Kenny Elliott: From Chicago to L.A. & the World Inbetween

BY Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
AUGUST 15, 2019

Kenny Elliott’s obsession with the drums was inspired by a marching band. His father had taken him to a downtown Chicago parade. That’s where Kenny became infatuated with the power of the marching band drummer. Being a small child and slight of build, Kenny expressed disappointment at being overlooked for the sports teams and often, found himself feeling powerless because of his size.

“The drums went marching bye and they had everybody in step and I said, that’s power! I was nine and shortly after that experience, I asked my dad to buy me some drums. He said as long as I was really going to play them, Santa would bring them to me for Christmas. So, Christmas morning, there was a drum set and I was disappointed. I had only wanted that one drum. The drum that I saw the drummer playing in the marching band. I thought, Oh shoot! This is not what I wanted. But I made a promise to my dad, so I may as well go ahead and play them. For the longest, I would put my belt through the lug of the Tom Tom and I’d march around. We lived in the Chicago Projects and I’d march in the front of the apartments and to the back of the apartments playing, brrr-rump-bump-bump, brr-rump-bump-bump. I’d go back and forth, up and down, playing that one drum.

“My first teacher was a piano teacher and he taught me how to hold the sticks. My dad would take me over to his house. He had two daughters and they would go running around while I was doing my lesson. Professor Randolph was his name. His favorite song was ‘Sentimental Journey.’ Anyway, I kind of hit the glass ceiling with Professor Randolph. One day, my dad brought this white guy over to the Projects to hear me play. I remember his name. It was Mr. Murray. Well, I played for him and he said, you need to send him to the conservatory. I was about ten. So, I ended up going to the American Conservatory of Music. It was next door to the Roosevelt School in Chicago. I got lucky. I studied with a guy named James Dutton. He taught me Timpani and Mallets and later, I studied with the legendary Harold Jones.”

NOTE: JAMES DUTTON was the Head of the Marimba & Percussive Department at the American Conservatory of Music from 1945 to 1985. Thurman Barker, an AACM member, also studied with James Dutton. Harold Jones, once a student at the American Conservatory of Music, would later be hired as an assistant to Professor James Dutton. In an interview, Jones credited James Dutton as one of three men in his life who prepared him to be the successfully famous drummer he has become.


Kenny continued, “Harold Jones is with Tony Bennett now. But he was with Sarah Vaughan for many years. He stopped teaching me when he left to go on tour with Count Basie’s band. I was so unhappy about that. When I’m about eleven years old, almost twelve, Mr. Dutton had these percussion ensemble things and they would play at various schools. My parents would let me get out of school to go on these little tours, because they felt I was pretty good at that age.”

Both Kenny’s parents believed in his budding talent. Kenny’s father recognized his son’s passion for the instrument. Consequently, he did everything he could to get his son the right training and to introduce him to some of the musicians around town. He thought these seasoned musicians might be able to give the budding percussionist some insight into his instrument and into the business of music.

“Once dad knew I wanted to play drums, he was stoked. He did everything he could to get me around the right people. He had some friends who were musicians and we’d go over to their house every Monday night. They’d be drinking their liquor and they’d let me have as much potato chips and pop as I wanted. I had to play with those guys. They were like thirty and forty years old. You know, I’d be over there playing from like nine at night to twelve or one-o-clock in the morning. They’d be screaming at me, Play! Play! So, I’m playing hard and loud. Out of that affiliation, I ended up meeting Red Saunders. Somehow, they got me playing with the Red Saunders’ band. They would have me come on-stage at the famous Regal Theater and play one song with the big band,” Kenny recalled. “I was like the little drum prodigy.”

NOTE: RED SAUNDERS was a popular bandleader for Savoy Records in the late 1940s. He was a drummer and accompanied popular recording artists of the day like Blues icons T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner, Sugar Chile Robinson, Rosetta Tharpe and Lavern Baker. He recorded under his own name for many years. Saunders finally had a hit record when he recorded a traditional children’s song, “Hambone” on the OKeh record label in 1956. He also played in iconic bands like Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman.


