decades, and at the time I was unaware that Kemper played on Mother Focus, but I am including it here simply to illustrate Kemper's versatility. Focus was a Dutch progressive rock group, playing mostly instrumental jazz-rock, comparable to American groups like Tony Williams Lifetime or Larry Coryell's Foreplay. The musical leaders of the group were guitarist Jan Akkerman and organist Thijs Van Leer, with various players on bass and drums.

Startlingly, the second Focus album (called Focus II or Moving Waves in different countries), released in late 1971, had an AM hit single. A re-edited version of the song "Hocus Pocus" became an international hit in 1972. The song featured Akkerman's melodic guitar riffs contrasted against musical figures played by Van Leer on organ, flute and other instruments, most memorably some playful yodeling, which is what everyone remembers. "Hocus Pocus" was completely unrepresentative of the band, but the song has become a sort of classic, even though no one remembers Focus, and the song is regularly used for soundtracks and commercials (it was the theme for the 2010 Nike World Cup commercial, for example). Thus, a Dutch progressive rock group found themselves touring America and England.

By the time of the sixth Focus album, the band was grinding to a halt. They recorded the album in Los Angeles in mid-1975, and since their drummer (Englishman Colin Allen) had quit, they hired Kemper to play on the album. Thus, relatively soon after he had recorded the spare, tasteful drum parts for Linda Ronstadt's classic Motown cover, Kemper was playing intentionally complex and expansive jazz-rock, although at this time Focus was heading in a funkier direction (as was most jazz at the time). After Atco Records released Mother Focus in October 1975, the band still needed a drummer for an English tour, so they hired Kemper to play on their February 1976 UK Tour. Kemper had liked the band, so he joined for the tour. At the start of the tour, Akkerman abruptly quit. The great French guitarist Philip Catherine filled in, apparently quite well, but that spelled the end for Focus. Kemper returned to the Los Angeles recording studios.

The 1982 Elektra album Television Theme Songs, by Mike Post
Television Theme Songs-Mike Post (Elektra Records-1982)

Mike Post was the best and most prolific composer of iconic television theme songs in the rock music era. The list is endless: "Rockford Files," "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "White Shadow" and "Magnum P.I." are the best known, but there were numerous others. I'm not certain if Kemper played on the original recordings, but when Post released an 1982 album of his best known songs, David Kemper was in the credits. I'm not certain whether the album had the same recordings or not--it might have--but in any case Post always used the cream of Los Angeles session men, like Larry Carlton and Ian Underwood, so the fact that Kemper appeared on the record meant he was a Hollywood studio A-lister.

September 26, 1998 Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA: Bob Dylan/Van Morrison/Lucinda Williams
Kemper drummed for the Jerry Garcia Band for 10 years, and by the end of his tenure the band regularly headlined 17,000 seat basketball arenas in the Northeast. Yet, as Kemper pointed out, the Garcia Band's existence outside of music industry orthodoxy meant that he got none of the recognition that came with drumming in a star band. Without the recognition, he didn't get the phone calls that freelancers depend on for gigs and recordings. He only got into the JGB because Kahn called a producer and asked "who's hot?" (I suspect the producer was Michael Omartian.) Thus Kemper had no real social connections with the Garcia Band, and since he lived in Southern California and flew in for shows, he never hung out with the band except on the road.

Ironically enough, Kemper did get to hang out with one friend of Jerry's, namely Bob Dylan. Dylan used to visit Garcia backstage on the road, which suggests that the story I heard some decades ago that Dylan used to call up Garcia late at night in the 90s when both were on the road had some truth to it. Although Dylan never came on stage with the Garcia Band--darn it--he must have heard them, since he hired Kemper in 1996, three years after Kemper was mysteriously released from his Garcia Band duties.

Dylan and Van Morrison were touring together in the early fall of 1998. The perpetually difficult Morrison had briefly bailed out on the tour, causing Dylan to add Lucinda Williams, only to have Van Morrison rejoin. The two headliners alternated closing the show, whether to assuage egos or simply to facilitate the load out wasn't clear. In any case, I saw both Bay Area shows. On September 25 at Concord, Van had come on before Dylan and played a stunning set that even Dylan had trouble following. Bob returned the favor the next night at Shoreline, coming on before Van and playing his classic songs with a raving intensity. Dylan had a great band that year, but Kemper was the star that night (the other players were Tony Garnier-bass, Bucky Baxter-pedal steel and Larry Campbell-guitar). Ten years with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake seems to have been the perfect training to drum behind Bob Dylan. For all the fine work I had seen Kemper do with Garcia, this night with Dylan topped them all.

