Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer David Kemper.
In April 1998, Bob Dylan and his band headed down to South America to open up for the Rolling Stones at soccer stadiums. On the final night of the run, Charlie Watts was walking through a backstage hallway when he came across Dylan’s drummer, David Kemper. “Charlie stopped and put his nose next to mine,” Kemper tells Rolling Stone. “Then he goes, ‘Nobody told you, did they?'”
Kemper had no idea what he was talking about, so Watts asked if they could go talk in a quiet place. “We found a dressing room and he told me he’d been watching me every night from a folding chair on the side of the stage,” says Kemper. ” He said, ‘You’re a real drummer. Where you put the two and the four is perfect. It’s not late, and it’s never early. None of your bars ever slow down, and I just love how you interact with the other musicians. You’re not a jazz drummer, but you’re an American drummer, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
The encounter with one of his all-time heroes was a career highlight for the veteran studio drummer who spent the Seventies cutting tracks with Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, Olivia Newton-John, Dennis Wilson, Johnny Rivers, Joan Armatrading, the Manhattan Transfer, David Cassidy, José Feliciano, and many others. His life took a major turn in 1983, when Jerry Garcia invited him to join the Jerry Garcia Band, keeping him on the road steadily for the next decade. Not long after Garcia died, he got a call to join Bob Dylan on his Never Ending Tour. He helped Dylan craft both 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft — pivotal releases that relaunched the songwriter’s career after a quieter period — and played about 100 shows a year with him before leaving the band in 2002.
“How do you follow up with any other artist after working with Bob?” Kemper asks. “He touched me like he touched all of us when we heard ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ Those songs touched us. They’re still with us. They’ll always be with us. He’s our greatest songwriter. There’s no question about it.”
Kemper grew up in towns all across America since his father worked for Boeing and was transferred every four years. His first musical memories revolve around the big-band albums his father played on the family Magnavox record player. He saw himself as a guitar player until he saw the Robin Hood Youth Orchestra play and he became enthralled by their drummer. Music lessons in grade school sharpened his drumming skills, and he gigged in local bands throughout his teen years.
After barely dodging the Vietnam War, Kemper moved to Los Angeles and found work as the stage manager at the Bank concert hall in Torrance. “It’s where all the bands from Pink Floyd to Ten Years After came to play,” he says. “I watched the whole British Invasion come over to America. And this was 1967, the Summer of Love. It was the time to be there.”
The city shut the club down after just nine months, but Kemper found work with veteran engineer Howard Gale at a recording studio. It gave him a chance to watch major bands record up close, and to meet legendary studio cats like Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborn, and Max Bennett. Kemper started playing drums on demos at the studio, but quickly graduated to master recordings at the dawn of the Seventies. It was the start of a long career that eventually led him to Dylan and Garcia.
The Grateful Dead played the Bank in December 1968. Did you have a chance to see them?
Yeah. They came with Owsley [Stanley]. He passed out these little green capsules [of LSD] to everybody. They played, and they were good. But then when they left, there were all of those capsules everywhere on the floor. And my part of my job was to clean up, so I swept the floor and put them all together into a bag. There was a shitload of them, probably 500.
I read you also got the chance to back up some of the Fifties greats when they came to town not long after that.
Next to the Riot House, there was a club called Ciro’s Nightclub that became Art Laboe’s Oldies But Goodies. They had the Penguins, the Coasters, Chuck Berry, and all the cats from the Fifties. I was in the house band. We only played one night a week. That was back in 1970 maybe.
Chuck Berry actually called me on the phone after that and said, “Come to Phoenix. I need you now. They’ve set me up with a drummer that sucks. Please come.” I drove to Phoenix, did the gig, and drove back the same night. I’ve also recorded with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Let’s talk about some records you worked on in the Seventies, starting with “Tracks of My Tears” for Linda Ronstadt.
