The Paul Leslie Hour Episode #47 – David Was of Was (Not Was)

David Was is a man who lives at the corners of journalism and music. He goes by “David Was” in the world of music, and he is the stage brother and other half of the writing/producing collaboration Was (Not Was). A Detroit, Michigan native, his journey into the public sphere began as a journalist and jazz critic. David Was has had a big mark in the music world not just with his band, but also as a producer. He’s worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, Iggy Pop, Ricky Lee Jones, Roy Orbison and many others. Going back to the journalism, under his given name of David Weiss, his byline has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Newsweek. Whether you call him David Was or David Weiss, he’s here on The Paul Leslie Hour for an unprecedented in-depth interview.

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Record Producer Buddy Cannon

Buddy Cannon is a large part of the equation when it comes to the success of several iconic country music recording artists.  He is the longtime producer for the bulk of Kenny Chesney’s discography and for the last 5 years he has been the producer of choice for country music legend Willie Nelson.  Other artists he has produced include George Jones, Chely Wright, Reba McEntire, and Merle Haggard.

Buddy Cannon has also been very successful as a songwriter.  With country artists Bill Anderson and Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon wrote the hit song “Give It Away.”  He’s written and co-written songs for artists as diverse as Vern Gosdin and Willie Nelson.

Although this interview covers many topics, it takes a close look at the acclaimed Willie Nelson album “Heroes,” which featured guest appearances by Merle Haggard, Lukas Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Sheryl Crow and Snoop Dogg.

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Steve Jordan: Drummer, Composer & Record Producer

 Steve Jordan is a drummer, composer and record producer.  Steve Jordan is frequently known for accompanying well known artists both on stage as a sideman and in the recording studio as a session player.   He has backed artists like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones.  Along with Pino Palladino, Jordan performs with the John Mayer Trio.  He was a founding touring member of the Blues Brothers featuring Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi.

He was a founding member of The World’s Most Dangerous Band, which backed Paul Shaffer on Late Night with David Letterman on NBC from 1982 to 1986.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce this man, Grammy Award-winning Steve Jordan.

Pleasure to be here, Paul.

How do you define Steve Jordan?

(Laughs) I guess, oh, that’s a good question. Somebody who’s passionate about music and life in general. A very fortunate individual. A person who doesn’t take anything for granted, I guess. I hope that kind of shows in the work that we do.

If we could go back in the Jordan household when you were growing up, what would we see?

We would see first of all  two amazing parents that I owe everything to. My mother Gloria Lorraine Jordan, a musical person, incredible homemaker and later educator, and she got a Master’s Degree in gerontology later on. And just a very active, determined, supportive, wonderful person. And then my father, Horance R. Jordan who was an architect, worked for the city of New York and very driven by work ethic, a very strong work ethic. And once again, very supportive. He used to drive me around to gigs and kind of, there’s nothing like having an architect be a roadie (laughs). I made the guy, the two of them together were so dynamic, elegant, fantastic that it was incredible to grow up in that household. And I have a younger sister who is very talented as well. It was pretty cool. Pretty cool. We grew up in the Bronx, the northeast Bronx. At that time it was kind of a pretty cool melting pot, different cultures and it was an exciting time. Music was always playing in the house, usually it was pop music. And in a particular case, my father being a jazz fanatic, there was always Miles Davis being heard in the house. And then, also, you know, the Beatles and Motown and Stax, and stuff.  James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. So there was a lot of music being played and my father had a wonderful sound system. And you know, we did some – really, really appreciated that kind of stuff in that era. You know, the Civil rights era and that kind of thing.

Can you remember the first album that you bought with your own money?

The first album that I ever owned was – and it’s still one of my favorite albums – it was Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini. That is still one of the greatest recordings, in my opinion, ever made. And it’s kind of a beacon for me when I do musical directorialships, when I’m working the Emmys or…or Kennedy Center or anything like that, I always have that in the back of my mind, Henry Mancini’s work, Quincy Jones’s work and that kind of stuff. The first single I ever owned, was I think Yakety Yak by The Coasters, which is one of my favorites. I think Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak were two of my favorite records as a kid. And I started collecting records very, very young. I think by the age of two or three, I started getting 45’s. My parents would by me stuff and, according to them, I knew how to operate the, not only the record player but also I knew what records I was putting on, before I could read. Now, I think the reason why is because I kind of have this kind of photographic memory kind of thing and, of course, labels at that time were very easily recognizable. And I guess you could tell by the font, because there were certain fonts on certain tunes. So I think that’s how I was able to recognize OK, even though it was a Motown label, I could tell, if it was a Four Tops record that I wanted to play, or it’s a Supremes record I wanted to play or something like that. I think that’s how that came about. But I just was banging on pots and pans from a very early age and I was listening to records.

