Monday, August 31, 2009

In praise of session musicians

Larry Knechtel is dead. The name won’t mean anything to most people, but everyone has heard him play.

Knechtel was a leading Los Angeles session musician – one of the hired guns who are called in to play, usually anonymously, on other people’s records. He died on August 20 aged 69, apparently of a heart attack.

Even among his exalted peers, Knechtel stood apart by virtue of his versatility. That’s him playing piano on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water. That’s him playing bass guitar on the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man. And that’s him playing the distinctive wah-wah lead guitar break on Bread’s 1972 hit The Guitar Man. He also played on albums by Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, the Doors (for whom he played bass, since they had no bass player of their own) and more recently the Dixie Chicks.

Knechtel played the harmonica too. He was a member of an elite, “first call” group of LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, which included Glen Campbell (a sought-after session guitarist long before he attained fame as a singer), guitarists James Burton and Tommy Tedesco, sax player Jim Horn, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye (yes, that’s Carol as in woman) and keyboard players Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John).

In various permutations, the Wrecking Crew provided some or all of the backing on hit songs by the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and the Carpenters, among many others. Producers didn’t have enough confidence in the musicianship of bands like the Beach Boys, the Monkees or the Byrds to let them play on their early records. The only member of the Byrds to play on Mr Tambourine Man was Jim McGuinn, who contributed the trademark 12-string guitar sound; otherwise they were all session musicians – notably Knechtel, Blaine and Russell.

Those classic Beach Boys hits California Girls and Good Vibrations? All session musicians. Ditto the Monkees’ early hits, though some of the band members – notably Mike Nesmith – acquired enough skill to play on their later records.

It’s only in recent years that session players have begun to emerge from the shadows and enjoy some of the credit for the huge contribution they made to pop and rock music.

The work of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, is now well recognised, as is that of Booker T and the MGs.

The Swampers backed Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others on a slew of 1960s soul hits recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and later turned up on records by the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Tony Joe White and Bob Seger. Booker T and the MGs were the house band at Memphis-based Stax Records, where they backed Otis Redding.

Another illustrious collection of session musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, was celebrated in the excellent 2002 documentary Standing In the Shadows of Motown. These engaging virtuosos laid down the backing tracks on Tamla Motown’s hits during the Detroit label’s golden era. (Tragically the most brilliant of them all, troubled bass player James Jamerson, died in 1983 after an ill-fated move to LA.)

Country music had its own roster of A-list studio musicians, among them guitarist Grady Martin (that’s him on Marty Robbins’ El Paso and Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman) and pianist Floyd Cramer. A later generation of great Nashville session musicians emerged from Emmylou Harris’s original backing group, the Hot Band.

For anyone wanting to develop an appreciation of American session musicians, the albums of Steely Dan are a good place to start. Steely Dan consisted of just two idiosyncratic perfectionists, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who surrounded themselves with a constantly changing roster of support players recruited from the most inventive studio musicians available. Fagen and Becker encouraged them to cut loose and the result was a series of dazzling records that showcased the session men’s extraordinary virtuosity and still sound fresh 30 years later.

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