Even the most successful drummers have had to start somewhere, and starting down the stony path of a career in the music business is not one to be taken lightly. From leaving behind friends and family to sleeping in the car and busking on the street Charles Streeter has done it all. The only difference is he swapped his busking place on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica for the hot stool behind soul legend Chaka Khan from one day to the other.
Since then Charles has played for the likes of The Jacksons, Stephanie Mills, toured extensively for Jennifer Lopez and is currently on the road with vocal sensation Tori Kelly.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Charles before Tori’s show in London.
You went through the real musicians struggle when you moved to L.A., right?
Yeah man. I had saved maybe $5000 and the first day I got there I bought a car for about $3500. I was driving back and forth to all the jam sessions, auditions and studios where I went to just hang out and meet people. So I was broke after a month.
Then I started playing drums on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica as a street musician just so I could feed myself. That actually became a good gig. I came up with this routine with all the twirls and people liked it so I started making good money out of it.
It went pretty quick from there though, didn’t it?
Yes, I landed my first big gig with Chaka Khan seven months after moving there. I was subbing for drummer, David “Dae Dae” Haddon, at a church while he was on tour. The organ player that day was a sub too. We introduced ourselves and played some music. After we finished he went: “Man, you sound real good. Who are you playing with?”. At that time I was playing for a band called DW3, who are probably one of the most popular in the states. So I went: “I’m playing with DW3 and taking my drums out on 3rd Street Promenade to make a little extra dough to pay the bills.” He said: “Oh, so you’re not playing any gig?”. I was just like: “Erm, Yes! I’m playing for DW3!”. And he goes: “No, are you playing a GIG?”. “Well, I guess not!” [laughs].
So he goes: “Ok, do you wanna play with Chaka Khan?” Of course! He called the musical director and we went over there after church to have a play. Man, I was nervous as hell. We had a jam and the musical director went: “I can tell your nervous but you sound really good. Be in rehearsal tomorrow!” He had promised somebody to listen to another drummer so he told me to come to the rehearsal the next day so Chaka could hear me play. I just couldn’t believe it. You never know what the day holds: one day I’m playing on the street, the next day I’m in rehearsal with Chaka Khan.
I went to the rehearsal and me and the other drummer took turns playing. Chaka decided to hire me and three days later we played on David Letterman. It was mind-blowing, I was trying my best not to cry like a little baby.
Was it a matter of learning 20 songs within two days then?
Yes. Well, I already knew all of her songs but I didn’t know the arrangements – and those were crazy. It was like gospel meets R’n’B. The drummer before me was Chris Coleman and he came into rehearsals helping me out going: hit this accent like this, leave that one, take the next one, put a fill in-between here, and so on…
Chaka wanted somebody to come in, play the song and form a foundation. The first thing she said to me was: “I want the snare in my ear and the kick in my ass!”. I just went: “Yes Ma’am.” [laughs]
A lot of these artists of course want you to have fun when it’s your solo but when it comes to playing the music, they want somebody who can play the song. It’s just a shame now, especially with the younger generation, it’s all about chops. I could have been one of those if it wasn’t for the legends I grew up around.
I did the gig for about four years but then ‘Price’, a band I was in at that time too, got signed who wanted to put our record out. We did this big video shoot, prepared to put out the single and then they dropped us from the label.
So I started back playing with Chaka for about three or four months. After that I made a record with Israel Houghton and Free Chapel which was pretty big and then I started playing with The Jacksons.
Wow! What a gig!
Yeees, that one was a jaw dropping phone call! I played with them maybe three or four months. I only did two shows because they were preparing for the tour which I never did because I got the J.Lo gig. That’s a long story.
We’ve got time…
My best friend, Bryant Siono was the MD for J.Lo and he called me up and said: “We’re going out on tour with J.Lo and I want you on drums. I know you’re about to go out with The Jacksons but this is seven months of work, you might wanna take this gig!”. I just went: “No man, this is a dream come true. There is only a hand full of drummers that can ever say they played with The Jacksons, and I’m one of them! I’m not leaving the gig”.
