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SCV interview with original Sly & The Family Stone drummer Greg Errico

Sound Colour Vibration Interviews

w/ Greg Errico, first drummer for Sly & The Family Stone
All photos courtesy of Greg Errico

Greg Errico is a San Francisco born drummer who helped changed the standards of popular drumming in the 1960’s. As the first drummer with Sly & The Family Stone which was formed in 1966 in San Francisco, Greg and the rest of the band around Sly toured the world and brought a new wave of energy to every place they played. The first line up created many hits from 1966-1971 and set the standard for progressive popular music after it. Being the drummer with Sly when he hit the stage at the famous 1969 Woodstock music and arts festival, the group ignited the world into endless amounts of groove and messages of harmony through determination, dedication and love.

There is a little bit of Sly in every pop musician who has hit the stage after him. Regardless of the weight of a situation, top form musicians always find their way to new challenges and approaches to their craft. Greg left Sly & The Family Stone in the early 70’s to pursue different avenues of sound and to further extend the heights of where his drumming would go. With a solid full tour with the famous Weather Report and a year later a tour for David Bowie’s Rain Dogs, Greg became a drummer who was going well beyond the funk world. We contacted Greg to ask him a few questions about this legacy of his and these are the results. Enjoy. -Erik Otis

Hi Greg, before we dive into the past with your accomplishments with Sly & The Family Stone, Santana, The Jerry Garcia Band, David Bowie, Weather Report and much more I wanted to ask about the evolution of drum kits and your preferences towards the items you choose to play with now. You are sponsored by DW right now, what are some of your favorite pieces of gear from the company?

Greg Errico: Well the “drum kit” has evolved considerably since I started playing at age 14 (1964). More specifically the hardware! I remember having to use large nails or clamps to hold cymbal stands down,  bracing the bass drum spurs to keep it from crawling forward. Same with the hi-hat pedals & snare stand. Of course this was done mostly for large venues and out door shows where you really had to use force to project. Also you must remember the PA / monitor systems were no where near what exists today. Still, even in smaller clubs I would have trouble with creeping hardware or an occasional cymbal stand falling over. Shell construction technology has also come a long way, allowing the drummer maker to create less expensive great sounding drums. Also on the hi-end using exotic woods & hi tech materials and machinery like never before. The same goes for heads, it’s all come a long way compared to how it used to be. I started with a 3 piece (snare, rack & floor tim)…don’t know why they never counted the bass as a “piece”? I often use a double bass drum pedal, which by the way I did a lot of r&d with John Good from DW way back in the early development of the double pedal. I play a DW kit (Paiste Cymbals) exotic African Bubinga shells; love ‘em.

Are you as active with drumming for projects currently or have you devised new ways to keep your self active in the music industry?

Greg Errico: I keep active performing and producing. Actually I recently joined some of my old band mates and I’m back out performing with The Family Stone, really enjoying it! Working on a few creative ways to rev-it up once more. Can’t elaborate just yet, but all of the dots connect! I’ve also had the opportunity to produce some of the wonderful recordings in the jazz genre with many talented musicians and vocalists. Jamie David, vocalist and alumni of The Count Basie Orchestra doing new big arrangements from the American Song Book. Scotty Barnhart (Trumpet w/CBO) with guest performances from Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, Marcus Roberts and Ellis Marsalis. What…a funk drummer!?!? What a great ride I’ve had, I truly feel blessed! Oh and I got to play on a track or two! Always did like “Big band”. I never did learn to read music, I was self taught. No complaints. See: unity-music.net

What kits were you using to create the legendary drum sound that you had during the 60’s and 70’s with Sly?

Greg Errico: I used a Ludwig drum kit for all our recording and live shows with Sly & The Family Stone. Maple shells, 22″ bass drum, 14″ & 16″ toms and a 5 1/4 x 14″ metal snare drum with Remo frosted Ambassador heads.

Are there any aspects to drum kits that are not utilized anymore that you wish was still around?

Greg Errico: Not really, all that was valuable back in the day is still around and if anything, it all has been elaborated or improved on.

Are there any drummers of this generation that really excite you about the evolution of where drums are going?

Greg Errico: It is simply amazing how many fantastic drummers there are these days. I see new young cats all the time, from Arabic drumming to laying the groove down. The voice of the drummer has really grown and taken its place in the world of recording and performing. This is a good thing, after considering that I believe rhythm was the first language and means of communication for the human being.

You had the great honor in producing the debut release from singer Betty Davis in 1973. What type of specific results did she want from you and how much of it did she leave in your hands for the end result?

Greg Errico: Yes I did! Betty’s first record was actually the second production I did. I had good schooling, Sly was a great producer! Betty was vert creative and knew what she wanted to end up with (in her head). All she really had in the beginning were whispered lines and ideas on a cassette tape or she’d learn over and hum an idea or riff in my ear. She left it up to me on how to make it a reality. As we went along in the recordings she would also suggest talent that she would like to have included in the recordings, and I’d bring them in. It was sort of the “who’s who of SF Bay area talent” at the time. We worked well together and had fun creating that record. It was a period of jamming and experimenting amongst the music community here, so it was reasonably easy to assemble many great musicians and singers to participate on this record. Also there was much curiosity around her. Being the former wife of Miles Davis, coming out of a successful modeling career in NYC and into being a funk diva! The female recording artists at time were NOTHING like her. She took was she learned in the studio and went on to record a few more records on her own. She did pretty well except for she just didn’t have any one, or organization to handle her career. I think it took its tool and drained her, no doubt. Betty Davis was ahead of her time.

