ou probably don’t know the name John Shanks, but he’s one of the most successful guitarists in the world right now. That’s because he plays on records by artists like Ashlee Simpson and Kelly Clarkson. It’s not a new phenomenon: for various pop genres, the session band/musician has been the norm. Jimmy Page was a hired gun before he made it big. So was Rick Wakeman. Motown’s Funk Brothers, California’s Wrecking Crew, that dude who drums for Beck—there’s countless session musicians that have toiled in obscurity having played on the biggest hits of their day.
No longer. This week Stylus presents a deliciously non-definitive guide to the Session Musician: an incomplete look at those who never reached the heights of stardom, but probably made more money than you can ever imagine doing it.
We’ve broken down the guide into three sections, which we’ll be presenting over three days. So, please check back through the week for more!
Who They Are: Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, your mom’s best friend (if your mom was a stripper, like, thirty years ago).
What They Played On: All things Stax. As the session guitarist and bassist, respectively, for the legendary Memphian record label, Cropper and Dunn had their hand in some Olympian soul. When Sam Moore says, “Play it, Steve” on “Soul Man”—yeah. Cropper also wrote a ton: “Knock on Wood,” “Hip-Hug Her,” “In the Midnight Hour.” His and Dunn’s signature tune (“Green Onions” having been recorded with Lew Steinberg on bass), recorded as half of Booker T & the MG’s, is “Time Is Tight,” but Wilson, Otis, Aretha, the Staple Singers, and Albert King all benefited from the mighty duo as well. After Atlantic gutted Stax, Cropper co-founded the Trans-Maximus studio, producing and playing with the likes of John Lennon (Rock and Roll), Poco, John Prine, and Tower of Power. Dunn traveled in similar circles, logging studio time with Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan (Shot of Love), Stevie Nicks, and Joan Baez.
Why They’re Important: Beyond the racial-integration thing that made Stax so vital and nurturing an epic indie success story, the soul plied by Cropper and Dunn was a transfusion, a necessary roughness to counterweight the urban(e) soul beaming from Detroit.
Legend Has It: Cropper, in a fit of inspiration, swiped a record from the Satellite record shop (the forerunner to the label), wrote down the lyrics, and presented it to Otis Redding. The result was a sublime, double-time version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Keith Richards admitted that Cropper’s version, replete with horns, was the way the Stones had originally wanted to record the tune.
Quintessential Moment: It may seem trite, but Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” is Cropper’s acme. On the refrains, he coaxes tears out of his Telecaster, playing in quasi-slack-key style. That he remains in the background for most of the track shows his characteristic restraint, yet remembering the song, you’d swear he’s upfront the whole time. Dunn’s catalog is more of a yeoman’s history, but “Tramp,” recorded by Carla Thomas and Otis, owes its infectious bounce to Dunn’s sweet soul stomp.
Who They Are: The FAME/Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, in particular Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums), and Barry Beckett (keyboards).
What They Played On: Nearly anything you'd call Southern or Memphis soul, including cuts with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett ... let's just stop and point out they've played on over 500 albums.
Why They’re Important: This group started as one of the FAME Rhythm Sections, where they nailed down Aretha's "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," which would have been enough to secure their place in history. They founded the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and became the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section; and worked as producers for the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the latter of which immortalized them as "The Swampers" in "Sweet Home Alabama." Hood also gets bonus points for his role in the conception of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers.
Legend Has It: The recording of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You remains one of pop's most intriguing sessions. After the title track and part of "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man" were recorded, the work fell apart when Aretha's husband/manager Ted White got into a scrape with a musician (some reports say the musician, later fired, had hit on Aretha; others chalk it up to drinking on both sides). Atlantic Records Vice-President Jerry Wexler later snuck Hawkins, Johnson, and other performers up to New York to secretly finish this landmark in pop history.
Quintessential Moment: "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You"—really, could it be anything else? It's the very sound of soul, the launch of Aretha's career, and features Hood on trombone. Of course, "Mustang Sally" isn't too shabby either.
Who He Is: Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Southern boy made good.
What He Played On: His start came with that organ line on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but Oldham’s most memorable work came with Aretha Franklin. After that, it’s a veritable who’s who including Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Wilson, Pickett, Frank Black, JJ Cale, John Hammond, and Joe Cocker among others.
