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William Emanuel “Billy” Cobham, arguably the epitome of the fusion drummer, was born in Colón, Panama to a family of drum makers. For the first three years of his life he lived in a small village where almost everyone was a musician. His brother played trumpet, his mother sang and his father played the piano. Both his parents built congas and steel drums that they’d sell throughout the Caribbean for religious purposes.
In the Winter of 1947, Billy Cobham and his family relocated to the United States. They lived in Harlem, New York before moving to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. Music was all around Billy Cobham while growing up, especially Latin music like folclórico or típico and jazz. With such a rich musical background and a family that loved music and respected musicians, music making was bound to happen at some point.
“I’ve been playing (drums) since I can remember. That’s all I know. I don’t know what started it.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by Cheech Iero, Modern Drummer Magazine, August-September, 1979.
During his formative years, Billy Cobham was highly influenced by big-bands. Of course, his first big sources of inspiration were non other than big-band drummers like Sonny Payne, Al Levy, Charlie Persip and Mel Lewis. Billy Cobham’s drumming aspirations became real serious at the age of five. Drumming was so much fun for him and gave him such joy that he decided to pursue it. Three years later, Billy Cobham played his first paying gig when he got on stage to perform alongside his father.
For the most part, Billy Cobham was self-taught. His first experience with formal music-education happened at the Music and Art High-School for Performing Arts in New York City. The school didn’t have a percussion instructor because they couldn’t afford one, so Billy Cobham found in Warren Smith, a student at the Manhattan School of Music and a teacher at the Music and Art High-School, the instructor he was in need. However, the lesson fees were too much for him to cope with, so he couldn’t have as much as he needed to. Without an affordable solution for his drumming education, Billy Cobham had to keep learning by himself.
The solution to Billy Cobham’s educational dilemma came in a very strange packaging: the St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps from St. Albans, Queens, New York. For only 50 cents a week he was able to learn all the technical fundamentals that his drumming was lacking. Billy Cobham studied under Bobby Thompson there, with whom he learned to play drum rudiments accurately and with other drummers.
“I joined the drum corps because it was cheaper than taking lessons from some drummer who was going to tell me how he played. The competitive element was much more important to me then. (…) It enlarged my viewpoint because I had a chance to compete and learn how to play with people.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by Cheech Iero, Modern Drummer Magazine, August-September, 1979.
After successfully graduating from high-school in 1965, Billy Cobham had to weight his options very carefully. Fearing the Vietnam War draft, Billy Cobham took matters into his own hands by trying out for the U.S. Army Band. Passing the test with a perfect score allowed Billy Cobham to serve his country with a pair of drumsticks instead of a gun. His time there allowed for huge developments in his approach to the instrument. Billy Cobham made the best out of that opportunity by practicing and playing as much as he could, going as far as performing all over the New York metropolitan area whenever stationed in Brooklyn. During that time he also took lessons from Morris Goldenberg, a famed New York percussionist, teacher and author.
Billy Cobham’s tenure with the U.S. Army Band ended in 1968, enabling him to pursue a career in session drumming. It didn’t take him long to become a first-call player, especially of jazz musicians like guitarist George Benson and tenor-saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Billy Cobham was also recruited for Horace Silver’s band and to record alongside one of his heroes, trumpeter Miles Davis.
In 1969, Billy Cobham joined Dreams, a jazz-fusion band featuring Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Don Grolnick, Barry Rodgers and Will Lee. After recording two albums with the band, Dreams (1970) and Imagine My Surprise (1971), Billy Cobham decided it was time to follow different avenues. In the aftermath of his departure from Dreams, he received a phone call where he was asked to record for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a legendary jazz-fusion band led by John McLaughlin. John and Billy met during the studio sessions they had worked on together for Miles Davis in the late 1960s.
“I received a phone call asking me to record with them. Eventually, I was coerced into joining the band, though I really didn’t want to. I had just left Dreams. I really couldn’t resist because the band did sound very good.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by Cheech Iero, Modern Drummer Magazine, August-September, 1979.
Billy Cobham spent two years with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. In that short period of time he recorded drums for The Inner Mounting Flame (1971), Birds Of Fire (1972), the live album Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) and The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), originally recorded in 1973. It was during the recording of this album that the original line-up disbanded. Allegedly, John McLaughlin’s style of leadership and unwillingness to allow musical contributions from other band members, coupled with a disastrous recording session at London’s Trident Studios that never got completed, triggered the band’s implosion. Billy Cobham would rejoin Mahavishnu Orchestra a decade later for the recording of Mahavishnu (1984).
“One of the reasons why that band was disbanded was primarily because everybody, including myself, felt slighted. I felt like we were doing so well that it would have been great for all the minds to come together and develop stuff together, because I not only had respect for the music that John McLaughlin wrote, but I had respect for the material that Jan, Jerry, and Rick wrote. It made me rebel and write the album that became Spectrum.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by William F. Miller, Modern Drummer Magazine, July, 1986.
Spectrum (1973) marked Billy Cobham’s debut as a solo musician. It’s regarded as one of the most significant contributions to the development of fusion, along with the ones from Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Spectrum also jump-started Billy Cobham’s 35-plus years as a composer and bandleader. For more details on Billy Cobham’s releases, check his discography by clicking on this link.
We couldn’t talk about Billy Cobham’s career highlights without mentioning his collaborations with Miles Davis. Billy Cobham was hired several times between 1969 and 1970 to record drums for several of Miles Davis’s compositions. Those musical pieces were released over various Miles Davis’ albums: A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1971), Live-Evil (1971), On The Corner (1972), Big Fun (1974), Get Up With It (1974) and the ground-breaking fusion album Bitches Brew (1970).
