The Drum Roll, Please

Jam sessions of East Baltimore, parents' support inspired rhythm master Dennis Chambers.

The Grammys

February 24, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

Dennis Chambers, drummer extraordinaire and Grammy-nominated child of East Baltimore, is on the phone for a few precious minutes during a brief stay with the home folks before the road claims him again.

"It takes a toll," he said. "It all depends on who I'm with. Sometimes you're with a bunch of guys who have some personalities and it can be sort of a drag."

Right now, he's touring with guitarist Mike Stern, whose album Voices -- on which Chambers played drums -- has been nominated for best contemporary jazz album by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. They've been together off and on for a dozen years.

The road has had Chambers since 1978, when he joined Parliament and Funkadelic right out of high school. Before that, he was too young to tour. Even James Brown couldn't get him on the road. There's a story behind that.

Soul Brother No. 1 once owned a motor inn on West Franklin Street in downtown Baltimore. Chambers, now 42, was a child then, not long out of elementary school, but his drums were carrying his name throughout the rhythm-and-blues circles. So, there they were between sets, the kid and the Godfather of Soul.

"I looked in the mirror and looked at him and said, 'That guy looks like James Brown.' He was just standing there, picking his hair and I asked him. 'Are you James Brown?' " Chambers recalled. "He never looked at me. He just kept singing, pulling at his bush."

Chambers invited the Godfather to hear his group. Two weeks later, representatives of "Mr. Please, Please, Please" were on the phone with an offer to take Baltimore's drumming phenom on the road.

"I was really excited," said Chambers.

And who wouldn't be? The funkiest man on the planet had heard him play and was now saying, "I want you." This was a golden opportunity. But Chambers didn't have the final word.

"I had one big obstacle that might not allow me to do it, and that was my mom."

Audrey Chambers, a background singer for Motown, nixed the deal. Turns out the Godfather couldn't provide a tutor. Her son stayed home and went on to become one of the most respected drummers in the business.

A drummer at age 3

Now, there's the Grammy nomination. He's nonchalant about it, wise to the politics behind the final votes, the stuff that has nothing to do with musical integrity. You won't find him with the pretty faces and favored ones jammed into the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. He won't be huddled around a television, waiting. He'll be 400 miles up the California coast at Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, grooving with Stern and the rest of the band. Leave the Grammy excitement for others.

"My mom is really, really excited. I mean, she's excited over everything I do," said Chambers, with voices and laughter from a gathering of friends and family in the background. "I just think back on some of the noise I made in her house. Geez. I should have been arrested."

There were great jam sessions in the house on East Preston Street between Broadway and Caroline Street. Chambers remembers being 3 years old and fascinated by the drummers. Pretty soon he was picking up knives, tools, anything that could be turned into a drumstick. A toy drum set lasted until it was destroyed by a neighbor kid from across the alley. His parents responded by buying a real drum set, used, from Ted's Music on Centre Street.

"And I went from there," said Chambers.

By the time most children were in preschool, he was sitting on a drum stool. He was in nightclubs by second grade. He spent junior high school keeping time for Teddy Pendergrass and David Ruffin. More than once the older musicians stopped him, thinking he was some starstruck kid who had wandered backstage.

"They would look at me and say, 'Well, who are you?' And I would say, 'I'm the drummer.' "

He was always watching, listening, learning, playing in the pickup bands put together for the big names who passed through Baltimore in the days when the city was a major stop. Music flowed through the nightclubs on Pennsylvania Avenue, the jazz and rhythm-and-blues like a heartbeat in the soul of the city. And Chambers was in the thick of it.

"That whole street was lit up with clubs and theaters," he said. "Ride through there and see what it turned into now. It's sad. It really was a beautiful area. Drugs killed all of that."

A visit to the old neighborhood in East Baltimore reveals the same decline. Nothing remains but memories.

He finished Lombard Junior High School and went to Dunbar High School. By then, he had fashioned his own funky style, picking up a little here and there from such masters as Buddy Rich, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham, each of whom had a unique universe of rhythm and sound. After graduation, he hit the road with the Parliament-Funkadelic collaborative.

On hundreds of albums

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