-This article first appeared in THE NYC JAZZ RECORD, Nov 2015-
The Ellington Drummer That Made “Sesame Street” Cook!
By John Pietaro
“So how exactly did you dig me up?” Steve Little asks right up front”. “I’m not usually the guy the press goes after”.
Though he has performed and recorded with countless artists of note, from the bands of Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett and Lionel Hampton, to legendary vocalist Josephine Baker and fusion pioneers Weather Report, drummer-percussionist Stephen Little has rarely if ever sought the spotlight. A consummate professional, Little’s career, still going strong as he nears his 81st birthday, has been an adventure through genre and era, much of it spent in studios, well out of the public view.
Born in Brooklyn in 1935 but raised in Hartford Connecticut, Little’s creativity was strongly encouraged by his family. “We were working-class but my parents pushed us toward intellectual pursuits. For me this meant music, but in those days drummers had to contend with a lot of disrespect. I couldn’t just play, I had to study the drums”.
Drawn to jazz, yet driven to understand the full breadth of his instrument, Little became a student of Al Lepak, timpanist with the Hartford Symphony. “Al had a million students---everyone in the area went through him. Joe Porcaro and Emil Richards were there too. I studied timps mainly and some mallet percussion”. Lepak, who’d started his career as a big band drummer, also taught basic jazz drumset as well. What the lessons couldn’t provide, Little absorbed from the front row of Hartford’s State Theatre. “As a kid I would go early on a Saturday to see if I could cop licks from Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich! I saw so many bands—Dorsey, Krupa, Louis Armstrong. The band would play but then you had to sit through movies, newsreels and a comedian before the second set. I don’t know how many hours I spent there”, he said laughing.
in the Hartford Symphony, working under Fritz Mahler’s baton for a performance of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’. After a tour with Holiday on Ice, he relocated to New York and gigs came quickly. By the turn of the 1960s, Little held a regular drumset job with Sal Salvador’s band, providing him wide exposure, yet he sought out vibraphonist Phil Kraus to engage in advanced mallet studies.
Steve’s reputation as a session player also developed in this time. “My first professional studio date was for radio comic Henry Morgan. After that, I recorded with Salvador and then Terry Gibbs in 1961. Some of the guy’s in Sal’s band were writing jingles and I got more sessions”. Little came to play vibes for the soundtrack of ‘General Hospital’ as well as an array of television and film scores over the decades. “I can’t recall them all now. One went into the next”.
Live gigs continued too and in 1964 Little accompanied vocalists Eddie Fisher and Anita O’Day, then went on to sub for Louie Bellson behind Pearl Bailey. By ‘66 he was in Charlie Barnet’s band and performed with Lionel Hampton at the Newport Jazz Festival. One night while in the driver’s seat with Barnet, Duke Ellington came into the club and sat in. He contacted the drummer shortly thereafter. “I really didn’t want to join Duke I as I was focused on the studios, but how could anyone turn THIS down? Duke was God. His compositions, and especially Billy Strayhorn’s, were very complex. This was linear music, streams of colors”.
The Ellington band was working the Rainbow Room, preparing for a tour. The stellar line-up included famed alto saxophonist Johnnie Hodges, among other star musicians. Strayhorn, however, was already very ill and passed away shortly thereafter. His crushing loss led to the celebrated album, “His Mother Called Him Bill”, still deemed one of Ellington’s most important records.
Though the position was esteemed, Little left the band by 1967 and returned to the studios as well as to college. But he wasn’t gone for long. “Duke called me back after trying out many drummers. The young guys all wanted to play like Tony Williams!” But this was now the late 1960s and public taste was changing. An appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ gave Little a sense of what was to come. “Our band had some amazing soloists, but then after us the Vanilla Fudge took the stage. I watched the kids in the audience and they were ecstatic. We couldn’t match that; it was a new day. It made me realize that we were becoming relics. I had to reinvent myself.”
Steve began to carefully listen to rock, R and B and soul music rather than reject it like many of his contemporaries. He adapted easily to the call for “a rock feel” in the studios, particularly for soundtracks and work with several folk singers including Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie. And then there was a new PBS children’s series, “Sesame Street”.
“That was a great band”, Little recalls, “led by Joe Raposo who wrote most of the charts”. “We recorded in one take, it was very loose”. Due to the success of the series, the same ensemble scored “The Electric Company” program as well. The jobs lasted 22 years but Little made time for performances with the Joffrey Ballet, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, various Broadway shows and many recording dates including Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveler” album, on which he played timpani, tom-toms and marimba.
The pulse behind the stars, Steve Little’s career was often out of the spotlight, but fruitful. “You know it took me fifty years to be comfortable being ‘just’ a drummer. But I came to realize that playing drums is damned intellectual: it’s an abstract instrument and yet you control every aspect of the music--and make even the worst musician feel the swing, the groove. This has been a great career. Looking back, I’m glad I chose the route I did. I wouldn’t trade it”.