By Michael J Edwards
“…You’ve got the rhythm section, you’ve got the horns blasting and Carlos comes in and just sings before he starts the rift. It’s one of the most exciting musical times of my life. A seventeen piece Salsa band with the Escovedos killing it on the percussion and Carlos Santana singing on top with his guitar – it gets no better than that!” Steve Arrington
Rising from the creative musical hotbed of Dayton, Ohio (Zapp, The Ohio Players), drummer turned vocalist, Steve Arrington has become synonymous with the word Funk. Having cut his musical teeth in and around the Latin scene, Steve Arrington first appeared on our radar as drummer/lead vocalist for the band Slave, later enjoying a high-profile solo career during the eighties with Funk classics such as ’Weak at the Knees’, ‘Just a Touch of Love’, ‘Dancin’ In the Key of Life’ and ‘Feel so Real’; the track ‘Feel So Real’ giving the music fraternity a big hint as to where he would devote the next 19 years of his life – In the Ministry. Emerging from his self-imposed music exile in October 2009, Arrington began to delve into the alternative music scene and was already aware of the underground funk movement by the time Stones Throw Records’ Dam Funk, a.k.a. Damian Riddick, contacted him via Facebook. Their instant connection and subsequent musical collaboration led to the 2013 release of the album ‘Higher’ on Stones Throw Records.
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards broached all of the above topics and more with Mr Arrington at his hotel in London the day after, during a revealing telephone interview following his Giants of Funk, Soul, Boogie and Jazz headline performance at the O2 arena. His thoughts on the concert the night before were an obvious place to start.
The Dood: Greetings Mr Steve Arrington?
Steve Arrington: How are you Michael?
The Dood: I’m extremely well. First of all my apologies for not being there physically with you today, but I did catch you live and in person last night at the Indigo O2 arena as part of the Giants of Funk, Soul and Boogie Pt 1 concert.
Steve Arrington: Oh, Great! Great!
The Dood: And it was great!
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Arrington: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had a great time. I had a wonderful time!
The Dood: It looked like you were really enjoying yourself and also the love you were receiving from the London audience. How was it for you?
Steve Arrington: Oh wow! I enjoyed it! I looked out and everybody was dancing all over the building the whole night and singing the words with me, and shouting out. Oh it was great! I had a wonderful time. I felt the love and all I wanted to do was just keep giving the love back. It was wonderful! I loved it! I can’t wait to get back!
The Dood: I second that emotion. It seems at this moment, life is very exciting for you?
Steve Arrington: Yes, absolutely!
The Dood: They say that things are cyclical and it looks like your star is rising again in 2013 with your link up with Damian Riddick a.k.a. Dam Funk, Stones Throw Records and your new album ‘Higher’, which is bringing the name Steve Arrington to a whole new generation of Funk fans. How do you feel about that?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Arrington: I’m excited about that! It just shows that when you see twenty and thirty year olds out in the audience and they’ve discovered my older material, along with the fact that they are responding to the music that Damian and I have done together; also on that ‘7 Days of Funk’ album that Snoop (Dogg) and Damian have done, I have a tune on that joint. So I’m excited about that! So I’m very excited about the fact that I have been able to bridge that world between the fans that grew up with me and the new fans; something that I always wanted.
Papa John Creech, ‘Hot Tuna’ – which was a branch off Jefferson Aeroplane; he was in his fifties and he’s playing with these twenty-six year olds. And at that time they played to predominantly white audiences in this hippie era that we were in when I saw him live. And I said, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” Meaning like I wanted to be like he was. He was a guy who wasn’t afraid to make music with younger people and to express himself in a way that other people in his age group may have not even understood. And so I decided when I was sixteen, when I saw him, I wanted to be like that. And now here I am! I’m like Papa John Creech now, with this generation that is now coming up and I’m hanging out with them and doing my thing. So I’m totally blessed by it all.
The Dood: They say the subconscious mind is always working, so maybe it was your subconscious never gave up on the dream?
Steve Arrington: Absolutely!
The Dood: It all started to you when your grandparents gave you a drum kit. How old were you when you got that first drum kit?
Steve Arrington: I was eight years old.
