From Marching Band to Multi-Platinum: A Profile of Narada Michael Walden

Mike Lawson • Directors Who Make a Difference • November 11, 2015

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Narmada as a Drum MajorNarada Michael Walden’s career is, in some respects, mind-blowing. But it all started out in high school marching band. He went from snare drum to drum major to a scholarship to learn jazz, all of which he parlayed into one of the most enviable careers a former drum major could possibly hope to have.

As a drummer, he joined Mahavishnu Orchestra, following the path of Billy Cobham. A few short years later, he was touring the world and teaming up with Jeff Beck to record Beck’s amazing Wired album with Beatles producer George Martin. As a producer, he cranked out hit after hit for Aretha Franklin (including the platinum “Freeway of Love.”), Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Wynonna Judd, Whitney Houston, George Michael, Mariah Carey, Barbara Streisand, Lionel Richie, Lisa Fischer, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Jeff Beck, and The Temptations garnering an EMMY and multiple GRAMMY awards as winner of Producer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of The Year. Walden played a large role introducing Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to their breakout careers, producing and writing their breakthroughs, and Billboard Magazine named him one of the Top Ten Producers of all time. He has released eleven acclaimed solo recordings, with his latest, entitled Evolution just coming out now (and featuring a photo of him in his drum major uniform on the back cover). His music has been part of soundtracks for films such as The Bodyguard, Free Willy, Beverly Hills Cops II, 9 ½ Weeks and Stuart Little to the EMMY-winning “One Moment In Time,”  the theme to the 1988 Olympic Games.

SBO sat down to find out how he went from hat-wearing, baton-wielding drum major in high school to where he is today.

Narada at Grace Cathedral

How old were you when you first started making music in school?

My first experience, really with music, was really also, I must say, in third grade catholic school, where they were playing “Peter and the Wolf,” they’re playing some of the classical stuff to try to interest us in that kind of music, I always liked that, that was beautiful. But as far as actually having a band experience, the band didn’t really come until I joined high school, Plainwell High School, Plainwell, Michigan. In freshman year, I was playing snare drums and then I did symphony and percussion, and then marching band. So all three of those elements were a part of that band.

Do you remember your band director’s name?

Yes, Mr. Donald Agne.

How was your experience in high school and marching band?

High school was really wonderful, because my freshman year, I learned to be the snare drummer in the marching band. And then as a sophomore, I became the head drum teacher for the marching, the leader.

As I became a junior, they decided to make me their major. So I went off to a camp during the summertime, to learn how to become a drum major. All the signals and the calls or the batons and the whistle, all that stuff. And so then, my junior and my senior years of high school I was the major, and I loved the whole experience; it gave me a ton of confidence.

How influential was your band director on your career choice as a musician?

He was instrumental, I mean, I always knew I was going to be a drummer musician, but Don Agne was just so inspirational, encouraging, loving, kind. So I left home about 16 years old, then my first few years of high school, junior and senior years, I was living on my own. So he was very aware of that, and he would have me in his office, and talk about how I was making out or how I was doing, because I worked at a sanitarium hospital to make ends meet. And he talked about how I was making out; he was very, very kind to me. So I have to say, I had the best teacher ever.

Did you go onto college from there playing? Or did you start playing pro?

I had my own band. We played the high school prom, but then I actually played bass in that band, but then in college, I was able to get a Martin Luther King, Jr. scholarship program, which started right away. So I had to go jump into college to take advantage of that scholarship. I was enrolled at Western Michigan University, for three semesters, 18 hours each semester, a lot of hours taking primarily music. And I got a jazz band experience, because the jazz band teacher was the same guy that actually owned the music shop in town where I first started playing drums. I knew him for many, many, many, years. But after three semesters of college, I realized I needed more playing time. So then I joined a band called Distance in the Far and I was playing all the dives and the little hole-in-the-walls all across Michigan and out to California.

That’s where you paid your dues.

Yes, very much so.

How did you get from there to Mahavishnu Orchestra? You were pretty young when you took over for Billy Cobham, weren’t you?

Evolution album coverYes, but I can’t say I took over, because that would be implying I could take his place, which no one could ever do. All I could ever do was just be the best of me, and acknowledge the genius of Billy Cobham, I mean, he’s awesome. But how it happened was, I was in LA, living at my cousin’s house and practicing my drum woodshedding on the first Mahavishnu Orchestra album that just came out called Inner Mounting Flame. So I’m woodshedding on this album, I’m also woodshedding with Al Coulson’s music, whatever I liked at the time. I got a phone call to fly to Florida, to join a band that was called The New McGuire Sisters, with Sandy Torano, who had played guitar for Edgar Winter’s band – he was a jazz rock fusion guitar. We went down there, I met him, and we started our own group down there. And they had a little money from one of their investors named Greg Fowl. So they had their own warehouse where we could play every day, and that really got me hot. And that band moved from Miami, where I also met Jaco Pastorius, I met Pat Metheny, we were all down there at the same time. Well the New McGuire Sisters, they moved up to Connecticut, and so did I. And in the nine months, I’ve been living up there. The Mahavishnu Orchestra had put out the Birds of Fire and I was able to go see them play live at Hartford. At that show, I was lucky enough to get backstage and meet John McLaughlin. And I told John, for many years of his life, I want to be like him. When I heard him play that night and what I saw in his eyes when I heard Billy play, I was blown away. He says, “Well, it’s because of my prayer and meditation said, “Yeah, I know, because I read it on the back of your albums and I’m following you.” And he said, “Well, give me your number.” So about a week from then, he actually calls and says, “I want you to come to meet the group tonight at the meditation.” So, I brushed my hair back, shaved my beard off, put on white colored clothes and go down to meet the group.

