David K Matthews: Keyboardist Extraordinaire

From Tower of Power to Santana, he's a nice guy who gives it all to music

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: July 10, 2012

David K Matthews: Keyboardist Extraordinaire

David K Matthews has been playing music professionally in the Bay Area and around the world since 1975. He is touted as having perfect pitch and is considered a journeyman on the piano, electric piano, Hammond organ, and synthesizers. At 23 he began his recording career with the iconic urban soul band Tower of Power; he spent 21 years on the road with the legendary Miss Etta James and is currently the keyboard player for Santana.

Along the way he has worked with such acts as Sheila E, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, Taj Mahal, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Peabo Bryson, Cold Blood, Albert Collins, Huey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Dr John, Tito Puente, George Benson, The Marsalis Brothers, Bobby McFerrin, Jaco Pastorious, Delbert McClinton, Chaka Khan, Kenny G, John Sebastian, Gregg Allman, Phoebe Snow, Paul Butterfield, AL Kooper . . . the list goes on.

Born in Berkeley, Mathews left home at sixteen, never looked back, and before long was supporting himself playing in R&B and Top-40 bands around the East Bay.

LatinoLA Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a great celebratory conversation with Dave. Sharing the same East Bay Roots, and having many mutual friends, AC and Dave are both ecstatic Dave finally got the call up to the big leagues. Santana is on an Eastern Swing tour with The Allman Brothers this week.

AC: Did you leave home at 16 to pursue music?

DM: My mom gave me an ultimatum when I was kicked out of high school at 16: go back to school or get a job, I couldn't even get a job at Mac Donald's, so I left home at 16 and drifted from place to place. Sometimes I was homeless, sleeping in friends cars and sometimes back yards. I would play in these little band's house parties; I used to hang around clubs immersed in music. I have no real formal training, music was my salvation, and I was told by Jazz Mafia saxophonist Joe Cohen that I had perfect pitch.
I had a few music mentors and a couple of teachers along the way, but I always made it a point to watch and listen to all types of music. The Bay Area, especially the East Bay at the time, was an eclectic place for all kinds of music and I got to know many styles.

AC:How did you go from house party player to pro musician at such a young age - especially since the music scene was filled with so many heavies?

DM: I worked with a band called Omega, which was basically many of the cats from the Elvin Bishop band; in 1977 we did a USO tour. I really got into the blues at Larry Blake's on Telegraph with Tim Kaihatsu and developed Latin chops with Ray Obiedo and Pete Escovedo.

AC:How did you land the keyboard chair with Tower of Power at the age of 23 - at that time replacing Chester Thompson?

DM: When I did the USO tour with Omega, Mic Mestec was the drummer, the vocalist was Mickey Thomas (pre Jefferson Starship) and one of the sax players was another friend Mark Russo, who worked with TOP and now is with the Doobie Brothers. Chester Thomson ironically took the gig with Santana after Tom Coster left. TOP was looking for someone who played kind of jazzy, but knew how to play East Bay soul.

Through Mic I met Doc Kupka and Mic Gillette (Mark Russo was working with them as well), they tried me out and I got the gig. As the youngest member of the band I had a lot to learn. The band was in transition at the time, the record label wanted them to play a certain way, gigs were getting harder to find especially with a large group, and some of the members had some drug problems. Logistically it was harder to take a B3 on the road, so they wanted me to do some jazzy stuff on electric piano. After two years I decided to quit the gig.

Tower of Power is a soul band with some serious jazz over tones. A couple years back, when Roger Smith was ill, I had a chance to sub for him for a few months. It was was great man. One of my first tattoos is the album cover of East Bay Grease, created by Bruce Steinberg. I have to say I proudly earned my R&B stripes with Tower of Power.

AC: You worked extensively with Ray Obledo and Pete and Sheila Escovedo.Is that where you got your Latin chops (which obviously serve you well with Santana)?

DM: I started working with Ray Obledo doing Latin jazz and there was a vibrant community which included Pete and Sheila Escovedo. There were people like Richard Kermode who played keys for Malo and Santana who was teaching me all of these Latin chops, including jazz guys like Mark Levine. Pete was evolving after his big band Azteca, and Shelia was being discovered by George Duke. I was a part of that whole scene and as a young cat I was soaking it all up and paying my dues.

