Gerald Heyward on Landing Gigs & Michael Jackson

Gerald Heyward, regarded as the Godfather of gospel and R&B drumming, gave a clinic at this year’s Drummerfest at Cascio Interstate Music.

His performance was stellar, and his Q&A session gave us all an insight into his life as a touring and session drummer.

Gerald began playing in the church and went on to share the stage/studio with artists like Blackstreet, Janet Jackson, Missy Elliot, Puff Daddy, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, and Coolio.

After his performance, Gerald took questions and told stories of how he first landed touring gigs and even opened up on playing sessions for Michael Jackson.

Here are some of the questions from the clinic and Gerald’s answers.

How Did You Land Your First Gig?

Gerald Heyward Drummer at Drummerfest

“There was a guy named Aaron Hall, and Aaron Hall had got me an audition for a group called Guy — Teddy Riley, Aaron Hall, and his brother.

And he took this record that I played on, Hezekiah Walker’s gospel record, cause that’s the only record he’d ever sang on. 

So he took the record, and he let Teddy Riley hear the record. And Teddy Reily says, “who’s the two guys playing the drums?”

And he said, “nah, it’s one guy, my little cousin Gerald Heyward.” And he’s like, “nah, it’s not one guy doing that.”

Aaron Hall responded, “yeah it is, I’m gonna bring you to him.”

And he brought me to Terry Riley. And then, that became where I started playing R&B music. That was like, my first gig. I never auditioned, he just heard me play on a gospel record.

That’s how it all started. I didn’t even know you could get paid to play the drums.

So, it was an experience all in itself. Guy kinda looked out for me. You know, I’m the first of all the guys you see — Calvin (Rodgers), Thomas Pridgen, Aaron Spears, and all of the guys you see on the internet. 

I was basically the first one to bridge the gap between church and R&B pop and all of those genres of music. I was blessed to be the first to do that.

Living in New York, you’re just aggressive — like this is aggressive drum playing. It’s almost not subtle at all, but it’s subtle, but it’s aggressive.

In New York, it’s a big place, but it’s a small place. There’s a lot of people, so you’re always fighting for space. So with drummers, I’m always fighting to be heard. 

So what’s gonna make me sound different from the other million drummers that live here? 

I had to figure that out, and it was me being aggressive, like where I live, and that’s what everybody wanted, and that’s how it happened.”

How Do You Move Your Drums Around New York City?

“I’ve been blessed to not to have to carry drums. I went from the church to the stage. 

I actually show up and the drums are there. I’ve been blessed to skip from church, straight to the stage.”

What’s Your Approach Between Coming From Church to R&B?

Gerald Heyward Answering Questions

“In church, we play all the genres, and we may play them and don’t know we’re playing them because I haven’t had schooling with drums.

So, it may be a 6/8 song, it may be shouting, it may be a jazz feel, and I would replicate that off of what I was I listening to musically.

To me, I just kept the same approach, well, let me put it this way. I didn’t know how to play with a drum machine when I went from the church to R&B, so I had to learn that concept first. 

Which was just sitting there playing the part as it goes, and then, being me and embellishing. So I figured out if I could embellish like that, it’s just like playing in church.

You know, you’re holding time, doing what you do, and then, ah, you come out of the box, and then you’re back to the box. Right? The same concept, and that’s how I fit into R&B.

The way I was approaching their music — Mary, Beyonce, everyone was like, “there’s something different about how you play, and I love it!”

By the same token, they still gotta be able to dance. They still have to be able to sing and hear their beat.

So, over all of those months, you gotta figure that out. Now coming from church, they’re using machines, they’re using all the stuff that we’re using now in the world. You’re kind of prepared when you go out.

But, that was what I did. My concept was — I’m gonna figure out how to be me within doing what they need me to do. And that’s how it worked.”

How Long Were You With Michael Jackson and What’s Your Best Story?

“Okay, so Michael Jackson — I made drum samples for “Remember The Time.” I made all the sounds for that song. 

Then, “Rock My World,” I’m literally playing on that song; if you listen to the choruses, you can hear the hi-hat swinging, that’s me playing on that. 

I played on another song called “Privacy,” which is on that same record. I’m playing full drum kit on that one.

So, I met Michael a whole bunch of times being in the studio with the producers working the record — Teddy Riley, Rodney Jerkins, you know, all of those people were producing those records, and I worked for them.

So, I got the chance to meet Michael Jackson a lot, but he didn’t know what I did. Until one day, he was like, “who’s that playing the drums?”

“That’s Gerald.”

He’s like, “oh man, that’s crazy.” So I got a chance to talk to him about me playing on his records, but the craziest thing was, I didn’t wanna play on his records. I wanted to go on tour with him.

Because his tour drummer makes $25,000 a week. You heard me, right? His tour drummer was making $25,000 a week.

And, he was getting $500 every day to get something to eat.”

Laughter in the audience ensued.

“$500 a day, $25,000 a week. I wanted to go on tour with Michael Jackson. 

He was going on tour for eighteen months at a time. He was doing four shows a week. So, I was trying to get to that part.”

He continued jokingly.

“You know, and I told him, “Mike, I wanna go on tour with you. Forget this record thing, this is bull crap. I’m trying to get to the next level.”

I never got the chance to get there. 

But one thing, my friend Aaron Spears called me one day, and he said, “yo man, do you realize you’ve played for Michael Jackson?” And then he hung up the phone.

I called him back, “hey man, why’d you hang up the phone?” 

He said, “I’m sitting here thinking that none of us are ever gonna be able to say that. Now Michael Jackson has gone on to Heaven, and you have documented playing with Michael Jackson. 

That’s a big thing. I’m so overwhelmed and excited for you because you are a documented drummer that played for Michael Jackson.”

A lot of times I’m in these situations, I don’t think of it right then. I always think of it later on, like months from now, — like, “oh snap, I just played with Rob Thomas, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder.”

It was a blessing to be able to do those things with Mike and be a part of that stuff. And even though times are different, it’s not like when we played a whole song on the drums. 

It’s like four bars here, take that, loop it. Take that cymbal, hit it, swell it. But that’s the time we live in.

But hey, it’s Michael Jackson, nonetheless, so it doesn’t matter.”

Gerald performed a few more tunes before wrapping up the clinic at Drummerfest.

Gerald Heyward Playing Drums

His insight into touring and working with artists was inspiring to all those in attendance. Seeing a drummer crush it in person is so much more rewarding than watching a video on YouTube.

He briefly hit on endorsing drum companies and sponsorships, which is a super common question among younger drummers.

His stance, in a nutshell — play the gear you like to play. Don’t go after a company solely for free or discounted equipment.

For all drummers, whether you’re a beginner or a pro, it’s important to attend events like this one. 

Not only does inspiration help you’re drumming, but it also will ground you in realistic ways. You’re able to set more achievable goals if you see others out there living them.

I want to thank Gerald Heyward for coming to Wisconsin and providing a clinic for us, as well as Cascio Interstate Music, for hosting the event once again.

Follow Gerald’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/geestro/

Cascio Interstate Music: https://www.interstatemusic.com/

Nick Cesarz

Nick is a drummer, percussionist, and blogger from Milwaukee, WI. He toured extensively with Vinyl Theatre, opening up for acts like twenty one pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and more. Now no longer touring, his passion lies in gear and playing the kit as much as time allows.

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