Other artists Billy Cobham toured and recorded with include Jazz Is Dead, Asere, Paradox, Nordic, the London Jazz Orchestra, Culture Mix, George Benson, Stanley Clarke, Freddie Hubbard, Peter Gabriel, McCoy Tyner, and Sonny Rollins. In the 2000s, Billy Cobham introduced “The Art of Jazz.” The project had three iterations: the Art of 3, with Kenny Barron and Ron Carter, the Art of 4, with Ron Carter, Donald Harrison and James Williams, and the Art of 5 with Donald Harrison, Eric Reed or Julian Joseph, Guy Barker and Orlando Le Fleming.
In 1992, Billy Cobham worked with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a musical project to aid autistic children. The project wound up integrating street children in Santos, São Paulo, Brazil as well.
“The street children fell into my realm of operations almost by chance, as it was not part of my original mandate. But due to the unavoidable specter and shadow cast by so many little personalities with big hearts and so much time to ponder life without parental direction, it was inevitable that I would find myself working with them–some of the brightest minds harboring raw talent that I have ever witnessed to date. The shame of it all was that many would never have the opportunity to use their gift.” – Billy Cobham, taken from Billy Cobham’s official website.
The following year, Billy Cobham began his longstanding association with the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival as a performer and producer, alongside artists like Peter Gabriel, Nigeria’s Okuta Percussion, and Farafina from Burkina Faso. He has conducted sessions in performance techniques at the University of Bath Spa, Somerset, England through WOMAD.
Billy Cobham has been very active on the educational spectrum of drumming as well. In 1996 he released two products: the book/CD combo By Design and the book Directions in Percussion. In 1999 he was featured alongside Dennis Chambers and Tony Royster, Jr. in the DVD Common Ground. Three years later, Billy Cobham released the play-along package Ultimate Play-Along Drum Trax: Billy Cobham – The Conundrum, which focus on the music developed for Spectrum. His latest educational project is the Billy Cobham School of Drums, an online resource where you can learn to play drums from the man himself.
Many pioneers, trend setters who thought way ahead of their time, were easily scorched and condemned by the society they were a part of. Lurking the world, unappreciated and often confined to their own minds, they went through life ignored, pushed to the side and often criticized, simply because they thought, created or lived differently. Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, El Greco, Henry Thoreau and Galileo are just a few of those many artists, scientists, thinkers…people who made a posthumous, profound impact on society and culture.
Like the pioneers we just mentioned, some of Billy Cobham’s contributions to the world of music and drumming, although widespread and well accepted today, were frown upon at first. Open-handed drumming, a stance where hi-hat/ride drum beats are performed with the arms opened instead of crossed, was one of them. Billy Cobham began experimenting with it around 1959 because it made a lot more sense to him than the established and more popular approach to drum-set playing. However, his enthusiasm for open-handed playing was not shared by his peers. Billy Cobham failed the admission test at the Manhattan School Of Music, New York and Berklee School of Music, Massachusetts because he performed the auditions open-handed.
“I knew I could make it work, and I wasn’t going to give it up just because of someone’s fear of something new. Now people realize that it works, and I think it has opened up people’s minds even more.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by William F. Miller, Modern Drummer Magazine, July, 1986.
Technically, open-handed drumming is far superior to cross-handed. It enables a better control over dynamics, proper posture and a collection of rhythmic and melodic ideas that would be impossible or extremely difficult to perform otherwise. It’s also a great way to really work the weaker hand, developing independence, stamina, control and speed at the same time.
“It seemed to make a lot more sense than to have a cymbal on my right-hand side and a hi-hat on the left. I said, ‘I’m going to have a lot of sticking problems if I want to go to this drum over here,’ because I always thought about more than one rack tom on the bass drum. I said, ‘Gosh, if you had different sized drums, it would make a lot more sense. It would be a lot more exciting.’ With the ride and hi-hat being on the same side, it opened up my concept to add as much as I wanted to, to inspire me.” – Billy Cobham in “Billy Cobham” by William F. Miller, Modern Drummer Magazine, July, 1986.
What we’re really trying to emphasis here is Billy Cobham’s tenacity and stubbornness. It comes to show how far one can go if he believes in his approaches and nurtures them. Even though they may not be perceived as great today, you never know how they’ll be looked upon tomorrow. Besides, regardless of what people think about it, if you enjoy what you do, why should you stop doing it? Working on your original concepts will do wonders for developing your unique voice on the drum-set as well.
As one of the founding fathers of fusion drumming, Billy Cobham has to be listened to, to be fully understand. Songs like Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Vital Transformation”–one of the band’s most famous fusion tracks–“Birds of Fire” and “Radio Activity,” and Cobham’s “Quadrant 4,” “Spectrum,” “Spanish Moss,” “Come To Join Me” and “Indigo” are a testament to his facility with different styles of music, double bass drumming, odd-time signatures and very creative drumming. In “Quadrant 4” Billy Cobham plays the double-bass shuffle, a drum beat guys like Rod Morgenstein, Simon Phillips and Alex Van Halen would become famous for, a few years down the road.
Billy Cobham is one of the most influential drummers in history. His combination of speed, power and control, coupled with a very different but musical approach to the drum set have set him in a league of his own, while inspiring drummers like Carter Beauford and Dennis Chambers to reach greatness as well.