Sunday, May 9, 2010

Earl Young: Uptown Theater House Drummer

I interviewed Earl Young, a Grammy award-winning member of The Tramps, Baker-Harris-Young, and drummer for the Uptown Theater's house band in the 1960's until DJ Georgie Woods stopped promoting shows at the venue in 1972.

Young: Let me first give you some of the details on the Uptown. The Uptown used to have a band leader years ago in the sixties called Doc Bagby. That was the original band leader at the Uptown, then Sam Reed came in. When Sam Reed came in he hired me, Earl Young, he hired Norman Harris on guitar, Ronald Baker on bass. That's called Baker-Harris-Young. We've got a plaque down by the Academy of Music.

The Uptown used to cost fifty cents to get into the shows and you could see five or six acts. They had the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Motown Revue. You could see a whole bunch of acts. Fifty cents might have been a lot of money back then. It's probably about six or seven dollars today.

Small: That's still pretty cheap compared to concerts today. Did the amount of money that you made from playing the Uptown support you? How much of your income was based in being a house band? Did you have to rely on playing on other people's records?

Young: The house band didn't really make a lot of money because you had to go through the union. They had union scales. So you didn't make a lot of money you made. I would say at that time I was doing recording sessions. I hadn't really gotten into recording sessions back then. I was just doing local clubs. The three of us was doing local clubs. Playing for like-- I would say we made like 12 dollars a night playing in clubs. Sometimes 35 dollars for the whole weekend. Then we'd go to the Uptown. Then we'd go do a show at 52nd and Market Street, a lot of clubs used to be there.
Back to the Uptown, the Uptown used to have two shows a day. They had what they called the 'half.' That means you had to be on stage a half hour before the show started. We were the house band. Most of the artists had their own bands with them but sometimes, we had a little bar in the back, everyone used to hang out before the show and sometimes they didn't make it back in time for the show. So we had to always be prepared to take over, if some of the musicians didn't show up. I had to play for Jackie Wilson one day when his drummer didn't show up, which I liked cause I always wanted to play with him anyways.

Small: You said there was a bar. Did they sell alcohol at the Uptown?

Young: No. They had the bar in the back. Everybody goes out the back door. The backstreet where everybody used to go to between shows. There was a bar right up to the street.

Small: Did they allow for re-admittance?

Young: Yeah. We would have a matinee at like 3 o' clock. Then another show at 6 o' clock and then ten o' clock. Between shows we go and hang out in the back, wait around or play basketball. There was a lady called Ms. Pearl that used to cook food for everybody. There was house called Ms. Pearls and everybody went there and ate between shows. It was a lot of fun. Being the house drummer there, I got to meet all the big artists and get an education.

When I was younger I used to go to the Uptown when I was like 11 years, I used to watch the entertainment and dream of being onstage. I used to see Louis Bellson. The used to have Lionel Hampton. Actually a lot people think that the Uptown was mostly African American people but it was really mixed. A lot of people from South Philly came up there to the show. It was really a nice place to go to during the week, you had nothing to do there was always a show coming into town. I learned how to play there because when I first started playing there I didn't really know how to read. I had to play with the Spinners and Jackie Wilson and people like that that came through. I didn't really know how to read music but I knew—I had every record, we had 45s back then so I knew everyone's songs by heart. So I didn't really have to have the music. I just listened to all the records. I knew if Stevie Wonder came in I knew how to play all his stuff. We'd play the Temptations stuff. I knew the songs. We played their stuff at parties. We had house parties.

Small: How did your experience with the Elks influence your playing?

Young: Well at 15th and Dauphin there was the Elks. The Elks was a marching band. I got into the marching band because I wanted to play drums. My foster father, he had a drum corps. I always wanted to play-- I guess I was born with rhythm—I always wanted to play drums. But it was hard because I was raised black in poor neighborhoods. I couldn't really afford to buy drums. I'll tell you how I started out playing drums. I used to take three chairs and put phone books on them and put tape on top of the phone books. You'd put each phone book in each chair and I'd sit in one chair and play all three phone books. I really got to learn how to play cause I didn't have a lot of money so we used phone books we used the bottom of coffee cans we used to beat on buckets. This is how we learned how to play. I bought my first drum set from the pawn shop and I used to stick each drum inside each other and get on the bus going to practice.

Small: Was there a local music store?