You said “banging on pots and pans.” So, were you pretty much always a drummer?

Uh, yes. That was definitely the first – that’s the anchor to everything that I do. Even when I stop for a while and start playing other instruments,when I came back to really devoting myself to the drums I got an even deeper appreciation of the drums. My father told me, I guess when I was around seven years old, seven or eight years old, he said ‘if you learn how to play Art Blakey’s Blues March you’ll be able to navigate all types of drumming and different styles. And even though he wasn’t a musician, everybody thought he was a musician. And he had a very keen sense of what was important in music or what touched people in music. And he was right because that particular piece of music – well, obviously, Art Blakey swung like no other person swung, so you know it was swinging. And his technique, his hands, so to speak, were fluid. Not over-technical, just really steady and played extremely melodic. It wasn’t just all based on technique so he had the perfect combination. And so, there you have it.

Take us back. What was it like as a very young man meeting Stevie Wonder and also being a part of his band?

First of all, let me just clarify. I never was in Stevie Wonder’s band but I got a chance to hang out with Stevie Wonder. It was a long, it’s a long story. I’ll try to make it as short as possible. During Songs in the Key of Life, going into The Secret Life of Plants, he was auditioning drummers. And there was a drummer that played on Songs in the Key of Life, besides himself, named Raymond Townes. For some reason, they were auditioning other drummers to see if they could get someone to replace Raymond, even though Raymond played great and I really don’t understand it to this day. But, at any rate, they were auditioning people from all over the country. I met a lot of people. I was still in high school. I was working in a percussion cage at Bill’s Music, Bill’s Rentals which, prior to studio instrument rentals, that was the place. So anyway, I’m hanging out, working at the percussion cage. Bill, who was a wonderful gentleman, tried to get me in to audition but I was too young so I wasn’t able to audition but I met a lot of people and, to make a long story short, at the end of the audition Raymond retained his job but then they let me jam. They let me play with Stevie. And at the time, fusion music was really at its apex and so, like the Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy by Return to Forever, Chick Corea; Mahavishnu, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobbham and Weather Report – stuff like that, and some stuff that Herbie Hancock was doing – all that stuff was on Stevie’s fingertips, so to speak, and mine as well. So I got a chance to play. We jammed and he went into like this Return to Forever tune, which I knew like the back of my hand. He was shocked and everybody went ‘Whoa!’. So, even though I didn’t get the job, I became like a little mascot. They let me hang out with them. So they were going into the studio – they were at the Hit Factory – and they let me hang out. And it was like being Cinderella. I was living in the Bronx, didn’t have any money or anything, just enough to take the subway in, and I’d be hanging out with Stevie Wonder and the band, Wonder Love which, at the time Nathan Watts had joined the band, was still his musical director on bass. Michael Sembello was on guitar. It was just an amazing situation. ……..Phil Gaines had just joined. I was in the room with Stevie Wonder when Phil Gaines was introduced to Stevie Wonder. It was just an amazing situation. So, I’d be hanging out with Stevie Wonder and the band, in the studio watching studio technique, and just – I’m a kid! You can see, it’s incredible! It’s like a dream. And then I’d get on the train, the subway home and I’d get home. It was truly a Cinderella type of situation. From that moment on I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Stevie Wonder was this incredible human being and so sweet to me that it was just crazy. I just, I couldn’t believe it. I have deep love and respect for him. So that was when I knew exactly what I wanted to do. So the very first session I ended up recording was with a guy who used to play with Stevie Wonder named Eddie Morales, who was a tenor sax player. My first session was at Electric Lady Studios, in Studio B, and the band was Nathan Watts on bass, Carlos Alomar on guitar, from David Bowie fame who co-wrote the song Fame, and Michael Sembello on guitar as well. It was half of Stevie’s band, plus Carlos and myself, so I think that’s where the whole thing about me playing in Stevie’s band came up. That’s a clarification of that story. He had us very much involved with them but I was never really an official band member.

What about playing in the Saturday Night Live band? How did that come about?