Andrew Gold was working with Linda. He was a big part of that record [Prisoner in Disguise], even though it was produced by Peter Asher. Anyway, that sone was done in just two takes. We cut another song, called something like “Quicksand,” but it didn’t make the record. “Tracks of My Tears” was great, but to be honest, I don’t even remember if Linda was there when we did it.
How about Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy album?
I don’t think I played on the song “Rhinestone Cowboy.” I played on that album though. Glen was the funniest guy I’ve ever met. He could make a joke out of everything. He was quick-minded, and he was an amazing player. He could play anything. He had all that experience with the Wrecking Crew. I didn’t know about that at the time. He had recorded with Larry Knechtel and Joe Osborne and a whole lot of cats.
I did more than one album with Glen. He was always funny, and always in the same mood. He didn’t bring his mood to work with him. He was just happy Glen.
You also played with Dennis Wilson on the sessions for his lost Bambu album.
Yeah. We did it at Brother Studios. That was the one the Beach Boys owned out near the water. I’m not sure it was even used on the record.
Dennis had very little to say about my drumming. He’d be like, “I liked that” or “I don’t like that.” That’s fine for me. That’s all I really need. “Do you like it or not?” That’s all you need to tell me. I’m also fine with “What if you did this…” Then it’s maybe something I hadn’t thought of. That’s always welcomed. But I didn’t see Dennis again. And then he’s gone forever.
Not long after that, you worked on Olivia Newton-John’s Totally Hot.
She had just hired me like all the others. And then she called after we did the record and asked if I would go to Las Vegas with her for 10 days. I told her that I’d never played in Vegas before. I’d never wanted to. She said, “I’ll tell you what. They’ve offered me a Learjet. I’ll let you take the Learjet and come and go every day to do sessions.” And she said she’d pay me a load of money.
I agreed to do it. So I had this Learjet to come and go. I had grand ideas, but I didn’t book any dates because I didn’t want to be thinking about her project while doing other sessions. I like things simple. So I just took the Learjet to fly to Vegas, and then once the gig was over at the end of the night, they flew me home on it. And we landed at a local airport by my house.
This was near the peak of her fame, since Grease had just come out.
Yeah, that’s right. In fact, John Travolta was there. The opening artist was Kenny Rogers. In his band that night was a friend of mine from the Spencer Davis Group, an Englishman that played guitar. I had called him for lunch after we got back from the gig. This woman picked up the phone. She goes, “He just moved out of our house. I think he went to England for a while.” I said, “I was going to ask him for lunch.” She said, “I’ll get lunch with you.” So I took her to lunch. It turned out to be Norma. We’ve now been married for 43 years.
Tell me about recording with Joan Armatrading on Show Some Emotion. She’s incredible.
Glyn Johns asked me to do that. We recorded it at Olympic Studios in London. That’s where the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones had all recorded. This was my first time there. When Glyn wasn’t looking I actually got down on my knees and I kissed the floor. I was young.
We cut the Show Some Emotion album. I didn’t play on all of it, probably half of it. But the two songs that were hits out of that were “Show Some Emotion” and “Willow.” I remember making “Show Some Emotion.” When she started singing, I got goosebumps up and down my arm. I was like, “Jesus Christ. This woman has a voice.” The next one we did was “Willow.” That was a big record.
How did you wind up getting the job as the drummer in the Jerry Garcia Band?
What happened is that in 1970 I did an album for John Stewart, who was once in the Kingston Trio. And his brother, Michael Stewart, was a producer. He called me and said, “I just got a call from the bass player with Jerry’s band, and he wants your phone number.” I said, “OK, give it to him.”
And then [bassist] John Kahn calls and says, “We’d like you to join the Jerry Garcia Band.” I said, “Why don’t we play first and just see how it sounds.” As soon as we started playing together, he was like, “Ja-zing.” It just all happened.
Jerry and I got along great. We all had different limos, and Jerry and I always went alone. We had things to talk about. He was interested in everything, and I was interested in everything.
Jerry seemed to have such a pure love of music, and he wanted to perform as often as he could, even when the Dead weren’t touring.
