Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness
The guys in the neighborhood, they used to just start playin' at one of the guy's houses. The next thing you know, they'd come out in the streets and they would go from bar to bar. And the people would follow them. I was a young kid, excited about the music. I used to go and march with the band. I would dance under the bass drum player. I was that small. This big drum kind of attracted me because it was so loud – this big boom. I would go under the bass drum and dance and the guy would say to me "move your ass away from here before I hit you with this mallet." [laughter] Then I'd walk on the side of him.
Due to that, that was the extension of the way I play the drums. Because my drum playin' is from the bottom up. Most drummers play the top part of the drums, down. But I pay the bottom, up. Due to that, I got this rhythm, this bottom of the way I play that's so different from everybody.
AAJ: That probably came in handy playin' rhythm and blues.
IM: Yeah. That was the basis of our music was rhythm and blues at that time. I was never a jazz drummer. I really don't think today that I'm a jazz drummer. They kind of made me do this. And I ended up making so many records with everybody that they started saying I was a jazz drummer, you know? But I started off playin' rhythm and blues with Arthur when we had the band. We used to back up all of the artists that would come to New Orleans. Big Joe Turner. Muddy Waters. We was the band that backed them up. So we always knew the top 10 tunes that was on the charts at that time.
That's what I played. I have a style that I made up due to the marching band in the street. We had two Indian tribes in the neighborhood. Donald Harrison's father was the chief of our neighborhood. Then we had Uncle Charlie, he was the chief of a couple blocks down. I used to follow the Indians. They'd sing these songs and play these tambourines. So the rhythms of the tambourine, I combined them. I took that rhythm and the rhythm from the second line and that's what I played.
AAJ: You knew at a young age music was going to be your life?
IM: Yeah. I got hooked one Mardi Gras day. I think I was about 9. Some Dixieland guys came by to get a drummer. My mother and I and my brother were going out to the Mardi Gras. They said they needed a drummer. This old guy asked my mother could I play on the back of this truck with these old Dixieland musicians. And she said, "he's 9 years old and he's going to enjoy the Mardi Gras." Some how or another, he convinced my mother to let me go with them.
They had a big bass drum and one snare drum and a symbol. They built up some beer cases for a seat for me and I played with these old guys, man. And these guys were saying, "This kid can play." After about six hours of touring through the streets of New Orleans, they started passing out money and he gave me two $5 bills. And I asked him, do we get paid to do this? And he said yes. And I think that was it for me. That was the end of shinin' shoes and trimmin' rose bushes and cleanin' swimmin' pools. I used to do that to make a little extra money to go to the movies, you know? But that was it for me. I started right away, when my brother wasn't home, to practice the drums. I thought it out as a way of makin' money to get the things that I wanted to get without bothering my dad, you know? It led from one thing to another. Then Arthur needed a drummer. I was 15 and they recorded a song called "Mardi Gras Mambo" which is the theme of the Mardi Gras today.
We worked and worked and worked and worked, next thing you know I was on the road with Arthur and a band. We were on the road in '57, that was the launching of my road career.
AAJ: You played those early years with people like Fats Domino and Sam Cooke.
IM: Yeah, I did some things with Fats. And I was Sam Cooke's personal drummer. I was workin' for a guy named Joe Jones. He had a record out called "You Talk Too Much." It was a big record at the time. The record had gotten kind of cold. I was going to a nice restaurant in New Orleans to get a sandwich with Joe Jones, and I'm waiting for my sandwich and Joe goes in the dining room and sees Sam. Sam is complaining about the drummer with the Upsetters band. He was on tour in New Orleans that night. Joe said, "Look, my drummer plays anything." So he came and he got me to sit at the dining table with Sam. Sam said "Do you know any of my music?" I said, "yeah." He started singin' and I started playin' on the table and he hired me.
AAJ: Did you have other influences on the drums during this time?