A DAY WITH LENNY CASTRO
A native of New York City, Lenny Castro moved to Los Angeles in
the late 1970s where he quickly established himself as a first call percussionist
in the prestigious Los Angeles studio session scene. Since then his
talents have taken him to work with artists such as Toto, Boz Scaggs, Al
Jarreau, David Sanborn, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Ricky Lee Jones,
Joe Sample, Randy Crawford and Bette Midler to name a few. His next
gig is to take him on tour around the world as part of Fleetwood Mac. This interview took place while on tour in Australia with Chris Isaak,
here is the result of our encounter.
AP: Lenny where were you born?
LC: I was born and raised in New York City of Puerto Rican background,
actually as they say 'Newyorican', if you want to be more specific.
AP: When did you start playing?
LC: I started as a child, I was playing bongos, then congas. I got my first pair of congas when I was five years old. At the time
I was listening to a lot of stuff on the radio, my parents listened to
a lot of music, jazz, latin-jazz, you know those were the days of Cal Tjader,
Mongo Santamaria, George Shearing. I grew up playing in the streets. God gave me a great pair of ears and I was able to pick up everything I
AP: Where you involved in developing traditional styles?
LC: I was playing a lot of traditional styles from Puerto Rico, Cuba,
I was listening to a lot of latin music. I was born in 1956, right
in the midst of that mambo craze that was going on in those days, everybody
was mamboing all over the place. The clubs were flourishing in New
York City like crazy, places like El Corso which was big club right near
my old neighborhood 'El Barrio'.
AP: Who were some of the players that inspired you at the time?
LC: My father Hector Castro was a keyboard player in the Latin circuit,
he used to play with Johnny Pacheco and I used to hang with those guys.
Later he put together his own group Conjunto Candela. Tito Puente
was from my old neighborhood, I used to bump into him a lot and many others,
players like Nicky Marrero and Orestes Vilato. I was in the circuit,
I grew up behind the Gonzalez brothers you know Andy and Jerry. The
main players I used to listen to were my mentor Armando Peraza, Ray Barretto,
Mongo Santamaria, those were the guys that really inspired me to play.
AP: When did you take up orchestral percussion studies?
LC: While at school in junior high school I was also studying classical
percussion, that’s when I really got into the reading and writing.
I had this great teacher Mr. Just who really believed in me, he helped
me buy my first real professional drum kit through the school, he got me
a scholarship to Mannes College which I went to. He knew that I had
some kind of talent and push me, went out of his way to help me succeed. As well as drum kit and latin percussion I studied all the orchestral percussion
instruments, mallets, timps, I also took part in percussion ensemble.
AP: Carlos Vega once told me a story about you playing glockenspiel
at a session and he thought “he is not just a bongo guy!”
LC: Ha, my brother, thank you for mentioning him, we were a big part
of each other’s life not just professionally but also personally, he was
the godfather to my first born and I was the godfather to his first born,
I miss him so much.
AP: So when did you make the move to Los Angeles?
LC: I was doing lots of things in New York, I was working in clubs,
doing classical percussion, playing jazz, doing Latino gigs. New
York at that time was a playground, everywhere you went there was some
incredible music going on, and I wanted to be a part of all of it. My Latin brothers were getting annoyed with me, they would say “why you
don’t stay with your latino brothers?” but I was running around digging
the rock thing, the classical thing, the jazz thing, everything, so they
thought I was a little strange. I was not denying my roots or anything,
I can’t, they are too thick in me, I was just looking for more information. I was playing with Melissa Manchester at the time and after a couple of
tours she wound up moving to Los Angeles. As I didn’t want to lose
my first big gig, I went home, got my parents’ blessings and moved to Los
Angeles. I was 19 years old, Melissa was very big at the time, she
had a hit called Midnight Blue and I knew that that was my foot in the
door. She was wonderful, she did everything for me, she still out
there, god bless her.
AP: And that gig led to your amazing career in the Los Angeles studios
LC: Yes her producer introduced me to producer Richard Perry who got
me in on a Diana Ross session that Jeff Porcaro was on. That’s where
we met, it was like we knew each other forever, he came to me and said
“you wanna a gig?,” I said sure and I went with Steve Lukather who was
18 years old at the time. We both played and we both got the gig. This was with Boz Scaggs who had just put out Silk Degrees at the time,
it was just out in the market, it had that big hit What Can I Say and
it was huge, we toured the world. Actually on that tour it was when
I met my wife the singer Paulette Brown who passed away four years ago,
I courted her on that entire tour. The band ended up staying together
for quite a few years. That also led to the Toto gig and the Los
Angeles session scene. I became part of the 'A team' in the scene,
it was a great thing. You know you can’t do it on your own, you have
to meet people that help your career along. I landed into the perfect
spot and I just went along with all that came with it. As long as
my playing was happening and I was grooving with everyone else I was doing
fine. I was very lucky.
