NEW YORK — Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, a drummer whose crisp grooves and pinpoint fireworks of syncopation were heard on hundreds of albums — including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” on which his drumbeat starts the song “Billie Jean” — died of prostate cancer Feb. 3 in Los Angeles. He was 65.
Mr. Chancler prided himself on versatility. He played on jazz, pop, funk, disco, and country sessions and recorded with Lionel Richie, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, Kenny Rogers, DeBarge and Fantasia.
In his notable jazz catalog, he backed Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Flora Purim, Hubert Laws, George Duke and others, and shared decades of collaboration with the keyboardist and singer Patrice Rushen.
In the 1970s, Mr. Chancler toured with Miles Davis and Santana before increasingly turning to studio work. He was also a Grammy-nominated songwriter (for the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip”), as well as a producer and an educator.
“You learn to play all different styles,” he advised aspiring musicians in a podcast interview with drummersresource.com. He added: “You really immerse yourself in those styles and really learn them. I don’t mean play at them. I mean get into them.”
A native of Shreveport, La., he started teaching himself to play drums at age 13, with advice from older musicians.
He billed himself as Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, or sometimes Ndugu Chancler. The name Ndugu, given to him by percussionist James Mtume in the early 1970s, is Swahili for “earth brother,” a family memberm or comrade.