Why He’s Important: Oldham was one of the key elements of the FAME studio band, helping to establish the Muscle Shoals/Southern soul sound (a mix of gospel, country, and R&B), but he continued to do important work across genres, helping Dylan to go gospel with the Slow Train Coming tour and the Saved album, and later even joining up with ex-Pixie Frank Black. Oldham comes across as quieter than his longtime songwriting partner Dan Penn, and that personality shows up in his music, but his resume speaks for itself.
Legend Has It: Ever the consummate session player, when asked about his time on Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming tour, Oldham once said:
I learned, well into the tour, that I was probably the only one who didn’t [hang out] after the show when you get back to the hotel. Seems that most people ended up in Bob’s room talking about the show. Which I never knew and to be honest, I never cared for that. I’m glad I didn’t go. You’re better indifferent. I don’t like to hash it out ‘cause I’d just lived it, and what can you say?Quintessential Moment: Oldham's organ sound on Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" says everything that song needs to convey.
Who He Is: Bob Moore, arguably the greatest and certainly the most prolific bassist in Nashville history; one of the true architects of the world-beating and still-beloved Nashville Sound.
What He Played On: Over 17,000 fucking records, that’s what. You want names? How about Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” Webb Pierce’s “Wondering,” Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Why He’s Important: Named Greatest Country Bassist of All-Time by Life magazine in 1994—to my knowledge no one’s made a convincing argument for anyone else since.
Legend Has It: Moore came to be known in country circles as Nashville’s Best Kept Secret during the 1960s, owing to the invaluable technical and creative contributions he made to a number of the genre’s greatest and most popular hits. In one year Moore estimates he performed on over 300 sessions for Mercury Records alone.
Quintessential Moment: It doesn’t get much more epochal than Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” does it?
Who He Is: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the reason you snort coke.
What He Played On: After the middling psychedelic group Ultimate Spinach called it a career, Baxter found fame as a member of Steely Dan (three albums) and the Doobie Brothers (five). He also contributed to West Coast singers and slingers like Joni Mitchell (Hissing of Summer Lawns), Spirit (the guitar-crammed “I Got a Line on You”), and Little Feat. His versatility is legendary: Hoyt Axton’s country-rock, MC Lyte’s boom-bap, Barbra Streisand’s post-menopause. In recent years, he’s been a showbiz kid for the Bush Administration, as a self-taught expert on missile defense systems.
Why He’s Important: With the Dan, Baxter’s dexterous leads on tracks like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “King of the World,” and “Bodhisattva” were a paradox: flashy enough to please his masters, yet frequently and unmistakably poignant. In addition, he helped convert the Doobies from a county-rock outfit to a Michael McDonald-led pop-rock powerhouse. During the late seventies, Giorgio Moroder plugged Baxter into his glamour-rock machine, providing a hardness befitting Donna Summer’s TKO pipes.
Legend Has It: Skunk will go to his grave refusing to divulge the origin of his nickname.
Quintessential Moment: Really, anything from Steely Dan will do, especially the gracious webs spun on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the otherwise-slight “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” Or his steelwork on the Doobies’ “Black Water.” But the solo he uncorked for Summer’s “Cold Love”—write this down: Michael Jackson and Bill Bottrell fucking stole this riff for “Black and White”—is fifteen perfect seconds, a primer in How It Should Be Done. It’s stainless steel, clipped and polished to an inch of its life, and pure joy to boot.
Who He Is: Guitar whiz Larry Carlton
What He Played On: The prolific Carlton logged an amazing 3,000-plus studio sessions between 1971 and 1982, including work for Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, and Dolly Parton, but is probably best known for his contributions to five Joni Mitchell albums (starting with Court and Spark) and four Steely Dan recordings (from Katy Lied on). Since then, he's put together an impressive solo career; he also co-wrote the themes for Hill Street Blues and Who's the Boss? and currently moonlights with smooth-jazz supergroup Fourplay.