AP: So what happened after Boz Scaggs?
I did lots and lots of session work. I started also working with
Ricky Lee Jones for a while, I started branching out, I worked with Toto
for a long time, in the studio and also live. I still work with them
in the studio. As a matter of fact I just played on their new album.
I played on some of their major hits Rosanna, Africa, Hold The Line,
oh it was a long time ago. You know I was free lancing and so when
they were not working I was able to off and do other gisg like Stevie Wonder
or The Crusaders, Joe Sample. Since I was not tied down to a record
or management company I got to play with lots and lots of different acts.
AP: Who were some of your contemporaries in terms of percussionists
that were working in the Los Angeles studios at the time?
LC: Paulinho Da Costa was around, Steve Foreman, Michael Fisher, Luis
Conte was coming up in the scene and also Michito Sanchez. There
weren’t a lot of heavy cats in the scene when I came out here, but things
started moving fast in the 70s as far as percussion is concerned.
AP: You know I use to love those Gon Bop congas that you played on
so many recordings, they sounded great.
LC: Oh I still have them, those old things, they were great drums,
they were good to me for a long time. Unfortunately though the company
Gon Bops at the time was not that player friendly and maybe because they
were burnt by some people they were not interested in endorsees as such
and so I ended up talking to other people. The company has gone now
but I think the Badilla brothers have come back with another line of congas under a different name, Cuban style, big belly, really nice drums.
In the 70s they were big, LP was just starting out making, and they were
making only fiberglass congas, I was after wooden drums. I have been
with LP now for many years now and they look after me around the world. They have been so great to me, they are wonderful people. Martin
Cohen was the one that was always talking to me about joining the company. He is a wonderful guy, I have the utmost respect for him. I also
endorse Paiste, I just got on with Vic Firth and also with Remo.
I have been using their new conga skins, they are really developing them,
they sound great.
AP: You have seeing a lot of changes in the professional music world
over the years, how is the studio scene these days in Los Angeles?
LC: You know is getting a little thin, even the orchestral musicians
who do all the movie stuff, they are also starting to complain now, because
is not only what is happening to the recording industry, but also a lot
of producers in the US are taking their work to other parts of the country
and also abroad. The music business that I used to know in Los Angeles
has gotten kind of thin out, there is still some work there but only for
the well established musicians. It will be even tougher for younger
cats now, very hard you know. In the old days you would go to a studio
and find a million cats going from session to session. I just did
a big band session for a Japanese producer, Peter Erskine was on drums,
all the great players were there and after we were all sitting around commenting
how long it has been since we’ve had a session like this, with all the
cats together, it was kind of weird almost. Now it seems like everyone
is at home, is like send me the file, send me the dat, nobody sees anybody
anymore, is like a bit ridiculous. But technology, there is no stopping
it, when the chip came in, the digital era, it opened up the whole area
and made it more accessible for people to do their own thing at home now,
it is a shame, I miss those old days, those full recording sessions, basic
tracks where everyone was there together, lot of fun. The industry
in such as flux at the moment and everyone seems to be waiting to see what
is going to happen. I have been very lucky, I have been working steadily
for a long time now. Pro Tools has kind of changed the whole complexion
of overdubbing, the overdubbing session. Like this recording I just
did, usually I would do the shaker part through the whole thing, but suddenly
I do eight measures and they say “that’s cool thanks.” I mean you
get paid anyway but its strange and you don’t get to learn the song, but
you have to really bend and kind of be open to all the changes, if you
don’t, you just don’t survive. It is unfortunate, but you have to
keep up, keep a good foundation a good basis and then move on. You
know because in any case without a good foundation the other stuff is not
really possible anyway, at least not properly.
AP: Is technology helping you in the development of your own writing
LC: Yes I carry with me a couple of programs on my lap top while
I am on road to come up with some ideas, it is just a vehicle to help me
write and keep developing some material. I am not a great engineer
and so I don’t have gear at home to record, I like my house just to be
my house, when I am home sometimes I rarely listen to music, I am a television
nut. I recently got married again and my wife is really helping me
realise a personal project, she really wants me to do my own album and
so she is pushing me to do it. She really believes in me, in my talent
and she is really pushing me to do a solo project. I am writing in
a kind of latin-jazz style with a heavy slice of funk in there, that is
where I live.