I wanted to ask you about the beginning of Sly & The Family Stone. How did you approach the way you saw the kit during that time as there wasn’t many bands doing anything remotely close to what you guys had created?

Greg Errico: Good question! After the spirit of who and what we were as a group took root, for me drumming was second nature. I clearly heard and had image of what the music needed and what the drumming needed to be. That being said for both recording the music and performing it live as they were somewhat different from one another. This was just the way I approached the kit and the way I felt about music. Possibly this is where being self taught played a part? I started playing when I was 14, and was 17 when we started the group having no preconceived learned parameters of how it was supposed to go or be played. I had free reign to create exactly what I naturally felt. Sly was very specific about certain aspects of the music and totally open in others. He would often write with your specific talent in mind. Everyone contributed there musical voice in a big way. I really enjoyed being a part of the creation of Sly & The Family Stone and playing in the band, as everyone else did!

You had the great privilege to play the 1969 Woodstock festival with Sly Stone and there is beautiful footage of the performance with the band really bringing the crowd together. What was it like performing to all of those 100,000’s people and what were some of the most enjoyable festival events you ever played with the band?

Greg Errico: Performing at the Woodstock Music Festival was a one of a kind experience. There were many large musical gatherings during that time period but nothing really came close to this event. It was like the “perfect storm” of a concert. All the elements came together in an unptrententious way. Woodstock was one of those events that got the attention of the world at that moment in time. The feel, the sound, the presents; it was intense, almost surrealistic. It set the bar, it created a historical path that to this day is revered and talked about. Like wow, you were there, it was all that! When we finally hit the stage at 3 am Saturday morning, it took a couple of songs to get the audience going but once we did, the energy was amazing. There were moments that it felt like I was driving a freight train. You could feel the weight and the inertia of it! Other notable festivals were “Isle of Wight” (1970), not recalling more at the moment.

During the time of Woodstock and that era, there are many stories of how musicians would all frequent each others circles through jams and so forth. What were some of the heaviest impromptu jams you were involved in during that period?

Greg Errico: Oddly enough, I never had time to do any jamming with anyone else. We were always in and out in our travels. Was kind of a hectic schedule. I’m sure I missed many opportunities. Although later after I left the group after 1971, I did lots of jamming. The 70’s were jam heaven! Everyone was exchanging, interchanging, experimenting and so on. I was fortunate that I had many more opportunities after leaving the group to jam and tour with lots of incredible artists.

Weather Report was one of those super groups where musicianship, technicality and creativity were in full stride, everyone in the different forms of the band could carry their own voice just as strong as the other. You toured with the band in 1973, how did you link with the group and did that tour change the way you saw music?

Greg Errico: I was working with a great bass player named Doug Rauch who introduced me to a bassist named Miroslav Vitous at a jam session. Miroslav was playing with Weather Report at this time and asked if I would be interested in doing a tour with the band, I eagerly accepted! Performing with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter was a great experience and a musical high for me. It was another opportunity and exercise in exploring music’s boundaries. In this case I found the musical universe to be boundless! They were all wonderful people and pleasant to travel around the world with. I do miss Joe, RIP.

The next year you took a completely different route in sound in being picked up on the “Diamond Dogs” David Bowie tour in 1974. What type of drumming was asked of you for this tour?

Greg Errico: David was an excellent performer. He was one of the first to producer a huge stage experience to bring on the road. He had a wonderful list of musicians and singers in the band and I found my stint with the tour very enjoyable. In this tour I simply played what his music demanded! I didn’t have any part in creating or recording the music. It was rock & rock and I liked it!

When you look back at all the work you have given to the music community, what are some of the most personal and worthwhile moments for you that were never preserved on tape or talked about in great detail amongst historians?

Greg Errico: I would have liked to see some film/video of the “Weather Report” shows. We toured Japan, Europe and U.S. Unfortunately we never got our schedules together to record. I believe there are some (black market) recordings out there of live shows. Also would have liked to see the Sly & The Family Stone, Fillmore East shows filmed. There are audio recordings of those shows on Wolfgang’s Vault. I need to note that I had an opportunity to produce a few Jazz and Big Band Jazz CD’s. Artists such as, Trumpeter Scotty Barnhart and Vocalist Jamie Davis alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra. This is great music and was a incredible experience for me. See unity-music.net. I know there are many more musical moments and time spent just hanging out with bands, artists and friends I simply can’t recall. But weither recorded, noted by historians or not, they all certainly enriched my heart, spirit, and experience.

Thanks for your time Greg, we really appreciate it.

From the Wolfgang’s Vault:

Weather Report
Lenox Music Inn (Lenox, MA) Sep 2, 1973

Greg Errico – drums
Dom Um Romao – percussion
Wayne Shorter – soprano and tenor sax
Miroslav Vitous – electric and acoustic bass
Joe Zawinul – electric and acoustic piano, synthesizer

Listen via Wolfgang’s Vault

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