Berklee Today

John Blackwell '95: Putting it in the Pocket

  John Blackwell
  Photo by Anthony Pigeon

Prince has called his drummer, John Blackwell "one of the greatest." That's high praise from a six-time Grammy Award winner and multi-instrumentalist who is an accomplished drummer himself. Blackwell has been playing with Prince onstage and in the studio since 1999, and the link between him and the legendary performer has solidified Blackwell's reputation as an emerging titan of contemporary r&b and funk drumming.

As a youth growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Blackwell was initiated into the world of drumming through his father, John Blackwell, Sr. Before becoming an electrical engineer, the senior Blackwell had been a professional drummer who played with artists such as the Drifters, the Spinners, Mary Wells, and others. The junior Blackwell recalls his father letting him get behind his drums by age three. He says that the most valuable lesson he ever learned from his father was that putting the song "in the pocket" is what matters most for the drummer. "That was what got him work," recalls Blackwell.

In his teen years, Blackwell played in both his high-school marching and jazz bands and played his first professional gig backing legendary jazz singer Billy Eckstine. Over the years, Blackwell has developed a razor-sharp technique, a ferocious sense of groove, and a flair for showmanship. Early on, he learned how to please a crowd by twirling a drumstick in his right hand on the way to a tom-tom accent or cymbal crash while playing a different rhythm with his left hand.

By the time he was in his final year at Berklee, Blackwell was working steadily in local jazz clubs and got his first offer from a national touring act. Since then, his professional life has traced a steady upward arc. His first post-Berklee career milestone was a three-year stint with the funk band Cameo, next it was Patti LaBelle for three years, and since then, Prince. When his schedule permits, Blackwell also takes up offers from other artists, including Diddy.

While Blackwell's professional path has gone nicely thus far, career is only one part of life. Blackwell and his wife Joann experienced personal tragedy in June of 2004 when their two-year-old daughter Jia drowned in their backyard pool. Blackwell was in the midst of Prince's Musicology tour when the news shook his world. He says he felt like giving up music and drumming and just withdrawing from life. But his unshakable Christian faith, coupled with encouragement from relatives and friends, helped him to get back into the game and resume the tour. Blackwell now views the episode as a difficult trial of his faith, but one he and his family will overcome. To help the healing process, Blackwell established a scholarship fund at Berklee to perpetuate the memory of Jia. (For information on the scholarship, visit www.berklee.edu/giving/endowment3.html.)

Considering the events of the past two years in the Blackwell family, one might sense similarities to the Old Testament story of Job who endured the loss of his children and worldly goods with patience and grace, opting not to "curse God and die" (Job 2:9). The biblical story ends with the Lord blessing the latter end of Job's life more than the beginning through multiplication of his herds and the births of seven sons and three daughters.

On December 8, the day I was to meet Blackwell at his northern California home for this interview, my cell phone rang at 5:30 a.m. "Mark, Joann is going to have the twins today!" Blackwell said, calling as the couple drove to the hospital. "Say a prayer for us," he said before hanging up. Later that day, the prayers of many were answered when Joann delivered first a daughter and then a son. The next day, after our rescheduled interview concluded, Blackwell took me to the hospital to see the new arrivals. As we talked, I couldn't help but feel the Job-like joy from the Blackwells as we admired the new babies who will, no doubt, help fill the void created by Jia's untimely departure.

Blackwell is back in the groove personally and professionally. At present, he is doing a bit more rocking of babies than rocking with Prince or Diddy. But Prince has a tour scheduled for the spring and Blackwell plans to be onboard, putting it in the pocket.


John Blackwell  
Photo by Alex Solca  

When did it become clear to you that you had to become a drummer?

My dad took me to a lot of concerts when I was young. The first one I remember going to was a Sister Sledge show. At the time, their big hit was "We Are Family." I remember watching thousands of people singing and dancing to that song. My focus was on the drummer though. It seemed to me that the drums were the center of it all. I knew then that I would become a drummer. My dream at that point was to play in front of thousands of people and have them walk away from the show happy.

How did you choose to come to Berklee to further your musical aspirations?

My dad always had Modern Drummer magazine around the house, and I would read them too. One of my dad's favorite drummers was John "J.R." Robinson. I really admire his drumming too and loved his playing on the Michael Jackson Off the Wall and Thriller albums. I'd read about John as well as Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and Elvin Jones in the magazine. I remember seeing an ad saying that John Robinson attended Berklee, and I told my father that I wanted to go there too. I was a little too focused on drums during high school though, and my academic subjects kind of suffered. My grades weren't good enough for me to be accepted to Berklee for the fall semester. So I entered for the summer semester because it was easier to get accepted for that semester and then continue on academic probation. Once I got there though, I proved that I could do the work.

