Glenn Symmonds on the 70’s Bay Area, playing drums and touring with Coke Escovedo
© Jim McCarthy August 2009
Glenn Symmonds was originally a native of and went to High School in Spokane Washington, his mother originated from the city of Liverpool (home of The Beatles) and he toured in later years in the UK with a band called The Untouchables, (a second wave ska band) supporting well-known chart toppers, the Birmingham based band UB40.
One early influence was to have a direct and overwhelming influence on Symmonds’ life, “Tower of Power used to travel through the border of Washington and Idaho, on the state line. There was a place where you get in to the bars there, so we’d all go to catch the groups coming through. Tower, Elvin Bishop, Cold Blood, lots of the Bay Area bands. I was drawn to the Bay Area from listening to David Garibaldi’s playing with Tower of Power. We became friends and he invited me over to listen to him practice in his hotel room and go over the stuff he was studying with his teacher Chuck Brown. I knew then that the minute I graduated, I wanted to take lessons with Chuck Brown. That was my goal!”
He was true to his word, Symmonds graduated and leaving Spokane at seventeen years old….. “ I knocked on Chuck Brown’s door, I had a U-haul trailer filled with my stuff out on the street and I’m knocking on his door. He opened the door and introduced myself, I said I’ve driven 1300 miles to take lessons from him and he says, my teaching schedule Is pretty full for the next year (laughs!) I didn’t even have place to live, all my stuff is in the van outside and the motor’s running. I said to him, I came here to study with you and I shamed Chuck Brown into giving me drum lessons.”
Chuck Brown as well as mentoring hundreds of drummers also taught significantly Michael Shrieve as well as Terry Bozzio (who played with Azteca) and of course Garibaldi.
Symmonds plugged into the Bay Area scene fairly quickly, he attended his first audition and remembers, “ My first audition was going down to a club in Berkeley and Linda Tillery and The Loading Zone were playing and I was friendly with Bill Meeker. He was drummer with Elvin Bishop. Coincidentally I had met him before at the state line when Elvin had come thru, so I asked him
If I could sit in, as drummers do! They were a very cool soul and R&B type band with great vocals, Vince Denim on saxophone, (who went onto play with Elvis) they had a great groove, they also had Dougie Rauch on bass with them. Bill was a phenomenal drummer, they turned round and said “ Do you know What Is Hip”. I had worn out the grooves on my vinyl record, learning that song. I wore that vinyl white, I just knew it inside and out. I had to put a coin on top of the needle to get it to stay down while playing the record, I’d played it so much. I used to slow the tracks down to 16 rpm, it was like W-O-O-O-AAAHHHHHH, very low sounding and demonic (laughs). That’s how I learned those Tower tunes. They didn’t know that I knew that song like the back of my wife’s ass!
So I had practiced them also with my friend Dave Garibaldi, studied ’em further with Chuck Brown and David had written out those parts too. First nite in Oakland and they call off What Is Hip and I nailed it. They turned around and grinned at me – just look at that kid play! It was a great entrée into that world. In the audience were some people that offered me a job with Frank Byner and The Night Shift who wrote songs for Tower Of Power. A bass player that came up to me also that night was David Margen. He was also playing with Frank. So I was playing with them now as well.”
His expansive personality and expressive drum chops, made his entry into the Bay Area more established, “I also was playing with a guy called Gideon and in his band he had a guy called Melvin Seals. He was the leader of The Jerry Garcia Band. Melvin was groomed in the church and could make the Hammond B3 sing man! They had a high-energy gospel-rock vibe. All those bands played the same kinda’ clubs, The Keystone Korner, LaValles, The Long Branch, they were three of the top ones. Also during that intern, I met Eddie Money and played with him. He knocked on my door, saying ‘ I hear you’re a drummer, my drummer didn’t show, so I want you to play with me tonight, I did one song and he says, “That’s it, I want you in the band. He said, “My name’s Eddie Money and I want to be a rock and roll star by 25, I don’t have a lotta’ time!“ Just like that! So I was gigging with everybody.”