AP: What are some of the latest projects you have been associated
LC: I just did some stuff with Joe Sample, the new Tom Petty
album, I am on a new movie that Lalo Schifrin composed starring Steve Martin,
and in the last few months on this Chris Isaak album and international
tour. His band has been with him for many years, some of them for
something like 17 years. I just got in this because I just did the
new album. We worked in the States and now Australia, he has a loyal
following. It is the first time he has used a percussionist, I don’t
think he knew what a percussionist was before I came along. I remember
when I went to do the recording session, he looked at my set up and he
was like “what does that do?” oh that is a cowbell! “what does
that do?” oh that is a triangle! Some guys just don’t know. Mick Jagger is that same way too but he asks because he is really interested
in knowing more about a particular thing. I played some udus on the
last album and I had to sit down and give him a history lesson on the whole
thing. Right now on this tour with Chris Isaak I have to be careful
on my role in the band. What I do it adds a really nice flavour to
his music, but I have to be real careful not to influence the music too
much. Is like having to be there but not seeing, to be felt but not
heard, kind of like the invisible man! it requires a lot of discipline. The instrumentation I am using is quite simple it includes congas, timbales,
tambourines and maracas. I had to do a little research into the type
of sound the 50s rock era, rockabilly style had, what kind of percussion
was actually used, that along with a little imagination I must say it has
worked out quite well, but it has been a challenge.
AP: You know one area I really admire about your playing is the incorporation
of small percussion instruments such as your work on the Randy Crawford
version of Imagine, how did you develop those concepts and set ups?
LC: You know that all came from a guy name Ralph MacDonald who
started this style of playing when in the 70s he was the most in demand
percussionist in New York City. He worked on recordings with artists
such as Roberta Flack and all the CTI artists, he was one of the guys that
really influenced me. Then I also got into the playing of Airto Moreira,
his hand percussion was different, amazing stuff. There is that album
called Fingers on CTI, to me that is an incredible album, I still listen
to it, and is still fresh, it was a big influence. Others that influence
me were players like Eddie 'Bongo' Brown who did a lot of the Motown stuff. I mixed all those styles with what I learn on the street and what I learned
at school and created my own little sound and my own way of thinking.
AP: Do you get involved in educational clinics?
LC: I just did the PASIC Convention in Columbus, Ohio, a few
weeks ago, it was great, Dave Weckl was there, Terry Bozzio was also there,
it was my first time there. They asked me to do a clinic and it was
funny because they put me right in between Bobby Sanabria and Luis Conte,
they put me smack in the middle of them, and I’m like can you give me a
spot, you know with a little less pressure?
AP: How do you approach these clinics?
LC: I just started doing clinics recently, so I just do a very
loose kind of situation, I kind of try to read where the audience wants,
where they want to go, I do a lot of playing, I try to do as much playing
as possible, but I also do a lot of talking. From what I understand
a lot of clinicians don’t have a lot of real experience, I am talking about
the real true clinicians. They are good at what they do but I have
been in the studio and on the road for such a long time, I have a lot of
AP: Well you’ve had such an amazing career, so much information to
LC: People want to hear stories about Toto, Stevie Nicks, Ricky Lee
Jones, Joe Sample, how was it to go on the road with Boz Scaggs, stories
about Jeff Porcaro, so I am starting to find out that there is a place
for me in the clinic scene. Earlier this year I was in Finland and
did a couple up there, they were unbelievable. I was there recording
with a pop singer and I stayed for a week and apart from the recording
sessions they organised a couple of clinics for me.
AP: What percussion instruments and cymbals are you currently using?
LC: I use lots of different things, special bits that I have collected
over the years, all the LP stuff, and with Paiste I am into their 'Trash'
series, I also use cymbals for swells and also keep a couple of rides and
crashes and hi hats as I do get to do that in the studio from time to time. I come in and play a ride track or crashes and hi hat parts on top of existing
drum tracks. I started playing drums when I was about ten years old,
I always wanted to be a drummer but the hand percussion was always more
predominant in my repertoire. I still get to play drum kit, I did
a thing with Joe Sample which lasted for about seven years where I incorporated
a big set up which including a drum kit. I had pedals all over the
place and I could play congas and bass drum, it was a very unique set up
and I was lucky that I was allowed to try that for a while. There is a
cd out which showcases that, half of the cd I do and the other half of
the cd features Steve Gadd. It came out really great.
AP: What do you think of the changes and developments in world percussion
LC: Oh its great, you know there is a whole lot of new stuff, everything
is available now, is also because of the internet. There is more
information about world styles, is like everyone is able to get these things,
we have a world music category in the stores and is great because it
is really what it is, music of the world. All the cultures are mixing
together, it has also open up the world and develop more work for percussionists.
AP: How do you see the changes in the technical aspects of percussion?
As an example the technical developments of conga playing by Giovanni?
LC: I love Giovanni, I love what he does, but I also do my own thing
and concentrate on that. I know Giovanni is an incredible player,
he has hands from god you know, but there are also lots of things that
I do, and you know everyone has got their specialty, some more than others,
some are more focused on just one area. I am into learning more styles,
more instruments, in order to be in demand. For me in some of the
gigs I do I need to know not only the Latino style, but also timpani, mallets,
and many other things. But you know how it is, the more you know
the more you have to keep it up in order to keep it going.
For the second part of this article which includes a musical transcription
refer to the article PERCUSSIVE SOUNDS Lenny Castro Style.
© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine. My special thanks to Vennetta Fields.