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Billy Cobham: Blowin’ in the Crosswinds

He was (arguably) the definitive drummer of the fusion generation. Now Cobham is returning to some of his 1970s music—but don’t expect a retread.

Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham in 1974 (photo: Armen Kachaturian/courtesy of Atlantic Records)

Cobham’s most vivid memory of McLaughlin from that April 1970 date is that he didn’t seem to pay attention to the boss. “Miles said to us, ‘Don’t play in between takes,’ so of course John played in between takes,” says the drummer. “And every time he did it, we kept getting this groove, and the next thing you know, it was more and more intense. Finally, Miles just couldn’t stand it anymore and the next thing you know, we were recording this thing [Jack Johnson].”  

After that, Cobham and McLaughlin would run into each other often. “Everybody was trying to find a band, find a way to make it aside from Miles,” Cobham says. Informal jams took place at fellow musicians’ homes. McLaughlin was a regular. So too were bassist Miroslav Vitous, keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, guitarist Larry Coryell, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. “I could carry my bass drum and the two tom-toms and everything inside each other and get on the back of a New York City bus,” Cobham remembers. “It cost me 25 cents to go across town and do something.”

By 1971, McLaughlin was itching to start a band of his own. He’d already recruited Cobham for his solo album of that year, My Goals Beyond, which also included violinist Jerry Goodman. McLaughlin signed up Irish bassist Rick Laird and Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, who’d been playing behind Sarah Vaughan, and the quintet, after rehearsals, debuted at the tiny Gaslight Café in Manhattan, opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra, as McLaughlin named the group, made music that was astonishing in its complexity, power, and volume­—and pretty much an instant success with young audiences schooled in rock and looking toward jazz for something more. “We didn’t know each other very well, but we started playing together and it seemed to click,” Cobham says of the band’s early days. “I had to get to know where John wanted to go and he had to get to know me and how I wanted to treat it.”

Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, was released by Columbia in the fall of 1971. It came together, says Cobham, “like Lego building blocks.” The album received generally positive reviews and cracked the Billboard album chart, peaking at No. 89, and the band toured prolifically. “We worked so hard,” Cobham says. “Somebody said that we did about 350 concerts in a year and a half but I feel like it was closer to 500. I was never home.”

Mahavishnu’s commercial peak came in 1973 with the release of Birds of Fire, which rose to No. 15 in America. To Cobham, the sophomore set “was a definite segue. The band became more mature, and we knew where we were going. On the bandstand we could commit to doing a lot of things that were in the vicinity of ‘Don’t try this at home alone.’”

The original lineup only had one more album in them, though: Between Nothingness & Eternity, released later in ’73. “John was getting very upset with Jerry and Jan, who emulated him on their own instruments, especially Jan,” says Cobham. “Jan had a better guitar sound on the Moog than John did.”

Cobham’s memories of the band are, for the most part, positive ones. “It was like a little niche, filling a vacuum,” he says. “Hendrix was gone, and some of the key rockers were gone, and nothing was happening. We came in and more than plugged that up for a moment. We loved the music and we genuinely loved what John created and we wanted to be creative in his musical image, which I agreed and disagreed with. It was a great, strong base but John’s thing was he wanted to run the whole show, and that wasn’t going to happen. So the end result is that there was a lot of conflict.”

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.