Drummer Sonny Emory Interview: Eric Clapton, Earth Wind and Fire - Rolling Stone
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Drummer Sonny Emory on His Years With Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, and Earth, Wind, and Fire

The Atlanta musician has also toured with Bette Midler, Cameo, David Sanborn, and Bruce Hornsby

"I was, like, pinching myself," Sonny Emory says of joining his favorite band Earth, Wind, and Fire. "I was like, 'Man, this is really happening. I'm here.'"

Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

unknown legends
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 Sonny Emory. 

When Sonny Emory was a kid growing up in Atlanta, the largest poster on his bedroom wall was the cover of the 1977 Earth, Wind, and Fire record All ‘n All. He used to put on headphones and play drums along to their music, dreaming that one day he’d somehow be part of the group.

That day arrived in 1987 when Maurice White and Philip Bailey invited him onboard for their reunion tour. “The day we started rehearsing, I was able to play any song Maurice wanted to play,” Emory says. “When he’d go, ‘Let’s play it,’ I already knew it.”

White spent 12 years in the band, but he also found time to gig and record with Steely Dan, Bette Midler, David Sanborn, Cameo, Bruce Hornsby, the B-52’s, and Chic. And in 2018, Eric Clapton invited him to join his touring band and he’s been there ever since.

We called up Emory at his Atlanta home to hear about how he went from Earth, Wind, and Fire fan to official member, how he narrowly missed chances to tour with both Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, working in the studio with the notorious perfectionists in Steely Dan, and getting the big call from Eric Clapton and touring the world as his drummer.

How has your pandemic year been?
It’s been interesting. I’m grateful my family has been well and we avoided it, so it’s all good. I’ve been off the road, but I’ve been in the studio, recording quite a bit. It’s good on one hand, bad on the other.

Do you miss playing live? Miss the crowds? Miss traveling?
Oh, yes. I miss everything about it. I really miss the camaraderie with the guys and just having a good time every night on the stage.

I want to go back here and talk about your life. Tell me your earliest memories of being a kid and hearing music that really reached you.
I was born into a musical family. My mom tells this story about the day my dad brought me home from the hospital. He pushed my bassinet against the record player. He was a big jazz buff and Miles [Davis] was playing, [John] Coltrane was playing.

My dad was a musician and he played around town quite a bit. I remember one evening I was sitting on my mom’s lap and we were waiting for my dad to set up for a gig. The drummer came onstage and I remember following him with my eyes as he sat down behind the kit. He crashed a cymbal and hit the kick drum at the same time. I remember physically that sound taking over my body. It was like, “Wow, I love that. I want to see what that’s about.”

My dad shoved a sax in my mouth from the very beginning because he played sax. I didn’t gravitate towards that at all. I was just always on the bongos. He got me a small kit built by a Japanese company named Zim Gar. That was the very first kit I had. It was a blue-pearl kit and I still have one of the toms from that kit that I keep as a keepsake. The rest is history.

Was jazz the music played most often in your household?
It was jazz, blues, and soul because my mom was a musician as well. She was into R&B and soul. I heard a lot of jazz, a lot of soul, and funk like Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Brook Benton, Erroll Garner. It was across the gamut.

Are there certain albums you heard at a young age that really rocked your brain?
The jazz album that really stands out for me as a child was Kind of Blue by Miles. My dad played that a lot. He also played John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things album. Mom was into Aretha. Man, she was buying singles like “Respect” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” all the gospel stuff she was doing at the time. And she was a big Al Green, B.B. King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland fan. “Stormy Monday” was one of her favorites. I used to hear that all the time.

Did you see any concerts at a young age that really made an impression?
I saw Art Blakey at a very young age. I think I was six or seven years old. He was here in town and my dad got us a table three of four rows back. But my dad took a chair and put it right at the stage, right at the foot of his kick drum. He said, “You sit here and stay here.” I also saw James Brown at a very young age. That blew my head off. [Laughs]

I can’t even imagine. That was him at his absolute peak.
Exactly. He was at his peak and [drummer] Clyde Stubblefield was in the band. Those guys just roasted. It was almost scary, the feeling. It was a surreal feeling.

