In Loving Honor of Don Heffington

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Videos by American Songwriter

Friends & fellow musicians share their thoughts on this beloved man and his music

Don Heffington with John Prine, backstage at Greek Theater after John’s concert, May, 2016.
Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

The music communities of Los Angeles, Nashville and beyond are in some shock, struggling with the sorrowful news that another great and beloved musician and friend is gone. The great Don Heffington left us to start his next great adventure on March 23, 2021.

Suffering from leukemia, he was hospitalized, and, according to loved ones, knew his time was coming to an end and wanted to be home to go in peace. Just a few days ago he left the hospital to go into home hospice, as he wished, and it’s there he finished his last earthly song.

Born in 1950 in Los Angeles, he grew up in a family with a loving, ecumenical embrace of all music, and also a built-in rhythm section: his grandmother played drums and his mom the upright bass. Before he knew rock & roll, his soul was thoroughly injected with their love of jazz and swing.

Taking to the drums like his grandma, he got his first job playing jazz when he was all of 14. At 15 his talent and skill were already so well-honed that he got the gig as drummer in The Doug Morris/Sam Johnson Band in 1965. This white kid joined four seriously great black soul-jazz players (bassist Sam Johnson, Clarence Peace on alto sax, pianist Andre, and Doug Morris on trumpet). While to some he might have seemed visually out of place, nobody had any doubts when they heard himplay. Even then, he had the soul, he had the warmth, and he played right in that soul pocket. That he was the real deal then was undeniable, as it was during his next decades.

Don Heffington with the Doug Morris/Sam Johnson Band in 1965.

It’s why he went on to become one of the greatest and most accomplished drummers of our time, and one who could shift genres and generations as easily as drum sticks. An essential and fully-connected musician, Don always knew that which even some musicians never grasp: all music is one. He brought the same grace, power, precision and soul to Bob Dylan as he did with Percy Sledge, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Dwight Yoakam, Rickie Lee Jones, Lowell George, Peter Case, Percy Sledge, Vic Chestnut, Sheryl Crow, Sam Phillips, Dave Alvin and all the rest.

In 1982 he joined Marvin Etzioni, along with Maria McKee and Ryan Hedgecock, to form Lone Justice, with whom he recorded and performed through 1985. Marvin’s happy memories of Don’s musical presence in his life follows.

Don went onto to join the Watkins Family Hour as a member, and continued recording all kinds of music with all kinds of artists.

He also made his own music. A gifted, brave and singular songwriter, he made three solo albums, starting with In the Red, with Tammy Rogers, in 1995. In 2014 came the great Gloryland, perhaps his most essential statement as a singer-songwriter (and one reviewed with love in these pages, to be reprinted separately).

In 2016 he created the formally-titled and great Contemporary Abstractions in Folk Song and Dance.  

With great gratitude to his friends and cohorts for their kind generosity during this sad time for agreeing to share feelings about Don and, even more important, for coming through with words to share, and beautiful ones. It seems truer all the time, that nobody loves musicians quite as much as other musicians. It’s not unlike brothers in arms; when you’ve fought together on the same battleground and survive, a bond forms unlike any other.

Don, like many of his closest friends, was a song champion, in that he always honored great songwriters. The greatest example of this is the beautiful album he produced with Sheldon Gomberg to honor another absent and beloved musical friend, Mose Allison, If You’re Going to the City, A Tribute to Mose Allison. Don and Sheldon rounded up quite a great group of Mose lovers to make this record, including Peter Case, Elvis Costello, Fiona Apple, Amy Allison, Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite, Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson.

A loving father of two, and a grandfather, his presence in our musical lives is already missed. But all the music and love that emanated from the big heart and deep soul of Don Heffington will be with us forever.

Don Heffington on drums with Doug Morris/Sam Johnson Band in 1965.

He was such a warm, gregarious and loving guy that it wasn’t hard to get a few of his friends to share their feelings about Don. Which is not to say it was easy for any of them to write; it wasn’t. Yet they came through for Don, as he would have for them. A beloved musician/drummer/songwriter and dear friend to so many in here in the close circle of L.A. songwriters and beyond, his loss has been an especially tough one. True friendship is a rare commodity, and those lucky enough to know Don Heffington deeply understand.

As Peter Case said, “A lot of people are really hurting with this news.

Ronee Blakely affirmed that: “There’s a lot of tears in L.A. today,” she wrote.

“He was the big brother I never had,” said Marvin Etzioni, who also wrote a beautiful song for his bandmate, “goodbye old friend,” which we will bring you tomorrow in Part II of our tribute to Don.

But first, the words of his friends and fellow artists.

