Jonathan ‘Sugarfoot’ Moffett Interview

Jonathan Moffett Interview – by Travis Marc – 2010.

Jonathan Moffett is without a doubt one of the most accomplished and recognised drummers in the world. He has shared the stage with numerous big name acts, as well as performed on many top charting songs that many of us hear on our radios everyday. I was fortunate enough to chat to Jonathan recently, and convince him to take some time out of his extremely busy schedule to do an interview with ukdrummer.com. Here’s what the drumming legend had to say…

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For some of our readers who may not have heard the name Jonathan Moffett, could you please, briefly breakdown who you are, and some things that you have had the opportunity of doing within the music industry. Also, tell us how you got nicknamed Sugar Foot?

I was born Jonathan Phillip Moffett, in New Orleans Louisiana, at the age of 6 years old, I got my first drum, a Ludwig marching snare drum. I began taking lessons from a private teacher name Milan Jones at his home on Saturday nights for a couple of years. I also had music class in elementary school at the time, then also in Jr. High school, and only the 10th grade of High school. At the age of 7 years old, my father got me a Ludwig bass drum with a cymbal on top for my birthday. The following year, at age 8, he bought me 2 toms and a mounting system to go on top of the bass drum. I practiced all year with that set up and by later months of 8 years old, I began playing school dances, neighbourhood parties and talent shows with my two older brothers, Adrian and Oran’s band ‘The Cavaliers’. At age 9, I began playing in night clubs with my brothers’ band. They’d sneak me in through the back door of the club, and I’d set up, do the gig, tear down half asleep, they’d help me load up the drums in the band mate’s car, and I’d fall asleep across their laps in the back seat of the car going home… :)

Get up early the next morning, get dressed and go to school. My parents said it was OK as long as I didn’t go by the bar! My brothers looked after me. Bye the age of 12, their band let me go and hired a drummer more their age because some more popular clubs wouldn’t let me in. SO I GOT FIRED!!! :) Around the same time, another neighbourhood band named ‘The Spectrum'(later to be changed to ‘The Brotherhood’) auditioned me and liked my playing. They noticed that I had a fast and quick bass drum foot. Something I had always worked on and felt natural to me. They were amazed. All the members of the band had nicknames, so they said since I would be joining the band, I had to have a nickname too! But what? I thought of all of these cool names like,”ACE”,”DUKE”,”KILLER”, “THOR”, “THUNDER”!;) When they started trying to come up with names, the leader of the band shouted and said, “OH, OH I KNOW WHAT TO CALL HIM, “SUGARFOOT” !!!! ;\ I said, “SUGARFOOT”. “NO WAY, NO WAY!!! I’M NOT ANSWERING TO ‘THAT’!!! I DON’T LIKE THAT NAME!!!” Then he said, “NO, THAT’S YOUR NAME, YOU’LL BE SUGARFFOOT BECAUSE YOU’VE GOT THAT FAST SWEET FOOT, THAT’S IT, THAT’S IT!!!” I was dumbfounded!!! I HATED IT!!! So I said I wasn’t going to answer to it when they call me that. But when we would do gigs, and they’d introduce the band members to the crowd, they’d announce me as “SUGARFOOT ON DRUMS”! I hated that. But then, everywhere I’d go around town, people who had seen our show and recognized me would shout out, “Hey Sugarfoot, You Bad!!!” I used to ignore them, but then realized that, that’s what they came to know me as, so I eventually accepted it and it stuck. Throughout my teen years and early 20’s, I gigged with several local bands and artist in New Orleans. Then in 1979, I got an offer to go to Los Angeles to meet with Jermaine Jackson who had heard me on a tape of one of the local bands I worked with, “The Money Band”, and wanted me to come to L.A. for a project he was building at the time. So in mid January of 1979 I drove out to L.A. in my car to take a chance and see what could happen. I was out here about a month and a half, but never got to meet with Jermaine, but auditioned for an Old School group name The Undisputed Truth. They were once a very popular recording artist group with top 10 songs on the radio back in the mid 1970’s and were trying to reform. They liked me very much, but the business didn’t work out. So I waited and practiced. Then I had another offer from another recording artist group named New Birth, popular in the early 1970’s. hey couldn’t get it together so I waited more. Then, a month and a half into my stay, I ran into an old friend named James McField who was the musical director and keyboardist for The Jacksons. He as from my home town and had been telling the Jacksons about me for a few years. Well it just so happened that I ran into him on the last day of them auditioning for a new drummer for an upcoming tour the next month! He ask them to extend the auditions for 1 more day and give me a chance at it. He called me that night, for they said that they would! The next day I went their house and auditioned in their recording studio building in their backyard. They like me and my playing and hired me on the spot! I had 3 days to learn their entire show, music, choreography and all. Then we went out on the road to begin the tour. “IT WAS AN INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCE!!!” “INCREDIBLE!!!!” Well, from there and that tour, other artist through the years would see me play on tours and then would request me to work with them. That’s how I got ALL of my gigs. My work WAS My Calling Card. I’ve never had an agent, a manager, nor a representative. Well, I’ve always said that, “GOD IS MY MANAGER AND AGENT!!! I truly believe that. My faith is strong. So then, through the years I’ve worked with; The Jacksons, Patti Austin, Lionel Richie, Cameo (still now), Tina Marie, Madonna, Jermaine Jackson (solo tour – I musical directed also), Elton John, Vasco Rossi (Italian Rock Star), George Michael, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson (solo tour), Kenny G, Kool and The Gang, and Stevie Wonder as well as others on albums and single recordings
moffett3You began drumming at the age of six. If someone had told you back then that you would still be drumming now, (29 years later) what do you think your reaction would’ve been?

