Ricky Lawson, the Detroit-born drummer who became one of the music industry’s session superstars, is in critical condition at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in California, a hospital spokeswoman said this evening.
Lawson’s uncle, Paul Riser, said there is no activity in Lawson’s brain stem, and described him as “brain dead.”
“Right now we need to say some prayers,” said Riser, a fellow musician best known for his work as an arranger at Motown. “Miracles do happen.”
Friends said Lawson had become disoriented during a club gig Friday night and was rushed to a hospital, where doctors discovered a brain aneurysm.
Lawson is one of Detroit’s most respected and well-traveled session musicians, building a dazzling career that included everything from Michael Jackson tours to Steely Dan albums and a Grammy-winning stint with the jazz-fusion band the Yellowjackets.
A multifaceted drummer, Lawson has been heralded for both his intricate work and knack with a fundamental groove — a versatility that has earned him gigs with artists as wide-ranging as Whitney Houston (including “I Will Always Love You”), Rod Stewart, Beyonce, Kenny G, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Lionel Richie, John Mellencamp and Bette Midler.
Though a Los Angeles resident for many years, Lawson has remained an in-demand player for artists back home, including Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker.
Los Angeles musician and producer Bruce Nazarian, a friend and fellow Detroit native, calls Lawson “the groove doctor.”
The two played together at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival, harking back to their performances three decades ago in Detroit. Lawson’s Motor City roots were integral to his work, said Nazarian.
“When you’re from Detroit, you play Detroit,” he said. “That training, that soul, gets embedded into you as a young musician, and stays with you your entire life.”
Lawson released at least three solo albums, including 2001’s jazzy R&B record “Ricky Lawson and Friends,” with guests such as Gerald Albright, Phil Collins, George Duke and Al Jarreau.
Born in 1954 and a drummer since age 6, Lawson graduated from Cooley High School and went on to cut his chops at Detroit spots such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and Henry’s Cocktail Lounge.
He had grown up under the glow of Motown, where uncle Riser worked with the Funk Brothers, the label’s house band.
“I went to a couple of sessions with him, met all those people and thought it was so cool,” Lawson told the Free Press in 1988. “I thought it would be great to be able to do that, make that kind of money and have so much fun.”
An audition for Stevie Wonder in 1975 led to a gig with jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and Lawson’s reputation in music-biz corridors quickly grew.
He was an industry star by the time he got the call in 1987 to join Michael Jackson’s career-defining Bad Tour.
Musical skill isn’t the only trait that has made Lawson a favorite with musicians, producers and tour directors: He’s also known as a warm, fun personality who’s easy to work with.
“When you’re in the high-stress game of playing onstage in front of tens of thousands,” said Nazarian, “the last thing a musical director wants is a prima donna.”