I love the drums, and especially on groove-based music it all comes back to that. I also love great songs, so you’ll find that my drummer choices tend to revolve more around groove and service to the song as a whole as opposed to impressive chops-displays for their own sake. With no further ado . . .
1. Al Jackson, Jr.: “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” by Al Green
I love Jackson’s playing with Booker T and the MGs and on all those seminal 1960s tracks by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and so on. I particularly love his work with Al Green in the 1970s though. This is the embodiment of “less is more,” with a groove that is so infectious and yet so sparse. His fills here (generally a few 8th notes on the snare, a hit of the floor tom and a single cymbal crash) are the first thing I point to when trying to talk sense into chops-obsessed drummers (no offense if you are one and you’re reading this).
2. Ziggy Modeliste: “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” by Lee Dorsey
Zigaboo is of course best known for his unique contributions to the Meters, New Orleans’ premier R&B rhythm section and instrumental funk unit. I love the Meters, but I tend to love them best when they’re backing up a great singer, and Lee Dorsey was a great singer. His Yes I Can album is full of infectious moments, and this track is danceable and propulsive mainly (in my opinion) because of the quirky drum groove.
3. Benny Benjamin: “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder
It’s hard to pick a single Motown track to represent Benny Benjamin, who for years was James Jamerson’s partner as the backbone of the Funk Brothers. This song is so exciting, though, that I had to choose it. The snare-on-all-four groove is relentless and the drum fills are particularly frequent and electrifying.
4. Sherman Ferguson: “Ain’t It The Truth” by Catalyst
I wasn’t sure whether it was legit to include this, but it’s my list! Ferguson has a lot of jazz credentials (I particularly dig his work with Kenny Burrell and Pat Martino), as do the other members of Catalyst, an early and fairly unheralded R&B/fusion group that produced some AMAZING work (thanks to Omer Shemesh for turning me on to them back when he was a student of mine). This was their signature tune and it grooves like crazy, particularly from the drum chair.
5. Bernard Purdie: “The Needle’s Eye” by Gil Scott-Heron
Purdie is, of course, an all-time giant and is another drummer for whom it’s difficult to pick a single track, but I can’t get enough of this one. The tune itself is one of my favorites, and that’s in no small part due to the super grooving drumming. Listen to that cymbal work, oh my lawd! In general the playing is quite busy, and in this case that simply enhances the groove and brings out all the nuances of the song.
6. Milt Turner: “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles
Quite justifiably, most of the attention surrounding this groundbreaking track by Charles surrounds his Wurlitzer electric piano and vocals. But holy crap, listen to those drums. This groove is ridiculous, and the fullness of the cymbal work is an under-the-radar (if something this dramatic can be under-the-radar) reason that the electric piano is able to get away with a comparatively sparse chord rhythm and still sound extremely full.
7. Stevie Wonder: “Superstition”
This is a hard one to be objective about it because I’m such a Stevie Wonder fan, so I love everything about his classic mid-70s albums (and thus love the drumming regardless of how good it is, because it’s part of such a perfect whole). I can say more objectively, though, that I’ve listened to what he plays on this track and it is grooving on a level that any backbeat-playing drummer needs to get down with, pronto. The intro alone is one of the most grooving drum-based moments in modern music, I think.
8. Clyde Stubblefield: “Cold Sweat” by James Brown
For most people “funky drummer” is a compliment to which they aspire, but for Clyde it’s just synonymous with his name. For years he held it down for James Brown, and the jerky yet propulsive groove of this track is a classic example. The single version is great, but the extended version puts the spotlight on him for a while and that is a revelation. We’ll give an honorable mention to Kenwood Dennard for his fabulous homage (whether conscious or not) with his playing on Maceo Parker’s amazing “Shake Everything You Got.”
9. Earl Palmer: “Tutti Frutti by Little Richard
Earl Palmer played great stuff in many styles (I’m particularly fond of his work on Lou Rawls “Live” album, which deserves its own category). But what probably cemented his legacy more than anything was the energy and groove he brought to Little Richard’s early work. With this track Richard became well-known for his mega-energetic music. Justifiably so, but if you put a generic, competent drummer in Palmer’s place on this or any of these early tracks, there wouldn’t have been nothin’ happening!
10. Roger Hawkins: “Think” by Aretha Franklin
As with Al Jackson with Booker T and the MG’s, Hawkins’ contributions to the Muscle Shoals rhythm section were subtle and thus a bit under the radar. But man, what a groove. Aretha’s “Think” is a particularly good example when you listen to how the song gradually builds intensity and then listen closer to realize how much of that is coming from the subtle variations in Roger’s drumming.