Author: Tolleson, Robin
Date published: June 1, 2010
One of the great soul/funk bands of the '70s, New Birth had it going on in multiple ways-top-notch lead vocals, blistering rhythm section, great visual style, and slick grooves that worked on the dance floor but also caught the attention of fellow musicians. Because the group wasn't part of one of the big "soul factories" like Motown or Philly International, its name might not always bring immediate recognition. But the unique ensemble-a combination of previously existing bands whose membership reached seventeen at one time-left a lasting impression on those who came in contact with its music.
Among the listeners who took notice was actor/singer Jamie Foxx, who sampled New Birth's version of "Wildflower" for his 2005 hit "Unpredictable." As for the group's longtime drummer, Robin Russell, two generations of Blackwell timekeepers will attest to his percussive skills. John Blackwell Jr., of Prince and Justin Timberlake fame, calls Russell "one of the greatest funk drummers of our time" and adds, "My father [John Blackwell Sr., who played with the Drifters, the Spinners, and Mary Wells] played New Birth records all the time for me, from the time I was three. I would always say, 'Who is that drummer? Man, he's bad.' Robin always played in the pocket but was still able to express himself in a technical way without getting in the way of the music. If you don't know about Robin, check out songs like 'Wildflower,' 'Been Such A Long Time,' and 'You Are What I'm All About,' just to name a few. Much respect to Robin."
Russell and his two brothers grew up in Los Angeles, and there was always jazz and blues playing in their house. "It was common to come home from school to my mother cooking and listening to Miles Davis or Cannonball Adderley-just good music," Robin says.
After switching from sax to drums in twelfth grade, Russell began paying more attention to drummers and listening to the greats of the day. "I loved music as a whole," he says. "But once I switched, I really started listening to Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. When I wanted to hear rock I listened to Ginger Baker, Bonzo, and Mitch Mitchell. One minute jazz, the next rock, the next some blues, the next it's funk. I grew up with a very open ear, and that gives you more food for thought. Then you can kind of cross things over. You can play something that's in a funk bag, but depending on how it's structured you might be able to throw in some jazz licks here and there, or vice versa. If you can mix things up, it gives you more tools to work with."
The drummer's training on sax proved beneficial as well. "Along with rhythm, I understood melody and structure from playing the horn, so that gave me a little edge," Russell explains. "People tell me from time to time, 'When you play drums, you sound like a horn player.' Really? Okay. I could see it, because I do like to play melodically."
When he was nineteen, Russell was playing clubs and parties around Los Angeles. "I was still in my developing stage, still studying, just really learning. Practicing like mad." At a gig he heard that Johnny "Guitar" Watson was looking for a drummer. He took his drums to Watson's house and felt at ease with the blues and funk musician's sense of rhythm and sense of humor. "It was just like magic-instant click," Russell says. "We played for a few hours, just going at it, and I was thrilled. He was a genius, and I learned so much from him. A lot of people don't know what a good keyboard player he was. He picked guitar because he likes to be out front. The funniest guy, and I wouldn't trade the experiences I had with him for anything."
While playing with Watson, Russell was also able to study music and drums at L.A. City College. "Up to that point I was basically self-taught," he says. "I would put records on and play with them, just listen to people and play what I heard. But during that year I learned the rudiments and started applying them to the kit. One of the big guys on campus came into my practice room one day when I was working on paradiddles. He suggested I break up the paradiddle between the snare and torn. So I worked at it. And before I knew it, I was like, 'That's what I've been hearing Mitch Mitchell doing!' That was such a breakthrough. Johnny was already happy with my playing, but once I started applying the rudiments, he just went nuts."
A short stint with Little Richard led Russell to Louisville, Kentucky, where, in 1963, he joined up with the Nite-Liters, helping that group forge hits like "K-Jee" and "Afro Strut." "I always wanted to make that band as exciting as Chicago, give it that same kind of pulse," the drummer says. "So on some of the tunes my approach is to hit all the accents with the horns-play leading into the accent, hit the accent, and then lead away from the accent."
In 1972 the group reorganized under the direction of producer Harvey Fuqua and became New Birth. The gig demanded that Russell reach back to Motown-esque grooves, tight disco/funk and soul, and occasional psychedelic fusion chops. "We were in New York after we cut 'Got To Get A Knutt,'" Russell recalls. "One of the engineers heard some of it, and he said, 'Oh, yeah-is that Billy Cobham on drums?' That kind of blew me away, because I never thought I sounded like him. Maybe some of the fills made him feel that way. That was a big compliment."
On the tune "Comin' From All Ends" Russell crafts a pumping disco/funk beat with an opening and closing hi-hat. "Diamond, the drummer from the Ohio Players, and I were real good friends back then," Robin says. "One night after a gig we were talking, and Diamond told me he heard this drummer playing a song and opening and closing his hi-hat all the way through. That sounded kind of interesting, and I kept that thought. Shortly after that, we were in the studio working on 'Comin' From All Ends,' and this light went on in my head, saying, 'Try that lick.' I put a couple 16th notes in before I open it, like 'ch-ch-chee, ch-ch-chee.' When disco hit a few years later, I was saying, 'I've been playing that beat for years.' That song is just absolute funk."
New Birth went through many lineup changes over the years, but a version of the band featuring Russell, lead vocalist Leslie Wilson, and Wilson's brother, background singer Melvin Wilson, began working together in 1994. "That's the nucleus of the group," Russell says, "and we still go out and gig. When I began playing with New Birth again, it was like, 'Hey, this is fun.' And it's still fun now. It's just amazing to strike up tunes like 'Wildflower,' 'I Can Understand It,' 'Been Such A Long Time,' 'Got To Get A Knutt,' 'Dream Merchant.' or 'It's Impossible'-those are the ones that are on every show. After all these years I see people still loving them. They hear the first two notes and they're up and roaring. That's a good feeling."
When he's not on the road, Russell can be heard playing in L.A.'s Griffith Park-his "haven"-at least once a week. He has made a habit of getting to the park before it opens and setting up m an area where his parents took him as a child. "I remember the hippies running around," he says, "people up on the stage playing, and as a kid I thought that looked like so much fun."
In the '70s Russell would set up near the merry-go-round in the park, but about ten years ago he found a quieter space, a piece of flat ground under an oak tree that's away from the crowds. "The park opens at five, so I started going at five. That is so magical. When I can get there and play as the sun is coming up, to be a part of the sunrise and get the energy right from the sun, it just blossoms into something.
"I can sit there for hours during the week with nobody around. That's when I get lost in my drums. I always felt like drums were made to be played outdoors. I'll turn on a tape recorder and capture what I'm doing, then I'll go home later and study it, see what I came up with."
A DVD of Russell performing in the park, Griffith Park Drum Sessions, Vol. 1, is available at the drummer's Web site. (Search Google for "drummer Robin Russell.") And Russell's self-produced CD, Drum Beats: The Griffith Park Series, Vol. 1, was recorded in the studio as, Robin says, "a documentation of one morning out there on the drums. That CD is a product of being up under that tree. It's become a ritual. The rangers know me now, people come back year after year to the picnic area near there. I let the kids play the drums if they're careful, and first thing I know they're bringing me a plate of hot food right off the grill. It's turned into a real fun experience.
"The more you play, the more you come up with," Russell continues. "Let yourself go. That's why I love to just sit down and play. Whatever's cooking on the inside, just let it cook. At the end of the day people will come up and say, 'Thank you for your music.' That really makes me feel good."