As with many of my early – and lasting – drum heroes, I have my mum to thank for introducing me to the music made by Bobby Colomby. I’m not sure she’d even know the name if I mentioned it. But she would definitely remember the name of his band – Blood, Sweat & Tears.
I think I heard BS&T first on that classic Tour of Duty album (a tape my mum bought for her car and we’d listen to it over and over on drives around town). And there was something wonderful that happened during the song And When I Die – it moved from this funny rinky-dink country-music pastiche to swinging jazz. And back. And it was so brilliantly controlled. This happened because of a great band – sure. And that band was being led through those changes by the drummer. I would go on to find out it was Bobby Colomby. I would go on to devour the BS&T catalogue – always listening in for what Colomby was doing, always hearing the drums as being such a crucial element.
Turns out we had the first couple of Blood Sweat albums on vinyl – mum and dad were fans. And when I showed some interest in the song on the Tour of Duty tape mum gave me the keys to the kingdom.
One of the first CDs in our house was the single-disc Greatest Hits of Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was released in 1972 and captures the hits from the band’s first line-up and first handful of albums; the classic singles. It is one of the albums I’ve listened to most in this world. I love it so much. Not only do I love the songs – and performances. But it was one of the albums I practiced along to – trying my best to learn Colomby’s dynamic, deceptive drum parts.
I know now – attempting some of them again recently – that I was way off! But it fuelled my enthusiasm and I was reaching. Something important to try. I was also learning a lot about music by playing this on repeat – listening in for fills and attempting to replicate them; fills that are so crucial as colour in these big band arrangements.
The jazz-rock of bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears was alive in that moment – late 60s and early 70s – and maybe it is cited only by big bands now – for any of their post-Benny Goodman arrangements. But I’ve always loved the sound. And there’s something special to me about reconnecting with Blood, Sweat & Tears in particular. I grew to love so much about this band – appreciating the contributions from many of the members. And in particular the song selections – great choice of covers, brilliant new arrangements of tunes by James Taylor and Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and especially Laura Nyro. They wrote some originals too – including a few of their biggest hits. But their mix of blues, soul, jazz and folk – all within his big-band jazz-rock framework was powered by a commitment to a strong song. And it didn’t matter who the writer was, their version felt like it had been co-authored by every single player on the recording and in their arrangement.
Colomby brought many things to my ears for the first time. That press roll that opens out and opens up the song You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, his brush work on Sometimes In Winter, the cowbell intro to Spinning Wheel. In fact Spinning Wheel is just such a performance by him. The fills are so sharp, so on point – he’s busy colouring in the background and driving the song all at the same time. It’s a funky feel that is punctuated by his hits along with the horn section. And it’s one of my favourite songs to this day.
His overtly ‘jazz’ playing on their version of God Bless The Child is one of several things I love about that song.
And there are branch-off moments for me that would make Blood, Sweat & Tears important anyway – through them I discovered how much I love Billie Holiday, through them I found the music of Laura Nyro.
There are branch-off moments for me with Bobby Colomby too. He is there – if you listen deep – on Church of Anthrax, that incredible album by John Cale and Terry Riley. He is there playing drums and percussion on Eddie Palmieri’s terrific Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo record too – just take a listen to this!
But the absolute coolest thing he did I reckon was produce the self-titled debut by Jaco Pastorius which is absolutely and always one of my favourite records ever.
When I heard that album and read the liners and connected Colomby up with it I was back to the Blood, Sweat & Tears material to listen again. I’d moved on from my own ham-fisted attempts to play along with his best performances but I had remained a fan of the group’s music. To listen to it again and then hear Colomby as a producer made a whole lot of sense (he also produced the disco “comeback” record by the Jacksons – Destiny). He is producing the drum sound – in all senses – when you listen to the material he plays on with BS&T. These aren’t just playing performances. These are orchestrated, arranged, ‘composed’ drum grooves and fills. There’s such an excitement to me still in hearing what he does on songs like I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know and Lucretia MacEvil. His drums sitting in the background – driving the groove – but when they have their moment to provide punctuation, to hammer home a point, to deviate and switch up the groove and move the song from one type of music to another (seamlessly) it’s done with such aplomb, such skill.
My record collection features a few Blood, Sweat & Tears albums – as well as that Greatest Hits record. And they’ve all been bought to hear the other things Colomby did.
Sometimes I think I only need to listen to his Spinning Wheel or Very Happy or God Bless The Child performances to hear and feel his very best work. Then I’ll hear something new to me and be wowed – the Latin breakdown that drives their amazing recreation of The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil for instance, or his steady hand guiding their cover of Fire and Rain.
Most recently I reviewed the band’s full appearance at Woodstock (finally out for the first time) and it’s just such a special performance. The group has a finite set of songs in its arsenal and it’s a performance for the ages.
Colomby was a founder member of BS&T and he retains the band’s name – replacing himself with a younger player and clipping the ticket as a version of the group tours to this day.
He’s still involved in music – producing, representing.
But if he’d only played on that first handful of Blood, Sweat & Tears albums he’d still be one of the important drummers. In my life anyway.
I think his playing is explosive, inventive, colourful, clever but never ever too much.
That’s a rare skill. Go and listen (or listen again) to his very best work. It’s phenomenal.