Exclusive: Steve Jordan--In Charlie Watts's Chair on the Rolling Stones Tour--On Keef, Mick...and the Beatles
In his first expansive interview since the Stones started their No Filter gigs, Steve Jordan explains how he's honoring the late drummer from "the best seat in the house."
BY M A R K R O Z Z O
October 7, 2021
Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP, Getty Images
If, for some reason, you haven't already watched it a hundred times, go to YouTube and check out the clip of James Brown performing on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982. It may well be the most riveting live-television musical performance of all time, as the Godfather of Soul runs through "Sex Machine" with the World's Most Dangerous Band (supplemented by two of Brown's horn players)at a tempo and intensity that is outright maniacal. The groove, let us say, is relentless. It's also perfect. The drummer providing it is obscured by Brown and the band. You barely catch a glimpse of him, but it doesn't matter. It's obvious that everything is emanating from him. His name is Steve Jordan.
It's a handy metaphor for Jordan's career: You might not see him, but you feel him. In some ways, he is the ultimate musician's musician, one of those names that come up whenever obsessives are talking about their favorite drummers. ("Bonham?" "No, Earl Palmer!" "Wait, Hal Blaine!" "Art Blakey!" "Keltner!") Jordan's career took off when he joined the Saturday Night Live band in 1977, just out of his teens, when it looked like he was barely old enough to shave. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd then tapped him to provide a pile-driving backbeat for the Blues Brothers. For the next 40 years (Jordon in now 64), it seemed like whenever you needed the guy to play drums on your record or for a tour or for a gala event, Jordan--who also happens to be a producer, songwriter, arranger, and musical director--got the call. Those calls tended to come from artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Sonny Rollings, Sheryl Crow, Ashford & Simpson, John Mayer, and Alicia Keys.
Last summer, the call came from the Rolling Stones: the invitation to fill in for Charlie Watts on the band's No Filter Tour. Watts had been sidelined with a health issue; in August, as the world knows he died, at age 80. With the tour now underway (next stops:Nashville and L.A.), Jordan took a break to chat by phone with Vanity Fair about his long association with Keith Richards (solo albums going back to the 1980's), Mick Jagger's supergalactic charisma, the everlasting brilliance of his friend Charlie Watts, and a certain band from Liverpool.
Vanity Fair: You're clearly the man for the job. How's it been going so far?
Steve Jordan: Oh, man. It's pretty wild . Pretty surreal. The whole thing... I definitely have the best seat in the house! No question.
You've had a relationship with the Stones going back at least to the Dirty Work album, in 1986. Is that how you started working with Keith on his solo projects?
Well, that was our first working introduction. But I'd met Charlie when I was in the Saturday Night Live band. The Stones did the first show of the fourth season [October 7, 1978]. On that show, security was very high. There were a lot less backstage VIP passes for that week. Everybody obviously wanted to be around the band. It was coming off of [the album] Some Girls. That was a new chapter and a re-explosion, so to speak, of the band.
The Yankees were playing the Royals in the playoffs that night, which was the most important thing in life to me. [Jordan,who grew up in New York City, was a Yankees fan.] I didn't really care what else was going on. So I just asked somebody to get me an autograph of the band. I didn't want to try to hang out, meet the band. The Yankees were the priority! As it turns out, it was Charlie who got me the autographs. I ended up hanging out with Charlie in the dressing room and we watched the game together. I was explaining baseball to him. He said, "Oh, it's like a combination of rounders and cricket!" That's how we first met.
You go back over 40 years with Charlie? So how did your association with Dirty Work come about?
In 1985 I was in Paris doing a record with a Duran Duran offshoot called Arcadia, with Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes. We had a night off and the crew said, "We're gonna hook up with some of the guys from the Stones." Because they were recording at Pathe Marconi. And I said, "Could you get a message to Charlie? Just tell him I'm here and I say hello." The message got to him, and he invited me to the studio. When I walked into Pathe Marconi, I went in the control room, and they were set up like they were playing live. I realized just then that that was the first time I'd really seen the Rolling Stones play live in person. My eyes started to well up. I couldn't believe it, because there was nobody there. It was only, like, Ron Wood's wife, Keith's dad, the engineer [Dave Jerden]... and me.
