Atlanta drummer Sonny Emory has become one of the most in-demand musicians in popular music. Currently a member of Eric Clapton’s touring band (where he recently performed in front of 100,000 people in London’s Hyde Park), Emory’s massive list of credits includes: Stanley Clarke, Al Jarreau, Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler, Earth, Wind & Fire, Paula Abdul, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jennifer Lopez, David Sanborn, Bruce Hornsby, Steely Dan, Spyro Gyra and Lee Ritenour.
Emory also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgia State University and comes home Tuesday for a show with his own band, Cachet, at City Winery at 8 p.m. The concert will celebrate Emory’s latest album, Love Is the Greatest.
ArtsATL recently sat down with Emory to discuss the art of drumming, his time with Clapton and his latest record.
ArtsATL: Tell us about the making of your new album.
Sonny Emory: I can tell you I took great pains with this one. This project took about two years to complete, mainly because of my crazy touring schedule. To show you how crazy — when I began I was playing with Bruce Hornsby and when I finished it, I was with Eric Clapton. [laughs] I wanted to formulate the concept of the band before recording the completed version of the songs. I started with the tracks at home. I’ve done the drum record and the jazz thing, so I intentionally wanted this one to be a little more mainstream. I like for things to come to me, and when they do, it’s like a lightning bolt — you know that it’s right.
ArtsATL: You’ve played with a long list of prominent people in the music world. Clearly, you have a unique ability to adapt. Would you say you’re great at wearing different hats?
Emory: Absolutely. In fact, that was a goal of mine. I grew up here [Atlanta] and was around some incredible musicians — my dad (a saxophonist), and his good friend Paul Mitchell from Dante’s Down the Hatch, Ricky Keller, Oliver Wells, Ike Stubblefield, Mike Veal, Bill Hatchett — the list goes on. These guys taught me that you can go into any situation and be versatile and play it well. So, that’s always been my focus, the kind of drummer I wanted to be — the drummer’s drummer. And in order to do that, you have to have the mastery of a lot of different styles.
It can be very stressful. Like when you go from David Sanborn to Bette Midler to Earth Wind & Fire to Stanley Clarke – then, next thing you know, you’re in studio with Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby. Really, it can be somewhat mind-boggling. You have to be able to flip on a dime. And you have to know what that seat requires of you before you take it. God has put me in so many amazing situations. There are so many guys with amazing talent who are never given the chance to do it. I’ve had the chance to do it, and I’m ever grateful for that.
ArtsATL: You’re an adjunct professor at Georgia State University (your alma mater) and also teach privately. What do you feel most compelled to bestow upon your students?
Emory: First and foremost, that there has to be a total commitment to the craft. You can’t be half-hearted about doing it. You have to jump in with both feet. I learned that well just about the time I started GSU myself because things started really blowing up for me. I was playing gigs at night and had classes at 7:30 a.m. I’d leave in between the school break from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. to go cut jingles, then rush back to classes, then study between 5 and 7 p.m., then get ready to go to the club for the gig starting at 9. I did that for several years. So I tell my students that in order to really do this, you must eat, sleep, dream it — and then some. I definitely tell them to set the intention of what they want the universe to bring to them. I also tell them that regardless of the gig — whether it’s playing Third Street Pub for two people or it’s playing Hyde Park for 100,000 people, the same level of professionalism must be engaged. And, I tell them that they must play at least 10,000 hours before they can even begin to think of competing with the great musicians out there.
ArtsATL: What’s the difference between a good drummer and an extraordinary drummer?
Emory: I think the extraordinary drummer has been chosen by God to be a drummer — it’s absolutely in your blood to do it — and those are the guys who can go into any setting and adapt to the conditions. To me, you’ve been set apart, anointed to do that work. When I began college, everyone said, “What are you going to major in? You mean your major is music? Do you not have a minor?” And I’d respond, “Yes, I’m a music major. There is no minor. There’s just the music. This is what I’m going to do.” There was never a back-up plan for me. I knew I was going to earn money playing music.
ArtsATL: You’re touring with Eric Clapton and recently played to 100,000 people in Hyde Park. How did you come to play with Clapton?
Emory: Well, you might say that it’s been in the making for years. I originally met Eric in 1986 when I was working with David Sanborn. David brought me in to work on the Lethal Weapon II soundtrack, and Eric was working on it, too. I was really gassed to be on the same project with him. Then he came to see me when I was playing with Earth, Wind & Fire and told me afterwards that he enjoyed my playing — which was a huge honor. That led to my calling him on a whim and to ask him to play on my album, Rock Hard Cachet, while recording it in Europe. When he said he’d do it, I was floored. Fast forward to when Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show. Bruce Hornsby was the musical guest, and Eric came and sat in with us. We actually played a song I wrote called, “Space is the Place.” One day I got a call from Eric, and he told me he kept remembering what it felt like to play with me on Jay Leno and that he wanted me to come play drums for him. That was an intense moment to absorb, especially given that Eric’s old drummer, Jamie Oldaker, is my absolute drumming hero. I remember thinking to myself that I had some tremendous shoes to fill. And then I quieted that thought down by telling myself that if Eric hadn’t believed I was the right one for the job, he wouldn’t have called me.