I remember having a conversation with Pete Escovedo about the fact that Shelia was hanging out with this kid in black underwear named Prince. I told Pete that the kid is whack and going nowhere. Shows you how much I knew
DM: Yeah, a couple of us Tower of Power cats felt the same way. No one knew, man.

AC: How did you go from Latin music to hooking up with Maria Mauldar?

DM: I love Maria, and was getting a name as a working musician who could play lots of different styles. I got to know Maria while she was doing roots music, jazz and blues. She knew (knows) everybody, Dr. John, Booker T, all the heavyweights. Touring and recording with her was a wonderful and educational experience which really helped to expand my play book. I really started to get into the blues and this helped me get the call from Etta James.

AC: Since 1990 you had been the organist/pianist with the Grammy Award winning queen of rhythm & blues, Etta James. You have appeared with her at most of the worlds major jazz and blues festivals and have appeared on seven of Etta's recordings. Tell us about Miss Etta.

DM: I spent 21 years with Etta James - a great gig. We did about 50 dates a year and she was an icon - we played all the major festivals in Europe. She was a legend who didn't take herself too seriously, for her it was all about the music and sharing her gift with the world as long as she could. Her book, her music will always be a part of my legacy as well. Nothing more I can say about her that cannot be better said than by listening to her music. It's all there, man. The last gig I did with Etta was May 2009. We did the Blues Cruise in October and she couldn't remember the lyrics to 'At Last.' That had never happened before. The doctors wanted to fly her off the ship but she'd been struggling for a while already. In 2008 gigs started getting canceled at the last minute.

At the age of fifty, East Bay keyboardist David K. Mathews wasn't just playing the blues anymore. He was living the hard-knock life on the road, traveling by van to an endless stream of one-niters, struggling and sometimes failing to make the rent. It was quite a comedown for a seasoned veteran who had gotten used to royal treatment during a two-decade run with Etta James - a gravy train that jumped the tracks when the blues legend had to start canceling gigs due to a cascade of health problems and culminating in the dementia that has put her at the center of an ugly family custody dispute.

DM: After a year and a half crisscrossing the country with blues guitarist Chris Cain, I was making $150 a gig for three or four hits a week. Just when things looked particularly bleak I got a call out of the blue last August from Carlos Santana's assistant. He asked if I was interested in joining Santana. By the end of the month I was a member of the band.

Just as suddenly as hard times found him, Mathews was back, bigger and badder than ever, traveling internationally with one of rock's most prestigious organization. Tell us about Santana.

DM: Well, ironically, after Chester Thompson left (remember I inherited the keyboard chair from him for Tower Of Power, because he went to Santana?) and now I'm taking over his Santana chair. Have to say, man, I have always idolized Chester. Anyway, Santana had this LA session guy playing keys for them but it wasn't what Carlos was looking for, so I got the call.

AC: Carlos would consider this Divine Intervention

DM: With Chris we drove out to the East Coast three times and covered a lot of miles. That's okay when you're 25, but not when your 50. It was wearing me down. I ended up with no equity in my condo. Suddenly they're canceling my credit cards. I was hunkered down, trying to keep my nose up, keep the bills paid. Now I'm out of debt and Santana has four major tours around the world this year.

AC: What do you bring to the table?

DM: Well, I'm not trying to recreate Chester, no one can do that. What I am doing is playing more like Gregg Rolie, a little Booker T, and even some Greg Allman. It is so hard to explain what happens when the Santana band hits the stage. You got to be there, man, a gig of a lifetime for sure. It seems like I fit right in the pocket in the band, joining a core of old friends and Bay Area friends like trombonist Jeff Cressman, trumpeter Bill Ortiz, and vocalist Tony Lindsay. It's like joining a great baseball team. You pay your dues for a long time, maybe you've been scuffling around, and then suddenly you get a call from the Yankees. We want you to pitch next week. This has been a real blessing. As my band mates like to say, I am living the dream and it feels like I won the lottery!

AC: Do you have any personal projects you would like to do?

DM: I would like to do a few jazz records, piano orientated, re-interpreting Weather Report. As I said, I work with some of my band mates on local Bay Area projects, always learning, always evolving.

AC: What kind of advice would you give to young players starting out?

DM: Listen to all the music out there, stay open minded, listen to Pop, Jazz, Blues, Latin. Let the music speak to you, find the genre that you love, and in the words of Churchill, never, never, never give up!

AC: How do you want to be remembered?

DM: I guess as a nice guy who gave it all to music, a sirous student of the art form and never too old to learn.

About Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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