In honour and celebration of the February 22nd birthday of musician’s musician Harvey Mason, we revisit a 1978 interview conducted by SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan as Harvey was establishing himself as a recording artist and producer in his own right…
Harvey Mason: Have Funk Will Travel
by David Nathan, April 1978
One of the most interesting developments in recent years on the contemporary music scene has been the recognition and attention paid to those folk who actually contribute so much to the multitude of records that are produced everywhere from Los Angeles to London, New York to Memphis, Chicago to Miami.
It’s no longer a question of who produced your album, or who wrote the songs. Now, music buffs everywhere want to know who is playing what either behind or alongside you and the result has been that many of the extremely talented musicians who have thus far remained anonymous are now finding themselves at the centre of attention. People like Bob James, Eric Gale, Ralph MacDonald, Patti Austin, Lani Groves, Hugh McCracken, Richard Tee, Tom Scott — the list is pretty lengthy. And of course, Harvey Mason who says he used to average almost three sessions a day!
Naturally, he’s cut down somewhat — especially since he began establishing a firm following for himself with his three Arista albums — but when we caught up with him, he was literally in between sessions — one with Eric Gale and another with Ralph MacDonald! However, Harvey’s not complaining — “I enjoy working with a lot of people because we’ve gotten to know each other and there’s a lot of musical spontaneity which can be fun”.
Right now, Harvey’s main concentration is on his third album for Arista, “Funk In A Mason Jar” which seems to be outselling its predecessors rapidly, further establishing this exciting drummer/songwriter/producer as a strong force to be reckoned with on the music scene. The album itself boasts the kind of cast which any performer would dream of — featuring everyone from George Benson to Verdine White (of EW+F), Merry Clayton, David T. Walker, Tom Scott, Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson), the Tower of Power Horns, Phil Upchurch, Bob James and Ralph MacDonald — and that isn’t a complete list! “Truly, the album just worked out that way — I certainly didn’t plan to have all those folk on it,” Harvey comments. “Everything just seemed to fall into place with the album and I just took time to pick the right musicians for each song. The difference I guess between this album and its predecessors is that, this time, I didn’t fix myself the same kind of time limit. It took a total of ten months to complete the project and I found it so much easier that way. The only problem can be that by taking time, you might have a tendency to continually evaluate and re-evaluate — it’s like you’ve got the opportunity to second guess things.”
He feels that this particular album “is more rhythmic, plus there’s a little more singing on there. When it comes to recording, in fact in general terms, I think of myself as a musician rather than just a drummer and my aim is to establish a particular sound of my own on my records so that they become identifiable to the public.”
For those who may not know, Mr. Mason has already established a name for himself before he began making solo albums. A native of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Harvey has been involved with music since the tender age of four when his father gave him his first drum which he promptly destroyed out of “excitement, passion and inquisitiveness”. Whilst still in high school, Harvey played professionally in his hometown opposite the likes of Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith and Yusef Lateef and toured Europe with Erroll Garner, before settling in California in 1970. He recalls that “I was really more of a percussionist back then, because it seemed like no one would hire drummers — there just seemed to be so many good ones around” and in this capacity, Harvey worked on several movie soundtracks as well as commercials.
It was through one such engagement that Mr. Mason was recommended to Quincy Jones by Ray Brown and he worked with the multi-talented musician for about a year “when I was called to substitute for Sammy Davis’ drummer at the last moment when the guy in question got sick. Everything just seemed to mushroom from there.” Harvey became a regular session-man in Los Angeles noting that “before 1973, I did a lot of rock and roll sessions” and it was around this period that he found himself doing sometimes three sessions daily. “It was kinda like that for four years but I enjoyed it. Most times, we didn’t rehearse ahead of time — it was just a matter of going to the studios, studying the charts and then adding your own embellishments. It’s really a lot more spontaneous than people think and when you’re around a lot with the same people at sessions, you know how you’re basically going to interract together.”
Harvey notes that it’s difficult to single out one particular session as being any more spectacular than any other but he commented that the sessions for George Benson’s live “Weekend In L.A.” were particularly enjoyable. “I just feel that everything that’s successful makes me feel good” and the presence of some twenty gold records on his wall at home in L.A. seems to solidify that feeling, although he points out that he’s eagerly awaiting his own first gold record too!
The next stage in the Mason career saw the gentleman working with Herbie Hancock and as a result, he recorded with that gentleman’s musical unit known as The Headhunters for Arista. It was then a natural progression to Harvey’s initial solo effort, “Marching In The Streets”, released in 1975, which sparked sufficient interest to prepare for a second album, “Earthmover” which featured amongst others, Lee Ritenour, Merry Clayton and Louis Johnson.
To date, Harvey hasn’t spent too much time on the road but “Funk In A Mason Jar” has stimulated enough action to warrant preparation for a tour. “I feel that visibility is very important and I do intend to let the public see more of me in the future. I’ve already done gigs with quite a number of people — as a special guest and so on but you can expect to see me doing more road work from now on in.” Harvey feels that the acceptance of his third album is “because I tried very hard not to make this album just all one way. I like to think of it as being a two “A” sides album! One side is more danceable, the other more mellow. I’m 200% happy with the album and I couldn’t really single out one particular cut that I dig more than any others. I feel that it’s a vast improvement on the first two albums and it comes as the culmination of learning so much from doing those first two.”
The album itself contains several of Harvey’s own songs, as well as a version of the Marvin Gaye classic, “What’s Going On”, and in commenting on his own material, he says: “I write mostly at the piano and I feel that most of my songs are constructed harmonically and melodically rather than rhythmically. I write whenever I can and I really enjoy it — I just seem to get a lot of ideas for songs.” When Harvey isn’t busy still doing selected sessions or recording himself, he’s also involved with other artists. “I produced the first two albums on Seawind and I’m very, very happy that the group got nominated for a Grammy for a song from their first CTI album called “The Devil’s A Liar”.
Aside from his work with Seawind, Harvey is also producing none other than Merry Clayton (who contributes strongly to Harvey’s album with the cut “Till You Take My Love”) for a Japanese record company, Alpha Records. “Nothing’s been set yet for distribution in the States but I’m sure something will be forthcoming,” Harvey notes. As if that isn’t enough, recent projects have seen Harvey on sessions with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Raoul de Souza, Maxine Nightingale, Ronnie Foster (from George Benson’s band), Ben Vereen, Flora Purim and another former member of the Headhunters, Benny Maupin. On top of that, Harvey has completed work on the score for an up-coming movie and somewhere in between all of that, he’s managed to continue to spend time with one of his favourite hobbies — golf! “I find it very relaxing and I’m part of a team in Southern California which includes Smokey Robinson and a number of atheletes and so on. We meet once a month to play in what we call the “Ghetto Open Tournament” and so far, I’ve won a trophy for second place.” In addition, Mr. Mason did win the Music Industry Golf Tournament in 1974 — which shows that his skills are by no means restricted just to music!
© 1978, 2022, David Nathan