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Don Heffington, Lone Justice Member and L.A.’s Premier Roots-Rock Drummer, Dies at 70

Heffington played with Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Dave Alvin, Ronee Blakley and dozens of roots-rock luminaries before eventually recording his own songs.

Drummer Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris Hot
© Greg Allen

Don Heffington, who became most visible as a member of Lone Justice in the 1980s before going on to play on hundreds of recordings by the leading lights of roots-rock, died Tuesday night at age 70. He was reported to have been hospitalized recently with leukemia.

“Tears all over L.A. today,” said actor-singer Ronee Blakley, who had enlisted Heffington and one of his most frequent cohorts, Dave Alvin, to play on her most recent album.

Before being enlisted as the second drummer for Lone Justice — early enough in their career that Maria McKee still refers to him as an “original member” — Heffington had been in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and appeared on albums including 1979’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” and 1983’s “White Shoes.” He joined Lone Justice for that band’s debut album on Geffen before the lineup splintered, then appeared on subsequent solo or offshoot projects by the other other three core members, McKee, Marvin Etzioni and Ryan Hedgecock.

His list of credits includes Bob Dylan’s “Empire Burlesque” and Knocked Out Loaded,” Sam Phillips’ “Martinis & Bikinis” and “Omnipop,” the Wallflowers’ “Bringing Down the Horse,” Adam Sandler’s “What’s Your Name” and “Stan and Judy’s Kid,” Dwight Yoakam’s “Population Me,” and most of Alvin’s solo albums from “Ashgrove” forward. He also appeared on projects by the Watkins Family Hour, Buddy Miller, Jackson Browne, Peter Case, Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Court Yard Hounds, Kathleen Edwards, Joe Cocker, Over the Rhine, Tift Merritt, Neal Casal, Victoria Williams and dozens of other artists.

Many of his collaborators from the last five decades paid tribute Wednesday afternoon in conversations with Variety.

“Like Ringo, he didn’t play drums, he played songs,” said Etzioni. “Any songwriter who played with Don knows that.”

Said his fellow Lone Justice member Hedgecock, “I was talking to Marvin this morning and we were reminiscing about when Don joined LJ in ’83. I remember the feeling that the drummers I had played with before had been, at times, like flimsy wooden houses. When Don sat down behind the drums, there was now a brick wall there that I could lean against. Back then I had played with a few drummers before, but Don was the first musician that played drums I had encountered. He listen to everything: the lyrics, the singer, the other instruments and played more like a painter, adding his colors to the music where needed. And always like a swinging human metronome. Back then, we called him ‘the King of Swing.’ He became one of my guiding lights of solid musicianship and stellar musical tastes.”

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Don Heffington, photographed by his daughter, Laura Laura Heffington

“Don Heffington was a musician’s musician,” said Blakley. “He played with everybody for 50 years and more, yet was youthful and strong in his approach to playing; I first met him when we were on tour with Hoyt Axton in ’73 and last worked with him on my new single ‘Hurricane’… He was a no-nonsense, straight-talking man, tall, lean, and handsome, with a mane of hair which had just turned silver. Every musician knows his name, and already I have heard from Syd Straw, David Mansfield, and Dave (Alvin). Don died after a very short illness, leaving us all gasping for air, robbed of his stature and friendship — and his great talent.”

Alvin weighed in on Facebook. “To say Don was a great drummer/musician just doesn’t cut it,” he said. “I’ve known Don for 40 years and he was always (and I stress always) an inspiration to me. Don was always the coolest guy in the room. He had been a teenage jazz prodigy who saw John Coltrane playing on West Adams as well as hanging out at the Ash Grove soaking in the blues. A few years later, Don worked as the house drummer at Art Laboe’s Oldies But Goodies club on Sunset, backing up every doo-wop group, one-hit wonder and rock ‘n’ roll legend that stepped on its stage. Somewhere along the line he also became a rock-solid country drummer that could swing a country shuffle with the best Nashville had to offer…

“But Don was also a songwriter/poet who wrote amazing, quirky songs that defy easy descriptions,” Alvin added. “He was always pushing ahead artistically/philosophically, whether it was producing albums or searching for the right rhythms and always reaching for something that no one had played before. Playing with Don was always exciting, educational and a flat out gas. With his all knowing hipster smile, he gently pushed you into performances that you didn’t know you had in you.”

Alvin was not the only one to point to Heffington’s lesser known moments as a singer-songwriter frontman, captured on just three studio albums, a 1995 collaboration with Tammy Rogers called “In the Red,” and two solo releases in the 2010s, 2014’s “Gloryland” and “Contemporary Abstractions in Folk Song and Dance.”

