For most musicians, the story-line follows a similar course. First, they get exposed to music either by their parents, an older sibling, or a close relative. Once the seed has been planted, and with financial assistance from the parents, the next step involves getting the instrument of choice, possibly some lessons to get started, and plenty of listening to records for help in figuring things out. If the interest level continues to grow, eventually one looks to join a band to experience music-making on a collective level.
Drummer June Core did not follow the normal career trajectory. A late starter, he was a quick study who soon found himself backing two undeniable blues masters.
“I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I started working a job when I was sixteen, saving the money so that I could buy a drum set the following year, then started playing. Soon I was doing gigs with an organ player named Eddie Baccus, a local legend who once was in Roland Kirk’s band. He would get two-man gigs for us. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but figured it out as we went along. Later I played with some bands around town”.
“At one point, Eddie introduced me to Robert Jr. Lockwood, which lead to an offer to go on tour with Robert for a week at the Brass Rail in Buffalo, NY. I went over to Robert’s house so that he could give me 3-4 albums of his to learn from. I had never played blues before, and I didn’t think I would like the music. Sure enough, I didn’t care for the blues, but I wanted to get out of town and make some money. So off we went, me at eighteen years old with Lockwood and Johnny Shines”.
“After the first night at the club, the owner wanted to fire us because I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing! Robert asked the club owner to give us a chance to practice. He then said that we would play the next night and if the owner didn’t like our sound, he could pay us for one night and we would head home. The club owner agreed, so the next day the three of us set up in a little broom closet at the club, and they taught me five shuffle rhythms. They told me to pick the one that best fit what I was hearing and it will work out. Robert said, you will be able to play these beats for the rest of your life – and sure enough, he was right. What they showed me was easy. I picked it right up. That night we tore the place down! I could see how the beats fit the songs Robert & Johnny were playing. We kept the gig and finished out the week. That was my start as a blues drummer. Those beats have carried me this far. Robert was right – I still play those same five shuffles, although I have expounded on them with some minor variations”.
Lockwood had a reputation of being a tough taskmaster, but Core had a different experience.
“Robert heard that something was there, that I could play. He figured that I didn’t have the experience in playing their type of music. So he took a chance, and it worked. Robert could be tough. He was very outspoken and straight-forward, said what was on his mind. But they embraced me, treating me like I was their son. I was the kid compared to them at that point in their lives. And I didn’t like the blues in general. It was my parents music. But they showed me how to like the music. They had different styles. Robert was a bit more sophisticated. He could be funky, bluesy, jazzy, and would add other elements to his playing. Johnny played more old-school, with lots of finger picking. But Robert could do that as well. My favorite thing to hear was when they played together and sang, sounding like seven guitar players doing different parts. They were so versed in the style that Johnny did, it was amazing”.
During his tenure with Lockwood, Core got to meet and play with other legendary blues musicians.
“I was still a kid when I met James Cotton, B.B. King, and Willie Dixon. We did several shows where Willie played bass. I played my shuffles without doing anything wrong. On the break, he told me he could see what Robert and Johnny saw in me. Then he said, young man, let me show you something. He proceeded to teach me how to play with upright bass players. What to listen for, what to play when they do little slap runs, and other runs. Then he had me implement what he had shown me on the next set, specifically playing bass lines running up and down the neck while I did what he had told me to do behind his playing. We would be smiling at each other like crazy. And it all made sense”.
Core made it home feeling good, and with a pocket full of money. He got another call from Lockwood about a gig. He didn’t really want to do it, but the allure of more money in his pocket tipped the scales.
“I decided to do one more little tour and then move on from blues music. But the more I played with them, I really began to feel what the music was about and how I fit into all of it. So I kept doing one more tour, and another. All these years later, I am still doing that one more”.
Those early experiences helped solidify Core’s understanding of role of a blues drummer.
“My job is to keep time – and make it feel like it is suppose to feel. When I play a double shuffle, it should feel like a washing machine. It should be ch-chunk, ch-chunk, ch-chunk. I learned how each of those five different beats fits, like a straight swing beat. While I keep time, I also state chord changes or the bridge by adding drum fills or a pick-up to highlight the changes. Subsequently, with Robert & Johnny, it felt like we were having a conversation, that they were speaking to me. So when one of them would solo, I looked for little things I could do to help them get their message out. I wanted to be a real part of the music. Our bass player, Gene Schwartz, had a brother, Glenn, who was a fine guitar player – was in the band Pacific Gas and Electric, that had a hit with the song “Are You Ready”. Glenn taught Gene how to play bass, and Robert also showed Gene how to play blues bass. Robert didn’t really care for harmonica players, at least not in his band”.
