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.
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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."
of the things that sets Ron Powell apart from
most musicians is his work ethic.
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."
then asked Ron if there were any particular moments
he thought of as the high points of his career
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."
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.
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
now, that is.
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
quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin
Cohen in September, 2000.
by Jim McSweeney.
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