Benmont Tench is legendary in the Rock ‘n’ Roll world, being an original member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and playing sessions with dozens of notable artists. He is known for his melodic and tasteful lines on the keys and has gained inspiration from legendary drummers, playing and growing up listening to most of them. In our interview, Benmont points out the particularities of drummers like Ringo Star, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, and Mick Fleetwood and explains how the evolving drumming styles of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s helped propel Rock ‘n’ Roll and create the evolution of popular music.
-By Liv Marsico
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 on Summers and 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 he was one of the only kids with longer hair, he was in a band and he looked all tough and stuff. There was just this gang of kids they were like three years age difference from me.
Liv: Did you approach him or did he approach you?
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, and through my friend we all hung out and I ended up sitting in with him. Once I sat in I sat in with them every chance I got, and eventually he talked me into quitting school. 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 and early Rock n Roll and 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 towards the more Rock n Roll, Pop, Country. But back then Country, was really Country. And then when The Beatles showed up, The Beatles and Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, and really older stuff like Robert Johnson from the 30’s. It was an amazing time not only from the songs that were being written, you got The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, then Led Zeppelin. You had not only great songs, but the drummers that were coming out then were astonishing so the groove was great. Ringo Star, one of the best back beat drummers with a natural feel. Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones who has a very loose very different feel that comes from something from the same mindset that Ringo comes from, though much more from jazz. Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac who just has this fantastic loping beat. John Bonham who was a very hard hitter but had a specific style. Keith Moon from The Who, who had something nobody else had which was play a lot of fills but never lose the song, never get in the way of the song. I’ve never heard anyone else play that many fills and never get in the way, and uh all 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 such an individual thing, I mean I just prefer Mitch Mitchell’s swing to Ginger Bakers swing, but Ginger Baker is very special. But think of how different all of these guys are. The session drummers of the time were great. There’s a lot of early English invasion records, that’s what they called it then,they were really big. Herman’s Hermits,I think some of the Dave Clark 5 records, all of these bands were really big then… and some of the them used session drummers. The Beatles didn’t, The Rolling Stone didn’t but there were other guys that did. Some of the more pop bands did, and the session drummers are fantastic. If you listen to the Donavon records or The Herman’s Hermits records I think that maybe even some of The Kinks records had sessions drummers. The grooves are fantastic.
Liv: So the grooves around that time was kind of what was 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. So, its Rock n Roll and it came straight from the swing era. All these guys were born around the 1940’s to 1945. They’ve got the big band era which is the music of their childhood, and when they hit their teens and twenties, you get Elvis and Little Richard. Little Richard with that great band from New Orleans with Earl Palmer playing drums. Elvis with the rhythm coming from the guitar. Or Miles Davis, I mean some of them were listening to that. There was a big traditional Dixie land 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, Bossa Nova, anything. They had to be able to play all of this stuff. But the joy of Rock n Roll is these guys learned to play not with the drum machine, not when 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. All down the line. The rhythm section. Its not straight strict, four four, drum machine style. 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. But real Rock n Roll is a lovely, lovely swing driven thing. Its not stupid music at all.
Liv: Yeah, so its based on more of an educated background
Benmont: There was no Rock n Roll, so the guys that came up with it, like the guys that came up with soul music. The bands that played on a lot of the early soul records. There wasn’t any Rock n Roll, there wasn’t any soul music. They came from playing jazz and from early R&B and so that informs their playing even though they changed what they did. Same thing with everybody. I don’t think any of The Beatles aspired for jazz. I think they probably found it too complicated and some of the jazz aficionados pretentious from what I gather. This is all just my guess. I certainly did. But they were inventing something and they had to come from what was there before and just define it. Simplify it and change the way they did it. But its very heartfelt, and its 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 listen to the voice right? That’s the thing.