When local drummer Drew Schultz decided to spearhead Back to Class– a collaborative album to benefit the music programs of the Detroit Public Schools– he knew he was going to be calling on his friends for help. Luckily for Drew, those friends were well-equipped for the project. You see, you make a few good connections when you tour with the Four Tops for three years.
Drew, an NYU alum and Park Slope resident, has been drumming since the third grade, perfecting his craft with the help of a musically-inclined mother, inspirational mentors, and an exceptional musical education program. After leaving college to tour with Motown legends including not just the Four Tops but also the Temptations and Aretha Franklin– don’t worry, we’ll get to that– he decided he wanted to give back.
Thus the Back To Class CD, released last year, which featured The Four Tops, Dennis Coffey, Melvin Davis, and Lenny Pickett among others. Fifty percent of the profits went to the Detroit Public Schools; so far they’ve donated a total of $1,000. Now, the project continues with his upcoming release of the single, “Take It Slow,” featuring Eddie Willis from The Funk Brothers.
Check out the exclusive video below, and read on to find out how a 19-year-old from Shaker Heights, Ohio found his way to the Motown stage (and what he saw when he was there), why this project is so important to him, and what he’s listening to these days.
Park Slope Stoop: You’ve been performing with legendary Motown acts since you got into the industry at 19 years old. How did you break into the business?
Drew Schultz: Well, even though the first big act I played with was the Four Tops, it really started with a drummer named Uriel Jones. Uriel was one of the drummers from The Funk Brothers, the backing band who played the instruments on almost every Motown hit of the Detroit era. I met Uriel when I was still in high school, and he was extremely kind to me. We would talk a few times a month about drums, music, and the industry. He really became a mentor to me, and to this day is still one of my all-time favorite drummers.
When I met the Four Tops crew, I was already really deep down the Motown rabbit hole, and I had really latched onto the Tops’ music. They had essentially become my favorite band. I knew all of their songs, and had all of the bootleg live tapes I could get my hands on. I knew who everyone in the band was, and wanted to take lessons from their drummer, Benjamin “Butch” Corbett. I was introduced to Butch through Mart Avant, a trumpet player who performed often with the Tops. Butch invited me to come and sit in on soundcheck, and I really hit it off with the guys.
I also really connected with George Rountree Jr, who was the conductor, keyboardist, and arranger for the band. I think he was impressed that I knew all of the horn parts that he had written, and I looked at him and Butch as just as much of a celebrity as any of the singers. The fact that I was a student of Uriel, who played drums on so many of the original Tops recordings, made it even more obvious that I had really immersed myself in this music. The next time the Tops were in town, I got a call from Tree to play hand percussion on the show, and I started sitting in whenever I could make it out to where they were playing. As they say, the rest is history, and both Butch and Tree encouraged me to join the group when Butch stepped down from the drum chair.
PSS: Can you share some favorite stories about playing with these iconic soul stars?
DS: These guys were complete, unshakable professionals. Motown is still much bigger today in Europe and England than it is in the states. I remember playing one of the giant arena/stadiums in England, and we were on the song “When She Was My Girl.” This song has a four-on-the-floor disco kind of groove, so we were chugging along with this continuous kind of feel. All of a sudden, we see the lights in the stadium go off, and the entire sound system cuts out.
I was trained as a jazz musician to just keep rolling unless someone tells you to stop, so I just kept on playing, expecting Tree to cut us off. However, nothing stopped on stage. Elgin, our bassist, just kept plucking the strings, and the singers kept doing their dance steps. The Tops’ lead singer at the time, Theo Peoples, just belted the song into the crowd without any amplification. All you could hear was the drum set, horn section, and Theo. It was like clockwork. It turns out that the power to the entire front-of-house system had cut out, and when it kicked back in it was like having vertigo. Still, the Tops hadn’t missed a beat, and they were right back in with those thick harmonies, and the crowd just lost their minds. We kept joking that we should do that every night, it got a bigger reaction than anything else in the show!
The whole group was like that. One time, Tree counted off the wrong song. Abdul “Duke” Fakir, who is the only original member still performing, played it off like a total pro. Instead of getting caught off guard, he calmly stopped the band. “Hold on Tree,” he said. “I know we were gonna go there, but I’ve got a special request from one of the ladies up front here. Let’s try this instead.” He started off the song that we were supposed to be on and the crowd went nuts, thinking that he was changing up the normal show just for them. It was one of the smoothest ways I’ve ever seen to turn a mistake into a crowd-pleaser.
PSS: Let’s talk about your “Back to Class” project. How did the album develop?
DS: “Back To Class” was, in a way, a graceful means to returning to New York to finish my college education. When I joined the Tops, I was going into my senior year at NYU and, throughout my entire tenure with the band, I always knew that I’d have to go back to finish my degree. The project was a way to record my own material while doing an album with all of these musicians who I had really looked up to. At heart, I’m really just a big fan of all these artists, and it was a way to immortalize the reverence I had for what they accomplished in the music industry. I really tried to capture the spirit of each artist, and wrote these songs with them specifically in mind. So creatively, it was very much a wish fulfillment project.