David Kemper has had an amazing career as a drummer, and as far as I know it's still going strong. I have just selected a few highlights that I was personally aware of, but you can choose your own. I found a list of credits for Kemper on a Bob Dylan site (below), and while I doubt it's complete, its impressive by any standards. Note that Kemper is listed on numerous 'Greatest Hits' type albums, meaning he played on a lot of pop hits, even if he wasn't a full time member of the band. Besides the remarkable history of having drummed 10 years with Jerry Garcia and 6 with Bob Dylan, Kemper has a broad history in popular American rock, country and television music, and he adds to the great tradition of drummers in the Jerry Garcia Band.

An incomplete list of David Kemper session credits
1971 John Stewart               Sunstorm
1974 Kinky Friedman         Kinky Friedman
1974 Cashman, Pistilli & West  Lifesong
1974 Patti Dahlstrom          Your Place or Mine
1974 Michael Omartian        White Horse
1975 Cliff De Young            Cliff De Young
1975 Elkie Brooks                Rich Man's Woman
1975 Randy Edelman            Prime Cuts
1975 Andrew Gold               Andrew Gold
1975 Johnny Rivers              Help Me Rhonda
1975 Johnny Rivers              New Loves and Old Friends
1975 Glen Campbell            Rhinestone Cowboy
1975 Second Chapter of Acts   In the Volume/with Footnotes
1975 Linda Ronstadt           Prisoner in Disguise
1975 Focus                          Mother Focus
1975 Thijs Van Leer           O My Love
1976 Dion                           Streetheart
1976 Keith Christmas         Stories from a Human Zoo
1976 Michel Polnareff        Michel Polnareff
1976 Johnny Rivers            Wild Night
1976 Geoff Muldaur           Motion
1976 Michael Omartian      Adam Again
1976 Deardurff & Joseph    Deardurff and Joseph
1976 Peter Pringle               Peter Pringle
1976 Manhattan Transfer    Coming Out
1977 Bernie Leadon            Natural Progressions
1977 Joan Armatrading       Show Some Emotion
1977 Focus                          Ship of Memories
1977 Rick Cunha                 Moving Pictures
1978 Dane Donohue            Dane Donohue
1979 Allan Clarke                I Wasn't Born Yesterday
1979 Louise Goffin              Kid Blue
1979 Phillips - Macleod       Le Partie Du Cocktail
1979 Whiteface                    Whiteface
1980 Terence Boylan           Suzy
1980 Danny Kortchmar       Innuendo
1980 T-Bone Burnett           Truth Decay
1980 Allan Clarke                The Only One
1981 Chi Coltrane                Silk & Steel
1981 Gary Wright                The Right Place
1982 T-Bone Burnette          Trap Door [EP]
1982 Mike Post                    Television Theme Songs
1983 Leo Kottke                  Time Step
1984 T-Bone Burnette          Behind the Trap Door
1984 America                       Perspective
1985 Stevie Nicks                Rock A Little
1988 Belinda Carlisle          Heaven on Earth
1988 Jerry Garcia                Almost Acoustic
1989 Green on Red             This Time Around
1989 Peter Case           The Man with the Blue Post Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar
1989  [Soundtrack]             Great Balls of Fire
1989 Matthew Ward           Toward Eternity
1990 John Hiatt                  Stolen Moments
1990 Orleans                      Still the One
1990 Kimm Rogers            Soundtrack of My Life
1991 Second Chapter of Acts   Roar Of Love
1991 Jerry Garcia Band       Jerry Garcia Band
1991 Grass Roots                Anthology: 1965-1975
1991 Stevie Nicks               Timespace: Best of Stevie Nicks
1991 Sam Phillips               Cruel Inventions
1992 David Baerwald         Triage
1992 Belinda Carlisle          Her Greatest Hits
1992 Mitsou                        Mitsou
1993 Chuck Prophet            Balinese Dancer
1993 Steve Young               Switchblades of Love
1995   [Soundtrack]             Boys On the Side
1996 David Cassidy            When I'm a Rock N Roll Star: Collection
1997 Jerry Garcia                How Sweet It Is
1997 Bob Dylan                  Time Out of Mind
1997 Dane Donohue            Dane Donohue
1997 Andrew Gold              Thank You for Being a Friend
1998 Allan Clarke               I Wasn't Born Yesterday
1998 Steve Poltz                 One Left Shoe