William Emanuel Cobham Jr. (born May 16, 1944) is a Panamanian-American jazz drummer who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with trumpeter Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. According to AllMusic’s reviewer, Cobham is «generally acclaimed as fusion’s greatest drummer». He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2013.
Born in Colón, Panama, Cobham moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was three. His father worked as a hospital statistician during the week and played piano on weekends. Cobham started on drums at age four and joined his father four years later. When he was fourteen, he got his first drum kit as a gift after being accepted to The High School of Music & Art in New York City. He was drafted in 1965, and for the next three years he played with a U.S. Army band.
After his discharge, he became a member of Horace Silver’s quintet. He played an early model electric drum kit given to him by Tama Drums. He was a house drummer for Atlantic Records and a session musician for CTI Records and Kudu Records, appearing on the albums White Rabbit by George Benson, Sunflower by Milt Jackson, and Soul Box by Grover Washington Jr.
Cobham started the jazz rock group Dreams with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and John Abercrombie. He moved further into jazz fusion when he toured with Miles Davis and recorded Davis’s albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In 1971, he and guitarist John McLaughlin left Davis to start the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another group that fused rock, funk, and jazz. Cobham toured extensively from 1971 to 1973 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, who released two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), and one live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity (1973). The original studio versions of tunes on the live album were released in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions.
Cobham’s debut album, Spectrum (1973), surprised him and his record company when it reached No. 1 on the Billboard magazine Jazz Albums chart and No. 26 on the Top 200 Albums chart.
In 1980, he worked with Jack Bruce, in a band named Jack Bruce & Friends. On October 30, 1980, he joined the Grateful Dead during the band’s concert at Radio City Music Hall. He performed a long drum solo session with the band’s two percussionists, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, also known as the Rhythm Devils. In 1981, Billy Cobham’s Glass Menagerie was formed, featuring Michael Urbaniak on violin & EWI, Gil Goldstein on piano, Tim Landers on bass, and Mike Stern on guitar. Dean Brown replaced Stern when he left to play with Miles Davis. Glass Menagerie released two records for the Elektra Musician label.
In 1984, he played in the band Bobby and the Midnites, a side project for Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, with Bobby Cochran and Kenny Gradney, and recorded the album Where the Beat Meets the Street. In 1994, he joined an all-star cast Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and the results appeared on the album Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee and Deron Johnson Live at the Greek. The concert was predominantly Clarke’s music, but all the musicians contributed material.
In 2006, Cobham released Drum ‘n’ Voice 2, a return to the 1970s jazz-funk sound, with guests including Brian Auger, Guy Barker, Jeff Berlin, Frank Gambale, Jan Hammer, Mike Lindup, Buddy Miles, Dominic Miller, Airto Moreira, John Patitucci, and the band Novecento. The album was produced and arranged by Pino and Lino Nicolosi for Nicolosi Productions. In 2009, he released Drum ‘n Voice 3. Guests included Alex Acuña, Brian Auger, George Duke, Chaka Khan, Bob Mintzer, Novecento, John Scofield, and Gino Vannelli.
In December 2011, Cobham began teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, a school within the ArtistWorks Drum Academy.
Cobham is one of the first drummers to play open-handed lead: a drummer who plays on a right-handed set but leads with his left hand on the hi-hat instead of crossing over with his right (and also has his ride cymbal on the left side, instead of the traditional right). He typically plays with multiple toms and double bass drums and was well known in the 1970s for his large drum kits.