A Walk Down Memory Lane

2015 started out looking like many years before and all seemed well. Throughout the year everything was rolling with the flow and life seemed fine until August 27th …

The day started with a recording session with some of Houston’s finest country pickers and ended with the devastating news that my musical brother Joe DeLeon had been┬ádiagnosed with stage 4 cancer … BOOM …

The shockwave rumbled through the Texas music scene like a freight train, his many friends in Texas and Nashville, TN were shocked by the news and the outpouring of love and help was tremendous.

Joe DeLeon on his famous "burnt cheese" DW drumkit

Joe DeLeon on his famous “burnt cheese” DW drumkit

A Walk Down Memory Lane

The year is 2002 and a bass player who had just moved to Houston, TX from his native Germany a few years earlier visited Blanco’s, a Houston honky-tonk known for quality live music, because people in the local music scene repeatedly told him to go watch a band called “The Tearjerkers” when he asked them for the name of the hottest band in town. They were backing up a local singer by the name of Carl Manchaca that night and sounded absolutely amazing. The band lineup that night consisted of Kenny Jackson (guitar), Allen Huff (keys), Kenny King (bass) and Joe DeLeon (drums).

I was particularly impressed with the way Joe, Kenny & Allen played as a strong rhythm section – unaware that night that these were the same guys that had been the backbone for Country Star Doug Supernaw throughout his heyday. Little did I know that some of these exceptional musicians would become my friends and collaborators on many occasions and one in particular would become my friend, partner and right arm for the next decade.

Clay Farmer and his long-time band: Brian Thomas, Joe DeLeon and Robert DiBlanco.

Clay Farmer and his long-time band: Brian Thomas, Joe DeLeon and Robert DiBlanco.

A couple of months after seeing The Tearjerkers I had joined the band of singer/songwriter Clay Farmer and we needed a drummer to play with us. Our friend Paul Chris recommended a drummer and we were all set. I got to the gig and started playing without having a chance to get introduced to the fill-in drummer and two songs into the set he said to me “… we need to talk” before I could say the same thing to him. We did have a talk after the show and decided that we needed to work together permanently – the conversation ended with Joe’s famous words “… I think I may have found me a new Kenny King …”. Since I knew about his long-time friendship and musical history with Kenny I took that as a huge compliment. Throughout our musical journey Joe would keep reminding me how “… much you and Kenny play/are alike …”. Kenny had made some changes in his professional life that kept him from playing music as much as he wanted to which left the door open for me to team up with “Uncle Joe” full-time at the end of the year.

Throughout our journey Joe and I would always remember “that gig” and the fact that we “clicked” right away. It is one thing to become friends with a musician but sometimes there is a connection that is so deep yet so hard to describe to non-musicians. Every musician interprets ‘time’ a certain and unique way which (hopefully) culminates in what is generally called a ‘groove’. I am not exactly sure what controls our sense of time but I can tell you that there are differences (mostly of minute nature) between different players and if you find somebody who is on the same wave length as you are, you better hold on to her/him. That is exactly what happened between Joe and I – the ‘groove’ was there from the first song we played in 2002 until the last song we played together in 2015. I tried to explain many different ways when attempting to tell people what made Joe so special as a drummer but the closest I could ever get is this: we may not have had perfect time but our hearts were so in sync that we interpreted time the same way all the time. What I mean by that is that although we may not have been in perfect time all the time we would speed up and/or slow down together without talking to each other (and on recording sessions a lot of time without even seeing each other as the drummer is usually located in a separate drum booth). After a couple of sessions of playing with each other it was so obvious to me where he wanted the ‘groove’ to be and what he would play next that I could read his mind and vice versa. We would play diamonds (musician’s terminology for a break) together that were not notated on the number chart and that we had not talked about just because we both felt they had to be there at the exact same time. Throughout our sessions we would never musically step on each other – I could almost always anticipate what he would play and he would always know what I was going to do. It is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever experienced playing music ….. and we both took it for granted until it stopped.

"Bass Face" with brother Joe DeLeon behind me

“Bass Face” with brother Joe DeLeon behind Texas Artist Todd Fritsch @ The Hideout, Houston Rodeo

Occasionally we would look at each other, pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves to the tune of “… we still got it brother …” when a recoding session or live show went particularly well but overall we always expected good results and never thought that this would ever end. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware of half the things that set him apart until he was not there anymore. For 13 years I could count on one hand (maybe two) the gigs/sessions that I played with other drummers than Joe DeLeon and on August 27th 2015 everything came to a screeching halt. We had finished a recording session that day and Joe told me that he wasn’t feeling well at all (which nobody would have been able to tell judging by his performance) and would finally go to the doctor to see what was going on. Hours later he texted me the dreaded news – and we still did not think that this would have been the last time we ever played together. At the end of September Joe texted me that he was planning on coming back to play with us again at the end of November. On October 30th 2015 those plans were finally crushed.

When I got Joe’s famous ‘burnt cheese’ DW drum kit out of the band trailer to return them to his family, I got this really weird feeling that these drums would be silenced forever and to this day I would give anything to hear him play them just one more time.

