Sounds Visual Radio
Sounds Visual Radio
Episode 108: Billy Cobham

Generally regarded as fusion’s greatest drummer, William C. Cobham was born on May 16, 1944, in Panama where he grew fond of percussion from watching his cousin play. At age three, his family moved to New York City and at age eight Billy made his percussion performance debut with his father. Growing up, Billy played in the St. Catherine’s Queensmen at the High School of Music and Art. After graduating, Billy served as a percussionist in the U.S. Army National band. He then played as a drummer in pianist Horace Silver’s band and toured the U.S. with him throughout the late 1960s. He then left to partake in Miles Davis’s fusion ensemble where he can be heard on Davis classics such as Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Cobham eventually parted ways from Davis’s group to work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, where he was able to further explore his technique and fusion style which influenced many for years to come.

After deciding to part ways with the Orchestra, Cobham started his own band, Spectrum, and signed with Atlantic Records. Spectrum’s debut album featured a mix of jazz, funk and rock that allowed Cobham to further experiment with percussion. In 1975, Cobham released A Funky Thide of Sings, moving into commercial jazz exclusively. In 1977, Cobham left Atlantic and signed to CBS, which allowed him to reach the commercial success he had always wanted. Cobham focused on his opportunities as a session drummer and other side opportunities after leaving CBS, such as drumming for the Grateful Dead’s side project Bobby & the Midnites. In 1988, Cobham helped start a group called “Jazz is Dead” which reprised Grateful Dead music with jazz iterations.

In 2001 Cobham released Drum ‘n Voice 1, which was his return to the 1970s jazz-funk sound, followed by Drum ‘n Voice 2 in 2006 and Drum ‘n Voice 3 in 2009. In 2011, Cobham started teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, which is a ArtistWorks Drum Academy. In 2018, Cobham toured across the US a performance series called “Crosswinds Project” which was his way of revisiting his landmark second album, Crosswinds. The tour re-comprised his original work from the 1970s which continued into 2019 as a celebration of Cobham’s 75th birthday. Cobham continues to tour worldwide.

In 2001 Cobham was named one of the 25 Most Influential Drummers by Modern Drummer magazine. Cobham’s influence has stretched far beyond jazz, including on progressive rock contemporaries like Bill Bruford of King Crimson and Danny Carey of Tool. Prince and Jeff Beck both played a version of Cobham’s “Stratus” in concert. Phil Collins, who named Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame as a key influence on his early style said, “Billy Cobham played some of the finest drumming I’ve ever heard on that record.”

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