Well, when I was 8 years old, (playing a limited portioned drum kit), our band “The Cavaliers”(my brother’s band) signed up for a talent show at a very popular local high school named St. Augustine, which is still legendary today for it’s great history of incredible marching bands and uniforms. I remember and can picture in my mind quite clearly today, first sitting in the bleacher stands of the auditorium there and watch other acts doing their presentations, getting excited, and then going backstage to set up my drum kit for our turn to perform. ‘Yes’, I was nervous!!! Quite! So it was our turn to perform, and I set up my drums centre stage. And while setting up, I would occasionally glance into the audience to see if anyone was looking at us, OR ME! I noticed that yes, they were looking! I would get more nervous even just setting up! 😉 So they announced our name of our group, and we began to play. We chose and played a new hot number one song on the charts at the time, and my older brother Oran was the lead singer singing and my other older brother Adrian was playing guitar, so if I ‘Jacked’ up, not only would I look bad for not playing well, but I would Look Worse!!! :\ So we started to play the song and was jamming! It was then that the answer to the question was made. ‘Way back then’. I looked in the audience while jamming this song, saw the whole entire gymnasium in a frenzy and going crazy screaming and yelling with excitement and clapping as if we were The Beatles! I felt the energy, enthusiasm and admiration of the people for what we were doing and felt and said to myself, . . . . . . “THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE!!!!! THIS IS AMAZING! INCREDIBLE!!!” AND HERE I AM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yes, I knew I’d be doing this, some 47 YEARS LATER!!!

You’ve worked with an array of Major artists over the years, from Madonna to Michael Jackson, to Lionel Richie. What is it like to be such an in demand drummer to such stars, and how would you say you went about developing such a reputation among these acts?

