Veteran Drummer Creates ‘Spinterviews’ of Music Greats

Originally published by Bill Moss for Hendersonville Lightning
March 26, 2014

Rob Tolleson dates his start as a music journalist to age 10 when he was growing up in San Francisco in the Sixties.

“They would have these great concerts and I’d just run out the door,” he said. “I’d tell my mom, ‘I’m going to the park to a concert.’ And she’d say, ‘OK, be back before dark.”

The concerts at Golden Gate Park attracted the up-and-coming greats of the rock’n’roll and jazz scene. Walking behind the stage, he spotted a cluster of shaggy musicians.

“I said, ‘Hey fellas, what are you guys doing?’ And Jerry Garcia looks up at me and says, ‘Oh, we’re just sitting around smoking bananas.'”

After his debut Q&A with the legendary leader of the Grateful Dead, Tolleson would hone his interviewing skill. A jazz drummer by night, Tolleson has always done what he loved. He has stitched together drumming in three or four ensembles at a time, going on the road and playing Asheville and Greenville clubs. By day he interviews and profiles great musicians of the era for music magazines including Modern Drummer, Bass Player, Guitar Player, Wind Player, Strings, Downbeat and Mix, which covers the recording industry.

As a musician himself, he knew the terminology, the vagaries of the recording business and the burdens of the road. He landed tons of great interviews. He knew the secret of a good interview: Shut up and listen. And he did one very smart thing. He saved the tapes.

“I knew,” he said. “I always knew. I carted them across country.”

He realized the interviews, like vintage wine, got more valuable with age.

“One of the things that got me going on this is how many people that I interviewed years ago are no longer with us,” he said. He’d read about the deaths of greats he had known — keyboardist George Duke, for instance, or jazz woodwind player Chico Hamilton — and remembered the time backstage when they told of a great piano riff or an important mentor. “It made me realize what I had.”

Analog to digital

‘He got out all his old tapes — cassette tapes and minicassettes ~ and went to work listening, sorting and taking notes.

“Then I had the mammoth job of transferring all these old analog tapes into digital and putting them on another CD,” he said. He made 13 CDs containing more than 60 interviews. He catalogued every quote with notes on the topic and the length of the excerpt. The interviews go back decades.

“When I was living in San Francisco everybody came through there and it was easy to get face-to-face interviews,” he said. “Since I’ve been back here I’ve probably done more of them by phone.”

He has stories to tell.

Ginger Baker, the great Cream drummer, could be volcanic. Once he walked out of a restaurant and left Tolleson stranded. Another time, when Tolleson was interviewing him at his ranch in California, he bolted from the porch to confront neighbors he thought were bothering his horses.

Covering the Free Jazz Festival in Rio de Janeiro, Tolleson spotted George Benson playing ping—pong in a hotel and challenged him to game. Having the quick hands of a drummer, Tolleson is pretty good. Good enough to win Benson’s respect if not the game. “I ended up at the bar getting plastered with him,” he said.

Now Tolleson has put the tapes to good use. He created the “Spinterview,” his own term for mixing snippets of interviews with the songs the artist is talking about. He uses two turntables and a mixer to spin classic vinyl albums while blending in the interview excerpts. He carries the whole setup in sturdy metal cases. A lava lamp adds to the Sixties look.

“I have a little percussion,” he says. “I just can’t help myself.”

Off to the side are his snare and conga drums, cabasa, woodblock and cowbell.

Last week he launched a 10-week Spinterview series on Thursday afternoons at his church, Trinity Presbyterian. The premiere went well except when he put on a rock’n’roll interview “and here comes the F—bomb three times.“

‘The Spinterview has begun’

Spinterview subjects include hornmen Wayne Shorter and David Sanborn, keyboardists George Duke, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, vocalists Bobby McFerrin, Whitney Houston and Al Jarreau, guitarists Joe Pass, Joe Satriani, George Benson and Carlos Santana, jazz legends Lionel Hampton and Max Roach, banjo visionary Bela Fleck, classic rock bands Yes,‘Jethro Tull, Genesis, Journey and Cream, world beat groovemaker Sly Dunbar, legendary record producer Arif Mardin, and many others.

The soundtrack to the interviews he spins on old-fashioned records.

“There’s something about vinyl,” he said “I love the sound of it. It has a warmth that digital doesn’t have. I have hundreds of CDs in my office and I hardly ever play a CD anymore. I was thinking I could just throw them all away except I have to use them for my articles.”

He’s done a couple of Spinterviews at bars and he imagines the form as a perfect fit for radio. He is finalizing plans to do his Spinterview show at Horizon Records in Greenville for Record Store Day on April 19, and he is booked to do one at Barleys Tap Room in Spindale on May 1.

At first he thought he would group the interviews by musical genre but he has found by doing the shows that a random approach works well. A Spinterview could go from drummer Terry Bouio talking about Frank Zappa to David Byrne talking about the Talking Heads to Whitney Houston sharing a story about her start in the industry.

“We only got through three people and it was really a variety of stuff‘.“ he said on one of his first public performances. “So I kind of feel like the Spinterview has begun and it‘s just going to keep going. For now the 50 I’ve got ready, I‘m just going to go with it. It’s a great cross-section and I think people will like it.”


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