West End Fiesta Interview: Chic drummer Ralph Rolle

From as far back as he can remember, Ralph Rolle has always marched to the beat of a different drum. Hailing from The Bronx, New York, he has had an illustrious career over four decades in music. Currently, Ralph is the drummer with Nile Rodgers and Chic and he has also made music with the likes of Lady Gaga at the Grammy Awards last year, Elvis Costello, Al Green, Slash, Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Ray Chew & The Crew (the resident band for Showtime At The Apollo for over 18 seasons).

As drummer with Chic, Ralph is a frequent visitor to Scotland and will appear at the Bandstand in Kelvingrove, as part of the West End Fiesta on June 10th and 11th.

Adding another string to his bow, Ralph founded The Soul Snacks Cookie Company in 1996. The recipe has a long and interesting history. Ralph has perpetuated the traditions of his maternal grandmother Leola who was born in Ocilla, Georgia moved to Miami, started a family, and later migrated to Harlem in the Renaissance years. Ralph has opened a cookie factory in the Bronx in New York and in 2014, opened a branch of Soul Snacks Cookies in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

His cookies are currently on sale in the UK at the Tim Peaks Diner, a pop-up at many summer music festivals, run by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans. Ralph hopes to open a Soul Snacks Cookie store in the UK within the next year.

Before he arrives in Glasgow for a high-energy disco party with Chic, we called him at his home for a chat. DSC01880

What was your introduction to music? When did you first get interested in music?

Well, my introduction was at a young age. My older brother, he’s about eight years older than me. His name is Howie. He listens to everything. So my first real introduction to music was everything that he listened to.

I remember listening to Motown and that was mainly pop radio. He had a big reel to reel where he would record everything and splice it together, his favourite songs. Then as I got older, I started listening to all styles of music, jazz, gospel, rock, pop. I was lucky that I got all of those musical influences at such a young age.

The world owes a debt to big brothers with decent record collections. I think it’s the introduction for lots of people to music.

Yeah. You’re absolutely right about that.

Why did you gravitate towards the drums? Was that the first instrument you decided to play or were there other things in between?

Once again it was him. I always looked up to my big brother because I grew up without a dad. My big brother was the guy that I always idolised. One day I came home and there was a drum set in the middle of our two beds in our small project apartment. He was in a band. He had gotten in a band and was playing. I wanted to play drums cause he played drums.

I’m left handed and he’s right handed. These drums were set up for a right handed person so I would say, “Can I please play? Can I play?” He would go, “You can play but just don’t switch the drums around” So I’d go, “Okay, no problem”. So I’d sit down and I’d play some rock n’ roll grooves like Little Richard. My hand was crossed over on the right side, my left hand because the symbols are all the way over there. That’s basically how I learned how to play. It stuck.

You’ve played with a lot of different people, and you’ve had a really varied career. Was that a conscious choice or did one thing just lead to another, then another?

When I first started out it was playing in local bands. The first band I ever played in was a guy named Leilor Evans. Leilor Evans had a band with his wife and then from there I started playing with a guy in my neighbourhood who’s an amazing musician, name is Ricky Williams. He was a blind guy. He was a drummer and he also played keyboards, mainly organ. I ended up playing in his band and that’s when things really got started for me.

I met a singer who introduced me to some other people and I started getting auditions and it evolved from there. It’s kind of being in the right place at the right time. People hear you, they pass your name around. It’s one of those things where applying your hustle and everything, it all comes out at the right time.

What about getting the opportunity to go into the recording studio and put your own take onto the music

When I first started going in the studio recording it was … There was a guy named Meco, he had a big disco hit with a song called ‘Star Wars’. Then he did a follow and the arranger on the project was a guy named Harold Wheeler. Harold was a very famous composer in America. I got a call from my good friend Ricky Mangum. He’s one of my mentors. He and I would march in drum core together. He said someone called and said, “They want me to do a recording. I want to do it with you.” I say, “Great”.

I ended up going in the studio and doing the B side to the next hit which was a disco hit called ‘Superman’ by Meco. So if you look that up and you turn it over on side B, that’s my first recording.

From there, going in the studio and recording is always a fun thing because when I’m in my clinics, I always talk about how important it is to be humble to the music, to serve the music, because it has less or nothing to do with you and all to do about the music that you play.

So you’re trying to find within your creativity what is right for the music. You understand? So it’s music first. Hopefully, you get the right feel that the producer’s looking for. It’s all about serving the music.

One of the things you’re passionate about is trying to teach and tell people about music – you have drum clinics as you were explaining – how do you think music helps people express themselves?