It was incredible. And I took a lot of lessons from that night into my recording practice. so they all greeted me after they finished playing--and then Charlie asked me to play. I said to him, "Absolutely not. I will not play. I'm a Rolling Stones fan. As a fan, if you are alive and well and I play and you could have played, well, I'd shoot the guy who played. So I said, "I'll play percussion with you or something like that. Sometimes I played a little high hat. Sometimes a little bass drum. Sometimes a shaker. And maracas, of course. Maracas are a very important part of the Rolling Stones sound!
So I would work with Arcadia during the day, and then the Stones would start at midnight and I would go with them until, like, eight in the morning. I learned a lot about the inner workings of the Stones.
What's it like working with Keith? You've had a relationship with him that goes beyond playing drums. There's so much collaboration and friendship there.
Very few people that I've ever worked with in my life are more committed to music than Keith Richards. He's really committed to the music. That's the most important thing about Keith. He loves the Rolling Stones and everything revolves around that music.
There's a sense that what made the Stones's sound unique was that Keith led the rhythm section, creating the groove with his guitar, and that Charlie followed--the opposite of the way we assume things usually proceed.
The way that he and Keith locked in--that's really the engine room of the Rolling Stones, the guitar and drums. Not the bass and drums or the bass and guitar. No, it's Keith and the drums.
Beyond that, the Stones always had a very tight bond. First of all, they loved the same type of music. Their love for Chicago blues, in particular, is the backbone of the band. I mean, Mick loves Little Walter. We jam on Little Walter sometimes. I don't think people really understand the deep level of love for blues and jazz that the band has, especially Charlie's love for jazz. Which is the reason why he approached the music the way he did. But rock 'n' roll has swing, you know? The drummers who invented rock 'n' roll, like Earl Palmer and Fred Below, they were jazz drummers. Earl Palmer, all he wanted to do was be Max Roach! Benny Benjamin, Motown genius comes from jazz. Al Jackson comes from jazz. They all did.
That connects to your own playing, which ranges from rock 'n' roll to jazz; it's something you have in common with Charlie--a shared passion, a shared lineage, even.
Basically, that's why it's not foreign to me how he played, what he played and what drove him. So it's very natural. But, you know, I've been listening to these record since I was eight years old. Some of those "fills" or whatever are embedded in my DNA. I can't listen to the song without playing the exact fill that Charlie played, because that's part of how you breathe, you know? People equate hooks to guitar lines or vocal melodies. But there are hooks in drums, too. And Charlie played a lot of hooks. And if you don't play the hooks, then you're not playing the song. So it's imperative that I quote and play these hooks. I'm not trying to do an impersonation. It's just part of the song. And that's not going to go away. I'm always going to do that as long as I'm playing with these guys. But it's got to feel great. It's got to swing. And they all know how to swing.
It's not an "Impersonation." So are you playing as Steve Jordan or as Steve Jordan as Charlie Watts or ... Basically, how do you approach this?
The last time I saw them play, in Chicago [in 2019], I was amazed at how Charlie sounded. He sounded so good. And, you know, for me, my approach is I go back to the original stuff on the records and then work my way back, as opposed to trying to pick up where the band left off in 2019. Because I would say a good portion of the original recordings have been abandoned over time, which is a natural evolution. They don't want to play it the same way for 50 years. But I can't come in and start playing it like that. I have to come from the beginning and work my way through it. Because I'm coming from: "I'm a fan." And as a fan I know what I'd like to hear. And sometimes I want to hear the band play the parts that they had long stopped playing. So I'm going to play it how it is on the record I loved and bought when I was a kid. So we've been able to implement some of the original flavor [on tracks such as "Satisfaction" and "Paint It, Black"] and make it work. And where it doesn't work, we don't make it work. We do something different. So that's part of the discovery and rediscovery of this music, and basically a way to honor Charlie.
