Gary James' Interview With

As a drummer, Zoro has toured the world with and recorded some of the biggest names in music, including Philip Bailey, Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, Lenny Kravitz and the list goes on and on. Zoro is also the author of not one, not too, but three books! The first, Commandments of R&B Drumming, the second, The Commandments of Early R&B Drumming and The Big Gig. (Alfred Publishing). The Big Gig is the book we spoke to Zoro about.

Q - As you see it, what is The Big Gig? Is it a record deal? Would it be a world tour? What is The Big Gig?

A - The Big Gig is really fulfilling what ever dream a person has. For some people that might be a record deal. For some people that might be having the world's greatest successful cover band. For another person it might be being a great sideman. Everybody's Big Gig is very personal. Maybe somebody's Big Gig is to play with a certain orchestra or get a band teaching position at a certain college. There's many different Big Gigs, but really metaphorically I see the Big Gig as the total sum of your life and basically how you treat every little gig in your life, is what ends up being your Big Gig. I think a lot of people are disillusioned somewhat where they think they are going to work really hard and they are going to do all the right stuff while the Big Gig opportunity comes. They don't realize that most of those opportunities come out of being very diligent and very faithful to every little gig, to do your best to make the most of every little opportunity. Eventually, if you have studied anybody who is successful, it's always a series of opportunities that they took advantage of that eventually lead to what looks like an overnight success, but never really is. It's people doing a lot of the right little things that eventually leads to the impact your life is going to have throughout your creative duration.

Q - There's an interesting observation, but I'd like to talk to you about Van Halen. We've always been told that these guys played the LA club circuit and built up such a following that they rented out the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, did all their own promotion and ticket sales and sold out their show there. It wasn't long after someone from Warner Brothers Records signed them to the label. That's what we've always been told. However, in the early 1980s, I was told by someone in the industry that David Lee Roth's father was a prominent doctor, an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles and a heavy contributor to the Democratic Party. So, at a fundraiser he's introduced to Mo Ostin, the president of Warner Brothers Records. He said, "My son is in a band called Van Halen." Not too long after, Van Halen is signed to Warner Brothers Records. I rejected that story at first, but as years have gone by I tend to accept the fact that in the end, it is who you know.

A - Well, there's always an element of who you know in anything. To succeed at anything, you never succeed in a capsule where you're not involved with other people, whether you are a lawyer, doctor, musician or whatever. It's always a combination of being in the right place at the right time and having the goods to deliver when you are in the right place at the right time. You can make all kinds of connections all day long, but if you don't have anything to deliver, a skill, songs, a show, and you are just networking... It's really a combination in any field of the preparation you have done to prepare for this opportunity, the networking you have to do to have the doors open and there's always exceptions. There's always the one in a million person who never did anything right and they just hit the lottery, but you and I know you can play the lottery and your chances of winning aren't very good. The chances are a lot better doing everything you can do to stack the deck in your favor. Also, if you are looking at long-term success in anything, it's always going to come down to the skill you're able to deliver, which in a musician's world is your ability to write great songs, your ability to produce great music or your ability to play great music as a backup musician. I find that the people who have developed a super high level of skill in all those areas, they continue to maintain an elongated career than somebody who just had the right connection. Van Halen, no matter what connections they made, the public still had to like them. The public still had to see that they were entertaining and a band that they liked. Everybody needs a break. Everybody needs the vehicle, but you are still the driver. Everybody needs other people to hook you up. There is nobody that I know who's succeeded... I was recently listening to the Stevie Wonder album "Songs In The Key Of Life", 1976. It's one of my favorite records. I was turning my little daughter onto it. I have the actual album as well as the CD and I was looking through all the liner notes and I was amazed at how many people Stevie wonder thanked throughout the album and on the back. There are just tons of people. He lists more people than I've ever seen on a record. And I thought here is a guy you think is a standalone genius who doesn't need anybody, yet on the album liner notes he is acknowledging people way back to the School Of The Blind he was in, in Detroit, the original Motown musicians who spent a lot of time schooling and teaching him the different instruments. He still maintains this attitude of I couldn't have done any of this stuff without all these people. I think people forget that because you see somebody like Stevie wonder and you just think because he is a genius this is why it happened, but even with genius you still have to have people helping you to develop that genius. You still have to have people helping you make the music and playing the role they do. So, there's many different elements to success, which is why the book has so many chapters. There's the talent part, the marketing part. There's the business part. There's the personal relationship part. They all play a role and nobody could pull one out and figure out which was the formula. But the bottom line is, I feel everybody's got a song to sing, metaphorically, in life. Everybody's got something to give. Everybody's got something, to share some talent that they have, and your job is to find out what that song is, and when you find it out, you just sing that tune. You don't worry about anybody else's song. I think a lot of people today get hung up or caught up in "I've got to be like this person." It's cool to be influenced by everything, but eventually the best formula is to be influenced by everything and come out and eventually be you. There's only one you. I always tell people "Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken." The best version of anything is your original version of who you are, that's an amalgamation and a combination of all your experiences, but you are not trying to be a clone per se of anything else. In today's world everybody's trying to be something they're not.

Q - I wish you were a judge on American Idol.

A - (Laughs).

Q - Every week contestants are being criticized for their interpretation of a song, which you could almost say is above criticism. It's a personal thing. Obviously being off key would be something you could comment on, but you know what I'm talking about.

