A Conversation with Philip Paul: Memories of the Cincinnati Drumming Legend and King Records Star

"I look forward to every weekend playing because that’s part of my life. I’ve had a happy marriage, I have a wonderful wife and a good family, but when I play on the weekend, that’s like strawberry shortcake."

click to enlarge Philip Paul in a promotion photo for the actor portrayed of him in the Playhouse in the Park's production of Cincinnati King. - Photo: Tony Arrasmith/Arrasmith & Associates
Photo: Tony Arrasmith/Arrasmith & Associates
Philip Paul in a promotion photo for the actor portrayed of him in the Playhouse in the Park's production of Cincinnati King.

Cincinnati suffered a big loss on Sunday, Jan. 30, when local musician Philip Paul passed away at age 96.

Paul is a legend, having played on over 350 recordings for Cincinnati's King Records during his time as session drummer from the early 1950s through the mid '60s and beyond. He played on and created the beat for "The Twist" by Hank Ballard (further popularized after Dick Clark's friend Chubby Checker performed it on American Bandstand), and on the first recording of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" during his time as drummer for the Tiny Bradshaw Orchestra. That song was recorded later by Rockabilly legend Johnny Burnette in 1957, as well as by The Yardbirds as a 1960s Garage Rock staple and by Led Zeppelin as an almost precursor to Metal. It was covered again in the 1970s by Aerosmith, and still done today on a regular basis by bands in the know.

Paul played on "Fever" by Little Willie John, "Hideaway" by Freddie King (a huge influence on '60s electric guitar players like Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton) and "Please Come Home For Christmas" by Charles Brown (now a Christmas standard). He also performed with Grand Ole Opry star Cowboy Copas and toured the country in the finest Jazz clubs of the era. Jazz legend Duke Ellington even once asked him to join his band.

Paul witnessed and was a part of the birth of Rock & Roll and has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He helped educate and preserve Cincinnati's music history after becoming one of the spokespeople for King Records’ legacy, deservedly becoming a local celebrity, and still played publicly on a regular basis in his later years.

His role is important in the history of American music. Phil’s story is a great one and not just because he played Jazz in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom and in Cincinnati's Cotton Club, or because he toured the country, playing with Jazz legends — that would be enough — but he also played and recorded with Country, Blues and R&B legends, leaving his own mark. He is a link to all the original ingredients of modern popular music.

In 2011, I went to the Cricket Lounge in the Cincinnatian Hotel looking to explore the city, have a drink and to hear a live Jazz band. A day or so later, I happened to catch a piece of an interview on PBS with someone who looked really familiar. I eventually placed where I had seen the person who was telling all these great stories — Philip Paul at the Cricket Lounge — and soon went back to see him perform, something I did many times over the next few years. Eventually, I approached him on a break to ask about his history.

I’ve always had an interest in music history and finding out more about what part Cincinnati played in it. I was amazed to talk to Paul and uncover his connections to all this great history and all these things I loved. He was always quick to smile and have a laugh — very sharp but very humble — and always kind. He did me the pleasure of doing the below interview around that time. It is still one of the most interesting things I’ve gotten to do.

I lived out of state for a few years, but saw him in more recent years and he was as gracious as ever. He did the interview for a now-defunct blog that I hoped would run in CityBeat at the time, but I'm glad it is now. From what I knew of him, and I’m sure others would agree, he was a great man and a huge part of history in the city of Cincinnati and a huge part of music history in general.

Here is a transcript of our 2011 conversation:

Brent Stroud: What kinds of things did you grow up listening to?
Philip Paul: Well, my parents were from the Caribbean and I grew up listening to a lot of Calypso music, music from the Caribbean. Bu, you know, Jazz was so prevalent at the time and my father was a musician and my uncle played out, and my uncle played drums, so they had a Jazz band so I listened to all three types of music.

BS: Did you hear Blues growing up?
PP: Not too much. I was more interested in exploratory music like Jazz.

BS: Did you see Rock & Roll coming? If so, what were the first things you saw as a move to that style?
PP: Yeah, I saw… well when I joined the Tiny Bradshaw band I began to pay attention to the styles of music and I could tell it was changing, especially the drummer — a heavy beat, kinda loud. (Laughs)

BS: When did you start playing?
PP: I got interested in the drums at 9, but by 17 I was playing professionally.

