Lenny Castro heats up Maui Jazz & Blues Festival
When Mick Jagger needed a percussionist to play on his solo albums, he hired Lenny Castro. Besides working with Jagger and the Rolling Stones, this legend has recorded and toured with many leading artists from Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton to Fleetwood Mac, B.B. King and George Benson.
Castro will make his Maui debut at the third annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival, which runs through Sunday at various venues.
While he’s never played on our island before, this veteran musician recalls performing at a couple of historic Diamond Head Crater Festivals in the 1970s as some of his favorite musical moments.
“In my younger days, I had the pleasure to play two of those,” Castro explains. “I was playing with Melissa Manchester, and I remember hanging out with Herbie Hancock and Tower of Power. It was one of the most amazing experiences.”
Having played with so many greats over the years, Castro is especially proud of his contribution to Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning hit “Tears in Heaven.” The percussionist was invited to perform on the haunting song, which Clapton composed after the tragic death of his 4-year-old son.
“He was working on this movie, ‘Rush,’ and on the last day he asked me if I could take a look at it, as he was having trouble with the drums,” Castro says. “When I heard the lyrics, I knew exactly what to do with it. He trusted me and I got the biggest hug from him afterwards. That was the biggest reward, especially knowing where the tune came from.”
Born in New York in 1956, in the midst of a mambo craze, Castro began playing bongos at the young age of three. “I’m a second-generation musician, because my father was a keyboard player in New York’s salsa circuit,” he explains. “There was constant music in my household, not just Latin music, but jazz and country and western and popular music. At a very early age, I acquired an appreciation for many different genres.”
In junior high school, he began studying classical percussion, learning how to read and write music and work with the various orchestral instruments.
“I actually played at Carnegie Hall when I was 16 years old,” he notes. “It was nerve-wracking, but I got through it.”
A move to Los Angeles in the 1970s led him to becoming a first-call percussionist in Los Angeles’ prestigious studio session scene.
“When I was 19, Melissa Manchester found me in New York,” he explains. “She eventually moved to L.A. and took the whole band with her. One thing led to another and I met people like (Toto’s) Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro, and many other greats. I was lucky.”
During the late 1970s, besides recording and touring with Manchester, he worked with a diverse array of artists including Toto, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, and Christopher Cross, playing on his huge hit, “Ride Like the Wind.”
“I remember hearing it on the radio and almost crashing my car,” he recalls. “That was a landmark.”
Into the ’80s, his resume dramatically expanded. In 1980 alone he played on recordings by artists ranging from Elton John to Boz Scaggs to The Jacksons to The Average White Band.
Some of the hit albums he played on during this period included Toto’s “IV” (featuring “Rosanna” and “Africa”), Olivia-Newton John’s smash “Physical,” Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals” (with “I Love L.A.”) and Michael McDonald’s “If That’s What It Takes.”
And it wasn’t just American artists who picked up on his gift. Rising young British stars like Simply Red, Prefab Sprout and Everything But The Girl secured his services.
Then in the early ’90s, Jagger first got hold of Castro to play on his solo album, “Wandering Spirit,” followed by the Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge.”
“It’s quite a special thing as you can imagine,” he says about working with the rock gods. “First of all, you have to get over the initial shock that you actually got the call. They made it very easy. I’ve worked with Mick on two of his solo albums and he always wants to learn things. He’ll sit me down and ask me about instruments, ‘what does this do and where does it come from?’ And Keith Richards has the biggest heart, and Charley (Watts) is a rock-solid human being. It’s cool to be a sideman and fit into any situation.”
As to the role of a percussionist, he likens it to selectively adding seasoning.
“I’m the guy who sprinkles salt and pepper on to what they’ve already cooked. They’ve cooked the stew and I sprinkle a few things. My role is sometimes very unnoticed, I can put in a shaker to make things groove. Other times I’m a lot more up front, like on ‘Tears in Heaven’ with Eric Clapton.”
In the last few years, he’s worked with the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rod Stewart and Adele on her multi-platinum-selling “21.”
“It was a complete honor to be with her,” he reports. “She was just so down to earth and really cool. I had no idea it was going to be such a big album. You never really know ahead of time. You do it and let it go, and it’s nice to know if it gets appreciated later on.”
Reflecting the diversity of Louisiana’s musical styles, the Iguanas fuse classic rhythm and blues, zydeco, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and roots rock and roll.
Compared to Los Lobos in their ability to mix traditional ethnic music, vocalist/saxophonist Joe Cabral has described their sound as, “Chicano rock, New Orleans R&B with a lot of different Latin influences -Norteno, Tejano and Cumbia.”
The Iguanas formed in 1989 around vocalist/guitarist Rod Hodges, who began playing guitar in San Francisco Bay Area bands at the age of 14. While playing with a blues band in Colorado, he rediscovered the conjunto music that was a part of his mother’s Mexican heritage, and he took up the accordion, inspired by master accordionist Flaco Jimenez.
Raised in Nebraska, Cabral’s first musical experience came as part of his father’s Mexican band. Later in college, he discovered Chicago blues and New Orleans R&B.
With Rene Coman on bass and piano, and Doug Garrison on drums, the Iguanas began their career playing clubs in New Orleans and quickly became one of the most popular live bands in the city.
“There was rock, R&B, jazz, and Latin, but nobody who mixed it like we did,” recalled Hodges in a Voice Magazine interview.
“We sang our songs half in Spanish and half in English, and we did some blues. It was just a mixture no one around here had heard before.”
They recorded their self-titled 1993 debut, a mix of New Orleans funk, Latin and Mexican polka for Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville label. A decade later, their album, “Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart,” was roundly praised.
A review in New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune concluded: “This is the Iguanas’ bid to be counted alongside the great Americana bands.”
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, the Iguanas were in Massachusetts playing a show. The resulting chaos forced the musicians to temporarily relocate to Texas and Tennessee.
In response to the hurricane, in 2008 the Iguanas released, “If You Should Ever Fall on Hard Time,” a surprisingly upbeat album.
“There are reflective moments, but they never get in the way of the good times this album practically forces you to have,” noted The Patriot Ledger. “Wonderfully musical, and delectably cross-cultural, it may be the best bit of New Orleans-flavored dance gumbo of the year.”
As for the love of mixing it up musically, Hodges told the Montgomery News: “We’d just get bored if we we’re playing the same style of music. Whatever we’re playing though, it’s going to be something you can dance to. We try to get everyone out of their seats and on to the dance floor.”