Odie Payne, Jr. – I Like Melody

SKF NOTE: In the early 1980’s, when I set out to write what became a five-part feature series for Modern Drummer called, The History of Rock Drumming, I thought it would be mostly a cut-and-paste project. That is, I thought most of the drummer research must already be in books. But that was not so. That five part series was, as far as I know, the first published history of rock drumming.

Yesterday, sifting through a stack of papers, I found the typed transcript of my brief interview with drummer Odie Payne, Jr. for the Blues section of the series. I’m posting the transcript here, verbatim, for the first time.

Re-reading these backgrounder interviews, there is not one where I don’t wish I knew more at the time about the drummers or the music involved. Still, this is a little piece of music history with bits of information that may solve someone’s music history riddle.

Scott K Fish: You did some drumming on the Chess sessions for Chuck Berry, right?

Odie Payne, Jr: Well, I only played with him on two sessions. That’s all. Personally, I think I know you better than I know him. ‘Cause when I came to the studio I never met him before. All I did was set up. They’d kick it off and I’d start playing.

But I know nothing of the man – close, at all. He wouldn’t know me from Adam if he saw me. I haven’t saw him since the studio dates that go back a lot of years.

Other than that I know nothing of him. Except when I see him on television! (Laughs). ‘Cause I never worked with him outside of just two sessions that I made with him.

SKF: Do you remember what the sessions were?

OPJr: I was on the “School Days.” And then a year or two after that he made a session when he was in a little trouble. I know they had a couple of drummers. See, I was one of them. I forgot the name of that tune.

See, “School Days” was one session, and then after that , a couple of years later he was making something, and I was called in because he ran into some trouble, see. So, he was trying to get as many records as they could audit (sp?), see.

That’s all I know about him. Nothing!

SKF: Well, I’m not so much interested in Chuck Berry. I’m more interested in what the sessions were like for you as a player.

OPJr: Oh, no problem. No problem. Fairly easy. It wasn’t no challenge. There was no challenge. No challenge at all.

SKF: Were there any rehearsals involved?

OPJr: We’d run it down once or twice. That was it. They’d go ahead and start taping. Whatever they want to do. ‘Cause whatever he did, he did in the time that was allowed, see. There wasn’t a lot of hitting and missing because he [Chuck Berry] knew what he wanted.

So, it was fairly easy. It wasn’t no brainstorm. It was no challenge, actually. Y’know, it wasn’t boggling to the mind at all.

SKF: A lot of the drummers I’ve spoken with who played on the early R&B dates came out of the Bebop school. Were you a jazz player yourself?

OPJr: No, no, no. I really like straight stuff. ‘Cause I don’t care too much about way out jazz. Not so way out you can’t understand it. Y’know, play a number 10-15 minutes, y’know, it’s up in the air.

Basically, I like melody. I like to stick to the melody as close as possible. So far as hearing, you know.

But, generally what you call going out for real jam sessions, I never was the type to go out for jam sessions, y’know. Because it was no challenge there. But it just didn’t tease me. Because I like a number, you know, [with] music three minutes, five minutes, melody wise. Definite beat. Definite melody. Definite ending. Definite starting.

Something like that.

SKF: Songs.

OPJr: Yeah, well, I like melody, you know. You can take liberties a little bit with the lead, but come back to the melody quick. And then just get out, you know.

Except when I take a solo. And then that’s my thing by myself. Then I don’t involve me and nobody else, you see?

SKF: Now, you’re still gigging now, right?

OPJr: Well, I’m getting ready to leave for Europe Tuesday. Three weeks.

SKF: Who are you going over with?

OPJr: Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Louisiana Red, and on bass will be Robert Strozier. And I think they’re going to pick up another group I’m not familiar with. I don’t know them personally.

We went over last year too on that tour, you know. Of course, I went twice. I went with another group: David Meyers, Jimmy Johnson, and Eddie Taylor. And also Willie Dixon.

SKF: Getting back to the Chess sessions. Was it a lot different working with Muddy Waters in the studio?

OPJr: I only did one session with Muddy Waters. That goes back a long ways. Just one.

Like I said, I was on Junior Wells’ first record. But it wasn’t for Chess.

Then Buddy Guy’s first record. That wasn’t for Chess either.

Then I was on one of Otis Rush’s records.

Magic Sam. That wasn’t for Chess either.

And Betty Everett. That wasn’t for Chess either.

I think I was on just one of Wolf’s records. Either Wolf or…. That harp player?

SKF: Little Walter?

OPJr: Well, I was on one of his sessions also.

SKF: How was it different for you recording back in the…?

OPJr: Well, you had to hit the drum harder, I think, with Chess, because he wanted a certain sound. So, you could hit the drum, even using the butt of the stick in the studio – and it would come out light.

But, that’s the way Chess recorded it. He probably recorded you soft, but you’d hit hard to get that effect that he wanted. Very hard playing. Very hard.

