The Headhunters Still Grooving 50 Years Later

November 4, 2022
Marty Halpern

In the early 1970s, jazz legend Herbie Hancock wanted to shake up his musical output – he was determined to add a bigger chunk of funk to his sound. Changing styles, and the musicians playing them, was common back then; side projects have been the norm in the jazz world for decades.

In 1973, Hancock created The Headhunters in hopes of finding the funky path he was searching for. The original lineup included Paul Jackson (bass), Bennie Maupin (sax, clarinet), Harvey Mason (drums), and Bill Summers (percussion). Their debut “Head Hunters” was a massive success selling over one million copies. 

Hancock kept The Headhunters rolling, releasing “Thrust” in 1974. For this follow up, there was one noticeable change in the lineup – Hancock brought in Mike Clark to take over for Mason on drums. Clark turned out to be the perfect replacement; he literally created his own “funk” style of drumming that is heard, sampled, and studied throughout the music world to this day. 

With two well received albums to draw from, The Headhunters toured the world. In 1975, they released “Flood,” a live album, showcasing the music Hancock and crew had created over the last couple of years.

Also in 1975, Hancock left the band. The move could have halted the project in its tracks, but instead, the remaining Headhunters kept things going, releasing two more albums over the next couple of years.  

Things slowed down significantly from there. Band lineups shifted, and album releases were few and far between. No matter how slow things got, The Headhunters rhythm section of Clark and Summers kept the music going. Hancock briefly re-joined in 1998 to play on the album “Return of The Headhunters!”  

Almost 50 years after their debut album, The Headhunters are set for their latest release, “Speakers in the House,” a perfect vessel to showcase the numerous musical styles covered by the band in the last half-century. There’s plenty of Mexican, New Orleans, Afro-Cuban flavor, percolating for the listener to sample. caught up with jazz drumming legend Mike Clark to discuss the new album and road the band has traveled for five decades. He begins by discussing the unique road that led to the release.

“We did most of this record when we were on tour in Europe. We met a guy who had a recording studio complete with apartments and kitchens. He said we were welcome to stay and record, which we did,” Clark states. “We recorded some stuff that we thought was pretty good. Didn’t do anything further with it. Just left it in the can.” 

He continues, “At one point our management asked us what do you got? We said we have something semi-done. We finished the album and are putting it out. We’re doing gigs now. Sold out Seattle and a couple of other shows. We’re off to an auspicious start. One thing has led to another. It wasn’t like, let’s put out an album. Everything just fell into place.” 

While the framework for the songs on the album was created by Clark and Summers, saxophonist Donald Harrison took over from there to get them to the finish line. Clark happily gives credit to his bandmate, “The person who really stepped in was Donald Harrison. He put in the melodies, solos, and backgrounds. He took what Bill and I had as the foundation and conceptualized it. What he played changed the complexion and direction into what he was hearing. Some of the stuff we’ve played together a million times so those didn’t need much work. The album took a long time to finish, but it was organic. I don’t recall anyone struggling. One guy would hear something and play it. Then another guy would add onto that. Donald really put his stamp and understanding of the whole thing. That really upgraded the album.” 

The album opens with “Kongo Square,” an unmistakable showcase of the synergy created by the rhythm section. Congo Square (in New Orleans) was an area slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays. The music created during these times is considered one of the biggest influences of African American music, especially jazz.   

Summers continually finds the proper instrument and pace to fill in the blanks created by Clark’s groove. Something Clark says is nothing new for the longtime pals.

“According to Bill, he based what he brought in on my original drum tracks. We built around that. When I heard the African influence he brought in, he said ‘What shall we call this?’ I said we’ve got to call this Kongo Square because that’s where the stuff started here. That’s how it went down. I played my thing and Bill played on top of that, which always works great.”

A funky, New Orleans-style “Rockin at the Mole House,” is followed by “HH57,” another shining example of creating a song around Clark and Summer’s rhythmic foundation.  For Clark, this one was straight forward.

“We counted it off and pretty much what you hear is what it is. It just went down like that. We went back and made some improvements, but it was natural. Whenever we start playing, I never think of locking the bass and drums together. We just start. We have an idea that we flush out. Then we start playing. That way, what the listener hears is what we play. We were just throwing down. We had a melody, so it wasn’t completely out of thin air.”

The appropriately named “Stop Watch” is the only song on the album that was technically written out before being recorded – a little something to keep Clark and the band on their toes.

“That was a difficult piece to play. That was all written and hammered out. There’s a bar of seven, nine, and six. We had to play that one a few times. It was a labor of love. It’s not something you can go in and wing together. That one had music that was written and stuff that had to be done. Absolutely, more by the book.” 

The bond Clark and Summers have developed over the last five decades is unmistakable. According to Clark, their time together on and off the stage has created an unspoken language between them.

“I never think about it intellectually. All I can say is, I can immediately play with Bill. Right now. I don’t care the style or tempo. We’ve played so much together; our brains handle it for us without us interfering. I never question it. It’s just there. I can depend on it. It’s just there. It’s similar to the invisible understanding I had with Paul Jackson. That being said, I never know what he’s going to do. I don’t know what he’s going to play. I have no idea. He comes in with all kinds of different angles. I don’t question it. I don’t have to overthink it. I feel it and roll with it. I just know how to play with the guy. We’ve figured it out without hardly talking about it.”  

Clark is 76 years old. He’s toured the world numerous times. You’d think he’s achieved all his goals as a musician. That’s not the case. So, what could Clark possibly have left to accomplish?

“I’d like to make a be-bop record on a major label before I say goodnight. I’ve made a lot of jazz records but they’re on small labels. They do very well. I’ve got one in the top ten now. I’m a jazz fanatic and would love my jazz records to be more loved. There’s an audience for the stuff I do. I dig swinging as much as I do funk.” 

Clark concludes, “I feel great physically and I’m improving as an artist, so I don’t see a reason to stop or turn back. I don’t want to kill myself out here 10 months a year. As long as I feel I’m bringing value with the music I bring to the people, I’ll keep going. When I feel I’m not playing good and the party’s over, I’ll go home and catch up on some of my favorite vampire series.” 

“Speakers in the House” Ropeadope 2022 

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