A couple of weeks later he goes “Are you sure?!”, and I totally was – so he called some other drummers and they had this big audition. One of my room mates at that time went to audition as a background singer and I took her there. So I’m there, just hanging out, flirting out with all the girls, you know, just having fun, when my friend runs out in a panic. He goes: “J.Lo just got here and the drummer isn’t here. I have to audition the keyboard player, guitarist and percussionist and so on. He had to audition everybody but had no drummer. He said they already know I can’t do the gig and asked me to come in and play so they could do the audition.
So I go in there and play with them just having fun. Then they give everybody a solo and J.Lo goes: “Let’s hear the drummer solo!”. I didn’t care so I just did, smiling, twirling my sticks and all that – she was well happy! My friend went: “Man, you killed it! You might have a gig in a minute.” I go: “But I can’t do the gig! You told them, right?!”. Other drummers come in and play, but J.Lo wanted me. After all that the offer just got too good to turn it down.
You went from Chaka Khan and The Jacksons to a fully produced J. Lo arena tour. Was that a big change?
We had click tracks with Chaka and The Jacksons. As I mentioned with Chaka they tried to make the show more up to date by adding all the gospel elements, loops, keyboard parts and all that – but it was only on like three songs out of 15 songs in the show.
With The Jacksons it was all click track. They had the real sessions playing with us: the real strings from the record, the real piano from the record – it was insane. Playing ‘Shake Your Body Down To The Ground’ and you’re playing alongside the actual, real percussion. You know what I mean?! I knew the all the guys from the band because we grew up together back in Memphis and we were just all in rehearsals tears almost running down our faces. We couldn’t believe this was really happening.
The only actual change to the J.Lo gig was the dancers. They would choreograph to recordings we made for them in our rehearsals so they could practise. They would be in one room rehearsing, we’d be in another room and then we’d all come together at the end of the week in a massive warehouse.
Any lick I played, they would choreograph something to that lick. If I changed that lick, I messed up and they’d go: “What’s the drummer doing? He messed up!” I had no idea they’d do that! So slowly but surely, I learned to not play anything extra when doing these recordings, because they will choreograph to it. They find the smallest little drum hit and they want you play it. I didn’t even notice I played that! So not only are you learning the music but you’re also learning the choreography.
Tori asked an MD Paul Mirkovich, who’s the MD for The Voice, to put a band together. He reached out to my friend Dory Label who was the guitarist on The Voice at that time. He put my name in along with some other drummers and asked for pictures and Instagrams so she could check us out, because nobody wants to be around an asshole. We call it 80/20. 80% personality, 20% playing. That’s all it is.
Yeah, so my first couple of gigs with her I was actually playing cajon. At the beginning we only did promo stuff so we broke it down to cajon, acoustic bass, Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitar. Three months later when we went on tour I started playing actual kit.
Tori started off playing the drums. Does it make your life easier or harder that she knows her way around your instrument?
Tori gives me absolute free reign – but she knows what type of drummer I am, so she knows I’m not gonna do anything stupid. I’m actually trying to get her to do something for the next show where we do something like a two-drumkit thing.
How do the Tori Kelly and the J.Lo gig compare to you? Do you have more freedom with with Tori?
I have freedom playing with both, but I guess you could just say I enjoy playing with Tori. Just because… I mean, listen to her voice! And I enjoy the music better.
I guess you could say Tori’s gig is more relaxed. It’s about the music. With Jen, it’s a show. Everything is like clockwork – but I still kind of had free reign on that one too. Actually they asked me to play more. The MD just went: “Play what you wanna play, have fun.” And I was having fun because I really get a kick out of playing music. Some people get a kick out of chopping, I get a kick out of playing a song. That’s just me. Every gig I’ve been on they hired me because of who I am as a drummer, so I never had to try and be something I wasn’t.
Do you use click tracks on this tour with Tori?
Yes, we don’t have background vocalists with us so they are on the track. Everything in the box is from the record. Of course everything we play live was taken out, so there are mainly BVs, auxiliary keyboard parts and some 808 drums for the more poppy stuff.
Do you prefer playing with a click or do you rather play without?
I prefer a click track, so it’s always right. No one can say, “It’s too fast! It’s too slow!”. Of course if something is too fast or too slow, the first person they look at is the drummer. We are the timekeeper but at the same time if I’m not the MD, I can’t make the decision.