Yeah, he really did. We had a relationship where during the solos, I could stop playing and put my sticks down. And he would play what he called “clouds floating by.” We both would lay back and watch the clouds float by. Everybody else in the band just sat and just took a break for a while. And then Jerry would wind it up at the right time, and then we’d all start back in and go. It was that kind of relationship.
I would imagine he felt a lot less pressure on him in the Jerry Garcia Band. You guys were in smaller places and there wasn’t all this weight of history on him.
Yeah, it’s true. The Grateful Dead were very organized. In January, they set up their whole year. They knew what dates they were going to play, so I didn’t have to book sessions that I’d have to cancel. Because you do that once and you’re done. You’ve lost a client as soon as you cancel out of something. They take it personally.
This was perfect. I could look at January and mark down my schedule for the year, since we played when the Dead weren’t touring. And then it turned out he was the most generous person. We all got paid the same, him as well. We split it all evenly.
When he was getting a divorce, he came and said, “Hey, you guys, I need to have X amount of money. Does anyone object if I just take it off the top?” I thought, “Jesus. This is your money, Jerry.” We all felt that way and we went, “Of course. Take whatever you need.” There was nothing more said about it.
Bob Dylan came to a lot of the shows. He and Jerry and I would talk. It was just a wonderful experience.
Tell me about the musical camaraderie you developed with Melvin Seals and John Kahn.
Melvin predated me. He plays a Hammond B3, and he knows how to work it. He was really, really important, and he knew how to keep out of the way when people were soloing or when Jerry was soloing. He knew how to how to build Jerry up. He was really smart that way. But we wouldn’t see him until we got to the show. Jerry and I may have spent two hours together before we got to the show. We had a really nice, casual, relaxed relationship.
Jerry took up a hobby of scuba diving at one point. He said to us one day, “I want to take a trip to Hawaii, to Kona. Then I can do some scuba diving during the day.” We said, “Great.” Then he said, “Let’s all go and invite our families or any friends we want. We’ll put them all up in a nice hotel. We’ll eat well and have fun. We’ll be in the water if we want. If not, we can walk through the mountains. Let’s go have a nice vacation.” And that’s what we did. We had a great, great time.
Looking at the tour schedule, you guys played some pretty small places in the early Eighties. Once “Touch of Grey” hit, you moved into much larger places as the Dead’s profile rose. Did those shows feel any different?
No, not really. That’s because we set up in a funny way. The drums would be in the center. Melvin would be up on one end. John would actually stand behind me and have his bass rig there. Jerry’s rig was always right next to me. It was like a circle, kinda. And then when he’d sing, he’d walk out front, and John would still be behind me. At least that’s the way I remember it.
It was a band that listened. That’s what you do if you’re going to improv. Listening was a lost art for a while, and Jerry really brought it back out.
I’m sure there were always some Dead fans in the audience a little disappointed the show was so different than a standard Dead show. You did very few Dead songs.
The Dead had their own gigs, but it was still strange at times. The thing I didn’t like about it was when wherever we played, I’d see the same 20 people in the front rows. You get tired of playing to the same people. I’d never experienced that before. They’re all Deadheads. We’re all hippies maybe, but now I recognize your faces and I’m not comfortable with that. I like to play for new people. It was just strange.
Jerry went into a diabetic coma in 1986. His first show back after that was a JGB show. That must have been a hard time.
Yes, it was. We just took things as they came and were like, “Let’s deal with now and let everything else fill in. Let’s just listen and be now.” He was ready to go to work. I don’t remember him ever saying, “I gotta take a 10-minute break.”
The thing about Jerry is that if you challenge him, which I would do often, you better be ready to receive the challenge back, but bigger. He loved being challenged, but a subtle kind of challenge, if you can understand that.
I’ve heard some great recordings from when Clarence Clemons was in the band. Do you have fond memories of those nights?
Yeah. Clarence was cool. We enjoyed having him. It was nice to have a soloist play along. And Clarence was really nice. I don’t think he mentioned his other band at all. I haven’t heard those recordings, though.
