IN A MATTER of months, Narada Michael Walden went from being a busboy at a Connecticut steak house to cutting an album in London with Beatles producer George Martin. The 21-year-old drummer had just been selected to join the Mahavishnu Orchestra, an innovative jazz-rock fusion band led by virtuoso guitarist and composer John McLaughlin, whose guru Sri Chinmoy took Walden under his wing — along with Carlos Santana — and gave him the name Narada.
It’s a story that Walden tells often, and for good reason. Now 63 and living in San Rafael, where his recording studio, Tarpan Studios, has operated since 1985, Walden still celebrates the twist of fate that set him on a path toward unparalleled success as a versatile and talented producer, songwriter, drummer and singer.
Over the past five decades, the Emmy and multi-Grammy winner has collaborated on hit songs with Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Mariah Carey and too many other household names to list; produced sound tracks for films including The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale and Free Willy; drummed on some of the top fusion albums of the 1970s; and released 11 solo albums containing a number of his own hits in a variety of genres including R&B, dance-pop and blues-rock.
Walden continues to produce, perform and write (for himself and others) and recently launched Tarpan Records, an independent label geared toward artist development.
Have you had to work at shifting from one genre to the next throughout your career, or does it come naturally? Some people think it’s a sickness, like ADD. But really what it is in my case is coordination of the brain. I play drums, so the right foot, left foot, right hand, left hand and singing, you’re doing five things at once. The era that I come from, the ’50s, was revolutionary for rock ’n’ roll and for jazz and all kinds of great music. Pop music, country music, everything was on fire. I remember as a little boy hearing Little Richard singing “Lucille” and it was electrifying to hear his voice, like a wolf, a high-pitched wolf, screeching and rocking his piano as he did. I was a little kid; I was electrified. Then hearing Ray Charles live, how tight his band was. I carried his album with me in the snow — I’m from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Were you encouraged into music at an early age? I was born into it, because I asked God before coming to this planet, I really wanted to play music. I know that coming here. God made a pact with me saying, fine, but just be grateful and inspire more gratitude on the earth, which I do my very best to. When I work with artists, I try to be happy during the session, to make it feel like I treasure the moment. I listened to John Bonham with Led Zeppelin. I mean I’m hip to the Beatles and Ringo. I think of Stevie Wonder singing “Fingertips” when he was 12 years old and killing it. When you know these things in life, then you know the truth, then you can respond to the truth. When you know these things, then you act accordingly, and it makes you humble. And that’s the way God wants it.
Did it start with rock ’n’ roll? Yeah, I’m a rock and roll baby. But being into rock and roll at that time, you had to be into jazz. ’Cause jazz was part of rock and roll. Blues was part of rock and roll. It was all intermingled. What did Little Richard say? “Blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll.” Jazz was derivative of blues, too. Where I come up from, it’s all kind of intermingled. To be a good musician, you had to be able to play it all. You had to be able to play anything. You had to be flexible to be down with music.
What about getting into R&B and dance and vocal groups in the ’80s? Dance music is Motown music, dance music is Curtis Mayfield, dance music is Earth, Wind & Fire and all that stuff that came out of Chicago. I’m raised with Detroit Motown music. So in ’78 and ’79 when disco came on the scene heavy, I was told if you don’t have a hit in ’78 or ’79, on your third album for Atlantic Records, we’re going to drop you. And disco is hot. So I said, OK, fine. I took whatever I was liking about disco, and brought myself to it, and had a hit with “I Don’t Want Nobody Else (to Dance With You)” and had a smash, so I saved my career. Then I kept going with all kinds of dance records, and then I got phone calls to make hits for other people — Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey. It kept coming like that.
And later Jeff Beck. Jeff was in complete awe of John McLaughlin. We were all in awe of John McLaughlin, the whole world. Next to Jimi Hendrix was John McLaughlin, the next-baddest revolutionary cat. Jeff was a genius cat. But Jeff was in awe of John McLaughlin, what he was doing. Even today, Jeff’s still playing some of McLaughlin’s themes, because they’re that heavy. And when I went back and toured with Jeff Beck two years ago, we went around the world for two-and-a-half years, we were still playing on the shows some McLaughlin pieces, because they’re just that intense and that brilliant. And that man McLaughlin he discovered me. Without him, I am not here.
You have a strong spiritual background. How does that serve you as producer? I bring flowers to the studio, candles, incense, anything that’s going to trigger subconsciously something bigger. Calming it down kinda gets you to feel after a while that everything’s OK. Then you can go to the microphone and feel safe to make mistakes. Because you’re not going to sing everything right. It’s a safety zone that we have to establish. With a safety zone established, then things can go really fast. That’s another trick I’ve learned: once you’re behind the microphone if you’re a singer, I move really quickly. I don’t give your mind a chance to act. Music is not some predestined thing. If you believe in the spirit, and you want the spirit to take you, when the spirit starts taking you, follow it. Like a balloon — follow it.
People often think of pop music as being shaped in a lab; how do you infuse it with the spirituality you like to bring to the studio? For me, I put my vision of the spirit into every hit I’ve had. [Sings Ohh, I want to dance with somebody, I wanna feel the heat with somebody.] I put the funk, the groove into Whitney Houston, into Aretha Franklin. The spirit’s there. That’s what it is. The spirit’s in everything. It’s just different forms of music, but the spirit’s in there.
Many in the industry know your name and your work, but the fans usually don’t — is that something that’s ever bothered you, or that you are perhaps more comfortable with? I wanted to be a superstar, no ifs, ands or buts about it. I made albums I thought were going to be big records, for myself. I was content, and I am content with the records I’ve made. But when you’re messing with Whitney Houston, and the biggest-selling records on the planet, that’s a whole other thing. Or Aretha has, with our work together, her first million-seller, “Freeway of Love.” Then you realize that that’s another league. So I realized God’s got another plan. God wants me to make my albums, which I make, and I have the freedom to do whatever I want to do, on my own stuff. But when I put on my producer hat, it can sell millions and millions of records, which I think is great. That hand helps me do my things. My thing helps me do their thing. One hand helps the other. It’s like a win-win. That’s how I look at life.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Narada Michael Walden.”