As much credit as he gets, it’s not enough.
Yeah. It was pure, unadulterated genius as far as how he put it together. James, to me, just kind of defined what everybody has been going for, as far as that groove thing. He hired the guys and the way he put parts together taught guys how to groove without being on the clock. Nowadays, because of when I grew up, I’ve done a ton of gigs where it’s just free and I’m off the clock.

But I grew up in the digital era and did a host of tours where I’ve had to play with computers. That’s all good. But when you get a group of cats like James did and you can get them to play and to identity the feel of the music the way he did, you don’t need a clock. The music just grooves. That was the most amazing thing about it to me.

How old were you when you realized this was going to be your life?
I’ve always wanted to do this. I came to a final realization when I was probably a freshman in high school. By that time, I had been playing with my dad quite a bit. I always wanted to be a professional musician and tour and record. But I had other aspirations as well when I was younger. I wanted to be an architect for a while. I was totally into meteorology. The weather is fascinating to me. I was going down that road for a minute, but music was always there.

I think it was eighth grade, ninth grade, when I started competing in all-state competitions and my dad had me at a couple of drum competitions. I started competing and winning and I was like, “Well, I can really do this professionally.”

I was always around a lot of great musicians. The feedback from them was very encouraging. They’d say, “Man, you’re going to be a monster when you get older.”

I was always looking forward to turning into that monster when I got older. I was convinced at an early age that I could really do it as a professional and make a career out of it.

You went to college, right?
Yeah. Georgia State.

Nearly every professional musician that I interview skipped that step. What made you decide to devote four years to your education?
My father was a musician and my mother was an early-childhood specialist. They were both educators in the public school system here in Atlanta. There was as big focus on education, period. My dad wanted me to be as prepared as possible to be able to compete on an international level as a musician. The only way to do that was to be completely prepared. He wanted me to go to school and study theory, composition, harmony, the business aspects, and just become the very best musician that I could be.

He knew that I had the natural ability, but being able to read has been a great feather in my cap. I’m able to go do gigs where I have to read and it’s not a big deal. It’s a normal thing for me, but there’s so many cats that never learn how to do that. They don’t get called for those gigs. That’s the equalizer for me.

Your parents were smart.
Exactly. They knew exactly how to position me to get me where I am.

You toured with Cameo as as teenager?
Yeah. Seventeen years old.

How did that happen?
[Cameo frontman] Larry Blackmon had a label called Atlanta Artists. They were based here in town. The president of that company was Bunnie Jackson-Ransom. She’s the ex-wife of the ex-Atlanta mayor, Maynard Jackson. They lived right around the corner from me when I was growing up, literally right around the corner. Bunnie knew that I was an aspiring musician.

One night, my band was opening for Kenny G. Bunnie got word to Larry Blackmon that I was going to be playing. He came out and saw the gig I did with my band. Then I got the call three or four weeks later to go out with Cameo. That’s how it happened.

At the time, Atlanta had a thriving studio scene and I was doing a lot of jingle work at several studios here in town. One of those studios was Cheshire Sound Studios, which is where Larry was recording as well. I had bumped into him a couple of times at the studio, but he hadn’t heard me play yet.

How did you grow as a drummer on the Cameo tour?
I grew as a drummer. I grew as a person. I grew physically, too, and just learned a lot. The very first thing I learned is that I needed to be disciplined with my workout regime. I was kind of in and out of that then. I was a typical teenager. I’d work out sometimes, and other times go party and hang out with my friends. I wasn’t as disciplined about it as I should, not enough to do the gig with Cameo.