McKee, who brought Heffington back into her fold to play on her solo album “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved,” paid tribute on Instagram. “It is with a broken heart that I announce that our King of Swing, a mighty beatnik angel and the coolest and lovingest cat I ever did know, Don Heffington, passed away last night at home peacefully surrounded by family and loved ones,” McKee wrote. “He was not only a legendary drummer (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Victoria Williams, Emmylou Harris) but a fascinating guy with a unique mind and sense of humor and a beautiful heart full of pure love. His solo projects were next-level, high-lonesome perfection. He was a beloved Dad and Grandpa and the only original member of Lone Justice I never had any drama with. Which is meaningful. I love you so, so much, Heff. Remember when we saw the Velvet Underground in Berlin? Best night ever. Speak soon, man.”

(To read a separate appreciation of Heffington that McKee wrote for Variety, click here.)

Says Benmont Tench, who played with him on many sessions and was a part-time Lone Justice member in their prime, when he wasn’t busy with Heartbreakers duties: “All I know is that someone I looked up to, as a man and as a musician, who I loved — because how could you not! — and learned so much from, and who was just so, well, cool in such an under-the-radar way. Like Maria said, I just want to sit down with him and talk with him about his life, life in general… and play some damn music. What a great thing it is to have had him in all our lives. Funny S.O.B., too.”

Blakley further recalled that when she and Heffington cut “Hurricane” (a song she originally recorded with Dylan in the 1970s) for her recent “Atom Bomb Baby” album, “He had endured a knee operation shortly before that and when I showed concern for his knee, whether it would hurt him to play, he sneered, and drove us down a superb track. Dave Alvin just wrote me to thank me for that session, his and my last with Don. Don was also a solo artist and his mother was a professional musician; he played jazz too, getting me on the phone with Mose Allison’s daughter, knowing how much I loved Mose… He has a daughter and was successful enough to keep a vacation home in the high desert. On my birthday, he presented me with an antique iron sculpture moose doorknocker, which is on my front door even now.”

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Don Heffington (top right) with Ronee Blakley (bottom left), Dave Alvin (top left), Chad Watson and Robert Miles Sherry Rayne Barnett

Said Dan Navarro, “I had heard he was ill, and hoped it would sort itself out.” Heffington played drums on three Lowen & Navarro records between 1995 and 2008. “He was simply the most solid steady no-bullshit drummer I ever worked with, and that energy permeated his personality as well.”

Etzioni had been in contact with Heffington in his last days. “I’ve been in touch with Don since he was in the hospital many weeks ago,” he said. “He liked to keep things private. He always did. One of our conversations drifted to John Coltrane. When Don was in high school, he saw Coltrane live. Over the last few days, I’ve been listening to Coltrane— ‘Blue World,’ ‘Blue Train and of course ‘A Love Supreme,’ on vinyl in mono. Don was obsessed with wanting to see ‘A Love Supreme’ in mono released based on the first-generation pressing.

“Don wasn’t just a drummer, he was a great singer-songwriter,” Etzioni added. “In fact there is a tribute album of Don’s songs in the works with Sheldon Gomberg at the helm.”

The photo below was taken by Etzioni when they toured together in 1993. “It’s got his attitude, his drumsticks and he’s ready to walk on stage to count off another song. No drummer understood the Bakersfield sound, and the Velvet Underground as one sonic entity better than Don. … ‘Sweet Jane’ was the first song we played together in a little rehearsal room with Lone Justice. i had found my Ringo. ‘Forty years goes by in the blink of an eye,’ said George Harrison. He wasn’t wrong.”

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Don Heffington in 1982 Marvin Etzioni

When Heffington’s “Gloryland” album came out in 2015, he told writer Bliss Bowen about some of the influences that came into play in his own recordings, which transcended either just the drumming or rocking roots music he was known for.

“I’ve always played some guitar, and I used to have a one-man band when I was a kid; I’d play a banjo-uke and a bass drum, I had some harmonicas, that type of thing, made some racket,” he told Bowen. “I remember my dad used to come in and just shake his head. He thought all was lost. … When we were kids we were playing Miles [Davis]. I got to see all the great cats — [Thelonious] Monk, John Coltrane. That’s probably where I’d still be if it hadn’t been for Bob Dylan. But, you know, Bob Dylan kinda turned everyone around, me included. That got me into songwriters and folk music. Folk music and jazz, they’re the two big things for me.”

Heffington’s own discography of the recordings by other artists that he appeared on can be found here.

“I still don’t know what to say except that I will be forever grateful to have known, made music with, laughed with and learned from Don Heffington,” said Alvin. “Goddamn, I’m gonna miss him.”