When back-up musicians go on tour with someone famous, do they get frustrated at not being able to play or expand on their own style of playing, as they are required to copy the headliner’s song?

Written by on July 14, 2020

RJ Holland · Former Professional Drummer Session/studio and Bands

As a professional musician, a drummer, I listened to the radio constantly. I listened to every song I could listen to, any genre. That was my job. You never knew when you would be called upon to fill-in for a musician who could not make the gig so you pretty well had to know as much of their songs as possible.

Before tours when we were signed up for the band, we received tapes of the song list and special instructions that usually said ‘rolls and fills as recordings’ meaning they wanted them exactly like the records. And I’ll tell you, you better do them. Go off and do your own stuff and you’re out. We would have a couple of weeks practise and off we would go.

I did not mind at all sticking to what the session musicians did on the record. Heck I was one of them. When I toured with the band Roxette across Canada and US, I knew the drums were a big sound in Roxette’s music and a lot of people knew those fills. Songs like The Look had certain recognizable drum fills and they had to be done exactly like the recordings. Marie Fredriksson of Roxette became a good friend of of mine. I once told her that I loved her voice, it had a little girlish quality to it but sexy at the same time. I got a hug for that. Rest well Marie, the world misses you.

I was incredibly lucky to be the touring drummer for three beautiful women. Alannah Myles, Sophie B Hawkins and Shania Twain. I was glad I was Canadian and got to tour with my fellow Canadians, Shania and Alannah.

Alannah was a sweetheart. I did two tours with her. My very first night with her she gave me this old battered top hat like from the days of Dickens. “You have to wear this RJ, my band is known for the drummer wearing a top hat.” So I wore it for awhile. I felt like an idiot and it kept slipping off. Finally I asked Alannah if I really had to wear this stupid hat. She was killing herself laughing and said, “No, I was jiving you!” Oh God, it was like being back home with my sisters.

Sophie B Hawkins wanted her songs exactly like her records. Her records had some serious drumming on them from Omar Hakim who is just a phenomenal drummer. When you have to copy what that guy is doing, man, you are working. That guy has jazz, rock and military rolled into one. I thoroughly enjoyed touring with Sophie, who herself is an excellent drummer, and playing to her songs.

Bachman Turner Overdrive was a little more relaxed as you could let loose yourself a little and when I filled in for Robbie, Fred Turner who I knew pretty good said to me, “Don’t worry about it RJ, just rock it.” However, I knew the BTO songs by listening to the radio and records.

I was lucky to back headliners that treated their musicians like family and would do anything for us. I talked to other musicians who backed recording artists and were treated very badly and were extremely strict with the way their music was played.

I didn’t mind at all copying the headliner’s songs. That’s what we were hired for, to be the backup musicians and mimic the records. What I wasn’t prepared for is that the crowd took you for the original musicians on the records. I was not ready for the explosive, thundering applause I got when Sophie, Shania or Alannah introduced me, “And my drummer, RJ, RJ Holland, and they would get me to stand and I would hear the roar coming from the crowd. I was actually embarrassed. I’m nobody, I thought, I’m just a back up drummer and this crowd is going crazy. Shania once told me, “RJ, you get a bigger hand then I do.” Believe me, the drummer gets the biggest applause of the musicians. People love drummers, but I didn’t get it. I was not known or a celebrity drummer like Tommy Lee or Charlie Watts but I sure got applause. I don’t know.

When I filled in for JD Blair in Shania Twain’s band, Shania said, “What’s with you drummers and initials, JD, JR?”

“We like to be indiscreet,” I said.

So, I get to play drums for terrific artists in front of thousands of people with top musicians, Hell yeah, I’m going to play however they want me to. There’s no feeling like it.

Below, Sophie B Hawkin’s Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover Video. Live on stage, this song had to be drummed exactly like this. No variation.

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