I am indebted to Andrea Adams for drawing my attention to the following article on the wonderful Greg Adams. It recently appeared in the publication Herald de Paris and is reproduced here with the full permission of Greg and of his management.
The sound of Greg Adams is one of the world’s best-known musical signatures. His musical journey has spanned nearly four decades and from the early ‘70s, when he first arrived on the San Francisco Bay Area music scene, he has been a driving force in defining an artistry that transcends musical genres. Still seeking out a course not yet traveled, Adams is at his best when testing his own innovative boundaries. Not only that, his diversity has made him the consummate performer, setting no boundaries and seeking no labels.
Adams is a founding member of Tower Of Power and his horn arrangements, that made the TOP horn section a sought-out entity all its own, have become legendary. Today, TOP is still traveling the world and playing the arrangements that will forever include the musical signatures Greg invented so very long ago.
Greg has arranged, performed and recorded with numerous artists which display a diversity mirrored only by that of his own career. They include Rod Stewart, Eurythmics, Lyle Lovett, Heart, Linda Ronstadt, Luther Vandross, Aaron Neville, The Brothers Johnson, Phish, Little Feat, Wilson Pickett, Huey Lewis and the News, Raphael Saadiq, Al Green, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Everclear, Chicago, Bonnie Raitt, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles, Peter Frampton, Billy Preston, Terrence Trent D’Arby, Josh Groban Madonna, the Rolling Stones and Celine Dion.
For Adams it is always about the journey and where it will take him - and he is always ready to go. Now Greg has a new band poised for international recognition. Called East Bay Soul it has already put out one album and has recently followed it up with ‘East Bay Soul 2.0’, which was produced, arranged and co-written by Greg. This collection of dynamic songs, an equal mix of instrumental and vocal songs, funk, jazz, R&B and soul, is backed by his band East Bay Soul and has Adams signature sound clearly stamped through all ten tracks.
Greg’s work is a musical travelogue that has earned him both Grammy® and Emmy nominations, and an International Broadcasting Award from The Hollywood Radio and Television Society. He is in sync with an ever evolving musical landscape and has produced a life’s work that has included success as an arranger, songwriter, producer and performer. In so doing he has toured the world and contributed to some of the most important recordings in pop culture.
Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez first interviewed Greg in 1977 on KFRC Radio in San Francisco. This was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with an old friend and have a very candid and heartfelt conversation. As an even older friend, the late Jerry Garcia, might have said; “What a long, strange trip it has been.”
AC: I understand your family was involved with the Salvation Army. Does this experience inform your musicality?
My parents were missionaries in WWII in China, India and Burma. I grew up in a musical family with mother playing piano and trombone and my father playing cornet. I attended Salvation Army band camp every summer since being a small boy. It had a great brass program because of the British heritage - brass bands are very big there - I picked up the cornet when I was about five years old. I didn’t get much of a sound out of it until I was about ten, yet I continued to drag it around. I was enamored by the shininess of it. It was my first influence and my biggest influence. I think the spirituality of music comes from the heart so that was probably something that was ingrained in me since I was young. I guess I’m an old softy. I can well up with tears quite easily sometimes with an emotion born from my younger years.
AC: What was your school experience like and what music did you listen to?
Grew up and went to high school Daly City just south of San Francisco. I listened to the music of the era: Beach Boys, the Beatles and then of course James Brown and the Famous Flames. From that I went to R&B, then horn bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. Jazz enamored me completely and, of course, the Memphis sound: Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs and the Memphis Horns.
AC: You grew up in the Bay Area. How did the ‘Summer of Love’ affect your musical sentimentalities?
Guess we were all affected by the ’summer of love.’ It was crazy in San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury: long hair, pauli oil, incense and the smell of pot everywhere, fringe leather jackets and the whole thing. Sure I grew my hair long. There were concerts in Golden Gate Park and shows at the Fillmore West and Winterland, all that and never really knowing that someday I would be playing at those venues.
There was a club on Haight - I want to call it the Juke Club. I was a high school kid and on Sunday afternoon there was a piano on stage and an open drum set so anyone was welcome to jam. I remember taking my horn in there and getting my first chance to play on a stage with elderly black men who were great players. I was being a sponge and it was a great time. I wasn’t into The Jefferson Airplane, but the club was right in the neighborhood so that was my ‘summer of love.’ In 1968-69 I wasn’t into the Dead or the Airplane. By then I changed to trumpet to be in the school band.