It must have been hard to watch Jerry’s health decline in those later years.
It was rough. It wasn’t fun. But there were some great nights. There was one time [in 1987] where we played on the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. That was amazing. We went out to the naval yard near San Francisco, and here’s this big, big boat. If I remember, we played on the deck. It was an incredible show.
They used a different drummer on the final JGB tour in 1995. What happened?
Jerry had a roadie that looked after him, Steve [Parish]. He was always a friend. But he came to me one day and said, “Look, Jerry wants to get a new drummer.” I said, “Jerry does?” He goes, “Yeah.” I go, “OK. Well, it’s been a great run. Thanks for everything you’ve done, Steve.”
They did a few gigs [with drummer Donny Baldwin], and I went about doing session work. Then I got a call from Steve saying, “Hey, they want you to come back.” So I came back and nobody said anything except Steve. He said, “Look, I’m sorry. It was me. I told them that you were tired of the gig, and that you didn’t want to play with them anymore.” I said, “You told them that? You told Jerry that? Why did you do that?” He goes, “So I could take more money.”
He knew that everything was being split evenly. He thought, “Why are you getting that kind of money?” And then later on, I went out on a tour with Melvin. Steve was on it. He really broke down one night and said, “Look, what I did was just fuckin’ stupid and mean. I’m so sorry.”
I said, “Steve, get it all out or forget about it. It’s OK. It’s over now.” He was just obsessing over it. Then when I did the work with Melvin, I saw the contracts and I knew what Melvin was getting. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t say anything to him. I just didn’t take any more gigs.
I also didn’t like the band name that he chose. I didn’t like JGB. You’re not JGB . Everybody knows what JGB means. It’s the Jerry Garcia Band. It’s not the Melvin band. But I’m too close to it all. I’m sure people love Melvin and JGB. It’s been many years now.
How did you get the job with Bob Dylan in 1996?
Bob was a friend of Jerry’s, but I met Bob before that, when I did an album with T-Bone Burnett. The album was successful. It was called Truth Decay. We did some concerts opening for the Who. We needed a guitar player, so we flew in Mick Ronson from England. Then we sounded really, really great.
We needed a place to rehearse, and Bob offered his studio in Malibu. T-Bone had been in Bob’s band when Steven Soles had been in it, and David Mansfield. That was the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Bob had been supportive of the guys that were in his band. And after Jerry passed away, about eight months later or something, [Dylan’s manger] Jeff Kramer called and said, “Bob would like you to join his band.” I said, “Sure. How do we get going?” He goes, “Well, we got a gig with the Pope in Bologna.” I said, “Say that again?” He goes, “Yeah, the Pope. John Paul II invited us to a Eucharistic Congress.”
So we fly to Bologna. We go to the gig. We walk on stage. We’re playing the first song, and I look and over to my left. In the back corner, I saw John Paul sitting there. He was resting his head on his hands. I was thinking, “Is this guy alive? Is he listening? He’s out there for everybody to see.” But Bob was on good behavior. I could tell. It was great. I enjoyed it completely.
Work on Time Out of Mind began not long after you joined the band.
Yeah. Bob went, “I want to go and record an album in Florida.” He flew me down for the session. I told Jeff I could only stay for a short time since I also paint, and I was in two galleries in Beverly Hills. I said, “I’m having an opening on the 16th. I’ve already signed contracts, and I have to be there, so I can’t stay longer.” Jeff said, “That’s not going to be a problem.”
So I went down and this producer from Canada [Daniel Lanois] was there. I said to him, “I have to leave on the 16th.” He goes, “Oh, I’ll make sure you’re gone by the 16th.”
Nothing was really, really great from that first set of sessions. I talked to Bob about it. He said something that I won’t repeat, but that made me feel really good. “OK, it’s not me.”
