Cecil “P-Nut” Daniels

Dec 15, 2009 by


In early 1955, while Elvis was still running around playing third bill at state fairs and rodeos, a premature baby was born into a loving family in Temple, Texas. He was so tiny they called him P’Nut. Despite an early bout with polio and spending his formative years in the all-too-common iron leg braces of that era, it wasn’t long before Cecil “P’Nut” Daniels was beating a racket in the living room on a homemade drum kit. His first kit was made out of pots and pans from his mother’s kitchen, with a few dimes thrown in to give it all a little sizzle. As he grew he decided that he would study the trumpet in school and by the time he was 15 (the year that Hendrix passed away) he was playing clubs on the nearby Fort Hood army base in Killeen.

P’Nut survived the upheavals of the 70’s and by ‘86 he had landed in San Fran where he settled down to a day job and raised a family while he pursued his music at night. In Frisco is where he picked up his signature Casio DH-100 and by ’91 he found himself somewhat in the spotlight sitting in on midi horn with a then small-time Widespread Panic. (“But Panic’s always been big to me!” says Daniels about their humble start.)

Since then Mr. Cecil Daniels (as JB refers to him on-stage) has formed a relationship with the band and if not made a name for himself, certainly made a lot of friends in the process. He has played some 40 or 50 gigs with Panic, appeared in their movie “The Earth Will Swallow You”, was mentioned in a Fortune Magazine article about the band and continues to sit in with them from time to time when their path’s cross. And Cecil crosses a lot of paths. I managed to cross his path here in Denver, where he makes a home-away-from-home and spends his time jamming with anyone from Tori Pater and Polytoxic to Night Town, Stanky Pockets and of course the occasional Red Rocks gig with Panic. He also has a new side-project going with the MoBoogie website (moboogie.net) called “The P’Nut Gallery” where he sits down and interviews other musicians such as DJ Logic or Todd Park Mohr.

I was intrigued by this gentleman who seemed to always be playing everywhere at once with his unique midi instruments and who always had a warm handshake and a smile on his face, so I tracked him down at the MoBoogie loft to turn the tables on him for a quick interview which soon evolved into an afternoon with an old friend.

Beginnings (Verse 1)

So, what do you say we start at the beginning of your career. Tell me about your early days on the military base.

I guess I was around 15 when I started playing (drums) on the army base in Central Texas. Fort Hood, it was the largest Army base in the US. During those times they were shipping people out to Viet Nam, late 60’s early 70’s. My hometown Temple, was like 32 miles from the military base.

Now, that was long before things were integrated in Texas, I imagine.

Absolutely. However…  with the exception of the music scene. In those days I did things and went places as a musician that I could never do as a civilian. The music had really broken those barriers years before that, you know. And we had integrated bands back then because of the military. And in our communities we just only cared how you played, not where you came from – how you played and how you behaved. But the climate… the way I see my generation, was kind of like the chosen ones to go out into the world and mingle. Because comin’ up in those days the thing was to maybe go out and show society that you’re educated and smart and you can get on and you don’t fit all these stereotypes. That’s when the integration and the bussing started during those times back in the 70’s. So, I figured that was part of my calling to make sure that, you know, we all mingle. Because it’s all about one thing, and that’s living good and having a good time in life.

Now, what kind of music were you playing back in those days, what were you calling it?

Soul music it was called. But within that was the heavy jazz and blues from the origins –  where that came from. I used to listen to the radio all the time, and even though I was in that soul environment Mr. Tambourine Man used to be my favorite song, you know.

Anybody back then who was a big influence on you?

Yeah, my mom. (sheepish smile from P’Nut) She’s always been my biggest influence in anything. I had so much love in my home. My mom was the bomb.

The Horn (Chorus)

So, tell me how you came about playing that Casio midi horn.

Well, in 1989 I was workin’ in San Francisco as a warehouseman for this food brokerage company and I was still playin’ drums a lot then and I had gigs at night, workin, tryin’ to take care of my kid. Actually she wasn’t born yet, it was five days before she was born, and I remember goin’ on my lunch break down to Macy’s and I saw this horn (the DH-100) sitting up there. And I looked at it and I thought, ‘ah that’s cool…’, I said “…bet a kid would love that”.  I guess as my child grew up if I just had that around maybe Tamar growin’ up could be a part of that. And I looked at it and saw it had a midi plug on it. And I said “Ah, cool, but you know, midi is a kind of hit and miss thing, you know, most of ‘em don’t track that well and you always got to have the right interface with them to get the latencies corrected… But I said, “I’m gonna buy it anyway.”

