I do know Billy Cobham, having toured with him in 1971 when Argent supported Mahavishnu Orchestra on what was probably their first American tour. This was at a time when they were at their frightening best and nobody really wanted to tour with them(!).
Nothing about Mahavishnu was usual, but one of the most unusual things was what at the time was called: Billy Cobham’s ‘machine-gun’ like playing. He had a different technique and a different approach but the most obvious difference was he had a different sound. At a time when drums were becoming less resonant Billy’s were becoming more in your face. Concert toms were being used more, mainly because they were easier to record, and there was still an element of over-muffling the drums; although not quite so overtly as the tea-towels completely covering the heads like Ringo, and other drummers including myself, were forced to use in the studios!
But as usual I’m getting ahead of myself.
Billy Emmanuel Cobham was born in Panama on May 16th 1944 and moved to New York City with his family when he was three years old. This was in the winter of 1947. His original home in New York was in Harlem but eventually his family moved more or less around the corner to Bedford-Stuyvesant where he started to play drums in the St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps. The die had already been cast as far as drums and percussion were concerned when he was living in Panama where he had seen his cousins playing percussion instruments – this had fascinated him and he was hooked. He played his first gig with his father when he was eight, and from the corps he went to New York’s School of Music and Art where he studied music theory as well as drum technique.
Billy’s next big step was in 1965 when he joined the US Army as a percussionist, where he stayed until 1968. Upon being discharged he joined Horace Silver’s band while at the same time moonlighting with Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and George Benson. It was then he started to dabble with electronic drums like Max Roach and Tony Williams who both used the embryonic ‘Tronic’ set produced by Meazzi in Italy (and Billy would return to electronics with the recording of ‘Spectrum’).
Early in the seventies he moved into jazz fusion which mixed jazz funk and rock together. This was a new genre of music which, among others, Alphonse Mouzon, Lenny White, Narada Michael Walden and of course Tony Williams were also experimenting with. Billy’s contribution was described as “where jazz complexity meets rock and roll aggression”. This led to him playing with first the Brecker Brothers, then John Abercrombie. It was while he was playing with the Brecker brothers in the band ‘Dreams’ that he came to the attention of Miles Davis who just happened to have John McLaughlin in the band which was working on the album ‘Bitches Brew’.
In 1970 having played together on ‘My Goal’s Beyond’ the pair of them joined together to create Mahavishnu Orchestra with Jan Hammer, Rick Laird and Jerry Goodman. They toured extensively and made three albums – although the third, ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’ wasn’t actually released for 30 years. In 1973 Billy made ‘Spectrum’ – the first of 30 albums (so far) under his own name. This effectively signalled the end of Mahavishnu and Billy began to play with Carlos Santana.
It was when he was playing with George Duke, as he told Modern Drummer, that he found himself so caught-up in the music that he Astral Projected and hovered over, or in front of, his drums while playing(!). When the eighties arrived he wasn’t exactly standing still, he was first with Jack Bruce, then The Grateful Dead, where he played a solo with Bill Kreutzman and Billy Hart. Four years later he played with the Dead’s Bob Weir in a band called ‘Bobby and The Midnights’.
I can’t find anything on who taught Billy to play the drums so I’m assuming it had a lot do with the drum corps although I can’t say whether he started out with a traditional or matched grip. Certainly he was using a matched French ‘timpani-type’ grip in the late sixties which he says he copied from Vic Firth. This enabled him to play ‘open-handed’ even though he was naturally right-handed. Thus providing him with the opportunity to have a ride cymbal situated on the left side with a lowered hi-hat, both of which he was able to play more easily with his left hand.
As far as gear is concerned it appears he’s been there and done it. When I toured with him he had a see-through Fibes kit, although I also remember him with a white North, horn-loaded set and there are rare photos of him with a Hollywood kit. Eventually he moved to Tama, possibly because they could supply the many toms he needed and produce those gong bass drums, which he popularised and for which he became famous. Next came a period with Yamaha but now he’s back with Tama.
Size-wise he seems to have been there and done it too, with a couple of 24” bass drums, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 18” toms. I’d assumed he’d used Octabans in his set up but have been unable to find any photographic evidence of this outside pictures in Tama catalogues which suggests they might not have had the depth and clarity he liked. He did though make good use of those gong drums. He went for deep, rich tom sounds and crisp, high pitched snare sounds from his two snare drums which mostly measured 14 x 6.5” and 12 x 5.5”. These days his cymbals come from Sabian in Canada although prior to the split he was with Zildjian and briefly Meinl with whom he created the Tri-Tonal range. He was never one for big cymbal sizes except for his chinas.
In 1992 he became involved with UNICEF working with the aim of helping autistic people through drumming. As a result of that intense connection he moved on to helping street kids near Sao Paulo. The street children were not his original goal but he seems to have successfully worked with them and refers to them as the brightest minds and raw talent he’s ever witnessed. Sadly many of them would never have the opportunity to use their gifts.
In 2001 Billy Cobham was named one of the 25 Most Influential Drummers by Modern Drummer magazine which wrote. “Although there are many all-time greats, Billy Cobham is one of the very few who can truly be called a pivotal drummer in music history. He changed the way we set-up our drums and cymbals, he changed the way we play them, and he changed the way we play music.” And he’s still out there doing it. As I write this, in November 2016, he’s doing gigs in Erding which is in Bavaria so not too far from the home in Switzerland where he’s lived since the late seventies.