Many of us learn about drumming by playing along to our favorite records. More often than not, those exhilarating moments have us sharing the biggest stages in the world with our favorite artists, from the comfort of our homes. This is the story of a man who’s played those big stages, Michael Jackson’s live-drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett.
Unlike most famous drummers out there, Jonathan Moffett’s love affair with the drums wasn’t born out of a big life-changing event, getting inspired by a band or a drummer. In fact, he didn’t even wanted to play drums in the first place, but his father gave him no other choice.
Jonathan Moffett’s father worked at the main post-office in New Orleans, Louisiana. While talking to his coworkers, he got the idea that getting his kids into music was great because it exposed them to something cool that would most likely get them off the streets and keep them out of trouble. So one day, after getting home from work, he asked his three sons if they wanted to play music.
“Being young kids we were very excited and said, ‘Yes, we want to play music!’” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Interview With Jonathan Moffett” by Valmai Owens, The Jam Café Website, March 2, 2011.
Being the youngest of the bunch, the six-year-old Jonathan Moffett had to wait for his turn to speak, once his father began inquiring about the instruments they were interested in pursuing. His brothers chose the guitar and the bass guitar, Jonathan Moffett’s instruments of choice. Unwilling to have more guitarists in the family, Jonathan Moffett’s father encouraged him to choose an instrument from a different family. Seeing the only other instrument he knew was the drum set, Jonathan Moffett sealed his faith by taking on it, unaware of how much fun he would have.
To get Jonathan Moffett started in the right direction, his father got him a drum teacher who taught music at a local elementary school during the week and gave private drum lessons on Saturday nights. So every other week, Jonathan Moffett’s dad would take him to have his hour-long snare drum lesson at his teacher’s house. After taking several lessons, Jonathan Moffett began realizing how much fun and challenging it was to learn to play.
With Jonathan Moffett’s interest in drumming increasing, he began getting a new drum-set instrument every birthday so he could eventually have a full kit. Every year he’d learn how to use that instrument and incorporate it into his playing. The added challenge excited him even more; he began practicing every day going as far as having six-hour long sessions.
Jonathan Moffett had lessons at school as well: elementary school, junior high-School and one year during senior high-school, and was part of their concert bands. Thus, much like the private drum lessons he had had, he only learned how to play drum rudiments on a snare drum. Unlike the snare drum, Jonathan Moffett learned to play drum set all by himself.
Jonathan Moffett’s early influences were Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, John Bonham, Don Brewer, Stix Hooper, Bobby Colomby, Danny Seraphine, Buddy Miles, Sandy McKee, Andre Fischer, Joe Carrero, Alex Acuña, Diamond, Buddy Rich, Lenny White, Louie Bellson, Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham, Tony Smith, Clyde Stubblefield, Jab’o Starks and Melvin Parker. It was through their playing and the records they were featured on that he taught himself how to play drum set.
By the time he was nine years old, Jonathan Moffett and his brothers were playing at local parties and talent shows at school as the Cavaliers. With 10 years old he began playing with his brothers in night-clubs.
“That’s how my career basically started. I was making money and playing music from the time I was ten years old, well actually nine years old at the talent shows and block parties, but making the real money in the night-clubs at ten years old. And that’s how I got stuck with drums.” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Interview With Jonathan Moffett” by Valmai Owens, The Jam Café Website, March 2, 2011.
At the age of 12, Jonathan Moffett was kicked out of the Cavaliers because popular clubs they wanted to play at wouldn’t allow bands with members of his age. Bitter with the situation, Jonathan Moffett swore he wouldn’t play for any band again. That eventually changed when he was invited to audition for a local band called Spectrum (later known as The Brotherhood). Jonathan Moffett accepted the invitation and got the gig after marveling the band with his incredible foot technique. However, being a member of the band meant he had to have a nickname. Because of his foot technique Jonathan Moffett became known as Sugarfoot.