Of coarse it’s really great working for such major stars and artist as I have. I’ve been blessed. Truly. They are all idols of my childhood and growing up. Most of which I used to listen to and learn when I was doing clubs back in New Orleans while in the several local bands. So now, I’m seated right behind the ‘Real’ and same artists whose record albums, cassettes and CD’s use to play at home back in New Orleans! It’s like, while I was there practicing with their records, I’d close my eyes while getting ‘into it’ and grooving with it, then I open my eyes as to wake up and there I am, right there behind ‘THE REAL ARTIST’! “THE REAL DEAL”!!! It’s just that, I Never Wake Up From It!!! I’m STILL dreaming, grooving with them. Putting on record, after record. Playing, practicing again and again. With The JACKSONS! THE JACKSON 5! MICHAEL JACKSON! STEVIE WONDER! PATTI AUSTIN! KOOL AND THE GANG! CAMEO! ELTON JOHN! WHOA MAN!!! WHAT AN OUTER BODY EXPERIENCE!!!! I don’t ‘EVER’ want to wake up! I DARE NOT EVER ‘OPEN MY EYES’!!! It’s truly remarkable! As far as how to go about developing such a reputation. I just stay clean in my work ethics, my attitude, my discipline of life practices(no alcohol, drugs, wildness, respect all involved, etc.), and do my homework in learning the songs right, like the record, and give my all each time I sit behind my drums. I respect the gig as if it was ‘MY’ gig! As if it was ‘MY’ name on the marquee of the Building, Arena or Stadium!!! I always want it to be the best! My BEST!!! It shows, and they, the artists appreciate it. Then other artist will want to have me work with them. And they call.

Compared to the 1980’s and 1990’s, how would you say the music/drumming scene has changed, because of things such as digital downloads and the internet?

I would definitely say that the music industry and work for the drummers in the industry has changed greatly! It started in the early 80’s with the advent of drum machines. That Darn Dr.Rhythm box!!@$%&%#&* “OK,OK” I’ll be alright! 😉 lol It jaked us ‘ALL’ up!!! :\ When that thing came out, it caught us drummers of guard. We found out about it. Heard it, and said, “Aww-WoW!! That’s cool. Beats can be programmed on it! But we ‘also’ thought, they’d never be able to make them sound realistic like us! “Listen to that ‘Toy’ sound it has!” It’ll only be a novelty for a while, then they’ll get tired of those ‘cheap’ sounds and ‘sterile’ feel and be calling us again.” There will always be work for ‘R E A L’ drummers. They can’t take that away from us! . . ‘Yeah, Right!!!’ Little did we know that a man name Roger Linn was already working on the follow-up successor called the Linn Drum otherwise known as the LM-1. Next thing you know, Prince was using it(back then, he had several), Stevie Wonder had several, The Jacksons had some, other artists had them, producers, writers and arrangers. Before we knew it, “OUR PHONES STOPPED RINGING!!! Our session work gradually began slowing up over the following 10 to 15 years, as the machine continually advanced and sounded better, and better and better and more and more flexible in programming. “Hell!!! ‘ I ‘ EVEN WENT OUT AND BOUGHT ME A FEW!!!” I figured if they were going to be the future, then I wanted to be a part of that future and wasn’t going to be left behind in technology’s advance. I figured, “If You Can’t Beat-em, Join-em!!! Some drummers got pissed off, rejected the use of them, and hated them for taking all or most of the session work. You see, when the producer had and used the drum machines, they saved money on the budget, or/and in most cases, would ‘PAY THEMSELVES’ for programming the drum parts and keep that money they would normally pay us. It became more beneficial to them to do so for themselves. So there was, and still is for the most part less live session work for drummers. Also now there are drum beat samples packages, of which I even have libraries of for sale with a couple of companies. It’s like I said before, one way, and my way of staying in touch with the recording industry and getting on albums as well as making money. Now, as far as live concert playing, . . . . that slowed up somewhat after the ‘911’ event September 11th 2001. Tours got cancelled. Even my Michael Jackson tour for that November which was just being planned for after our Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Television Special and the release of his new song “You Rock My World” and the video for it. Things have picked up for live concert tours around the world as people are feeling a bit safer. With all the global terrorism, Artist and labels were reluctant to tour. Now we’re back out there. And all of digital downloading has hurt the industry TREMENDOUSLY’!!! People ‘stealing’ our artwork, creativity and livelihood. Record companies going out of business, or being absorbed by other companies. Labels signing fewer groups or singers. The internet is both a Blessing, . . . and a Curse. Song sharing is not right, as well as illegal. So much income revenue is lost through the downloading public. It’s truly sad, and it threatened to collapse the industry. Yes, . . . . . Drumming and the industry ‘H A S’ changed and been hurt in the digital world. However, as long as ‘I’ can physically play and perform, I’ll will. No matter what changes may come. ” It’s in my soul!!!!

