CLEVELAND, Ohio -- When asked how long he's been playing the drums, Cleveland native Rob Hubbard has to think about it for a moment.
"30 years?" he said, implying that he isn't entirely sure.
"I started around 5 or 7 years old," he added.
And it's been an eventful three decades, according to his recollections.
Hubbard's time in the music business includes a tour with R&B legend R. Kelly, a stint for a theatre troupe playing a gospel musical that was eventually made into a movie, and appearances with other famous musicians
And his stops include world-famous venues like the Beacon Theatre in New York City and nationally televised talk shows.
Hubbard recently described his experience to a cleveland.com reporter.
His early years
"I started playing in church," Hubbard said.
His parents were gospel singers and his father was a pastor, and they encouraged him to play for a congregation at the non-denominational Crawford Road Christian Church on Cleveland's East Side.
But Hubbard describes his chance to play for his sixth-grade promotion as his "big break."
"That's when (my family and my peers) really saw I was serious, not just trying to be a church drummer," he said.
Hubbard played in his junior high concert band and orchestra, and when he reached high school, started taking lessons through the church, but eventually moved on to the Music Settlement in Wade Park, a noted Northeast Ohio music school.
That's where he became interested in jazz. His mother, he said, wanted him to learn gospel because that was the musical style she was most familiar with, but the closest style that the Music Settlement taught was jazz, Hubbard said.
A performance at Club Isabella -- an upscale cocktail bar in the University Circle neighborhood -- was his first experience with a Cleveland jazz venue. The performance turned into a regular gig and led to shows at other venues.
"I was making a pretty good living at 18 years old," he said. "I was playing five nights a week."
Hubbard began to make a career out of his music two years later when he put his college education on hold to return to Cleveland and care for his newborn child.
At first he took a job at UPS, but he soon received a call from a musician he'd played with before leaving for college and was offered a chance to play at The Boarding House, a now-defunct East Side restaurant and bar. The call resulted in a regular gig that catapulted Hubbard back into the jazz scene.
Travels across the country
Hubbard has toured with numerous jazz and pop musicians, but his highest-profile tours came with R&B performers and a theatre troupe.
His first call for a national tour came from Men At Large, a Cleveland-based R&B group that needed a drummer for a trip across the country in the early '90s.
While Men At Large are hardly a household name today, they found moderate success in 1992 and 1993 with a pair of singles that reached the top 10 in the U.S. R&B charts.
Their tour began with a promotional performance on the Arsenio Hall show, giving the Cleveland drummer his first taste of the national spotlight.
When he returned from his tour with Men At Large, Hubbard started to play at more diverse venues. And he no longer strictly played jazz, performing with R&B and pop performers.
It wasn't long until he got a call from a theater group that needed a drummer, offering him another chance to travel across the United States.
He tried out for a group performing the gospel musical "A Good Man is Hard to Find," which chronicles -- among other things -- the struggles of a woman looking for love after she leaves her husband.
"We played all the major concert halls" Hubbard said.
He listed the venues he remembers playing for, and it included legendary playhouses like the Beacon Theatre in New York City. The shear size of that theater was like nothing he had seen before.
"Imagine putting the Palace Theatre, the State Theatre, and another Palace Theatre all together," he said. "There's enough room for the entire Cleveland Orchestra in their (orchestra) pit."
"It really let me know how big New York is," he said.
Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were among his stops while touring with the group.
But his travels have also occasionally taken him out of the country. In 1997 to 1999 he took a job with a Pittsburgh gospel production and toured Europe. Austria, Germany, Poland and Italy were among the countries he had the opportunity to visit while on tour.
"We would go there two months at a time," he said. "But I was able to come back and pay off school loans."
While lucrative, the overseas touring came at the expense of his family life.
"I came back and my daughters didn't know who I was," he said.
But without a doubt his highest profile gig was a two-month stint with national recording artist R. Kelly. That job offer came following a tour with a famous R&B group called Changing Faces, a group with several top 10 songs in their catalog. Kelly wrote one of their songs.
"That was a different experience," he said of his time with R. Kelly.
The multi-platinum singer had a slew of hits in the '90s, including the immensely popular "I Believe I can Fly," which was prominently featured on the soundtrack to "Space Jam."
Much more preparation went into R. Kelly's performances than the shows on any of his other tours, Hubbard said, as Kelly asked his musicians to practice relentlessly.
"We would rehearse from 6 p.m. to midnight, and then he would come in at 12 and want to run the whole show," he said. "It pushed me, showed me I could do a whole lot more."
Today Hubbard has his own group, Hubb's Groove, an R&B and smooth jazz group that plays Northeast Ohio venues.
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