The very first gig I did with them was in Denver, Colorado at a club. I got up onstage. I had rehearsed for a couple of weeks and I was killing it in rehearsal. I felt really good. Larry was happy. We get to Denver, and all of a sudden, altitude kicks in. I hadn’t been working out and I was just sucking wind. It took every ounce of energy I had to get through that gig. I didn’t have what it takes physically.

Cameo is really a funk-rock band. They really put the energy out there. I needed that physical stamina to get through. That translates into having the mental stamina to stay focused so you can do physically what you want to do as well.

Being the drummer is a big responsibility. The bassist or keyboardist can be tired or hungover and get through the gig. If you’re not in peak shape, the whole show can really suffer.
Yeah. It’s going to feel it. You start talking about traveling and not eating properly, not sleeping properly. And then you try partying and all that stuff on top of that. It’s not going to bode well for you on the stage. [Laughs] It’s just not going to work.

Where did your career go after college?
My senior year, I got an opportunity to tour with Jean-Luc Ponty, the French violinist. That was a beautiful opportunity because it gave me a chance to go to Brazil. We rehearsed in L.A. That was my second time in L.A. since I had been there for the Carmine Appice drum competition.

It was a beautiful tour of Brazil and then a couple of dates here in the States, not too many. And then just after that, I came back home and was about to graduate from Georgia State. My band was playing an after-party for the Atlanta Arts Festival and Lee Ritenour, the Yellowjackets, Patti Austin, Chaka Khan, and Joe Sample and the Crusaders were all at this festival this year.

They all came down to this after-party at a club and my band was playing. That’s where I got the gig with Joe Sample. I jammed with him and he asked me to go to California and join the Crusaders. I was already planning on moving there, and that’s what took me to L.A. in the summer of ’86. I got to L.A. and started working with Joe. We spent three months working on an album [The Good Times and Bad Times], and also a solo project [Love Is a Rush] for [Crusaders saxophonist] Wilton Felder. It gave me a chance to meet a lot of people over the course of those three months.

How did you wind up working on the soundtrack to Lethal Weapon 2 with Eric Clapton?
I was in New York rehearsing with David Sanborn for a summer tour. Midway through the tour, David comes to the drum kit, leans over, and goes, “Hey man, I need you to do a session tonight. You cool?” I was like, “Yeah, just let me know when and where.”

I get to the studio and sitting on the couch is Eric Clapton. I had no idea Eric was going to be there. We start working on these tracks and I thought it would be a big rhythm section working on these tracks, but it ended up being just [bassist] Tom Barney and myself.

I met Eric that night for the first time. But we didn’t play together that night. He and David did overdubs after Tom and I were done. We were recording one of the fight scenes in the movie. It was just bass and drums, basically. We cut several other cues after that. That’s when I met Eric.

How did you wind up on Cosmic Thing by the B-52s?
I was in L.A. doing my thing and got a gig with David Sanborn, who is based in New York. I was making trips to New York quite a bit and I ran into Nile Rodgers on one of those trips. Nile had heard me play. I think he came to see David. We did a concert on the pier in New York one summer. He heard me and he started calling me. I started working on a couple of Chic projects with him. Chic-ism was one and I cut a bunch of stuff with him and Bernard Edwards. That was such a treat, playing with him before he passed.

Nile produced Cosmic Thing. I had already done stuff for Diana Ross for Nile. Whenever he called I’d be like, “OK, I’m down.” He pulled me in on the B-52s project.

Tell me how you joined Earth, Wind, and Fire.
One of the arrangers that used to work here in the Jingle House [studio] was named Oliver Wells. He was working with Philip Bailey. He was concentrating a lot on his gospel projects because Maurice [White] had taken a hiatus from touring with Earth, Wind, and Fire. Philip was working on these gospel projects and I was working on a lot of these demos that Oliver was working on for Philip. And so Philip heard me and was really curious about who the drummer was.

