When you ask any drummer about their influences, the list of names is bound to include a one “Greg Errico” no matter what type of music they play. Errico, most famously the drummer for Sly & the Family Stone, baffled a lot of people in the industry—a white drummer in a multi-racial and multi-gendered band that seemed to defy every boundary they met. We sat down with the San Francisco native to discuss what went on behind the scenes in developing some of the most timeless music with one of the most groundbreaking bands of all time.
What were you listening to growing up that influenced the development of your own style as a drummer?
Growing up in San Francisco—it being an international city—we were exposed to a lot of music here between the radio and of course my folks loved music. So I listened to everything from Dave Brubeck to Xavier Cugat to James Brown and Wilson Pickett and Buddy Rich. I loved it all. I love good music and I gravitated to every genre. So when I started playing, I would explore all of those records and try to conquer them. I didn’t actually start playing until I was 14 and I was self-taught as well. I had a lot of drummer friends that would come home from school, hit the books, and hit the pads for a couple hours. I used to drive them crazy because I wouldn’t do that.
When we started Sly and the Family Stone I was 17-and-a-half, so it was only three years after I started playing. I wouldn’t know how to recreate that nowadays. Those opportunities came to me and that was my path in the beginning.
As the story goes—you met up with the musicians who would become Sly and the Family Stone and rehearse for seven nights straight. What type of music were you playing at that time in the absence of originals?
We didn’t even play the first night; we talked about what we were going to do. I had actually showed up that first night for rehearsal for another band because Sly’s brother Freddie and I had a band called the Stone Souls. So I was going to the house for the rehearsal for that band, but when I got there, Freddie and Sly told me we were going to do something new. I knew that Sly had made a couple attempts at starting bands that he wasn’t happy with, so he scrapped them.
So it was Sly that had worked on inviting everybody that night that were in the original band. Everyone showed up and met each other and we talked about what we were going to do. It’s December of 1966, so here we’re putting the band together with elements that had not really been explored or tested before, especially in the pop world. Being mixed—black and white, male and female, and all of these things—it was all very unusual. Sly was a great deejay and at that time had a very popular radio show. So he had visibility and he was a record producer already as well. It was very exciting and we just had the feeling that what we were doing was unique.
So that night we talked about what we were going to do. We were going to do our own material eventually, but if we wanted to start gigging we had to start out with some Top 40. At the same time, if we did that, we had to make them our own. We took these songs and rearranged them and just owned them. We approached it with that attitude. So those six other nights we took all these songs and reworked them and started playing them the week after. It looked, smelled, tasted unique, but when we got together and played, it was definitely something different going on. We didn’t realize the scope of what we would be doing until much later. Even as it was happening, we were just having fun and doing our thing. We were committed to it and we had each other’s backs. It was real cool.
What was it like working with Larry Graham and locking in all of the rhythms for the group?
We never really talked a lot about what we were doing. We didn’t have lengthy or even short discussions about our approach. There was chemistry there. Everybody was sensitive to each other and considerate. We were doing something that on a lot of levels was also a social experiment. It was very challenging at that time. There were race riots going on outside and here we are black and white together. The music was the common denominator and the strength that bound us together. It wiped all of that other stuff neutral. It was a very powerful thing, and we never had to grapple with it. No one questioned it. Things were happening for us so easily that other people were having a really hard time with. We were definitely conscious of that.
But yeah the chemistry was really good amongst all of us. We didn’t have any intellectual discussions about templates and rules and what needed to be done. I was very musical as a drummer and conscious of the flavors of the chords and arrangements and lyrics. I always had an image in my mind when I played. And in playing with great players like Larry, and with Sly being a visionary in his songwriting, I was just a kid in a candy store.
Did you have a lot of creative freedom?
Totally. Sly and I would sometimes clash and argue if one of us felt strongly about something. Sometimes I would lose and sometimes he would lose [laughs]. Therein lies the honesty of the music. This music still lives today because that honesty is so strong. It was very different at the time and it was way over people’s heads. A Whole New Thing is just now today being realized in a lot of ways. Some of those songs have been sampled more times than I can count. I think it really has to do with the honesty that was present when we created the music.
When you were recording these tracks, was it mostly recorded live or did you do a lot of overdubs?
That’s a good question. All of the songs would start out as just ideas or jams and we would develop them. There was no one way we would write songs. But there were definitely overdubs because we played basic tracks with a skeleton vocal and maybe even a horn mic, but Sly—being the great producer that he was—would lay something down and then would get inspired by something someone else did. That was kind of the mindset of the day with music that was coming out of San Francisco with that freedom and the creativity. You’re trying different things and experimenting with all this stuff.
But fundamentally with most of this stuff we’d lay down the ideas and they’d get developed and these songs would morph. What would end up happening actually on all those hits though is that I would go back in and do the drums over as the very last thing before mixing. I did that because the songs would morph into different animals. They would take on new directions and new feels. So I’d go back in and we’d just hone in on that. There were no click tracks or drum machines in those days, so you just had to put the cans on, crank it up, take out the drum track, and go for it. I would listen to everything and respond to it. I would have an arrangement in my head. I wouldn’t spend days on this stuff either. It would be maybe a couple hours and I would just nail it.
