February 2013 Archives

Session Players: Hit makers, not Celebrities

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"Session" or "studio" musicians have held a fascination for me since the late 60's.  Prior to that time, I was only vaguely aware of their existence; which is understandable in view of the fact that they generally labored in anonymity, in service of the artists whose names actually appeared on the recordings.   Theirs was a secret fraternity*, to which I first attached a name when I encountered the rather snide song, "Session Man", on the Kinks album Face to Face (1967).  The song's titular subject**is "only paid to play, not think" and "always finishes on time", with "no overtime or favors done", according to songwriter Ray Davies.  

Towards the end of the decade, however, session musicians' names started to appear in small print on album covers and liner notes; a practice that is commonplace today.  This phenomenon coincided with a realization on my part that the players whose names I encountered repeatedly as my record collection grew were probably pretty gifted and merited my admiration, regardless of Ray Davies's dismissive attitude. 

A background in jazz is common among session musicians, as considerable instrumental facility and situational flexibility are prerequisites in the pressurized environment of the recording studio.  On many top sessions, a particular musician is employed because of what personal qualities he or she is able to bring to the project.  This approach is the polar opposite of the hack who is "only paid to play not think" and represents what might be called the "Steely Dan" school of sessioneering.  Steely Dan, essentially Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, had a string of commercially successful albums in the 70's, the first two of which were recorded mostly by a core band of five members.  The balance of their 70's albums dispensed with the band concept, while keeping Becker and Fagen at the helm and featured a cadre of top rank studio musicians including Larry Carlton, Jim Gordon, Jeff Porcaro, Victor Feldman, Michael Omartian, Bernard Purdie and Dean Parks.  These consummate pros made Steely Dan albums of the period something special while burnishing their own reputations among those who care about album credits.

It will come as no surprise that session musicians tend to be associated with major centers of the recording industry, or, in the case of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, creating their own hub of recording activity based not on their location but on the sheer excellence of their musicianship.  In the 60's and 70's, Los Angeles had their Wrecking Crew, and in the 70's, the members of Stuff carved out a big chunk of New York's studio action. At various other times, Nashville's  A-Team ruled the roost in Music City, Detroit had the Funk Brothers, and Memphis boasted Stax/Volt Records with its coterie of players centered around Booker T and the MG's.

As I have found from my archaeological pursuits over the years, there are always deeper levels to explore and new and significant members of the Guild of Studio Cats awaiting to be discovered.  A case in point is guitarist Bob Bain's amazing career, which came to my attention only this month while reading a copy of Vintage Guitar magazine.  Bain, the guitarist on the "Peter Gunn" theme, perennial Sinatra sideman, Mancini's go to guy, and member of the Tonight Show Band for 22 years, was a fixture in Los Angeles studios for over four decades.   I'm sure many of the cognoscenti know his name, particularly guitarists, but his low profile among the rank and file of music fans speaks to the inherent anonymity of the musicians who have created much, if not most, of the pop music we love.

I hope I haven't offended anyone by the relatively short shrift I have given to British session musicians such as "Big" Jim Sullivan, John Paul Jones and Bobby Graham.  This simply reflects my comparative ignorance of the session scene in the U.K.  I also realize there are many other worthy musicians who haven't figured in this post.  I apologize if I have left out one of your favorites.

 *It is possible that Jimmy Page, future Led Zeppelin guitar god , was a focus of Davies's disdain in this song, as he played on several early Kinks sessions and has been mistakenly credited with the epochal solo on "All Day and All of the Night", which was actually played by Kink, Dave Davies.

**At this period, legendary Los Angeles bassist/guitarist, Carol Kaye was one of the rare exceptions to the boys only world of pop recording sessions.  Orchestral players on pop sessions were another matter however and here, women were less underrepresented.


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