“When I first was playing drums, I was playing jazz with the old guys. I was their drummer and one night, the police came in the club and started asking, Who’s this kid? This kid can’t be in here. The band would say, he’s the drummer. The older guys in the band thought, well maybe if I was in the Union it would be OK. So, they had me join the union and after that, when police came into the club and asked, what’s this twelve-year-old kid doing in here? Well, I’d reach in my pocket ‘cause now I’ve got my Musician’s Union Card. That card kept me from getting thrown out of the clubs. But mostly I was playing Cotillion Balls and weddings. I really wasn’t doing too many nightclubs. I’d make anywhere from fifty to a hundred dollars a gig playing Casuals.”

So that’s how Kenny Elliott became a Union member at age twelve. Ironically and sadly, jazz musicians are still averaging similar pay scales fifty years later. We all know that’s got to change!

“My dad had something to say about the money I was making on these gigs. If I made a hundred dollars, he would give me ten dollars and direct me to put the rest into the bank. I was pissed off by that at first, but I learned from that. I’m glad he did that for me. He showed me how to take care of my funds.

“Oh, let me tell you this real quick. Tammy Terrell wanted me to be her drummer. I was playing at the Regal Theater. I don’t know if she was just saying it to my dad or whatever, but she said, right in front of me, I want him to be my drummer. She told my dad she liked the way I played. My dad said, no, no! he’s too young. Tammy was so pretty. She had a valet, a lady that took care of her wardrobe and everything. I’d sit backstage with her valet and she taught me how to play chess. Tammy kind of treated me like my favorite aunt, who used to just dote over me like Tammy did. I was thirteen and Tammy was just doting over me and telling me how cute I was. I guess she thought I was this little, short, talented, cute guy. Boy, did I have eyes for Tammy Terrill,” Kenny Elliott laughed, remembering how the famous Motown artist fawned over him and stroked his young ego.

This journalist remembers Tammy Terrell when she was performing as a single artist, before her huge hit album with Marvin Gaye. I went to see her at the Fireside Lounge in Detroit. At the time, she was dating David Ruffin, lead singer for the Temptations. She was drop-dead gorgeous with a voice as compelling and unique as Dionne Warwick or Spanky Wilson. In fact, one day when Marvin Gaye and I were talking about Tammy Terrell, he compared her tone To Spanky Wilson’s tone. Marvin was enamored with Spanky’s voice. Tammy and Spanky were similar in tone, but not in style. I will always remember Tammy Terrell as a dynamic, one-of-a-kind vocalist, who left this earth way too early.

Kenny Elliott continued, “Still in my teenage years, I started playing R&B in the late 60s or early 70s. The Top 40 bands came after playing with the jazz cats. I was with this group called “SEX” the ‘Sound Experience Exciters’. We rehearsed every day. We played R&B and back then, most of the cats couldn’t read. We’d set up for rehearsal at an abandoned theater on 47th Street, right in the hood. We’d be in there rehearsing and it would feel like it was fifty degrees below zero in there. I’d have my gloves and coat on and we’d be trying to play over there, freezing our asses off.”

It wasn’t always easy, but Kenny was determined to pursue drumming as a career. He told me, “If it’s meant for you to do something, it will happen, regardless. But it’s a good idea to be prepared. When I was living in the projects, those people living there would be beating on the pipes trying to get me to stop practicing. They would call the cops on me for making noise. My dad would explain to them, by law, he can practice until seven-o-clock. So that was it and no arguments. I had to practice every day, even before I did my homework. My mother was tough. If she didn’t hear me playing the whole time, she would add on time. She’d say, I don’ t hear nothing. I’d say, mama, I’m just turning the page.

“Every summer, we would go to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit my grandparents. My grandfather hand-built his house down. Later, he had to build another house across the tracks because the government took his land to construct a TNT plant during the war. He built an attic on top of his house and they had a room up there, where I had to practice. It would be 199 degrees up there. It didn’t matter. My mother would say; go up there and practice. I’d say mom, it’s hot. It’s too hot. I’m burnin’ up. I’m complaining and she’d say; ok, I’ll tell you what. If you don’t want to practice, we can just get rid of the drums. So, I went back up to that smoldering attic and tried to practice. Then I came down, sweat pouring off me, and I said to my mother, ok, – call dad. Get rid of the drums. I can’t do it no more. She said, come here. She grabbed me and ka-pow – ka-pow. She ka-powed me with a house shoe. Now, you have to go up there and practice another hour, she demanded. But you know what? To this day, I thank her. When I tell this story today, she conveniently doesn’t remember.

