Steve Jordan — In Charlie Watt’s chair on the Rolling Stones tour — On Keef, Mick and the Beatles
If for some reason you haven’t watched it a hundred times already, go to YouTube and watch the clip of James Brown playing on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. It is perhaps the most captivating musical performance of all time, as the godfather of soul goes through “Sex Machine” with the world’s most dangerous band (completed by two of the horn players from Brown) at a tempo and intensity that’s downright manic. The groove, let’s say, is relentless. It is also perfect. The drummer who supplies it is masked by Brown and the group. You barely see it, but it doesn’t matter. It is obvious that everything emanates from him. His name is Steve Jordan.
It’s a handy metaphor for Jordan’s career: you might not see it, but you can smell it. In some ways, he’s the quintessential musician, one of those names that keep coming up whenever obsessives talk about their favorite drummers. (“Bonham?” “No, Earl Palmer!” “Wait, Hal Blaine!” “Art Blakey!” “Keltner!”) Jordan’s career took off when he joined the Saturday Night Live group in 1977, just out of his teens, when he looked barely old enough to shave. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd then tapped it to provide a stack driving backbeat for the Blues Brothers. Over the next 40 years (Jordan is now 64) it seemed like whenever you needed it the guy to play drums on your record, for a tour or for a gala, Jordan, who is also a producer, songwriter, arranger and musical director, got the call. These calls usually came from artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Sonny Rollins, Sheryl Crow, Ashford & Simpson, John Mayer, and Alicia Keys.
Last summer the call came from the Rolling Stones: an invitation to replace Charlie Watts on the band’s No Filter tour. Watts had been sidelined with a health problem; in August, as the world knows, he passed away at the age of 80. With the tour now underway (next steps: Nashville and LA), Jordan took a break to chat by phone with Vanity Show on his long association with Keith richards (solo albums dating back to the 1980s), Mick jaggerthe supergalactic charisma of, the eternal brilliance of his friend Charlie Watts and a certain group from Liverpool.
Vanity Show: You are clearly the man for the job. How’s it going so far?
Steve jordan: Oh, man. It’s pretty wild. Quite surreal. The whole…. I certainly have the best seat in the house! No question.
You’ve had a relationship with the Stones for at least Dirty work album, in 1986. Is that how you started working with Keith on his solo projects?
Well that was our first working introduction. But I had met Charlie when I was in the Saturday night livth group. The Stones did the first show of the fourth season [October 7, 1978]. On this show, security was very high. There were a lot fewer backstage VIP passes that week. Everyone obviously wanted to be around the group. He was coming out of [the album] Certain girls. It was a new chapter and a re-explosion, so to speak, of the group.
The Yankees were playing the Royals in the playoffs that night which was the most important thing in life for me. [Jordan, who grew up in New York City, was a Yankees fan.] I didn’t really care what else was going on. So I just asked someone to get me an autograph from the band. I didn’t want to try to hang around, meet the group. The Yankees were the priority! Turns out Charlie got me the autographs. I ended up hanging out with Charlie in the locker room and we watched the game together. I was explaining baseball to him. He said, “Oh, it’s like a combination of round balls and cricket! This is how we met for the first time.
Are you going back over 40 years with Charlie? So how did your association with Dirty work to arrive?
In 1985, I was in Paris making a record with a derivative of Duran Duran called Arcadia, with Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes. We had an evening off and the team said, “We’re going to meet some guys from the Stones. “Because they were recording at Pathé Marconi. And I said, “Could you send Charlie a message? Just tell her I’m here and say hello to her. The message reached him and he invited me to the studio. When I entered Pathé Marconi, I went to the control room, and they were set up as if they were playing live. I realized at that moment that it was the first time that I really saw the Rolling Stones perform live in person. My eyes started to swell. I couldn’t believe it because there was no one there. It was only, like, Ron Wood’s wife, Keith’s father, the engineer [Dave Jerden]… and me.
It was unbelievable. And I took a lot of lessons from that night in my recording practice. So they all greeted me after I finished playing, and then Charlie asked me to play. I told him, “Absolutely not. I won’t play. I am a Rolling Stones fan. As a fan, if you’re alive and well and I play and you could have played, well, I would shoot the guy who played. So I said, “I’m going to play drums with you or something.” Sometimes I would play a little topper. Sometimes a small bass drum. Sometimes a shaker. And the maracas, of course. Maracas are a very important part of the Rolling Stones sound!