That was one scenario that was happening. And unbeknownst to me, Joe Sample and Maurice White were really good friends. I had been living in L.A. for about a year. Later, Maurice told me he had a conversation about me with Joe Sample and he’d been hearing my name around L.A.

In the summer of ’87, I was on the road with Joe Sample. I went back to L.A. to get my messages. Those were the days of the answering services. I called my roommate, who was another very successful musician. He used to play with Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. He said, “Hey, man, Philip Bailey just called here looking for you.” I said, “No he didn’t.” I thought he was kidding. “No, seriously. Here’s his number.”

So I called him. He said, “Hey man, I’ve been following your career. I just got off the phone with Maurice. We’re putting Earth, Wind, and Fire back together. We want to know if you’d like to join the band.” That was that.

How was the first tour for you? It must have been amazing to suddenly be in your favorite band.
Yeah. As you know, Earth, Wind, and Fire shows are very elaborate. And Maurice was not about to go backwards. The Touch the World tour was my first one. We began rehearsal for that in October of 1987. The first show was January in 1988. The rehearsal period was really intense.

I have a vivid memory from when we were doing production rehearsals for a week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I was unable to sleep because it was getting really real. The stage was set and we were running the show twice a day. It was once early in the day and once at night, with all the effects and everything. I was so hyped up that I didn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep for about a week.

And then opening night came and we had a great show. Maurice was happy. The rest is kind of history. That began an 18-month tour all over the world. We played Europe, Japan … we actually played all these places twice. Europe twice, Japan twice. We went to Australia. We were all over the place. We played Canada. It was quite amazing.

How were you traveling?
We were flying everywhere at that time. It was rough on the band. If we had an 8 a.m. flight … Earth, Wind, and Fire is a huge entourage. There’s 13 people on the stage. Now you have 13 people on the stage, tour managers, road managers, wardrobe people. There’s a lot of entourage that has to get to the airport, check in, and be on time. We’ve had 4 a.m. lobby calls after playing a gig that night so we could get the flight to the next city the next morning. That was pretty rough.

By the mid-Nineties when Maurice decided he wasn’t going to tour anymore, Philip and Verdine [White] kind of retooled things and we started using the buses, which is a lot more relaxing.

How was it being the new guy at first? They had relationships going back to the late Sixties. Did you ever feel like an outsider?
I never felt like an outsider, but they do have history. A band that’s been together that long, they have history. But they made me feel really welcome. I felt like a little brother and I was learning. I was soaking it all up. I was in awe most of the time. When we weren’t playing, I’d be sitting around a rehearsal hall and Maurice White is right here, Philip Bailey is over there, and Verdine is standing next to me. I was, like, pinching myself. I was like, “Man, this is really happening. I’m here.”

I never felt like an outsider. I always felt like, “Man, what a great opportunity. I’ve tapped into one of my goals, which is to tour on this level.”

How did you share drum duties with Ralph Johnson?
When I joined the band in 1987, Ralph had come off the kit and wasn’t playing drums as much. We would shed a little bit during soundcheck. But mostly on the stage during the shows, Ralph was singing and playing percussion.

But on the [1990] album Heritage, MC Hammer made a guest appearance on one of the tunes [“Wanna Be the Man”]. Maurice wanted to do that song live, so he drafted me to do MC Hammer’s part. That meant I got to go down and be in front and dance and rap do this other stuff, so Ralph came down to play drums on that particular song.

We toured and did that for a good year and a half. Ralph played drums every night on that one. There was also a built-in drum/percussion solo that I wrote for multiple percussionists. Ralph was one of them, and Philip. David Romero was the other percussionist at that time.

They’re one of the great bands of the Seventies, but you rarely hear them mentioned in the same breath as the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, or Fleetwood Mac. It feels unfair.
They are the greats, one of the best ever to do it. I guess it’s just the way the industry calls it. I don’t understand, but they’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is great, and they won an American Music Award, and all those awards and accolades. Obviously, they deserve every bit of it.

