Gaylord Birch

I love/hate the feeling of getting forced to reckon with and study a band or musician I’ve somehow overlooked. Pleasant surprises are nice and all, but that feeling of “WHY HAVE I NOT HEARD OF THIS UNTIL NOW.” kinda sucks. This COVID sojourn has been very rewarding with these kinds of gifts. One player in particular has turned out to be the missing brother in a holy fellowship of Oakland drummers. Funk comes from a lot of places, but you’re not really doing all your coursework if you ain’t dealt with Oakland. I have studied David Garibaldi and Mike Clark for years, and I owe Greg Errico’s work a deep dive I guess, but how in the world have I nearly miss Gaylord Birch? Here’s a playlist I started.

I was told, by Charlie Hunter (let me pick that name up off the floor), in the green room of Brooklyn Bowl sometime last year, that Birch played in an early version of The Pointer Sisters and was by some accounts the baddest of all the Oakland drummers of that era. It was a name I knew, but clearly I had some homework to do. There’s an easy starting point, you can find the first Pointer Sisters LP for $2 at most record stores with a good used section. I knew from watching old Soul Train performances that they were more than the ladies who brought you “Neutron Dance” and “Jump”. (I’m an 80s kid y’all). Seriously, go find that record, they could play standards, and show tunes, and probably hold down any manner of casino/hotel gigs…half the record is very-much-swinging vocal jazz with tight harmonies. Birch has a great straight-ahead jazz concept, but it’s the funky ones where you really catch what he had going on. He also lived in a time where you could play a really tasty drum solo over an Allen Toussaint song on live television.

Prior to this, or maybe simultaneously, Gaylord was in a band called Cold Blood. I don’t know how I missed this band, they funk way hard at times.

Does he not sound like the best moments of Harvey Mason and Mike Clark of this era? He did play with Herbie Hancock later on, but spent a lot of the 70s in Graham Central Station.

He played on quite a few solid blues albums, notably with John Lee Hooker and Charles Brown. He played straight ahead jazz with Eddie Harris, a handful of solid gospel sessions, and even briefly in an actually listenable Jerry Garcia collab.

If you’re some kind of fusion head, please check that Roger Glenn record in the playlist, I believe it features appearances from at least one of the Escovedo family. He may not dip into the linear funk concept as much as Mike Clark or David Garibaldi at the time, but he grooves just as hard if not more.

Birch also did some time in Santana’s band, both in the late 70s and the early 90s.

Sadly he lost a battle to cancer at age 50, but he left a pretty deep discography if you go digging. I went kind of funk-centric on the playlist above, but he had a mess of mean shuffles and some great samba ideas if you go down the rabbit hole.


As always if I missed some really dope record or misattributed any recordings, please email me!
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Go-go Research Part I

I was born in DC and grew up in a Virginia suburb about 20 minutes west. As a child of the 80s-90s, Go-go was this hyper-local sound that was always in the background. While there was a vibrant scene for it in the District, you didn’t find shows or hear much about it outside of the DC metroplex. As I understand it, it barely registered just 45 minutes up the road in Baltimore or south of Fairfax county. I don’t recall seeing a proper show in the district, unless maybe I heard something at a Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, but after the breakdancing era there seemed to be one go-go band at every school talent show and youth concert in my town for much of my memory. (Apparently Rare Essence played my hometown circa 81-82?)
As I understand it, the beat started at a Chuck Brown (and the Soul Searchers) show in the late 70s. Chuck’s claim to fame was his 1978 song “Bustin’ Loose” which peaked at 34 on the Billboard Hot 100. While it’s a dope funk bop, it’s not go-go. Chuck was running late to the gig one night, and the band had to start without him. They vamped on Grover Washington Junior’s tune “Mr. Magic” for a considerable amount of time, and kind of swung the beat a bit more. When Chuck arrived, he rapped, did call and response vocals with the crowd, and did much of the band’s rep over the vamp without stopping. This is where it started. The music of DC came from vamping on a 1974 instrumental by a tenor saxophonist from Buffalo. On drums that night was Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman. After a period as sort of a Go-go journeyman, Wellman did a few years in perhaps Miles Davis’ last touring band appearing on the records Amandla and Dingo, as well as stints with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, and Santana.
In a future blog, perhaps I’ll write out some sample drum set and percussion patterns, but it’s important to learn it by rote first. Like most great music, oral tradition is critical. If you’re from anywhere near DC, this is probably one of the first beats you learned, beat out on your desk, and jammed on when the band teacher was out of the room.
Here’s a few notes if you’re not from the mid-Atlantic US and you want to check out the right recordings. Studio albums aren’t the right source as Go-go is a live art. While I’ve heard a lot of fine studio captures of go-go bands, trying to cram the essence of a 45 minute set into a “song” is not the genuine article; you want board or PA tapes. The sound quality will be all over the place, but this is how it must be experienced. Growing up, either you got these from a friend, or a swap meet, or at show. You could also tape shows off WPGC (95.5 on your FM dial) on Friday night. I swear I would hear a Junkyard Band show while in the McDonald’s drive-thru on a Friday night, and again from someone’s Jeep in the school parking lot Monday morning.
Aside from certain obvious hallmarks (the beat, long 1-2 chord vamps, call + response vocals, etc), two percussive elements became mainstays from the innovations of early go-go bands: junior congas and rototoms. Maybe rototoms are optional, but many bands actually gave them their own solo. Junior congas are about half the height of congas, with a smaller diameter head, and usually played on a stand. You’re not gonna keep the party going without the junior congas, as they produce the high pitched offbeat accent in most stock go-go conga patterns. Bear in mind hand drums in go-go are usually tuned higher than Cuban or Puerto Rican traditions. I don’t know if I could get on a set of drums right now and play a convincing go-go pattern, but I do know that it was a weird foundation to have when I arrived at my first undergrad salsa band rehearsal. “You mean I don’t play these things cranked super high until my hands bleed?”
So I made a playlist on the youtubes. I tried to include every band I could remember. Some are household names (if you live in a really cool house) as bands like Trouble Funk and EU were on major labels and included in various film soundtracks. Some bands I totally forgot about or have been googling for years under incorrect spellings (Ayre Rayde, crankin’ jonx, questionable spelling). I’m having a chuckle knowing that Junkyard played the Safari Club in 1994, as that’s the first club I played in DC, probably 2 years earlier. It was a hub of both the hardcore scene and go-go shows. The genres worked together on occasion; one of Minor Threat’s farewell shows was a triple bill with Trouble Funk and the Big Boys from Texas.
I’ll revisit this at some point and add any tracks or shows I come across as this is a rabbit hole I head down regularly.