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Dancing with Rosanna

Article by The Black Page // May 02 2007
Dancing with Rosanna

I first met Rosanna years ago when she made her radio debut. She sounded so smooth, so confident…and with a groove that made my on-board radar perk up immediately. Every time I heard her, I couldn’t help but try to put finger on what it was that made my ears stand up and take notice, and looking back on it now I think I know what it was—it was the way she moved, or danced. It was that infectious half-time shuffle that blended hi-hat, snare, and bass drum into something both familiar and fresh at the same time.

That’s right, folks, a song on the radio can move, especially if the choreographer behind the drum kit is the late and great Jeff Porcaro, and though it’s been 25 years since I first met her, it was only recently that Rosanna taught me another humbling musical lesson.

I can’t dance. Now, this doesn’t mean that I am totally inept. After all, I’ve been playing for over thirty years. I’ve tried playing many a shuffle. I’ve shared in an hour-long master class with Zoro (the drummer) who focused exclusively upon the shuffle. I’ve listened to Bernard Purdie. I’ve asked, “How does Frank Beard make that thing work?” I’ve watched a good number of instructional videos. But the fact remains that when Rosanna recently walked in the door again during one of my band’s rehearsals, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t fake it. No, sir. If I was going to dance with Rosanna, I had to do some homework.

Step number one was re-visiting the whole shuffle thing. Most of us recognize a shuffle when we hear it, and with a little practice many a drummer can sit down behind the kit and play the old “one a TAK! a three a THWAK! a” thing. Many of us, however, are also guilty of falling back on this same little dance every time we have to play a shuffle. I know I did, and it was partly because in many cases, it worked! Audiences, which contained few drummers, were instantly duped … and I still got a paycheque! There was no “shuffle police” to swoop in and take me down, no hidden camera behind my drumkit to reveal my counterfeit technique! It was “Today the shuffle … tomorrow the world! (Insert evil laugh here).

Rosanna, on the other hand, wasn’t as forgiving. The problem I had with Rosanna was that in order to “dance” with her, I just couldn’t fall back on a lazy habit. If I did, the result was that instead of me taking the lead (which in this case is the drummer’s job), I found myself trying to follow—and Rosanna (along with the band) was ready to boot me off the dance floor! Like a tango or a quickstep, the song also required that there be certain amount of balance and interplay between the dance partners, and the only way I could achieve that was to learn to play not just any shuffle, but the one that Jeff Porcaro created for the song itself. Try playing along with the song yourself and you will quickly understand what I mean. For this song, Porcaro’s is the only one that works.

I did find a video of Jeff himself explaining the Rosanna shuffle. It came along with some discussion of the proper ghost notes and the “Bo Diddley” bass drum pattern underneath—all compliments of the Internet. But that’s the easy part. The hard part, I discovered, was that once I had taught my hands and feet to “dance” with Rosanna, I had to bring them up to speed and try to play in sync with the backing track that my band was using—a necessary evil because it would be the best way to cover the horn parts in the song.

I still hate that evil backing track! I hate it because it insists upon revealing the stark and barren truth every time. The harder I concentrated upon maintaining the proper sticking and footwork, the less the track grooved. And the more I focused upon making it groove, the sloppier my sticking and footwork became. In short, I had learned the dance steps but still had to figure out how to make it feel good … and somewhere therein I discovered the true musical genius that was Jeff Porcaro. How the f**k did he do that?

Part of the answer lies in the lessons Rosanna has already taught me. After playing for more than thirty years, I have had to remind myself that there is no substitute for learning to play a song properly. I have also been given a humbling lesson and reminder about the balancing act between keeping solid time and making it groove. The final lesson? Well, it’s a real tough one … but I think I’ve figured it out. The final lesson Rosanna has taught me is that somehow, in the midst of trying to make all of this work, I have to figure out how to relax and just let it happen. I have to accept the fact that I am not going to sweep Rosanna off her feet at our very first gig together. In fact, in all likelihood I’m going to step on her toes for a while, and make any of the audience members who do happen to be drummers cringe a little bit. But hey … the way I see it, I still get to learn, and I still get to play drums. I still get to hang out in smoky rock 'n' roll joints, and best of all I get to dance with Rosanna, one of the grooviest girls around. How many of us can say that?




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The Black Page

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