July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Drummer Gene Dunlap is serious about setting the 'groove'

Gene Dunlap has collaborated on 10 albums with guitarist Earl Klugh and has seven solo records. (Nina Simone Bentley)

Decades ago, James Brown’s famous words, “give the drummer some,” changed Grammy Award-nominated Gene Dunlap’s life.

Growing up in Detroit, Dunlap says he was a major James Brown fan, with mad love for the drummers in the godfather of soul’s band. During a school talent show, Dunlap got the chance to imitate his idol.

“I did the talent show as James Brown, actually singing and dancing,” says the now 60-year-old bandleader-drummer. “We did ‘Cold Sweat,’ and when we got to the part where you ‘give the drummer some,’ I took the drumsticks from the drummer, and I played the solo.” In that song, Brown called for a drum solo — emphatically.

His father, also a drummer, was in the audience, amazed at the 12-year-old whom he normally knew to be a quiet kid.

“He asked me if I was serious about playing the drums, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I think he went to a pawnshop and got my first set of professional drums.”

Playing the instrument Dunlap says is the foundation of any song, he has provided the backbeat for such artists as Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, George Benson, Roy Ayers, Grant Green, the late Noel Pointer, Bob James, Bobby Lyle, Marcus Miller, Mary Wilson, Tina Marie, George Duke and Patrice Rushen. A strong lover of orchestration, he has also performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

For 20 years of his career, Dunlap was the man behind the beat for Grammy Award-winning acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh.

“We were high school buddies,” Dunlap says. “We practiced at his house or my house and listened to some of the CTI Records’ artists like George Benson and Freddie Hubbard. And we’d say, ‘Wow, man. One day we’re gonna be playing like that.’ ”

The drummer tells the story of his invitation to a Blue Note Records promoter-friend to hear the two young musicians play in their band at a club in Highland Park.

“He comes and says, ‘I’ve never seen a guy playing jazz like that on an acoustic guitar. This sounds great.’ So he got up and called Blue Note Records and says, ‘I’m in the club and this guitar player Earl Klugh is here, and he sounds fantastic.

“ ‘And a buddy of mine is on the drums with him and you gotta hear it.’ So the whole thing from there blossomed both of our careers moving to the next phase.”

The jazzmen went on to collaborate on 10 albums, including Klugh’s 1979 “Heart String.” They also formed the Earl Klugh Trio, bringing in upright bassist Ralph Armstrong. The band produced two albums, “The Earl Klugh Trio, Vol. 1” (1991) and “Sounds and Visions,” Vol. 2 (1993).

As a solo artist, Dunlap has produced seven albums: “It’s Just the Way I Feel”; “Party in Me”; “Tired of Being a Nice Guy”; “Groove With You”; “Tales of the Phatman,” from which came the smooth jazzed-out version of Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone,” featuring trumpeter Rayse Biggs; “I Still Believe,” featuring Klugh on two tracks; and his latest, “Peaceful Days” (2005).

Having been in the business for more than four decades, Dunlap considers himself a groove drummer, “playing a solid pocket that the band can just groove on top of.”

At Dirty Dog this week, Dunlap will lay down the groove on tunes from traditional jazz to rock with Al Duncan on keyboard, Herbie Russ on saxophone, Ali Bey on bass, Larry Andrews on guitar and percussionist Marvin Crosson.

Gene Dunlap

6 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 10:30 p.m. encore performance Friday and Saturday

Dirty Dog Jazz Café

97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe

No cover Thursday, $15 Friday and Saturday; no cover Friday and Saturday encore performance

Call for reservations

(313) 882-5299


Andrea Daniel is a Detroit-based freelance writer.