And I’m all ready to meet the group and that becomes my journey to learn meditation and more prayer and more… emotional, spiritual life. Which then prepares me to then become ready to play with him and get a friendship with him.

How old were you?

I just turned 20.

You were just a few years out of high school. As you look back, that must seem impossibly young.

Not really of my life, because back in Michigan, you had to be bad young. Not bragging, this is the truth. In Michigan, there was so much competition in music, that you must be able to play stuff when you’re a kid. So, like in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, playing down with John, I’d go, “How can I understand it more – what you really need from me?” He’d never teach me directly. He would say, “Just listen, and these are the shapes of 5, these are the shapes of 7, these are the shapes of 9, these are the shapes of 11.” So he was an excellent teacher, a most excellent teacher.

Did your marching experience and your jazz band in high school experience really prep you musically to understand what he was talking about? It doesn’t sound like something that somebody who was completely self-taught and wasn’t versed in music as a language could get with John.

Yes, it did help me. All the experience of sight-reading, helped me to work with the orchestra. Playing snare drum instruments, all that stuff, of course, I used in my life with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And also, being on time, showing up on time, being nice to somebody, you could be a person that could be around other people. As a leader for the marching band, I knew how to be able to be a leader with all of the people there.

So, when do you end up with Jeff Beck?

That happened on the second album of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which was called Visions of the Emerald Beyond. At the tour for that album, it was also with Jeff Beck’s band. And they opened…or we come out with our show, the Mahavishnu, we toured all over Australia and parts of Europe and parts of America together. So, we became friends just touring together. And on the Mahavishnu’s last album called Inner World, I was in a chateau in France, making that album, I got a call from Jeff, he was like, “Please, after the next album, fly to the UK, to London,” to do this recording with him. So I did. I went there, and then he only had one piece of music, which was rehearsed. And I’m so glad I taped that drumbeat that I played, so I wouldn’t forget, because back then, we don’t write stuff down. I would tape live stuff, so I would pass it to him. So then, because he only had one piece of music, I said, “I’ll write some stuff.” So when we were mixing the last Mahavishnu Orchestra at Trident Studios in the UK, London, I went down by the piano and just wrote “Lover’s Green,” “Sophie,” “Come Dancing,” and “Play with Me.” And then Jeff wrote on my stuff and we got on and we recorded with George Martin, producing at London Air Studios.

Wow. And how old were you at this point?

Well this would be 1975, so I’d be 22.

I keep asking about that, because you had the path from high school to 22, in hindsight, not that many years. The older we get, the quicker the years go by. And that’s not that far. So the point I’m trying to stress for our younger readers is the opportunities and how fast they can come in your life.

That’s correct, that is absolutely awesome, how fast it happens. But I have to keep stressing to you, Mike, here in Michigan, Detroit was not far from Chicago, Chicago is not far from Kalamazoo. Those musicians as kids were awesome. The bands that were around them were awesome. So as kids, we had to be able to assimilate and just be bad to the bone.

Carlos Santa Holiday Jam

What’s the best thing a band director can do for his students today?

Well, I have to look at my guy Don Agne, who was just so kind to me, careful with me. He was a good listener and he wanted to know how I was really doing. And I felt that if I had any trouble, I could go talk to him. I could open my heart to him at a time when it’s hard to have a trust with an adult like that. I could go talk to him and I knew I would be safe with him, I could talk to him, and that was really critical for me. So, I would say to all teachers to have a good rapport with your students, where they can trust you, to talk to you and tell them about their lives – that, I think, is critical.

And what’s the best advice you could give to the student, who wants to go from high school to playing drums for a living?

My best advice is, remember the spirit, the joy you had when you were first starting out. That light you had in your heart and your spirit, when you’re first able to do what you love doing. Never lose that childlike experience, because it will carry you through everything. When I’m playing drums now, I still can emulate the feeling I had when I was five/six years old, my parents bought me for Christmas, toyland drum set and it was made of paper. So I must have spent 10, 15 minutes before it would break, but the feeling I got being on those things, I have to this very day. Keep the best feeling you had when you were a kid and that spirit you have and that fun, keep that alive, don’t lose that.

Every good player I know out there is a big kid. Beck is a big kid, Sting is a big kid, Santana – they’re all big kids. When they talk about music, they get all happy inside, it’s like a fresh toy, a fresh new thing. Carlos, he gets all excited about it, like a big kid. So that’s what I’m saying, never lose that. Don’t become some highfalutin adult. No, don’t, just be bad-ass and have fun, have a lot of fun.

Learn more about the legendary Narada Michael Walden’s career and all he is up to at

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