September 01, 2018

Rock's Unsung Heroes Series: Aynsley Dunbar’s Somewhat Unnoticed Long Journey

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So how could you make it to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and still not be a name that the average fan doesn’t recognize? Aynsley Dunbar found a way.

Ever since he was a kid in Liverpool, England he was attracted to playing music. At first he was attracted to the violin. His parents, however, were convinced that the seven year old wasn’t serious about his interests. When they finally decided to buy him a violin, he had developed an interest in the drums, thanks to a TV show that he saw featuring a drum trio.

At the same time The Beatles and other Mersey beat groups were making a name for themselves, Aynsley was playing with lesser known groups like Derry Wilkie and the Pressmen and The Mojos. His stint with the Mojos lasted from 1964-1966. The group was popular enough to get the attention of some other artists in London.

It appeared that his drumming with The Mojos was to afford him his first real break when he was asked to audition for a new group that Chas Chandler of The Animals was putting together. He did such a great job at the audition that he was one of the two finalists. Jimi Hendrix couldn’t decide who he liked better so they actually flipped a coin. Mitch Mitchell won the coin toss and became the drummer for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Before Aynsley could be too down about his fate, two other well-known British Blues giants showed real interest. Alexis Korner, the father of British blues, was the first, but it was John Mayall who was able to convince the young drummer to play with him. John Mayall was the perfect launching pad for any young artist. There’s a real long list of superstars who played with Mayall including Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Peter Green, and Jack Bruce are just some former John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers members.

In the summer of 1966 Aynsley joined The Blusbreakers and remain with the band through the spring of 1967 when he was replaced by Mick Fleetwood. In that short span he made a name for himself and was asked to join The Jeff Beck Group.

During his stay with Beck he developed a desire to have his own band. In 1967 he formed Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation. They put out a single of a song that he wrote called “Warning” that later was covered by Black Sabbath. The group went on to release four quality albums that were largely ignored.

King Crimson tried unsuccessfully to get him to be their drummer but he instead chose to join a group called Blue Whale instead. It turned out to be a bad career move. The group disbanded after just one record.

Frank Zappa was always on the lookout for outstanding musicians who were capable and willing to perform his somewhat complex music. The unemployed Dunbar jumped at the chance to play something a little challenging. He remained with Zappa through 1974 and played on CHUNGA’S REVENGE, FILMORE EAST LIVE, 200 MOTELS, JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM LA, WAKA/JAWAKA, THE GRAND WAZOO and APOSTROPHE.

After hearing his work. other artists asked him to play on their records. You’ll find the name Aynsley Dunbar in the credits of FLO & EDDIE, PIN UPS and DIAMOND DOGS by David Bowie, BERLIN by Lou Reed, LONDON UNDERGROUND by Jazz great Herbie Mann, SLAUGHTER ON 10th AVENUE and PLAY DON”T WORRY by Mick Ronson, Nils Lofgren’s solo LP, ALL AMERICAN ALIEN BOY by Ian Hunter and NINE ON A TEN SCALE by Sammy Hagar.

Then in 1974 he got what he thought was his first big break. He was invited to join Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie of the original Santana band to form a new group. The band got all kinds of press even before their first album release. Everyone in the band were great musicians and much was expected from the group Journey upon the release of their first album.

Musically, Journey was great. That wasn’t their problem. Their first three LPS meet with disappointing sales results. It was apparent that the group needed a better lead singer and a good songwriter. Steve Perry came along in time to record the band’s fourth album INFINITY. “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lights” led the way to stardom for the group.

All, however, was not right with the Journey world. Aynsley did not like the pop leanings of Steve Perry so he left the band to join Jefferson Starship. He remained their drummer through FREEDOM POINT ZERO, MODERN TIMES and WINDS OF CHANGE.

After the breakup of Jefferson Starship, Dunbar played with Whitesnake, Ronnie Montrose, UFO, Leslie West and pat Travers.

With the kind of credits next to his name, you would think that more people would be aware of the name Aynsley Thomas Dunbar and give him more respect and recognition. That was not the case. Almost quietly the name was added to the rolls of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 as a member of Journey.


  • Comment Link Greg Murja Thursday, February 16, 2023 posted by Greg Murja

    Best drummer Journey ever had, very glad he made it into the Hall of Fame, he deserves it.
    Not wanting to remain in Journey is baffling to me, but I suppose he had to do what he had to do.

  • Comment Link Steve Murphy Saturday, June 4, 2022 posted by Steve Murphy

    At the university of Hawaii in a small round amphitheater They put the strobes on him like you’ve never ever seen for his solo!!! It was unbelievable!

  • Comment Link BD Friday, February 4, 2022 posted by BD

    Why did he leave starship? His replacement was not so good.

  • Comment Link Frank Lanza, Jr Tuesday, January 18, 2022 posted by Frank Lanza, Jr

    What I always loved about Aynsley's playing was that it was instantly recognizable to me on compositions I heard for the first time (e.g. Jane, Here I Go Again). His drum sound and his phrasing were unique. That said, I think the Zappa albums Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo showcase what a fabulous technician he was as well.

  • Comment Link Paul Buchignani Sunday, July 18, 2021 posted by Paul Buchignani

    Aynsley is my favorite drummer ever and I grew up listening to every great rock drummer since the early 1960's.

    It was his work on the 1st Journey record that drew me in when I heard it on the radio one night in the 1970's.

    When I heard their song "Kohoutek" I thought it had to be 2 kick drums - but it was not and Aynsely told that to me personally when I met him briefly after a Jefferson Starship concert in Seattle in 1980.

    Every rock drummer should hear this track and appreciate that it was 1 kick drum. His snare work is exquisite on that song too.

    Journey's 1st album is truly a masterpiece of drumming!

  • Comment Link Alan Arnold Saturday, September 12, 2020 posted by Alan Arnold

    These comments on Aynsley’s playing on the first three Journey albums are right on. Aynsley is an amazing drummer and every band he has played with became a better band with him in it. Journey, Jefferson Starship and Whitesnake all had monster hits with Aynsley playing the drums. I have seen him play many, many times and he’s simply one of the best all-around drummers and under-rated drummers of our time. Thank you for this article and comments.

  • Comment Link Bill Monday, January 20, 2020 posted by Bill

    Aynsley Dunbar is a massively underrated drummer!

    His drumming on the first 3 Journey albums is among some of the greatest drumming ever in Rock music history.

    Great drumming from Aynsley with Zappa, Blue Whale, Jeff Beck, Whitesnake and a lot more too.

    Dunbar was also Jimmy Paige's first choice to be Led Zeppelin's drummer, but Robert Plant would only join Zeppelin if he could have his friend John Bonham in the band.

    When a guy is more or less the first choice of bands like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and King Crimson, you know that he's a phenomenal drummer.

    Seriously, every drummer or drumming fan needs to check out Dunbar's work on those first 3 Journey albums!

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