Why He’s Important: Though versatile in multiple genres, Carlton earliest musical models were jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, which not only gave him an unusually keen ear for harmonies but also influenced the clean, bluesy tone he favors from his trademark Gibson ES-335. He's responsible for the shimmering guitar frills on Mitchell's "Help Me," and his liberal use of the volume pedal evolved into a pioneering technique that Mitchell called "fly fishing." (One effect it creates is the ability to mimic a pedal-steel swell on a regular electric.)
Legend Has It: Carlton managed to avoid much of the rampant drug use that characterized the record biz in the '70s, but he couldn't entirely escape southern California mayhem. One day in 1987 Carlton stepped outside his private studio in Los Angeles, where he'd been working, and was randomly shot in the throat by a pair of teenagers walking their dog. Though his vocal cords were ripped and his nerves damaged, he was able to recover remarkably quickly.
Quintessential Moment: Despite Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's famously perfectionist tendencies, Carlton clicked with the Steely Dan leaders so well that he actually helped arrange some of The Royal Scam. Most people agree (including Carlton himself) that the apex of his career is the searing, intricate solo on that album's sublime boogie "Kid Charlemagne"; it's been anointed, in fact, as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
[John M. Cunningham]
Who He Is: Robert “Waddy” Wachtel, session guitarist to the stars.
What He Played On: Wachtel’s fantastic name at first made him a draw for artists in dire need of flash—any kind of flash. Peter Frampton inspired the growth of Waddy’s terrifying perm. His Keith Richards-inspired licks weren’t so bad either. His career a study in peripateia, he taught James Taylor that there’s more to singer-songwriter poesy than sincere strummin’ (1975’s In the Pocket) and shook the showbiz rigor mortis from Linda Rondstadt’s Simple Dreams and Living in America. Handling the axe for the Everly Brothers began a fruitful partnership with hellion Warren Zevon, for whom Watchel produced Excitable Boy, Zevon’s greatest popular success, and co-wrote his biggest hit, “Werewolves in London.” A reported romance with Stevie Nicks led to Wachtel’s participation on her solo debut Belladonna, to which he contributed the unforgettable mega-riff to “Edge of Seventeen.” Wachtel showed a winning equanimity by playing on Nicks’ former lover Don Henley’s first two solo albums. His sleeper is Rosanne Cash’s Rhythm & Romance, which featured the most ferocious playing of his career. He came full circle when he met Keith Richards in the late ‘80s, who ordered him to trim the perm before his faggot-ass walked into the studio again (well, a boy can dream).
Wachtel could always surprise. He collaborated with Bryan Ferry on the latter’s El Lay masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare. An odd, disjointed, frustrating record, it was too imbued with Ferry’s this-time-no-foolin’ languor, turning Wachtel into the atmospheric soundscaper that Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera was fast turning into at Ferry’s behest. He also produced The Church’s American breakthrough Starfish.
Quintessential Moment: Still the gigantor power chords of Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen"—as grotesque and terrifying as budding adolescent sexuality.
Who He Is: Harmonica legend Charlie McCoy, who blew the harp all throughout Nashville in the 60s and 70s while chipping in for a number of rock greats as well—frequently on instruments other than his trademark, including bass and guitar work for Bob Dylan.
What He Played On: Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” and countless others, including several albums for Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
Why He’s Important: McCoy was one of the cornerstones of the tremendously successful, pop-friendly Nashville Sound that dominated Music City from the 1950s through the early 70s. He also served for 19 years as musical director for Hee Haw.
Legend Has It: During sessions for Dylan’s uber-classic Blonde on Blonde, McCoy was enlisted to add trumpet to one of the songs, the only problem being that he was already contributing bass to the track and Dylan was staunchly opposed to overdubbing. Undaunted, McCoy played the bass with his left hand and the trumpet with his right, leaving the irascible rock legend thoroughly awestruck.
Quintessential Moment: McCoy’s Nashville stuff is certainly historic, but anyone who made key contributions to Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Harding truly deserves to be dipped in bronze.
Who She Is: Carol Kaye, the Highlander of bassists.
What She Played On: As LA’s first-call bassist from the mid-sixties through seventies, Kaye logged more credits on singles, albums, TV shows, and movies than any bassist in history. From “The Godfather Theme” to Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” from the Turners’ “River Deep, Mountain High” to Love’s “Alone Again Or,” from Mission Impossible to M*A*S*H, it was Kaye’s four (and sometimes six) strings that buttressed LA’s finest culture-by-committee. Boys and girls with ludicrous glasses know her best from her exquisite low-end on Pet Sounds and the first Smile sessions.
