The Greatest Bands of all Time!
You may not know their names but we most certainly have heard the songs! Although there are many more to be acknowledged, between The Wrecking Crew, The Funk Brothers, The Memphis Boys, The Nashville A Team and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section there are many thousands of songs with uncredited musicians. These “house bands” often had no set membership, but a lot of recurring names that formed these organized teams of artists giving producers some of the tightest sounds in recorded music. For the musicians themselves it was a much preferred lifestyle, as they rarely travelled to other cities studios, they did not go on the road with the singers and they were afforded an opportunity to have a more stable family life-with a lot less pressure and stress. They were paid everything from scale which was a set hourly amount but more often by the “recording session” which is where the name Session Musician comes from. Sometimes they demanded big money, Carol Kaye for example was listed as one of the highest paid musicians and her net worth, through some shrewd investments is reported at over 6 million dollars. Many were independent contractors, meaning they could play wherever they wanted.
While ‘session players’ had been around since the early days of recording they were popularized in the 1950’s and 60’s during the Rock and Roll and R&B boom. Record producers, engineers and indeed the recording artists themselves would come to depend on musicians that could deliver sounds not only literally on demand, but to often create a riff, intro or bridge for a song that was not there before the session began. There were many reasons for why these drummers, guitar, keyboard and saxophone (among others) players were used instead or in addition to the recording artists and band members themselves. Let’s face it, your average Rock and Roll group or singer did not play the violin or a piccolo, so it was to add depth and breadth to the music, not just to replace or in many cases create a backing band. Musicians became known for a particular sound, riff or lick they performed on a record that caught the ear of Singers and Producers and they were hired to reproduce it, time and time again.
Of course session musicians did not always play to backup to a Pop, Rock or an R&B band/singer. Nor were they just playing an instrument, there were singers as well, but too many to mention today so I’ll move that to a dedicated post. Both the musicians and the singers often had solo or other projects they were working on, sometimes leading to very successful careers and sometimes not.
From a technical standpoint back in the day as they say, record engineering still depended on the ‘hot’ or live take, in other words get it right the first time. This saved time and money for the record companies as studio time was at a premium and you didn’t need a bunch of amateurs in there wasting time. These session players were the best in the business and sometimes the world at their particular instrument(s).
When you think of these players one would assume they were all Juilliard or some other fancy school grads that can read, write and arrange music while playing six different instruments. And indeed some of them were, as well as people with various backgrounds, including the self taught and ones who could not read or write a note. But they had one thing in common, they were uncommonly good. They could play by ear, play back anything note for note and improvise just about any sound. These artists were stuffy classical Musicians, snooty Jazz players and some didn’t know a Rock ‘n’ Roll song if it hit them over the head. Some were R&B artists and some were from the world of Rock and Roll as well.
Often there was no sheet music at all, there may be a paper with some chords on it if you were lucky, often the singers just sang the tune (or a taped demo was played) to the musicians and they just made up their own parts. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was well known for his eclectic and eccentric style. He would often go to each person and either hum and sing to them what he expected them to play as it was all in his head. The other members of the Beach Boys fought him on this approach yet on one album in particular, Pet Sounds, it is regarded as one of the finest masterpieces in pop music.
In my post on Chess Records I mentioned many of the names that were part of the Recording studio sessions for the singers. Stars like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Bo Diddley also played as session artists and Etta James and Fontella Bass would do some backup singing. They didn’t really have a nickname that I’m aware of but they certainly rival the talent of any of the following more well known “House Bands”
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
We can’t talk about this group of session musicians without mentioning Fame Studios and Rick Hall, one of the most talented producers in Music during the 1960’s & 70’s. While there they got to work with the likes of Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin called her one song recorded there a turning point in her career. “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” released in March of 1967 hit #1 on the R&B chart and #2 on Billboard Hot 100. However after a falling out with Rick Hall, Aretha and Jerry Wexler moved the rest of the albums production to New York but brought the Rhythm Section which included horns, guitars, drums and keyboard. There they recorded the huge hit written by the often mentioned Chips Moman along with Dan Penn, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man“.
In 1969, the core of the new Rhythm Section were guitar players Jimmie Johnson and David Hood, keyboard player Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins who had all left Fame at various times, and with the support of Jerry Wexler opened their own Recording Studio. The original location was 3614 Jackson Highway, (Muscle Shoals Alabama), and the guys appeared on the cover of Cher’s debut solo Album (pictured above) of the same name. Lynyrd Skynyrd referred to them by their nickname of “The Swampers” in “Sweet Home Alabama“.
The first hit they recorded was the song “Take a Letter Maria” by R.B. Greaves, followed by sessions with The Rolling Stones to record “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”. Other names included; Bob Seger, Elton John, Etta James, The Staple Singers, Boz Scaggs, Traffic, Bob Dylan, Dr Hook, Paul Simon and Helen Reddy. All tolled they appeared on over 500 recordings including 75 Gold and Platinum hit songs.
