From Springsteen to ‘Letterman,’ Rolling Stones’ Touring Drummer Has Rich Musical History

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Wednesday’s announcement that Charlie Watts would be sitting out the upcoming Rolling Stones tour was jarring; for the first time since 1963, Watts (who is recovering from an unspecified surgical procedure) won’t be behind the drum kit. But the least surprising news was the person who’ll be filling in for him. Although not a bold-face name to some, Steve Jordan has had a connection with the band that dates back decades — to Richards’ X-Pensive Winos and even one of the Stones’ own albums.

As a name in album credits, Jordan, 64, has been familiar to anyone who’s owned records by Keith Richards (all his solo work), John Mayer, Stevie Nicks, Bruce Springsteen, the Blues Brothers (the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd project), and many more. Sharp-eyed TV watchers may recall Jordan as the drummer in the house bands of Saturday Night Live (1977-78) and Late Night with David Letterman (1982-86). Before that, Jordan also played in Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove and contributed to a slew of R&B, jazz and fusion albums.

During that same period, Jordan explored a blend of pop, funk and fusion with the 24th Street Band, which also featured guitarist Hiram Bullock and bassist Will Lee, among others. Paul Shaffer co-produced one of their albums, leading to a major leap in Jordan’s career. “The situation came up when Paul was asked to be musical director of Letterman,” Jordan told Rolling Stone in 2011. “He called me and wanted to pick my brain about what to do. I said, ‘Look, if we get Will and Hiram, we have a band.’”

Dubbed the World’s Most Dangerous Band, that quartet became Letterman’s in-house combo, backing almost all of the show’s musical guests during those early years. “Little Richard was amazing,” Jordan told RS. “I remember him playing amazing piano and afterward walking down the hall and coming up to me and hugging me. And saying, ‘I love the way you feel!’ I didn’t know how to take that. But it was the thrill of a lifetime to play with him.”

The highlight, Jordan said, was backing James Brown. “We did ‘Sex Machine’ and it was incredible. He was scat singing at the end. He kind of took over the show. We were playing James Brown tunes on the breaks. If you look at the tape, he’s completely blown away by the end and is looking at Dave and saying, ‘I see why you got the hottest show, David!’ He points to Dave, and Dave is completely confused and says, ‘I’m gonna play “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”‘ We only rehearsed two songs with him but he was so comfortable with us so we closed with ‘I Got the Feelin’” even though we only rehearsed two songs with him. Afterwards, I went into the dressing room and he grabbed me and said, ‘Brother, you’re high–your energy is high!’  I walk into James’ dressing room to shake his hand and get an autograph. It looks like he’s sitting on a throne with a crown. But it’s a dyer to blow out his hair, which had gotten wet from the sweat. Behind the dryer was Al Sharpton. It was like a dream.”

Jordan also said he introduced Letterman to Bruce Springsteen when the two men, and Late Night writer/producer Merrill Markoe, went to a show at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey during this time. The exposure Jordan received from that gig led him to become one of rock’s in-demand session drummers. “I got a lot of work because people got to hear me every night,” he said. “I wasn’t contractually bound like Paul. So I could go off for a week of absence and play with Neil Young or Stevie Nicks or the Stones. I would leave the show and then come back.”

During that period, Jordan contributed to albums by Donald Fagen (The Nightfly) and Nicks (Rock a Little) as well as the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” His pairing with Neil Young in 1989 was particularly triumphant. When Young blasted out “Rockin’ in the Free World on SNL that year — one of the most electrifying live performances on that show, if not all of live music on TV — Jordan was right there with him, slamming away on his kit.

But Jordan’s longest-running association has been with the Stones. According to Richards in his memoir Life, Watts first took notice of Jordan’s kinetic playing on SNL in 1978. Years later, when Richards was asked to produce a remake of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for Aretha Franklin, he remembered Watts’ recommendation and recruited Jordan for that track.

The bond between Richards and Jordan came in doubly handy when the Stones assembled to make the troubled Dirty Work album in the mid-Eighties — a period when Watts was struggling with drug and alcohol problems. “Jordan came to hang out in the studio, and then played on the album, filling in for Charlie, who was having a wobble of his own, carried away for a time on various stupefiants, as the French have it.” (The album credits don’t specify which tracks Jordan contributed to.)

When Richards started his first solo album, 1988’s Talk Is Cheap, he and Jordan became full-on collaborators and hang-out buddies — writing songs together and co-producing the album. “I’d never really written with anybody on a long-term basis except Mick, and I wasn’t really writing much with Mick anymore,” Richards wrote. “…And I didn’t realize until I worked with Steve Jordan how much I’d missed that. And how important it was to collaborate.” Richards eventually dubbed the band — which also included Drayton, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and keyboardist Ivan Neville — the X-Pensive Winos.

As Jordan recalled in the same book of those early jams with Richards, “The first time we went in there, we played 12 hours straight. Keith didn’t even go out and take a piss!”

In the decades since, Jordan — a multi-instrumentalist and singer, as well — continued working with Richards on his outside-Stones projects, was in the John Mayer Trio (with Mayer and bassist Pino Palladino), and played on albums by Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, and Springsteen (Devils & Dust and Wrecking Ball). He also formed a band, the Verbs, with wife and singer Meegan Voss, which has recorded several albums.

By year’s end, another period of Jordan’s past may return with the release of Young’s archival album Road of Plenty, which will include tracks Young cut in the studio with Jordan, Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, and bassist Charley Drayton in New York in 1989. The album will supposedly include the original studio version of “Fuckin’ Up” with those players.

As Jordan later said, “I learned a long time ago that writing songs is very important. I used to read album credits, and I saw that Al Jackson wrote [Al Green’s] ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with Willie Mitchell. And I thought, ‘Well, he must be an actual writer, because you don’t get paid as a writer just for playing a great beat’ – even though sometimes I think you should.”