What were some of your earliest experiences listening to the Stones and records in general?
Well, I remember the first time I heard "Honky Tonk Women." I thought it was one of the funkiest things I ever heard in my life! It's funky. Period. And I remember hearing "Brown Sugar" for the first time. I just played it over and over again.
I collected records from a very, very early age. The culture I grew up with, it was music all the time. My dad was listening to Miles Davis. My mom listened to all types of music. And they were always supportive of music. I started collecting records, like, three years old? My parents got me a record rack. And if I was good, they would get me a 45 and I would make my own charts up. " This is the number one record this week!" I just loved records. I started DJ-ing for the adults--my parents, my aunts and uncles. And then I DJ-ed for my classmates on school trips. I had a Panasonic battery-operated portable record player that I would carry around. That I still have! So records are everything to me. The first album I ever got was Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn. The sound of that record is something that's indelible. And I was a big Chubby Checker fan and got all of his records--"The Twist," "Let's Twist Again,"
"The Fly," all of that stuff. And then of course I got all Motown, all Stax, Atlantic, and all things James Brown.
Dare I ask, how about the Beatles?
I was a complete Beatle fanatic! When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan [in 1964], it changed my life. Many times in class I was drawing the Beatles onstage and not doing my schoolwork. I'd just be drawing the Beatles logo and Ringo behind the kit and stuff like that. So I'm growing up listening to Ringo Starr in my right ear and Tony Williams in my left ear!
How do the Stones feel about your unabashed Beatlemania?
Well, you know, as a kid you had to make the choice: You couldn't be a Beatles fan and a Stones fan. You were forced to make a choice. That's how it was then. So I chose the Beatles. And for the longest time when I started working with Keith, I couldn't have him over to my apartment, because it was like a Beatles museum! Which I guess was a little strange--like, I'm in my twenties [at the time] so maybe I should be growing up a little bit! And we're working right around the block, literally. One day I finally say, "Okay," and Keith comes over. He comes in, and he looks, and he just starts laughing. The next day, he sends me four Beatle figurines, like the kind you get in those novelty stores in Times Square!
Of course, we now know that the Stones and Beatles were pals. Keith and John Lennon had an interesting friendship, which Keith wrote about it in his memoir, Life.
Yeah. I've picked Keith's brain about his relationship with John. And he would describe stories to me of him with John. And he would describe them vividly. Of which I felt: that's as close to John as I was ever going to get.
Charlie was famous for using a Gretsch kit. How did that influence your decisions about the kit you're using on this tour?
First of all, there was no question it had to be Gretsch drums, because that's the sound of the band. So that was a no-brainer. But I wasn't going to go and use exactly what he was using, because, you know, this is not a Stones karaoke band. I'm going to do my thing: I'm going to approach it in the way I want to hear the Stones. One of my favorite periods of the Stones was when all hell was breaking loose as far as their sound [in] live [performance], between '71 and '75. I just loved that period. They were on fire. So that's what I'm hearkening back to. Charlie was using the black Gretsch kit then. So I looked at that set up and that was the treatment I wanted. I'm basically doing my version of that with a little bigger bass drum, a 24-inch bass drum, [Watts used a 22-inch bass drum] That's my set up. And I have a clear view of Keith without a cymbal in my way and I can really see Mick.
Steve Jordan performs during the Rolling Stones "No Filter" tour in St. Louis, Missouri. By Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images
Talk about having a great perspective on the band! How do you find the chemistry of the Rolling Stones observing it from the drum riser?
A funny thing is, as many Stones concerts as I've seen, and I've seen a few, I'd never seen an entire show, because you either arrive at a certain time or you're backstage or you leave before the encore, whatever. So in St. Louis when we played the first show [on September 26], that was actually the first Stones show that I ever saw in its entirety! So I'm playing, and I'm looking at the show, and I'm like, Wow, this is really cool! And then I'm like, Wait a minute, I'm in the show! Better snap out of it!
