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Billy Cobham

Generally acclaimed as fusion's greatest drummer, Billy Cobham's explosive technique powered some of the genre's most important early recordings -- including groundbreaking efforts by Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra -- before he became an accomplished bandleader in his own right. At his best, Cobham harnessed his amazing dexterity into thundering, high-octane hybrids of jazz complexity and rock & roll aggression. He was capable of subtler, funkier grooves on the one hand, and awe-inspiring solo improvisations on the other; in fact, his technical virtuosity was such that his flash could sometimes overwhelm his music. After debuting as a leader with the classic Spectrum in 1973, Cobham spent most of fusion's glory days recording for Atlantic; briefer stints on CBS, Elektra, and GRP followed, and by the mid-'80s, Cobham was de-emphasizing his own bands in favor of session and sideman work. Even so, he continued to record for various small labels with some regularity.

William C. Cobham was born May 16, 1944, in Panama, where as a very young child he became fascinated with the percussion instruments his cousins played. When Cobham was three, his family moved to New York City, and at age eight he made his performance debut with his father. He honed his percussion skills in a drum-and-bugle corps outfit called the St. Catherine's Queensmen, and attended New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1962. From 1965 to 1968, he served as a percussionist in the U.S. Army Band, and after his release, he was hired as the new drummer in hard bop pianist Horace Silver's band. Cobham toured the U.S. and Europe with Silver in 1968, and also moonlighted with Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott, and George Benson. After eight months with Silver, Cobham departed to join the early jazz-rock combo Dreams in 1969, which also featured the Brecker brothers and guitarist John Abercrombie. From there, he landed a job in Miles Davis' new fusion ensemble, and played a small part in the seminal B**ches Brew sessions; he also appeared more prominently on several other Davis albums of the time, including more aggressive classics like Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Cobham and guitarist John McLaughlin split off from Davis' group to pursue a harder rocking brand of fusion in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which debuted in 1971 with the seminal The Inner Mounting Flame. With Mahavishnu, Cobham's fiery intensity was given its fullest airing yet, and his extraordinary technique influenced not only countless fusioneers in his wake, but also quite a few prog rock drummers who were aiming for similarly challenging musical territory. The 1972 follow-up Birds of Fire cemented his reputation, and by this time he had also become something of an unofficial in-house drummer for Creed Taylor's CTI label, known for a smoother, more polished style of fusion; here Cobham backed musicians like George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, and Grover Washington, Jr. Unfortunately, the volatile group chemistry that made Mahavishnu's recordings so exciting also carried over into real life and the original lineup disbanded in 1973.

Deciding to make a go of it on his own, Cobham formed his own band, Spectrum (which initially featured ex-Mahavishnu cohort Jan Hammer on keyboards), and signed with Atlantic. His debut as a leader, also called Spectrum, was released in 1973, showcasing an exciting blend of jazz, funk, and rock that benefited from the presence of guitarists John Scofield and Tommy Bolin (the latter better known for his rock recordings); it also found Cobham experimenting a bit with electronic percussion. Spectrum is still generally acknowledged as the high point of Cobham's solo career, and holds up quite well today. Cobham followed Spectrum with a series of LPs on Atlantic that, like fusion itself, grew increasingly smoother and more commercial as the '70s wore on. For his second album, 1974's Crosswinds, ex-Dreams mate John Abercrombie joined the band, as did keyboardist George Duke, who would become a frequent Cobham collaborator over the years; that same year's performance at Montreux produced the live Shabazz. After Total Eclipse, Cobham moved more explicitly into commercial jazz-funk with 1975's A Funky Thide of Sings, which featured an expanded horn section. He pared the group back down for the improved Life and Times in 1976, and also played Montreux again, in tandem with Duke.

