Ricky Lawson as seen by Mark Pusey

Mark Pusey discusses Ricky Lawson

Monday, December 30th, 2013

Drummer Mark Pusey gives his view on Ricky Lawson:

Ricky Lawson: 1959-2013

It had just gone 10:30pm on Christmas Eve when I heard that Ricky Lawson, had passed away. He had suffered a brain aneurysm on stage on the 13th December and had never managed to recover. I’m writing this having prayed for ten days that I wouldn’t have to.

Ricky was the complete package. Literally. In an age of people doing their best to imitate the qualities that Ricky possessed, Lawson was a drummer, producer, Musical Director (when such a title meant more than someone just being cocky, owning a laptop with ProTools, and putting it on their CV) and fantastic human being. Inspiring, truly humble (not someone who says “I try to stay humble” loudly so people know of their achievements), and totally and utterly, genuinely talented.

Born in Detroit in 1959, Ricky started playing drums relatively late, at 16 years old. At 17 he moved to LA to play with The Brothers Johnson, but even before that whilst in Michigan, he had played on “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, “Freaky Deaky” and a whole host of other hits by Roy Ayres. After being in LA a short while, he met Ndugu Chancler who was in the process of leaving George Duke’s band. Ricky auditioned and got the gig. From then on, it was major artist after major artist, major tour after major tour.

Ricky is responsible for the most popular and identifiable drum ‘solo’ of all time, the single floor tom note before the key change in Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You”. Who hasn’t played along to that on their radio, in the car, or wherever else it comes on? He told me once that whenever his mother hears that ‘solo’, she jumps up and screams, “That’s my boy!”

Steely Dan – Peg

Ricky was one of the first drummers I ever saw close up, in clinic. It was back in the mid 1990’s in Drumwright, Reading. I had been playing drums for about a year and was getting pretty serious about it. My Dad was doing everything he could to help expose me to great music and musicians, so when I told him about Ricky doing a clinic, he saw the opportunity, and said he’d take me.

We lived in Devon at the time, and my dad drove for three and a half hours to his head office in Slough that morning for a meeting, then back to Devon to pick me up from school, and we both made the 3 hour journey back up the M5/M4 to Reading for the show. (This is as much about my dad being the most amazing man any son could ever wish for as much as anything else, but it’s all got a point to it, I promise…)

Ricky’s clinic was just mind blowing, and it may still be the best drum performance I have ever seen in the flesh. As a 12 year old boy, who’d been playing for just a short while, it was everything I needed to see a drummer do at that stage of my development (and as a 30 year old man now, it’s still all I’d ever need to see a drummer do, especially as flawlessly as Ricky did it). It was just enough ‘flash’ and ‘showbiz’ to wow the audience, but whilst retaining everything important about playing the instrument. My dad, who patiently sat next to me through the whole show, didn’t stop bobbing his head the whole time, and he’s by no means (he wouldn’t mind me telling you) a musician, or even that into music. Ricky was making regular civilians DANCE!!

I remember at one point he played ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson, (he was Michael’s Musical Director) and just made the song feel so good. Pocket, groove, whatever you want to call it, Ricky had it. And I’m not the only one who thought so either. These people liked Ricky and his playing enough to hire him time and again…

Roy Ayres, Alicia Keys, George Duke, The Jackson 5, The Pointer Sisters (he co-wrote ‘Uh-Uh’), Robben Ford, Harry Nilsson, The Yellowjackets, Paul McCartney, Phillip Bailey, Sister Sledge, Al Jarreau, Eric Clapton, Toto, Chet Atkins, Anita Baker, James Ingram, Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler, Randy Crawford, David Benoit, Lionel Richie, Babyface (there’s an amazing live MTV Unplugged DVD with Ricky – recommended watching), Steely Dan (the ‘Steely Dan: Two Against Nature DVD is required viewing for ALL musicians everywhere), Faith Evans, Mariah Carey, Cliff Richard, Anastacia, Boyz II Men, Michael McDonald, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, and these are just a SMALL SELECTION…

Babyface – Talk To Me

After I met him the first time, I had such an amazing experience, I stayed in touch and connected whenever he came to the UK. In fact, after I started doing some writing, I interviewed him for mikedolbear.com, in 2007 at a Pearl drum event – I just thought more people should know about him.

Aside from just music, Lawson was an active humanitarian. He donated 50% of the proceeds of his own music to people affected by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster. He was also a massive advocate of education for children and developed a Youth Outreach program to motivate young people who needed direction and assistance in achieving their goals.

The reason I told you about all that driving my dad did earlier was for this reason. After the clinic (which I spent just three feet from Ricky’s drums with my jaw on the floor for the whole thing) I waited at the end of a line to get him to sign my poster. My poor dad who had been up since 5am (and faced another three hour drive back home yet) let out a little yawn. Ricky laughed and apologised that the evening had overrun by as much as it had. I blurted out what my dad had done that day and why he was tired. I’ll never forget what happened next.

Ricky put everything down and took my dad to one side. I found out later what he had said. It was about how grateful that he’d been, not that he’d brought me and lined his pockets with another ticket sale, but that what he was doing for me was beautiful and would pave the way for me to become whatever I wanted to be. He spent about fifteen minutes with my father just thanking him and telling him that he was a wonderful man. He was thanking my dad for being an amazing example. After that, he spent some time with me, positively re-enforcing everything he’d seen me soak up during the evening and just being the coolest guy I’d met. I remember him giving me advice about playing as much and often as I could. He said, “Don’t turn nothin’ down but your collar”. He was right.

Michael Jackson – Another Part Of Me

When people pass on, there’s always the “Oh, he was a great guy” spiel, but in this case, it couldn’t be more true.

Before I could drive, my dad took me to see just about every drummer at any drum event you could name. If he was honest, he’d admit to understanding or enjoying barely any of what they did, and if he was being even more honest, I’m sure he’d admit to flat-out hating some of it. BUT, nearly 20 years after seeing Ricky Lawson play, he remembers Ricky and now and again asks, “How’s that American bloke we saw in Reading that time who played on that Whitney Houston song? I liked him…”

What an impression indeed.

Mark Pusey

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