Who and what influence and inspire you, in both your everyday life, and your drumming?

I’d have to say that my 2 older brothers, Adrian on guitar and vocals, and my other older brother Oran on bass, sax and vocals were my earliest musical inspirations. They were who I looked up to and for as I, we first began to play music publicly. As you would expect and is often the case, older siblings are usually the influence in a younger sibling’s life and choices in the lives. I am no different. When I saw and heard both of my brothers advancing on their instruments, sounding so good, so quickly and getting a lot of compliments from other musicians and people who heard and saw them, I wanted that too! I would practice so much and for so long everyday so I could be as good on my drums as they were on their instruments. As for drummers, . . . . there was all the drummers on records and on tv variety shows that features music artist. Ringo Star, Charlie Watts, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Bennie Benjamin, The other Motown drummers, Carmine Appice, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchel, Buddy Miles, Billy Cobham, David Garibaldi, Diamond(The Ohio Players), Freddie White, Larry Blackman, Sandy McKee(Cold Blood), Don Brewer (Grand Funk Railroad), Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste(The Meters), Ralph Humphrey, Harvey Mason, Lenny White, Alphonse Mouson, Narada Michael Walden, Chad Wakerman, Greg Bissonette, Joe Carrero, George “Funky” Brown(Kool and The Gang), Bruce Carter(Pleasure), Jim Keltner, Willie T. Hall(Issac Hayse/The BarKays), others. As far as in everyday life, I’d definately have to say my Mom and Dad.

You’re currently involved with the Funk/Rock band “Cameo”. Can you tell us a bit about the band, and what you guys are currently up to?

