Joe Lala: Sought-after percussionist who switched careers when illness struck to become an actor and voice-over artist


Click to follow
The Independent Online

The percussionist Joe Lala participated in the recording of many of the biggest albums and singles of the seventies and eighties.

He played the trademark congas that drove the Bee Gees 1976 US chart-topper ''You Should Be Dancing'', subsequently included on the multi-million selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, provided the wide selection of percussive effects that adorned Guilty, Barbra Streisand's 1980 worldwide No 1 set produced by Barry Gibb, and contributed to Whitney Houston's all-conquering eponymous debut in 1985.

His résumé included appearances on best-selling albums by Joe Walsh, Chicago, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne and Dionne Warwick, while his long-standing friendship with Stephen Stills, forged when Lala joined the guitarist's formidable, multi-faceted Manassas outfit in 1971, led to sessions with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Véronique Sanson and Ringo Starr as well as Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Bill Wyman, who had been so impressed by Manassas that he considered leaving the Rolling Stones to join them.

When carpal tunnel syndrome forced Lala to curtail his musical activities in the late 1980s, he turned to acting and made the most of his Italian-American background and his mastery of Spanish, Cuban and Puerto Rican accents with TV roles in Miami Vice, Seinfeld and Melrose Place, and film parts including Havana, the 1990 drama directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford. However, he was most successful recording commercials and trailers and voicing a host of characters for video games, animated TV series like Johnny Bravo and movies such as Monsters, Inc.

Born in Tampa in 1947, he was mostly raised by his mother, who took him to listen to big bands, which sparked off his interest in percussion. "I'd stare specifically at the drummer and think: 'I want to be that sweaty guy pounding the drums'," recalled Lala, who started out bashing ice buckets until his mother bought him a proper drumkit. He trained as a barber to have a fall-back. In 1966, he and a friend, the guitarist Mike Pinera, formed Blues Image. They built a local following before moving to Miami and then Los Angeles, where they recorded three albums for the Atlantic subsidiary Atco.

They owed much of their Latin flavour to Lala's percussion prowess, and his occasional, raspy lead vocals, as featured on "Leaving My Troubles Behind'', but broke up shortly after scoring their sole Top 5 US hit with the latterday psychedelic single "Ride Captain Ride'' in 1970. The next year he joined Stills as a founder member of Manassas alongside drummer Dallas Taylor, bassist Calvin "Fuzzy" Samuels, organist Paul Harris, pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins and guitarist Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Lala co-wrote material for both their eponymous 1972 debut and their 1973 follow-up Down The Road, and with Hillman composed "Borrowing Time'' included on the ill-fated Byrds reunion album of 1973.

Lala was fondly remembered by fellow musicians for the sauces he made and the parrot that sometimes sat on his shoulder as he played. He died from complications of lung cancer. µ PIERRE PERRONE

Joseph Anthony Lala, musician and actor: born Tampa, Florida 3 November 1947; married 1996 Ginny McSwain (divorced 2004); died Tampa 18 March 2014.