While I was at the school, I played at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge with [former faculty member] Herman Johnson and at Wally's in Boston with [faculty members] Jetro da Silva and Lenny Stallworth. Even though I was primarily a funk drummer, we were playing jazz at those gigs. I had learned about jazz drumming by playing in my high school's jazz band and by listening to Art Blakey and Billy Cobham, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones.

Who was your drum teacher at Berklee?

John Ramsay. He was like an uncle to me. He taught me a lot about swing and fusion, and I was able to use what I learned on the gigs at Wally's and Ryles.

How did it happen that during your last year at Berklee you were offered a gig playing with the funk band Cameo?

In February of 1995, I came back after playing a gig at Ryles. I hadn't had a good night playing and was a little down because Herman Johnson had gotten on me about some things. After I got back to my room at the dorm, I got a message that there was a call for me on the hall phone. The guy on the phone told me that I could get the gig drumming for Cameo if I came down to Atlanta right away. After talking it over with my dad, I packed my bags and went. I ended up staying with the band for three years. I figured that after doing that for a while, I'd go back to finish at Berklee, but the gigs kept coming.

How did the gig with Patti LaBelle come about after your stint with Cameo?

In 1998, I was going to move to Los Angeles to try to get some gigs while Cameo had some down time. I figured I could just fly to the Cameo gigs and have Los Angeles be my home base. Then I got a call from a friend of mine telling me about the gig with Patti. I left Cameo to play with her. Patti had bases in both Los Angeles and Philadelphia. She told me she'd fly me in from wherever I was for her gigs, so I left Los Angeles and moved back to Columbia, South Carolina, with my parents. I played with Patti for three years.

How did you make the transition from Patti's band into Prince's?

Prince and Patti are good friends and he came to a few of Patti's gigs while I was playing with her. Even though I'd met him a few times, he didn't seem to pay much attention to me. Actually, at the time, I was having some personal troubles involving a girlfriend, and unfortunately, I was taking those issues with me onstage at Patti's gigs. Sometimes I wasn't playing my best back then, so I can understand why Prince didn't pay much attention. But a few months later, I got that situation together and I started playing better. Shortly after things improved, Prince and Larry Graham came to our show in Minneapolis. After the show, Larry came up to me and said he liked my playing and gave me his card. It just said, "Larry Graham, Graham Central Station," and had his phone number on it. He told me to stay in touch. I'd always loved Larry Graham's playing, so I told him I would definitely stay in touch.

Next thing I knew, two bodyguards were standing in front of me, and then they moved out of the way and Prince walked between them. He came up to me and said, "You sounded unbelievable" and introduced me to his wife. He said, "I'll see you soon" and walked away. Since he hadn't taken my number, I didn't know how it was going to happen that I'd see him soon. I didn't realize that he and Larry Graham were working together and were brothers in their religion. I kept Larry's card and called him from time to time.

Prince came out again during the same tour when we played in New York. Chaka Khan was onstage before we went on, and Prince joined her for the song "I Feel for You," which he wrote for her. I was with Patti's band backstage waiting for our time to go on when Prince came off the stage. I saw him just kind of staring at me. I figured he was trying to evaluate me. I walked over to him and we started talking. He told me he wanted me to come out to Paisley Park after Patti's tour was over and jam with him. He stressed that we'd get together after the tour was over. He didn't want me to bail out on Patti. Other musicians had left their gigs when Prince showed interest in playing with them, and he didn't want that to happen.

When the tour was over, I called Larry and told him about Prince saying that he wanted to jam. Larry checked into it, and later I got a call from Paisley Park. They flew me up to Minneapolis, and I jammed with Prince and Larry Graham. I spent the day there and then went home. Over the next nine months, I went up there several times to jam and to record. But before Prince asked me to join his band, I took a gig touring in Japan with Utada Hikaru, who was a big pop star there. She was only 16 at the time and was really hot over there.

Some of Prince's people had been working to put together a group of American r&b players for Utada's arena tour. Prince's secretary told me about it and said she didn't know when Prince would ask me to join the New Power Generation. So I did the tour of Japan with Utada, and it was great. One of Prince's staff called me the day after the last show, August 31. He told me Prince wanted me to be in Minneapolis two days later. I had hoped to take a vacation after the tour, but all I had time to do was go home, say hi to my mom, and do my laundry. Then I went off to Minneapolis for the rest of the year.

Did he invite you up there that time so you could rehearse for a tour with him?