This year is the 30th Anniversary of the group since formation!!! They’ve had about 18 album(at least) in their career. They have had several Gold certified albums AND singles, as well as a Platinum certified album and a Platinum single for the song “WORD UP!” back in 1986. I have been an associate member of CAMEO since 1982. Larry Blackman saw me perform with The Jacksons in Atlanta Georgia(U.S.) in 1981 on The Jackson’s ‘Triumph’ tour. He then called me in 1982, told me he saw me, then asked me if I wanted to play for them. I had been a big fan of CAMEO since they first came out in 1977. I was playing in a club in an outside area of New Orleans called Metairie Louisiana (we called ‘Fat City’) where there was a LOT of clubs with live bands playing at them. I was setting up at one of the clubs with my band ‘The Money Band’, and this song came on the club system by the DJ, and it made me stop what I was doing and was ‘STUNNED’ by the groove and song I was hearing!!! It was not like ANYTHING I had ever heard ever before! It had this ‘broken’ drumbeat, and plosive type rhythms on the guitars and bass patterns. Really innovative and creative!!! It was “I JUST WANNA BE”, a early CAMEO single. Then the DJ played another as I stood there trying to figure out what I had just heard and witnessed! That song was just as mind blowing (for the time) as the first!!! It turns out to be ” SHAKE YOUR PANTS”!!! I was so mesmerized that I just HAD to stop what I was doing and go over to the DJ and ask “WHO IN THE WORLD IS ‘THAT’!!!! “WHERE DID ‘THEY’ COME FROM?!!!” He told me that they were named “CAMEO”. That was my introduction to CAMEO. Back to 1982 and MY’ CAMEO connection. I was in my car with my wife at that time, listening to the radio. I was just pulling up to the house and a ‘new CAMEO single came on the radio named “BE YOURSELF” from their new album. I had heard the song a day or so before and was crazy about it’s groove and composition! I was excited each time I heard it days before, so when it came on, I wanted my then wife to hear it. I was so excited about the groove, that in talking about it with her, it was just instinctive when I told her as I pulled into the driveway and parked the car(and we sat listening), “I WISH I COULD PLAY FOR THEM, ‘MAN’!!! She said to me, while the song was still playing, “WHY DON’T YOU TRY TO GET WITH THEM? YOU SHOULD TRY TO! FIND OUT HOW TO GET IN TOUCH WITH THEM! Then I said to her, “But, one the only thing is, is that, The leader of the band ‘IS THE DRUMMER!!!’ ;\ “He’s the lead singer ‘AND’DRUMMER!! THERE’S ‘NO’ WAY I CAN GET WITH THEM, IT’S ‘IMPOSSIBLE’!!! The song ended, I sat there sort of dejected, took a deep breath, then we all got out of the car and went inside he house. The night went bye and so did that experience. Now if you don’t believe in miracles, “YOU WILL NOW”!!! …… Two weeks later, I’m at home with my family, and the phone rings. My wife answers the phone, then tells me it’s for me! She said it’s some guy named LARRY BLACKMAN wanting to talk to you about a gig!!! I said “WHAT”!!!!! NO! NO WAY! I told her that this was the guy with the song in the car we were hearing a few weeks ago! She was in disbelief! So was I!!! I knew that if he was calling me, it must be about working with them. So I answered and he introduced himself to me. Told me he had seen me with The Jacksons in Atlanta at the OMNI THEATRE. He gave me many compliments (which of I appreciated immensely. After all, this was a hero of mine in his innovative style of playing which ‘HE’ created, AND, the leader of the band, had hit records, AND the lead singer!!! All, Every drummers dreams. Then to my disbelief, he said to me, “Johnny, I love the way you play, it reminds me of my playing, and I would love you to come play for CAMEO!!!” ” I WAS IN COMPLETE SHOCK!!! I told him that I loved his band and music, and would love to play with them! He said, “THAT GREAT JHONNY.I said, “WHEN DO YOU WANT ME FOR?” Then he said, THE THING IS, . . IS THAT WE’RE OUT HERE ON THE ROAD IN CHICAGO, . . . AND WE NEED YOU TO COME ‘NOW’!!!! I said “N O W’!!!! :) He laughed and said, “YEAH Johnny, WE NEED YOU RIGHT NOW” I said, “How long before you want me to come?” He said, “CAN YOU COME TOMORROW MORNING?” I said, “Are you serious?” And he said, “YES”!!! “We’ll get you a ticket for a flight to meet us Chicago.” I saw the opportunity I had only prayed for, really I thought was an impossibility, only two weeks before. “GOD had handed me the gift I had wished for, showing me that ‘HE WAS’ LISTENING!!! AND ‘HE DOES’ LISTEN IF YOU PRAY HARD, DEEPLY AND SINCERELY ENOUGH!” I went to Chicago, watched the show on the night of arrival, got a copy of the show on tape to study overnight, rehearsed at the arena for ONLY ‘ONE HOUR’ with only ‘SOME OF THE BAND’ THAT AFTERNOON BEFORE SOUNDCHECK, then was on stage THAT NIGHT(the night after I arrived in there)!!! “YOU WANNA TALK ABOUT ‘PRESSURE’!!! Larry was happy, and asked me to stay with the group. I was VERY TIRED, AND STRESSED FROM ‘BEING ON THE SPOT’ AT SUCH SHORT NOTICE, but was glad that I was able to do a good job and please someone as meticulous as Larry is. I’ve done tours with them in 1982 and 1983. I was away from them from 1984 when I rejoined The Jacksons for the “VICTORY TOUR” and JACKSONS LIVE ALBUM. Then in 1985, I was also away from CAMEO as I joined MADONNA on her 1st tour “THE VIRGIN TOUR” and live video titled the same. In early 1986, I joined JERMAINE JACKSON on his “PRECIOUS MOMENTS TOUR. I was also musical director and band leader for that tour and put the band together with Jermaine. Then, in late 1986, I rejoined CAMEO on their “WORD UP TOUR” and their biggest hit song and album. I take honour working with him and the band of ‘fantastic and very talented musicians’, and to live up to their expectations. I take pride in their appreciation of me and my work. I love them all as if they were my true brothers. I am honoured to work with them and be their friends.

