Leslie Drayton on Music Directing for Marvin Gaye, Origins of Earth, Wind and Fire, and Mentorship

Industry icon Leslie Drayton is many things: a trumpet player and instrumental performer, an arranger, a composer, a mentor–a seasoned music veteran in a multitude of respects. Beginning at age five, he honed his skills in a number of different roles, beginning with exploration of the piano, clarinet, bongo drums, and trumpet, and extending out to his later work as a founding member of Earth, Wind and Fire and as music director to Marvin Gaye and Sylvester. Drayton is credited as the creator of the classic, unmistakable horn sound of Earth, Wind and Fire, having utilized his in-depth understanding of music arrangement and writing to develop a musical voice unlike any other.

Images and Cover Image via draytonmusic.com (Gallery)

In addition to his performances in bands over the years, Drayton has released numerous solo projects through his Esoteric Records label and his company New Perspective Jazz, Ltd., eventually adding a publishing arm (Water Sign Music Productions) for his compositions.

Find more of Leslie Drayton's original music on draytonmusic.com

Drayton's prolific accomplishments as both a player and in other industry positions highlight not only the positive impact of his work but also the importance of mentorship for rising industry-people. His dedication to his craft and the guidance of professionals such as Marion Sherrill and Melba Liston enabled Drayton to add to his musical toolkit, whether he was playing in a big band led by Gerald Wilson or heading his own critically-acclaimed Leslie Drayton Orchestra.

A significant mentor figure, Drayton encourages young musicians and aspiring industry professionals to "develop and trust their musical voice and ideas." His programs supported by the GRAMMY Foundation, the L.A. Jazz Society, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz are widely recognized as some of the most informative and life-changing in the industry. Drayton also taught as a professor at the Los Angeles City College, Santa Monica College, and Ventura College before relocating to Houston, Texas, where he continues to inspire industry newcomers every day.

From the start of his impressive career, Drayton has sparked important musical and social conversations, pushing boundaries across genres like jazz, soul/RnB, and funk. He has developed an eternal legacy not only through his positive contributions to music in years past but also through the sharing of his wisdom and work ethic with others.

We spoke with music industry guru Leslie Drayton about the profound impact of mentorship on his career, his experiences in Earth, Wind and Fire, music directing and arranging, and his advice for new generations of musicians. Read the full interview below and let us know what you think.


At what age did you start playing music?

I’ve been told that I used to go next door to our neighbor’s house and play the same things on their piano over and over again. She bought a piano when I was about five years old and I started taking piano lessons somewhere around that time. It was on and off for me–piano was not my big passion, but music was. My piano teacher taught me music theory and I never forgot it, so I really became serious about music (the light sort of came on for me) at about 15. I had been in the junior high school band and I played clarinet for a while, but we had a distant cousin whose husband had gone to Julliard and majored in french horn. He gave me the Arban book when I was about 12 or 13 (I got my first trumpet when I was 11 from Benny Carter). I would say that I was formally introduced to music at about age five.

What was the impact of mentorship for you as a young musician?

It was very important, although it was different from what mentorship usually looks like now. You never know what eyes and ears are observing you. I wanted to get my driver’s license and drive the car, and my mom said, “you can get your driver’s license when you can pay for the insurance.” I was in a youth band, and through that, I started working at a music store… From what I remember, car insurance was around $600 back then and I was making about $4 at the store, so I figured it was going to take me a few years to get that money.

In the youth band, the director took a lot of us aside one Saturday after the rehearsal and explained to us about writing music and how to copy down the parts on paper. There was a gentleman above the music store (Marion Sherrill) that had a music preparation business and he had seen me copying the parts down. One day, he said to me, “It’s time for you to come upstairs.” I made sure it was alright for me to go, then stayed for at least 12 hours and made $100. Mr. Sherrill taught me and one other gentleman how to copy down music. I started doing the math and I realized that if I kept doing this, I could have the $600 I needed for the car insurance way before the summer was over. He was tough on us, but when I got that $100, I said, “Mr. Sherrill, can I come back next week?”