Was the lack of a click track what made your style so loose and funky?
I don’t know man. It was what it was. There were metronomes at that time and some people used them. In fact I remember trying it on one or two songs, but for the most part we left it out because threw up barriers. Sometimes it compromised the feel having that machine in there. It took something away. You just had to sense when it did and when it didn’t. If it was there we knew it right away. We were very conscious of feel.
That element that is hard to put your hand on that’s in a recording is the magic. Sometimes it could even be a variation of time, which is something you really don’t want to do when you’re recording. That clock has got to be there man, but on the other hand there is a place where it’s not. We had a name for it; we called it “heartbeat.” When you listen to a heartbeat it’s got a time, but sometimes it goes up a little and sometimes it goes down a little. It’s an interesting thing because as a rule the tempo has to be there. You listen to the records today and that clock is there. With most of our stuff the time was there as well and it was solid, but there were places where there is this variation of feel that doesn’t have a sophisticated and intellectual explanation. It’s never been challenged because if the meter isn’t there, what are you going to call it? Bad meter! “You slowed down, you sped up. Get out of here man.” But there was a place where it lived to where it was a dominant thing and it was important. I don’t know what else I can say about it. That’s what we did.
The Stand! record really catapulted the band to huge stardom. Did any of you know that these recordings would take you to that next level?
I remember with “Sing A Simple Song” for instance that the track was laid so down to the bone and we all knew it was. You could feel it. Me and Larry especially would say, “When that shit comes down, that’s going to be it.” I mean, we didn’t have any idea as to where it would all end up or to the scope of how it touched music and the big picture. We just knew it was some cool shit and couldn’t wait for everybody to hear it. There was no way to anticipate what our music ended up doing. I think if we had that prevalent on our minds, it would have gotten in the way of what we were doing. We were just digging it, doing it, and creating it.
Shortly after that record you have Woodstock. What was the lead-up to Woodstock like and what were you thinking going into it?
In the beginning when it was first presented to us, Woodstock was just another muddy outdoor festival that you really didn’t want to do [laughs]. You knew it would be dusty and hot or it would be raining and you’d get electrocuted. It was like, “Oh no, not another one of these!” A lot of people didn’t want to do it and even bowed out. But our manager at the time talked us into it. Of course we had no idea of the scope of what was about to happen up until about the day-of. It was a three-day festival, so we kind of got an idea, but you really couldn’t comprehend the heaviness of what was about to take place until you got there. You’d hear a couple days beforehand about this big traffic jam going to this concert out in the woods of upstate New York. Then they shut down the highway. As the hours went on you just kept hearing this thing develop.
Not until flying over the cusp of the hill in the helicopter and seeing this fog in the valley fade into this mass of people did we really see it. Then landing and smelling the pot and vibe of these people—it was really incredible.
We were scheduled to go on at 8pm of that Saturday night, which was a couple days into the event. Sunday was the last day. So naturally it was behind schedule and things kept getting changed. I remember we were ready to go on at 8pm and Michael Lang came back saying we were being pushed back another hour. Then at 10pm it happened again and again until it was 3 in the morning. Going on at 3 in the morning is one thing, but then considering if you’re conscious and you’re able to think still especially because there was a lot of acid going around and all that stuff. We were very much conscious of the fact that these people had been sitting out there being rained on, being sunned on, 110dB sound levels and all that for three days now. It was raining and it’s three in the morning and you have to go out and perform. They’re all in their sleeping bags hunkered down to protect themselves from the rain and probably going, “Who cares anymore. Fuck you, lets leave.”
There is also this toll of your adrenaline levels getting pumped up to go on and then you don’t all the way until 3am. So we just looked at each other, grabbed each other’s hands, and said, “Let’s just go do our thing and do it the best we can.” That’s all we could do. Fortunately by about the third song, we got everybody to come out of their bags and tents. By the third or fourth song there was unbelievable energy being transferred between the stage and the audience. When you watch the movie you can feel it. It’s funny looking back and knowing it was 4am three days into the festival.
After that experience, what changed for you as a band?
Woodstock was a significant event of the day. It got a lot of press and a lot of presence worldwide on TV and in the news. I would say there were two major things—Woodstock and a primetime television show spot with Ed Sullivan. In those days there were three networks; there wasn’t 500 cable channels or the Internet or anything like that. So when you did one of the networks at primetime, it changed your life. The next day everything changes. It’s like, “Why all the attention? I was doing the same thing yesterday and nobody noticed.” It was a very powerful thing and I think that was a part of making the magic. It made Elvis Presley, it made The Beatles, it made that element happen. It made that magic, but it will never happen again. There will be stars, but not like that. It was a moment in time when the stars lined up. That is gone now. There is and there will be something else, but that is gone.
Words by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)