In 1977, Cobham switched to the CBS label, which set him firmly on the path of commercial accessibility. In addition to his records as a leader, he'd remained highly active as a session drummer, and began to focus on that side of his career even more in the late '70s. By 1980, he was done with CBS and began pursuing side opportunities, playing live with the Grateful Dead and Jack Bruce, as well as the Saturday Night Live band. He drummed for the Grateful Dead side project Bobby & the Midnites in 1982, and recorded three albums for Elektra in the early '80s with his new quartet the Glass Menagerie. During the mid-'80s, he cut three commercially oriented LPs for GRP, and spent the next few years stepping up his international touring and absorbing a healthy dose of world music. He played Peter Gabriel's 1992 WOMAD Festival, and the following year recorded The Traveler, inspired by a sojourn in Brazil. In 1996, he formed a more acoustic-oriented quartet called Nordic with three Norwegian musicians; the following year, he also started a German-based fusion outfit called Paradox. In 1998, Cobham began playing with a group called Jazz Is Dead, which devoted itself to jazz reinterpretations of Grateful Dead material; their album Blue Light Rain proved fairly popular among Deadheads. As Cobham maintained his touring, session, and bandleading activities, Rhino released the excellent two-CD retrospective Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology in 2001. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography


philippepelu s o
I saw BC several times in Europe, and he the fastest and loudest jazz fusion drummer ever!
funny how many ppl the GratefulDead confuses
Billy's music brings back many great memories.
He played with the Grateful Dead? I'm confused?
It's amazing that as a sixteen year old, this kind of jazz fusion is the music that I play with bands. While most of my friends are going hardcore with The Faceless and Slash styles, I'm with my marching band friends free styling to electric jazz and funk grooves. It's a great feeling no doubt.
UHHHHH Yes...Billy was THE drummer as it states.....
The bro has good music I will buy some album's
Billy is the man. Seen him last year, he's in his 60's and still kickin a**. Go see him
1 Drum 2 another 3/4 time wonderful. 14y 1m
A classic smooth tune, Billy Cobham style!
Oh man! This is delicious!

One of the best
philippepelu s o
Billy Cobham is exceptional, but I can't say he is the best drummer ever.... We cannot forget such wonderful drummers as Chester Thompson, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Graham Lear, Lenny White, Tony Williams, ...... and so many more Jazz Fusion drummers....
Billy C. has some of the sickest and quickest chops in the game. One Word on Birds of Fire is a monster... Being a drummer, He is almost untouchable to play to. I play Peart, Palmer Bonham...Bil l y C. makes me hurt...:) Seen him solo at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly back in the day... monster double bassist too...
Just saw him play.... still hammering it at 69 years old! Impressive!
R.I.P. Tommy Bolin
Played the snot out of Crosswinds in the 70's, especially Pleasant Pheasant - my favorite song for decades. Had not heard it for many years and was gratified to hear it first thing this morning. Good memories. Particularly the one of going to see Billy at the Roxy instead of studying for finals.
i think billy has a wide open original joyous attack of a drum set. always thrilled by his playing. billy has earned a big place in the music world . always moved by his work
cheshirecatb a n
either's he's running out of toms, or he's not finishing the rolls; his uber fast rolls never finish on time....prob needs more toms or less notes
Best album is Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie Observations & Reflections No: E160123 Usa, Elektra K 52386