The Dood: Were you self taught or did you have lessons?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Arrington: I was self taught primarily, I took lessons for a short while. And then I did study with a drummer who was playing with Phil Doggett when I was nineteen. But primarily I was self taught. Then I also studied again; I studied with a guy in Dayton. So I do have some music education. But coming out early as a drummer I was pretty much self-taught, listening to James Brown records and beating on pots and pans before I got my first Buckle Blues Swingline drum set that my grandparents got me.
The Dood: Do you have any influences on the drums?
Steve Arrington: Absolutely! I would say my first influence on the drums was Clyde Stubblefield.
The Dood: The Funky Drummer!
Steve Arrington: Yeah! That would be my first influence. I would say as I grew up, my second big drum influence was Bill Bruford from ‘Yes’. I really loved Bill Bruford’s playing and still do! He’s just a funky and unique act, the way he plays. Just his snare style alone was just insane; and how he placed his grooves. That next person in line would be Billy Cobham… He would be my next great influence. And then that led me into Bop Jazz, which led me into people like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. I came up in the Soul vibe with James (Brown) and then I got into the ‘Yes’ thing. I mean ‘Yes’ used to kill me, and still to this day man! Bill Bruford – as a matter of fact when he left the band I mourned, I’ll be honest with you… I would have loved to have seen ‘Yes’ live, playing around the time of the ‘Close to the Edge’ album with Bill Bruford on drums. I have been able to see footage, since we are in the online era, and now I’ve actually seen him play with them. He was incredible man! Bill Bruford was a major influence. Billy Cobham also.
The Dood: That would be goose-bump time for you?
Steve Arrington: Man! Billy Cobham I first saw play with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in a show in Cincinnati with Frank Zappa and Curtis Mayfield. Then Billy came out and he had this huge drum set. I’ve never seen a drum set that huge! And they changed my life. When I heard that I completely changed up. My whole perspective about music changed! That got me into Miles and Coltrane. I came into Miles and Coltrane and Bird and all of those guys through the Mahavishnu Orchestra http://www.last.fm/music/Mahavishnu+Orchestra . Because when I heard people like Charlie Parker, I couldn’t understand it! My uncle was like, “You need to hear Bird?!” And I thought it was gibberish, because I couldn’t understand it. I was like maybe fourteen; when I was sixteen and I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra, they changed my life… They open the door for a much broader perspective of music for me.
The Dood: Was there anybody who influenced your vocals or was that just pure Steve Arrington inflections?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Arrington: Well, vocally there were people I loved, but I never came up really as a singer. I was never known as a soloist singer of a group or anything like that. I grew up as a drummer; they knew me as a drummer. But what I did, I mimicked solos on my own time. Just hanging around the house I would mimic Coltrane solos, ‘My Favourite Things’. And I would try to mimic Jimi Hendrix solos… I was influenced by Stevie Wonder, I was influenced by James Taylor. I used to love James Taylor’s variation in his voice and just his diction – The same thing with a lot of the 50s doo-wop singers, where the diction was really important.
The Dood: Like the Platters?
Steve Arrington: Yes absolutely! So yes there are some voices, but I never considered myself a singer, so I never learned those songs, I never sang them out. So I guess that made my approach very unique because I never studied anyone, I didn’t have any vocal heroes to mimic.
The Dood: Or any particular vocal training?
Steve Arrington: Yes
The Dood: I use the parallel of Michael Jackson dancing. He didn’t go to any dance school, yet he had his own unique dance style.
Steve Arrington: Exactly! Exactly!
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: Can you expand on your formative years playing Latin percussion and drums in California alongside the Escovedo’s i.e. Coke, Pete and Sheila Escovedo, latterly known as Sheila E?
Steve Arrington: I came out to Dayton after high school, and a lot of the Dayton groups moved out to the West Coast – ‘Lakeside’ being one of them. They went to Southern California to make it. I left high school and went to the Bay Area. A friend of mine, whilst we were out riding said “Look there’s Coke Escovedo watering his lawn!” I was like, “No way is that Coke Escovedo!” That got me into the whole Santana and Braxton’s thing. We were into Santana heavy!
The Dood: So what year we looking at here?
