Oh, Henry!

Master Gibson covers the world with unbeatable percussion

It must be nice to be able to kick back, relax, and recount glorious and memorable moments from a world-circling, who's-who-filling, three-decade-long spin around popular music's inner circles. So Master Henry Gibson does.

That screamy noise on Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto," that was little baby Lalah Hathaway...Curtis Mayfield is hanging in there, spoke to him a few weeks ago, he's in a wheelchair, which is an improvement, his voice is stronger now...you should hear my jams with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz, but those albums are impossible to find these days...

Fascinating and learnful, but not as nice as this: It's Friday night and the air is calm, the evening soft. The owners of fledgling Pasta Bongo have decided to try a new tactic, placing tables and chairs outside, actually on Lincoln Road, in front of the coffeehouse-turned-eatery, sandwiching the patrons between the musical act and the edifice.

A big man named Jason Jeffries cranks polyrhythmic multi-melodies on a keyboard rig, and sings strongly along. There are a couple of dozen or so beautiful-looking people sitting here, grooving, and a few of them will actually get up and dance on the street as a Quincy Jones bit or an early Sixties hit washes across the small crowd and fills Lincoln Road.

Next to the keyboardist, behind a fairly elaborate percussion set-up, Henry Gibson, dressed in a cazh long-sleeve shirt and tan slacks, is heaping magic on the groove pile. When Jeffries breaks "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," Master Henry watches him closely, silently, until the precise moment, and then slaps a small cymbal once. Very subtle. Very perfect.

...Chaka was in the studio when she got the word about Miles, that's the reason for the dedication she made to him, and I'll be going on tour with her soon...Al Green thought I was trying to steal his girl but we became buddies later...In 1966 I was getting hired to work on albums by Stan Getz, Ramsey Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Aretha Franklin...

Indications of little Henry Gibson's future resounded in a Chicago classroom - he was constantly slapping out rhythms on his desk. After acquiring a set of bongos at age ten, he moved up to playing in the launderettes that dotted his multi-ethnic neighborhood. Early street jams instilled a love for and knowledge of Latin rhythms, along with a passion for playing - on the streets, in buses, anywhere. He hooked up with a calypso singer called the Mighty Panther and tasted touring, traveling to Fort Lauderdale to play at the Tradewinds and the Yankee Clipper, hitting Vegas and Tahoe, spending a year in San Diego at the Barefoot Bar in Vacation Village, meanwhile avoiding the draft ("I thought I was going to have to trade my conga for a gun") through marriage, then heading back to Chi-town. "I used to jam with a guy named Julius, too," Gibson recalls. "We were always trying to top each other on the drums. But he got killed in Vietnam."

After returning to his hometown, Gibson jumped on Jesse Jackson's bandwagon - literally. "We'd play on the back of trucks at vote rallies," Gibson remembers. "We wore blue jeans with shirts and white ties. We'd go in churches, and people would see that we were wearing jeans in God's house, see us stack the reverend's chairs to make room for the band, and there'd be hate in these people's hearts, and we could feel that. I kept thinking of what Martin Luther King had just said in a speech. He established the practice of wearing blue jeans to refer to the working man, the common man, the regular laborer. That's why we wore jeans."

Most of his work with Jackson was "for the cause," meaning he didn't get paid for it. So he played other gigs, including work with bassist Lou Satterfield in a group called the Farrells. Gibson kept his drums in Satterfield's car, and one night the percussionist tagged along while his friend played a session at Chess Studio. During the recording, Satterfield stepped out of the studio and asked Gibson if he'd like to sit in. Since then, Gibson estimates he's played on a thousand albums, at least fifteen of which went platinum.

...From '68 to '70 I was working at Brunswick Studios, recording with the Chi-Lites, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Brown, Jr., Gene Chandler...It was Odell Brown who actually wrote "Sexual Healing," although few people know that and he's living homeless now anyway...KC of Sunshine Band fame got up and sang with us the other night...

Soon after his initial studio experience, Gibson became "Billy the Kid of recording," he says. "I was young, good, and cocky." He had the opportunity to work with the great pianist Oscar Peterson, and the session began as a head-cutting contest. "With my Afro-Cuban background," Gibson says, "I knew about phrases, I grew up challenging people, taking fours with people. I could make my fours sound like singing. Just say it before I play it. So Oscar played a line, and you know, he was one of the strongest pianists, he'd hit a note and it sounded like a hammer, his strength and power were so enormous. He'd break strings on a piano. But I repeated every phrase back, in time. He'd say, `Can you do it again?' and I'd say, `If you can do it again, I can do it again.'"

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