Teddy Campbell has made a career out of molding his gospel upbringing and feel into an unmatched versatility that brought him gigs as a longtime musician on shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘Don’t Forget The Lyrics’ as well as his current gig as drummer for ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.’ Moreover throughout his career Campbell has recorded with the likes of George Duke, Stevie Wonder, Kelly Clarkson, Kirk Whalum and more as well as serving as music director and touring with the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Bette Midler, and Queen Latifah among many others.
With all of that experience on the road and in the studio it’s now time for the world to experience Teddy Campbell’s own band complete with brand new compositions from their upcoming record. Campbell will be bringing the band to DROM NYC on Saturday February 16 for what is sure to be an amazing night of music. Check out below as Teddy takes us through his development as a musician and what we can expect from the Teddy Campbell Band later this month.
You come out of a strong gospel background. What is it about gospel that sets you up to be such a great musician?
The important thing about gospel music is that it’s all feel. It’s all a feeling and it’s all an emotion. My perspective is that God gives you a gift. Some people learn how to play — some people are talented enough where they learn a certain thing — but when God gives you a gift and places you on this earth to do something, you already have what you need. You just need to cultivate the gifts. Playing in church is the best thing because it teaches you to pay attention, it teaches you how to accompany someone, you have to play with a feel and an emotion, and it’s so energetic. It’s very high energy, full of emotion, full of spirit. That was really the best school for me. You get the pockets and you get the feel.
Along the way in your journey you met longtime musical director Rickey Minor and he helped jumpstart your career. What did he see in you that made him trust you as everything from a band member to a contracted musical director?
Rickey saw some things in me that I never saw. Rickey was looking for a new drummer and had actually seen a show tape of mine and he hired me for my first gig with him, which was called Motown Live and was hosted by Montel Jordan. I played with a bunch of R&B artists — I think this show was Destiny’s Child, Patti LaBelle, and a bunch of people. I got to rehearsal and they had a bunch of charts, but I came from church so that was something new for me [laughs]. So I had a bunch of charts and I was like, “Hey guys, can you play the track for me so I can get the feel?” They played it and I learned it right away like I had to do in church. When I counted the song off I was looking at the chart as if I was reading it. When the rehearsal was over Rickey walked over to the drums and was like “Hey man, I know you can’t read. Just play the way you play man because your feel is good and that’s why you’re here.” I thought I was fooling him!
After that we started doing more shows together and bigger shows as well with 15 and 20 songs. I still couldn’t read anything. He walked up to me one day when we were doing a show called A Celebration of Black Music that was on TV — it had everybody from Whitney to Luther Vandross to Boyz II Men. It was 15 songs and he was changing things in the run-through. He was changing stuff on the charts and I didn’t know what anything meant. He was calling things out and I was remembering them. It was on the fly and I maintained all of it. After rehearsal he was like, “Hey man, I don’t know how you do it.” Then he walked away. I didn’t know if he just dissed me or if it was a complement or what. I took it as a diss, so I started taking charts home with me and I taught myself how to read.
How long did it take you to get a handle on it?
It took me a couple years to really get my way around the charts and then a couple more to learn how to write stuff. I was just starting to teach myself how to read and we got this gig for the National Symphony Orchestra Ball in Washington DC. We were playing with this humongous orchestra with Ray Charles doing all of these Broadway pieces from Phantom of the Opera and stuff like that. So I walked into this room with the orchestra and these drum charts showed up that I had never seen before. Everything I was reading was a rhythm chart, so it had everybody’s parts on it. So here are these drums charts with just drum markings that I had never seen before. I panicked — I called my wife and I told her to play the songs for me over the phone [laughs].
I said, “Rickey, you should have never called me for this gig. I am not the guy, you should’ve called somebody else.” He said, “Teddy, you are the guy. That’s why you’re here. I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t think you could do it. Just take the charts home, listen to the music, and you’ll be fine.” So from there, he entrusted me to be a musical director for all of these amazing bands that he was putting together. He would call me to even put the bands together. I would help him arrange and I’d run the show when we went on tour. He just trusted me so much and that alone taught me so much about what I needed to do and where my career was heading. It’s been a great relationship.
You’ve worked as music director with a ton of amazing artists in a lot of different genres. Do any of these artists stick out to you as particularly impressive in the context of the music?
No one really sticks out to me. As music director everybody was kind of open to what I had to bring. They always listened and were open for whatever it was that we brought as a band.
But I would say my favorite tour was the Backstreet Boys — that’s the most fun I’ve ever had on any tour.
Really? Why is that?