Steve Arrington: That was in ‘76/’77. I left high school and went out to the West Coast to see if I was good enough to make it. I saw Coke Escovedo one day watering his lawn, and I got out of the car and I said, “I know you’re doing your thing and I don’t want to bother you, but I’m a drummer out here -and I had been out there for about three months by then – and I’m trying to make it, so If you know anybody who needs a drummer?” He says, “Well I have a friend who plays smooth Jazz on flute and he’s looking for a drummer.” And he gave me his number and I went over for an audition, and the happened to rehearse at Coke Escovedo’s house.
And so Coke Escovedo was watching the rehearsal and he dug what I was doing and he said, “I want you to play drums for me too.” The next thing I know I’m playing with Coke Escovedo. He said, “We do a night at the Waldorf in San Francisco, and he said, “Tonight my niece will sit in with us.” I said, “Your niece! What is she a singer?” He said, “No! She’s a percussionist.” I had never heard of a female playing percussion before. He said, “Yeah, she’s really good!” So she comes and we meet and she begins to completely wail on this gig! She was killing!
Then we got really cool and she said I wanted to join my father and I in his band. Coke (Escovedo) was doing the soulful Latin thing. And the next thing I know I’m in the seventeen piece Salsa band with Julian Priester on trombone, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bill Summers on percussion and Billy Cobham was the drummer that I had seen him with and he produced the first album solo too. And I followed Billy in the band man! He was my hero, so it blew me away that I followed him, but they said they dug what I was doing and dam man!
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: Happy days! And touring with Carlos Santana, how was that you?
Steve Arrington: It was awesome man! Carlos was the featured guitarist of a seventeen piece Salsa band, and then all of a sudden we’re peaking and Carlo jumps on top with that stinging guitar and he’s just sustaining notes before he starts digging in man. You’ve got the rhythm section, you’ve got the horns blasting and Carlos comes in and just sings before he starts the rift. It’s one of the most exciting musical times of my life. A seventeen piece Salsa band with the Escovedos killing it on the percussion and Carlos Santana singing on top with his guitar – it gets no better than that!
The Dood: You came into the band Slave as a drummer. How did they get their name?
Steve Arrington: You know what? People always think it was like a really deep thing. There was a T-shirt that Floyd Miller came into rehearsals with – now I wasn’t in the band yet – I didn’t join the band until the third album, ‘The Concept’. But we were locally together in a group called ‘The Young Mystics’ with a few people that were in Slave including Floyd Miller. And then I went out to the West Coast – now I’m about three to four years older than Floyd – so I graduated before they did. I went out the West Coast; they hooked up with Stevie Washington from Jersey who was the nephew of Pee-wee from the Ohio Players.
So he (Floyd Miller) walked into rehearsal one day and he had a T-shirt on that said ‘Slave’ and they were like, “Hey! That’s the name of the group – let’s be ‘Slave’. And that was it. It just so happens they released the single ‘Slide’ with the name ‘Slave’ the very year and around the same time that ‘Roots’ was released as a film! And they thought that it was a publicity thing; they thought the filmmakers had hooked up with the group and it was sort of like a package thing. But really it was a name that they just thought was catchy and ended up being a very very intense, thought-provoking, and provocative name.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: So then you left ‘Slave’ for short while and then returned. And that is when you had the big hit, ‘Watching You’. Who wrote that track?
Steve Arrington: Well, it was a combination of myself, Mark Adams, Danny Webster and Ray Turner.
The Dood: Of all your hit songs either with slave or as a solo artist, are there any tunes which flowed in terms of the writing process?
Steve Arrington: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It would be ‘Weak at the Knees’. ‘Weak at the Knees’ just flowed out of me! We were grooving and I was like I know exactly where to take this! And it just came right away. ‘Watching You’ came pretty quickly as well, lyrically, melodically. Melodically, before I put the lyrics on it, ‘Just a Touch of Love,’ you know I went to the Mike and it was so funny because at that time I wasn’t looked upon as one of the primary singers, because I was there to be a drummer and I did some things on ‘The Concept’ album like the bridge on ‘Coming Soon’ but I wasn’t really looked upon as a singer, it was more like Danny (Webster), Curt (Jones), Star (Starleana Young) and Floyd (Miller).