When I was in drum core and Ricky Mangum started to mentor me, I used to watch him teach, and another gentlemen named Bobby Craig. Two amazing teachers. I’ve been fortunate enough to go on from that, pass on what I’ve learned and teach for many years.

I just loved the teaching aspect to the point I wanted to go to college to be a teacher and a guidance counsellor. For music, I know 100%, our American government is making a big mistake, a huge mistake by cutting the endowment to the arts because just the therapy of the music alone is how your brain develops and how it helps a person in so many ways to be able to play an instrument and be a part of a band and play a collective piece together and how that translates to other people is a very helpful and therapeutic thing.

When I’m teaching my clinics I’m always talking about how great it is and how important it is to teach and to see that person react to what you’re playing. It’s a very great thing.

I have a daughter. She’s 14 years old now, but she has a 95.45 average in school and I really do believe that a large part of that is because there was a decision made when she was little to put her in piano class. When she was three years old.

I knew from all of the students I had, how it had helped them in their lives. I knew if I got my daughter in music really early, not for the purpose of being a musician, but just because I know what it does. It connects those synapsis of studying and pleasantry and harmony and I believe I was right because she’s really good in school. I do attribute it to the fact that she took early piano lessons.

So Ralph, how did you end up becoming part of the Chic story?

[Laughter] I’ve been a fan of Chic long before I’ve been in Chic. Back in the 70’s, rollerskating in New York, was super, super popular. Everybody roller skated and they were roller skating rinks all over the city. I’m at a roller skating rink, and Freak Out comes on, and I’m telling you, the people go absolutely out of their minds crazy when that song comes on. I’m telling you the energy level jumps up so high when that song comes on that I’m like, “Yo, this group is crazy” so I go out, I find out more about them.

The thing that intrigued me about Nile Rodgers and Chic was that this really great dance music that was super sophisticated and funky … They looked so cool.

They’re playing this super amazing music that makes you remember every single lyric, every single melody. They’d look cool. Coming up in the 70’s, that was the combination of everything all in one.

Nile Rodgers and Ralph Rolle

Nile Rodgers and Ralph Rolle

My introduction to Chic was a long time ago from the beginning. I always wanted to meet Nile and finally one day I’m going to the music store. This was again late 70’s, early 80’s. I’m going to Nanny’s Music on 48th Street, and in walks Nile Rodgers at the same time I’m walking and I was just blown away by the fact that I’m standing next to Nile Rodgers. He’s the nicest guy.

The first introduction, he just started talking to us. It was me and another guy. I just wanted to learn more about Chic. Then I heard that Chic broke up. I was like, “Oh bands do that”. But then I heard they were getting back together and they were having auditions and I tried everything in my power to get in … That was almost 25 years ago. I wanted that audition so bad but I couldn’t. I was a young guy in the business. I couldn’t get in.

Omar Hakim got the job. Omar Hakim, that guy was everywhere, you know. We all used to look up to Omar and to Buddy Williams as drummers coming up because they were on every record. We were all around the same age and I idolised them, actually, both of those guys because I wanted to do what they were doing.

So anyway, there was a charity event. This is kinda funny. There was an event at the Marriott hotel and the person they were honouring was Nile Rodgers. So I’m in a local band and we’re playing for some play on, play off music, and I’m trying to play my fingers off so he can hear me play. He’s so immersed in people talking to him, then he had to come up and make a speech or whatever, he paid zero attention to me. I felt like the jilted girlfriend [laughter].

So now, maybe about a year or so later, I’m at my daughter’s school at an event and my cell phone rings. It’s a friend a mine, a drummer, his name is Nathaniel Townsley He says to me, “Hey man, are you available to do a gig?” I said, “Where is it?” He said, “Well, it’s out of town but it’s with Chic”.

To be honest with you, I didn’t even care where it was, I was taking that gig. As soon as he told me I said, “I’m available”.

I was really, really happy. So now I get a chance to actually play in Chic. They send me the music, they tell me what to listen to. I write out all of my music. They say, “Okay, we’re gonna have a rehearsal with Nile” I said, “Okay, great.” When I get to rehearsal, I get to SIR Studios, it’s just me, Jerry Bonds, and Nile.

We start playing. We played about two or three songs and Nile goes, “Okay, that’s it.” And I’m like, “What?” He says, “You sound great, you’ll be fine.”

Ralph Rolle @ BIMM London 29

So that was an easy audition. You were in.

