John Blackwell Jr., the sound, funk and fury behind Prince and the New Power Generation and Justin Timberlake is a spectacle for the eyes and ears. Blackwell's slamming tight grooves, popping snare and furiously flamboyant drumstick twirling and cross-arm strokes must be seen to be believed.
Blackwell, born in Columbia South Carolina, was raised in a very musical family. John's father, John Sr., was a very well known professional drummer who performed with acts like The Drifters, The Spinners and Mary Wells. John Jr. got his first drumset at age 3 and was brought to many concerts that came through South Carolina by his father. While in high school, John was playing in the High School Jazz and Marching Band while performing every weekend with the R&B/Jazz/Fusion group, Robert Newton & Lotusfete as well as with Billy Eckstine.
In 1992 John chose to further pursue his drum studies by enrolling into Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. John kept himself extremely busy and created a strong buzz about him while performing as much as possible with many Jazz and R&B artists around Boston. John was also teaching students and performing drum clinics during his time away from college. John left Berklee in 1995 and landed the gig with legendary funk group Cameo who he played with for the next 3 years. In 1998 after his time with Cameo, John packed up and moved to Los Angeles, California. Blackwell was in LA for only 3 days when he landed the drum position for the legendary R&B Diva, Patti LaBelle. During this time John recorded for LaBelle's Grammy Award winning CD, DVD and VHS, "Patti LaBelle-Live One Night Only".
Zildjian Artist Profile Exclusive Interview:
1. How did you get your start playing drums?
I started playing drums at the age three, my father was playing with his band in Fort Jackson SC and my family was attending the gig. It was in the summertime. When the band took a break, I got up on stage without my father knowing and started playing his drum set, and everyone in the audience was surprised, and so was my father more than anybody else! So that Christmas, my father bought me a junior professional kit. The first beat I played on that kit as soon he set it up, was "Brick House" by the Commodores. The “Commodores Live” album was my favorite album during that time.
2. Who influenced you early on and who inspires you today?
John Blackwell Sr. (R.I.P.), my father was and still is my main influence today. Because he taught me the most important thing, and that is to play in the pocket. And that, I would work on consistently. The other things, like chops, are secondary when it comes to music and drums.
3. How did attending Berklee College help shape your drumming style and you as a person?
Can you share some of your favorite memories of attending Berklee College?
To me Berklee College is a pre real world experience. Everything I experienced there, is, and still is what I experienced and go through now. So going there really prepared me for the music industry. Some great memories of being in Berklee, and in Boston, were going to all the cafeteria shows that students put on; and being the drummer for some of those shows we're great as well. Wally’s Cafe WAS ALWAYS A TREAT! Going to the Jam Sessions and seeing my friends and I perform there was great.
4. Visually, you’re very exciting to watch – how did you develop your showmanship skills?
I learned how to twirl sticks in Columbia SC at W.J. Keenan High School. The drum section was always in a lot of competitions with other high school drum sections, so it was always about the cadences, dance steps and the showmanship. I just took what I learned from there and applied it to the drum kit. (R.I.P. KITCHEN, our drum captain and mentor.)
5. You play with so many different artists and therefore, always need to redefine your cymbal sound. How do you go about picking cymbals for each musical situation you’re in, from Prince to Justin Timberlake, to even in the studio with your own band, The John Blackwell Project?
Well with Prince, Cameo, and many others, being in an arena it's kind of required to use something bright and dark. I use Armand Crashes depending on the Arena, and I use K Constantinople Crash Rides; and I always use the K Custom Complex Ride or K Custom Ride. I also use the Hybrid Chinas and K Chinas, or the Oriental Chinas. With my band, THE JOHN BLACKWELL PROJECT, everything on the kit is from the K Zildjian Family.
6. You spend a good amount of your time traveling & touring, sometimes needing to leave with very short notice. ..How do you keep from going crazy on the road?
Praying and keeping God first, and knowing that this is what I was meant to do, and this is what I wanted to do. So you have to take the good and the bad of the job, and stay in shape.
7. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? Are there any hobbies you’re into?
My wife and I do a lot of Fishing. IT HELPS ME WITH STAYING PATIENT WITH EVERYTHING IN LIFE.
8. How do you define success as a drummer? What would you say your secret to success is if you were giving advice to someone starting out?
I would tell someone everything I got did not come overnight. Also a lot of praying and paying dues. You do all those things and when you least expected God will bless you with a wonderful opportunity.
9. Any funny stories from the road you can share with us?
When I was touring with Cameo, in 1996 we did a show in Houston with Rick James at the Summit Arena, and I saw these real pretty girls backstage early in the show. I always wore what Larry Backmon told me to wear, which was THESE BIKER SHORTS THAT DID NOT FIT SO WELL; MY BEHIND ALWAYS STUCK OUT OF THEM, AND IT WAS ALWAYS EMBARRISING. It was time for Cameo to come out of the dressing room, so we come out to get ready for the stage, and who did I see as soon I came out in those tight, not fitting biker shorts? THE 2 PRETTY GIRLS I WAS CHECKING OUT (LOL)!! And they saw me with those biker shorts on, and gave me this nasty look, like, OMG!! WHAT IS HE WEARING, LET'S GO GIRL (LOL)!! Let's just say I was not getting Sany numbers that night from those girls or any girls at that. After that show, I asked Mr. Blackmon if I could wear jeans… from that show on… and jeans that fit. (LOL)! Great memories (LOL)!