Listen, all you could hear was the drum, but when the thing come out, you know, my goodness, a little thinner. But, that was what he wanted.

But now, in the studio it’s not so hard because I think it’s the engineering. They can pull you in. They can tell you just play naturally, you know. They can pull you in.

SKF: How many mics did Marshall Chess used to use when he was recording the bands?

OPJr: Oh, I didn’t pay too much attention. They mike a little different now. With more mikes, I think. And they take the cover off the bass drum. Whereas, as that time they didn’t usually remove the cover off the bass drum. Hardly at all, you know.

SKF: So, you could pretty much play your drums wide open without a lot of muffling?

OPJr: Well, they muffled them down now.

SKF: On the Chess sessions did they muffle the drums much?

OPJr: Oh, maybe the snare and the tom-tom they might. Yeah, they might have you put your wallet on the snare drum, you know, to cut down the vibration. In fact, they all do something to the drum. They do not let them play open hardly at all. One place they can put you in a booth and close the door, you know.

SKF: Well, I was speaking with J.M. Van Eaton, who recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studios, and he said he couldn’t even use his tom-toms back then. Just bass and snare drums.

OPJr: Oh yeah, well, you could record with everything. Of course, now when I recorded in Europe – the same thing. They might tape up a few things, but they’ll set up the drums for you. They have everything there.

It’s according, I guess, to what the engineer want. ‘Cause the engineer, it’s really up to him to muffle and tune the way he wants for the sound he wants to hear through there, not you. See, you can hear one thing, but the engineer hears another.

SKF: Right, and he can mess around with the tape and get a whole different sound if he wants.

OPJr: That’s correct. Because he’s looking for something, you know. ‘Cause the first thing he do, you know, he snatch off the front of your bass drum and slap a couple of pillows in there so you can get a thud.

SKF: That great old sound, right? “THUD.”

OPJr: Thud, yeah. Uh huh.

SKF: Were you in touch with guys like Frank Kirkland and the other drummers that were playing on those sessions?

OPJr: Frank Kirkland? Kinda tall, dark, thin boy?

SKF: I’ve never seen him.

OPJr: If it’s the one I think, he’s dead now.

SKF: He played with Bo Diddley?

OPJr: Yes, yes. He’s dead now. I knew him real well. I found out that he had died, but I remember him very well. He used to come around to a place on 61st Street called Morgan’s Lounge sometime, and he would drop in on us. At that time I was playing with another harp player: Little Willie.

He would come around sometime, uh huh.

SKF: How did you get those gigs with Muddy, Chuck, and…?

OPJr: Well, it’s history, because the only reason I played with Muddy was the drummer got sick. And I played in his drummer’s place one week.

SKF: Was that Fred Below?

OPJr: No, no, no. It was Elgie Evans. He died.

We were going to music school for awhile on the G.I. Bill. The Roy C. Knapp Music School. Him and a couple of other drummers I knew very well.

Sometime I would try to help him do his homework, you know. But other than that, I replaced him, he got sick. I replaced him for a week with Muddy. That’s the longest I every played with Muddy.

Other than that I played on the session with him because I was always be working with Willie Dixon a lot of times. Willie Dixon’s the one who got me on the sessions because I was working with him and Brother Montgomery some years back.

And Below used to watch me! And he used to tell me he was going to get my beat. He used to sit and watch and says, “I’m gonna get that.”

I would tell him, “Well, you get it.”

SKF: He was a jazz player primarily, wasn’t he?

OPJr: Well, I don’t have no comment to make. Below is Below, and I’m me. I don’t play like him. He has his own way. Just licks he throw in, licks that I do not throw in. It wouldn’t be no trouble to do it, but it’s not necessary. I don’t feel I have to do that, whereas, he does.

So that separates you a little bit there. ‘Cause I think I’m a couple of years ahead of him in playing. I had a little beat there and he said, “I’m gonna get it.” I said, “Well, you get it.” That’s over 25 years ago.

SKF: Do you ever listen back to those records now?

OPJr: Well, my first records was with Tampa Red for RCA Victor. Then Big Maceo….

I would say no, because basically the stuff is still being played. You have a little more amplification now. It’s more louder. But, basically it’s still being played, so really you don’t have to play no records. You’re playing it all the time.

You just maybe have younger artists. But, basically the stuff is still the same. It’s no challenge there. I mean, to me it can almost be a sleeper unless I do something different on my own.

It’s no challenge. A guy might do a same tune with maybe a little different feeling, but basically the structure is the same.

‘Course you might have more whining guitars now, a few more licks, ‘cause, you know, ain’t no two guitars goin’ to be alike. You got a lot of copyists. A copy of BB King, ‘cause that effect that he gets out of the guitar, you have a lot of them imitating that effect. The feeling, you know.

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