But we did the track to ‘Just a Touch of Love’ and they were having problems coming up with where to take the lead vocal…and the hook and so. So they just said, “Hey Steve why don’t you go to the Mike and try something, because all the others have already. So I started with, “Dah! Dah! Dah!” And they were like, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Okay!” Then they were like, “We like it but it’s so weird! The tone and everything! Go put some words to it and come back the next day”.
So I put some words to it and they said, “And they said it’s weird, we don’t know what to think, because the intervals and the tone is weird; but that’s what’s making it cool.” And then they went with it, but at first they didn’t know what to do with it – They said, “It doesn’t sound conventional, it doesn’t sound churchy; we don’t know what to call it!” And that’s sort of how my singing got started; it was a controversial in-house bet on what I was doing – not because they didn’t think it was cool, it’s just they wondered what to do with it, because they hadn’t heard anything like it before… So I appreciate the fact they didn’t say well it’s too weird and then tossed it out. And that’s how I started really seriously considering becoming the lead vocalist.
The Dood: You’ve talked a lot about spatiality and spirituality in the past. With ‘Feel so Real’ where was your mindset when you released that track?
Steve Arrington: Yes, you know spirituality has always been with me. When I did ‘Nobody Can Be You But You’, there were things that hinted that I was heading in an interesting direction, where my spirituality had to be more to the fore the my musical intentions. By the time ‘Feel so Real’ came along it had taken a front and centre position. But I went with it; I didn’t try to stop it, because that’s what I’d always done. When I sang ‘Just a Touch of Love’, I didn’t try to sound like anything else I had heard, I didn’t try to fit in, I just did me – I followed my heart. That’s sort of the way I’ve been as an artist; and that’s how “Feel So Real” came about and that’s still where I sit today; I follow my heart.
The Dood: From your heyday to nowadays, are you happy with the direction music is going?
Steve Arrington: It’s hard to tell because the direction in music has its own course, you can’t begin to know the different lanes music will decide to take and what happens culturally to bring a shift in direction. What I like to do and how I like to see things is like the great Miles Davis. Miles Davis sat in whatever culture he was in and gave his take on it. He maintained his respect of style…and the Miles Davis sound. He always allowed himself to be a part of the culture of ‘now’. And that’s sort of a how I see it as well. I love to sit ‘in the now’ and put my take on it; and learn from younger musicians as younger musicians learn from me and study my work from the past and what I’m doing now. I’ve always sort of looked at it that way, and for me it just never changes. I like to be ‘in the now’, which is why with the nowadays Funk – and not just Funk music, any style of music; I like to get my thing in and bring my innate styling to it.
The Dood: I understand your big fan of artists such as Madlib and Flying Lotus?
Steve Arrington: Oh man! I love Lotus! I love Madlib! And i dig a lot of the Dance music that’s cracking right now. I’m ready to jump on some dance joints the way I did in the eighties, coming into a whole new thing. I’m the type of cat who can get into some Free Jazz joints all the way into the most primal wild dog music that you can come up with and everything in between. So my ears are always attuned to the now culture; and to me music is more than it has ever been before, where you have such opportunity to do so many things because there’s more avenues open today than there used to be. So I’m more excited about that, especially as it lends itself to my style of thinking as an artist and a musician.
The Dood: You’re still stimulated and invigorated now more than ever. You’re not jaded by the industry?
Steve Arrington: Yeah! A lot of people got freaked out by sampling, and I was sort of tripping in the beginning when you were hearing your music and people weren’t getting paid for it. But when the business caught up to the actual technology, I was one of the first R&B/Funk cats to get down with the hip-hop dudes. I was on the Three Times Dope track when they did the ‘Weak at the Knees’ remake; I did some stuff with Kool Moe Dee on his ‘Funke Funke Wisdom’ album. You know I was in that whole scene before I retired…I did a track with Madlib and I’d love to do some work with (Flying) Lotus and that will be coming in the future.