Images and Cover Image via draytonmusic.com (Gallery)

That’s how I started, but I didn’t know about the eyes and ears always watching until later. I grew up in a musical family, so people would give me little tid-bits and pieces of information, but there was always someone telling me, “hey, someone needs a trumpet player for his band. Are you interested?” That’s how I became a professional musician and was able to pay for my college and other necessities. Mentorship is very important to get experience, make connections, and learn skills.

"You never know what eyes and ears are observing you."

How did your experiences in local big bands and RnB groups in the 70s inform your later work?

Those were things I had a big interest in. I had as much passion for listening to RnB as I did for jazz, but my experience was mainly in playing with big band groups. In my teenage years, I had a couple of heroes and one of them was Gerald Wilson; I wanted to write music like him and be in his band. He happened to live across the street from me growing up. I used to always tell him, “I want a seat in your band one day,” and when I was about 18 or 19, he finally called.

That had a big influence on me, but the other piece of it was that all of the significant African American writers of the late 60s brought their music to the music preparation business where I was working. While I was copying their scores for them, I was learning how to write–I was looking at what they had done. These two things really dovetailed together and were very important in how I formulated what I did. Somebody would ask me what music I liked and I’d say that I liked Sly & The Family Stone just as much as I liked Bill Evans or Oliver Nelson.

Share a little bit about the formation of Earth, Wind and Fire and its distinctive horn sounds.

Mr. Sherrill at the script house happened to know Maurice White. I was in a band that played cover tunes at a teenage club (they didn’t have a liquor license) and Marion called me one day and said, “this guy is in town and he wants to talk to you about putting a band together.” Four of us from LA joined that band with Maurice. I could write music, so I was able to write things down that they all wanted to include and when it came time to record, I suggested that we use more than the three horns that were standard at the time (trumpet, saxophone, and trombone). I knew we needed a larger horn section and it all started from there, but it really provided a vehicle for me to experiment with some of the things I was thinking about in my head.

In what ways do you think the cultural and social environment of the 70s helped shape the original EWF sound?

The other six members had come from Chicago and they were involved in a community movement that was very socially conscious at the time–I think it was the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Some of the original music had some messages in them and additionally, Maurice had been coming from a really spiritual place. At the time, they were also influenced by the Beatles tune “We Can Work It Out” and Donny Hathaway had been involved with them before they were called Earth, Wind and Fire… They had a few singles, but no full album.

All of us were involved with social consciousness in some way because things were still a bit separated. Sometimes when I look back, I notice that many of the successes I had through the 70s and 80s highlighted black music and the black music community. No one was going to get in the way too much in terms of the messages you put in tunes; you had What’s Going On, you had Curtis Mayfield–a lot of the social commentary tied into that music, and similarly, there was a lot of commentary in pop music and coming from the singer/songwriters of the time… think Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and some of Carole King’s music. It was always there.

I was talking to someone recently about this in respect to academia. He thought you could make change from inside the institution, but I said, “no, you have to go and you have to push and request.” When I was traveling with Marvin Gaye, we went to Radio City Music Hall in 1974. It had pretty much been a dormant venue for a while, but we used a 35-piece orchestra. In some places we went, I would get pushback for requesting to work with African American musicians, but I always had a list of all the musicians I knew were available for when I needed it.

Let's delve into your role as a musical director and conductor. How did you first become involved with that?

I was writing music and rehearsing a band, and eventually people heard (it all goes back to the eyes and ears everywhere) that a young guy was doing this. I found out early on that I like to be in charge of certain things, and especially if I’m writing things, and that I’m going to have to pass on my vision to folks. The opportunity with Marvin Gaye came through one of my main mentors, Melba Liston, who I consider my musical mother. She and I had a band and we recorded some music. Believe it or not, Marvin was going to start his own record label at one point and he bought our masters. That’s how I got introduced to him, but when 1974 came, he did a live album in Oakland and he called me. He said “I need another arrangement on this–another flavor. Would you do it?” I told him, “absolutely,” and when he eventually did a four-month tour over the summer, he asked me to be his music director and conductor.

