There are those we meet for which we feel an immediate connection. This was the case for when I first met Grassella Oliphant and he later told me that he felt the same way. There was something special about Grass, both as a person and when you heard him play the drums. In the early 1960's he performed for Sarah Vaughan who remarked that Grass was nice and easy on the brushes which allowed her the time and space to explore the song. As I said, Grass was special.
I always found it interesting that as a teenager, he was a dancer. He said he gave up dancing when he discovered the drums. The rhythms and moves of his dance career remained a part of him. While listening to him play, I have always felt his playing to be a type of dance, especially the softness of his brush work as if he was gliding like Fred Astaire. During his time with Sarah, he was asked to endorse the Rogers Drum Company. He was proud to play the Rogers line and took his role as endorsee very seriously. He once told me he spent hours reviewing new gear the company sent him to ensure he was playing the drums at the best he could before taking them on stage. I always thought, given his talent, he did not need to practice in order to make the most of the drums, but that was Grass, taking his position to heart and doing the very best he could. That dedication comes across in the sounds he developed such as those on his albums The Grass Is Greener (Atlantic Records, 1968) and The Grass Roots (Atlantic Records, 1965).
Grass was equally an equally dedicated family man. In the ‘70's he gave up drumming to focus on being there for his wife and children. He took gigs as a concert promoter and manager to ensure he was always close to them while remaining involved with the music he loved. He wanted to dedicate that time of his life to his family, and he did. When the kids were grown he picked up the sticks again, which was a delight to me as I was able to hear him play when he formed big bands in and around the New York City area. It was at this point that I discovered Grass had a meaningful way to not only connect with the drums and his family, but to his friends too. In 2007, I called him and told him I was coming out to New Jersey to see him because I had a favor to ask. He said “You got it!” and before I even told him I wanted to interview him for the NAMM Oral History program he agreed to it! Sitting up close to the stage at a gig in New York on that same visit, I recall looking at him as he looked down at me. He kept swinging hard throughout a solo while smiling at me! I felt twenty feet tall! He knew just how to connect with people and the sincerity of his friendship became a key ingredient to that connection I felt with him. Grass was special indeed.
Click Here to view Grass' interview.
Dan Del Fiorentino
NAMM Music Historian