Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, a prolific jazz drummer, producer and session musician who played drums on Michael Jackson’s classic “Billie Jean,” died Saturday at age 65. His wife, Brenda, confirmed Chancler’s death to Rolling Stone. A cause of death was not immediately revealed.
Over the course of Chancler’s six-decade career, the drummer collaborated with or performed live alongside jazz legends like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Weather Report and Hugh Masekela, singers like Frank Sinatra, Lionel Richie, James Brown and Tina Turner, rockers like Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton and dozens more artists.
In 1982, Chancler played drums during the recording sessions that yielded three tracks for Michael Jackson’s Thriller: “P.Y.T,” “Baby Be Mine” and “Billie Jean.” On an Instagram tribute, the Roots drummer Questlove broke down the simple genius of Chancler’s performance on the track.
In my opinion, the “Billie Jean” intro is the greatest example of something so simple that you take it for granted. But if you truly dissect it. It’s a complex compelling performance. The tone is spot on. Enough snap on the snare but not too thin that it enters Ska/James Brown crack snare territory. The amount of reverb #BruceSwedien applies is SPOT on perfect. The performance However is timeless like a tuxedo. Or a pair of chucks. Or jeans and white t shirt. It literally gives MJ his dna. You know what it is ONE SECOND in. Its creator, Jazz/funk great #NduguChancler (mind you on a GAZILLION other hit songs) passed away today. Giving all due respect and praise to the drummer that sparked a revolution of dance madness breakbeat mania. Rest easy king!