Daniel said something later in an interview like, “Kemper was so bad [during the Time out of Mind sessions] that I sent him home.” I told him before that I could only be there for 11 days since I had an art opening. He didn’t mention that.
The only song you’re on is “Cold Irons Bound.”
What happened on that was interesting. I came into the studio after we’d been there for a few days. When I came into town, the limo drove through town and the windows were down. There was this Cuban beat I could hear from the outside. I rolled the windows up, and I started thinking of the “Cold Irons Bound” beat. When I got in the studio, I started playing with it, and I slowed it down and changed it.
At that moment, Bob came up behind me and said, “What are you playing? Don’t stop.” I said, “It’s a beat that I heard coming in, but it’s my own beat.” He said, “Keep playing it.”
Then he went over to one of those little portable walls they have in recording studios. They have fabric on the sides and wood around it. They serve as sound blockers. You can move them in front of an amp. He put a piece of paper on one of those near the drums and started writing. He said, “Just keep playing.” He kept writing and writing. I kept playing. Then he said, “Okay.”
By that point, everybody had arrived. He said, “We’re going to start with this song. It’s called ‘Cold Irons Bound.'” He tells me to start playing, and then he walks up to the mic and goes, “I’m beginning to hear voices/And there’s no one around.” I was like, “Jesus.” I got goosebumps. He wrote that while I was three feet away from him off of my beat? Bob, royalties. Give me a piece of that. [Laughs.] I’ve never asked for that, though. I mean, drumbeats are not copyrightable.
You were playing drums for Bob at the Grammys when the Soy Bomb incident happened. What do you remember about that?
That was a shock. My first feelings were, “Is Bob OK? Is he in harm?” And then something made me think, “Probably not.” That’s because he got pummeled by people early on. But that never happened, at least not in my presence. It was just weird.
How did you guys travel? Was it Bob on one bus and the band on another?
Bob has his own bus. And the crew go on their bus because they have to get there earlier, and they have to leave later. On the band bus, we all had our own bunk. There was a room in the back that you could sit around and play guitars. But if you wanted to sleep, you could lay in your rack and pull the curtain and then you could go to sleep, or go sit with the driver.
Did you see Bob much offstage?
We would run into each other, but he wouldn’t call me and say, “Hey, come on over and let’s watch this movie together.” It wasn’t like that. I would like it to have been like that. But it wasn’t like that.
We’d often have rooms right next to each other though. I think we were in Boston, and I heard him talking to somebody all morning long. It was just “yak, yak, yak.” When it was time to go, I grab my backpack and open the door. And I hear this English person go, “Hello, drumming person.”
I look and it’s George Harrison. I was like, “Jesus Christ!” If I had known it was George, I would have taken the wine glass and listened against the wall to hear what they were saying. But I didn’t know who was in there. George was probably in Boston for a doctor’s appointment. I’m not sure about that, though.
Photographers almost never caught Bob offstage, and interactions with fans were very, very rare. How did he move around unnoticed?
I don’t think he had a bodyguard with him. He had disguises, though. I don’t mean he had face masks and stuff, but he had hats that he could wear, and he had clothes that he would wear that don’t say “Bob Dylan.” I don’t mean that literally, but they aren’t like the clothes he’s been photographed in. He was also just quiet. He knew how to blend yet. He didn’t look for trouble.
This one time, my brother Jim had surgery on his brain, and he was getting kind of depressed. I asked Bob, and everybody else, “Do you have a problem with having my brother come out for maybe three days?” I explained why.
And so Jim came out. He rode in our bus. He’d have lunches with us in catering. He had his own bunk, but one night our bus broke down. So Bob said, “Come on, y’all. Get on my bus.” Jim had to come and get on Bob’s bus. He’s hardly met Bob beyond a quick hello.
All of a sudden, he’s riding on Bob’s bus. We’re all riding on Bob’s bus. Bob didn’t go hide. He was great. He was welcoming, and acted happy that he was there to be able to give us a ride. It just made Jim feel great. We all felt great.
Any memories from the 1998 tour with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell?
