Smitty: I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming to Jazz Monthly for the very first time someone that I have admired for many years. He beats to the drum of a different groove and let me tell ya, he has got the groove. His latest record is called Servin’ It Up! Hot! And he knows how to serve it up strong. Please welcome the incredible and amazing Mr. Doc Gibbs. Doc, how ya doin’, my friend?
Doc Gibbs (DG): Yes sir, yes sir, doing well.
Smitty: All right. Man, it’s great to finally talk with you and, you know, I have always admired your music, your solo projects as well as some of the great artists that you have worked with over the years.
Smitty: You’re from Philly, right?
DG: Born and raised in Philly and began playing some years ago with a local band. Actually, I started out playing in the junior high school and high school bands and eventually found my way to a local band and we worked around the city for a while, and at some point I decided it was time to make the move to New York in terms of just playing with artists on that level, so I started going to New York and sitting in with different groups and different artists, and one thing led to another and I was playing with George Benson, and I would only get called to do gigs with George if it was close to Philly, like Baltimore or New York. So I was playing with George at Carnegie Hall and Grover Washington [Jr.] was a guest artist on the set with us.
DG: And so I knew Grover was gonna be performing in Philly a few weeks after that, so I asked him if I could come and sit in with him in Philly, and he said “Yeah, come on down.” So I went down and sat in with Grover and he said “Man, if I get an opportunity to hire you, I’m gonna call you.” And about six months later, “Mr. Magic” became a hit and he called me and the rest is kinda like history.
Smitty: (Laughs.) That’s a very cool story because those two artists are always true to their word.
Smitty: Some artists today will say “Hey, I’ll call you, man. I’d like to hire you.”
DG: Oh yeah.
Smitty: And you never hear from them again.
DG: Right, right.
Smitty: But with Grover it was totally different.
DG: Yeah, I mean, and I had gotten that before. “I’ll call you” and I was like “Yeah, okay.”
DG: And at the same time I was playing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Big Band on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. I ended up doing two records with them. And right when they wanted me to go on the road with them, they asked me if I wanted to go to Europe, they’d like to have me tour with them when they went to Europe. And I was thinking, I said “Man, there’s about twenty guys in this Big Band. I don’t think I’m gonna be making too much money, but I don’t have nothing else going.” And right at that moment it seemed like Grover called and asked me if I wanted to go out for a weekend with him, and we were gonna go to like maybe Chicago, Cincinnati and New Orleans. I said “I better go with Grover ‘cause I think it’s a better opportunity for me.” (Both laugh.)
Smitty: What a move.
DG: He did say he was gonna call me back.
Smitty: Yeah, but what a move that was, I mean, because you could’ve seen all of Europe on a tour.
Smitty: And then there’s Grover. And, man, what a nice decision you made to go with Grover, you know?
DG: Oh yeah, well, I enjoyed playing with Thad and Mel because they gave me the opportunity to record, which was the very first time I recorded on a record, and that was around in ’73 or ’74, and around that time recordings were still being done with everybody in the studio at the same time. So it was great being able to experience that and experience the Big Band thing, but then the opportunity of going out with Grover was very intriguing also because it was a smaller group and I didn’t know just what to expect, but once I started working with Grover, because after that weekend he said to me “So how do you like the gig?” I said “Man, it was great.” And he said “Well, if you want this gig, it’s yours.” I was like “Man! You mean every time you go out, I go with you?” He said “That’s right, man.” (Both laugh.) So I was like floored because, like I said, with George it was only if he was in the area did he asked me to sit in so I wasn’t really fully in the band.
DG: And before that I had worked with Freddie Hubbard and it was the same kind of situation. If he was in Philly or Connecticut or New York, then I did the gig with him, and I said “Man, this can’t be where it’s gonna end up with me just taking these kinda like part-time gigs.” So when Grover said to me “Well, man, the gig is yours,” I was like “Man, you mean it’s not part-time or it’s not just when we’re close to Philly?” So yeah, that’s where it started and so Grover was like a big mentor for me and playing in his band was a great opportunity because I learned a lot about the business from working with Grover.
Smitty: He was such a special guy.
DG: Oh, he was. Grover was very special. And his attitude was like “Man, I’m playing my heart out as if it’s the last time.”
DG: And that was always his thing. Just give it your all because you don’t know if it’s the last time or if you’ll get another chance to do it again.
DG: Ironically, that’s how he passed away.
Smitty: Right, and we still remember him for that.
DG: That’s right.
Smitty: So tell me, Doc. Not everybody is a percussionist. We’ve got a million sax players, I love ‘em dearly, but I’m just saying there are a lot. How did you wind up with—which is some of my favorite instruments—the percussion? How did you wind up with the percussion? Because kids coming up, they get a clarinet, they get a saxophone or they move them in front of the piano.
Smitty: How did you find your way to the percussion, my friend?
DG: Well, it started probably when I was about 11 or 12. I took snare drum lessons at a high school on Saturdays and that kinda sparked my interest in drums, and then the other thing was in my neighborhood there used to be an organization called The Elks, and they used to have a parade right through my neighborhood every year and there would be marching and drumming and steppers and people in cars and convertible cars and whatnot, and I always remember sitting on the porch when I was little and I couldn’t even come off the porch, and I remember hearing the drums in the distance and they’d get closer and closer and a little louder, and then after a while you start to feel the bass drum in your stomach and it’s getting closer and then now you can see it up the street about a block and a half away and it’s louder, and next thing you know it’s coming down the street and, man, now it’s in front of you and then it’s going away. So those are my early memories of the drums and those were the first things that really influenced me in terms of pursuing the drum, and I always wanted to play the snare drum or the set drums.
Throughout junior high school and high school, I was in the band or the orchestra and when I first got in the orchestra in junior high school, thinking that I was gonna play the set or the snare drum or some drums with sticks, the musical director said “Look, we got enough drummers, but I need somebody to play the triangle, and this is a very important part and you’re not playing it throughout the whole song.” “You’re gonna have to count the measures and you’re only playing like maybe four measures or whatever, but you’re gonna stand up and you’re gonna play that and it’s gonna be very effective in terms of being a part of this music.” And so I didn’t wanna do it because I said “Man, my parents are gonna come and see me playing a triangle.”
DG: And I’m telling them “Yeah, I’m the drummer, I got sticks.” So they talked me into doing it and I said “All right” and that was my first introduction into percussion because there’s a certain way you have to hold that triangle so that when you hit it it doesn’t spin around.