Ndugu Chancler, Drummer on Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean,’ Dead at 65

Ndugu Chancler, Drummer on Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean,’ Dead at 65

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Sunday, 04 February 2018
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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 performance] 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.”

Chancler also drummed on Jackson’s Bad track “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” As a songwriter, Chancler is co-credited on the Dazz Band’s 1982 hit single “Let It Whip” and Santana’s 1976 track “Dance Sister Dance,” as well as featuring on that band’s 1976 LP Amigos.

In recent years, in addition to remaining active on stage, Chancler has taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Young Musicians Program at Cal Berkeley and clinics around the world.

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