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.'"

Earlier, Gibson had become the rope in a tug-of-war between giants. "Donny Hathaway had been nursing this tune ["The Ghetto"] for six months," Gibson says. "He knocked on my door in Chicago and said, `Name your price.' But Curtis [Mayfield] had already made me an offer." The percussionist found time to grace both The Ghetto album and Mayfield's Check Out Your Mind LP, and he toured with both artists, but it was with Mayfield that he spent the largest chunk of his career, traversing the planet and cutting a number of albums with the R&B legend. "It was ten years of eleven months a year gigging," he says of the Mayfield years.

The apex, surely, came with the Superfly soundtrack in 1972. Although Mayfield had already contributed a bounty of brilliant work with his former group the Impressions, Superfly marked a new phase, earned a Grammy nomination, and provided an excellent forum for Gibson's percussive mastery. The percolating beats he laid to "Pusherman" and other tracks remain sonic evidence of Gibson's remarkable talents. Not only is his sense of keeping time perfectly honed, but his knack for timing elevates what would normally be background color to a full frontal assault. It is impossible to imagine Mayfield albums such as Superfly without Gibson's relentless rhythms. He knows precisely when to hold back, when to cut loose. "I met Stevie Wonder in a London hotel room," Gibson recalls. "And even he complimented Superfly."

...When I was in L.A. I worked with Minnie Riperton, Jose Feliciano, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chaka Khan...Jackie Wilson went around with a bullet in him and had to drink half a fifth to ease the pain before he went on-stage...I got to meet the Beatles once, and spent some time rapping with Ringo...

On a rainy Sunday night in 1986, Gibson was performing with Mayfield in Stockholm, Sweden, at the Hard Rock Cafe, when he met a woman named Anne. "I asked my mom," Anne says today. "She said, `You can't find love in this world today. Go and get him. Go and get him.' I took off from my work as a drama teacher, waitress, masseuse, travel agent, and writer to jump on the tour. We went to several countries right after the Stockholm show. He had to go back to Chicago in early December, and he called and asked if I could come over for New Year's, then to Curtis's house in Atlanta, then L.A. and Hawaii. I said, `Sure, I'll be right there.'"

The couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary in 1991 at a Sheraton in Stockholm. Champagne was being passed around when CNN broke the news of Miles Davis's death. On a recent Friday night Gibson is jamming wild at the Pasta Bongo, and his biggest fan sits at one of the tables on Lincoln Road, beaming. "After living twelve years in Honolulu and touring so extensively, two planes everyday, I had my choice of anyone," Henry Gibson says. "Every lady would be on her best behavior because you're a celebrity. None of that was a solution for me. That was my first time in Stockholm. After coming off the stage, something about her aura captured me. She unlocked so many mysteries of life. She's been the only person in my life for six years straight."

Nowadays the Gibsons divide their time by allotting a few months to stay at their home in Stockholm, some weeks at another home in Hawaii, and visits to "the fun, sun, and sand" of South Florida. Last year he spent five months at Sempers supporting a jazz voice-piano duo at the behest of fan/promoter Louis Canales. Gibson joined members of the Gipsy Kings for the Marlin opening and for shows at the Strand a few months ago. This week he was planning a trip to New York City to play the Apollo with Chaka Khan.

"Being a product of the ghetto and then seeing so much else of the world," he says, "I felt I needed to unlock some secrets about the universal language." He has. "When I was growing up," the 49-year-old Gibson continues, "I had a little rubber hammer, and I'd go around pounding on anything. They thought I'd be a carpenter. This was when I was coming up in school. My desk had eight different sounds. I'd have 30 kids quiet while teacher left, all of them listening to me play those rhythms on my desk. The teacher would open the classroom door quietly, then use his finger to tell me to come to him. All the other kids would laugh. The teacher made me sit outside."

The fallacies of academia, thankfully, did not thwart young Master Gibson's pursuit of the beat. "After Superfly," he says, "I ended up working with the Board of Education in Chicago. Oscar Brown, Jr., and I played every grammar school in Chicago. I met with some of my old teachers. They said, `You really did it, you really made something of yourself.' So I got the last laugh." Must be nice.

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