For his first recording, Core was on the album, Hangin’ On, with Lockwood and Shines.
“That one was on Rounder Records, a 1980 release. It had Robert and Johnny on the cover pulling at a wishbone. The record did well. It ended up getting selected for a 1st National Blues Music Award (now Blues Music Award) in the Traditional Blues Album category. That is one of my favorite records, one I still listen to from time to time”
There was one missed opportunity for that album.
“Bob Dylan wanted to produce an album with Robert, who agreed as long as Shines was involved too. We did a month long tour in California. It was my first time out west. Dylan would send scouts to some of our shows, to listen to the band and give Dylan feedback on whether he should record Robert and Johnny – or just Robert with the band. The scouts liked the band but weren’t keen about recording Johnny for the project. At the end of the tour, Robert met with Dylan at our hotel. Robert ended up declining Dylan’s offer since Johnny wouldn’t be included. That was the lead up to the Hangin’ On album. It turned out to be a great album. I’m sure there aren’t a lot of people who turned down Bob Dylan. But that was the way Robert handled things. It was going to be his way or no way at all. He was steadfast in his beliefs”.
Core also was supposed to do a tour with Lockwood in Japan. Lockwood was doing the tour with the Aces – Louis and Dave Myers plus Fred Below on drums. Below was having health issues, but rallied in time to do the tour. A recording of one of the shows on that tour was released as the Blues Live In Japan album, a favorite in Lockwood’s discography. Core played with Lockwood for nine years, with Shines being involved most of that period. Growing tired of living in Cleveland, he finally decided to load up his stuff and drum kit on a Greyhound bus, headed back to California.
“It was a scary move, but I did it. There was nothing lined up. I just wanted to get out of Cleveland. When I told Robert I was moving, he gave me a couple of phone numbers for several harp players he knew, Mark Hummel, Bird Hale, and Gary Smith. I got a hotel room in downtown San Jose and started going to the clubs to meet people. There was no problem meeting musicians, but when I told them that Robert Jr. Lockwood had told me to look them up, that I play drums and am looking for work, most of them were surprised, wondering if I was joking about knowing Robert. I was shocked that they didn’t take me seriously, since I had played with Robert, plus he was like a father to me. So, I moved on to whatever I could find. One thing lead to another, and I’m still here”.
“I had work, but not enough to sustain myself. So my savings was running out. Word was getting around about my playing, and it was positive stuff. One day, out of the blue, Mark Hummel called me to ask if I could sit-in with his band, as he might need a drummer down the road. I went up to San Francisco to their gig at the Saloon club and sat in. It seemed to go well. I heard Hummel talking to his bass player, Tim Wagar, asking Tim what he thought. Tim said hire him, don’t think about it, hire him right now! That was when I started playing with Mark”.
The stint with Hummel lasted about two and a half years. The work was steady, allowing Core to finally move out of the hotel into his own apartment. When he wasn’t playing with Hummel, Core did gigs with the West Coast Playboys, featuring Andy Santana on harmonica and Mike Schermer on guitar. That band morphed into a band called the Soul Drivers, that played traditional and modern blues, plus funk and soul, becoming a very popular local act.
“I stopped playing with Hummel, and was full-time in the Soul Drivers. But I was still getting calls to play with other people. One call was from singer LaVern Baker, who had several R&B hits back in the day. I would work two week engagements with her in San Francisco or Berkeley. I loved learning to play those songs, because I was still figuring out how to make things fit from my perspective for my job as the drummer. Then I met Angela Strehli. I brought the Soul Drivers along. We toured with her and did one recording, Deja Blue. Things were growing from there”.
During this time, Core had the pleasure of working with a pair of outstanding artists.
“I had the opportunity to play with singer Carol Fran and guitarist Clarence Hollimon. “ That was a fabulous, enlightening gig to get. I wasn’t part of a band. They wanted me to back their shows whenever they came out here. Talk about two consummate professionals! They were great artists in their own right. But together, I don’t have words for it, just something miraculous. They read each other so well musically, being husband and wife, and Clarence was an outstanding guitar player. He taught me rhythms to play, so if he was playing a rock”n”roll guitar rhythm, then I could a shuffle underneath it. Or vice versa, if he played a shuffle, I could lay down a rocking beat. It was all part of learning how everything fits together”.
