Rick “Bam” Powell
The Funky Drummer of Cincinnati
By Randy McNutt
Rick Powell in his home studio, 1972. Photo by Randy McNutt
Singer-drummer Rick “Bam” Powell has soaked up plenty of soul in his long career in music, most notably while working in two river towns that have contributed heavily to America's roots-rock and soul--Cincinnati and Muscle Shoals, where he worked as a sideman. Add to this the experience of forty years as an active musician, and you'll have the story of one of the few remaining authentic soul-rockers who is still out there singing his songs.
"I'm a singing drummer,” Rick Powell says with a laugh, “and there’s no category for me. Guitarists get most of the attention. How many drummers do you see out there singing the songs?”
He has a good point, and a minor problem. People don't usually associate vocalists with being drummers. But Powell doesn't mind so long as he's singing. He grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, and began playing drums as a kid. “A guy up the road had all the records, the 45s by the Beach Boys and other groups, and I fell in love with harmony and all those old sounds,” Powell says. That influence can be heard today in the harmony he places on his recordings. By the time he was in high school in the early 1970s, he was playing and singing in a garage band called The Chamberly Kids. Singer Wayne Perry discovered the band, and joined it. Powell ended up in the studio working on a blue-eyed soul record as the drummer and second lead vocalist.
On Perry’s independent sessions in suburban Cincinnati, Powell became the drummer and co-lead vocalist with Perry on “Gonna Have a Good Time,” which was released under the name Little Flint. It was a studio band assembled by Perry and his production group. Little Flint recorded only one single, but it gave the young Powell a chance to record with some veteran musicians. The experience was invaluable, and made him long for more.
During these sessions he was thrilled to work with bassist Roger “Jellyroll” Troy, whose band, Jellyroll, had just received a contract from New York’s Kapp Records. “Here I was, a high school kid, playing with a guy as good as Jellyroll,” Powell recalls. “He impressed me, for sure. I thought he had it all, had it made. Then during that first session we did, Jellyroll’s car got repossessed in front of the studio. That should have taught me something.”
Perry, one of Cincinnati’s top soul-rock singers at the time, liked Powell and the Chamberly Kids so much that he took time to work extensively with the band. Powell adds, “He booked us at a club called the Half Way Inn, which was in an old house. To me it was the ultimate roadhouse known for its dancing and soul. I was still in high school at the time. So when I arrived, they asked me for my I.D. Wayne had to vouch for me to get in.”
In the mid-’70s, Perry left to write hit songs in Nashville. Powell joined a Cincinnati-based rock band called the Raisins, which had an extended gig in Toledo. The Raisins were not Powell’s typical kind of band. They were frenetic. In just a few years, they developed a large regional following. The band’s early members also featured guitarist Rob Fetters, bassist Bob Nyswonger, and pianist Rick Neiheisel (known later as Ricky Nye.)
“One day I got a call from a guy who claimed he managed LeBlanc and Carr in Muscle Shoals, Alabama,” Powell says. “I asked him, ‘All right, who’s pulling my leg?’ But he was their manager, and he was offering me a job as one of their two drummers. I auditioned and got the job. They were popular then with their hit ballad ‘Falling.’ Later, they cut back to just one drummer—me. I toured and recorded with them for the better part of four years. I played on one of their albums that was cut at Atlantic Studios in New York. We were on the road constantly. It was insane, really. We opened for a bunch of hit acts—Robert Palmer, England Dan and John Ford Coley, Taj Mahal, and others. I was based out of Muscle Shoals, where I visited the famous studio where the Swampers [studio musicians] cut the hits that originated there. I feel like a small part of history. I’m still using some things in my stage work that I learned in during my Muscle Shoals days.”
When the band broke up, Powell ended up living in Tupelo, Mississippi—Elvis’ birthplace. He finally moved to Alabama to play music, and in 1980 he returned to Cincinnati to live and continue his career. Fortunately, he managed to drum his way through the disco era, and even the modern trend toward DJs in clubs. No matter what trend was breaking, Powell was still playing his music and maintaining a dedicated core of fans who followed him. “I’m getting older, but I have no intention of quitting,” he says. “They’ll have to drag me off the stage when I’m through.”
The Cincinnati Sound—the music often heard when Lonnie Mack, Beau Dollar and the Coins, and other area performers played in the roadhouses of southern Ohio—left an even bigger impression on Powell, whose music also incorporates elements of country, rock, and soul. But his style is mostly bluesy rock ’n’ roll. He started writing songs just after high school, and he has continued to this day. “I’m always writing,” he says. “It’s something I love.”