“My mom was not to be messed with. In fact, she pulled a gun on this dude trying to rob me one time. I was taking drum lessons and to show you how great my percussion teacher was, he paid for me to take Judo lessons with his son. So, one Saturday, on the way to my Judo lesson, this dude tried to rob me. I gave him a Judo kick. He bluffed me when he said, oh, you know that too? So, I thought maybe he knew something better than me. But I still wasn’t going to let him rob me. We’re on the sidewalk, brow beating each other, blah blah blah, sizing each other up. It was not far from my house. I looked out the corner of my eye and I see our neighbor go sliding into our front door. A few minutes later, I see my mama come out the house in her housecoat and house shoes. All you see is her calves sticking out from her bathrobe and she walked up on us with a serious expression on her face. She pulled out her pistol. What are you doing to my son? The dude starts freaking out. She’s telling him she’s going to blow his head off and he and I are looking at her and then at the gun and back to her. He wasted no time getting on down the road. So, right then, if there was ever a time when I really loved my mom or had any doubts that she really loved me, I had no more doubts. I have two sisters but I’m her only son. We learned early on, my mama don’t play.“

Kenny Elliott admired the awesome playing of iconic drummer, Tony Williams. He shared with me a chance meeting he had with Tony.

“For the longest time, I was a tony Williams clone. I wanted to play like Tony Williams. And yeah, that was good. But at some point, you recognize there’s only one Tony Williams. I bumped into Tony at the drum shop one day. He saw me and recognized me, because I would come to his shows when he was playing with Chick Corea and Stanley Clark. While we were both there, somebody at the drum shop gave Tony two drums; a marching drum and a snare drum. So, he said to me, Hey Ken, are you driving? I said yeah. I got a motorcycle. That’s all I got,” I was apologetic.

“He said, yeah, that’s ok. Can I grab a lift? I was surprised. So, He put the snare drum in between us. He’s holding on to me with one arm and he’s holding onto the other drum with the other hand and we’re headed to Chicago’s North side on this motorcycle and it started raining. I said to myself, OMG. I remember thinking, you have to be extra, extra, extra careful! That’s all I need to do is to crash this bike and kill both of us. HEADLINES: Tony Williams killed on a bike with some unknown drummer. I said damn. I don’t want that to happen. We made it, but that scenario truly scared me.”

As Kenny Elliott paid his dues and worked his way up the ladder of success, he was offered a great opportunity to become a staff drummer with Brunswick Records.

“Brunswick was located down there on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. My friend, the bass player, Bernard Reed, was working there. Bernard is the bass player on that Red Holt hit record that Barbara Acklin wrote, ‘Soulful Strutt.’ That’s not Red Holt on that record. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s my friend Bernard Reed and a guy named Quentin Joseph. They were staff musicians over at Brunswick who laid those tracks down.”

“Bernard liked the way I played. I might have been about nineteen when I wound up at Brunswick Records. Bernard brought me under his wing and really showed me how to play in-the-pocket. Before that, in those days I was trying to be like Elvin Jones and Billy Cobham. Bernard was saying no, no! Just play two and four. It was kind of beneath me at first. Because man, I’m thinking I did all this studying and now I’m just going back to this simplistic beat. But I had to learn. I was doing sessions that required that type of playing. And Louis Satterfield took me under his wing too. Satterfield taught Verdine how to play bass. At Brunswick, I would do little sessions here and there. I’d have to sit around until the writers would say, hey we got this song we want to lay down. I only did a few little records over there. I met Tom-Tom 84 at Brunswick. Tom Tom 84 was the arranger for Earth Wind and Fire. And Bruce Swedien was the engineer at Brunswick Records. Bruce Swedien did all those Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson Records.”

NOTE: Grammy-Winning producer/engineer, BRUCE SWEDIEN is legendary and has engineered or produced for such artists as Diana Ross, Nat King Cole, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and has wonderful information to share about engineering during his interview at a Full Sail University ‘live’ interview, covering 1952 to the present time.

“Louis Satterfield was mostly known for working at Chess, but was also at Brunswick Records along with saxophonist, Don Myrick,” Kenny recalled.

NOTE: Don Myrick was one of the founders of Chicago’s AACM group (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and was an original saxophonist with Earth, Wind and Fire’s famed horn section from 1975 until 1982 when he was murdered by a Santa Monica, California policeman during a drug raid on his apartment. In 1995, a wrongful death suit was finally settled with his family by that Southern California city for $400,000.