A year later it still feels like I am playing ‘handicapped’, like there is just something missing – playing music will never be the same. It is a lot harder to get the same confidence and find the same ‘zone’ to play in that used to be so easy to find and was created almost automatically and instantly. I miss knowing what is going to happen right next to me before it actually happens; I miss Joe’s big smile when either one of us would mess up; I miss the post-gig/post-session briefings; I miss the Starbucks runs as much as I miss his late-night story time at Whataburger but more than anything I miss my friend. I miss the guy that would share all of his knowledge and nudge things in the direction he wanted them to go (many times without anybody else noticing). I miss his blue Chevy pickup truck that most people would consider a clunker but he thought would “….. only need a tuneup…” to get him to where he needed to go. Just ask anybody in the Houston Music scene and you will find that “Old Blue” might just be the most famous vehicle around ­čśë

Joe DeLeon and Robert DiBlanco at Foundry Church. Cypress TX

Joe DeLeon and Robert DiBlanco as part of the Worship Team at Foundry Church, Cypress TX, Christmas 2015

Joe never missed a gig and was never late; I have played many shows with him where one or both us were not feeling well but we always went on and got it done because “….. that’s what we do !”. I have never met somebody that didn’t like Joe because on top of being a top notch drummer he was also a very caring and open person that would talk to anybody and would try to help his fellow musicians as much as he could. Loyalty was also a big thing with Joe DeLeon; if he told you he would play he would be there to play – no matter what else would come up. If he committed to a project, he would be supporting it come hell or high water – even if more lucrative opportunities came along. A man of his word, no doubt about it.
Joe’s last words to me were “… I love you Rob … and sorry about the band …” – go figure !

I have been blessed to be able to play with some of the best drummers in Texas (including Joe’s best friends Walter Cross and Paul Chris) and I love working with both of them but all three of us know that I will never connect with anybody like I did with Joe DeLeon, and that has absolutely nothing to do with them and/or their exceptional abilities.

Going through this past year made it very clear how painful it must have been for one of my all-time favorite bands, TOTO, to first lose their world-class drummer Jeff Porcaro and then their bass player Mike Porcaro. I read the Facebook posts by Milton Sledge (drummer of the famous “G-Men” team that recorded all of Garth Brooks’ music) about his friend and bass player Mike Chapman (also of the “G-Men” team) who passed away a few weeks ago and I know what he’s going through and how much he misses him. When I recently watched one of my favorite all-time movies, “Top Gun”, again I couldn’t help but feel like Maverick trying to throw Goose’s dog tags over the side of the ship into the sea but I just couldn’t let go of the tags …..

On a positive note, it warmed my heart to see the outpouring of love for Joe at the benefits that were held for him last year and I was tremendously thankful to the Country Music Association of Texas to bestow their “Drummer of the Year” award on Joe DeLeon before he left us. I had the honor of accompanying Joe’s daughter Zoe to the awards ceremony and we were able to bring the award to the hospital that same night; there was not a dry eye in the room when we put the trophy in Joe’s hands. The award will from now on be called the “Joe DeLeon Drummer Award” in his honor and be given out to his fellow drummers all over the state. One of Joe’s best friends, fellow drummer Paul Chris (who is currently working with Jody Booth) just deservedly received the Joe DeLeon Drummer Award for 2017 – I know he treasures this Award more than a lot of people realize.

I have so many great memories of and with my friend and I can listen to him anytime I want (according to my personal records we have played together on a little over 500 songs in the studio); I still have his phone number, emails and text messages in my phone. After Joe’s passing I wrestled with the decision to continue or retire but when all is said and done I realize that Joe would have definitely wanted me to continue, after all “….. that’s what we do !”

Very grateful for the continued support from everybody but especially my family (Amy & Austin Billasch, Kathi Buchwald, Heike Rohner, Stefan & Doris Poesch); my musical brothers and sisters (Darwin Macon, Danny Klotz, Ronnie Dobbs, Walter Cross, Paul Chris, Bobby Terry, Jason Rooks, Shane Barnhill, Allen Huff, Billy Hillman, Todd Fritsch, Kenny Grohman, Todd Parsons, Dixie & Skeeter Trahan, Cooper Wade, Junior Gordon, Marty Wolf, Joe Anslik) and most definitely The Foundry church family Joe and I shared for 7 years (especially Pastor Ray & Jacqueline Hughes, Jessica Stephenson, Robert Ashley, Pam & Gary Nelson, Kerry & Paul Babb, Tquan Moore, Kimberly Hanks, Becky Fredrickson, Randy Wall, Joe Busa, just to name a few … lol).

And as for you “JoJo” ….

Joe DeLeon & Robert DiBlanco in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Joe DeLeon & Robert DiBlanco in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

So long my friend, until we meet again. Thanks for always being you and taking a chance on that german bass player in 2002. You have changed my life forever and touched those of countless others. Lots of awesome memories of you will remain and I will carry them with me for the rest of my life.

The latest edition to my bass arsenal arrived just in time to play today’s church service and will be named “JoJo” in your honor. We will open and close both services with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” just like we did when you left us a year ago.

Like I always told you : “Proud to be your wingman, brother …”

“Our love doesn’t end here, it’s forever on the wings of time”
(from the song “Wings Of Time” by Toto)