MUSICIANS
Meet the Musicians
Interviews
Theme Songs
Rhythm of the Stars
Ya Gotta Laugh
Departed
Tito Puente Tribute


RON POWELL

Ron Powell grew up in Philadelphia, a city not known as the birthplace of world-class percussionists. But with strongly rhythmic and percussive music becoming more and more a part of the mainstream, old stereotypes are breaking down.

"It was fortunate for me, in a sense, that I didn't grow up in a Puerto Rican or Latin neighborhood because a lot of guys I know who did, don't know how to explain what it is that they know. I was lucky because I had to go and find out things: I had to find out about clave, I had to find out how to dance. I had to delve a little deeper to learn things because I wasn't from those neighborhoods. Once I started studying and realizing how deep the world of percussion is, I realized that there are culturally specific ways of playing and I started figuring out what those ways were. I take that same attitude with me to other countries like Brazil, and Africa, and Japan-wherever I find percussion I have to dive into the culture to find out why things are played the way they're played."

He had an uncle who played percussion with the Flamingos--a well-known vocal group from the Fifties. He had to go away one summer and so he asked Ron to stay at his house with his wife, Ron's aunt. When Ron moved in he found his uncle's conga drum and started to play around on it. When his uncle returned some months later, he gave Ron the drum. And that was the start. Martin Cohen first met Ron back in 1978 when Ron was with Sergio Mendes. Twenty-two years later the two met for an interview at the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood and Martin asked Ron how his career got started.

"Right off the bat I listened to Santana who was very popular. And I liked Puerto Rican women. So I was spending a lot of time hanging out in Puerto Rican neighborhoods listening to the music, learning to dance so I could impress these women. And so I started studying Latin music at that time. But it was easier for me to get work in R & B bands. Then I got involved in African music because that was available to me living in a black neighborhood. That's when I realized how deep percussion was and started studying more seriously. Very quickly I went from just being a guy on the street to doing a lot of sessions, and I got pretty deep into the whole sound-of-Philadelphia scene with Blue Magic and others. From there I moved to California and within a year I was rehearsing with Stevie Wonder's Band. Then I got the job with Sergio Mendes. Luckily for me, since the beginning of my career, I've always done a major tour every year and just never stopped."

He auditioned for Sergio Mendes at a "cattle call" with about 60 other percussionists. Mendes had just fired 6 Brazilian players and was looking for a less rigid attitude in his new hires. Ron's playing was accomplished but it wasn't quite there yet in a Latin sense. But Sergio liked Ron's attitude and sensed that he was young enough to be malleable, to learn the rhythms the way Sergio wanted them played. When he first joined, he and Sergio flew to Brazil ahead of the band, and Mendes took him directly to Oba Oba, the club of the moment where they stayed till closing. Later when the sun was up, they went to a samba school to soak up the feel. It was Sergio's way of getting Ron immersed in the culture beneath the music. As far as Ron was concerned, this dovetailed nicely with his own orientation towards playing and learning.

"From then on I tried to dive into the culture. I started speaking Portuguese. I went into the kitchen to get my rice and beans. Learning about the culture and why people play helps me become able to play like them. So it's not just about technique, but knowing what drives these people."

Sergio of course, wanted someone who sounded like the legendary Paulina Da Costa. And Ron credits Paulina with 50% of his learning. But over the years he has gone far past the requirements of being a good technician. Anyone who has seen Ron perform knows he is not just a brilliant musician but a consummate entertainer as well. He is very fit and athletic and his stage-moves approach the acrobatic. He has been known to toss drums into the air, leap on top of his congas, and generally astound audiences accustomed to less awe-inspiring physicality.

"You can have a great musician on stage who bore's the hell out of an audience. Somewhere along the way I started to be an entertainer and I pride myself on that. I go on stage and play the music the best I can, try and make it sound as good as the record or better. But I also want to be entertaining. Once when I was performing with Sergio Mendes at the Rio in Las Vegas, Liza Minelli and Richie Havens came backstage to see me and Liza said, You're an entertainer's entertainer. And to me that was just a great compliment coming from her because she is such an incredible entertainer."

Another of the things that sets Ron Powell apart from most musicians is his work ethic.

"Now that I've been in the business for 30 years I've seen a lot of my friends go on to become other things besides musicians even though that's where their passion lies. But what happened with me was one day I realized you spend 40 hours a week making $300 or whatever you make, and I asked myself, If I spent that time working at music could I make $300? And the answer of course, was yes. So that was my goal, to get up at eight in the morning and work till five at the business of music. That includes research and practice as well. And ever since I started that, I've never needed to take another type of employment."

Martin then asked Ron if there were any particular moments he thought of as the high points of his career to date.

"That's very difficult to say-I've played some really unusual gigs. Once with Sergio Mendez we played for 110,000 people and I got a standing ovation from 110,000 people. And then there was King Hussein of Jordan. His favorite band was Sergio Mendez and for his birthday, the queen flew us all to Jordan. We were there in secret for about a week touring around and on the last day we were going to give him a concert. But he found out about it and came to our sound check. And as I was standing on the stage tuning up and getting ready, someone over my shoulder said, "So how do you play those things? It was the King himself. So I gave him a quick conga lesson, and he put his hands on the drums and played. And they were original black fiberglass LP's. He really enjoyed the show and it turned out that percussion was his favorite thing." It may sound funny, but I've got lots of experiences like that. The things that are actually more meaningful to me have to do with a duo where I do children's stories. Some of those shows are much more meaningful and much more touching. When I go into a school, especially a handicapped school, we use percussion to highlight the story. And sometimes, particularly with handicapped kids, they can't understand the words but they relate to the drums. And so to see a child in a wheelchair who doesn't respond to anyone talking to them, but when I start playing they turn around and want to get closer to the drum, those things are more rewarding than standing ovations and hanging with famous people."

It's gotten to be almost a tradition in Martin's interviews to ask if someone has a funny story to tell about touring and being on the road. Sometimes he get's A material, sometimes not. Ron scored high.

"One of the really cool things about being in a band is you get to travel around the world and meet interesting people and have some unusual experiences. Once when I was living in Paris for a month and performing every night, I went out with a friend of mine, a bass player named John Pena, one of my favorite bass players in the world. It was very late and we were in the Moulin Rouge district of Paris-which is the "red light" district-making a phone call back to the Sates from a phone booth. We were both in the booth as the police came by. And because of the district we were in they thought we were transvestites and arrested us! They took us to jail in the middle of the night in Paris, and we were kind of scared. And when they were talking to me I told them I only spoke English. And John, who is Puerto Rican, in his fright told them he only spoke Spanish. And John is a very pretty man, and so they said, Obviously you don't know each other since you speak different languages, but you were in a phone booth together in the middle of the night in the red light district. So it looked pretty bad. It took us all night, but by morning we got out. I was touring with Tania Maria at the time and she never found out about it."

Until now, that is.

These days nothing is likely to damage Ron's reputation. His resume is top-heavy with the biggest names in the business including Frank Sinatra, Tania Maria, Sheena Easton, Ricki Lee Jones, Barry White, Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey, Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves and a fourteen year association with Diana Ross. For the last several years he has been a featured performer with Kenny G. In addition to continuing to tour and record with Kenny G, Ron has his own band LA Samba, and the project closest to his heart, the storytelling duo that performs at children's venues. So, after 30 years of playing, his future looks brighter than ever. And whatever comes, whatever fate has in store, will no doubt revolve around music, because music is both the grace note and the driving force in the life of Ron Powell.

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen in September, 2000.

Written by Jim McSweeney.

To learn more about Ron Powell, CLICK HERE.