And it doesn’t have to be music that’s Funk orientated or would Dance orientated, it can be very cosmic sounding like a lot of Lotus music. I can sit in that setting and paint a picture in that way and then I can turn around to almost the Blues man; you know some straight up Hound Dog Taylor, some Lightning Hopkins. So I’m down on that tip too…I think the blessing for me most of all about music is that I love so much of it! I can get off into some straight up Hank Williams senior, some of that ‘hey good looking what you got cooking?’ You know what I’m saying! I like that old, hard-core Country – Bill Munro, that old, hard-core, buck-joint; I don’t stop at any of it man! Let’s get some Taiwan tracks jumping off! I don’t care man, I love the music. And again I’m kin to Miles and Coltrane in that line of thinking.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: And with the new album ‘Higher’ produced by Dam Funk, you’ve written and performed on some of the tracks. How was the recording process for you?
Steve Arrington: Ah man! I just flowed with the music. I had so much fun, because it was a different kind of vibe; it was very synth orientated. No guitars, which was definitely a different vibe for me and take and focus as far as where I was coming from and from where I come out of. And so I really enjoyed that, that was a different perspective. Heavy drum machines that were more electro sounding, that was a different perspective – and so I just rode with it. And I didn’t try to force the music to be different to what it was. What I did is I just flowed with and just rode it man! I had a good time on this record. Things like ‘Good Feeling’ man; the way I came into a lyric like that is because you know I just felt that in the music, I felt in the chords. And I didn’t try to fight Damien’s (Dam Funk) music to make it fit into my path. I completely listened to it and said I’m going to establish where Steve Arrington is in this recording, versus trying to make his music remind people or me melodically of my past.
The Dood: So he (Dam Funk) focused on the music and you focused on the vocals in the lyrics?
Steve Arrington: Yes absolutely!
The Dood: Where do you live now?
Steve Arrington: I live in Ohio, right outside of Dayton. The little town called Springsford; it’s where John legend is from.
The Dood: Are there any offspring of Steve Arrington the following into the music business?
Steve Arrington: No, most of my kids are into sports, but they’re family men now. But one of my sons is into the stars; he and his girl are studying astronomy. They’re into the stars; which is really cool and makes for interesting conversation too. I’ve introduced the music but I don’t try to force that on them. They are music lovers though.
The Dood: Where is Funk/ music in general going? And what advice would you give to upcoming, new generation of musicians and vocalists for the future?
Steve Arrington: Well, I don’t know where the music is going, I just know wherever it is going I’m going to be there, I’m going to be a part of it! So I can’t say with the music is going, because you never know where a shift will come from culturally or technology – you never know when a shifting is coming. I just know I’m down, I’m with it, and I’m feeling very much a part of what’s happening right now. As far as young artist coming up, I would say be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to be you; don’t be afraid to get in touch with yourself; don’t be afraid to really get into your emotion. I think one thing that’s going on in music today in the commercial scene; they sort of try to narrow the emotions down to a lot of anger or a lot of sexual emotions or emotions of bravado.
All of those are real and they are all valid, they’re a part of life. But I think in a lot of ways commercial music has eliminated the panoramic view; the colour rainbow view of emotions and tried to Whittle them down to a very few. I think in the underground scene and I think music in general, if I was to say/ we’re do I think it’s going? Well I really don’t know. But i know where I would like it to go? And that is to just allow more of the human emotional palette to still be in play in music. I’m gonna bring it that way like I did on ‘Higher’. For me, I’m going to bring my emotional palette.
The Dood: You’ve come full circle. Follow your heart and spirituality?
Steve Arrington: Absolutely! And that’s what I would say to young musicians; don’t be afraid to allow your whole being to come
forth. Just don’t be afraid.
The Dood: Fabulous! Thank you for your time and giving your thoughts to UK Vibe.
Steve Arrington: Oh, it was a pleasure man I enjoyed it! And I’m glad you enjoyed the show last night.
The Dood: Stay blessed. Thank you, Steve.
Steve Arrington: Thank You, you as well.
Michael J Edwards
NB* Big Mike & UK Vibe thanks to Orlando Gittens (Musical Therapy Entertainment) for Interview & Concert access and to Carl Hyde for using his swift thinking in securing the telephone interview with Mr Arrington on the day and the loan of his mobile phone.