That was it and he left and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I didn’t even get to play the songs for the show and to ask questions. He’s like, “You’re fine, you sound great. You’re good”. So we fly to Switzerland, we fly to Gustav. We play the show and immediately after the show, some of the band members came over to me and they’re all incredible nice people. A few of them I knew.

They said, “You are the first drummer that has actually come in here and actually play this show from start to end without making any kind of major mistakes. The first time …” I trained well. I used to work at the Apollo and we used to do the TV show and that was a great training ground, because on the TV show there was so much music and you couldn’t mess up, because if you messed up they had to re-take it and it cost a lot of money.

It was great training ground working at the Apollo Theatre. I made sure I knew everything.

They offered me the gig. They said, “Nile really likes you and he wants you to have the gig.” I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it. They started telling me about dates and this and that. That was over ten years ago.

What a great time to join Chic. Disco is back – even roller discos are back. You’re with Chic at a time when you’re not only coming over to play Glasgow, but your going to play on the main stage at Glastonbury. I mean, it must be an incredible time to be playing this music?

Well, what amazes me is what happened to disco and how you can get mobs of people to follow you in the wrong direction. I mean we’re seeing that right now in America. When the disco sucks era came out, it was devastating to the music.
It killed the music and the people that loved it were too afraid because it was a mob of people that was now focusing on this disco sucks thing. So it literally killed the market in that moment because it was all over the media.

They had a stadium where people were burning their disco records. It was really like a mob mentality. It was painful for not only the producers but it was painful for people that liked listening to it because the clubs wouldn’t even play it anymore.

It was horrible but now all these years later, there’s been a resurgence on radio. There’s been a resurgence by DJs. Radio in New York has these things called the disco power hour at lunch time.

People started listening to disco music again because they realised how freaking great the music was.

All these years later, the disco movement … I would say the sound has had this huge resurgence and so many artists are now performing us being one of them. I have to say that the Chic organisation, and its not because I’m in the Chic organisation, but I have to say that when you come to a Chic show, you’re getting a performance piece, you’re getting great music and you’re getting some of the best musicians you will here.

I swear I am honoured every time I go on stage with Nile Rodgers, Jerry Bonds, Kimberly Davis, Bill Holland, Curt Ramm, Richard Hilton, Russell Graham, and myself and Folami Thomson. We have honestly the best time. I’m gonna tell you that I don’t know about other bands and I’ve been in a lot of bands … This sounds really cliche’ and a little hokey, but when we say we are family, that is not a joke.

Chic

Chic

That is honest to God serious business because just the other day, I had a birthday and a few days before that Kimberly Davis had a birthday. Any time anyone has a birthday in the band, not just the band will send you messages and shout you out, we’re talking about the entire crew.

So if anyone has a birthday within the Chic organisation, the administrative staff, manager, we treat everybody in the same exact way. There’s no difference between anybody. If my drum tech has a birthday, everybody reaches out to him and says happy birthday to him. And if we’re on the road, guaranteed we’re gonna have a party.

As far as the music is concerned, what you’re hearing and why Chic sounds so good and why disco or dance music from this band sounds so great, is because the personality that you’re actually seeing on stage is generated by people that truly care and love what they’re doing and love each other.

I’m so serious about that. When I’m in Brooklyn, because I have another business … When I go to Brooklyn, I stop at Kim’s house and we’ll sit there for hours and just talk for hours just because like I hadn’t seen her in like three days. I know you asked me a questions and I know I’m talking a lot, but it excited me.

Because I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than myself. It’s huge. It’s beyond belief actually that I am the drummer with Nile Rodgers and Chic. Everyday that I play in this band, I take it so seriously.

Ralph, people get excited about music in Glasgow and your fans, as I’m sure you know, they’ll sing the words at a gig, but a Glasgow crowd, they’ll sing the lyrics and they’ll sing along to the guitar parts as well and they’ll know the drum parts, so I think you’ll have a lot of fun playing with the Glasgow crowd.
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I’m gonna tell you something and I want you to understand this. This is very true. We had a debate about a month ago. We were talking about the loudest crowd that we ever experienced. This is the truth. I’m not telling you this because we’re on the phone. Loudest crowd. We couldn’t settle on whether it was Scotland or Ireland. Someone says, “Wait a minute, don’t forget Japan.” It’s all true. So we feel like the most enthusiastic crowd that we have ever experienced has been in Scotland. We’re looking forward to playing for you guys in Glasgow a lot.

Chic featuring Nile Rodgers will close the West End Fiesta with concerts at the Kelvingrove bandstand on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th June.