“So I’m thinking; I read comic books, I’ve been doing that since I was about 7 years old. I’m seeing all these super hero names and I’m thinking, oh man, I’ll be Thor or I’ll be Duke or the Ace or maybe Titan, something like that. I’m thinking of cool, cool names; powerful names because I’m a drummer. They said, ‘I got it; I got it’ and I said, ‘Okay what?’ ‘We’re gonna call you Sugarfoot.’ I said, ‘Sugarfoot? I don’t want to be no Sugarfoot. I’m not gonna answer to that.’ (…) They said, ‘No, you’re Sugarfoot. Every time we play in a show I’m gonna announce you as Sugarfoot, and everyone is gonna know you as Sugarfoot.’” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Interview With Jonathan Moffett” by Valmai Owens, The Jam Café Website, March 2, 2011.
After working with The Brotherhood, Jonathan Moffett went on to play with Stop Inc., a top-40 cover band, for six years. Seeing the band wasn’t interested in making their own music and Sugarfoot wasn’t going anywhere, except being a celebrity around town, he decided to quit the band. Afterwards, he played for over a year with a funk group called the Money Band.
“When that group folded, it was one of the heartbreaks of my career, because there was such a strong vibe and sense of magic in that group. I felt that I would never find another group like that to play with and that I would just do things on my own from then on, without being a group member. (…) My Dream had been to make it with an entire band from New Orleans and I thought Money Band was it. It could have been it, but some things happen for a reason.” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Jonathan Moffett: Have Drums–Will Travel” by Robyn Flans, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.
When the band folded, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett went on to play with jazz musician James Rivers for a couple of years and recorded an album with him. At that point, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett was contacted by one of Money Band’s ex-vocalists to see if he was interested in moving to Los Angeles (L.A.), California to try his luck. He had also been in contact with Jermaine Jackson of The Jackson 5, who, upon listening to Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett’s playing on tape, was interested in working with him.
Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett eventually moved to L.A. About a month after his arrival he auditioned successfully for Undisputed Truth and was in limbo about joining a band called New Birth. At the same time, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett was still trying to talk to Jermaine Jackson, but due to Jermaine’s busy schedule they couldn’t get together. Although he never actually got to know exactly what Jermaine had in store for him, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett found a way to work with the Jacksons.
James McField, The Jackson’s musical director, had been telling them about Sugarfoot for some time. James knew Jonathan Moffett from New Orleans, their home town. Seeing how good Sugarfoot was, James told him how to get a hold of him in L.A. since he could land him a big gig if he ever went there. When he got to L.A., Jonathan Moffett misplaced that information and couldn’t find him.
One night, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett went to the airport to pick up a friend from New Orleans but got lost on the freeway. As he was trying to find his way around he saw a sign for Normandy Avenue, the street James McField lived on. Although he didn’t know what James’ address was, Sugarfoot got right off the freeway, took a wild guess and turned right on the first intersection. He hit the first red light, looked on the street corner and saw James McField at a pay phone.
Knowing about Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett’s interest in playing with The Jacksons, James told him they had just parted ways with their drummer and were running auditions. The only problem was that that day was the last one. At Sugarfoot’s request, James tried to extend the auditions so he could get Jonathan to play for The Jacksons.
“He called that night and the audition was set for the next day. I was familiar with their songs because I had grown up with their music, yet I didn’t know everything about the music. I just went for it. I played a few songs for them. They looked like they enjoyed it, and would give me a nod every now and then. They talked amongst themselves, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I can tell that I’ve blown it by the way they’re talking to each other.’ After we finished a few songs, they pulled me aside and said they’d let me know something soon. That evening, I got the call and they said they wanted me to join the group. It was just a miracle.” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Jonathan Moffett: Have Drums–Will Travel” by Robyn Flans, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.
After joining The Jacksons, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett took part in the Destiny Tour (1978-1979) and the Triumph Tour (1981). Upon recording drums for The Jackson’s Victory (1984) album, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett went on to perform in the Victory Tour (1984) alongside The Jacksons and Michael Jackson, who was promoting his 1982 hit-record Thriller.
Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett would reunite with Michael Jackson for his HISstory World Tour (1996-1997) and This Is It (2009-2010), a planned series of 50 concerts to be held at The O2 Arena in London that were canceled in light of Michael Jackson’s passing in 2009. After this very unfortunate turn of events, Sugarfoot was hired to take part in Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour (2011-2013), a theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil that combines the music of Michael Jackson with Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic performances.