AC: High School?
My high school education was crucial to what I am today. We had a great jazz band and I was in the jazz band from my freshman year until my senior year. In my junior/senior year my band teacher was Howard Loffler and he basically let me have the band. See, he saw I was a budding arranger and composer. He said, “Why you don’t run the band I will be in my office if you need anything.”
AC: What was the linchpin that changed everything for you?
We had some very good friends of my parents who were music aficionados. They took me to see Duke Ellington at Basin Street West in North Beach. It was 1968/69 and it was THE band; I was blown away after the first set. We went back stage after the show. The people I was with knew Duke so they wanted to introduce me. Duke was on his back with a wet towel on his bare chest and his hair was all over the place. Our friend said, “Duke this is our friend Greg. He is a budding arranger. Do you have any words of advice for him?” He sat up and shook my hand he said, “Just keep writing kid, you will get it right someday.” That was a moment I will never forget. It was such a great experience and I took that back with me to my writing for my high school band. We would go to Reno, Nevada for the University of Nevada jazz band competitions and we would always win. It was always a great experience and there is no way I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience. I am a big proponent of high school music programs. It is a shame that so many band and musical programs have been shut down because of lack of funding.
AC: You were accepted into the prestigious Berkeley School of Music but you didn’t go.
I wanted to attend the Berkeley School of Music, but I joined the University of Tower Of Power instead. Which, if you think about it, I could go to Berkeley for four of five years and then hope that Tower Of Power would come along and give me a chance. There it was, right in front of me. I think I chose wisely. I got to do all the things I wanted to do. So I don’t have a teaching credential. So hey, what are you going to do? It’s still one of those things. I’ve been in this business for over forty years and the experiences that I have had have been very memorable; I have no regrets. I think going to the University of Tower Of Power at the age of 18, playing in the band, recording music, seeing the world and meeting girls is quite an education. What I have done in my forty-plus years? ; worked with a lot of people and a lot of great names.
AC: The call?
I was ready to go to Berkeley then Tower called one afternoon. I knew them as a club band that did a lot of covers in the Bay Area. I had a fake ID when I was 16 and I was playing with Linda Tillery, Sweet Linda Divine and The Loading Zone. We would run into each other, Doc and Mimi and me, so they knew of me. They had an opening on the band; Mic Gillette had gone to Cold Blood. There I was and the rest is history. We went in and finished East Bay Grease. That was the beginning of the band’s career.
AC: What did you bring to the table?
I started arranging. They really didn’t have the charts all set-up, things weren’t arranged and structured the way I was used to. I brought the horn section into the forefront and it was one of the things that made us unique. If you look at the band, the horn section is not in the background – it is on the front line with the singer. That was the whole gist of it. The arrangements I did back in the day? Tower still plays them around the world today. Some forty-plus years later and it’s still all the arrangements I did for the band. I will say that when I left I took my sound with me. I am flattered that those arrangements still hold up.
AC: What made your arrangements so different?
When I arranged the horns I not only thought of them as melodic organ sounds but also as percussive. If you notice in a swing band, horn players can kind of lag - they lay back. With me it was always on top of the beat - it can’t drag. The band is a metronome. I wrote for each individual player in the horn section. I capitalized on each of their strong points and sometimes their weak points and what I could do to make them shine; to bring them to the front even if some of them were not as good as others. It wasn’t easy but defining it and working it over the years, it became the signature sound of the band. Singers came and went; it was always the horn section that got the notices. That’s why they had an identity that has been used by hundreds of artists over the years. We played with Santana, Doobies, Little Feat, in fact so many that once I get going it’s hard to remember them all.
When the band started getting popular it was a heady time. Like I said, when I went to Winterland or the Fillmore, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever play there and we ended up playing those venues. We would open for acts at those venues while hoping someday to headline. I remember once when we opened for Aretha Franklin and she did the live record at the Fillmore. Those are memories that we really keep. I remember going out on the road, opening for Credence Clearwater Revival when they were big in ‘72 and ‘73. Our music was not the kind of music that the Credence fans where used to hearing. I remember we played an arena gig in Louisiana and there were unopened beer cans thrown at us. They didn’t take kindly to our music.
I lived in San Francisco; I am not an East Bay guy. I eventually moved to Orinda and Lafayette before moving to LA. It did take its toll and there where problems from that era. Lots of people had drug problems.
