I caught up with producer/drummer/songwriter Narada Michael Walden days after a holiday party put on by the Recording Academy's San Francisco Chapter. It was held at the swanky Sir Francis Drake Hotel in Union Square, and all the department stores nearby had their windows decked with bright lights and Christmas displays. Just past the downtown area's giant holiday tree (to use the more PC term), Walden passed a street-person banging a set of tin drums. He stopped and watched the man play. After he finished his piece, the man looked up, wide-eyed, and said, “Are you Narada?” “Yes, I am,” he answered, and proceeded to join the man for a short, tinny jam. The point of me telling this story is to “never forget the man on the street. That could have been me,” Walden says, and emphasizes gratitude for a charmed career born out of years playing dingy nightclubs around the Northeast.
His path took a very different direction from the one traveled by the man on the corner, beginning with an invitation into John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s, replacing monster drummer Billy Cobham. From there, he played on and wrote a large portion of Jeff Beck's landmark Wired album, which led to even more work as a first-call studio and live drummer, providing a solid foundation for artists such as Weather Report, Patti LaBelle, Chick Corea, Teena Marie, Starship, Hall & Oates and Mariah Carey, among others.
In addition to playing on other artists' albums, he launched a solo career with Atlantic Records in the late 1970s. His third album, Awakening, reached Number 15 on Billboard's R&B charts in 1979; its follow-up, The Dance of Life, climbed to Number 9, propelled by the Top 10 single, “I Shoulda Loved Ya.”
He kept drumming even as he moved into producing, often playing drums and/or keyboards on albums such as Stacy Lattisaw's Let Me Be Your Angel (his first production credit) and recordings for artists such as Angela Bofill, Patti Austin, Phyllis Hyman, Margie Joseph, Sister Sledge, Kenny G. and Whitney Houston (from her 1985 self-titled release up through The Bodyguard soundtrack and the 1988 Olympic theme song, “One Moment in Time”). He co-wrote Aretha Franklin's “Freeway of Love” on the album Who's Zoomin' Who, which he produced and which gave him his first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song in 1985.
Recent writing and/or production credits include songs for Carey (“Vision of Love”), Stevie Wonder, Elton John, George Michael, The Temptations, Wynonna Judd and Nas, among others. Since 1985, he's brought a lot of these acts to his Tarpan Studios in San Rafael, Calif., a mid-sized SSL room now open to outside clients after 20 years as his private workplace.
On that rainy afternoon, post-holiday party, Walden spoke openly about his cosmic beginnings with Maha-vishnu Orchestra, his work with Ray Charles for the recent Genius & Friends release (eight years in the making) and just a few of the myriad high points in between.
At The Automatt (San Francisco) with Sister Sledge, 1980: engineer Ken Kessie (L) and producer Narada Michael Walden
Photo: Kaz Tsurta Photography
Tell me about your auspicious beginnings with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
It's all mystical. I was living in Connecticut with a band called the New McGuire Sisters when [Mahavishnu Orchestra's] Birds of Fire came out with Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman on violin and Rick Laird on bass. It was really magical music, unlike anything the world had ever heard, because it combined Eastern Indian motif, melody and time signatures with jazz chordings. I went to their show in Hartford [Conn.], and when I walked into the back of the theater and looked way down the aisle, there was a big white spotlight on John McLaughlin, on Mahavishnu. He had a double-neck guitar and was rocking back and forth; he and Billy Cobham were going at it. They'd play full-out, and then they'd stop on a dime. And they'd play full-out again in this odd meter, and neither one would give away what the downbeat was — like an inside trick they'd play with each other — and then they'd stop again. I'd never seen anything like it. You could hear a pin drop.
After the concert was over, I waited [backstage], and when [McLaughlin] came into the room, I said, “I'm Michael Walden and I play drums, and whatever it is that you're doing that helps you do what I saw you do tonight, I want to learn. I want to know.” And he said, “Oh, it's partly due to my meditation.” I said, “I know about your teacher [Sri Chinmoy]; I read about him on your albums.” He said, “I'm going to see him at six this morning, and I will tell him I met you.” I thought, “My God! It's already 1:30 in the morning in Hartford and the guru is in Queens [N.Y.], which is like two or three hours away, and he's going to see him at six in the morning, after that concert that I just saw?!”
And I thought to myself, “I'm really not ready for this. This is much more intense than I ever thought it could be.”
I think that Mahavishnu called me into his life because he wanted someone to be on the same spiritual path with him. And while I was not the world's greatest drummer — Billy Cobham was the world's greatest drummer — I was the world's greatest lover of Mahavishnu — who could play the drums! [Laughs]
But you must have been plenty good enough — he invited you into his group.
