Real Rock ‘n’ Roll Swings
Campusounds — December 28, 2010
Benmont Tench is legendary in the Rock n’ Roll world. An original member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Benmont Tench has played sessions with dozens of notable artists, and is known for his melodic and tasteful lines on the keys, and vast knowledge of Rock music. As we sit down at one of our favorite Cuban restaurants, Benmont does not hesitate in telling me about how he first joined Petty’s band, his views on the evolution of Rock n’ Roll, and how jazz has unintentionally influenced the music of today.
Liv: I remember when you came to our recording session at Henson, you told me that you were 19 when you joined The Heartbreakers, the same age as me.
Benmont: Well, I had already played with them one summer and a few Christmas breaks when I came home from school. I’d been sitting in with them for a couple of years.
Liv: Where did you meet Tom?
Benmont: I think it was at a music store when I was about 12, and he was maybe 15. We were from the same town in Florida and I remember that he was one of the only kids with longer hair. He was in a band and looked all tough.
Liv: Did you approach him or did he approach you about sitting in?
Benmont: No, a friend of mine was roadying for him a few years later when I was 17 and he was 20, and I heard that he had a really great band. Through my friend, we all hung out and I ended up sitting in with the band. Once I sat in with them, I wanted to sit in every chance I got, and eventually he talked me into quitting school. That was fine because all I ever wanted to do was play.
Liv: When did you first start playing the piano?
Benmont: I started playing when I was 6. I grew up listening to Rogers and Hammerstein, early Rock n Roll, Beethoven, Chopin, and some Art Tatum; that’s what my father really loved. But the jazz thing was a little hard for me to get my mind around. I leaned more towards Rock n Roll, Pop, and Country. But back then, Country was really Country.
Then, when The Beatles showed up, I started listening to them a lot, along with: Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, and really old stuff like Robert Johnson from the 30’s. It was an amazing time not only for the songs that were being written, but also, you had great bands like: The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. The drummers that were coming out then were astonishing, so the groove was great. Ringo Star was one of the best backbeat drummers with a natural feel. Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones has a very loose, very different feel that comes from the same mindset that Ringo comes from, though much more from jazz. Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac just has this fantastic loping beat. John Bonham was a very hard hitter but had a specific style. Keith Moon from The Who had something nobody else had which was: play a lot of fills, but never get in the way of the song. I’ve never heard anyone else play that many fills and never get in the way! With all of these guys, the feel was fantastic.
Liv: What about Mitch Mitchell? I would say he is one of my favorite Rock drummers out of that era. He’s very close to that aggressive jazz feel. He loved Elvin Jones, as do I, and you can really hear that style through his playing.
Benmont: Yeah, he’s great. There was also Ginger Baker with Cream. He’s a terrific drummer but with such an individual thing. I mean, I prefer Mitch Mitchell’s swing to Ginger Baker’s, but Ginger Baker is very special. But think of how different all of these guys are. The session drummers of the time were great, and if you think about those recordings, the grooves were fantastic.
Liv: So the grooves around that time were kind of what were propelling the style in a way?
Benmont: Well, they were called the Beatles. The word Beat was in there and you were supposed to be able to dance to it. Plus, Rock n Roll came straight from the swing era. All these guys were born around 1940 to 1945. Big band era was the music of their childhood, and when they hit their teens and twenties, you get Elvis and Little Richard.
There was a big traditional Dixieland scene in England. The Beatles were apprenticing whoever played the “top forty,” but the “top forty” was some easy listening stuff, probably some old swing songs or some Bossa Nova. So, they had to be able to play all of this stuff. But the joy of Rock n Roll is the fact that these guys didn’t learn to play with the drum machine like now, where you have drum-set players hitting too hard. These didn’t grow up hitting the living day lights out of the drums. Half the time, they probably grew up playing when there wasn’t a PA and the singers had to be heard. There’s a swing, there’s a feel, there’s a real musicality to the Rock n Roll that these guys played with, all down the line. Its not straight, strict, four-four, drum machine style, it’s always got a swing. If you listen to Chuck Berry, that stuff swings. Nobody plays it right. The Rolling Stones could play it right, they understood. Real Rock n Roll is a lovely, lovely swing driven thing. Its not stupid music at all.
Liv: Yeah, so it’s based on more of an educated background.
Benmont: There was no Rock n Roll before them, so the guys came up with it, just like the guys that came up with soul music. Because there wasn’t any Rock n Roll and there wasn’t any soul music, they came from playing jazz and early R&B, which informed their playing, even though they changed their style. It was the same for everyone. I don’t think any of The Beatles aspired for jazz. From what I gather, I think they probably found it too complicated and some of the jazz aficionados too pretentious. This is all just my guess. I certainly did. But The Beatles were inventing something, and were coming from what was there before. They simplified it and changed it to the way they did it. But it’s very heartfelt, and it’s actually trickier to play. A lot of really technically great drummers can’t play Rock n Roll, and there are a lot of Rock n Roll drummers that can’t play jazz. But you know, you just listen to the voice right? That’s the thing.