I think part of it is just the word “disco.” They weren’t a disco band, but they had disco-era hits. That can be a label that becomes hard to shake.
That’s unfortunate, but that’s the music industry, period. If you try to make a hard left and go against the grain, you don’t have the acceptance of the masses. Maurice was a visionary, though. Even though he tried to follow the musical tastes of whatever was happening at the times, he still did it with a touch of experimentation and implementing things that people weren’t doing. That’s what I get upset about it. Nobody seems to think about that.

You listen to not the hits, but some of the other songs that were written during that time and it’s some great, really innovative things going on production-wise.

I’m sure watching Maurice deal with the early days of Parkinson’s must have been awful.
Yeah. It’s like seeing one of your childhood heroes just kind of suffer. The thing that hurt me the most is that I know that Maurice wanted to be at his best all of the time, every time he stepped out onstage. He definitely didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him. He just wanted to deliver. He pushed himself until he just couldn’t push himself no more. It made everyone around him step up and really, really lock into what we do best, and that’s support him.

How were the Earth, Wind, and Fire shows different after Maurice stopped touring?
It was a major adjustment simply because Maurice was the leader and he was calling all of the shots. All eyes were on him every minute that we were on the stage. Philip had to step into that role. He was calling the shots. The whole change for us was psychological. We had to get to the point where we knew we could tour and the people would still love the music without Maurice. Of course, we didn’t want to do it without him. But when he decided to pull out, the band was on another rise up and they didn’t want to stop touring.

I think the band got really, really tight. We felt like we had to shore up every kink in the armor. Because Maurice wasn’t there, everything else had to be ironclad. Philip did a great job covering a lot of the vocal stuff. A lot of people don’t know, but Philip has a beautiful baritone voice. They always think he’s just a falsetto guy, but he’s not. He was able to step into that situation and really handle it. He knew Maurice vocally better than anyone, and stylistically, he was able to deliver those songs exactly the way Maurice would. And obviously, people love Philip, too.

Why did you leave the group in the late Nineties?
We had done it with Philip and that whole new configuration of the band and I found myself longing to play something different. I know how the industry is. I’m a jazzer. I really wanted to express myself creatively, differently. That was pretty much it. I felt like that was the time. I had been there for 13 years and this industry will pigeon-hole you very quickly.

My confirmation of that was when I decided to leave, I was on the phone talking to Harvey Mason, who is one of my favorite drummers, and my mentor. I was talking to him, kind of venting, and saying I was in this situation and finally out of it. And he said to me, “Great. I thought you were there five years too long.”

He knows how the industry will pigeon-hole you and all of a sudden it’s, “All Sonny Emory can play is Earth, Wind, and Fire music.” Well, that’s not necessarily the case. And I worked with Bette Midler during that same time I was with Earth, Wind, and Fire. I got a chance to work 16 years with Bruce Hornsby, which opened me up to an entirely different world. I got a chance to record with Ricky Skaggs and got a chance to re-hook up with Eric [Clapton]. And now I’ve spent some real time with him.

Tell me about playing on the Steely Dan record.
Once again, I was in New York and working with David Sanborn. My friend Tom [Barney] was working with Steely Dan. Tom had put my name in the hat as one of the drummers they should consider, so Walter [Becker] and Donald [Fagen] put me in the lineup. There were probably seven or eight drummers, including Vinnie Colaiuta, Sterling Campbell, myself, Michael White … a lot of cats played all the same songs for the same album, Two Against Nature.

Tom was actually working with David Sanborn as well. He said, “Walter and Donald want you to do this session.” I played maybe eight or nine songs, but I knew I was sandwiched between a lot of other guys, so I didn’t know if I was actually going to make the project. When it came out, I was really honored that I made the album. And that album was Album of the Year, so I won a Grammy for that.

I can’t think of a group with a higher standard for their drummers than Steely Dan.
They are very specific about what they want. But it stretches each drummer. You have to think about things differently, and that’s a good thing for me. It takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to look at things differently.