We became friends first. The first time we played together, he came to my farm. I went to an outdoor [Mahavishnu Orchestra] concert at Tanglewood Preserve, not far from where I was living. Afterward, I went to this cabin where the band was hanging out, and Mahavishnu says, “How far do you live from here?” I said, “Oh, I don't know — two, maybe three hours.” He said, “Let's go to your place.”
So we packed up my station wagon with his brand-new double-necked guitar that he had just used at that concert for the first time. I drove and he went to sleep! When we arrived three hours later, I said [to my bandmates], “You're not going to believe who's in the car. Mahavishnu's here!” They said, “Oh, come on, forget about it,” and he walks in the door! They were shocked and stunned and speechless. He was hungry, so we made him broccoli and cheese and cornbread and whatever and we talked all night. The next day we played together for the first time with Ralph Armstrong on bass, Sandy Torano on guitar, Billy McCoy from Detroit and myself on drums. John sat on a high chair next to me, and we started playing this really fast groove [he illustrates with drum sound effects] and then each person would solo.
When he played, he looked straight at me. I could hear all this commotion out of the amplifier, like a zillion and one notes flying at you, but his face was expressionless. No face at all. That freaked me out. So I closed my eyes. When I closed my eyes, I could lock onto it and go crazy, so I learned there's a power in closing your eyes. After that, he said, “I like it up here! I want to get a house up here! And the bass player, he's good, too.” So we made a big impression.
Around December of '73, I got a phone call from Puerto Rico from Mahavishnu, and he said, “I just spoke to the guru and I'm going to make a change in Mahavishnu Orchestra and I would like to know if you would consider joining and bring your bass player, Ralph Armstrong, and we'll put together a new group. I'll use Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and maybe Miranda, the girl that's in your current band, on keyboards.” I said, “Of course!” He said, “Okay. When I come back in January, I'll come to where your drums are and I'll teach you how to play with me in seven, nine, 11, 13, 17 and how to improvise in those odd meters.”
I was also working at a restaurant called Mario's Place as a bus boy. I often say I went from being a bus boy to joining Mahavishnu Orchestra and, in April of '74, to working with The Beatles' producer, George Martin, in London's AIR Studios with the London Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, Geoff Emerick engineering and Mike Gibbs orchestrating [for the Apocalypse album]. From that restaurant, I went to the very top. That's why I always encourage people that there is no one way to make it, but that you have to be strong in your faith. We have to conquer our fears every day.
How much of the Mahavishnu experience seeps into your productions?
It's all one. Even when I'm doing a pop song [sings Houston's “Oh, I want to dance with somebody/I want to feel the heat with somebody…”], the tracks and the sound are the spirit of Mahavishnu Orchestra. In everything I do, I put the spirit. Even if it's a lazy ballad, it's still got the spirit.
How did you make the transition from performing to producing?
I never stopped performing. But I made more time to go into the studio. Quincy Jones told me, “Being a musician is one thing, but to make a living in the music business, do everything you can do.” I understood what he was telling me. Don't only be a drummer. If you can produce something, write something, whatever else your talents are, do them.
And I knew I had the talent to do other things. I wrote songs; that was a natural thing for me. And I love singing, so I could help other singers get good performances. And I never stopped playing live. When I had my own hits, like “I Shoulda Loved Ya,” I got to open for Patti LaBelle, and that's a whole other audience — a black audience — and you had to be, like, really down with them to get them off their feet. I learned that technique.
So in the studio, I knew how to put together the tracks. The tracks had to appeal to the ghetto. As Quincy Jones put it, you got to have “an outhouse bottom with a penthouse view.” Meaning, you've got to have that skank on the bottom, but the top's got to be glorious and melodic. If you can get that combination, it's pretty irresistible.
Do you think you have a special knack for dealing with female artists?
Yes. My mom had me when she was 19, and she had all these sisters. Aunt Mary was the queen of rock 'n' roll, Vickie and Valerie taught me jazz and sophisticated chord changes and my grandmother always had music playing in her house. The first time I heard Little Richard was at her house, and she'd have Ray Charles or Dinah Washington playing — good music. So from having all these women in my life, I learned how to be sensitive to women. Women are really super-sensitive. And when you go into a recording studio, it's like 10-times-fold! You've got to really be on your P and Q! Because you can say one thing and kill the vibe. So I learned that you've got to be encouraging. It's not just hearing if something is sharp or flat.