Now at this time I wasn’t playin’ horn, I had played trumpet in school and that was my academic introduction to music, but I was always a closet drummer. And so I took it home and said, “Well, I’ll just plug it into my piano.” And, pow… pow-pow… I said “Wow, this think tracks well.” Now as a drummer, you know, that’s very important. It was a very percussive instrument. I said, “Wow, this is amazing!” And by 3 o’clock in the morning I fell in love with it and by the time Tamar grew up it wasn’t a toy anymore..

Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali & James Brown (The Bridge)

Any thoughts on Michael Jackson and his career?

I guess there’s many angles you could look at Michael Jackson from, but I have to say that he had to have had a great life and he fulfilled whatever his mission was and his calling was. On many levels, musically, socially and we could talk about all of those things. But I think he fulfilled his mission and those of us that were fortunate enough to be here, and got it, we were better off for it. And if we didn’t get it, we’ll have to wait for the next one to come around. Because he was something else…

And like jumping from one key to another within the context of the same song P’Nut’s face lights up and he diverges from music for a moment…

You know they just found out that Muhammad Ali’s great grandfather was an Irishman! So if you think about it, Ali got his talent from being Irish. He got his swiftness maybe from being black, but he was an Irishman, it (fighting) was in his blood! That cream rose to the top! See he had crossed all those barriers with his life, no matter what his name was, he was respected for him being the human being that he is, and one of the first people to step up and say “No” to the system, do his time and say “I’m not going to kill anybody who never did anything to me, I’m havin’ a problem over here in my own system. Why’m I gonna go fight for you?” Now those are principles that we weren’t used to. And I see the Irish in that too! (P’Nut chuckles and becomes animated) Because we’d been a suppressed people for a long time. And that’s another thing, to talk about how you mix stuff together and get something out of something that would rise to the top, those principles, not just being Black or Irish, it’s principles, of standing up and saying, “You can do whatever you want to do to me because I’m not going to fight him just because you said so, cuz look how you treated me!”

It is amazing that the greatest fighter in history was a pacifist.

Ain’t that somethin’? Beautiful. See, there’s where it mixes again! The pacifist side or the fighter side? You know, but fightin’ for a right cause. That was a fight, the fight not to fight, when you’re a fighter! That’s deep! But to find out that he was Irish? Now think about this… the footwork… (P’Nut gets up and starts shadow boxing and shuffling his feet) the Irish Jig! Think about it! (P’Nut and I share a laugh while he shadow boxes and does the Irish River Dance and I realize that I love this man.)

Now while we’re on the subject, do you think Ali and his rhyming had anything to do with the origins of rap?

I don’t think that Ali’s stuff was considered as much like rap as it was poetry. Not to say that raps not poetry. But the influence for the rap thing came from other angles.

So did Muhammad Ali have any influence on your life when you were younger?

I was just a kid. As a matter of fact, I disliked him when he first came out and tried to change his name. He was just so arrogant. You know, comin’ from slavery to here arrogance is not what you need, you needed to be humble. This was a hard transition, this was a struggle of identity. Before then, James Brown had to come along and let us be proud of the term ‘black’. Before then, you couldn’t call a quote-unquote black man ‘black’. He was either a colored or a negro. “You don’t call me black, I’m not black.” Because black was derogative. Then James Brown came along with a song called ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’

I guess music is changing the world every day…

Music is probably one of the biggest ones, but it’s not just music. Let’s take boxing. Let’s take Ali and his calling. He was able to do all that through boxing. Now, his whole façade is not of him being this batterer, it’s him being an ambassador. People from all walks of life respect that man. And they don’t respect him because he’s this. (P’Nut shakes a fist in the air) They respect him because he’s this! (P’Nut makes a gesture with open arms.) You know, his boxing career is really secondary to his behaviour as a human being. Secondary. It’s what put him in the light, but it’s like music, music is just a vehicle or a tool for other things that… that can be manifested. I mean, music is something that can fill up the whole room, but it’s unseen, and with that tool or whatever your thing is you can manifest the physical. Likewise whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

So if it’s not just music, it could be boxing or basketball or whatever discipline it may be, what is that magic key ingredient?

However your calling uses you? Spirit. That encompasses everything.

‘Pieces’ (The Solo)

Any moments in your career that really stand out?