Oh, that came about – I was playing, I was starting to get some calls, I was like this second or third call for all the musicians in New York who are incredible, you know? So like, the A team was Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta, Chris Parker, these guys. And I was just coming up, starting to get some jobs when these guys couldn’t make it. I’d get to play be subbing for these guys. There was a snow storm in New York back in the ‘70’s that, well, it crippled the city and some of these guys lived out of town and I lived in Chelsea. So, this was when the studio scene was just bursting with work. You could do six or seven sessions a day if you were lucky. It was really an incredible combination of actual records and commercials, which we called jingles. During the storm, I was able to really do a lot of work because a lot of the guys who lived out of town couldn’t make it in. And I got to play and a lot of people liked what I was doing. John Tropea had a band, he put together a band. It was really a band. It was just a band comprised of all the top studio musicians. And he had done a solo album and the hook to this album was that Steve Gadd played in the left speaker and Rick Marotta played in the right speaker. And he had a gig at the Bottom Line, which no longer exists anymore but it was a great venue and a lot of great music was there. Rick Marotta couldn’t do the job so I was recommended because a lot of these guys said ‘Hey, well this kid is pretty good. You should check him out and see what happens.’ So, the day before the show we had a rehearsal at Carol’s Music – I’ll never forget it – where I’m playing opposite Steve Gadd, who’s a hero of mine, and I could hardly hold the sticks. It was a disaster. The rehearsal was an absolute disaster (laughs). And I thought ‘Oh my God!’ I was just so nervous. So the show time comes the following evening and I’m setting up and Steve is setting up and people are filing in, and I hear people in the audience grumbling, like ‘Who’s this guy here? I thought Rick Marotta was going to be playing. Who’s this guy?’ And I hear murmuring and everything and I go ‘Oh, my goodness. This is trouble. Oh, my god.’ So then the show starts and all the adrenaline kicked in because it was a do-or-die situation. Because, it was like Game 7, I just played better than I ever played, ever. That’s the night I got the job at Saturday Night Live because Steve Gadd was just to busy to do Saturday Night Live. He was just too sought after, so he couldn’t. He never knew what he was going to be doing or where he would be so he couldn’t commit to the job. I was asked to do the job from that show and it changed my life.

Tell us a bout being a member of The World’s Most Dangerous Band, the first house band, Late Night with David Letterman.

Well, basically, the show – the band was Paul, Will, Hiram, and myself. Paul – I asked Paul to produce a band that I was in called the 24th Street Band, which consisted of Clifford Carter on keyboard and vocal, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Will Lee on bass, and myself. Paul and I had forged a really cool friendship from playing together on the Saturday Night Live band going into the Blues Brothers band. Especially during the Blues Brothers band, we really became pretty close,  musically, because we had the same type of love for certain types of music. When Paul was asked to put together a band and he came to me and I said ‘Well, why don’t we just get the guys? I mean, we already got a band.’ Our band was, basically, breaking up, or we had just broken up. ‘Well look, if we get Hiram and Will, we’re ready to go, ‘cause it’s a band.’ He agreed and then we started, we started playing. We used to rehearse in my home. So it was a great vehicle for us to play a lot of the music that we loved because we loved all ‘50s rock and roll, rockabilly, obviously R&B. So, we just picked our favorite tunes, basically. We hit the ground running because we were already primed. Like I said, three of us had played before together on a regular basis. Hiram was a phenomenal guitar player, as we know. Will Lee a virtuoso, not only bass player but all-around musician, Paul and I had worked together, like I said. So we had a team and our musical dialog was kind of very high level. We became the focal point of the show because people were just blown away by the band from the very first episode. In fact, one of the great things about being so visible at the time was that there was never a four-piece, there had never been a four-piece band on television every night before. That’s the first time it was ever done. That was great. We received a mailgram from the great Tony Williams the day after our first show, congratulating us and I thought ‘Well, there you have it!’ because Tony was my hero. Well, that was an incredible acknowledgement from somebody who was a beacon to me. He raised – he set the tone for me and, individually, as a musician. He was playing with Miles when he was 17 so my goal was to do something really of a high level by the time I reached 17. Now, I was doing some stuff at 17 but (laughs) not playing with Miles Davis. But I did get the job with Saturday Night Live when I was 18, 19 years old so I was a couple of years off.

Our special guest is drummer, Steve Jordan. Not only have you performed with a lot of great artists on the Letterman Show but you’ve recorded and toured with a lot of great artists. Everyone from Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Don Henley, Cat Stevens, BB King, Patti Austin, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor – the list goes on and on. Could you pick one or two favorite artists that you have worked with?