It was a bunch of guys and they liked to do everything I liked! We would go and shut down malls, movie theaters, and bowling alleys. We’d go play baseball and softball on professional diamonds. We’d go and play basketball at whatever arena we were near and we’d practice with the players from those teams — the Portland Trailblazers, Chicago Bulls, or wherever we performed. It was just amazing and the dudes were just fun dudes. And the band was great; we all got along and all liked each other. The band was smokin’ too. It was the best tour experience I’ve had.
Transitioning from touring into your “day job” in late night TV, did you find yourself playing more and did that require different skills?
We did a show called Don’t Forget The Lyrics for a couple seasons with Wayne Brady. Basically man, we had to learn a thousand songs in two weeks. This was like musical boot camp. It was some of the craziest stuff I had experienced. We were already doing American Idol as well, which was a lot of songs a week, and we had to record them all on Sundays. Like when we went from the Top 12 to the Top 3, we recorded four versions of each song every Sunday. We’d have to do it all in one day with a live orchestra and with the horns. We cut them at Capitol Records all together in one take. We didn’t have enough time for anything else. So I got a lot of experience learning things. I’m like a walking iPod [laughs]. If I don’t know the name of it, you start playing it and I’ll definitely know the drum pattern.
So with the Tonight Show, we came in a little overzealous. We played a lot of songs just because we could, but they don’t want that. They just want a certain number of songs and the songs that make people dance. We actually do play a lot though. We rehearse every day, soundcheck every day, and then we do the show. Basically I’m playing 15 songs a day and I’m playing every day. I still do a Monday night gig that allows me to play what I like to play too. It helps me release all of the frustration from having to play pop music.
Do you think the constant stream of pop music you experience affects how you write and play with your own band?
No, because what I write with my own band are stories. They are my stories from a man’s perspective that I write — it’s soul. My band is soul-rock. It’s a Hendrix influence with Ray Charles fairy dust sprinkled over it. It’s a nice little hybrid and it’s my style. It’s my style when I sing with my gospel group or when I play drums with my band. That’s what comes out. Writing this stuff comes natural to me and I just tell my story.
Tell me about the guys in your band.
I’m not bringing my entire band to the New York gig. I’m bringing my bass player, who is actually the greatest guitar player in the world — his name is Jubu Smith. I’m also bringing one of my best friends, Dave Delhomme who plays keys and guitar. The way he voices chords are some of the best voicings I’ve ever heard in my life and he plays guitar the same way. His sound and his rock awareness are so crazy. My percussionist is Stacey Lamont Sydnor and he’s a show by himself. I’m taking him everywhere I go. And then I have a guitar player filling in who is a young guy that just graduated high school named Chris Payton. He just has so much feel and he’s so particular and precise in what he plays. He’s very intentional and polished far beyond his years. He’s an old soul. Then I’m only bringing one of my horn players, his name is Miguel Gandelman who plays Tenor Sax on the Tonight Show. I’m also getting Corey King and Igmar Thomas from New York to play with us on trombone and trumpet.
Now with this band you do something that no one does nowadays and it makes for an exciting night. Tell me about how you developed into being able to sing and play drums at the same time.
I didn’t have time to think about it honestly. I started doing it on one of the biggest stages you could possibly do it on — Network TV, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I basically forced myself to do it. The night before I did it, I looked at a video of Buddy Miles singing and playing drums. The very next day I had planned on getting up and singing “Mother Popcorn” by James Brown from the soloist position. I was going to have the keyboard player play drums. Dave Delhomme sent me this link of Buddy Miles and said, “Man, you can do this.” I saw it and I decided I would do it. I rehearsed it and it was a little tricky, but I had to do it. There wasn’t a point where I really could think about it and wonder if I could or couldn’t. From there I just started singing more and more on the show. For a while I was singing maybe one song a night. So that’s how it happened I guess.
As far as the compositions go for your band, are they mostly covers, originals, or a little bit of both?
There are some covers and some originals. I’m halfway done with my album, so I’m going to give New York a couple of songs from there and then some covers too.
This is a fairly new band and you haven’t toured too much. What made you want to bring the music out to New York at this point?
New York is a music town. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. This band is taking off — people are hearing about it and they’re intrigued. People want to experience it live and I want this to truly be an experience. I want the Teddy Campbell Band to be an experience. You’ll hear it on the radio or wherever you get your music and you’ll love it, but you’ll love it even more if you’re there. I have to give people a chance to experience it.
Words by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)
Teddy Campbell will be giving a free drum clinic at NYU prior to the performance. Follow @REVIVEmusic for more details. Also be sure to visit The Teddy Campbell Band Online.