Gigs for the young Symmonds were plentiful, “I was in a fourth band too, called Grayson Street. They had a phenomenal harmonica player called Ricky Kellog, who ended up in Canned Heat. Grayson Street was mostly original R&B style East Bay grease and very funky – James Brown orientated1”
The East Bay, particularly Oakland was a breeding ground for the funk and Symmonds went on to discuss one of Tower of Power’s greatest vocalists, the redoubtable but also controversial Rick Stevens. “Rick had a cover band, they were doing Tower songs and he was the best of all the Tower singers in my opinion. I saw Tower with Lenny Williams mostly at the time I saw them.”
His connection with Coke Escovedo was fairly straightforward, “ I was on a bill with Coke, There was Grayson Street and Coke was checking me out from the side of the stage. I knew something was up and he came over and asked me to join his band! He already had very talented musicians, he had a guy on drums apart from Harvey Mason on his first album and I came in after that. I knew of him from the Third Santana album, with the dedication to him on there. We started rehearsing and every Monday night in Oakland we would play at a club called King Richards. That was in Jack London Square, we would hold court there and a lot of great jazz and other musicians would show up unexpectedly, you never knew who – it could be Malo’s singer, it could be brother Pete or Sheila would sit in and play congas. Abel Zarate was in the band too, another guy there was Ray Obiedo, he was very popular.”
The line up didn’t have a regular conga player, Coke simply invited his family down. “ Frank was on keyboards, (later on it would be Herman Eberitsch ) Erroll Knowles was singing and also another girl was Lynn Mabry, who later became a Bride Of Funkenstein (an off-shoot of Parliament) and later became a back up singer in George Michael’s show. Everybody in the East Bay could play- everybody was really good. My parents were very supportive and I got well schooled- I could play mallets, for zylophone, vibraphone, marimba and Coke let me used that talent on the Comin’ At Ya’ album- he let me play vibes on there on the Jose Feliciano song, “Stay With Me.”
“Playing with Coke was my first recorded album and he let me play and recorded three of my songs as well. He took all the credit for the first one- a guaganco groove and he had everybody singing “Coke Escovedo play the guaguanco, Coke Escovedo play the guaguanco” and he put his name on that (laughs). I don’t even remember what I was getting paid. He had a three-album contract with Mercury Records- and considering he was sideman and not a singer- it’s great he got a record deal!
Coke certainly had hit a home run in the recording stakes for awhile, and apparently was an outgoing individual; Glenn describes Coke thus. “ He had a gentle heart, a lovely guy, with a lot of talent, he loved to be the centre of attention. He was great to me, showed me how to play drums with him, he kept his distance too, with the employees, he had a dark side to him that I was to become aware of. His eyes would get really glassy at times. He would get very wasted and spaced out on cocaine, I know sometimes he would get so high, he didn’t want to be standing up there with his timbales. So, he would come to the back of the stage and kick me off the drums and get me to play timbales.
He told me to go play ‘em, he would play drums- he was a terrible drummer (laughs).
I asked Glenn about the slew of outstanding timbale players in the Bay Area at that time. “Well – Jose “Chepito”Areas absolutely, Chepito was so strong he didn’t play with those thin little dowelling timbale sticks, and they’d cut them in half. Chepito played with brutal hardness, using thick drumsticks and was intensely talented. They’re as no rivalry at all in Coke. I remember we played Madison Square Garden and Tito Puente came down. Backstage Tito treated Coke like a long lost son, he was very gracious and invited us to his nightclub after we were done. We got there and a table was set, he wined us and dined us, we came into this Latin club, there’s a ten- piece band playing and Tito really took care of us. He was very grateful that Coke had brought “Para Los Rumberos” to the Third Santana album sessions and got that song Tito wrote included on the Third album.
