The Chic star and cookie-company owner on laying down sweet grooves with Nile Rodgers
“We played for about three minutes, Nile stopped, packed up and left. I was like, ‘Man, I must have sounded like crap.’ But as he walked out the door he said, ‘That sounded great, I’ll see you in Switzerland’”
When Rhythm chats with Ralph Rolle, we get an immediate glimpse into the almost bafflingly busy world that the New York-native finds himself in.
That much is evident when our chat with the Chic drummer is delayed by a minute or two while he fields calls from a well-known supermarket regarding Rolle’s side project – his own cookie business.
“Things are quite busy,” he says with a calm sense of understatement. “I have a bunch of gigs with Chic, I have a manager that has got me a bunch of clinics across Europe and my other business is growing like wildfire. I am the owner of a cookie company and I’m on TV with that and doing interviews and we just worked out two deals with major companies in Ireland.”
As well as this, he also somehow finds time to teach drums. It’s a punishing work schedule, but one clearly developed out of Rolle’s deep love for all things drumming. He reveals to us that this passion for percussion was first sparked by his big brother, way back in the day.
“I grew up in the Bronx River Projects,” he says, of his childhood. “Me and my brother shared a bedroom. One day I came home and there was drumset in between our beds! I loved my brother so much andI wanted to do everything he did, soI started playing. One of the first things I played, I acted like I was Ringo Starr doing the whole stick swing thing.”
It turns out thatRolle had more in common with Ringo than he first thought. Both are left-handed players who grew up playing right-handed set-ups – and again, it was Rolle’s elder brother who was at the heart of this key development point.
“My brother is right handed and I am left handed and my brother would say I could always play but I couldn’t switch the drums around. I would play and the neighbour across from me would always watch and they would be my audience. Then all of a sudden, the drums were gone. I found out later on that my brother had got his girlfriend pregnant, they were both teenagers and my mother was very strict. She told them they had to go get some money. So, he sold the drums to take care of his kid.The beauty of that story is that they have been together now for almost 50 years with four beautiful daughters.”
The continuing influence of his big brother almost led Rolle into a career as an engineer, but, thankfully, a last-minute change of heart saw him follow his heart into drumming.
“I was going to follow my brother into engineering and I was all set to, then I realised I could not see myself as an engineer for the rest of my life. It was too boring to me. When I told my mother that I wanted to be a musician, she looked at me likeI was crazy. I never had it in my head to be a drummer as well as doing something else. It never occurred to me thatI could go work at the post office and be a drummer on the side.I was going to be a drummer or die trying.”
And so Rolle set off on his journey to become a professional musician. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to look too far to find collaborators.
“Something I talk about is the importance of getting out and playing and having people see you. It just so happened that there were a lot of talented people in the building that I grew up in. Afrika Bambaataa lived in the same building as me, so did a singer/drummer named Wade Taylor who we used to callPuggy. Puggy would hear me playing and I would hear him playing as well. He said I was sounding kinda good and it just so happened that he was playing in another group called Musique who had a hit song called ‘Push Push In The
Bush’. That song was hot right around the time Nile Rodgers and Chic were getting hot. Puggy asked me to come and audition as his drummer was moving onto another project. I said, ‘Sure, but you’ve got to come ask my mother!’ My mother said if I was going with Puggy then I could go to the audition. I remember going and being scared to death. I played and I got the gig. That was 1979 and I had to go get a passport to on tour. I turned 20 while I was out on the road and that got it all started.”
Once he did get started, the influence of his ever-reliable big brother returned. You see, it turns out that all of those hours playing on a right-handed set-up taught left-handed Ralph a few neat tricks.
“When I first started playing, I was just playing. My left hand was on the hi-hat, my right hand on the snare. It wasn’t until I was in a local band called Indigo and I was covering other songs, when I was doing two and four with my right hand, my left hand was free to do percussion stuff on the left-hand side. I started working with a cowbell and different things like that. I realised that there was so much that I could do.”
That revelation was rammed home when Ralph played a show on the same bill as a drummer he knew only by the nickname Den Den.
“It turned out that was Dennis Chambers,” he laughs. “I watched Dennis Chambers playing and I was way back in the audience. I heard percussion and I thought, ‘I don’t know who this percussionist is, but they are killing it with the drummer.’ They sounded so tight together. I went backstage and looked and it was Dennis playing percussion and drums. At that moment I felt like I was not worthy. That was like an epiphany. My whole life changed at that point and I started to incorporate more stuff with my left hand.”
These skills have enabled Rolle to enjoy a long and illustrious career, which has seen him perform with the likes of Sting, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. But today, his primary gig is one that he has held of r more than a decade, as the drummer for the Nile Rodgersled Chic.
“The first time I worked with Nile was at a charity event, he was co-music directing this event and it was the first time he had heard me play,” Rolle explains of his origins on the Chic drumstool. “Later, I got a call asking me to do the Chic gig. I didn’t care what else I was doing, I was going to do this. I went down to the rehearsal, Nile came in and set up and it was myself and at that time Barry Johnson and we started playing. We played for about three minutes, Nile stopped, packed up and left. I was like, ‘Man, I must have sounded like crap.’ But as he walked out the door he said, That‘ sounded great, I’ll see you in Switzerland.’”
The surreal moments kept on coming for Rolle and his debut with Chic was hardly your run-of-the-mill, everyday gig…
“My first gig was a billionaire’s club. We did the show and the singer at the time came over to me and said, ‘You’re the first person to play this gig with no rehearsal and not make a single mistake, so Nile wants you to stay in the band.’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ That was just over 10 years ago. It has been a great time.”
Ten years on, and the band continues to go from strength to strength, as their in-demand status as a touring act proves. Rolle rounds off our chat by pondering why it is that as we thunder through 2018, Chic continue to be such a draw.
“I think people are so into this because we are playing songs that people remember and we also have a ridiculously-talented lead singer called Kimberly Davis. Honestly, she is so good, I actually think she’s secretly one of the X-Men. Nile, as well, is extremely free-form. He allows you to completely express yourself. But at the same time, if something is not gelling the way he wants, he will tell you. Trust me though, he’s not a taskmaster. He doesn’t come in and say it has to be like this or like that.
“He is always open to trying things. An example of this, I was on tour in Japan and I was reading Nile’s book. I don’t know how in the world I missed this, but I had no idea that he produced ‘Let’s Dance’. I called him up and asked him about it right then from Japan. I said, ‘Dude, you did ‘Let’s Dance’. And he did this, he went, ‘Ah, ah, ah.’ It was this laugh that kind of said, Yes‘ I did it and I can’t believe that you didn’t know.’ I told him we had to put the song into the show and he said we could do it. That’s Nile; he didn’t say, ‘Nah, the show is fine as it is.’ Nile has brought me to another level as a musician. That would have never happened without him and I am so grateful for that.”
Rolle up, Rolle up: meet the drummer, educator and cookie maker!