SKF NOTE: I hate sounding like a broken record (no pun intended), but for the sake of readers visiting Life Beyond the Cymbals for the first time: I conducted a series of backgrounder interviews in the early 1980s for a five-part feature series I wrote for Modern Drummer magazine called The History of Rock Drumming. None of these interviews were published — until now.
With the publishing of this interview I’ve added a new Backgrounder Interview category. With one click, readers can access all my backgrounder interviews for MD’s The History of Rock Drumming.
These verbatim interviews have some rough edges. They were originally transcribed from audio cassette using a manual typewriter. In the interest of time, I sometimes did not transcribe my questions, only the interviewee’s answers.
Still, there are many interesting stories in these interviews. I was in uncharted territory much of the time. No one before had written a rock drumming history covering the late 1940s, the country music influence, the blues influence, right on up to the early 1980’s. The cut-off point was around the time Stewart Copeland was a rising drum star with The Police.
Michael Carvin is no doubt best known as a jazz drummer. I don’t recall how I found out Mr. Carvin spent two years drumming at Motown. But the purpose of our phone interview was to find out.
Caveat: The language is coarse in spots. In one place, Mr. Carvin says he was at Motown with a name I transcribed as “Eddie Khan.” Eddie Khan was a jazz bassist, but I find no evidence he was a Motown musician. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but, outside of Carvin’s statement I have no information. It’s also possible I misunderstood Carvin, or misspelled the name “Eddie Khan” while transcribing. Maybe someone reading this can clear up the confusion?
Finally, I think towards the end of this transcription I stopped transcribing my questions. It’s also possible I didn’t transcribe some of Michael Carvin’s remarks if they were not germane to the topic. There’s one bumpy transition in the conversation — and I think that’s why.
Michael Carvin: Bullshit. Pistol [Allen] started the sound. Benny Benjamin started the sound on the bass [drum]. Pistol was the drummer that invented the Motown thing. When you first heard Motown — all of that shit was Pistol. Benny was in on the early stuff too.
Earl Palmer was on the West Coast in the early ’60s when he had just started to become very, very big in the studio thing. Now, there’s a possibility that he did a lot of the things from the West Coast because — let’s say Diana Ross was out there and they did something live.
But the [Motown] sound was coming from Woodworth Street and a place called Hitsville.
[The California story] might be true. See, Motown was a funny place. It was a factory… like working in a factory. We had ID cards and they had heavy security and all of that shit. I don’t know what records I played on because we cut rhythm tracks like my job was to put the fender on the car. I don’t know what color the cat is painting the car because that’s painted further down the line.
So we would just make fenders. Then when they got the fenders the way they wanted them to be, then they would decide what car this fender would go on. It might be Marvin Gaye. It might be Diana Ross. It might be Stevie Wonder. Then they would put that fender on that particular car.
Now they would paint it. They might use…. It might be a 32-piece orchestra when it’s finished.
We would go in at nine in the morning. We’d come out about 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Harvey would say, “Okay, lay this groove down.” We would finally get it. Then he’d say, “Okay. Now lay this down.” It would be layers. “This is going to be the bridge.”
Now — the name of the tune? We don’t know. Who is singing? We don’t know.
We’d just do that all day, man.
SKF: You did that for two years?
SKF: Was there a reason why they would record like that?
MC: It wasn’t that they were keeping any secrets. It’s just that they don’t know.
Heat Wave wasn’t written for Martha [and the Vandellas]. It was written for Marvin Gaye, but it was too high for his range the way they was hearing it. See, it was the company, man. That’s why they was successful. There wasn’t no egos.
They would say…. Like, Harvey would listen to it and say, “Man, this sounds like some shit that The Four Tops would eat up. This sounds like their kind of beat.” So that’s who they would give it to. And they would try the first order. They would say, “Man, this sounds like something for Diana. This sounds like a song that she would carry well.” They they would give it to her.
I remember when The Spinners used to rehearse every day, man, for two years. They wasn’t ready to be an act yet. As far as I was concerned they was raising hell. But Motown worked like this with an artist: Until you get a rhythm section, you know you’re not going anywhere. It’s kind of like that. You go to apply for a job and until you get the application, you can’t apply for it.