What would you say, was the gig that made you realise that drumming would indeed become your profession, instead of just a hobby, like it is for so many people who initially start playing?

I’d have to say, that the first Jacksons tour for me which starting at the end of February through June of 1979 had to be the confirming experience in my career that convinced me that this was going to be a lifetime career for me. It was a new experience for me on a new level. The TOP level in the industry. I was first exposed to becoming a true professional. Learning and growing as a drummer and entertainer. Travelling across the country, doing show. First class accommodations. People going “crazy” and “frantic” over you at the shows performances! Screaming your name! Crying! Trying to get at you to have any piece of you for their own. Hair, clothes, sticks, “SKIN”!!! Grabbing, Clawing, Groping at you. In some ways it was scary when you’ve not been through it before and are new to it all. But, at the same time, it’s very thrilling!!! It changed my life. It made me a professional. It completed my childhood dream. I am very thankful and grateful. I am BLESSED !

What advice would you give up and coming drummers in regards to proper practice routines, as well as getting, and keeping drumming work within such a competitive industry?

My advice to up and coming drummers is to create a practice habit and be consistent with it. Think of it and treat it like a job. After all, you want to be a professional drummer and work playing drums, right?!!! So make it a good habit to be dedicated to it. Practice for as long periods of time each day if and when possible to developed consistent growth results. That’s the only way to progress. Doing so helps you “Become One With Your Instrument”!!! You’ll get to developed a ‘natural’ communication and access to and through them. They’ll become an extension of your inner expression and ability to speak. It’s a “language”! It truly is! I call it “SOUL EXPRESSION”!!! And people All over the world can understand and relate to music and musician’s creative voice whatever they play or singers sing. But the key is that, “YOU ‘HAVE TO BE GOOD”. Then and only then they can and will appreciate, enjoy it, and want to be within ‘ears length’ to hear it. “But if it’s not good, and sounds bad or out of tune, then as everyone notices, people “RUN” from the sound of it. They’ll cover their ears to block it out while frowning at it!!! “SOME OF THEM WILL EVEN CALL THE COPS ON YOU!!!! GET YOU ‘JACKED UP’ OVER IT!!!” Those are the people(musicians) who didn’t practice enough! We want people to smile when they hear us play. Dance and move their bodies as a sign that they like and appreciate what we’re doing. So “PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!” you guys! Don’t make me hold my ears!!!! ; } The same answer holds true for getting and keeping a gig. At least for the most part. Being good at what you do gives you the best chance at getting and keeping a gig. However, there are many times when things are totally out of your control no matter how good you are. An artist may just simply want to try something new and different to change their sound. It’s then when it’s out of your hands. It’s not that you’d done something or anything wrong. It’s just a whim, a thought of theirs, a search for a new direction for them, as they are searching for themselves as ever developing artist. So don’t punish yourselves or blame yourselves. Even the best gets replaced many times. Just try to keep moving on and searching for new opportunities. You yourselves, always try to grow into new situations. The key is, not to be stagnant. And keep the faith in yourself. Always !
moffett4Any last words?

My last words of advise and encouragement is to believe you can! Challenge yourselves and try new things always. You can’t grow musically and ability wise unless you try things that are challenging. Don’t give up when you can’t get it at first. Keep trying. Also, perceive the image of how you want to be seen and perceived by the public and your fans. Work towards becoming that concept and type of artist. Make it believable. I mean, that some musicians have or feel a type character they have in their head and mind of how ‘they’ want the public to observe and experience them, their playing and personality. Recording artist are somewhat of ‘actors as well. Having an impressive image. You can be true to yourself and also portray the image you feel best represents you publicly. Be cool, dynamic, exciting and/or thrilling when you play or perform. What you want to be. It’s all up to you to develope your “Brand Name” and Image. Good luck whatever you do!!! Much love and gratitude to all. Be Blessed!!!_

For more information on Jonathan please check out his new website – http://www.jonathansugarfootmoffett.com