AC: How did fame and fortune affect you?
I think fame and fortune did change the band. The band did have problems with drugs. That is pretty much known - it wasn’t anything new to the music business.
AC: The music was not marketable because it didn’t fall into any niche?
As far as the marketability of the music, I think now, as I look back in retrospect, sure it affected the band’s creativity. There was some hypocrisy in the band as to who was doing what. There was a lack of vision sometimes because of the fogginess with the drug use, but then again you know hindsight is 20/20 and whatever happened, happened.
AC: Did you try to sound black?
I didn’t arrange the band to sound like a black band - it was what it was. I brought the sound that I invented and it happened to be based on rhythm and blues. It’s just how it came. We all had influences but I truly feel that my sound is original. I never really studied with a writer or arranger or composer per se; it was derivative of the work from people like Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle, Billy May. I was never tutored by anybody. I was writing and teaching myself at the same time. It’s hard to articulate how artists do what they do. How does a painter do it? He just paints. I write. I just write and it’s a sound all my own. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery; I know that I have been imitated several times. There is an ad on TV lately about a New York City business and it was a real funk horn line. I don’t know how many people asked me if I did that.
Like I said, when I left TOP I took my sound with me. They have tried to find people who can write like me and it’s kind of sideways you know? But they don’t know and cannot replicate what is inside of me. That makes that whole sound tick.
AC: How do you define the word ‘funk?’
The word ‘funk’? Well, if that’s what I do, then call it funk. I call it music. I am fortunate to have the ability to almost be like a chameleon because I have worked with so many people in the studios. With different artist and bands, I bring my sound to them and they tell me, “Just do what you do. That’s why we called you. We want you to put out your sound on our sound.” It humbles me to bring in an arrangement and not have it approved! There was only one time that I had to do a massive rewrite for Dan Fogelberg. We did the session. We did the song. It was relatively easy. Bottom line, he didn’t like it and that worked out fine - I didn’t like him.
AC: When did you know that you really made it?
What really put the horn section on the map was when we worked with Elton John on his Caribou record. That transformed us into to an entity that was really in demand. We went on to play with so many people, live and on records. We went live with the Rolling Stones at Candlestick Park and went to London with Little Feat after doing several records with them. We did the ‘Waiting For Columbus’ album with them in London. Of course there was Santana too. One time we played a New Year’s Eve with the Grateful Dead and Etta James sang. We were afraid to drink anything because we didn’t want to get dosed with LSD. We were supposed to play Auld Lang Syne at midnight but didn’t go on until 4:30 in the morning. We did so many gigs and it was all because of Elton; he was so big. We were at the Record Plant in Marin three days a week; people were flying in from LA and New York to add our horns to their records. Finally we had to move to LA -the music Mecca.
AC: Tell us about the bittersweet element of the Tower of Power 40th Anniversary DVD.
Yes, I did sit in on the TOP 40th Anniversary DVD and I did say that Tower is my musical legacy. I though about the DVD and realized it was the Emilio Castillo show more than anything else. I know there were a lot of fans disappointed watching the DVD when the band started playing at the Fillmore and they would cut to an interview with Emilio or someone else saying how brilliant Emilio was. I did about 40 minutes of interviews and those were the two words left in the two hour presentation.
AC: How did you feel?
I was kind of devastated that I was left out of the larger picture. I had so much to do with the sound of the band and was not recognized for it. It is one of those things that had its ups and downs; towards the end it was down. I was not happy; I left the band because I thought it was morally bankrupt at the time. The leader, Emilio, was a reformed alcoholic in the AA program. I though at the time that the arrogance he was displaying was destroying the band. We were in Europe (Germany) and I had had enough. We had about two weeks to go. It was like Rome was burning and Nero is fiddling, so I just gave my notice at a band meeting – a meeting that was called because the crew was quitting. I had had enough of this stupidity; the band was not growing in creativity – since 1974 they had not grown. It was stifling, to tell you the truth. I was doing too much. Because I was so depressed about being in the band, I gave my notice and by the next day the record company called. They said they’d heard the news, they were sorry to see me go, but would I like to have a solo career? And so I started on that. I took them up on it.
My only regret is that I hadn’t left ten years earlier. Wish I had seen the writing on the wall earlier. I was so serious and committed to see the band really do something. We had a chance in 1974 and the drug abuse pulled the band back. I’m glad I’m gone and that’s it.
