Do you remember the words to the Michael Jackson song "Billie Jean"? How 'bout the drumbeat? If you know the beat, then you know Ndugu Chancler, the well-traveled session drummer who made that recording and others from the Thriller album.
"It's very simple," he says of the "Billie Jean" rhythm, "the simplest beat in all the land, but the key is playing it with the drum machine, which is what we did."
For more than 35 years, musicians of all stripes have turned to Chancler for work in the studio and on the road. The staggering list of artists he's worked with includes Miles Davis, George Benson, John Lee Hooker, Frank Sinatra, Santana, Kenny Rogers, Eric Clapton, the Temptations and Tina Turner.
Others became aware of Chancler's prodigious talent on the drum kit while he was still a teenager. By the time he was 17, he'd worked with Herbie Hancock; by 18, Thelonious Monk; and by 19, Hugh Masekela.
Eventually Chancler became known as the "king of the cross-stick," a reference to the drumming technique in which the metal rim of the snare drum is struck, as opposed to the drum head. "In the '70s and '80s I made a lot of records, and a lot of records I played on, I was just playing cross-stick, because they were pop songs and ballads," he says.
He began to do more producing and songwriting, then scored a hit in 1982 for the Dazz Band with "Let It Whip," a funky dance song that was resurrected not long ago for a tampon commercial ("And it sold a lot of tampons, baby," laughs Chancler).
The jack-of-all-things-percussion says he has slowed a bit to concentrate on teaching at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music and to work on his own projects. He's a member of three groups -- Ndugu, the Meeting and 1+ONE -- each with its own style. He says he still can't refuse an invitation to work with some of his favorites, though, including Patrice Rushen, Booker T. Jones and George Duke.
Chancler is making his way to St. Louis this weekend for a celebration of percussion at the University of Missouri-Louis, organized by friend, fellow percussionist and music professor Don Parker. The fun starts Thursday, when the school's University Percussion Ensemble and the area Interdistrict Percussion Ensemble stretch out on some eclectic pieces, with Chancler guesting on several. Friday night's concert features Parker, joined by the Arianna String Quartet, a pianist, a trumpeter and a trombonist for some more eclectic tunes. Saturday's Missouri Day of Percussion includes exhibits and sales, clinics and concerts featuring Chancler, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Tom O'Donnell, the Joia Brazilian parade-percussion unit and the Ole Miss Steel Drum Orchestra. Saturday night, the festival concludes with a jazz performance featuring Parker on vibraphone and George Haydon on piano.