It was a great experience because many times, we would use up to 35-piece orchestras. Some of the music had been written by the gentleman that was ahead of me, but I had to arrange and adapt a lot of it over creative time. It started with Marvin, but I went on to work with a number of other artists, including Sylvester, who was very big in the disco arenas. I started by arranging horns and instrumentals for recordings, but when the hit records came, they also needed someone to go on tour with them. These things just evolved out of my ability to write music and lead a band.

"I started by arranging horns and instrumentals for recordings, but when the hit records came, they also needed someone to go on tour with them."

In your opinion, what is the most challenging part of being a musical director?

Other than preparing the music and traveling around, you’re dealing with a finite amount of time to rehearse the show. Everywhere that you go, the musicians may not be as adequate as they were in the last place and you’re dealing with personalities. In any group of people, there are three personalities you need to identify quickly. If they’re musicians, there’s the contractor; this person basically makes all the calls to get everyone there. He or she could be in control of everyone–we don’t know. There is someone in the group that can control all of the others… it could be the contractor or it could be someone else, so it’s crucial to identify that person and get on the same page as them. Finally, you need to identify the troublemaker. There’s always going to be a troublemaker in the room and you need to figure out how to maneuver through that situation. If the troublemaker is being disruptive to the point of things being unproductive, after a few little suggestions, I’ll defer to whoever would be in charge of them, be it the contractor or the leader of the bunch.

We were in Chicago one time and the troublemaker was a trumpet player. He was disruptive and we couldn’t get things going. Time was running out and the contractor wouldn’t say anything to the guy, so I identified the saxophone player who had influence over all the other players and I pulled out what I call the “psychology play”. I said, “when you guys are ready to rehearse, let me know.” I sat on the piano stool and the guy took care of it. The trumpet player apologized to me after the rehearsal, telling me about all these life problems he was having, and I had some words with him.

"There’s always going to be a troublemaker in the room and you need to figure out how to maneuver through that situation."

Also, being a young person, people are always going to challenge you. Earlier on, I was a young person who happened to be a person of color, and people didn’t think I was capable. I would always have to do something to set them straight and show them that I did know what I was doing.

What advice do you have for young people hoping to break into the industry?

Honest mentorship is very important. Sometimes young people are very hungry to learn things and someone else can sense that and use that hunger in a negative way. Young people get taken advantage of all the time; this includes people asking them to do things for free for way too long. At the same time, you need to be where the action is, so it can be hard to tell about those things. I always say, “follow the honest money”.

Images and Cover Image via draytonmusic.com (Gallery)

A lot of times young people will get background noise from their parents, too, because they hear horror stories about the arts and entertainment industry. There’s bad stuff around, but depending on how grounded you are, you eventually learn how to say no. I learned a lot from being around a lot of people that had some very, very questionable habits. It was my choice whether I wanted to participate or not and I also knew the consequences of those choices, but you can’t really find success in an antiseptic bubble. The bottom line is that young people should go to where the action is and learn as much as they can; try to get as much hands-on experience as possible, but remember that not everyone will be protecting your best interests.

What is one lesson you try to emphasize to your mentees?

At Marion’s place, there was a high standard. Many times, the writers there would write things last minute to be copied down, but Marion was very proud because I never missed a session. The music was always on the stand and it was always done at a very high level. When I first started, I didn’t know how to copy music as well as Marion did and he would tell me, “don’t play in the ink. If you’re going to play in the ink, then go home.” Many times when I was first starting, my job was to take the music to the studio when it was ready. Mr. Sherrill would tell me which streets to take in order to get there on time. He took a lot of pride in that work ethic and instilled that same drive in me, so I try to pass it down to my mentees as much as possible. Don’t show up and be half-stepping because that gives people a reason to fire you or label you with some sort of uncool stereotype. Just don’t come half-prepared.

"'Don’t play in the ink. If you’re going to play in the ink, then go home.'"

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?

There’s a lot to share, so maybe we’ll leave it right here for a part two of the interview!