Drummer Larry Vann brings years of experience to the stage while still coming up with his own sonic innovations
Coming of age in the Oakland music scene of the mid-1960s, drummer Larry Vann quickly learned that mastering a neat shuffle wasn’t going to keep him employed. A hotbed of Black musical innovation for decades, the town contained a large, discerning audience open to an array of styles, and it behooved young musicians to familiarize themselves with as many grooves as possible.
By the end of the decade, Vann had garnered invaluable experience backing trend-setting acts including Johnny Talbot, Johnny Heartsman, and Marvin Holmes and The Uptights. He accompanied Motown revues with the Marvelettes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Eventually, he acquired the rhythmic toolkit necessary to guide a sophisticated throng through a long Oakland evening.
“You had to know a lot of different styles,” said Vann, 73, who performs Sunday afternoon in Berkeley outdoors at The Back Room with his trio, featuring longtime Glide Memorial Church guitarist Tim Landis and veteran bassist Michael Warren, whose credits include a 15-year stint with Merl Saunders.
“On a regular gig at a spot like the Showcase, the Sportsman or the Continental Club, you might start with some jazz or Latin pieces, and then some blues,” Vann said. “Then, towards the end of that first set, you may start to do a dance number. In the second set you’d bring it uptempo and really go into dance mode. You had to know the different styles, and if you didn’t, the older guys would really give you a hard time.”
The bandstand education served Vann well. He’s worked steadily and toured internationally. Among his peers, he is esteemed as a rock-solid player who always finds a way to elevate the music without showboating or calling undue attention to himself.
Pianist Sam Rudin, who spent decades on the blues and jazz circuit leading Hurricane Sam and the Hotshots before opening The Back Room, said he always looks forward to sitting in with Vann whenever the drummer brings his band to the Berkeley venue—where Vann also plays regularly with pianist Macy Blackman and the Mighty Fines. In describing what makes Vann a great blues drummer, Rudin zeroed in on his talent for putting a personal touch on deeply understood musical conventions.
Like all great blues drummers, Vann “does exactly what he is expected to do, but does it with such feeling, such soulful intention, that the expected and predictable hits take on the same emotional intensity as the unexpected surprises in a jazz setting,” Rudin said. “Then, just when you’ve happily accepted the necessary minimalism of the moment, he throws in a few of those fancy licks after all, just enough to keep you on your toes without losing the groove.”
Vann’s recording career didn’t start auspiciously. During his senior year at Castlemont High—class of ’66—he went into the studio with vocalist Richard “Dimples” Fields, who scored an R&B chart-topping hit in 1982 with “If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another.” At the time Fields was best known for his regional hit “Tears As Big As Cantaloupes,” and Vann was thrilled to be in the studio making his first record.
“I was 16 or 17, and to show you how green I was he paid me by buying me lunch,” Vann said. “I got paid with cheeseburgers and French fries!”
It wasn’t long before he could pick up the tab himself. Vann helped launch the Shades of Soul, a band that played Top 40 hits, and before long the group became the band backing the Whisper, after the Whisper relocated from Los Angeles to the East Bay at the urging of Sly Stone. It started one of Vann’s defining musical relationships.
“I played with the Whispers three different times,” he said. “After the Shades of Soul broke up they asked me to stay on, so there were two times in the ’60s. And they asked me to come back and play with them in the 1970s, and that’s when I started recording with them.”
The Whispers were part of a stable of acts booked by the powerhouse Black producer and agent, Dick Griffey, who launched L.A.-based Soul Train Records with Don Cornelius “and we became the studio band for Soul Train Records,” Vann said. He received residuals for years after playing on the theme with the Soul Train Gang.
He’s been either freelancing or leading his own bands ever since, recording on several underground classics, including Summer of ’73 by Marvin Holmes and Justice, and Elvin Bishop’s 1998 mid-career statement The Skin I’m In. He won’t pick favorites, but Vann is quick to credit British organist Brian Auger with getting him overseas for an all-star project with vocalist Phil Carmen.
“They flew us over to Switzerland and I lived over there for six months,” Vann said. “Carmen’s markets were Spain, Germany and Switzerland. We even did a live album from the Montreux Jazz Festival. I love Europe. I had a gas