How was your Bette Midler experience?
Wonderful. She’s one of my best friends. I didn’t really like the gig so much when I first started it. I wasn’t a fan of the music, per se. But when I got in touch with the concept of what was happening and the skill level it took to pull it off … we were reading a lot of charts and doing a lot of music. We were all over the musical map. It began to become a challenge for me to nail her gig every night and just give it my very best I could just to see if I could top myself from the night before.

In the process of doing that, I learned a lot about professionalism. Her work ethic is out of this world. We’ve become very good friends. I can pick up the phone any time, call, and just kick it. We can talk about life stuff and not necessarily just music. She always has some nuggets of wisdom for me.

As a performer, she really connects to her audience in a visceral way.
Her personality is bigger than life. One of things I love about her the most is she’s very humble. On one of the tours, my wife and I had a party for the band and the crew after the show since we had a couple of days off. We had a party at our house. I didn’t think Bette was going to come, man. But she showed up. She came, kicked her shoes off, and just had a ball. She’s a really down-to-earth person. I love her so much.

How was it playing her Vegas residency and doing the same show that many nights in a row?
For that, I had to dig deep to stay professional. [Laughs] It was just the same thing over and over and over again. It was so different than boarding the tour bus and rolling to the next city. It started to get to her after a while, too. It was the monotony of just being in the same place. It wasn’t so much the show, but just the monotony of being in the same place. I had to find creative ways to hang in there and be professional since I didn’t want the music to suffer.

I started employing the philosophy of, “I’m going to see if I can play a perfect show tonight without making one mistake, one flub, and just see how I can hold myself accountable each night.”

Did you gamble at all? Eat at the nice restaurants?
I don’t gamble. My wife would come out every now and then and we’d hang out and go to the restaurants, but I’m not a Vegas kind of guy. Other than going to a couple of shows that might be pretty interesting, I didn’t do much at all. I spent a lot of time in my condo, working out, swimming, and just kind of hanging out, waiting until the leg was over. We were doing four-to-six–week legs and then we were off for a couple of weeks. That was a challenging period. I was grateful for the work, but it was rough.

When was your period with Bruce Hornsby?
That started in 2002. Bruce is a unicorn; he’s a different animal altogether. When you work with Bruce, you have to almost forget everything you learned because he wants you to tap totally into your creativity and your spontaneity all of the time, which is what he’s doing. It’s the first time I had a gig without a set list in front of me and had no idea what we were going to play that night.

Bruce would come out, sit down at a piano, and just start playing a song. If you don’t know the song, you don’t know what it is. He pulls from almost 200 songs in his catalog. They aren’t all his, but he’s all over the musical map. He’ll go from Miles to Bach to Willie Nelson to Earth, Wind, and Fire and Chaka Khan and his own songs.

He’s all over the musical map, so you have to really, really read him and follow him. It turns into fun, but there’s a learning curve for anyone who is on that gig. It really, really keeps you on your toes.

That’s a very different skill set than what was needed for Bette Midler.
Oh, yeah. Exactly. Totally different skill set, two totally different animals.

How was your experience with Seth Meyers as a guest drummer?
I loved it. That was a lot of fun. The first go-round was pre-Covid. I had a chance to go to New York and do it with the guys and everybody. Second go-round was during Covid. I had to set up my studio at home to please the NBC execs to make it more like a TV set, which is challenging. Then I had to film and record everything myself and send it all in, but it was fun. I enjoyed doing it. I look at is as an honor to be asked to do those things, so I was grateful.

You joined Clapton’s band in 2018. How did that happen?
I was in the studio here at home and got a call from Bruce Hornsby. Bruce said, “Hey, man. I just got a call and Eric Clapton is looking for you.” I said, “Eric already has my email address. I think I have his, so I’ll just reach out to him.”