BS: Who did you play with first and when did you feel you were moving in a more professional direction?

PP: Well, my father belonged to a lodge in New York, it’s called Eureka Lodge, and the west Indian population was quite big around New York. Just like any neighborhood, in some you have the Hispanic, sometimes Jewish people, Italian. The neighborhood I lived in was more Caribbean music and I started playing at the lodges there like a bar and restaurant, and they also had music on weekends and I was playing there on weekends.

BS: Tell me about the Jazz scene in New York when you were coming up?
Oh very prevalent. It overshadowed everything else. At the time, Jazz was the music. Bebop was coming into focus and most musicians from all over the country would come to New York to hone their music you know. Everybody was playing Jazz. All the main Jazz stars of now were in New York. I played at a place called the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theater. Jazz was all over the city.

BS: So you played the Savoy Ballroom?
Yeah, they usually had two bands, a big band and a smaller combo — maybe nine pieces — and they alternated every night.

BS: How about your experience with Duke Ellington, later on?
I had come out here to Ohio and after my stint with Tiny Bradshaw, who passed away, I started a trio with Roy Meriwether; he’s from Dayton, Ohio. He was under contract to Columbia. We got a pretty big hit with his album, I can’t remember the name now…

BS: The Popcorn album? (Popcorn & Soul: Groovin' at the Movies)
PP: Yeah. After we made that, the booking agent wanted us to go out on a nationwide tour. We went out, played all the Jazz clubs and our first club, in New York, was the Hickory House. I was playing there one night and Duke Ellington walks in (laughs). The drums were elevated and he came over. When he was talking to me, he was down around my ankles down right where I was playing the bass drum and he said, “I’d like for you to join my band.” So I looked at him, and I was shocked. He said, “Im going to send my manager over here to talk to you.” Unfortunately, we had this trio, we had practiced and we had prepared ourselves for this tour. We were going. We not only started in New York, we went all the way to California, Jazz Clubs in Chicago, Las Vegas, we played all over so I didn’t want to leave (Meriwether) at that time you know. I didn’t think that was fair. So, I turned down that offer. That was a once-in-a-lifetime offer.

BS: Sounds like you did the right thing, ethically.
PP: Right.

BS: Coming to Cincinnati, what did you see “happening” around town?
It was happening in Cincinnati then. I came out here and, I tell you, the Cotton Club was very famous. All the best musicians would come through there, play the Cotton Club. Then you had gambling across the river over in Covington, Newport, so you had like a Las Vegas atmosphere around here really. I came down here and I was shocked, really, and I think the atmosphere helped me to stay here.

BS: As a kid coming to a place like that would be pretty shocking and exciting?
PP: Well I wasn’t exactly a kid, maybe in age. You know, I had traveled all over the country with New York musicians.

BS: Really?
Yeah, so I wasn’t exactly an amateur when I came here (laughs).

BS: Getting started with King Records?
PP: When I came to join Tiny Bradshaw, he was under contract with King Records, so after playing at the Cotton Club, for maybe 4 or 5 weeks, he was ready to go into the recording studio and that was my introduction into King Records and meeting Syd Nathan. Consequently, I did all those recordings with all the King Records artists you know and that’s when my career opened up.

BS: The daily experience at King?
PP: It was like a regular job. Sometimes we would start recording at 8 o’clock in the morning, sometimes I would have an appointment at 2 p.m. recording; anytime of the day at all. It depended on the artists, when they came to town. They would probably be out on tour and they set aside some time to record. It was primarily when I got a call from the studio, I went. I would set everything else aside and do that.

BS: You lived pretty much right around the corner didn’t you?
Yeah, I lived about four blocks, I still live about four blocks from the studio.

BS: What stuff did you work on?
I did Tiny Bradshaw "Train Kept A-Rollin.'" I did (Bradshaw's)"Soft." I did Charles Brown’s Christmas album. I did Freddie King’s "Hideaway." I did everything (laughs).

BS: Your favorite record you worked on?
 I like Jazz. I have nothing against Rhythm and Blues or Blues or anything. I did an album with Milt Buckner — I don’t know if you ever heard of him. He used to be a piano player with Lionel Hampton. You don’t recall Lionel Hampton. You're too young for that.

BS: I’ve heard of Lionel Hampton, actually.
PP: Oh yeah. The vibraphonist. You heard the tune, "Flying Home?"

