Drummer Sonny Emory On Funk And Groove
Sep 08 2021

Drummer Sonny Emory On Funk And Groove

By: Emily Hingle

A young drummer from Atlanta had a dream: he wanted to play in Earth, Wind & Fire when he grew up. He worked hard at his craft, honed his skills in school and in bands, and started cutting his chops in nationally-known bands. Then one day when he was 25, he got asked to join Earth, Wind & Fire.

Sonny Emory's dream did not end there, however. Over the years, he has provided the beats for some of the most recognized names in music while also creating original tunes with an astounding roster of talented musicians. Sonny is traveling to New Orleans later this month to lend his funk and soul to ours; he will play with Eric Clapton at the Smoothie King Center and he plans on performing his own headlining show.

Where Y'at had a chance to speak with Sonny about growing up in funk and making a living out of it.


WYAT: Are you excited about getting in front of an audience for the first time since the pandemic began?

Sonny: We've been off now for a year and a half. I'm ready. I've been staying busy though. I'm proud of myself because I said once we got to this point of touring again, I wanted to have a new album done and I just wanted to be a better player, a better person all the way around. I've managed to do a couple of those things: better player and got a new project finished. My single drops today. This particular album is just under Sonny Emory.

What I decided to do is just go back to Sonny Emory because I've had different bands, different incarnations. I decided for this particular project to just rock with Sonny Emory because I have a lot of stellar guests on this one. Patrice Rushen is on the single. Bob James is on the album, Bobby Lyle is on the album, Jimmy Haslip from the Yellow Jackets, Lenny Castro, one of my dear friends and one of the world's greatest percussionists. So I'm hoping we make some noise with this one.

WYAT: Why did you make the move from Atlanta to Los Angeles after college?

Sonny: I had decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a number one session guy, and I just wanted to be the very best drummer and musician that I could possibly be. And I knew that I wanted to compete outside the city of Atlanta. Coming up through high school, I had my own bands. And when I got to Georgia State, I had a band together. We were actually the house band for the afterparty for the Atlanta Jazz Festival one year. Yellow Jackets were on that day, Chaka Khan, Joe Sample & The Crusaders, Lee Ritenour, they all came down to this club after the gig, and my band was playing. All of them heard me at the same time.

Joe Sample asked me to join his band that particular night. He said, 'I think you'd do great in L.A.' He wanted to bring me out to L.A. to start recording, and I was like, 'Great! Let's do it.' That's actually what took me to Los Angeles. You only had three choices if you wanted to get in deep: L.A., New York, or Nashville. I chose L.A. over New York in case I ended up being a starving musician, I didn't want to be out on the street in the cold in New York. That decision was all weather based. God intended for me to go to Los Angeles. That's where I ended up, and the rest is history.

WYAT: You wanted to be a session musician rather than being in a band?

Sonny: I wanted to tour, but I really wanted to be in the studio as a session drummer because a lot of the guys that were doing the bigger tours were doing all the major records back then too. I had my ear to the ground a lot; I was listening to a lot of R&B, funk, then the jazz fusion movement came in. Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Steve Gadd, all my heroes…those guys were doing it all; they were touring, they were recording, and they were doing both. I patterned my entire career after them.

I was an Earth, Wind & Fire fan before I joined the band. So seeing Maurice White do his thing being the band leader, seeing Phil Collins be the band leader, seeing all these drummers be the band leader, and not only being the band leader but having very successful projects gave me the energy and the impetus to go, 'You know what? I can do that too.'

WYAT: I feel that recorded music and live music are totally different mediums. Do you prefer one medium over the other?

Sonny: Both mediums have their own individual set of challenges. To be successful at both, you have to pay attention to those specific things that are required in both settings. I love the challenge of the studio because you can sit and map things out. You can really, really dig deep creatively. You can do that live too, but the challenge in the studio is when that red light goes on. It's a challenge for especially a drummer to be rock solid with the time and be creative, expressive, and have those tracks to feel great like right away, not four or five hours later because there are other songs to be done. That whole challenge of the studio…it really feeds a side of me, but then there's nothing like stepping out on that stage and you've got a hundred thousand people screaming at the top of their lungs.

Maurice White was a perfectionist, and just about every boss I've had has been a perfectionist. I worked with Bette Midler for 16 plus years; we're still really good friends. I talk to her often, but I tell her all the time…she's such a perfectionist, it's just rubbed off on me just seeing how she works and she's methodical with the live show. It has to be at a certain quality. And Maurice used to say it all the time: we're doing high art. That live show has to be of a certain quality. It takes a different type of focus. You can't get so caught up in the hype of the audience being there that you forget what's coming next and you blow a cue.

So many of the younger artists, they lean so heavy on the box and the computer and the sequences, and all that stuff, but they don't get a chance to really see what it's like when six or seven guys spend time together and that music starts to morph into something different and more and more special every night. Because they're locked into, 'We got 30 bars here at that's it, the song's over.' Well, what happens if you step over into that 37th bar? Or that 40th bar? That's when the magic happens sometimes. That's the only thing about the computers and stuff nowadays. I like playing with that stuff, but it doesn't give you the chance to gel as a band.

WYAT: Funk music is definitely all about collaboration and working together, but you don't see as many young pure funk bands these days. What is the state of funk today?

Sonny: I think people are missing the point. I think a lot of the younger players, they try to make it what it is not. Funk is a feeling. It's a feeling that's created when all of the parts are coming together creating this one thing. You have a lot of players who are growing up in this information age where they're learning all this stuff, all these licks off of YouTube. That seeps into their playing, across the board every instrument: drums, bass guitar, keys. People are just playing, playing, playing because they have access to all this information. In a funk band, it's great to have all of that, but once you find your part, you lock that in and the next guy does that, and the next guy does that, and the next guy does that. Nobody is showboating.

If you listen to any James Brown track, nobody is showboating. Everybody is playing their part. And that's what's giving you that hypnotic, repetitious, undeniable groove. I think people are overthinking it. Once you get into that groove, that's when the funk becomes alive and that's when people start to feel it. Everybody is working together to create the same thing.

New Orleans has been world famous for that to me. The second line stuff, that stuff grooves like all get out. It's the same concept, the same principal. Nobody's trying to show off; everybody's just making that thing jam. It's the frame of mind that guys are in when they're playing.

WYAT: Is funk the main style or genre of music that you like to play?

Sonny: I'm a funk baby. I'm a funkateer. I love anything that's funky. I grew up playing a lot of jazz, and I really love it. I love acoustic jazz, and I love all aspects of jazz: Dixieland, second-line stuff that you guys got going on down there. It's beautiful. And I love playing that stuff too. But for me, there's just something about hardcore funk. I think it stems from my childhood. My mom was an R&B monster. I listened to Al Green, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cameo…just all these funk bands. That stuff just really got into my soul. I'm a drum technician as well, so I'm really blown away by the fusion thing: Chick Corea. I love playing that stuff, that feeds me too. If I had to choose one out of all the genres, it would be the funk thing because it unites people. I like to see a hundred thousand people just bobbing their head and grooving all together in unity. They're throwing down some serious funk, The Meters!

I'm looking forward to coming to New Orleans and bringing this new project. The name of the album is Soul Ascension. Looking forward to having some great gumbo, etouffee, and all that good food y'all got going on down there.

Sonny Emory is performing with Eric Clapton at the Smoothie King Center on Saturday, September 18.


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