Reaching for the Stars, Vol. 62

Well piss. I swear that I’ve posted this about three different times over the past two days. Obviously I’m losing it.

Chart Week: August 25, 1984
Song: “Breakin’…There’s No Stopping Us” – Ollie and Jerry
Chart Position: #34, 13th week on the chart. Peaked at #9 the week of August 4.

I love musical origin stories. Especially ones where a lucky break launched an otherwise anonymous performer towards success. For every artist like Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey, who each possessed talent that made stardom seem inevitable, the charts are loaded with dozens of artists and bands that required a perfect combination of factors to have their moment. Ollie Brown is one of those artists.

In the late 1960s Brown carved out a reputation as a top-notch studio drummer, even though he was not yet 20. He seemed destined to remain a part of the Los Angeles scene until one night when the music gods gave him a monumental break.

Marvin Gaye was in LA preparing to perform on a telethon. As he rehearsed with the studio’s house band, he grew frustrated with the drummer, who just could not grasp the rhythms that Gaye wanted. Casey Kasem described the drummer as a member of “the local musicians union.” I take that to mean old white guy. This dude could probably lay down any rhythm that came from the pop standards world, maybe even hack through some jazzy beats. But he was decidedly not connected to what was coming out of Motown in the late ‘60s.

Sensing Gaye’s irritation, a member of the telethon staff pointed out a local drummer that was hanging out backstage, and suggested he get a chance to sit in. That young man, of course, was Ollie Brown. Brown slipped into the drum kit and immediately supplied the beats Marvin needed.

Also backstage was one of Brown’s childhood friends, Ray Parker Jr. Ray was not yet a star, but he just happened to be standing with Stevie Wonder, with whom he had worked previously. Parker was proud of his friend for performing so well, and made a mental note when Wonder also expressed his approval.

Fast forward a couple years. Stevie Wonder was looking for a new drummer to join him on his tour and asked friends for suggestions. Ray Parker Jr. reminded him of Ollie Brown’s performance in support of Marvin Gaye.

That was all Wonder needed. He hired Brown to play drums while he opened for The Rolling Stones, and then kept him on as his studio drummer for recordings he made after that tour.[1] A few years after that, Brown joined the Stones for most of their late ‘70s tours.

Thank goodness Ollie Brown got that break from Marvin Gaye. Otherwise he may have remained an anonymous studio drummer in LA, and we would never have gotten this wonderful song, which makes me happy every time I hear it. Although generally a pretty straight-forward pop/R&B track, those little scratches and computer voices made it one of the first songs with a strong hip hop influence to crack the Top 40. Breakin’ was an awesome movie, by the way.

(Below the video, check out the wonderful clip I found from American Bandstand where Ollie and Jerry talk about their careers and how this song was written.)

  1. Stevie Wonder opening for The Rolling Stones?!?! I found this site that lists many of the artists who have opened for the Stones over the years. They made sure you got your money’s worth!  ↩


  1. John

    Man, within moments Dick Clark says he’s known Stevie Wonder since he was a little boy and Ollie says Mick Jagger gave him his necklace. Who’s the bigger name dropper?!

    • DB

      He knew how DC rolled and came prepared!

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