Wanted: James Gadson's Drums

Some nights he takes medication to sleep. Because he lies awake, trying to figure out who took his drums, his mics. Who took a?
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Are you the thief? Probably not. But, maybe, you know a guy who knows a guy who took James Gadson's drums. Or, maybe, you bought the drums...unaware that they were stolen -- stolen from a legend.

"They took all the punch out of me. I didn't feel like playing," James says.

Not the words I expect from the musician who created, propelled and sustained the rhythm for a dazzling array of artists: Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Aretha, Smokey, Beck, Paul McCartney -- so many names. So many hits. Give a legend his due. I mean, the man played on "Reunited" by Peaches and Herb, and "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor! His drumming is the heartbeat beneath the words: "As long as I know how to live, I know I'll stay alive." The heartbeat you've danced to! Yet, I doubt there is a more humble legend than James Gadson.

We met, about a year and a half ago, at a recording session -- mine. We hit it off instantly, when I divulged that I had recorded the rhythmic pattern of more than a hundred hummingbirds, in the shrubs along the bluffs, in Santa Monica.

I am far away from the hummingbirds; I am in Paris, writing new songs that James will enhance. Occasionally, I scan Facebook...briefly, so it doesn't eat up -- feast on -- my writing time. A post by James disturbed me enough to phone him.

"I woke up, one morning, and I had a premonition," James says, from the scene of the crime. He was asleep in the city he's called home since 1966 -- Los Angeles -- the city where, the very next year, he made his first record with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. James' premonition kicked him out of bed, as he thought: "I better check my equipment."

He stepped outside his house in South Central. 37 years he's lived on the edgy edge of Inglewood without a problem. But he went straight to his studio in his former garage and, immediately, looked for his microphones. The Neumann U87, inscribed with the name of his production company, GATOON, the mic that he'd purchased in the 70s...it was gone.

"They don't make 'em like that anymore," James says. "It's a different formula now."

Two Neumann KM 84s were also missing (with their expensive cases) along with an AKG 414, an AKG D12, and an Electro Voice microphone...all from the 70s.

"They only made a few of them," he says. "I used them on Zoom, in the early 80s, a record I produced that charted. I'm working on my own album now." Sadness mutes the tone of his voice, altering the volume to barely above a whisper. "I planned to use them on it."

Three days after the burglary, he realized that more of his equipment was missing. But it wasn't until a week after he filed a report with the police that he looked inside all of his drum cases. Two snare drums, made especially for James in the early 90s in Japan, pearl snare drums--gone.

"I used those with Beck. They had a brilliant sound," he says. "It was like someone who had a Stradivarius stolen."

Three Drum Workshop snares, which he endorsed, were also stolen.

"I used those with Beck, too...used them on a lot of top name recordings," he says. "I would take those snares to the sessions."

He pauses -- like he's remembering some of those sessions that he and his drums embellished with symbiotic brilliance.

"I have another drum kit that stays at a cartage service. But the ones that were stolen...I had them tuned in a certain way. Broader...deeper. You get a close feeling with them."

When a musician is separated from a treasured instrument that he or she has been making music with for years -- the loss is deep, intimate, like losing a best friend. Or a lover. (Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn called his beloved six-string his "first wife.")

"Those snares were dear to me...special," James says. "I was ossifed...out of it."

I feel his hurt. All the way from Los Angeles to Paris, I feel it. I explain that I lost my voice for a couple of months, about three years ago -- the complicated residue of a bad cold. When I couldn't sing, the me that I knew myself to be was diminished.

"Exactly. My instruments were such a part of me," James says. "When I filed a report with the police...they just told me to check the pawn shops."

They didn't even dust for prints. James confronted a couple of logical suspects. But they denied it.

"The police ran a make on the guy...said it's my word against his."

The other suspect is, unfortunately, a relative.

"People nowadays really don't care...they just want a feel-good situation," James says. "I'm sure it was somebody who knew me. I know somebody knows something."

Two sets of drums in his studio were not stolen.

"Those they didn't take 'cause I could see them when I came in."

It was also fortunate that the console, which once belonged to Smokey Robinson -- used when the Motown artists came to California -- wasn't taken. There is quiet on the line between Los Angeles and Paris until James says: "One of the snares was a Miles Davis snare."

Miles. His name was engraved on it.

"Miles' nephew presented it to me. Whoever took it, probably couldn't have gotten rid of it in a pawnshop."

James checked with the pawnshops.

"Pawnshops," he says. "They're not gonna be all the way up front with you. Different people say different things."

Someone on Craigslist had a Neumann U 87 for sale...but the picture posted was of a different mic.

Hinky. The cops thought so...enough to entice the seller. But the guy was in Lancaster, out of their jurisdiction.

"He tried to sell it for $2,800...and went down to $2,000. Then he took it off Craigslist. This is so painful for me -- my tools...my lifeline. I'm hoping I'll get a lead on something."

He changed the locks on his studio; and when he leaves his home, he locks everything.

"I still...some nights I don't sleep."

Some nights he takes medication to sleep. Because he lies awake, trying to figure out who took his drums, his mics. Who took a part of him?

"I read my bible every night before I go to bed. What can I do if all the evidence says that someone did it...if they say they didn't do it?"

One of the suspects left his clothes at James' house but he never came to get them. Maybe it was good that he didn't come.

"I have certain feelings...I just pray 'em off," James says. "I did some recordings since this happened. The only time I'm able to not think about it -- is when I'm working."

My conversation with James is on my mind as I sip espresso in a Paris cafe. "Bien sur, bien sur, bien sur," a French woman says to her boyfriend, as she eats creme brulee at a nearby table. I am suddenly aware of the repetition of two other words, faintly in the background. Bill Withers is on the radio, singing that great two-word bridge of "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." I imagine a video, I saw on YouTube: Bill performing the tune...repeating the two words -- "I know" -- twenty times to James' hypnotic groove. It is a sad song, but the rhythm of that bridge is joyous. So is the expression on James' face. Because the rhythm stems from him. He is the rhythm, the pulse, the sustainment of emotion in Bill Wither's words. James communicates his rhythm, in eloquent detail, to his drums. He trusts his drums; and his drums trust him.

"I know, I know, I know, I know..." Bill Withers sings on the radio in Paris. As he sings the last "I know," I think of James Gadson's words to me:

"I know somebody knows something."


If you know something, please contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comment section below, and I will, gladly, pass your lead onto James.

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