Why She’s Important: Along with the rest of SoCal's Wrecking Crew, Kaye was the fucking sixties, as far as pop is concerned. Although some of her credits are disputed, her sheer breadth of ability is uncontestable. She's the link from "La Bamba" (her guitar) to Freak Out! (12-string on Zappa's first two LPs, actually).
Legend Has It: She only saw a single beer during her tenure with Brian Wilson. No word on whether he was drinking it from a fireman’s helmet.
Quintessential Moment: The Beach Boys, “Here Today.” As on most of Pet Sounds, the bass is gorgeous, front and center. With a sing-song line that mimics the delivery but diverges from the melody of Wilson’s vocal, Kaye’s fretwork provides the staff to which the rest of the song is pinned. She gets to show off further with her “Hawaii 5-0” (yeah, that was her too) divebomb in the pre-chorus, linking the quasi-tango’d verse to the straight-up, rave-up chorus.
Who He Is: Nicky Hopkins, the most ubiquitous and accomplished session keyboardist in white rock & roll.
What He Played On: The following CV is not a joke: the first Who album, the second-to-last good Beatles album (the one with the blank cover), several Beatles solo records (even Ringo’s), two great mid-60s Kinks albums (on Face to Face, he plays on “Session Man,” a song ostensibly about himself), that canonized Jefferson Airplane album (Volunteers), several Quicksilver Messenger Service albums, and a couple of Jeff Beck and Steve Miller Band albums. Even during a decade that Big Rock Music strutted boldly in the shame parade, Hopkins trudged on, showing up on Meat Loaf and Eddie Money albums. He played with Julio Iglesias and Spinal Tap; he played on a solo record by the bassist from the Stray Cats. Oh, right, and basically every album by the Rolling Stones recorded between 1967 and 1980, which means he played on “Sweet Virginia” and “She’s a Rainbow.”
Why He’s Important: See above. If you need some exegesis, well, Hopkins could be viewed as a stylistic bridge or conduit between the Big 60s British Rock and the San Francisco sound that emerged at the dawn of the 70s. Further, Hopkins earned his reputation at the dawn of the auteur-rock/"important band" explosion—a time when session musicians were seen as a distinctly "pop" phenomenon, and maybe even a relic of an earlier time. In that respect, he really is something of a blueprint for the genius of studio rats that run throughout the histories of both rock and pop—a hired gun with impeccable artistic sensibility.
Legend Has It: Though Hopkins was surrounded by rich, mystical, and well-fucked men, he himself wasn’t particularly enigmatic. He suffered from Crohn’s disease—one of the reasons he played heavily on sessions and almost never on tour. He liked comic books and was a Scientologist. That’s weird enough, right?
Quintessential Moment: Despite being ravaged by advertisements and situated on a definitively uneven album (the self-conscious trip-rock of Their Satanic Majesties Request), his heavily-compressed piano part on the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” In sound and style, it’s the archetypal union of Baroque ornament and trippy frilliness—that fanciful, C.S. Lewis-reading, ruffled collar opium-eater routine. Simple structural subtraction reveals that it’s also the legs that the song stands on; it’s at center stage almost as long as Mick’s vocal is. And furthermore, Hopkins’ playing does a hell of a lot better job conveying the exquisite, intoxicating prettiness of the song’s subject than Mick boasting that “She comes in colors everywhere, she combs her hair” (as an aside, this is not the dumbest lyric on the album). It sounds like he’s playing the piano, but he’s actually tickling the cosmic bean.
Who He Is: D.J. Fontana, one of the first drummers of rock ‘n’ roll.
What He Played On: Fontana made his name performing on nearly all of Elvis’ post-Sun Records material, but has played along with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Carl Perkins, and Jeff Beck.
Why He’s Important: While everyone was watching Elvis swivel his hips, Fontana was literally writing the rulebook for rock ‘n’ roll drumming. As the Band’s Levon Helm once said, "Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music, but it wasn't rock & roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it."