Booker T. and the M.G.’s
They are one of the rare studio groups that became known for their own recordings like “Green Onions“, but their session playing often remained anonymous. Led by Booker T. Jones on keyboards, the M.G.’s were the house band for Stax Records in Memphis. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the original members were Steve Cropper on guitar, Al Jackson Jr. on drums and Lewie Steinberg on bass who was replaced in 1965 with Donald “Duck” Dunn. Apart from backing names such as Wilson Pickett and The Staple Singers, they appeared on Sam & Dave hits such as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and Otis Reddings “Try a Little Tenderness”. They also recorded 10 solo studio albums. I’ve read that often the studio and others claimed the name M.G.’s stood for Memphis Group, however Booker T. himself supports the claim by (songwriter/guitar player/sound engineer/producer etc.) Chips Moman that it was his British imported M.G. sports car that inspired the name. Before the M.G.’s they went by the Triumphs, which was the car Moman was driving before he bought his M.G.
Once again Chips Moman and Dan Penn (the legendary songwriters) appear as the bridge between Stax Records and the independent American Sound Studios were the house band became known as the 827 Thomas Street Band and later The Memphis Boys. They were a small but mighty crew with drummer Gene Chrisman, bassists Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech, guitarist Reggie Young and pianist Bobby Wood. If you have ever sung along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that was organist Bobby Emmons playing those now classic pieces. They backed Elvis, Dusty Springfield, The Box Tops and appeared on Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning” among other memorable songs.
The Wrecking Crew
They are perhaps the best known collection of session players in recording. Often they were referred to as the “The first call Gang” or “The Clique” Others in L.A. and elsewhere sometimes used the term the “A” team to refer to them. These Los Angeles based musicians were not tied to one studio in particular as they were in one of the hotbeds of the entertainment and recording industry. There was Gold Star, Columbia, RCA and Capitol Records. United Western Studio is where Pet Sounds was recorded, it was founded by renowned Sound Engineer Bill Putnam. In 1948 with Patti Page, he was the first to record a singer doing a line and then have it resung over top of the original, this overdubbing technique, previously only done with instruments is now a widely used method.
Membership consisted of a couple dozen names and the moniker of “Wrecking Crew” appears to be somewhat retroactive and also disputed, but it was used as the title for the 2008 documentary. It is the name of a memoir written by drummer Hal Blaine in 1990. Thanks to that book and the film many of the names became well known outside of the industry.
Early members included Blaine and another drummer, Earl Palmer, bass and guitar player Ray Pohlman. Phil Spector would enlist the help of school chum Steve Douglas (saxophone) who recruited pianist Al De Lory, guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Howard Roberts and upright bass player Jimmy Bond. Carol Kaye is one of the best known members and worlds finest bass players as well as the only female. She cut her teeth as an acoustic guitar player in Jazz Clubs but would back up Sam Cooke on “Summertime” and Ritchie Valens on “La Bamba“. The switch to bass in 1963 came as a fluke when someone failed to show up and she was asked to fill in. She soon became the most demanded bass player in L.A. There are too many hits to list, it’s said she appeared on some 10,000 recording sessions with songs that included four albums by The Beach Boys and hits like “Help Me Rhonda“.
These session players played with Sonny and Cher, Frank Sinatra, Jan and Dean, Frank Zappa, The Righteous Brothers, The Ronettes and The Mamas and The Papas to name just a few. Some names we all known that came from this group of session players are; Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Andrew Gold (Thank You for Being a Friend) and Larry Knechtel helped to form Bread in 1968. Plas Johnson was the self taught saxophone player on “The Pink Panther Theme” and “Limbo Rock” by the Champs. He would record a dozen of his own albums and was recruited to play in the Merv Griffin Show Band.
The Funk Brothers
This Detroit based group played on all the hits to come out of Motown Records from its inception in 1961 right into the early 1970’s. As with the other studio bands there were the ‘core’ members and others would make appearances.When it came time to release the records, like the other studio bands they remained anonymous, Their names would never appear on the records or album liner notes. Berry Gordy became very possessive of these musicians and demanded exclusivity, those who moonlighted on other labels were penalized if caught. Together they created “The Motown Sound“.
I have read that there were thirteen names identified as the ‘core’ members and were featured in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. A few more regulars appeared with many comings and goings as well. There were a number of drummers and percussionists such as Benny Benjamin, Uriel jones, Eddie “Bongo” Brown and Pistol Allen. There was the organ player Johnny Griffith and the influential pianist and Band Leader Joe Hunter was an original member but left Motown in 1964 making room for Lee Van Dyke. On guitar we had Robert White, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis, there was bassist James Jamerson, later Bob Babbitt came on as another bassist. When they wanted more of a rock sound they had guitarists Dennis Coffey and Wah Wah Watson. Hank Cosby, Choker Campbell, Mike Terry all played saxophone.
Saxophonist Wild Bill Moore had a successful solo career and I have talked about his importance in the early development of Rock and Roll. He did some session playing for Motown and Marvin Gaye specifically wanted him on the now classic R&B Album What’s Going On with some memorable contributions on “Mercy, Mercy Me“. Of course they were other brass, string musicians and other instruments that are very much overlooked. For example there were some very skilled tambourine players such as Jack Ashford and Vibraphonist Jack Brokensha.
