He’s Got The Beat
Gerardo Velez, the guy who once banged on the congas for Hendrix, adds instant energy to the Peace on Earth Concert
Few people bring more excitement to the table than premier percussionist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Gerardo Velez. Once described by American pop and jazz singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin as a “whirling dervish” for his spirited dance moves on stage, Velez breathes life into just about any setting, thanks to his toe-tapping rhythms and infectious, upbeat personality.
Ask Velez a question and he’ll rattle off a well-thought-out response in caffeinated high-like manner. Ask him to smile for the camera and he’ll give you more than just lip service, leaping over couches and striking flexible, flamenco-style poses with extreme gusto (as he did while performing for our photographer Rachel Breit).
All energy. All motion. All the time.
Not surprisingly, Velez was this kinetic even before he emerged on the world music scene as Jimi Hendrix’s animated conga player at Woodstock, this red-blooded before he began laying down some of the sickest beats for a long list of music’s crème de la creme, including Sir Elton John, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Destiny’s Child, Nile Rodgers and Slash. Growing up in the ’50s, Velez was simply untiring.
“I had an uncle who had a 15-piece Latin band and after they would do their shows, they would come to the house and perform in the living room,” explains Velez, “a New Yorican” raised in the Bronx after his parents emigrated from Puerto Rico during the tail end of the Great Depression. “My uncle would recite poetry in Spanish, and I would learn percussion by watching these guys and playing along with them. Then at age 9, I got my first drum and was constantly banging on things.
“As for dance, we all did it; my Puerto Rican culture involved a lot of bounce-around type of dancing. Percussion and dancing are both rhythmic, so yes, it was all very natural to me.”
So it comes as no surprise that even at age 67, he’s planning to keep the energy going at the upcoming ninth annual Peace on Earth Concert, a benefit for National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii. The event takes place on World Kidney Day, March 12, at historic Hawaii Theatre, and marks the second time in three years that Velez will be helping “to create greater awareness” for the charity. (He last performed with Willie K in 2013.) For this year’s show, however, the former Spyro Gyra percussionist has solicited the help of his close friend and frequent touring partner — Brazilian pianist, composer and record producer Eumir Deodato. The pair will form the headline act for the 7 p.m. concert, which also features local drummer and percussionist Noel Okimoto, as well as the McKinley High School Symphonic Wind Ensemble 1 and The Kamehameha Alumni Glee Club.
“Eumir, who is one of the most sampled artists of all time, and I have been working and touring together with orchestras all over the world for the past 14 years,” says Velez, who among the many hats he wears these days includes serving as executive director of The American Society of Young Musicians Hawaii. “He’s never been to Hawaii, so this will be a first for him and an excellent situation for us to showcase our music and body of work together.”
But the Peace On Earth performance is just the tip of the iceberg for Velez, a longtime New York-based events producer/promoter who has hoped to stage his own concerts in the Islands since moving here in 2010. One of his ideas, for example, involves bringing in rockers Rick Derringer (Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, Hang On Snoopy) and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad (We’re An American Band, Some Kind of Wonderful), as well as rapper Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, for a night of eclectic music.
“That combination — talk about a mash with the four of us as the front guys on stage,” says Velez, whose extensive background within the music industry includes serving as project coordinator for the hardcore hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan in the late ’90s. “I want to do mashes like that where you get different schools of music, throw it all together and have a good time in our community.”
Here’s what else Velez told Musical Notes about his equally accomplished sibling and his days banging out beats for Mr. Purple Haze:
MN: You come from a talented musical family. Your older sister, Martha Velez, is an accomplished singer and actress in her own right, correct?
GV: Yes, but Martha is the more talented one! She was part of the cast of the original Broadway production of Hair with Diane Keaton, and eventually replaced Diane as the lead. She then signed with Sire Records and recorded a few albums, including one that was produced by Bob Marley. Her reggae-blues album, Escape from Babylon, was the only one Bob ever produced for an American musician. But while she got to work with him, I never had the chance of meeting Bob before he passed.
MN: But you were able to work closely with other legends, including Jimi Hendrix. How did you come to be a part of Hendrix’s experimental lineup?
GV: There was a nightclub in New York called The Scene, and I would perform there with several artists like Kenny Rankin and Rick Derringer. One night back in 1968, I was on stage with Derringer and his band, and Jimi came in with his entourage. When I had finished playing with Rick’s band, I went and sat down. Jimi was behind me and leaned over, tapped me on the shoulder and said, Hey, man, that was really great. Do you want to come up and jam when I’m playing? I said sure. Afterward, he asked if I wanted to go with him and others to the studio when the place closed. I said sure. We wound up playing in the studio from about 4 in the morning until about 1 in the afternoon before everyone went home. It was something we did for months. But with the Gypsys, it was really a collaboration. We were instruments who partnered with Jimi in bringing together various forms of music. It was like the first fusion band that incorporated jazz, funk, rock, blues, gospel, R&B — all these elements being strung together to create a new sound.
MN: And then came Woodstock and your chance to showcase your skills to the world while backing up the guy many consider to be the greatest guitarist of all time, at least within the rock genre.
GV: Yeah, but I wasn’t really ready for it. Woodstock started on the 15th of August, 1969, and that was my 22nd birthday, but we wouldn’t go up on stage until the last day, the 18th. None of us slept during those four days. We just had a great time and we were in the moment. You know, people always ask me, What was it like to play with Jimi Hendrix? And I tell them it was like playing with your buddy.
MN: Is there anything you wish you could have done with Hendrix before his death in 1970?
GV: Well, I wish I would have taken him up on his offer! One day Jimi said to me, Let me show you how to play guitar. And I was young, so riled up and running all over the place, and I said, Yeah, OK. But let’s do it another time. And then he died. Looking back, I should have taken lessons from him. I regret that.