AC: Going Solo?
When the record company called they asked if I wanted to have a smooth jazz career. I did ‘Hidden Agenda’ and did a cover of Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. Both the song and the album went to the top of the charts for five weeks. The album served us really well. I never thought I would be a solo artist. I had no plan. I knew I could come back and be a studio rat and do sessions for motion pictures and records and such. This was a new thing. I was the guy who stood on the end of the horn section and all of a sudden I was going to be the guy in front center stage. It took a lot.
AC: Why smooth jazz?
I never really chose smooth jazz. It chooses me. Pop and rock? It’s more profitable for a trumpeter player to go where the genre will take him at that was obviously to jazz.
AC: Tell us about your friend Paul Shaffer.
Paul Shaffer (The Late Show with Dave Letterman) and I go way back. He had a band called the World’s Most Dangerous Band when they were on NBC. When we would play the Bottom Line in New York in the 80’s and 90’s, Paul would ask us if we wanted to sit in on the Letterman show. It almost became a tradition. I would do arrangements for the band and they would do some Tower tunes. Paul was and is a fan of Tower Of Power and we have been friends for over thirty years. I recently did a week on the Letterman show on CBS now that they have the big band. I filled in for Al Chez and they were getting another trumpet player. Paul and I were nominated for an Emmy award for one of the anniversary shows for Letterman. He was also an executive producer on my ‘East Bay Soul 2.0’ CD. We did it though Kick Starter, a great fund rising platform for funding projects. It was great for Paul and Dave to hold up the East Bay Soul CD everyday for a week. You cannot buy that kind of publicity.
AC: Would you ever take the trumpet gig at the Late Show if it was offered?
The role of the trumpet player on the Late Show band is to hit the high notes. I am more of a mellow player. I thought about the gig but I have a hard time with winters in New York. I think if they truly had offered me the gig, I just may have taken it.
AC: Tell us about you and new media?
I like new media. Every Sunday on Facebook I like to write little stories about my journey in music. One time I was at Tommy Johnston’s (Doobie Brothers) house. I went to use what I thought was a coaster for my drink but realized it was a check for 250,000 dollars. I’m going to write a book some day. There are some good stories that I haven told yet. Quite frankly I can’t allow them to come out until the some folks are dead.
AC: Could you give us a few short stories? What about Van Morrison? Larry Graham? Doc needing a Doc?
Took me four hours to find Van Morrison’s house – it was all covered over with trees. He sat me down at the piano and he had all of his gold records to see. We had just come off working with Elton in England. Van is so prolific! The material was unbelievable and could have changed the public’s perception of Van Morrison forever. I took the music home, wrote the arrangements, recorded it, and it never came out. Everybody in the horn section at the recording date at the Record Plant said it was a stupendous song.
I would go over Larry Graham’s house arranging for Graham Central Station. He never really let me in the house. He put me in a closet that had a cardboard box as a desk and a drum stool for me to sit on. I listened to the cassette player. He didn’t want anybody to see me at his house.
We were playing in New York City, at The Fillmore East, opening for Santana and Roland Kirk. We did the four nights, Thursday through Sunday. Monday morning early we had to go out to La Guardia and fly to Las Vegas to do a show with Rod Stewart that night. We stayed up all night as young rock and rollers would do. Doc got real drunk and passed out on the plane. It was really cold and they kept him in First Class – just covered him with his coat and his scarf. When we landed in Vegas it was hot as we walked down the steps across the tarmac into the terminal. Doc was the last to get off the plane and he had a rabbit skin coat on. He looks terrible - almost had to be in a wheelchair. We get to the hotel and he sleeps it off, still high as a kite. On stage he is hanging on for dear life. We were doing ‘Funkifize’ – this was in the early days of video screens on each side of the stage. They were doing close ups on the jumbotron and were doing close-ups of the horn section, first me then Mic. When they got to Doc he vomited on camera. Every one of us around him started to gag. He looked down at Mic (who is much shorter) and just smiled and kept on going. I have lots of stories I hope to write about someday.
AC: How does new media affect the business of music?
New media has really transformed the way we do business. Andrea, my wife and manager, uses it to the max. We have friends all over the world and we really feel united. You have a feeling that you are a part of a club and through Facebook everyone has a story to tell. We are all interconnected.