That being said, the benefit aspect is something that I strongly believe in. I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, right outside of Cleveland. Our public school district had an incredible arts program. Our marching band had somewhere around 300 people in it, we had four concert bands, three jazz ensembles, two choirs, an orchestra, and a really active musical theater program. I didn’t realize how good we had it until I went to college and would talk to folks whose jaws would drop when I told them that. I started really thinking about it, and realized that a huge reason that I am who I am is because I was able to grow up in this kind of bubble of an arts haven.
I really believe that a music program can help a thousandfold in developing as a kid. Being in music from a young age taught me how to be diligent at something that I cared about. It taught me how to really practice, and how to fail at something over and over again until I got it right. It taught me how to work with others, and deal with issues that might come up with bandmates, egos (including my own), and different personality types. It taught me how to get up in public, in front of people, and be confident with myself. Playing in bands taught me how to improvise on stage when something goes wrong, and just keep plowing through the song to avoid a total train wreck. I think that’s a skill that can be applied to an endless amount of situations outside of music. It’s a great thing to be able to make music with my idols while helping in whatever small way to cultivate these same opportunities for kids to grow.
PSS: How did you decide to continue the project with this followup single?
DS: I always knew that I wanted to continue the Back To Class project, I just wasn’t sure how. The original CD was such a large undertaking, and it’s hard to find that kind of time right now, so a single made the most sense. The genesis for it all was when The Funk Brothers received their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last March.
Since Uriel had been such a huge influence on me, I had kept in touch with Eddie Willis, who is the guest on the new single “Take It Slow.” Eddie is one of the original guitarists from The Funk Brothers, and I was helping him to do some fundraising in order to get out to LA and see the whole thing happen. He had actually spoken on the title track of the original “Back To Class” CD, along with Uriel, Dennis Coffey, Jack Ashford, George Rountree, Butch Corbett, and James Jamerson Jr. That tune was a tribute to all of these great mentors I had, with them talking about soul music while this groove played underneath. I had written “Take It Slow” months before, and offhandedly mentioned that I was hoping to continue the project with a single. Eddie was enthusiastic about it, so we actually recorded his guitar in his hotel room in LA while we were there for the Walk of Fame induction ceremony. The song also features Delbert Nelson singing lead, and Brian Asselin playing saxophone. The two of them were part of the Funk Brothers road band when they toured, and work together right now in Delbert & The Commotions.
PSS: Now that you’re back in New York, and Park Slope specifically, are you active in the music community here as well? Any upcoming events we should look out for?
PS: I lead a band called The Funk Machine right now, and almost all of us live in Park Slope. The band consists of myself, Jent LaPalm on bass, Emilio Tostado on guitar, Chris Ams on lead vocals, and John Guari on keys. The Funk Machine is the band playing the instruments on both the original “Back To Class” CD and “Take It Slow,” and we perform all over NYC.
We have a monthly residency at The Bitter End, and our Park Slope home base was always Bar 4. [Listen to their entire live album, recorded at Bar 4, here.] We played there several times a month, and I would DJ old-school soul music every second friday of the month. I’m really sad that Bar 4 has closed. The scene there was always extremely welcoming, and the staff was incredible. We really loved being there.
Right now we’re trying to find another Park Slope staple, and we’ve played at Cafe Steinhof, The Fifth Estate, Buttermilk, and Union Hall. Our favorite local spots to play are the low-key joints where we can let our friends come and sit in, really stretch out musically, and just have a good time. Our next big Brooklyn event is the Holy Smokes Festival at the Silent Barn (Bushwick) on September 8, curated by another great Brooklyn band called The Bottom Dollars. For that show we’ll really be celebrating the release of “Take It Slow,” and we’ll definitely be putting it into our live set there!
PSS: Who are some of your favorite classic and contemporary musicians?
DS: I always love the artists who come across as earnest and heartfelt in what they do. Of the classic stable of artists, I can never go wrong with old-school soul. My friends will laugh at me because, although it was my livelihood for so long, I still find myself listening to soul music all the time. The Funk Brothers, Four Tops, Temptations, Impressions, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, etc. I’m a real fan of some of the more obscure soul artists too, like Mel & Tim, The Brothers Of Soul, Darrell Banks, Steve Mancha, and The 8th Day. I love strong lead vocals, thick harmonies, and a step-worthy groove!
Of the current artists out there, I’m a huge fan of folks like Aloe Blacc, Anthony Hamilton, Mayer Hawthorne, John Legend, and anything that Daptone Records puts out. I’m a big fan of Eli “Paperboy” Reed, who is based out of NYC himself. He’s a real throwback artist who doesn’t use any of the studio gimmicks. Just a pure performer, and a really nice guy. Also, George Grant & The Mighty Templars are a great NY-based soul band that I love listening to. Their recordings have a great live band and full horn section, and the songs will get lodged in your head. I also play drums and percussion a lot with Milo Z, who is a New York institution. Milo has been playing funk all over the city for more than twenty years, and his music is always really fun and funky. He’s a real showman to see live, always dressed to the nines, dancing, singing, and really working the crowd. If it’s got soul, I’ll always be into it!
“Take It Slow” will be available digitally through iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and more on September 1.
Photo courtesy of Drew Schultz