Well, playing with Neil Young was pretty big because I got a chance not only to play with him in the studio at a very critical time in his career but we also, during the making of Landing on Water, we lived together for a couple of, for a week or two off and on. So one night – I had a place in Malibu and we used to go out there – one night I found myself sitting down, writing a song with Neil Young and I couldn’t believe it (laughs). I couldn’t believe it! I’m sitting over there in the living room and I’ve got an acoustic guitar and he’s got guitar and I’m like ‘Holy cow! I’ve just written a song with Neil Young! This is insane (laughs)! I can’t believe it!’ So there’s that and, of course, working on Keith Richards’ solo album and befriending Keith, who is a dear friend. I mean, that –when you’re friends with people, like, sometimes you don’t realize exactly what’s actually happening because everybody, we’re all just human beings, OK? If you treat somebody differently than a human being, well then you’re not – you’re belittling the whole relationship and yourself and human nature in general. So, people just want you to be natural around them. When you’re asked a question like that, well, they’re just a human being and a very wonderful human being, considering how everybody else treats them because they’re all – these people are treated differently. The ‘celebrity’ and all of that kind of makes for a very kind of tricky situation for them. I can say that they’re good friends and they didn’t hesitate to share their knowledge with me. I mean, Keith gave me guitar lessons and – ‘cause he saw that I wasn’t going to put down the guitar. He saw that I was going to keep playing it so he said ‘Well, I might as well teach this guy some stuff so that I can actually bear it (laughs).’ So that was great. I learned a lot about songwriting, as well, from him. Those two things in particular, those two individuals in particular, just jump out at me but I have had so many wonderful experiences that they’re hard to kind of number, and it keeps getting better every day. I mean, I – I’m very fortunate to be playing with the people I’m playing with currently. Right now, I’m working with my wife, Meegan Voss, who’s a great musician and we have a band called The Verbs. We’re both classical, classically trained musicians and, of course, she had a couple of girl bands back in the day, the Poptarts and the Antoinettes. And she was like the queen of CBGB’s, for a while there. And I always wanted to get a band into CBGB’s and I could never get one to actually get in there (laughs). I could never put one together. So we have that kind of thing where, that she’s done stuff that I’ve wanted to do and vice versa. And so, now that when we’re playing together, it’s a really incredible experience for me. And I also get the chance to play with people like John Mayer and Alicia Keyes and Beyoncé, and just this new crop of great musicians.

What is John Mayer like to write with? I know you’ve written a couple of songs with him.

Well, John is a great writer, and he’s just a very smart and amazingly talented individual. You know, we’ve become good friends as well which is, really, the main thing. It’s about chemistry with a musician, or with anybody, not just a musician, obviously. But he’s very savvy and he’s very keen on what is important about his music, his product, his brand. So, the writing that we’ve done together is different. Every collaboration is different. The way that I collaborate with John is more like, it comes out of what we call a ‘free play’ where we just play some stuff and it’s basically like just jamming. And we come up with some stuff and then we’ll come up with some music and then he’ll take the track or whatever, and then write some lyrics over it as opposed to when I’m writing with Keith Richards, it will be more of a collaboration where we’ve not only come up with the music together but then we’ll write lyrics together. Or kind of, with Meegan, it’s kind of a combination of that. It takes all, it takes on different forms. Sometimes, I’ll write a tune that I’ve written most of the lyrics for or whatever, but I need a bridge and then I’ll ask Meegan ‘Do you have a bridge?’ Or some things I’ve written with some great writer like Danny Kortchmar, who’s a legendary guitarist but legendary producer and writer. Great, great writer. So I’ve learned a lot of stuff about writing from him. So I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of great writers. Working on Devil and Dust with Bruce Springsteen, before I played a single track he gave me the book of lyrics, every lyric in Devils and Dust, before I played a note. And he thought it was important for me to read the lyrics to the whole album before I played on it, which is very, very, very smart. And it gave me insight into what he was thinking about and what his mindset was before we started recording. It was great. A lot of people have different way of doing things and I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of different styles.

My last question is open-ended. What would you, Steve Jordan, like to say to anyone who is listening to this interview?

I’d like to say for everyone to stay positive. There are a lot of things out there that could lead you to think otherwise but we’re living in a very fascinating point in time here. We could continue to go forward and focus on the things that will make this society of ours better but the choice is ours. There are a lot of things that make people think smaller than they have to. If we really go back to the …thought of helping one another and not being as selfish as we’ve become, the world would be a better place. Which I’m very fortunate and blessed to be a musician because music is the universal language. So I can go all over the world and spread the good cheer of music. And, as you can see, that cuts across every kind of racial, cultural, social, political line. And that’s the great thing about music so I like to carry that torch, like a lot of other artists do as well. For musicians and artists, that’s our job. Our job is to carry that torch and to, and to pass on good will. And so that, that’s what I like to do and I’d like to do that more often. I look forward to every opportunity to do that.

Mr. Jordan, it’s been a great pleasure to do this interview.

Thank you, Paul. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Perhaps I will hear you perform in Atlanta?

Yeah, I know that The Verbs are putting together a small tour to do something, maybe at the end of the year. And then, next year I’ll be doing some work with some, uh, some legendary, noted guitar players – and I’ll leave it at that.