Southwest Little Rock native Joe Cripps has evolved from drumming in influential 1980s Little Rock bands like the Patios, Jubilee Dive and Gunbunnies to playing percussion with Grammy Award winners Brave Combo in the 1990s and beyond. And he’s done it all with a sense of humor — and timing — that has made him an in-demand percussionist, producer and label owner. (By the way, Little Rock drummer Joe Cripps is not to be confused with Little Rock bassist Joe Cripps.)
“I was already taking instrument lessons — organ, accordion, that sort of thing,” Cripps says. “Didn’t know what I was going to play in the junior high band, went to see a Led Zeppelin movie, and saw John Bonham play and said ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
While a junior at Little Rock’s McClellan High School, Cripps took music classes, including drum lessons at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he was first introduced to Cuban, Brazilian and other Latin rhythms.
Cripps spent summers in Little Rock playing conga with bands while studying music at the University of North Texas in Denton. Cripps eventually relocated to Denton and performed with popular Dallas band Ten Hands. “I’d said when I left Ten Hands, I’m going to graduate school and never joining another band — well, maybe if Brave Combo called or somebody like that.”
Cripps said when Combo did call, “I knew going into it, you’re going to devote your life to this, as long as you’re in it, this is going to be pretty much all you do.”
Brave Combo was formed in 1979 by Texarkana’s Carl Finch. More than 25 years later, the band’s blending of polka and other ethnic flavors with rock has not gone unnoticed. Combo released several albums with Cripps through the 1990s, mostly on Rounder Records of Cambridge, Mass. The band has also had albums issued only in Japan and Brazil and other countries where it tours, and the group also collaborated on albums with Japanese singer Kikusuimaru and former Washington Square Lauren Agnelli.
One of Brave Combo’s most interesting collaborations came in 1996 — an album with singer and ukulele player Tiny Tim. Their 1996 album “Girl” featured Tiny Tim warbling rock nuggets such as “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hey Jude” as well as pop classics “Stardust” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” — Combo style.
“Tiny Tim was a magic person,” Cripps said. “He knew more old songs than anyone, from a certain time period … He was an old-fashioned guy — an old-fashioned romantic.”
After seven years, tours of the U.S., Japan and Europe and band therapy, Joe Cripps officially left Brave Combo in spring 1999. In 2000, Cripps and his bandmates won their first Grammy, after being perpetual nominees in the polka category, for the album “Polkasonic.”
Cripps still performs occasionally with Brave Combo, and this year the band won another Grammy.
“Music has a pretty important role in societies, other than just a commodity that we’re going to trade on a mass scale,” Cripps says. “You actually have a role to play in your community, too. You gotta be the community musician. You gotta play the weddings, you gotta play the funerals, you gotta play the birthdays, you gotta play the bar mitzvahs. You gotta play when people need music.”
Cripps will perform with Brave Combo and another of his projects, Norte de Habana, in May at Riverfest.
• “No, No, No, Cha Cha Cha,” 1993
• “Girl” (with Tiny Tim), 1996
• “Group Dance Epidemic,” 1997
• “Polkasonic,” 1999