Young: They didn't really have big music stores. There was a music store I used to go to 8th Street music. It used to be on 8th street. Nowadays it's on Chestnut. That's where I bought my first set of professional drums. Matter of a fact I still have them. They're made by Rogers. It's 26 inch bass drum, you can't find that anywhere in the world today. They're like 45 years old.
Playing in parades really influenced me to play. That's a long way from playing drums cause you're only playing one drum.
Then I had a thing called a cocktail drum. You've probably never seen a cocktail drum. It's one drum that looks like a tom tom it has a foot pedal on the bottom and one cymbal that attached to the tom tom. You play them with brushes. You don't see them around anymore. But that's one of the things I learned how to play on. They're not good for session. We would do it for a hotel lobby with a piano. We use to use them for smaller gigs, places where we needed softer music. Nobody uses them now since we can program drums. You can program drums on a machine and your drum machine and keyboard so most drummers are out of work there.

Small: How does environment you're playing change the way you play?
Young: In the seventies when I was playing on a bunch of records, I became a studio drummer. I love to play in the studio than traveling on gigs. When you play in a studio, your songs last forever. Now I can drive in my car and hear one of my records. Like the O Jays record, the Backstabbers and “I Love Music.” I also played on a song called “Bad Luck.” I'm the one that started the disco beat.
Small: How did you feel about the influence your drumming had on other's music? Have you ever heard your music used in a sample?
Young: You know, I'm also a singer with The Tramps, the disco group. Most of my career has been playing drums and also singing. So I've won a Grammy with The Tramps. You've heard the song “Burn Baby Burn.” We had a record out called Disco Inferno and it was on Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta.
A lot of my songs were sampled. 50 Cent had an album called “Hate It or Love It.” Mary J. Blige sampled "Hate It or Love It." If you've ever heard of Young Jeezy, he's used some of our stuff. A lot of things have changed now since then. When I was starting out playing you had to be a great-- they were the human drum machine. We didn't have drum machines back then. So all the songs that I played on I had to be human drum machine. They would ask me to play a beat I'd play one beat. If they'd like it, they don't like I could play another. I could play forty-five to fifty beats until they find one the like to use on the record.
Small: Do you think Sam Reed's background in drumming assisted you in organizing the house band?

Young: Sam Reed was the leader and conductor. He's the one that hired us all. Being a drummer I would sit right in the middle and guitar and bass would sit on one side. And the others on my left, I would have all the strings and horns. Everyone really depended on the drummer so if the drummer messed up, everybody messed up. So you were like the most important person in the orchestra there. And the fact is you didn't get too many chances to do rehearsing. When a singer came in town, if they didn't have their band-- most of the singers had their musicians with them-- but then the one's that didn't you had two rehearsals in the morning. You had to learn them songs in the morning cause the show was going to be that day. So sometimes you made mistakes but basically the whole orchestra depended on the rhythm section and the drummer. The drummer is the whole foundation to everything cause they have to count the bars. When the singers got up on stage, sometimes the singers would change, they give you one thing, they get you feeling good and they'll change their whole show right in the middle of you playing. So sometimes you had to ad lib and follow. I played with Jackie Wilson a couple of times up there at the Uptown. Most of the time at the end of the song they would do their own thing so you had to follow.

Small: Did you ever have things in your mind that you were trying to depict with your drumming? Some people compare the pace of drum to the pace of a train track. Is there anything outside of you that influenced how your music sounded?

Young: I actually wanted to create my own sound. I never had anybody that I wanted to play with. I used to admire a lot of rock and roll drummers and jazz drummers. I admire all musicians because they have their own style. I always wanted to develop my own style of playing. I never went to school to learn how to play I just picked up sticks. I learned myself. I used sit in the car and it might sound funny but I used to sit in the car and turn on the turn signal and the turn signal was like a time keeper or turning on my windshield wipers and practice with my windshield wipers cause they had perfect time. I used to take my sticks with me in the car and play along with that. I was a drum crazy guy.

Small: What made you want to be a singer?

Young: I wanted to be a singer because I cut over hundreds of records for different artists but people don't notice drummers too much. Very something you can see a singer and know who's playing behind. The drummer was always kicked back, they didn't make a lot of money. So I said “Look I got a bass voice I can sing these songs” so I took a song on the back of “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters, a song called “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” It was a big hit for me.
I wanted to get some of that singing money because singing-- you'd be surprised, you know, that musicians don't make a lot of money because they work for scale. After taxes you don't make a lot of money. Singers make incredible money. I said well look I want to be able to do it all. I want to be able to sing, I want to be able to play. I started my own recording company after a while called golden fleet with the my three partners. I go into the background of the business back of the business. When you get into the background of the business, you learn. At the Uptown I learned about listening to people. Drummers don't really get famous until they're with a famous group. I got known cause I did a lot of recording sessions. People would never know who I am just from playing drums. I wanted to sing because I wanted to be able to do it all. I wanted to do it right and also get into the part of business. It took a lot of years. I've been doing it for a lot of years. I'm still playing and singing now.

Small: At what point did you decide to dedicate yourself to music? When did you feel like it could support your lifestyle?