Legend Has It: Fontana was working as staff drummer for the radio show Louisiana Hayride, where he was stuck playing behind the curtain on stage (because country fans were apparently afraid of seeing the drums). He hooked up with Elvis through the show, became a full-time member of the band and went from playing out of sight to being a key part of rock 'n' roll's spotlight act. Of course, he mostly watched the girls go crazy for the man shaking it in front of him, but someone had to keep the rhythm grounded for that pelvis.
Quintessential Moment: On Elvis's "Hound Dog," Fontana not only delineates how the rock beat gets played, but he tears through fills that still sound reckless today.
Who He Is: Eddie Hazel, guitar virtuoso, funk enigma
What He Played On: His output, though often staggering, is sadly too small. He's best known for his fiery fret-work on the three-headed monster that is the early Funkadelic albums, but also contributed licks and songs to The Temptations' psychedelic-era Zoom and A Song For You, as well as a single solo album, Games, Dames, and Guitar Things, the ultimate lost treasure of the P-Funk era.
Why He’s Important: Eddie Hazel was the spinning vortex at the center of the Funk Galaxy. After forsaking the bass while a member of the Parliaments—and after the Parliaments had to forsake the name to some lawyers—he skipped over to guitar and basically tore a hole in funky space-time. His main weapon was a knack for inverting, twisting, and warping the usual funk and soul leads into explosive new shapes, informed by Hendrix's molten rock and the slow, deathless wail of the blues. Always a beat or two behind where you'd expect him, wringing endless emotional resonance from the tiniest gestures, and leaving contrails of distortion and vibrato behind him, he was the perfect main ingredient for the over-boiled, brain-melting stew of early Funkadelic. His drug use became the stuff of myth, even within the constant trip of the Mothership—his eventual arrest on drug charges led Clinton to hire a new guitarist to take over Hazel’s duties. (His output after his release from jail is limited to solo work and a supporting role in Parliament.) Despite this, most guitarists still pray to Uncle Jam nightly for even a fraction of Hazel's legacy—his effortless meld reverberates to this day, in big-money circles and small, even if few even know the man's name.
Legend Has It: Mostly, the stories around Hazel revolve around death and destruction. It seems somehow fitting. When Clinton set Hazel on recording “Maggot Brain” (see below), he instructed Hazel to play as if his mother just died. It's also rumored that the phrase “maggot brain” means not only killing the bullshit in your head, but also a reference to Hazel's own self-inflicted brain infestation. And then of course there's the story of a crazed Hazel punching a flight attendant at 35,000 feet. It is rumored there were drugs involved.
Quintessential Moment: “Maggot Brain,” the 10-minute, single-take solo guitar epic that leads off the album of the same name would be anyone's quintessential moment. What Hazel does here really needs to be heard to be believed, but in a nutshell Hazel unspools a gut-level holler of the most painful sadness, relentlessly circular until its final few minutes of ecstatic screams. It's such a monolithic thing that it tends to overshadow the rest of his outstanding work throughout that album, especially the appropriately apocalyptic steel-brush mind-scrubbing on “Wars Of Armageddon.”
Who He Is: Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
What He Played On: From their eponymous 1976 debut to 2003’s The Last DJ, the Heartbreakers have counted on the hot licks of Mike Campbell. A&R men initially promoted the band as New Wave, proving that besides being obtuse they don’t listen to their artists’ music either. To be fair, perhaps Campbell’s economical leads fooled them. The fluency with which he assimilates Eddie Cochran, George Harrison, and John Fogerty helped. He’s also responsible for co-writing Petty’s greatest hits (“Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Jammin’ Me”) and helming the greatest song Don Henley will ever sing, the ubiquitous “Boys of Summer,” wherein the lushness of Campbell’s synthesizer programming evinced a regret and bitterness that no doubt scared the fuck out of Henley. As his boss rails against the dying of real music, the rise of something called the Internet, and the popularity of young women on the pop charts, Campbell’s poise, musical and otherwise, seems less reactionary than representative: a pose we’d expect from a scion of the old school.
Quintessential Moment: Tom Petty's "The Waiting." Forget "American Girl": this is the song in which Petty realizes his Roger McGuinn fantasies by marrying his clumsy idealism with the delicate force of Campbell's 12-string.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-06-26