Collectively they played on about 100 #1 R&B songs and another 50 #1 Pop hits. If it came from Motown it had the Funk Brothers giving the songs that distinctive back beat and were the soundtrack of the some of the greatest tunes of the 1960’s.
The Nashville A Team
Well I imagine you have guessed where these guys were based and this group was one of the larger collections, that also includes a producer and recording engineer. Not that the others didn’t have an engineer like Kyle Lehning but they tend not to be included by name when discussing the studio musicians. But in this case he was the catalyst for forming the group. He asked studio drummer Eddie Bayers to get some of the top players to form a dependable and talented backdrop to some of the biggest stars in music. Once again we go back in time to the late 1950’s and 60’s when recording artists of many different genre flocked to Nashville to take advantage of the high quality production and depth of talented session players.
In no particular order the rest of the gang included; drummer Paul Leim who also inserted himself among the LA crowd, Buddy Harman who was one of the most heard drummers in music and Eddie Bayers (mentioned above). There was Buddy Spicher and Ray Edenton on the fiddles, Charlie McCoy on harmonica, the bass players were Chuck Jacobs, Bob Moore and Arthur Smith’s (Dueling Banjos) nephew Tim Smith. Speaking of banjos there were two legendary players, Sonny Osborne who along with his brother Bobby formed the Bluegrass duo of The Osborne Brothers. Now you know why The Brothers Osborne (no relation) are so named. The other banjo player was Earl Scruggs, whose name has been mentioned several times in past posts and was dubbed “The Father of Bluegrass Banjo” and he formed one half of Flatts and Scruggs (Beverly Hillbillies Theme).
Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” was used as the closing theme song for The Benny Hill show and Elvis made sure he was featured on some of his songs such as “Return to Sender“. Hargus “Pig” Robbins was the busiest piano player in town. A bizarre knife ‘accident’ would take his sight at age 3 and he acquired the nickname during his time learning Classical Piano at The Tennessee School for the Blind. He would develop his own style and was in high demand. His first notable gig was playing on George Jones’ “White Lighting” and he came up with the intro for Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” as well as “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich. Floyd Cramer was well known for his “slip note” style (“Crazy‘) and was a regular piano player in Nashville in addition to a fine solo career.
On guitar we had the thumb picking Chip Young, Harold Bradley, Jimmy Capps, Ray Edenton (mentioned above) was also used for his bass playing and fiddler Buddy Spicher was sometimes hired for his rhythm guitar skills. Wayne Moss formed his own Cinderella Studios in Nashville and can be heard on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman“. Hank Garland played on many of Elvis Presley’s records and is featured on Bobby Helms “Jingle Bell Rock“. He would also produce six solo studio albums. Buddy Emmons was world renowned for his pedal and lap steel guitar which was a staple of many styles such as Western Swing, Country Music and Jazz. There are other members of The A Team that would come and go or be called for their specific talents but I think I will cut it off here.
One last mention of some of the names The A Team backed; Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, The Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond.
The End of an Era
Like all good things there came an end, and by around 1969 (earlier or later for some) many had scattered to various other ventures. With the move toward bands playing their own instruments the demand started to drop. Technology and Synthesisers would eliminate many of the jobs and the invention of the drum machine was a crushing blow to the studio players. Records could be made with fewer musicians and the live or ‘hot’ take was just not needed anymore.
There were of course many talented session players that had successful solo careers and were not necessarily associated with any particular studio band. Often the higher profile solo musicians acted as band leaders as well. In this case they usually received credits, if not on the record itself then in the album liner notes. Louie Bellson is a drum legend, innovator and sometimes session player. He often led his own orchestra so when James Brown’s album Soul on Top was released in 1970, his name was featured on the cover and his band members listed on the liner notes.
Saxophonist King Curtis was another one of the greats appearing on many sessions with labels such as Prestige, Enjoy, Capitol, and Atco. He played on Buddy Holly’s song “Reminiscing” which was not released until 1962. A little trivia on that session, King Curtis is credited with the song but it was actually written by Buddy Holly who so appreciated Curtis’s efforts to make the recording he gifted the rights to the song.
I was reminded during my research of the great guitarist James Burton and people like Ray Cooper who played many instruments but primarily contributed his drum playing to Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. One of the best drummers of all time, Buddy Rich did both live performances and session work with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Lionel Hampton.
The self taught child piano prodigy Billy Preston appeared on TV with Nat King Cole at age 11. He backed Little Richard when he was just 15 years old, he also played with Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers and more. Most famously he collaborated with The Beatles and is one of the artists referred to as “The Fifth Beatle”. His relationship with them started in 1962 at age 16 and he is the only artist to receive a co-credit on a Beatles record release for the 1969 single “Get Back“. His solo career gave us some stunning songs such as “Will it Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing from Nothing“.
So that sums up my story on studio/session musicians, now I am working on the session and sometimes touring, backup singer.