Yes. We rehearsed for three months and then went out on tour. Prince rehearses really hard. He feels like the songs are his children and he asks us to respect the music. You have to play his music right. He would get on the drum set and demonstrate exactly what he wanted me to play. It might not be what a really technical drummer would play, but it's what he wanted. There are certain things about Prince's style, certain signature drum licks, and you just have to play them that way. I grew up listening to his music, so I already knew what he wanted and could do it.

In the Prince Live in Las Vegas DVD, the band plays swing, funk, rock, and blues grooves as well as some of Prince's lighter pop hits. That show covered a lot of stylistic territory for the musicians.

Prince plays a lot of different styles. One thing I have to say is that he gave me a lot of room to be myself. But for some tours, he really wanted specific things. He didn't give the musicians charts but would have us transcribe the parts we played so that we wouldn't forget them, and we'd be able to play the songs the same way each night. He would videotape the shows and watch them afterwards. If you weren't playing the parts the way he wanted them, he'd talk to you about it. If you kept playing things the wrong way, he'd deduct money from your check like James Brown used to do with his band.

You played on Prince's instrumental album N.E.W.S. in 2003. It's so different from what he is known for. How did that project come about?

We were in the studio one day when Prince said he wanted to do a jazz-fusion album that the band would write together. There was nothing planned. He wanted to have four tunes that were each about 14 minutes long. We just started playing and feeling out where the music was going. I was pretty honored when the album was nominated for a Grammy Award.

How many tours have you done with Prince?

The first was in 2000, the Hit and Run tour. The 2001 tour was a continuation of the Hit and Run tour. From 2002 to 2003 it was the One Night I'm On or Rainbow Children tour. That was the tour that the Prince Live in Las Vegas DVD came from. We went everywhere for that one-Japan, Europe, Canada, and all over the States. In the latter part of 2003 to the end of 2004, we did the Musicology tour. I didn't tour with him in 1999, but I was part of the entourage.

Have you found the long tours to be grueling?

Sometimes. There were nights when we'd do back-to-back shows, and other times there would be a day in between. I enjoyed it the most when we took the tour buses.

How hard was it to rejoin the Musicology Tour after you lost your daughter?

We were four months into the tour when it happened. When Jia passed away, I didn't want to play drums anymore, and I wanted to sell my house. Thanks to my wife, Prince, my father, and a lot of close friends, I didn't quit. I give my father the most credit. He pulled me aside and said, "I know you're hurting son, but don't you sit around the house and mope. You get back on the drums and go finish the tour. Play every night for your daughter." Prince could have gotten another drummer, but he didn't want me to quit. He stopped the tour to give me some time to heal and we made the dates up later. I played every night for Jia.

Does Prince keep his musicians on retainer so you will always be available when he needs you?

He keeps you on retainer and pays more when you are working with him. I was on retainer for a while, but I'm not doing that now. It's comfortable to be on retainer because you don't have to worry about getting other work when he's not touring or in the studio. That's what he wanted. But a retainer can be like a drug that you become dependent on. When I was on retainer, I had to turn down work with Mick Jagger, Christina Aguilera, Maxwell, Destiny's Child, and some other artists. People started to think that if I was with Prince, they would never be able to have me work with them, and so they would call someone else.

I'm on call with Prince now. If he wants me to meet him in L.A. to either jam or record, he'll call me. He has been focusing on a lot of other things for a while, but he will be getting into touring again soon.

What other artists have you been working with lately in between Prince's tours and recordings?

I've been recording with P. Diddy. He has a lot of people on his label, and I've played on their tracks, but I'm also on his upcoming record. He brings me to New York when he needs me to work with him in the studio.

So if other artists call me and they offer the right price, I'll be there. I've also built a studio in my home. I'm recording parts of my own jazz-fusion album here and some tracks in Boston with Bruce Bartlett, Barron Brown, and Yuki Kawasaki. I wrote a piece for my daughter called "Song for Jia," and it will be on my album. I am also planning to record with Morris Hayes and Renato Neto, former keyboardists for Prince.

What is your schedule like when you're not on tour with Prince?

I do drum clinic tours worldwide. This year I went to Australia, Europe, Singapore, and Trinidad in the Caribbean. I show techniques from my DVD Technique, Grooving, and Showmanship, so a lot of people come out to the clinics. I like the people to walk away happy after those shows.

What do you envision yourself doing 10 years from now?

I want to be the best father and husband I can be. I have responsibility to my children and my wife, and I want them to live comfortably. Professionally, I hope to have a few albums of my own out and maybe get a few tracks into some movies. I also want to be touring with other acts who are hot. If it is God's will, it will happen.