Inside the Music: The Life of Idris Muhammad
Idris Muhammad with Britt Alexander
In popular music, particularly before musicians' credit listings became the norm on records, drummers and really all rhythm section stalwartsworked in obscurity no matter how brilliant their playing was. A case in point is the legendary New Orleans funk/soul/jazz drummer Idris Muhammad
(or Leon Morris
prior to his conversion to Islam). Known more for his snaky, unpredictable, super-funky grooves than for jaw-dropping chops or lengthy solos, Muhammad's life story is nothing short of amazing. It's certainly worthy of a book. Perhaps two. Inside The Music
was initially conceived by drummer and music journalist Britt Alexander as a magazine article. After the initial interview, held in 1998, Alexander became intrigued with Muhammad's much-larger-than-life character. The interviews continued over several years, and eventually Alexander had enough material for a book. Wisely, he chose to edit and revise Muhammad's words as little as possible. The result is an unvarnished and eminently readable account of the great drummer's life, from childhood to the present day. Inside The Music
is a gritty and appealing true-to-life story of survival, resourcefulness, and creativity across several distinct sectors of the music business during the late 20th Century. The book is structured in a very interesting manner. Instead of a continuous narrative, Alexander has distilled Muhammad's tales into brief two-to-three page vignettes that concentrate on a particular aspect of his life. These are arranged chronologically and grouped under subheadingsalmost like tracks on a recordwith self-explanatory titles such as "The Neighborhood," "Roots of Rock'n'Roll," "Introduction to the Jazz Scene," "The Seventies," and so on. Much of the book describes his working relationships with other musicians, such as Ahmad Jamal
, Pharoah Sanders, Curtis Mayfield
, Jerry "The Iceman" Butler
, John Scofield
, and many others. He also details some of the finer points of his drumming style, and discusses several of his favorite recordings at length including his own Power Of Soul
Muhammad projects as a wizened elder and master raconteur. While he's not afraid to give himself credit when it's due, he also frankly recounts his missteps, including early brushes with criminality and drug abuse. The book traces a dizzying path from early rock'n'roll in his native New Orleans, to soul and R&B in Chicago, and into the world of jazz in New York City, culminating in a decade-plus spent as the virtual house drummer at Van Gelder Studios, where he appeared on countless classic jazz and funk sessions for Blue Note, Prestige and CTI.
The sheer number of hit records that Muhammad played on before he became a full-time jazz drummer is simply staggering. As a teen he played on the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo," Fats Domino
's "Blueberry Hill," and on Joe Jones
' "You Talk Too Much." These were followed by a steady gig with Sam Cooke
, with whom he recorded "Chain Gang" and "Wonderful World." His work with Cooke led him to Chicago where he became the drummer of choice for the Impressions, appearing on nine albums including their most famous songs: "People Get Ready," "Keep On Pushin,'" "Gypsy Woman," and so on. Muhammad's eventual gravitation towards disco during the mid-1970s seems a lot less surprising in light of his extensive background in soul, funk, and R&B. In fact, Muhammad makes it quite clear that he never considered himself a "true" jazz drummer. One of the book's most engaging passages has Art Blakey
placing Muhammad in a bear hug which he refuses to release until the younger drummer admitted that he was ..."one of us."
Colorful and replete with down-home New Orleans flavor, Idris Muhammad's behind-the-scenes tales virtually leap out at the reader. Like your favorite uncle, Muhammad is an opinionated guy and has a tendency to get up on his soapbox a bit, though he reins himself in before getting too didactic. His narrative rolls on, and never gets bogged down. Short on musical analysis, Inside The Music
is long on anecdotes and entertaining tales from bygone days of the music business that few have experienced. This is a fun read for all fans of soul, jazz and funk music, and one needn't play the drums to appreciate it.