From Harlem to Clayton

sgilman@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2014 

Drumsticks fly as crashes and booms echo off the walls of Ivan Hampden’s small studio in downtown Clayton.

It’s a private drum lesson, and the personable way Hampden interacts with 7-year-old Webster Sutherland would never reveal his starry career as a recording artist.

“Do you remember our peradiddle-diddle, peradiddle-diddle-diddle, peradiddle?” Hampden asks his young pupil. Sutherland’s braids flop in rhythm to his teacher’s instruction as he mimics the beat.

“C’mon, let’s play rumba; let’s groove,” Hampden later says, switching to a djembe drum.

Hampden’s talent and passion for drums shine through his humble references to accompanying stars like Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Vanessa Williams and Jennifer Lopez. When he plays, he can make his drum set hum, roar, chuckle, yell, hiccup – any sound he wants.

It comes from years of practice.

The beat of a city

Hampden started playing drums at age 8 in Harlem, a neighborhood of New York City. Music ran rich in his family, who came from places like Barbados and Trinidad. His father’s older brother made pocket money by playing drums in bands around the city, and his mother insisted on piano lessons.

Though he didn’t like piano, he fell in love with drums.

“We didn’t have much money, we lived in the projects, but we had a lot of friends,” Hampden said. “It was a huge community, so I was able to find drum lessons in the church down the street from my home.”

By age 11 or 12, he had collected a group of friends around him who played in a kind of neighborhood band. When he was a teen, his family moved to a new apartment, where Hampden would practice drums up on the third floor.

When he was 14, the bar a block away had an emergency: The drummer for that night’s entertainment didn’t show up. Hampden recalled: “‘Who’s the kid? We hear him all the time. He’s not bad. Somebody get the kid! We need him tonight.’ And my mother let me go, and I pushed my drums around the corner, and I went and played.”

At the end of the night, the band handed him $20.

“It was like, ‘You get paid for this?’” he recalled.

That night changed Hampden’s life. The band called him back several times, and he started working through high school playing in venues in Harlem.

“It was all these places that had been there for years and decades,” Hampden said. “A lot of famous musicians, they passed through there over the years in the ’40s and ’50s. It kinda was kicked off, my career.”

In high school, his mother’s first cousin, Arthur Jenkins, befriended him. At Jenkins’ recording studio, Hampden met famous artists like John Lennon, the founding member of the Beatles.

“I kind of just got pulled in,” Hampden said. “He just mentored me and taught me about the record business and the music industry and the stuff I had no idea existed ... a few miles from my house. These people were making major records that people hear on the radio every day.”

Jenkins taught him everything, Hampden said. “He really exposed me to the ins and outs of the recording business: music publishing, songwriting, what a jingle was, to play music for commercials and make records, production, you know, so many facets of the industry, touring,” Hampden said. “He was a school for me.”

On the road

Hampden later went to Bronx Community College and Rutgers University. But he was so busy in the recording industry, he had to drop out.

“I was doing stuff that I was going to school to learn to do,” Hampden said. “I was working with Eartha Kitt then. I was performing at all these big places.”

Being on the road made it hard to show up for class.

“It was a bit of a struggle to stay in school, because I was already starting to come in demand in the industry already,” Hampden said. “I’m making $1,000 a week in 1980. I’m trying to juggle classes and get out of classes so I can work.”

Working for Kitt, he said, was great. Kitt was Catwoman in TV’s “Batman” in the 1960s and recorded her famous “C’est Si Bon” and “Santa Baby” before her career crashed over remarks against the Vietnam War. She was back in the United States in the 1980s, and Hampden started traveling with her band.

“Eartha was a doll,” he said. “She was a very mothering person. She loved the guys in the band. After the jobs, she would take us out, and we would just hang out. She would want you to dance with her, would say, ‘More champagne for the fellas, caviar.’”

Hamden toured with her from 1979 to about 1983. During that time, he remembers hearing himself on the radio for the first time. He was 22. He had played on Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy,” and when it started to play, he nearly wrecked his car.

“I pulled the car over and had to listen to the song,” he said.

In 1984, Ashford and Simpson hired him.

“They wrote all these big hits for Motown,” Hampden said. “Those guys are gazillionaires for writing these songs.”

He signed on with Luther Vandross in 1987 and toured with him until 2003. Vandross was a singer, songwriter and record producer who was a background vocalist for Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand and more.

Hampden played on “Dance With My Father,” a Vandross song that won the 2004 Grammy for Song of the Year.

One song he wrote for Vandross, “Mistletoe Jam,” still plays on the radio.

“It’s kind of a hit,” Hampden said. “So every year I get to hear it right about the Christmas season.”

He has played before huge crowds, including a concert in South Africa 1999 for Nelson Mandela. About 70,000 people attended, Hampden said.

“I’ve done various things like that on grand scales,” he said.

Starry nights in Clayton

Hampden moved to Clayton in 2001 and married his wife, Naomi Hampden, in 2002. Though he was still performing, and she was living in Garner at the time, he told her: “They’ll fly me from anywhere. It doesn’t matter where I live.”

He liked it in Clayton and started teaching at the Neighborhood Academy of Music on Butternut Lane.

The slow, Southern pace was a change from touring the country and the world, but Hampden said it suits him. Now, when he travels for a performance, he says, “I can’t wait to get home.”

Hampden misses friends and family “and maybe a few restaurants” in New York City, but he said he thought it was time to slow things down.

Leaning back in his drumming bench and spreading his hands, he said: “You don’t see the stars in the sky like you do down here. I like fell in love with that.”

As a teacher, Hampden wants to pass on the music that he loves, the music that changed him.

“I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “Growing up in Harlem, music saved my life. A lot of my buddies are in jail, drugs, you know. That’s why I love passing it to the next generation, to the kids, because I think they have a lot more distractions than I had.”

When he teaches, Hampden uses his wealth of professional knowledge rather than a traditional method.

“I’ve been an industry person my entire career and turned educator,” he said. “I try not to do this kinder-babies approach with them. I have fun with them, but I teach them serious material. And they get it.”

He wants his students to know how to study hard, practice, focus and learn the math of music.

“I think it’s so beneficial for young people,” Hampden said. “I hope to continue to develop the next generation of artists out there.”

The Clayton News Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service