Lazy loaded image
Don Heffington. Photo by his daughter Laura Heffington



MARVIN ETZIONI
(Songwriter, Producer, Founding Member of Lone Justice)

Marvin Etzioni & Don Heffington, 1982

Don Heffington passed away this morning. If Don heard the news he might quote one
of his own songs by saying, “That’s Hollywood.”

I met Don in 1982 through a mutual friend, Steve Fishell. They were both in the Emmylou Harris Hot Band. I had never heard Heffington play drums before, but as soon as I met him, I knew he would be the drummer for Lone Justice.

At our first rehearsal together, we played “Sweet Jane.” His kick drum turned into a giant heart, his snare cracked a solid back beat and his hi-hat was a metronome with soul. He understood the Bakersfield sound and the Velvet Underground, and could play them both authentically.

In the last few years, he released a solo album, Gloryland, where his songs and voice take the commanding center stage. In fact, there is a tribute album of Don’s songs in the works with Sheldon Gomberg at the helm. 

Don was multidimensional as a drummer,artist and human being. He was the older brother I never had growing up.

A few months ago, he contacted me. He was in the hospital. He shared what he was going through. He said,”I like talking with you, man.”

That’s a compliment of highest order coming from Don. We got to say something we usually didn’t say to each other: “I love you.”

A few months ago, he contacted me. He was in the hospital. He shared what he was going through. He said,”I like talking with you, man.” That’s a compliment of the highest order, coming from Don. We got to say something we usually didn’t say to each other: “I love you.”

–Marvin Etzioni



PETER CASE
(Songwriter/Artist/Author)

https://www.blumenthalarts.org/assets/img/peter-ff8eb57f41
Peter Case

Very much suffering and aching heart over the loss of Don. I’d talked to him several times during his stay in the hospital, and know it was a very difficult passage for him, especially due to the isolation required by the COVID quarantine.

I met him in ‘86 out on the road somewhere. We had a lot in common, and I really loved him. It’s a huge loss personally and musically and I don’t think I can say anything more. A whole world of knowledge and history goes with him. He was into the bigger picture. 

My last session with him was for the Mose Allison tribute he and Sheldon Gomberg put together. The track, “I Don’t Worry About A Thing,” came out swell, and we had a lotta laughs making it.

I just really miss him; can’t say more than that really. A lot of people are really hurting with this news.

He was a beautiful guy.

–Peter Case

Peter Case, “I Don’t Worry About A Thing,”
with Don on drums, produced by Don with Sheldon Gomberg

for the album If You’re Going To The City, A Tribute to Mose Allison




SHELDON GOMBERG
(Musician/Producer/Engineer)

Don Heffington, Rickie Lee Jones & Sheldon Gomberg

I first met Heff (aka Don Heffington) in the ’90s when his then-girlfriend brought him over to my place. We became friends right away and started playing together on a lot of stuff. When I transitioned into producing, he was one of the main drummers I would use, and he was right for pretty much everything. I loved his feel, musical abilities, and knowledge, and he could play just about anything you would throw at him.

He had this great wry and mischievous sense of humor, to boot. He was a one of a kind, and I’m glad he was in my life. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that he’s gone now. I will be missing him the rest of my days.

–Sheldon Gomberg

Sarah Kramer
(Musician/Songwriter/Friend)

May be an image of 3 people, including Don Heffington and Sarah Kramer and people smiling
Sarah Kramer with Don and John Prine, Greek Theater, 2018.
Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Don was a kind soul, the kind of person that would pick up the phone and call to check in on those he cared about. He knew the value of kindness and the importance of even the smallest gestures. I loved his sense of humor and his mind, his clear perspective on life and what matters. His humanness transferred in and through the music he played.

He wasn’t just a good listener; he could hear you, see you, meet you. He was so supportive in the delivery of songs, with his drums and with who he was.

I loved all of the time we spent together, and I loved his dog Albertm too. We all have some kind of struggle or regret in life and there’s always a sacrifice. I know Don had dreamed of and imagined a life in NYC, on his own, back in those Beatnik days and the whole Greenwich Village scene, the folk scene, jazz, poetry, et al.

He could not have loved his children (and grandchildren) more, nor could he have been more proud of each of them. He was devoted and found his unique balance of keeping his truth and living a lifetime doing what he loved.

I hope he felt at peace.

–Sarah Kramer


CHRIS SEEFRIED (Songwriter/Artist/Producer)

Chris Seefried - Wikipedia

I heard about Don Heffington before ever meeting or playing with him. My band Gods Child was rehearsing for a show at the old Academy on 43rd street in NYC, this was around 1992-93 and Shawn Pelton was our drummer at the time. Ryan Hedgecock was playing guitar with us and when he heard Shawn he said, “That’s the best drummer I’ve played with since Don Heffington!”  I was like, “Who’s that?”  Ryan had played with Don on the West Coast in Lone Justice. It was a few years before I moved from NYC to LA, but I always remembered that name.

