Twelve Q’s and Some Revealing A’s with the Canadian Blues Shuffle Queen
The Canadian drumming scene – past and present – can count a lot of serious heavyweights among its fraternity, including – but certainly not limited to – Neil Peart, Paul Brochu, Skip Prokop, Garry Peterson, Graham Lear, Whitey Glann, Paul DeLong, Mike Sloski, Mitch Dorge, Flo Mounier, Mark Kelso, Pierre Hebert, and Maureen’s husband, the rather sensational Rick Gratton. But Maureen Brown Gratton is different. The name may be the instant giveaway (that matter of gender), but there’s much, much more. Check this out: Maureen is classically trained in drums and percussion; is a multi-award winning drummer and vocalist (4-time ‘Canadian Blues Drummer’, 3-time Mapleblues ‘Female Vocalist of the Year’ nominee); has played with some of the greatest names in the business; can hang seriously with those she hasn’t played with; and blows away audiences at events including the Cape Breton International Drum Festival and Montreal Drumfest. No, we’re not talking fear-inducing chops; we’re talking drumming… musical drumming that makes the music sound and feel great; the kind that makes you go ‘Wow, nice groove.’ The fact that she’s married to one of the world’s great groovers and chops monsters, Mr. Rick Gratton, would be enough to drive a lesser woman into the kitchen. But not Maureen, who is also a painter and qualifies as an all-round wonderful person. Her past life may not have all been a bowl of cherries, but thanks to music and the joy it has brought, today it’s all peaches, which is fine by her.
1. At what point did you realize you wanted to make drumming your career?Playing drums always seemed to be in my future. When we were teens, I told a friend I wanted to marry a drummer and to play a pink drumkit. When she reminded me many years later, I was playing professionally, owned a set of pink Milestones (or was it pink Canwoods?), but had yet to meet and marry Rick. I was immersed in the school systems music programs. Just prior to graduating, my father, in a moment of anger, kicked me out of the family home. I was given 12 hours to collect my belongings and find a new place to live. Whatever I couldn’t carry he gave away. This included the double-bass kit he had bought me, as it wouldn’t fit in the cab that took me to nowhere. By 19, I was married to a young guitarist, feeling we would both pursue music professionally, only to realize that was my dream, not his. Money was tight at that time so I took on four part-time jobs to afford to buy a set of drums. All I ever wanted to do was play drums, but without the support of my family, I made the move, on my own, to join a touring band and start my career as a professional musician.
2. That was extremely brave, but then you had some seriously good influences didn’t you?My early teachers, Mike Bergauer, Gary Tomlin and Chris Woroch, really shaped my direction and influenced my attitude in preparation for what was to come. Their support means very much, especially now that I truly understand its value. In terms of drummers who influenced me, I looked to Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Whitey Glann, Carmine Appice, John Bonham, Keith Moon and one of my biggest influences, Little Feat’s very funky Richie Hayward. Then there is my first influence, Ringo Starr. But it was the playing of Billy Cobham in the early 1970’s that inspired me to buy my first drumkit.
3. Your playing swings and grooves as opposed to being high-powered and chops-oriented, so your Ringo Starr is more evident as an influence than, say, Billy Cobham. How do you reconcile such diverse influences? Because I’ve never played in any kind of band that embraced his style, I’ve never really had a chance to utilize my ‘Billy’ chops. I practice them, but also find elements of his technique escape me at times, particularly in my fills. From Ringo I learned how to swing, and he was probably my first influence for playing ‘the song’. One thing for sure, he was definitely my introduction to the blues. Check out early Beatles recordings and you will hear their blues roots.
4. From where do you draw your inspiration and confidence?Knowledge is power… or in my case confidence and ability. Being a classically trained percussionist, my early teachers made sure I was a well-rounded, competent drummer in everything from swing and rock to latin and drum corps, while also able to handle all aspects of orchestra charts and drum ensemble work. Between my pre-teen years and high-school graduation, we were required to write our own scores for an eight-piece percussion ensemble. Also, I was in the Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestra for a short stint. But I really wanted to be on the road with a band, so off I went. When I quit the tour circuit, I moved to Toronto, where I was regarded by many as a ‘blues’ drummer, simply because that’s the music I was playing most. Me, I just wanted to be a very good drummer (and singer), not a drummer of any particular style. So, I researched every style, including the blues but also jazz, funk, latin… even African rhythms and anything else I could get my hands on. I gained my confidence from acquiring knowledge and skill. Add to this list one of my greatest influences, my accomplished husband and biggest supporter, Rick Gratton.
5. On a more local level, who do you see and enjoy? The Toronto area is the home of or plays host to a lot of great players. I love to see Mike Sloski, as he has one of the most relaxed, authentic grooves. He’s also one of the nicest guys on the circuit. Ed Ham, with Carol Bakker, is another guy who has a great pocket and wonderful spirit. I also love to see Joe Rigon, with Robbie Lane and the Disciples. And I will go out of my way to see guys like Whitey Glann and Graham Lear, two monster drummers, who still play the Toronto area. Whitey’s legendary performances with Mandala, Bette Midler, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, and Graham’s with Gino Vannelli, Santana, and Paul Anka set a high standard of expectation for Canadian drummers around the world.
6. So, Maureen, how did you become a band-leader? It’s a mammoth task…It all came down to what I wanted to do as a musician. In my early years I learned to sing because others pushed me to take on the occasional lead or harmony parts. As much as I enjoyed drumming, I also wanted to sing. When I came off the tour trail and settled in Toronto, I immersed myself in the local blues scene. Because harmony vocals are not big in the blues, my desire to make singing a bigger part of what I do was stifled to the point where I decided to start my own band… so I could drum and sing. It wasn’t about being ‘the star,’ it was all about keeping my singing active. As for the mammoth task of starting my own band, the Beatles were a big inspiration for me to be a drummer and even to sing. They also made me want to be in a band. I love that family feeling of being in a band, that sense of security that comes from living on the road as a group. As a band leader, I also find comfort in ensuring each group member gets to express all their talents. If they’re a player but also sing, they’re encouraged do their thing, to showcase themselves, because when they do so they also enhance the band.
7. What advice to you have for young, upcoming drummers?I would suggest every drummer learn to sing at least one song while drumming. Not only will it help their skills as a drummer or singer, it will also enlighten them to realize what it means to support the song. So often, drummers want to show off the latest lick they’ve learned, whether or not it is appropriate for the song. If you sing while drumming, you will instantly get what it means to stay out of the way of the vocals. You will also understand what mood or message is being conveyed by the lyrics of the song. If you don’t know what the song is about, how can you reflect that message with dynamics and passion emphasized by your playing? How can you support the rest of the band and the song if you are not listening to the band and vocalist? Play the song!
8. What are some of the highlights of your career?Oh, there are so, so many, but here are some standouts:
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