Clayton Cameron’s entire childhood revolved around music. He began drumming on oatmeal boxes at age 6, he habitually listened to his dad’s Miles Davis jazz records, and he was hooked on music-related TV shows such as American Bandstand, The Lawrence Welk Show and Soul Train. Once he got his first drum set at 12, he was hooked.
A burning desire to perfect his drumming — mixed with a little bit of luck — allowed Cameron ’82 (Music) to begin playing alongside some of jazz music’s biggest names as a teenager.
“I would go down to Grant’s Music Center [in Los Angeles] and watch the drummer play for the center’s rehearsal band. But one day, the guy didn’t show up to play,” Cameron said. “The trumpet player told me to get behind the drums, even though he didn’t even know my name and I had never read a music chart before. It was a baptism by fire.”
According to Cameron, who in high school was already playing several professional gigs around Los Angeles behind such jazz vocalists as O.C. Smith and Lorez Alexandria, college wasn’t something that immediately came to mind.
However, that changed when he attended a percussion and drumming convention at California State University, Northridge.
“When I was in 11th grade, I came to CSUN for a Percussive Arts Society convention and was so blown away by the experience, and knew I would love to go to school here,” Cameron said. “Afterward, my drum teacher told me if I wanted to go to CSUN and be in the music program, I had to learn how to play mallets. So, by the time I auditioned for the program, I was able to get in.”
Already a seasoned musician by the time he came to college in 1978, CSUN allowed Cameron to expand his horizons past the technical skills of drumming.
“A lot of [tools] I use now can be attributed to what I learned at CSUN, and a lot of it — like studying music theory, piano and symphonic percussion — had nothing to do with drum set playing,” Cameron said. “What I learned was such an integral part in molding me as a musician, and learning piano stayed with me forever because I write and compose.”
Though he continued to play gigs every week while at CSUN, Cameron never let his career get in the way of his college degree.
“I had some struggles trying to maintain a balance, but [graduating from CSUN] was important to me,” Cameron said. “There was a lot of great energy here, and my whole goal was to graduate and earn my degree.”
Equipped with a complete percussion arsenal after earning his degree, Cameron’s career quickly skyrocketed. He moved to Las Vegas two months after graduation and began playing with the Kirk Stuart Trio in three shows a day, six days a week at the Desert Inn Hotel.
A music enthusiast to his core, Cameron regularly watched other live performances around Las Vegas when he had some free time — a decision that changed the course of his career.
“I went to a Sammy Davis Jr. performance and after the show, I ran into [conductor] George Rhodes and told him how much I enjoyed the show,” Cameron said. “He told me to sit down, and he asked me some questions. A month later, I heard [Davis Jr.] was looking for a new drummer, so I got up the nerve to contact Rhodes and told him I was interested.”
Cameron earned an audition and soon after was frequently playing alongside the music legend — a gig that lasted until Davis Jr. passed away eight years later.
“Working with Sammy was very memorable because I wouldn’t have been able to do some of the things I’ve done without that gig,” Cameron said.
Cameron, dubbed the “Brush Master” for his talent in drumming with brushes, has played with world-renowned performers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ricky Martin and Mariah Carey. In 2004, Cameron published his first book, Brushworks, and debuted his first CD, Here’s to the Messengers, in 2012.
Today, his love for music remains steadfast. When he’s not playing shows or teaching personal lessons, Cameron shares his wealth of knowledge as a music professor at UCLA.
“I’ve always been compulsive with music — I would equate it to a soccer player who sleeps with his soccer ball every night,” Cameron said. “I’d like to continue teaching and keep trying to grow as an artist.”