Yeah, one time I was out front (at a Panic show) with some friends and it was this perfect little scene, you know where someone from the crew comes out and says “P’Nut the band wants to see you.” And everybody goes “Woooo-oo, you know.” So I go back and there was Carlos Santana and they’d just been rehearsing. And that’s when the band tells me they want me to play with them. They said “We wanna do Pieces.” And I’m like “Mmm, oh… kay… uh, cool…” And I said it like that because, you know of all the songs that I ever played, Pieces was the one where I figured I didn’t express myself properly. Because it was in a major mode and I just felt like I hadn’t quite captured my major mode properly. And I’d never said anything about what to play, they’d just tell me what the key was like and I’d play it. But this time it was here in front of Carlos Santana, so I did say something and I said, “You know guys? I’m always grateful and honored to ya’ havin’ me play and I never complain or say anything, but can I do something else other than Pieces?” I said, “The reason why is I just don’t feel like I express myself on that song that well, therefore I figure I won’t do you any justice.” I said, “As a matter of fact, we just played it at Red Rocks awhile back and I just felt terrible when I walked off the stage. Do you think we could pick another song?”

And Mikey looks at me and he says “Well, now’s your chance to redeem yourself!”

What do you say to that? Either you don’t play or you play! And it was like a tough one. And I played it, and I still didn’t feel good about myself. So, it took me another couple of years to capture that mode.

As a matter of fact, there was a gig at Red Rocks after that, after Mikey had passed away, and I was playin’. And George – it was the spirit of Mikey – says, “Hey, why don’t we have P’Nut come up and do Pieces?” So I’m on my way to the gig and I’m really feelin’ Mikey here at Red Rocks but I still don’t have a plan, and they wanna do Pieces to open up. But they started with an acoustic set so I’m hanging out backstage by myself thinkin’ I got away with something. But I’m still feeling bad going “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” And I go out and I’m getting’ to play the song I wanted to play, it was Arlene. So I’m playin’ the song, and all the sudden as I’m playin’ this is the way I heard it – I hear Mikey go “Just play the melody, fool!” And I went “Oh!” So during the course of that solo I went and played the Pick Up the Pieces melody and it was a big relief for me. And after then I got the mode. It was crazy. But it happened that day and a bird came off the mountain and was flyin’ around and I was pointin’ up and I was cryin’, pointin’ up in the sky. And people thought I was goin’ (P’Nut pumps his fist) and they were goin’ “Yeah! Yeah!” and I’m like, “No, the bird, the bird!”

Anyway I finished playin’ and the bird went back in and I was like, “Mikey, damn… ”.  It was crazy, it was definitely the Spirit of that there, and I felt redeemed. So, that’s my redemption song, Pick up the Pieces. And now every time I hear that song I cry, because I hear Mikey.

P’Nut Gallery (Verse 2)

Well you’re about to make me cry, so let’s pull on up to the present here. Tell me how long you have been doing the P’Nut Gallery with MoBoogie.

I guess, about six months maybe. It was one of those things that had kind of stuck in my mind sayin’, “Man, you play with so many different people, I should be tryin’ to interview some of these guys.” And one day here a while back I was at this party where Drew (Drew xx from MoBoogie) was and he goes, “Hey you know, I think you’d be good at…” And it tripped me out cuz it had already crossed my mind and the next week we was rollin’.

You seem to be a natural at it, is it the first time you’ve ever done anything like this?

Yeah, on this level. The way I see it is we wanna give it sort of a backroom shoot-the-shit-type of environment. Informal. Drew has given me a perfect segue into doin’ this and it’s been good for me to creatively sharpen this part of my musical involvement. It’s difficult really, it’s not really easy for me.

So have you learned anything about yourself from this MoBoogie gig? Were you nervous at first?

Yeah … um, that I can do it! (P’Nut laughs)  I’m nervous all the time. Me personally, I’m a shy guy. But it’s my nervous energy that’s my performing energy. It just happens, it’s there, it’s a part of me and it does it’s thing when it’s time to do it’s thing. That energy is reserved for a special time. Really, like I say, “I don’t play my horn, my horn plays me.” That’s the energy I’m talkin’ about, and it’s there for us all, it belongs to us all.


Well thanks for sitting down with me Cecil, before we call it do you have a shout out to anyone?

Yeah, I wanna say “Hi” to all the people that’ve been supporting me all the years, guys like Jay Bianchi and Steve Johnston who’ve had venues and kept me in the light and took real good care of me.  And Brian Loftus who’s been the catalyst for makin’ this happen, he put you on me like a blood-hound.

And I just want to say Happy Birthday to my sister Elizabeth Ann. Today’s her birthday and I should be with her, and she’s real good about it. And my two beautiful daughters just for being such beautiful girls – Tamar and Cecilia. Tamar’s the one I bought the horn for. I have pictures of her when she was little and I’m holdin’ the horn up and she can’t get it. But Tamar is like 6’3” now, and she’s so tall and her arms are so long she’ll hold that horn up and now I can’t get it. So she’s payin’ me back.

Related Posts


Share This