Upon becoming the live drummer for The Jacksons, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett’s life as a professional musician shot through the roof. You see, in any new musical situation you get yourself into, you’ll be seen and heard by people within the music business who didn’t know you before. If your musicianship, attitude and professionalism are displayed at a very high level, you’re prone to be hired to do other high-profile gigs.
Some of the conspicuous recording sessions Sugarfoot was hired to play on include the ones for La Toya Jackson’s My Special Love (1981), Janet Jackson’s Dream Street (1984), Elton John’s Sleeping With The Past (1989), Julian Lennon’s Mr. Jordan (1989), and Richard Marx’s Rush Street (1991), Paid Vacation (1994), and Flesh And Bone (1997).
Jonathan Moffett has also worked extensively with Madonna. He recorded drums for True Blue (1986) and Like A Prayer (1989) and was one of Madonna’s supporting musicians in The Virgin Tour (1985), Who’s That Girl World Tour (1987) and Blond Ambition World Tour (1990).
Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett has also worked with artists like Cameo, Patti Austin, Lionel Ritchie, Tina Marie, George Michael, Kenny G, Doug Miller, Peter Cetera, Bill Meyers, and Jermaine Jackson. He’s also made guest appearances at popular televisions shows like The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, Saturday Night Live, and The Arsenio Hall Show.
Playing with some of the top pop-acts in the world can mean a lot of things. In the case of a professional musician like Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett it means an incredible feel and consistency. These are attributes that come with the territory. It’s very common amongst professional drummers that roam around the pop realm. So, what is it that makes Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett such a special player? Well, we could start by saying, “His nickname.”
If you recall, Jonathan Moffett got the nickname “Sugarfoot” because of his awesome bass drum technique. His impeccable control, precision, speed and funkiness with a single bass-drum pedal helped him make a name for himself. However, we’re going to approach his foot technique differently from what we’ve done with other drummers so far. We’ll take a look at the concept he used to develop it, instead of the technique behind it. If you’d like to know how to develop a foot technique as fast as his, check the free drum lessons “Beginner Single Pedal Speed,” “Slide Technique,” and “Heel-Toe Technique.”
Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett’s bass drum technique is highly developed because of bass guitar, strangely enough. Jonathan Moffett wanted to be a bass player before learning to play drums. He had a natural tendency to listen to bass guitar parts in music and even to play them on his bass drum.
“I really wanted to be a bass player earlier, you know, when my dad asked what instrument we wanted to play, guitar or bass guitar. So I had a tendency to listen to the bass parts. And when I’m learning a song, I learn the drum and I learn the bass parts. I learn how to do it on my bass drum technique, playing both rhythms at the same time, just thinking that’s the way I want to do it. It sounds bold, and I wanted to do it that way knowing that it would become something unusual or difficult to do.” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Interview With Jonathan Moffett” by Valmai Owens, The Jam Café Website, March 2, 2011.
The way Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett developed his bass drum technique is a great source of inspiration for developing other cool concepts on the drum set. For instance, take the rhythmic phrasing of some of your favorite guitar solos and play them as hi-hat patterns to go along with your snare and bass drum patterns. You can also take those same rhythmic ideas and use them as themes for short drum-solos or as drum fills. Rhythm is everywhere, so keep your ears open. Any sound source can inspire new ideas to incorporate into your playing.
Jonathan “Sugerfoot” Moffett is a proponent of keeping yourself clean of drugs and alcohol. He feels his body has to be at its best to achieve the highest levels of performance and musicianship it can muster. Drugs and alcohol are detrimental to your health, behavior, and to the way you perform. You can actually lose gigs because of the effect they might have on the way you perform or relate to others.
Sugarfoot has played with the biggest acts on the planet and hasn’t taken drugs or alcohol so he could fit with the rest of the musicians or crew. He’s the living proof that you can go places just by being yourself and worrying solely about the music.
“Never feel as though you have to drink beer or liquor, smoke grass, do cocaine or any drugs to fit into the music business. (…) Your playing abilities determine that. Be your own kind of person. You have your own mind, so use it. Don’t let anyone entice you into that scene. (…) What I am trying to convey is that you can be yourself, clean-cut, straight or whatever you choose to call it, and be successful in this business.” – Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett in “Jonathan Moffett: Have Drums–Will Travel” by Robyn Flans, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.