Leonard “Doc” Gibbs Jr., 72, a Philadelphia native, prolific master percussionist, inspirational teacher, longtime Yoruba religion hand drummer, and bandleader for 11 years on Food Network’s Emeril Live!, died Wednesday, Sept. 15, of cancer at his home in Salem, Ore.
Hailed as one of his generation’s top percussionists and a father of the Philadelphia drum scene, Mr. Gibbs recorded his own music, toured the world, and played on more than 200 albums with a dynamic and diverse group of accomplished artists: Grover Washington Jr., Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Dianne Reeves, Bob James, George Benson, Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Rickie Lee Jones, Wyclef Jean, Erykah Badu, Eric Benet, and others.
Young fans grew up with him on TV between 1997 and 2007, when he served as music director and bandleader for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s popular cooking show.
He also played with the bands Locksmith, Cosmic Lounge Orchestra, and others; hosted drum workshops for young people, seniors, and the disabled in Philadelphia; and was a priest and bata hand drummer at Yoruba religious ceremonies.
He was a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (now the Recording Academy) and recently had created music for sound therapy treatments and meditation sessions.
“Doc was a man of significant quiet energy,” said Aaron Graves, a jazz pianist who first played with Mr. Gibbs in 2000. “His humanity was part of his music, and through it you can really get a sense of who he is.”
More than a drummer, Mr. Gibbs was proficient at many percussion instruments. He played the cymbals and triangle in high school, and later banged on pans, congas, string gourds, boxes, cowbells, and many other pieces.
“He played everything he could hit with his hand,” said longtime friend Tony Guggino.
On Thursday, Lagasse wrote about Mr. Gibbs on his Instagram account and posted a tribute video.
“Doc was an integral part of Emeril Live,” Lagasse wrote. “He brought the funk to kick it up a few notches every single show. He was an incredible percussionist and musician and an even more incredible human being.”
On the video, Mr. Gibbs said: “We’ve got a little thing happening between us, so it’s a lot of fun,”
As a teacher, Mr. Gibbs was able to connect with people of all ages. He was approachable, nonjudgmental, and fun to play with. “He made you feel like anything you did was OK,” Guggino said.
Strongly connected to Africa through his religion and musical heritage, Mr. Gibbs was one of the first musicians to merge African folk music with contemporary sounds. “People are moved by his rhythms in subtle ways,” said friend and jazz bassist Gerald Veasley. “He was sophisticated.”
“I let the song dictate to me what to add for the color,” Mr. Gibbs said in a podcast interview.
In addition to his frequent personal appearances, Mr. Gibbs created Drums for Peace, a workshop program designed to steer young people away from violence and into music. “It was about fostering harmony and bringing people together,” he said in the online podcast. “We like to say, ‘Drums and no guns.’”
He moved to Los Angeles in 2015 (”I was tired of the cold,” he said) and to Salem in 2020, where he married his second wife, Cathy.
“He was so easy to be with,” Cathy Gibbs said. “He was wise and giving, and always approached things with an open heart.”
Born Nov. 8, 1948, in Philadelphia, Mr. Gibbs became interested in the drums as a child after hearing them played in neighborhood parades. He joined the marching band and orchestra at West Philadelphia High School but was so talented as a painter and sculptor that he spent two years after high school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
But he could not avoid the lure of music. “The drumming got me,” he said in the podcast. “I was bitten by that bug.”
So he played in local bands for a while, then studied under New York drummer Ralph MacDonald. He met smooth-jazz superstar saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. at Carnegie Hall in 1975, played for him in Philadelphia at the Just Jazz club, and was hired to anchor Washington’s backup band until 1977.
“Touring and recording with Grover was like going to graduate school,” he said in an online interview. He went on to play with many artists, highlighted by 15 years and 10 albums with jazz keyboardist Bob James.
It was Washington who gave Mr. Gibbs his nickname. During the 1977 recording of Live at the Bijou in Philadelphia, Washington came down with a bad cold, and Mr. Gibbs gave him herbal tea that made him feel better.
The next day, Washington, a basketball fan, told the audience that Philadelphia now had two doctors. “Dr. J,” he said, referring to 76ers star Julius Erving, “and Dr. Gibbs.” The name stuck, and so did his enthusiasm for music and his audiences.
“He could light up a room,” Veasley said. “He had a big spirit.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Gibbs is survived by his daughter, Ayoola; son Ade; two grandchildren; a sister; and a brother. His former wife Barbara Lee died earlier.
Services were Sept. 22 in Salem.