Van was something else. I did meet Joni briefly, but we didn’t spend much time backstage. When you have opening acts, Bob liked to come out at the last minute. When we did the Grammys, for instance, we were parked on a bus a long way away. And then five minutes before it was time to go, we drove up the bus and waited. When we’re 20 seconds from being onstage, we would then make the walk to the stage. He knows how to do it the right way where you’re not distracted.
How did the addition of Charlie Sexton to the band in 1999 change the dynamic?
It was different. If you’re a professional, you have your own sound. Charlie has his own sound. Larry [Campbell] was a little broader with different ways of playing. Larry could do certain fingerpicking, country playing. Charlie, to my mind, was blues-based. Don’t get me wrong. There were a few songs that we had some jazz changes, and Charlie played though them great. He would lay down a good solo, so I don’t have any complaints with Charlie. That’s for sure…Can I tell you a story?
One day, Bob said to me, “Do you know where I can get a good set of drums for my daughter? She’s a drummer.” And I said, “She can have the Garcia drum set because I’ll never play it again. It’s still in storage.” And he said, “Oh, that would be great.” He’d seen those drums before.
So I had them taken out of storage. They were cleaned up, with new drum heads, and I had them taken to Bob’s house. And then we were in New York City about two months later. Bob said to me, “Dave, I want to do something nice for you.” I said, “Why do you want to do that, Bob?” He said, “Well, the drums worked out great.”
I said, “That’s not necessary. I just liked to do something nice. It’s really not necessary.” He said, “Come on. Meet me in the lobby in ten minutes.”
I think we were in the Plaza, or maybe another hotel just around the corner. I don’t remember. But I go down to the lobby and we start walking through the park. Then we go into the Armani store. Bob said, “Pick any suit you like.” I went, “Oh Jesus, thank you.”
I picked out this black linen cotton suit. Bob then picked out a suit he liked and he put his arm into one of the sleeves. They go to put the other arm in, but Bob kept turning around. He just turned and turned and didn’t let the other arm go in. He just went, “I’ll take it.” Then they did the same with a second suit. Bob would put one arm in, and the guy would try to get the other one at least over his shoulder. Bob would rotate, and he never had the whole thing on. “I’ll take that one too.” We walked out of there with three Armani suits. It was nice.
Tell me about recording Love and Theft.
Bob would say things like, “This song, I’d like it to have the feel of John Lee Hooker playing it.” I have my notes from the session. He wanted it to be like [the blues song] “My Dog Can’t Bark.” Then he’d play it for us. “Here’s the song.” We’d record it. I think most everything was first take. We’d listen back and he’d go, “Great.” Then we’d go to the next song. He’d play us another blues song and be like, “Here’s an example for you. I want this feel.” Then we’d go out and play it. “Great.” That was it. I’m very proud of that record.
This was the first time he had really produced himself like this.
It was the best. I think it was wonderful. He didn’t get involved really on how things sounded, except for maybe his microphone. It was just us being who we are. It was real. That record was all very natural. To me, it was simply the way the band sounded. And Bob was just in it. He believed in it. You could tell.
You left the group before the 2002 tour. What happened?
Jeff called and said, “Bob wants to make a change. I think he’s making a big mistake.” And I said, “OK, well, thank you Jeff, for everything. I appreciate it.” He said, “He’s making a mistake, Dave.” I said, “Well, I’ll be around.”
I really think your era of 1996 to 2001 is one of the single best eras of his career, especially in concert. The shows were just magical back then. They’ve never quite been the same since.
That’s sweet. That was the time of my life. It was great.
How often do you play drums these days?
I play drum beats every day, absolutely. But do I have a drum set in my house? I don’t.
Do you miss touring?
Yeah. Of course I do. I haven’t toured since Covid. I never got Covid, thank God, and neither did Norma. But I miss touring. I’m trying to think of ways I can get back out. If I’m not going to get a call to go back out, maybe I can make it happen myself. But my chops are up. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m ready to go.