The magic is just palpable--the interplay between Keith and Woody, and the connection that you have to have with Mick, no matter if he's eight million miles away from you, you know? The whole thing.
Overall, how's the reception from the fans?
Obviously, we know that we're under a microscope. So, there's that. And then there's people who don't approve of them going out without Charlie. And people who are excited about me doing it. And also there are people that don't understand that I lost a friend. So they're happy for me but they don't understand that I'd rather not have this be the case. But the Rolling Stones have really, really done everything in their power to make the transition smooth and sympathetic and empathetic. They've been cognizant of everyone's feelings. I personally appreciate that.
Going back to last summer, you were invited to fill in for Charlie until he got better. But in August, the gig really changed when Charlie died. It was obviously a pretty devastating moment.
It was complete and utter shock, just devastating. Because I was of the mindset that he was getting better. I had no idea that things had taken a turn.
I was almost the last to know that I was going to be asked to do this. I spoke to Keith and then I spoke to Mick. It was laid out that this was a work in progress. Charlie was going to come back and they would be rocking again. So, I thought, Okay, yeah, I'll do it. I'm just filling in for my friend. Purely that. I wrote Charlie a short letter to say that "Meegan [Steve Jordan's wife, singer Meegan Voss, who plays with Jordan in the Verbs] and I wish you a speedy recovery and I'll keep your seat warm until your glorious return. All the best, your friend, Steve." Mick was gracious enough to get it to him. So I would say, Okay, well, I'll do these few shows and it's kind of like rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. It was like, Let's all just have fun playing the music until Charlie returns. That was the attitude. And then things turned. I was crushed. The world was crushed. It was very, very difficult. It's still difficult.
But as we were saying before, you've had such a long relationship with these guys. It's like, Who better to sit on that throne night after night?
Well, I didn't know when I first say the Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show [in 1964] when I was eight years old that I would ever be playing with any of them, much less knowing any of them! So the whole thing is kind of crazy.
I think my working relationship with keith and the fact that we've played for so long together may have factored in the decision. I don't really know. And the fact that I've know each of them for a long time and worked with them individually. I played on "Ruthless People," Mick's solo track for the film Ruthless People . I did that actually before I worked with Keith solo. I worked with Woody solo. So I was in a unique position.
And, of course, you know, my friendship with Charlie. That too. I mean, the power of that chair--I think a lot of people still underestimate what Charlie did, quite frankly. And it is not to be underestimated. Sitting in that chair and playing that stuff is no joke.
Has there been any talk of recording or future tours?
No, I mean, I did do some stuff, some writing sessions, a couple of years ago. I played on a demo of "Living in Ghost Town" before they made the record [released in 2020]. So there has been that type of collaboration. But I'm not looking that far in advance. My approach is that I accepted the position to fill in for Charlie for these shows. And that's how I'm still looking at it. My goal is just to have things get better and better every show. One game at a time. We're not in the playoffs yet! We're working towards it.
Bonus question: Who did the best version of "Satisfaction"? The Stones, Otis Redding, or Devo?
[Laughing] All three of them are great!
I'll break it down. My favorite thing on the Stones record, besides the Maestro Fuzz-Tone guitar riff that Keith wrote, the most classic riff of all time, was the Brian Jones acoustic guitar part. Which is paramount to that record. It's an incredible freaking part. And, of course, there's the loudest tambourine ever recorded. Now, with Otis's version, which is so tight and so hip, there's no wonder there was a mystery in England, with people thinking that Otis's version came first. Because the R&B fanatics in London back then were, you know, "Why would Otis Redding cover a Stones song? The Stones must have covered and Otis Redding song!" Now, the Devo version... I was a big Devo fan, so I couldn't believe their take on it. Great, great record.
But I have to go with the original because I get goosebumps every time I hear it. All the happy accidents are so unbelievable. It's just like this kind of Mother Nature-type of thing. You know what I mean? And here again--the perfect example of rediscovering the original. On this tour I'm playing the stomp beat Charlie originally played. Because that's the record to me. And I can't hear it any other way.