Prior to that, I had released a project that was released in Europe called Rock Hard Cachet that actually featured Eric. That was because I was venting to one of my friends that worked at the Hard Rock Cafe that I wanted someone really special to work on the project. She said, “Call Eric.” I said, “Call Eric? You say that like I can just pick up the phone and call him.” She said, “He’s cool. Call him.”

I didn’t call him, but I sent him an email and he said he’d do it. I was gassed. I sent him the song and he sent it back and just killed it. It was a cover of a Mother’s Finest song called “Truth’ll Set You Free.” He played on that and just laid it out.

Fast forward to this conversation with Bruce about Eric. That is how I had his email address. I went, “Hey, man, Bruce told me you’re looking for me. This is my email address.” He replied and said, pretty simply, “I’ve got a couple of dates we’re doing in January. Would you like to do them?” I was like, “Of course.” That’s how it started.

Your first show was a private gig in Paris.
Yeah. It was a private engagement, but we prepared for that just like any other gig. I went to London and we rehearsed for about two and a half weeks. Then we did the show. I was the only newbie. Everybody else had already been there. [Bassist] Nathan [East] was a great asset for me because I had known Nathan from living in L.A. I had played with him and Joe Sample and he was a great ally. We bonded right away and that’s always cool. When the bass and drums are together, the rest just falls together.

His previous drummer was Steve Gadd. You’re sitting in a spot reserved for the absolute top people.
That was kind of terrifying when I stopped and thought about that. He’s the consummate drummer. I love Steve. We’ve become close friends. When I got the call, that was the first thing I thought about: “Wow, I gotta step into these shoes.” They are giant shoes. I couldn’t really think about it. I just had to do the best I could and just be Sonny, not try and be Steve. Eric likes what I do, and I’m happy about that.

I’ve done several gigs with Steve and Eric. That’s been really cool since I get a chance to play with him. I’m a huge fan of his playing. I pattern some of my playing after him as far as trying to make the groove feel as good as it can possibly feel.

In July 2018, you did a European run and he expanded the band a bit.
Those were great experiences. It’s the ultimate in rock & roll. Every night, I would live for the end of “Cocaine” where the audience sings the last word. That’s an adrenaline rush. The bigger the crowd, the louder it is. I remember we did Hyde Park and it was ridiculous. It was 100,000-plus folks.

I can’t imagine the rush of walking onstage at Hyde Park and the park is full.
It’s literally as far as you can see, just a wall of people. It’s funny how it happens. You walk out there and it’s a little overwhelming. But the minute that you start playing, you kind of forget about how many people there are since I start focusing on the music.

Some nights he does the acoustic “Layla,” and other nights he plugs in and does the original one.
I’m a big fan of the acoustic one, but I love the electric “Layla” and we’ve been doing it lately. We did a string of dates in 2019. The latter part of those dates, he went back to electric “Layla.” The last gig we did in 2020 was the Ginger Baker memorial concert. That was fun since I got a chance to play with Ronnie Wood and Roger Waters and Nile. All these legends on one stage and Eric and Steve. That was beautiful.

At the regular shows, you’re playing parts originally recorded by the likes of Ginger Baker or Jim Gordon, just these Mount Rushmore figures.
Right. Exactly. The goal there is to not try to change or re-invent the wheel. You play what works. They’ve already established what works. Every now and then, I’ll interpret something a bit differently, but I won’t do it if it bothers the music. I’ll only do it if it complements the music. As you said, these guys are all great drummers. Eric could have anybody in the world play drums with him. When you’re in that type of situation, you have to tread lightly and honor the music. That’s what I try and do.

Can you talk a bit about Ginger and what makes him such a distinct drummer?
First of all, personally, he was such a boisterous … there was no lack of confidence with Ginger. I never got a chance to meet him. I’ve just met him through his music. I like how fundamental his playing was. In that trio scenario, he was able to really shine.

