100 Greatest Drummers of All Time

From rock thunder machines to punk powerhouses, we count down the kings and queens of slam

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Tony Williams
100
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19. Tony Williams

A 17-year-old Tony Williams' 1963 debut with Miles Davis stands as one of the most shocking emergences in all of 20th-century music. "Man, just hearing that little motherfucker made me excited all over again," the trumpeter wrote in his autobiography, Miles. "I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest motherfuckers who had ever played a set of drums." By the time he joined Miles, he had already made serious contributions to the jazz vanguard with saxophonist Jackie McLean and others. But his role in Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet was what made him a legend. Davis loved working with sidemen who weren't afraid to knock him around, and Williams, with his dizzying ride-cymbal patterns, eruptive accents and radical tempo distortions, was more than happy to oblige. It's only fitting that when he left Miles in 1969, he beat the trumpeter to the jazz-rock punch, forming the gloriously gnarly Lifetime with future Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. In the decade before his untimely 1997 death, Williams re-committed himself to acoustic jazz, playing, as ever, take-no-prisoners intensity. His inspiration cuts across genre. "To me, not only was he a master technician, a master drummer, the innovator of the age, but also, he was a sound innovator," Cindy Blackman has said of Williams. "He had so many things that elevated the sound and the level of skill required to play this kind of music."

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