Even if you play to a click track you can play one day and it feels fast. The next day it feels normal or slower – but it’s the same tempo. It depends on your adrenaline and the energy and vibe on stage. If everybody is tired and jet-lagged sometimes it feels on the edge. Then if you’re well rested and you’re up for playing you might go: shit, I wish it was faster!
Saying this, it does depend on the vibe too. If it’s old school, I prefer not playing to a click. Just because it’s supposed to be a feeling, it’s supposed to be humanised.
But generally I prefer a click, even if I’m the only one hearing it.
I think one skill a lot of people don’t realise is being able to play together. Being able to adapt, being a chameleon. Drums and bass are everything, you’re the foundation. You may find some bass players, even if they listen to the click track with you, the may play a little bit behind the beat. Some times it’s cool to follow them and play together, but sometimes you just have to stay where you are and let him go where he is going. Other bass players are perfectly in time, others are on top of the beat. If you wanna be a working musician you have to be able to adapt to each one of those.
Oh, I don’t know man. I started off playing theatres with Chaka but then with J.Lo it was all stadiums. I like them both. Playing a stadium is totally different than playing a theatre. I guess you could say I can get more out in a theatre that would translate to the crowd versus it would in an arena. In a smaller venue it’s just more compact, the sound is not as bouncy. Even if you think about equipment, cymbals for example. If you’re playing stadiums, to me you should never have anything smaller than a 18” crash. It needs to be able to project. For some reason a lot of soundguys don’t like to use much overheads in their mix because there are too much drums spilling into it. They rely on the cymbals to bleed into the other drum mics. If you have something smaller than an 18, you’re gonna be whacking the hell out of it and cracking it in two nights.
Even with Tori. Even though I’m not bashing as hard, I’ve gotten used to the big cymbals. 18, 19, 20 inch crashes is all I wanna play.
You played with one of the biggest pop stars in the world and with one of the biggest R’n’B stars – and you kept both gigs for years. What’s the key? What’s the most important quality as a session drummer?
Consistency is the key. I guess the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten is that I’m a consistent drummer. As far as I’m gonna play the song no matter what. I might do a little something extra here and there every now and again but learning the song and learning the patterns of the song is key. Learning the patterns generates consistency. That’s it. If you stay consistent, the gig will stay consistent. They say chops might get you a gig, but they won’t keep you the gig.
You work as a producer too. Tell me more about that.
Yes, I’ve been producing a lot more lately, working on a few records back home in L.A. I’m doing the album of a singer/songwriter named Dax and with DW3. I want to accomplish a lot of things in producing. I wanna win Grammy’s, I wanna be known as a producer – kind of like Questlove.
Do you still have something like a dream gig?
Man, I would love to land a TV show gig. Something like a late night show maybe. That’s life changing, retirement as far as if you think about your family. I have a daughter and I want her to be ok and not have to struggle the way I did. Plus I don’t want to struggle too! [laughs]
As far as artists go, I would love to at least play one gig with Earth, Wind and Fire. I don’t know if I would wanna tour with them – for one Maurice isn’t there, but I still would love to play once with Verdine White.
I’d love to play with Sting, Paul McCartney, Clapton… I mean those are serious gigs, I would love to do those! Or even for Lionel Ritchie, I would enjoy playing his music.
What’s next after this leg of the Tori Kelly tour?
I’ll be home for two days and then I’m off to do the gospel cruise for a week going to the Caribbean and lots of different places. I normally do about three or four cruises a year. I already did a smooth jazz cruise last month and they’re actually on the second one of those at the moment but I had to come out here so I had Gorden Campbell to sub for me. He’s a heavyweight, he’s been in the business a long time and played for everyone!
After the cruise we’re going on tour with Tori again for about two months. After that I’m back home and have to finish producing a few records. Then Tori has more dates throughout the year and we’re probably gonna play gonna play another tour with her, because we always do. Since I’ve been on the gig we’ve been doing two tours a year.
Thanks a lot for your time Charles! Enjoy the rest of the tour!
A special thank you must go to Charles’ manager, Gary Stanionis from GAM Representation, for the hook up for this interview.
Interview by Tobias Miorin