Young: I was a boy that was raised in a foster home. I didn't get the chance to get a lot of schooling. I had to take care of myself when I was a teenager I picked up a pair of drums and started playing. After I met Norman and Ronnie, I started doing some club work and I figured I could make money doing that. So they call me into the studio and ask me to play on a record.
It was Barbara Mason's “Yes I'm Ready” and Eddie Holman song called “Hey There Lonelygirl.” So when I went into the studio I cut these records. These were my first records and they went gold automatically and I got paid a couple hundred dollars. I said “jeez I can get paid a couple hundred dollars from doing something I enjoy doing and after that I was like well this what I'm going to do so then I started to dedicate myself to playing drums because this is a way that I can make a living this is a way that I can provide for myself because I didn't get to go to college. So I said I'm going to make this my life earning. I had a teacher once told me she said “look remember one thing no matter whatever you do in life, you be the best at it. If you wind up a trash man picking up trash, you be the best trash man that there ever was. Whatever you do, be the best at it or try to be the best at it." This is what I've always tried to do with my drums. I realize that I'm not the best.
Small: All part of the balancing act.

Young: There's always someone that's better than you but as long as you can be among the best. That's all I ask for-to be with the best or be one of the great drummers in R&B music.

Small: Speaking of being the best, do you think the Uptown Theater is going to be able to bring the same liveliness that it brought to the community in the past? What do you think would be necessary to duplicate that success? It seems like the success of the Uptown not only supported the musicians but the community that supported it.

Young: I'm working with Kimberly Roberts and I'm working with the Uptown foundation to bring back the Uptown now. We have a ground breaking day on June 5. We're gonna break the ribbon and start remodeling. I think that times have changed, you can't do the same thing we did back then. But now that we're remodeling and opening up we're gonna have different kinds of music. Times have changed. We don't have 45s, we've got iPods and stuff. We've got to update the situation. Bring in rock and roll acts, rap, things that are going to draw in people today. They have to upgrade and change the neighborhood over. It's going to help to bring more people in, more revenue. I think it's going to be nice because the Uptown is a legendary place like the Apollo. It's really a historical place, if it wasn't for the Uptown, I wouldn't be in the business. I met a lot of people working there. I traveled with Stevie Wonder, went to Japan.
I'll tell you the difference between now and then. Back then when you go to a show, string players and horn players and keyboard players, this is all musicians know how to do, they wait for the phone to ring and hope the phone rings so they can get a job. But nowadays they got everything digitalized. They aren't using live strings and horns no more. They just use synthesizers and programmed strings on records. Back in the seventies when we were doing big time recording we would use real horns and real strings. Now one guy can get in his house and start programming something on one little box and pull up strings and horns and all these instruments, one guy can put a record out. It's a lot different today than it was back in the seventies. Most musicians are over 65 years old and most of them are out of work now because when the computer came in all the older generation doesn't have work anymore.

Small: Do you feel like that shifted the balance between-- it seems like back in the day you used to tour to promote a record and that record would sell. Now with the internet, since everyone can download music do feel like that has changed the way you market music today?

Young: A lot of people had jobs making music and shipping and packaging. Now there's no work since people can download something for just 99 cents.

Small: It does not seem like the same experience as an album did back in the day.

Young: Yeah, you're right and there's not many live performances like there used to be. There are shows but some of the shows are so expensive that you can't afford to go and see them. You take Lady Gaga playing at the Spectrum. A lot of people can't afford to go these shows. That's the difference between back then. You could see four, five different artists at the Uptown or a full orchestra. Now you see explosions and fireworks. There's a big difference between then and now. I mean the artists now they have to be able to dance and have swimsuits. Now it's about how you look. If you don't look right you're not gonna sell no records. So it's a big difference between yesterday and today. Times have really changed the way things work in the music business.

Young: The sampling and downloading is really killing the music today. At one time you could put a record on and you could know who it was by hearing it. People used to use different instruments. You could tell people by their instruments. Nowadays everyone is using the same stuff to sample with so everyone sounds alike. You can't tell, “who is that singing?” They're copying off somebody else, now it's gotten worse where everything is a remake. They're running out of good artists and good songs to put out.

Small: Was it inevitable that music eventually would become redundant?

Young: I realize that nothing is new in music because chords is chords. It's how you use your chords. When I would go into the studio and play the song “People Make The World Go Around” that song used to have time signature changes that I had to follow. I would read note for note. Now most songs sing around one chord. I'd go from a 5/4 to a 4/4 and the coda. You'd have to read. I mean times change. I'm still playing now. A lot of things I have to update myself with whether I like it or not. If you want to work you have to be able to do these things. Someone might call me to bring a drum machine, which I hate to do but I will bring it in because that's what they are paying me for. Nothing is better than playing live music.