The Atlanta musician has toured with Earth, Wind, & Fire, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton Bette Midler, Cameo, David Sanborn, and Bruce Hornsby
By Andy Greene
MARCH 24, 2021
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features drummer Sonny Emory.
When Sonny Emory was a kid growing up in Atlanta, the largest poster on his bedroom wall was the cover of the 1977 Earth, Wind, and Fire record All ‘n All. He used to put on headphones and play drums along to their music, dreaming that one day he’d somehow be part of the group.
That day arrived in 1987 when Maurice White and Philip Bailey invited him onboard for their reunion tour. “The day we started rehearsing, I was able to play any song Maurice wanted to play,” Emory says. “When he’d go, ‘Let’s play it,’ I already knew it.”
White spent 12 years in the band, but he also found time to gig and record with Steely Dan, Bette Midler, David Sanborn, Cameo, Bruce Hornsby, the B-52’s, and Chic. And in 2018, Eric Clapton invited him to join his touring band and he’s been there ever since.
Mister D: I will only publish what he says about working and touring with Bette Midler here, and then provide a link to the rest of the article where Mr. Emory discusses different styles and approaches each artist makes, as well as himself
How was your Bette Midler experience?
Wonderful. She’s one of my best friends. I didn’t really like the gig so much when I first started it. I wasn’t a fan of the music, per se. But when I got in touch with the concept of what was happening and the skill level it took to pull it off … we were reading a lot of charts and doing a lot of music. We were all over the musical map. It began to become a challenge for me to nail her gig every night and just give it my very best I could just to see if I could top myself from the night before.
In the process of doing that, I learned a lot about professionalism. Her work ethic is out of this world. We’ve become very good friends. I can pick up the phone any time, call, and just kick it. We can talk about life stuff and not necessarily just music. She always has some nuggets of wisdom for me.
As a performer, she really connects to her audience in a visceral way.
Her personality is bigger than life. One of things I love about her the most is she’s very humble. On one of the tours, my wife and I had a party for the band and the crew after the show since we had a couple of days off. We had a party at our house. I didn’t think Bette was going to come, man. But she showed up. She came, kicked her shoes off, and just had a ball. She’s a really down-to-earth person. I love her so much.
How was it playing her Vegas residency and doing the same show that many nights in a row?
For that, I had to dig deep to stay professional. [Laughs] It was just the same thing over and over and over again. It was so different than boarding the tour bus and rolling to the next city. It started to get to her after a while, too. It was the monotony of just being in the same place. It wasn’t so much the show, but just the monotony of being in the same place. I had to find creative ways to hang in there and be professional since I didn’t want the music to suffer.
I started employing the philosophy of, “I’m going to see if I can play a perfect show tonight without making one mistake, one flub, and just see how I can hold myself accountable each night.”
Did you gamble at all? Eat at the nice restaurants?
I don’t gamble. My wife would come out every now and then and we’d hang out and go to the restaurants, but I’m not a Vegas kind of guy. Other than going to a couple of shows that might be pretty interesting, I didn’t do much at all. I spent a lot of time in my condo, working out, swimming, and just kind of hanging out, waiting until the leg was over. We were doing four–to–six–week legs and then we were off for a couple of weeks. That was a challenging period. I was grateful for the work, but it was rough.