BMHOF Class of 2017
Mike Phelps is a drummer who people love to play with. So much so, in fact, that he’s recorded on somewhere between 40 and 50 albums over the years. He’s one of the most in-demand drummers in the area.
Not bad for a guy who was largely self-taught growing up in Niagara Falls. He picked up the drums as a teenager after getting into music after hearing the Beatles and R&B.
He took a few lessons here or there (from Hall of Famer Lou Marino and Buffalo Philharmonic percussionist John Rowland), but after his graduation from Trott Vocational, he found himself too busy playing shows or going on the road to take continuous lessons.
One of his first professional bands was Circus, playing with John Dieckman, who would become known as one of the area’s best steel guitar players.
His first venture into the recording studio was when he was called in to fill in for Sandy Konikoff on a session with former Raven members Tommy Calandra and Ernie Corallo.
Phelps’ timing and his versatility have been his trademarks.
“I have really good meter,” he said. “And I listen to the song and I don’t try to overplay, like a lot of guys who just try to get a bunch of licks in. You play for the song.
“I can play all styles. I’ve played jazz with Tommy Z and the late, great Chuck Nero. … Shuffle beats are fun, as well as the blues rock stuff I’m doing now with Dave Constantino.”
That versatility served him well when he joined Moonshine Express (later known as Tight Grip). Phelps not only ended up touring nationally and in Ontario, he got to drum with Bo Diddley.
The group had backed up Bo in Canada, and he remembered them and asked to have them as his backup band when he played the Lone Star Café in New York City. In fact, Bo Diddley liked the band enough that he requested them every time he played New York over the next few years.
“The bass player was kind of nervous,” Phelps said, “and asked Bo, ‘do you have any charts?’ And Bo just looked at him and said, ‘Charts? You don’t need no charts. Just play your instrument.’ He was very easy, and we just went with the flow with him.”
The group even backed Bo on “Live From the Lone Star Café,” a concert video shot at the club (you can find it on YouTube).
Phelps also played with Kathy Lynn & the Playboys in Michigan. They were then called Niagara and later Angel Baby, backing Danny & the Juniors, the Drifters and others. He also played with Big Wheelie & the Hubcaps off and on for about 15 years.
He toured with Tommy Z’s blues band, playing military bases in Italy, Egypt and Alaska.
“We were playing clubs through Armed Forces Entertainment,” he said. “It was fun. It was a part of the world I never would have seen – and I am camel-tested, riding one in Egypt!”
Phelps has also been the drummer when Elliott Randall, the guitarist who played on Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years,” plays Buffalo. They met in New York.
“He came down to the Lone Star when we were playing with Bo Diddley,” Phelps said. “He liked us and he started sitting in with us every time we played there. We were like in awe. We continue to be friends and we’ve brought him to Buffalo for concerts.”
Locally, Phelps frequently played with Doug Morgano and Nick Veltri’s Morvells in their R&B showcases, playing on three of their CDs and recording with many of the associated artists.
Phelps has been on recordings by Ernie Corallo, Jack Civiletto & Mark Coughlin, Gretchen Schulz, the John Henry Band, Pete Howard & the Morvells, Ed Bentley and with Mark Winsick on the “Case for Case” Peter Case tribute set.
These days he’s playing regularly with the Dave Constantino Band, the Willies and occasionally with Doug Yeomans, Mr. Conrad, Mark Winsick and others.