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Doc Gibbs, Philly-Born Afro-Cuban Percussionist and Past Music Director for 'Emeril Live' Has Died

Doc Gibbs in performance at South Jazz Club and Kitchen.
Doc Gibbs in performance at South Jazz Club and Kitchen.

Philly-native Leonard William "Doc" Gibbs Jr., one of the most sought-after percussionists in the music industry, died in Salem, Oregon Wednesday after a long struggle with prostate cancer. He was 73.

Born November 8, 1948, Gibbs attended West Philadelphia High School before studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early 1970s, during the same time he was honing his skill of hand drums and percussion instruments. He departed PAFA to follow his music dreams and immediately caught the attention of the music industry's top artists, including saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and became a core member of the group Locksmith, which was the backup band for Washington in the mid-'70s.

He acquired the nickname "Doc" after suggesting herbal remedies to the jazz saxophonist while recording Grover's Live at the Bijou album in 1976. Grover told the Bijou Cafe audience: "There are two doctors in Philly — Dr. J. (of the Philadelphia 76ers) and Doctor Gibbs." The title stuck, as did his performance on Live At The Bijou, a double album that charted number one on the Jazz albums chart and number four on the Soul album charts.

Watch Doc Gibbs in performance with the jazz group Exuberance, recorded in 2011 at Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia:

Doc would go on to appear on more than 200 albums and tour the world playing with some of the greatest jazz, pop, R&B, and soul artists of our era, including George Benson, Nancy Wilson, Bob James, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Bob James, Ricki Lee Jones, Wyclef Jean, Erykah Badu, Eric Benet, and James Poyser, to name a few. Doc also served as an elected member of the Board of Governors of N.A.R.A.S. (National Association of Recording Artists and Sciences), Philadelphia chapter.

“Doc Gibbs made every room he walked into brighter by bringing his big spirit and sense of humor. When he performed he made every song more vibrant by contributing his deep musical knowledge and masterful touch,” shared friend Gerald Veasley, president of Jazz Philadelphia.

From 1997 to 2007, he was the musical director for Emeril Live — a Food Network cooking show that always featured Doc's hand drums and signature percussion performances alongside host Emeril Lagasse, who was arguably the most famous chef in the country for a time. In 2002, Doc released Servin' It Up! Hot! — his only album as a leader.

"Doc has brought a new dimension to solidifying an element to the show...a relationship, a sound, a movement," said Lagasse during The Making of Emeril TV special.

African culture was instrumental to Doc, and in 1984 he was crowned in the Yoruba faith. As a priest and spiritual drummer, he used his music skills to demonstrate shared connections between the global African diaspora community. He was an in-demand instructor who taught drum seminars for children and was the co-founder of the spiritually infused organization Drums for Peace, which seeks to invoke the power of percussion in support of global harmony.

Watch Doc Gibbs perform "I Can't Help It" at South in 2018:

"He was considered one of the fathers of the Philadelphia percussive community and was an elder in the Yoruba tradition," recalled longtime friend, Lovett Hines, music education director of The Philadelphia Clef Club. "But more than that, he was one of the few musicians on his instrument as a percussionist that made a major mark on that particular instrument, in Philly and internationally. He took the idea of supporting Philadelphia musicians and helped elevate them to a much higher platform or level. People forget that we look at Lee Morgan and John Coltrane as the Golden Age of Philadelphia jazz music. Still, in later years, people like Doc Gibbs, John Blake, and Grover Washington, Jr. kept the legacy going and moving forward. In fact, they were the incubators responsible for creating soft jazz that people listen to today — and Doc Gibs was a major part of that."

Bobbi I. Booker is an award-winning multimedia journalist and radio personality whose velvety voice has been a mainstay in the Delaware Valley for over two decades. She can be heard on Spirit Soul Music, Sundays from 6 to 9 a.m., and Jazz Through the Night, weeknights from 12 midnight to 6 a.m.