Years ago it was so hard to make a record. It’s easier now. New media is a tool to do things that you couldn’t do before. You have the infrastructure now and you don’t need the big record companies and management teams. There is also a lot of mediocrity out there. It tends not to police itself.
AC: And the business of smooth jazz?
Smooth jazz is something that I had success with right off the bat. It has become increasingly more difficult to make a living as a smooth jazz artist. A few years ago there was a call to arms by those in the clique of smooth jazz. It was basically ‘circle the wagons and don’t let anybody else in on the smooth jazz circuit.’ It became so that all you’d hear was seven or eight artists. On the radio they did all of the same shows, tours, and concerts in the same cities. That is all you were able to hear on the radio or live.
I wasn’t in that clique. I was left out. The way smooth jazz radio has gone, and it has all but disappeared now, it’s because that clique cannibalized itself. It was the greed of a few. It has taken on a new life form. This is why I have changed my musical direction on my last two CD’s with East Bay Soul.
AC: Tell us about East Bay Soul.
I found that I wanted to do something different once again. I wanted to go back to something more comfortable to me, my own sound. It figures they are not going to play me on the radio because I’m not in the clique anymore. No one needs to name names; they know who they are. I went back to something that is close to my heart, that I love to do. I am an orchestrator so I love a big band and it’s like a bigger canvas to paint on. The way it develops was I had my band for years but I needed a singer. Then I got a new drummer; Herman Mathews is the best drummer I have ever played with in my life.
The singer, Darrel Walker, is the best singer I’ve heard and I have had to work with a lot of singers in Tower Of Power - lots of recording dates. Speaking of singers, I want to mention that Celine Dion is the best female singer I ever worked with. I had a fleeting experience with her: I played on a primetime Grammy nomination TV show with her when she did the Janis Ian tune ‘At 17’. She asked me to do the horn solo on that. We rehearsed that day at The Staples; she is so nice she makes you feel like you are an old friend. She says very sweetly, “I have to go on to rehearse.” They go into the Titanic song ‘My Heart Will Go On’. She is like six feet from me and she is singing this like the arena is full. She is an astonishingly good singer.
East Bay Soul is in my blood. Andrea asked me what I wanted to do next. I told her I wanted a big band. She has helped me put it together and get it on tape. On our first effort we used several singers, but Darryl was amazing. Things started to gel for us on the last song we cut. The response has been overwhelming.
AC: You recorded a song by our friend George Grund?
George Grund is a fan who emailed me. He said he knows I don’t solicit songs. I said I really don’t solicit songs, but why don’t you send it along. It was an instrumental less than two minutes long, no lyric, but it was such a beautiful piece of music that I wanted to record it. Could we put a lyric to it? Andrea, who has never written a lyric before, thought about the wars and how it feels when a soldier comes home from battle. We called it ‘I’m Coming Home’. When Darryl sang it for the first time you could really see and feel it. It was the last song we recorded and I like to do things contemplative.
We did our last project though Kick Starter. We have a group a friends and supporters called The True Funk Soldiers and we raised 35 thousand dollars in 60 days! Incredible friends tell friends and it’s growing exponentially.
AC: What about gigs?
We just play a Christmas gig in San Francisco to a sold out crowd. We went over to the East Coast and sold out about a few shows there - friends bring friends. We are growing by leaps and bounds. We are getting offers for shows. We don’t have one weak link in the band and there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. They bring a lot of potato salad to the picnic.
AC: How can Europe get to see EBS live and in living color?
One of the things that blows my mind is that I don’t have a booking agent. Everybody in the contemporary smooth jazz world has a booking agent but me. I am going to say it right now: I am looking for a booking agent! This band needs to go to Europe, and to Japan, we can’t be denied! Once you hear it you will say there is nothing like it.
Right now I’m working on Dave Koz’s record. I am also doing something different: producing a record for Rufus Miller, the singer on the East Bay Grease album. We are doing an EP with four songs using my East Bay Soul band members.
AC: Bucket list?
I don’t believe in bucket lists. There are so many things I want to do. I’m 60 but still think like a kid. If you can make a living at something you love then it’s not work.
AC: What would you tell folks just starting out in the game?
Don’t smoke. And as you make your way up the music ladder, be nice to people because you may meet them on the way down. It doesn’t last forever but people remember you. I’ve always tried to be a nice guy and do everything with sincerity - and hope you will be recognized for it.