When I started to make my first solo record I called Don. When I started (the band) Low Stars, I called Don. When I started producing records for other artists, I called Don.

Don Heffington:  A tall, handsome (a well-known fact my wife insisted I include), relaxed, ultra-cool musician with a Western drawl and dry sense of funny. He liked to say things like, “We can splice it,” even when we were way out of the age of analog tape.

I had my own battle with cancer and hadn’t seen him in awhile. When we saw each other again it was at McCabe’s for the Peter Case 65th birthday show. That night he gave me two of his solo records. I kept up with him and knew he was writing and singing his own material and playing with Sebastian Steinberg, another great musician/human from the old crew, so I was excited to listen to them. It really blew my mind, how realized and unreal these records were. Poetic, experimental, emotional, funny, connected pieces of songs and sounds. Contemporary Abstractions In Folk Songs And Dance,” as he called it. I’m so grateful that we got to record together again at Sheldon Gomberg’s Carriage House doing a cover of Little Feat’s “Two Trains Running” (by Lowell George) for a Sweet Relief album soon to come. Don had toured with Lowell George, among so many other great artists. We re-recorded it live and Don wasn’t sure of our transition to the bridge and suggested, “Why don’t we splice it?”

Don: The coolest
The best foot
The best hands
The best feel
The best voice
The best accent
The best delivery
The best songs
The best hair
The best heart
The best time.

–Chris Seefried

Gloryland, his second CD.

Terry Paul Roland
(Song Champion/Writer/Producer/Host of “The Roadhouse Series” at Coffee Gallery Backstage

Terry Paul Roland

Rod Melancon was recording his first album, My Family Name with Don on drums. He’d finished a take, which Don completed with a final drum roll; this magic feeling passed between them. They simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief, and knew they had just created something special, something lasting that gave the song a new life. According to Rod this is what it was like to work with Don Heffington. Moments like these were many for the sturdy and often for this inspired L.A. session drummer. He brought an original and unique touch to songs by many of the best artists, including Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne. His years with Lone Justice in the early 1980s, and his monthly residency with Watkins Family Hour over the last decade, has made this loss all the more palatable to the L.A. music community. Lone Justice bassist, Marvin Etzioni has described him as his ‘Ringo.’

A survey of his recordings clarifies the truth of this statement: He was a drummer whose rhythmic presence gave dimension and nuance to each song he played. He knew instinctually how to flow with the intent and vision of the songwriter. He knew when to play and he knew when not to play; when to lay back and when to give the song a boost that could send it to the stars. It was in this play of silence and fury that he found the song’s core. It was not about him. It was always about the song.

As I remember seeing him play in sessions at Sonora Studio (owned and operated by Richard Barron, another great friend to the Angeleno songwriting community), and on stage at the Largo at the Coronet with The Watkins Family Hour. I remember his artistic touches, his foundational patterns that could surprise and thrill, and the way he gave life to the moment the song required.

To honor him late in the night of his passing, I listened to Bob Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl” on repeated play. The song could easily have been stripped down to a minimalist approach typical of Dylan, but the songwriter wanted a sweeping production to enhance the drama of the spoken word narrative. The musicians delivered, and it was Don’s task to keep the band grounded as the hurricane production blew through the session, seemingly knocking way out of the musical ballpark. The song, written with the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard, is among Dylan’s finest moments on record. yet it could have become a runaway train as it drove into the land of overproduction. But Don nails it down and keeps it on the tracks;l he allows the words to breathe through the steady pace of his drumming. Then, as the chorus builds, he gives the song wings and the whole band soars into sonic legend. Its pure songwriting ecstasy and the drums gave provided the the right ingredients to allow for the magic. The same alchemy happened a multitude of times over his 50-year plus career. It was our friend and mate, Don Heffington, who provided the hard-wood floor for rock legend, Bob Dylan, on one of his latter-day masterpieces. It will be hard to think of an L.A. music scene without Don Heffington somewhere hanging around waiting to rehearse, record or just be a friend. He was a true artist, a latter member of the Wrecking Crew if there were such a thing. There are a few drummers in the world of roots music who ever understood the soul & spirit of today’s songwriter. He will be missed. 
–Terry Paul Roland

fionaapplerocks:
“Fiona Apple with Don Heffington
”
Don Heffington with Fiona Apple
Don Heffington, “Ave. C”

 

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