He understood jazz in a deep way.
Yeah. But he didn’t try to make that other stuff jazzy. I remember I was asking Eric about an odd bar in one song and Eric said, “Ginger was always coming up with some craziness.” That was his jazz background. I think he added just enough flavor to that music to make it interesting and different.

Then at the Ginger Baker tribute show last February, you’re doing “Sunshine of Your Love” with Clapton on guitar and Roger Waters doing the Jack Bruce parts on bass. That basically made you the Ginger Baker.
That night was as culmination of a lot of things. When I thought about who was on that stage and how much music history was on that stage, I was like, “Man, this is really, really an honor to be here.” I didn’t hesitate when Eric asked me if I wanted to do it. He thought I wouldn’t want to do it. I was like, “Yeah, I want to do that, man. Most definitely.”

At the time, he was still getting people together. It wasn’t like I had a list of names and I knew all these guys were going to be there. For a while, I thought it might be just Eric’s band doing it. And then it turned out to be a really, really nice situation and a great evening.

It was lucky timing. Just a week or two later, it wouldn’t have happened.
There was exactly a week-and-a-half window. I remember after that show, my wife and traveled to Hawaii for a vacation. We were in Hawaii for a week. On the way back, as soon as we got back to the States, Hawaii had reported their first couple of cases of the coronavirus. The very next week, they shut everything down.

Are you working on a new solo project?
I’m done recording and I’m about to start mixing it. It’s going to be a Sonny solo project. I’m not going for anything really specific, but I’m not all over the musical map either. I just wanted to go for some feel-good grooves on this one. Most of it is instrumental, with some background vocals. I’m looking to be done with it, hopefully, in the next few weeks, and prepare for a spring or summer release, dependent upon what’s happening with the Covid restrictions. I’m supposed to be at the City Winery here in Atlanta on the weekend of July 4th. I may take that opportunity to introduce this new project to the world if we’re able to go forward with the date.

You have a nice balance in your life where you can play City Winery and then Hyde Park.
Yeah. I’ve been really blessed. I love doing both things. I love small crowds. I released a project last year with my group Full Tilt. We released it in December 2019 and then Covid hit right as we were about to start ramping up and trying to promote it. Covid shut us down. I’m going to put some energy into promoting it. It’s Full Tilt Featuring Sonny Emory. It’s on iTunes and other digital platforms.

Are you hopeful there will be big concerts before the year is over?
Yes, I am. I sure am. I’m hoping by the fall, we’ll be able to come back. We all want to play, man.

Who haven’t you played with that you’d want to?
I really wanted to work with Prince. I really wanted to have a chance to work with him. I really wanted to work with Miles Davis. I got close to getting the call from Miles one time. That didn’t pan out. I actually got the call from Michael Jackson and had the gig and was preparing to go to L.A. to start rehearsing. But then, through some unfortunate circumstances that came up with [drummer] Jonathan Moffett and his wife, Michael decided to take Jonathan to help him out. I got bumped off of that one.

I’d like to work with Herbie [Hancock]. I’d like to work with Mick Jagger and the Stones, for sure. I’d love to work with Garth Brooks. Just anybody who is doing quality music, at this point, since there’s so much junk music. When real playing is involved, I’m interested.

You have so many years in front of you. Charlie Watts is 79 and still going.
Yeah. He’s still going. That would be a dream gig. I love them and I love the music, but [bassist] Daryl [Jones] is a good friend of mine. We actually auditioned for Janet Jackson together and we killed the audition. We just killed it and both got the gig. But then Daryl got the Stones call and they decided to go in a different direction on the drum chair. That didn’t pan out, either. But I enjoyed playing with them. I always say, if I ever get the chance, I’d love to play with him again, especially in that Stones situation.

If Charlie retires, they’ll need a new drummer. You’ll probably be near the top of a pretty short list if that day ever comes.
Yep. I’m open! Mick, if you’re listening, I’m available!

 

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