Symmonds’ path crossed most of the Bay Area percussion luminaries. “Mingo was a hugely talented and strong and powerful conga player- a triple Sagittarius, like I said. He was very intense, very crazy and wild! He was involved in the Chick Corea Electric band when they had Steve Gadd- the very first incarnation of that, before Al Di Meola and Lenny White. Mingo would sit in at King Richards club. He asked me also to play with him, and he also had an album deal with CBS and was putting together a batch of his songs. He had hand picked musicians , we would rehearse seven days a week and I had gigs at night too, playing with all these other bands, so I could not give Mingo the commitment he wanted. I took from him all the lessons he showed me, he showed me the conga, timbale techniques, applied to the drum set, when there isn’t a conga player or a timbale player, what do you do?? How do you simulate those sounds and rhythms, he’d also showed Steve Gadd the same type of stuff. Gadd and Mingo were very tight. At that time he was not maybe been even twenty-one year old – nor was I for that matter.
Glenn’s time with Coke was curtailed by the encroaching drug related aspects of those day in the music business and later on in the USA as coke and heroin spread thru out US society rapidly. “ Coke’s band was a great band playing locally, so musicians who didn’t play on a Monday night, it was a great place to hang but with the hang came the drugs too. When we were on the road we were opening for Parliament and Funkadelic. We were opening for The Johnson Brothers. There were some characters hanging around – they were in the van with us. In the hotels with us, on the stage with us! I didn’t know who they were but I got to know why they were there. To some degree they kept me isolated, I was a nineteen-year-old kid at that time. Erroll Knowles and Coke were much older and I was a younger guy and I was mostly friends with Abel Zarate in the band, A very sweet guitar player. But I started to find out, one night Coke told us to get onstage and I had to go back to the dressing room, I’d forgotten my drumsticks and the bag. I rushed offstage and get to the dressing room and there’s Coke, with a needle in his arm. He yelled, “Get the fuck outta’ here!”
One character in particular was to hasten Glenn’s departure from the group, “Big Ronnie was one of those guys hanging around, he came out from the side of the stage and he poked me in the ribs one night, during the first song, told me to “Shut the fuck up, that I was playing too loud”. I turned around and bashed him on the head and on the shoulders with my sticks- told him to get the fuck away from me.
He crawled off the stage with his purple pimp hat (with a big feather in it) his purple pimp jacket and his platform shoes. (laughs) He was total pimp man; it was the seventies. When we walked offstage, you can imagine the audience is roaring out a standing ovation – and everybody is patting themselves down with towels, congratulating each other and Big Ronnie is grabbing me with two hands round my neck and I am down in the curtains. I am down man. He is choking me, “I’m gonna’ kill you motherfucker”, he’s going for broke and the band realise and pulled him off me. I swore that was it, I did one more show and then the tour was over. I never played again with Coke Escovedo. I totally lost touch.
He described the adverse effect cocaine had on his drumming abilities, “I only did cocaine a couple of times but I experienced the same feeling, my back was very tensed up and it also made me very gun-shy. It inhibited my playing a lot. I think maybe the first hit can be great. But if you’re in concert and you’re revved and do you do a line of coke, you’re only going to feel that for five minutes and then you’re going to crash while your playing. Then you feel terrible, you are thinking those people are looking at me.
My hands hurt and you start to feel achy and you can’t wait to get off stage and get another hit. It was always counterproductive for me – I wasn’t addicted but I think Coke was, he wasn’t as sharp; he became less focused than he was.”
Glenn went on to along and varied drumming career with among others, Automatic Man, John Klemmer, Dave Mason, Elvin Bishop, Etta James and a long association with Eddie Money.
Look out for further revealing stories and tales from the rock and roll merry-go-round;
is part of a upcoming VOICES interviews feature on Automatic Man – The Greatest Group You Never Heard!!
© Jim McCarthy July 2009
Tags: Abel Zarate, Automatic Man, Azteca, Carlos Santana, cocaine, Coke Escovedo, Cold Blood, Dougie Rauch, Eddie Money, Glenn Symmonds, Jerry Garcia, Jose (Chepito) Areas, Linda Tillery, Mingo Lewis, Pete Escovedo, Santana Third album, Sheila E, The Loading Zone, Tower Of Power, Voices of Latin Rock