Stacy Lattisaw and Narada Michael Walden
Also, what helped me and our team is doing the preparation work. For example, for every song I've ever done, I've always gotten someone to come in and do a demo vocal. Even for Aretha Franklin. I'll get someone who sounds like Aretha to sing it. So at least I worked out how the song should be sung. And then she gets a copy of that and learns it, and she'll know what she wants to change about it. I learned from Aretha one important thing: She can do all these incredible flips and imaginative things that you can't even fathom. But if you want her to do it again, more to the melody, the only way you can get her to do that is say that you want a “straight reading.” And then she would do a version for you singing a song more to the melody. Not entirely, now, but enough. Without knowing that word, I wouldn't know how to get it out of her because she'd be like, “No, that's how I hear it.” And she would be right. And if I thought something was a little bit off, she'd say, “No, that's just how I feel it.” And I would live with it for a few days and she would be right. The Queen is always right.
My mother and family gave me the sensitivity to know that and to get along with people. To bring a feeling of calm to the studio so the people behind that microphone can sing something that will live for hopefully hundreds of years.
I understand that Aretha didn't want to initially record “Who's Zoomin' Who.”
That's right. It was one of the first things I wrote for Aretha; myself and Preston Glass. Aretha gave me the idea over a telephone call. I asked her, “Do you go out at night? What do you do?” because we hadn't really met each other. She said, “Oh, sometimes I go out, go to a club, then I see somebody I like, and he sees me and I see him. It's like who's zoomin' who?” And I thought, “Wow, that's cool. As soon as he thinks he's got me, the fish jumps off the hook.” And then she laughed. So that became the song I wrote with Preston Glass. I sent it to Clive Davis and the Queen, and I think Clive had to talk her into doing it. It was the first recording she had done since her father passed away a few years earlier, so she was just getting back in the studio. And it was so beautiful just to be there — at United Sound in Detroit — with her. The first two things we recorded were “Until You Say You Love Me” and “Who's Zoomin' Who.” Then, later, Preston said to me, “Why don't you take that song you have for your record, ‘Freeway of Love,’ [co-written with Jeffrey Cohen] and make it for her?” And I did. It was my first Platinum, Aretha's first million-seller and my first Grammy.
Were you also working in San Francisco?
I cut “Freeway of Love” at The Automatt [in S.F.] the same week as “How Will I Know?” for Whitney Houston. We did a lot of recording at The Automatt at that time, and also did some recording at The Plant in Sausalito, [Calif.], and in 1985, we also started moving into Tarpan Studios. The first things we recorded at Tarpan were Jermaine Stewart [sings “We don't have to take our clothes off/To have a good time, oh no…”] and Clarence Clemons' “You're a Friend of Mine” with Jackson Browne, and then Kenny G.'s Duotones.
Tell me about working with Ray Charles. You two worked together eight years ago for Genius & Friends.
I was close with Ray right up until his passing. Because the album didn't come out for so long, we would get together and just listen to it and he would give me his ideas. The project I did with him was songs he approved. What you're hearing now is done because the estate wanted to bring in Phil Ramone, who is great, to do some additional work and some remixing. But because of the politics, they had to change some of the artists. They took off a few great singers that Ray wanted, like Brandy, and replaced them with a couple other singers.
Was he difficult to work with?
He didn't want to change his vocals. He'd say things like, “What is it about ‘no’ you don't understand?” One time I sang him note for note this piece called “Frenzy” that he wrote, and he says, “I wrote all the parts by hand for those horns.” And when he said that, he became a giant to me all over again. Because if you hear this piece of music, it's like Charlie Parker — that fast, that clean. It's just brilliant. And the man's blind! So he truly is a genius. And he was kind to me.
Early on, I said, “Okay, I heard you like that song ‘Brick House.’ Well, there's a few different things we can do. We can make a whole new version of ‘Brick House’ or we can do a trick like what P. Diddy is doing, where you sample the groove and make a hot track out of that groove and then on top you put a whole different song so it's got new life.” And he says, “Narada, I know we haven't worked together before, and I don't really know you and you don't really know me, but I think that's the most f***ked up thing I ever heard! Would Beethoven do some shit like that? Would Bach do some shit like that? Would Rachmaninoff do some shit like that?” I said, “Well, no Ray, that's a whole other time.” “Well, that's what I'm saying. Now use your creative imagination and give me some funk.” Yes, sir!
Where did you record?
The tracks were done at Tarpan Studios and Ray's vocals were done at his studio with him only. I was never there. He'd send tracks back to me, I'd compile it and we'd put it together and mix it, and add the other vocals onto it: The choir in L.A., I had Brandy in New York — a bunch of people all over the place.
What are you up to now?
I'm making a new Narada album. It's a rock/funk springtime/summer fun and deep ballads type of thing where I can get back to my career as an artist, which I miss terribly. I'm really having a good time getting back into my own heart and my own emotions and expressing how I feel and what I want to say. As a producer, you have to always put the hat on for what's best for the artist. But when you're the artist, you got to think about what God's saying in your own heart.