BS: I don’t think so.
PP: Lionel Hampton had a big hit with it, that’s why I mentioned that tune. But Milt Buckner played piano with him and he was also a very accomplished organist. So he was under contract to King also. He came to town suddenly and he wanted to make a recording, so myself, Bill Willis (bass player) and a guitarist — I don’t remember his name, I’d have to look on the album — went into the studio and made this album and I think that was the most enjoyable session, not that the other recordings weren’t enjoyable too but this was just... Milt Buckner was one of my idols from New York cause I had seen him, heard him play many times and for him to come down here and record with him, that was a special treat to me.

BS: How about life after King?

PP: Life after? (laughs). Hey it’s great right now, you know. I’d like to make more money. A lot of people think when they read these stories and they think I’m loaded but it isn’t that way at all. Maybe it takes a long time. I don’t know (laughs), but I think it's coming. I would have thought I would have a lot easier time financially, now, but it just doesn’t happen that way.

BS: It’s just weird the way that works, the guys that are playing that are doing the groundwork and stuff for these legendary things.

BS: But you played with Roy Meriwether Trio and you did a huge tour that was all after King wasn’t it?
PP: Oh yeah, yeah. That was enjoyable, too. Hard work. He was into that piano, you know. He had a Gospel feel and it was hard work. We traveled all over the country, played to packed houses and they loved it.

BS: That’s great. So you played under Columbia, too?

PP: Yeah, he was under contract to Columbia.

BS: What is it that is special about Jazz? When I listen to you guys playing at the Cricket Lounge, I get ideas of art or something.
Well you answered it yourself. I think Jazz is a classical form of music where you not only play the melody you...

BS: Sort of freeform or something?
PP: Yeah. You play the chord structure, but it’s so interesting. To me it’s like when you play a tune and you have to play it the same way every time, that’s boring to me. Jazz you can infuse it with ideas around the chord structure and it makes it more interesting. I think it should make it more interesting to the listener, too, but a lot of people, because they don’t understand what a Jazz player’s doing, they express their displeasure with it because they don’t understand it. I don’t think they really dislike it, it’s just like they don’t understand what’s going on.

BS: It's almost like an academic music, you know? Like abstract art. It goes hand in hand with painting.
Right, you explained it very well

BS: In your opinion, what is it that is special about music in general?
I think it’s a spiritual feeling you get when you complete music and excite some emotion in people, because when I play, I watch the audience — I can tell whether a person's enjoying it or not. They don’t necessarily have to applaud all the time, but if I can see them drumming their fingers on the table or they're moving their feet, I know I got 'em. When they leave the club, they’ll remember something about me. That’s what I like about the whole business of playing music.

BS: Why do you think all these great art forms — Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul, Bluegrass — all started in America?
Well, I think this is the land where a lot of people came from different places and they more or less brought some of this culture with them and the music reminds them of some of these far-away places, so I think that’s basically what it’s about. If everybody liked the same thing the same way all the time, wouldn’t it be boring? I think the people themselves have brought these ideas to this country and some of us understand it and some of us don’t.

BS: View of music now?
PP: Well, I’m hoping some of the things I’m doing, I’m going to the schools and we play Jazz and we talk to the kids and try to explain to them what we’re doing and try to get them interested because as far as I can see it, if young people do not try to have some kind of knowledge of Jazz, music is not going to move ahead. We can play Rock or Blues or whatever — Blues has always been here, Rock is always evolving — but if you do not have knowledge of your instrument or how to play it, where are the new ideas going to come from? It has to come from Jazz. Like I keep saying, you don’t have to play Jazz, but you have to have a knowledge of your instrument to move ahead to do different things. Just like we have the computer and technology that’s always moving ahead, music has to do that, too. We just can’t stay in the same vein all the time and expect people to. Our minds improve as we live and I think the music has to improve also.

BS: How does it feel to live the life you have — a successful career in an interesting trade and a great story and making music and still a drive to perform and still making music?

PP: (Laughs) It’s a mystery to me, too, but I love it. I enjoy it, you know. Even today, like, I look forward to every weekend playing because that’s part of my life. I’ve had a happy marriage, I have a wonderful wife and a good family, but when I play on the weekend, that’s like strawberry shortcake. That’s like icing on the cake every weekend.

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