“I also saw Master Henry Gibson around the Brunswick studios. He was the percussionist on a lot of those Curtis Mayfield Records and he worked for Curtom Record.”

NOTE: Master Henry Gibson was celebrated as the most recorded percussionist, appearing on over 1200 albums during a four-decade career. He was not only a popular studio session player, he also toured and/or recorded with such iconic artists as Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, pianist, Tennyson Stephens, jazz singer, Azure McCall, The Staple Singers, Sonny Stitt, Bennie Green, Ahmad Jamal, Kool & the Gang, and the Rotary Connection featuring Minnie Ripperton’s angelic voice.

Kenny Elliott had the pleasure of working with R&B soul singer, Walter Jackson, who I used to go see in person in Detroit. He sang heartfelt songs, propped-up on crutches. Kenny also worked with Syl Johnson, Aorta and the Thunderfunk Symphony. He accompanied pianist Ken Chaney, great guitarists Phil Upchurch and Pete Cosey. Cosey played with Miles Davis. As Kenny played with various recording artists, he honed his skills, leaning to play diverse musical styles on his trap drums.

“At a point, I hit the glass ceiling in Chicago. My good friend Larry Ball and Vince Willis and another guy named Bryan came out to Los Angeles to perform in the stage play, The Wiz. I said I’m going to take a vacation, since I have some friends in California. So, I came out to visit, and said Oh shoot! I was so impressed. My friend, Vince Willis, did some sessions and he had me play on a few. That’s where I met Romeo Williams, a bass player. After my short vacation, I went back home to Chicago. But I knew I couldn’t stay back there.

“One day, Romeo alerted me that his roommate was moving out. He said, you can move in with me if you come back to L.A. I was all in. I got rid of what I could. I sold my car to my cousin and I came back out to L.A. in 1977 with $400 in my pocket, my tux, and my drums.

“Romeo turned out to be a cool roommate. He would get a gig and he’d say, call Kenny. We played with Johnny Hammond Smith together. I was known as a drummer who could read. That was sort of my forte. That got my foot into several doors. I met Paul Jackson Jr. back then. I think Paul was about fifteen. We went over to Paul’s parent’s house and they would feed us on Sunday. ‘Cause, as struggling musicians, we didn’t have no money. What little bit of money we hustled up went for the phone bill first, rent next, and that was it. We went hungry a few times. Growing up in the projects, as a kid, we still never went hungry. But I went hungry a few times in Los Angeles.

“We used to play these demo sessions over at Jobete Music, located on Sunset and Argyle, up in that tall, Motown building. We lived in Inglewood at 81st street and Vermont, where Pepperdine University used to be. We got to be the staff musicians at Jobete. But neither me nor Romeo had a car at the time. So, for the longest, we took the bus to Motown’s building. Romeo knew this girl that we met at the church we attended. We went to the same church that Paul Jackson Jr. went to and that’s where I met Paul, his sister and his whole family. He’d go on to become a big guitar star some years later.

“Romeo and I would get up in the morning, take the bus to Hollywood, borrow Tina Madison’s Volkswagen and drive back to Inglewood. We’d jam the drums, the bass and the amp into that Volkswagen, drive back to the studio in Hollywood and set up. Then, we’d sit around, waiting for the staff writers to say; OK, we have a song. We’re ready for you guys. We only got like fifty dollars a song and we had to wait two weeks to get paid. But we were doing what we loved and squeaking out a living. We’d play two songs, maybe three songs, maybe four songs. Then, we’d break our instruments down, ‘cause we couldn’t leave our stuff there. We’d Drive back to Inglewood; unload the stuff, then drive back to Hollywood to give the car back to Tina. We’d trudge back to the bus stop and take the bus home to Inglewood. Phew.”

During that time, Kenny’s credits grew at a tremendous speed. People loved his good attitude and his ability to play various styles. Additionally, he was a fast chart-reader. Not only was he a staff drummer at Jobete, the publishing arm of Motown, he also flew up North, to San Francisco and became involved with the Fantasy Record Label and CBS/Sony Records. Between 1978 and 1981, Kenny Elliott played on the albums of “Finished Touch” (Motown), Rance Allen (Stax), “Pockets” for Columbia Records, Bobby “Blue” Bland” (MCA Records), the girl’s group, “High Energy,” (Motown), James Cleveland Presents John Springer & Bread, (Savoy Records), Martha Reeves, (Fantasy), Tavares, (Capitol Records/EMI) and Kimiko Kasai (CBS/Sony), to name just a few. On “Sweet Vibrator” you can hear Kenny Elliott’s strong sense of funk and blues backing up Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.

