Steve Jordan—In Charlie Watt’s Chair on the Rolling Stones Tour—On Keef, Mick, and the Beatles

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If, for some reason, you haven’t already watched it a hundred times, go to YouTube and check out the clip of James Brown performing on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982. It may well be the most riveting live-television musical performance of all time, as the Godfather of Soul runs through “Sex Machine” with the World’s Most Dangerous Band (supplemented by two of Brown’s horn players) at a tempo and intensity that is outright maniacal. The groove, let us say, is relentless. It’s also perfect. The drummer providing it is obscured by Brown and the band. You barely catch a glimpse of him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s obvious that everything is emanating from him. His name is Steve Jordan.

It’s a handy metaphor for Jordan’s career: You might not see him, but you feel him. In some ways, he is the ultimate musician’s musician, one of those names that come up whenever obsessives are talking about their favorite drummers. (“Bonham?” “No, Earl Palmer!” “Wait, Hal Blaine!” “Art Blakey!” “Keltner!”) Jordan’s career took off when he joined the Saturday Night Live band in 1977, just out of his teens, when it looked like he was barely old enough to shave. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd then tapped him to provide a pile-driving backbeat for the Blues Brothers. For the next 40 years (Jordan is now 64), it seemed like whenever you needed the guy to play drums on your record or for a tour or for a gala event, Jordan—who also happens to be a producer, songwriter, arranger, and musical director—got the call. Those calls tended to come from artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Sonny Rollins, Sheryl Crow, Ashford & Simpson, John Mayer, and Alicia Keys.

Last summer, the call came from the Rolling Stones: the invitation to fill in for Charlie Watts on the band’s No Filter Tour. Watts had been sidelined with a health issue; in August, as the world knows, he died, at age 80. With the tour now underway (next stops: Nashville and L.A.), Jordan took a break to chat by phone with Vanity Fair about his long association with Keith Richards (solo albums going back to the 1980s), Mick Jagger’s supergalactic charisma, the everlasting brilliance of his friend Charlie Watts, and a certain band from Liverpool.

Vanity Fair: You’re clearly the man for the job. How’s it been going so far?

Steve Jordan: Oh, man. It’s pretty wild. Pretty surreal. The whole thing…. I definitely have the best seat in the house! No question.

You’ve had a relationship with the Stones going back at least to the Dirty Work album, in 1986. Is that how you started working with Keith on his solo projects?

Well, that was our first working introduction. But I’d met Charlie when I was in the Saturday Night Live band. The Stones did the first show of the fourth season [October 7, 1978]. On that show, security was very high. There were a lot less backstage VIP passes for that week. Everybody obviously wanted to be around the band. It was coming off of [the album] Some Girls. That was a new chapter and a re-explosion, so to speak, of the band.

The Yankees were playing the Royals in the playoffs that night, which was the most important thing in life to me. [Jordan, who grew up in New York City, was a Yankees fan.] I didn’t really care what else was going on. So I just asked somebody to get me an autograph of the band. I didn’t want to try to hang out, meet the band. The Yankees were the priority! As it turns out, it was Charlie who got me the autographs. I ended up hanging out with Charlie in the dressing room and we watched the game together. I was explaining baseball to him. He said, “Oh, it’s like a combination of rounders and cricket!” That’s how we first met.

You go back over 40 years with Charlie? So how did your association with Dirty Work come about?

In 1985 I was in Paris doing a record with a Duran Duran offshoot called Arcadia, with Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes. We had a night off and the crew said, “We’re gonna hook up with some of the guys from the Stones.” Because they were recording at Pathé Marconi. And I said, “Could you get a message to Charlie? Just tell him I’m here and I say hello.” The message got to him, and he invited me to the studio. When I walked into Pathé Marconi, I went in the control room, and they were set up like they were playing live. I realized just then that that was the first time I’d really seen the Rolling Stones play live in person. My eyes started to well up. I couldn’t believe it, because there was nobody there. It was only, like, Ron Wood’s wife, Keith’s dad, the engineer [Dave Jerden]… and me.

It was incredible. And I took a lot of lessons from that night into my recording practice. So they all greeted me after they finished playing—and then Charlie asked me to play. I said to him, “Absolutely not. I will not play. I’m a Rolling Stones fan. As a fan, if you are alive and well and I play and you could have played, well, I’d shoot the guy who played.” So I said, “I’ll play percussion with you or something like that.” Sometimes I played a little high hat. Sometimes a little bass drum. Sometimes a shaker. And maracas, of course. Maracas are a very important part of the Rolling Stones sound!

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