You haven't heard his records on the radio, but then he isn't seeking to sound robotic--like something out of a sci-fi film. He is looking for "realness," as he calls, the emotion ones hears in his voice as he sings his soulful ballads and driving rock-soul numbers. His albums, on CD, have included Bam Powell and the Troublemakers, Perforated by Tickled Pink, and his solo effort, Eat the Fat, Drink the Sweet. The Troublemakers group featured some ex-band mates from the Raisins, a group from the late 1970s. On this album, released by the group's own Baby Ranch Recording Company, Powell performed "Funky Drummer Sinfonia Part II" and "Funky Drummer Reprise," and sang his original song "I Like Skin," a favorite with audiences. "I enjoy singing my own songs," he says, "and people enjoy hearing them. I'm fortunate."
Powell believes there is a place for veteran performers who have learned to please crowds and write songs that come from the heart. “It’s all soul music,” he says. “Some of those old stone-country records are so soulful they make you cry. To me, there’s not much difference between Miles Davis and George Jones, besides the obvious. They both have soul. The Cincinnati Sound blends soul and country and the blues. I can’t escape it. It is a part of my heritage. I embrace it now. I still have something to offer. I want to keep playing my music as long as people want to hear it.”
Powell is carrying the torch passed to him by Cincinnati's early rock and soul drummers, including Phillip Paul, once a prolific sideman at King Records in town, and Gene Lawson, an early soul-rock drummer who played on Lonnie Mack's hit instrumental single "Memphis."
Calling Loveland, Ohio, his home base today, Powell still works with some of Cincinnati’s top rock groups. In the 1990s they included the Blue Birds, a white soul band that continues to perform in various incarnations. He also has performed with the rock groups Tickled Pink and Bucket, and the popular Cincinnati country band Stagger Lee.
He has always been a featured vocalist as well as a drummer. “Sometimes with the Blue Birds I would stand in front of the band to sing, and another guy would take over the drums,” he says. “At times, I think I should do that again. But I never want to give up the drums. I love them.”
He depends on more than his voice and drums to entertain. His original songs capture the interest of his audiences. By playing music and hearing people's stories he has developed insight into hard times and good times. Always the social observer, Powell turns his observations into succinct and moving song lyrics and melodies. He is at ease writing and singing soulful ballads as well as raucous rockers.
His highly personal approach to performing and his musical diversity have propelled his career through the decades, and made him an important part of his hometown’s music past, present, and future. As Nashville music journalist Larry Nager, a former Cincinnati pop music reporter, observed in 2012: “If the last thirty years of Rick ‘Bam’ Powell’s life were turned into a TV mini-series, it would tell a pretty thorough story of Cincinnati’s music scene.” That rich scene saw King Records cut dozens of hits in the 1940s for Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Moon Mullican, and other hillbilly stars, then turn around in the ’50s and record hits for James Brown and the Famous Flames, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and the 5 Royales. The city continued its hit streak in the 1960s when Fraternity Records released “Memphis” and “Wham!” with Mack and his band.
By the time Powell arrived on the city’s musical landscape in the early 1970s, King had just closed its local office doors. But by then he had already soaked up the country and soul sounds and had started writing songs in both genres. He and his songs reflect Cincinnati’s eclectic sounds. Powell can sing “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—not an easy feat—and then turn around and belt out a country song. His own recording of “Funky Drummer” is far out and as crazy as they come.
Today, Powell continues to write, perform, and play on recording sessions. “I like to play music and write about subjects that are overlooked,” he says. “I love the old sounds and I don’t want them to be lost, yet I want to put a modern spin on the lyrics. It’s rewarding to write a song and then hear someone in the audience call out its name, wanting me to sing it.
"I’ve been told that I’m hard to pigeon-hole. It’s just natural for me to sound part rock, part R&B, and a little bit country. But then that’s the Cincinnati way, and I grew up on it. I wouldn’t change it.”
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About His Music
If you'd prefer an electronic copy of this story, go to www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Kindle-Store-Short-Reads, and see "Bam! The Story of Rick Powell, the Funky Drummer of Cincinnati." It is the first in the Legendary Musicians of the Heartland Series. The Kindle Short Read reached number eleven on Kindle's e-book rock music chart in August of 2017, and continues as a soul chart best-seller. If you're interested in the music, you can find some of Rick's recordings on YouTube. An early version of Rick's "I Like Skin" appears on the CD Souled Out: Queen City Soul-Rockers of the 1970s, an anthology released by the Fraternity Records Group out of New York.