“In 1978, I got busy. I met this guy named Herb Jimmerson and his wife Vi. He was a staff producer up there at Fantasy records. They introduced me to another producer, Hank Cosby. They became real family to me and Romeo. We became real good friends. We used to go over to the Jimmerson-house on the weekend and just hang out. Hank was kinda like family too, but you know, Hank was doing his own thing. I did a track for “Lord of the Rings” where I got to play Tipanis and all that kind of orchestrated stuff. I cut tracks for a lot of other records and picked up some television shows. They were variety shows like the NAACP Award Shows. I did a few of those and that show that Lou Rawls used to host, The United Negro College Fund variety show. I performed on the Johnny Carson Show, the Jimmy Kimble Show and the Graham Norton show in London for the BBC. H.B. Barnum took me under his wing too. He was the conductor/arranger on some of those shows. A lot of my work came because I could read and I could play different styles. I play jazz, funk, Latin and several different styles. That was my forte. When I was going to the conservatory in Chicago, they stressed that I had to learn to play it all. They said, you don’t have to be great at everything, but if you play it all, then you’re always going to be working. Turns out, that was true.

“I’ve worked with some great folks; Lionel Richie, Mel Torme, Aretha was pretty amazing. I did a live album with the L.A. Mass Choir. That was a brutal session. It lasted all day. There was a lot of hard playing, because they were singing energetic gospel songs.”

Suddenly, Kenny sings the drum line to me at a very up-Tempo rhythm. “If I dropped a stick or something, that would have been so wrong,” he chuckles.

“Natalie Cole was really good, and I played with Joe Cocker. I even worked with Phyllis Hyman, who I thought was an amazing vocalist. She was beautiful and tall. But this one time, she had her background singers crying. I mean, literally crying. She had a mouth like a sailor. She was screaming at them. We did a gig over in Century City and she was explaining something to the background singers. Anyway, she was mad about something. Ms. Hyman was cussing those singers so loud and wrong, my neck jerked around. She would make a sailor blush.

“I got to work with Patti Austin and James Ingram; Ashford and Simpson in England at the Wembley Stadium, where I was the house drummer. That’s how I got to work with Jonathan Butler too. Al Green was great to work with, but I have to say the best artist ever was Aretha. She did the whole nine yards. She left me speechless.”

Kenny’s musical journey has been rewarding. More recently, he has recorded with and played numerous concerts with Kansas City pianist, singer and legendary icon, Betty Bryant.

Additionally, Kenny Elliott has recorded with The Ink Spots, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the great vocalist, Carl Anderson, gospel singer, Vicki Winans and Los Angeles based guitarist, David T. Walker. He’s accompanied The Impressions, R&B crooner, Freddie Jackson, the smokin’ hot girls’ group, En Vogue, the mother of jazz singers, Ella Fitzgerald; pop singer Helen Reddy, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, the great Stevie Wonder. His drums have complimented the historic Ray Charles and even songbird, Nancy Wilson.

He has also enjoyed worked with a host of Southern California talent, including studio engineer and trumpeter, Nolan Shaheed, bassist, Brandino, (Kevin Brandon), and he’s recorded several albums with guitarist and band leader, Yu Ooka. He’s played in the legendary Bennie Maupin band, “Pulsation,” and accompanied Linda Hopkins.

Kenny Elliott has even played in Count Basie’s orchestra and has worked with the local Luckman Jazz Orchestra, the Elliott Caine Sextet and Jeff Goldblum with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. I’m proud to say Kenny even has worked with this journalist and is playing drums on my last CD title, “Storyteller.”

As a percussive educator, Kenny Elliott enjoys passing the baton, (in this case the drum sticks), to a host of young, talented musicians. He shared some encouraging thoughts.

“Just follow your heart and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do the things you really want to do. Stay positive; be creative. It’s good to try and follow the trend, but you have to set your own trend and do your own thing. Like my mother used to tell me, practice!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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