Percussionist Joe Lala, who gave the Bee Gees and hundreds of pop stars their grooves, dies at 66

03/20/2014 5:11 PM

03/20/2014 6:26 PM

If you were dancing or grooving to pop music at any point in the last 45 years, chances are Joe Lala put a little hop in your step.

The master percussionist turned actor who played congas and assorted percussion instruments for scores of iconic and influential pop and rock acts as the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, Chicago and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young died at his home in Tampa on Tuesday.

Lala, born to parents of Sicilian descent in Tampa’s Ybor City, died at age 66 of lung cancer, his friend Fermin Goytisolo said.

Goytisolo, a veteran percussionist with Miami-based KC & the Sunshine Band, praised his friend for his strength, sense of humor and kindness.

Rivals? Not in the least.

“He was my friend for 45 years, my mentor; he was like my brother,” Goytisolo said. “His mother passed at 98 [earlier this year] and he came back to Florida to take care of his mom. He was such a kind human being and had a sense of humor. I called him ‘bro’ and I remember him saying, ‘If you call me bro one more time I’m coming to Miami to kill you.’

“When he was dying in bed, and the lady taking care of him wanted to make him laugh, I said to her, ‘Say bro in his ear.’ You’d hear this crazy laugh out of the background. He even made fun of the cancer. He’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you because I’ve got a lot of people to piss off yet.’ ”

Lala notched more than 60 gold or platinum albums in a career that found him working often with superstars inside North Miami’s famous Criteria Studios in its 1970s heyday.

“He played with a lot of people apart from us,” said Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees on Thursday. “What is now Hit Factory was Criteria then and he would be going from one studio to the other studio. Everybody played for each other. You could have Lynyrd Skynyrd in one room and Crosby, Stills & Nash in another room and he would wander around.”

That’s Lala’s congas pushing the driving beat on the Bee Gees’ 1976 chart-topper You Should Be Dancing. John Travolta chose the hit as his showcase tune for his featured dance in the landmark 1977 disco flick, Saturday Night Fever.

Lala’s work with the Gibb brothers, Barry and the late Robin, Maurice and Andy, kept him busy in that era. He traveled the world with the Bee Gees on the trio’s Children of the World tour. He lent the Caribbean-inspired spice to the title track of the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown album and went on an accompanying world tour in 1979. Youngest Gibb brother, Andy, a solo star, took Lala Shadow Dancing and the pair enjoyed Billboard’s year-end No. 1 song of 1978 with that infectious rhythmic number.

When Barry Gibb cowrote and coproduced albums for Streisand ( Guilty), Kenny Rogers ( Eyes That See in the Dark) and Dionne Warwick ( Heartbreaker) at his Miami Beach recording studio, Middle Ear, Lala lent the propulsive rhythms. Precise, but never overdone or busy.

“My most vivid memory, really, is Stephen Stills and Joe Lala doing percussion on You Should Be Dancing at 5 in the morning [at Criteria] and all of us leaving the studio at 6 or 6:30,” Gibb said. “He was a great spirit. Without Joe we wouldn’t have gotten those grooves and, in those days, it was about somebody getting something constant in the grooves. That made it work and he was brilliant. In those days we wouldn’t have done those shows without Joe.”

Lala was a versatile musician. He backed Grace Slick on her jagged, metallic Welcome to the Wrecking Ball album at sessions at Criteria in late 1980. He energized Whitney Houston’s ballad-heavy R&B on her 1985 eponymous debut album. His instruments included a worldly melange of timbales, conga, kabassa, maracas, Guido, triangle and cowbell — and he managed to make them all blend on one song, Make It Like a Memory, the closing track from Streisand’s Guilty in 1980. He even played “doves” on Disco Apocalypse from Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album that year in a California studio.

And that bird could sing.

Before he backed the superstars, Lala sang and played percussion in the Latin-tinged pop/rock band, Blues Image, he cofounded in Tampa in 1966. A move to Miami in 1967 netted the group opening gigs for the Doors, Janis Joplin, Cream with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page. Blues Image’s best-known song was Ride Captain Ride, a Top 5 hit in 1970.

The rhythm got to him, though. Carpal tunnel temporarily sidelined Lala in the ’80s so when an actress girlfriend suggested he try acting he landed roles on Miami Vice in a fourth season episode ( Indian Wars) and Robert Redford’s 1990 movie, Havana, in which Lala played a Cuban businessman. Lala was also in the 2000 TV movie, For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, with Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan.

“He was a very kind person and very talented,” said Harry Wayne “K.C.” Casey. “Too young to be gone.”

Lala is survived by his brother Michael.

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