Next up was an offer to join Little Charlie & the Nightcats. Core made sure that he took full advantage of that opportunity, playing shows around the world on a regular basis.
“I was with them for about five and a half years. Those were great times, and made all of the work I had done after arriving in California worth the effort. I have so much respect for Charlie Baty, Rick Estrin, and the guys. They are so talented! It was an amazing experience. There is a wealth of knowledge between Charlie and Rick about the music in general”.
“Rick is a great songwriter and Charllie is a monster guitar player. We would do a wide variety of music, featuring Rick’s original tunes. But we would also do a lot of Charlie Christian stuff – sometimes just me, Charlie, and Ronnie James Weber on bass. We would do plenty of really cool jazz and jazz swing material. Little Charlie really brings it every time. He has such a love for the music, it is infectious.. That whole time was a whirlwind of great fun and outstanding music”.
With the band touring so much, it was hard to have a normal home life. Things finally reached the point where Core knew he needed a break. He hated to leave such a great gig.
”We were gone so much! I was buying things and putting then in my apartment. The next day, we would hit the road again. Then, when I got home, I’d open the door and see all this stuff sitting there. I’d be thinking, where did all of this stuff come from? I just didn’t remember buying things, because we were working so much. I wondered if maybe someone had broken in, but that was crazy because why would someone break in to put more stuff in, rather than take stuff out. So I knew it was time for a change”.
Core kept busy doing some local gigs and short tours for artists like saxophonist Terry Hanck. Then the next opportunity presented itself, with a call from Charlie Musselwhite.
“Charlie was a favorite of mine, so I took the gig. It has been fifteen years, and I am still enjoying it to the fullest. There is a big difference between his style and what Rick and Charlie played. That is one thing that keeps me interested, keeps me learning and passionate about what I do. Everyone has a different style. The music certainly feels different in each band that I have been blessed to play with. I have been fortunate to learn to shade things, or step up as needed, by playing such a wide variety of styles”.
Currently, Core is using a vintage set of champagne sparkled Gretsch Round Badge kit.
“It is my favorite because I can tune them differently depending on the style of music I am playing to get what I need. If a song calls for a particular sound, and we are recording at Greaseland Studios, I can dig into Kid Andersen’s collection of drums to find one with that particular sound. For cymbals, I have a whole set Zildjian vintage reissues plus some actual vintage models. When I am on tour, I have a set of Dream cymbals that are great all-around models. Finally, I have a set of Craviotto cymbals, that Johnny Craviotto made for me before he passed away. He used to make drums for DW- the Drum Workshop. They have a big sound”.
Core has released a disc under his own name entitled Rhythm & Blues, which features many of his friends including Musselwhite, Schermer, Estrin, Little Charlie, Chris Cain, Kid Andersen, Jim Pugh, Terry Hanck, and Rusty Zinn. With only one non-original track, the disc also highlights Core’s talent as a songwriter.
”I figured it was time for me to step up, to be one of the big boys. Many of my friends were gracious enough to come record with me. It shows the different sides of my musical interests. I couldn’t wait to get Chris Cain and Little Charlie together. I only wish I had more knowledge on how to best use the two of them together. I love the different attitudes they bring. And guitarist Little Jon Lawton is one of my unsung heroes. I wanted to do a track with just the two of us. It was my attempt to take things to the vein when I was playing with Johnny Shines. That was big fun”.
“The disc goes all over, as it is my first attempts at writing. The title track has me with four harmonica players. I didn’t have a thought process on that one, except that everything has rhythm. The harmonica has always been associated with blues, the drum is always about rhythm. I thought it was unassumingly perfect, and very interesting, at least in my own mind. Something fun and different. A song Charlie Musselwhite plays on, “Were You There,” which takes me back to my beginnings. When Robert, Johnny, and I would play on riverboats and trains, I got to hear all of their stories they would tell about life before I got into the business”.
“And there is a gospel song, because I grew up with gospel music in church. Hopefully I will never put out a CD that won’t have at least one gospel song on it. It is all the stuff I love”.