A - It's a different arrangement, yeah. That's the beauty about a great song. There's certain songs that are some of my favorite songs that I can listen to, a handful of different arrangements of "Moon River" because I love the melody. I could listen to Rod Stewart do it. I could listen to Pavarotti do it. I could listen to Andy Williams do it, Frank Sinatra. It never bores me because these songs can be interpreted differently. A great song is a great song. It lends itself to many different arrangements because the melody and the chords and the lyrics are so strong.

Q - Had you ever heard of that story about Van Halen?

A - I actually have. I'd forgotten until you told me again. I always tell people if you want to be the world's greatest salmon fisherman you gotta get to someplace where the salmon flow in the river more plentiful. It doesn't mean that you will ever catch one, but you have more likelihood to catch one fishing in a river up in Alaska than you do in New York City in a pond. Every field of endeavor has the markets in which that sort of work thrives in.

Q - And you see, Van Halen was in the right marketplace at the right time.

A - Sure.

Q - As good as they were, and I wouldn't take anything away from them, having Roth's father in the position he was in, that was the icing on the cake.

A - Absolutely. Obviously they had to have something already together. They had to have some kind of music or some kind of demos. The band was already an existing band. So, it would be one thing if he said to Mo Ostin, "My son plays guitar. He wants to form a band." I'm pretty sure they already had it together and they were looking for that break.

Q - When you were growing up, could you have used a book like The Big Gig?

A - (Laughs). Yes. In fact, the very book I was looking for when I was starting off wasn't this book. I ended up with all the books I've written were books that I'd just rather have bought had somebody else put the labor of effort I did of many years ago. I wanted to find a book on R&B drumming and drummers and the history of the music and all the stuff in my Commandment books, that became a best-selling drum book. Those are the books that I would have loved to have gone to a store and found in 1978 or 1979 or 1980. I would've loved it, but they didn't exist. I'd looked long and hard for a book like The Big Gig, but there never was one out there specifically on how a musician makes it and what that involves, the personal lives, the professional lives, the business, the marketing, the playing. All those things. It just was never there. I'd look for many years and I eventually realized as I began to live all those experiences and I have been gifted to communicate the process. A lot of people succeed but they don't have the gifting of how to share with other people how they did it. Their gifting is not that of a communicator or teacher. It just so happens besides being a drummer and a musician, that's one of my other giftings, the ability to be able to convey that message, to show people this is what it looks like. The Big Gig took fifteen years to complete from the beginning when I actually started it as a vision of a book. I actually began in the early '80s as a series of articles that I wrote in different teen magazines. I used to be in all those teen magazines when I was with The New Edition and I began to write articles called Zoro's Showbiz Tips. It was basically very foundational principles of what eventually became the book. People really liked those articles and they asked me to write more. So, it just became a natural evolution of who I was, to share the information with people that also dreamed of achieving any kind of success. Of course I'm always sharing how I've made it work within my career as a musician, as a speaker, as a writer, as a motivator. All those facets of my career. But the principles are relatable to anybody because the principles of success are the same no matter what you do.

Q - You are following in the footsteps of Tony Robbins!

A - You could say I'm a lot like that guy. I definitely have that kind of spirit. I have that kind of energy. It's not enough for me to have lived out my dream. That's cool. That's great. That's fine and dandy. There's a deeper desire inside of me to impact lives. I get the greatest rewards literally from The Big Gig. The e-mail messages and the Facebook messages I get from people around the world where people say "This book has changed my life." I just had a guy study with me and he is 60 years old. He bought the book a year ago and said the book just changed his life. He sent me a Facebook message saying, "I'm an old hack. I used to play the drums and it's probably too late." I Facebooked him back and said, "You are not an old hack. It's never too late. If you played drums before, and there's a drummer in you, there will always be a drummer in you. All you gotta do is reunite with that love." Anyway, it transformed the guy's life and then he came all the way from Asheville, North Carolina to Nashville to take a two-hour lesson with me. He is just elated about playing drums again and studying. So, the real reward and joy in the book is knowing that through my experiences, many other people's lives were impacted. Success doesn't mean anything to me at the end of your life if you weren't able to bring other people on the journey. There's only two roads to travel on. I've been in Hollywood and the world of Rock 'n' Roll and celebrities for thirty-some years and I meet a lot of people who are very prideful and arrogant. When you're that way you make people feel that what you have is unreachable. But when you're humble, and the humble people that I've met that were greats and Giants, they make you through their humility, even though you know they're legendary, make you feel that you too can attain that because of the way they make you feel when you are around them. So, I always thought, what's the point of succeeding if in the end the only person who benefited from it was you. If nobody else got to ride the train with you, you didn't get to lead anybody else to the Promised Land, so to speak, then it was just kind of a journey itself, but if you're able through your success, able to help a lot of other people be successful, then to me it made my life more meaningful when I got to the end of it. That's kind of how I roll.

Q - I just have to ask you, why this name Zoro?

A - My mother nicknamed me that when I was a very young boy from a bullfight down in Mexico City. I bought this Spanish matador souvenir had and she said, "You remind me of the real Zorro" because the real Zorro was somebody who fought for the underdog, the commoner, the people, if you remember the story, the legend of Zorro. So, my spirit was always that type of person. That's what The Big Gig is, lifting up the common person who has a dream that may not know how to attain it. It's just a name that was meant to find me. It was sort of destiny and I'm Spanish American heritage. It was meant to be. That's all I can say.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.