SKF: They had The Spinners rehearsing two years?
MC: On salary.
I remember Thelma Houston couldn’t get a rhythm section. Until they give you a rhythm section you can’t say, “Well, I’m going.” Once you get a rhythm section you go upstairs to the third or fourth floor. I don’t remember now. Then you could say, “Well, we’ll be going out soon.” Then, once you get a rhythm section and a choreographer you know you’re on your way.
Oh, no, man. It was business. It was with no bullshit. That’s why every time you saw an act — it was polished.
You get a rhythm section first…. No, you get them both at the same time. Well, you might get the choreographer first. You would be just singing your song acapella and he would be showing you steps and all of this shit. Then you get your rhythm section.
That will be your rhythm section. They would hire some cats and that would be your rhythm section.
Now, if the drummer would quit — okay, I might have to go out there and hit the gigs until they get another drummer. Then I’ll shoot back. Whoever quits, one of us would shoot out to teach the next cat who was going to take the gig. So, during the day you would practice with him in the hotel room, and show him all of the fill-ins.
See, you could be a hell of a reader and you couldn’t play the Motown music. Because it was a school within itself. It was a school about putting the beat in the pocket. And it was a good experience for me because it was nothing like you would encounter in Western music.
A lot of the cats can read all of the notes and all that. And that’s great. But, that has nothing to do with playing Motown music. Motown music fucked up most drummers because it was written with four-way coordination. What he wanted you to play on bass drum was written. What he wanted you to play with your left hand was written. What he wanted you to play with your right hand — it was written. You had to coordinate that shit, and that’s what fucked up most cats.
SKF: Weren’t Pistol and Benny Benjamin inventing their own stuff?
MC: Well, they invented the sound. Then Harvey Fuqua translated the sound. The standard was set when I showed.
My idol in high school was Martha Reeves. I finished high school in 1963. So they were burning then. I use to dance to Martha in 1957, ’58, ’59. I remember when Heat Wave came out. I’m from Houston, Texas. So I know what heat wave is. So I always wanted to play with them. I was madly in love with Mary Wells. And I always dug that shit. The Four Tops, Smokey and all of those cats.
See, Texas has that dark sound. Motown was perfect for what my ears wanted to hear. Art Blakey was perfect. The Jazz Messengers. Kenny Dorham was perfect. Max Roach? I couldn’t hear him because he was too fast. I couldn’t hear him until I really mastered my studying and shit. But the drummer I could hear then was Blakey because it was dark. He and Bobby Timmons. Bobby Timmons had a dark sound. Lee Morgan.
[SKF NOTE: I’m guessing this is the bumpy transition I mention in my post opening.]
If you don’t have that kind of organization you can’t swing, man. You don’t know nothing about centering the rhythm section. Centering your beat within the center of the rhythm section and building off of whatever they’re playing. That’s what it’s about.
See, all these cats I hear now, they are good drummers, man, but all they have is top. They don’t have any bottom. That’s why disco was such a hit. Because it was such mechanical music. All you had to be able to play was eighth notes. The down beat on the bass drum and the “and” of each beat on the hi-hat. That’s why you had drummers that you never heard of playing in disco. Because a dog could do it. You went no further than eighth notes — and there was no syncopation. It was like marching music. It was like you put everybody in the same rhythm at 120 [beats] per [minute].
SKF: Was there stuff that you had to woodshed, that just blew your mind when you got to Motown?
MC: That’s right. The coordination. I could read it… but… the coordination, and then to set on it, to be able to pay four-way independence, but set on it and don’t let that time move — to then make it feel like something.
SKF: Were they working with click tracks?
MC: No, man. You know why there’s any click tracks? Because it’s boring to set up and play boom-boom-boom-boom. That’s what you played in disco, so you easily drop it or rush it — because it’s boring. A click track is one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard of.
I never met Pistol or Benny, but I knew their names because I was constantly reminded of them. Motown is the Bebop of rock. Now you have Fusion and all of that shit. It came from Motown and Bebop. That’s what Fusion is. If you really listen to the bass drum of the Motown drummers — it’s playing the melody. That’s why I call it the Bebop of rock. Because the Bebop drummers played the melody.
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