1 Jailbait 5:10
2 M.S.R. 5:22
3 Arroyo 7:56
4 Chiquita Linda 5:56
5 Take It To The Sky 4:11
6 Observations & Reflections 10:03
BC's held several drum workshops over the years in and around Salt Lake City - I was honored to meet and shake his hand of which he clasped mine on stage. A most informative and humble jazz heavy. Perhaps one of the greatest experiences of my feeble existence. Hail, hail: Billy Cobham!
Remarkable drummer and nice guy too!
where is spectrum in billy's discography? best recording left out?
Some years ago when I was young musician just stating out, I was asked, what do you mean play drums melodically? I told him to listen Billy Cobham recordings, he understood.
Great article regarding Billy Cobham's biography. However, I don't think his Spectrum album was the highlight of his career, although it certainly projected him into the forefront of the fusion/rock genre at the time. To appreciate Mr. Cobham's capabilities in the jazz realm, I suggest you listen to him playing with McCoy Tyner on the Fly With the Wind Album, recorded in 1976 (McCoy's date). You can really appreciate his mastery in context with an accomplished pianist and a great ensemble.
Saw him live in 1975. Absolutely amazing. It was like listening to Coltrane play drums.
Wow...I would love to see him. I'll have to keep an eye for when he comes to Chicago.
gvictorpauls o n
I saw this legend during his 1973 solo debut tour with Spectrum at Long Island University's Southampton campus, in the theater. Changed me ever since...
I am in Seattle at Jazz Alley last October.
He still has it, I saw him play last October at The Blue Note.
Billy has been my favorite since the 70's. I've seen him 20 times and would see him tomorrow. Go Billy!!..... .
had a chance to me billy while he was playing a gig in patchouge long island several years ago.i believe he was about 60 years old but played like he was about thirty.he still had plenty of fire left.all his band members were about half his age great a drummer myself i was always inspired by billy.
what ever happened to smokin glassmenager i e they were greatneed to be added to play list
Simply one of the best...
Saw him with John Mclauglin in 73 at Case Westurn Reserve u during a snow storm.with every thing he could hit with a stick miked and his setup in stero it was the best consert ever.roll left, roll right. Raw energy just raw power. I've got to get another disk of Spectrum I keep eating them up!
Never heard of Billy, walked in tower records,they were playing his music, i shouted out who is this guy! and a customer who is a drummer educated me. I was converted. i didn't even like fusion,after Billy, i do now........t h e mans music inspires me..
Billy is an inspiration to all drummers. I saw him with the Brecker Brothers on a bill with Weather Report and it was an awesome show. His work with Mahavishnu still brings chills to listen to. Often imitated, never equaled.
I had the pleasure of meeting him in patchogue N.Y.I told him how much he influenced my playing.At 60 years old he is still great
commsalesspe c
I have been a fan of Billy's for years. Before he became the lead session drummer for CTI records. The man revolutioniz e d the instrument.
i saw him once at the royal oak theater, great proformance
its easy to be a cobham fan. he raised an already high drum bar. rich bellson roach t. williams den chambers. just a few off the top of my head. seen billy play probably 15 times. mostly with mahavishnu. his ambidexterou s technique really helps his playing also
Billy brought a new level of Drumming to the seen. He paved the way for others like Dennis Chambers.. Explosive drummers like these know when to play and when to just hold it down in the pocket!
I've always enjoyed his quality of play on any album. I'd like to here "Life and Times" excellent work.
Go to Drummerworld . c o m , a n d you will be in heaven Gottafunk.
Lucky to see Billy play w/ his trio in New Orleans in 1994 - what chops, what taste. The guy can kill, yet he does it with such finesse and subtlety. Saw him in NYC last year - guess what? The highlight of his solo was a 5 minute almost silent snare paradiddle solo - he brought it down so low, so quiet, the club stopped - he was smiling the whole time. Not a drummer, but a musician.
I remember going to hear and see Billy play with Mahavishnu Orch on their opening tour at the Berkeley Community Auditorium in '71 and the first ten rows were filled with a gozillion drummers from everywhere and Billy just torched the world that night--and you could see him thru that clear, see-thru Fibes kit and he was just a blur, man. Some of the stuff he did that night just made all of us who played drums just want to woodshed for another five years before we went back out to play again.
Yeah Billy is incredible. But not only as a drummer but as a composer too. Very nice music. He's not just a drummer as us drummers sometimes get those comments. I think the only drummer nowadays that can come close to his power in the fusion world is Dennis Chambers. Are there any others out there? Let me know who to check out.
John Bonham and Neil Peart have got nothing on him is right. Such company to keep Billy Cobham is an exceptional drummer. His brother plays a mean trumpet as well the whole family is talented

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