Monday, 3 September 2012
The Session Musicians Who've Played On The Most AAA Albums (News, Views and Music Issuer 160)
This week we’ve decided to dedicate our top ten to those unsung heroes of music, the session musicians, whose playing often brings AAA artists (and plenty of others) to greater heights, even when no one outside the group actually bothers to learn their names. There have been literally hundreds playing on all the various AAA albums down the years and rather than get into a big debate about quality we’ve decided to go for quantity and bring you the ten session musicians that we think played on the most AAA-related albums. Now, this is so big a premise that we may well have missed somebody out along the way (sorry!) and we’ve had to bring a few rules in too: namely that the person involved has to play on more albums than just one AAA artist (so, for instance, Ben Keith doesn’t appear despite his 40-odd appearances on Neil Young albums because he never played with another AAA band – but Jack Nitszche, who played with Young and Crazy Horse as well as the Rolling Stones, does; the ‘Beatles’ count as one artists, even their solo albums, as do the CSN family). Some of these names you might know thanks to their solo work or their TV appearances – some you won’t unless you’re the kind of anorakky fan like us who loves reading the small print on CDs. We’re also limiting the entries of the AAA members themselves, although you may be interested to know that, had we included them, Jerry Garcia would have made the list after playing on albums by the Jefferson Airplane family and the CSNY family as well as his own albums and those by the Grateful Dead.
Nicky Hopkins (pianist; 24 AAA albums)
The undisputed giant of this list, Nicky Hopkins was a talented pianist who could effortlessly sum up in an instant what a band needed, from the new and inexperienced (that’s him playing on The Who’s debut album) to the very experienced (his last performance comes on Paul McCartney’s 16th solo album ‘Flowers In The Dirt’). Nicky longed to be in a band, but his ill health (complications from Crohn’s disease) meant that he was unable to tour and only ever played live with the one ‘band’ he ever joined (Quicksilver Messenger Service – think of the Grateful Dead playing the blues and you’re halfway there) and the Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock. I can’t imagine how infuriating that must have been: the band gets to party until dawn doing drugs and mashing TVs whilst Nicky, on a paltry salary, lived at home with his parents until his 30s, couldn’t risk tiring himself out and didn’t have the constitution for heavy drugs. As well as the two artists mentioned above, Nicky Hopkins alternated keyboards with Billy Preston (see below) and Ian Stewart on 11 Rolling Stones albums from ‘Between The Buttons’ through to ‘Tattoo You’, played piano alongside The Beatles on their B-side version of ‘Revolution’ and had a song written for him by Ray Davies (‘Session Man’, from the Kinks’ album ‘Face To Face’). The Stones admired Nicky so much they even released an ‘album’ (‘Jamming With Edward’) on their Rolling Stones lable credited to Nicky and with almost all the band backing him on a series of boogie woogie type jams (it was released on CD for the first time last year after becoming a collector’s item). Nicky died in 1994, aged 50, from the Crohn’s disease he had been fighting all his life. Greatest moment: the eerie piano tinkle that sets the scene on The Who’s ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, the grandstanding finale to ‘Quadrophenia’; legend has it a hole in the roof of the band’s makeshift recording studio meant poor Nicky got soaked while recording this song all about drowning and re-birth (his dark and scary part on The Stones’ 1967 single ‘We Love You’ comes a close second; I doubt its coincidence that two of my all time favourite songs feature Nicky’s playing).
Russell Kunkel (drummer; 19 AAA albums)
Best known for his work with the CSN family, Russell must be about the only musician the whole trio have got on with, hence his appearance on just about every CSN family album starting with Crosby-Nash’s ‘Wind On The Water’ in 1975. Russell worked on so many LA-centred albums in the mid 1970s that he became known as part of ‘The Section’, part of a session musician group with Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar and Craig Doerge (who also played on several CSN-related albums). Russell makes this list, however, by virtue of also performing on albums by Buffalo Springfield singer Richie Furay, three solo albums by Byrd Roger McGuinn, Art Garfunkel’s album ‘Breakaway’ and two Neil Young albums ‘Zuma’ and ‘Comes A Time’. Russell continues to play and was last seen backing James Taylor and Carole King on their recent return to the Troubadour Club (broadcast on BBC4 last year). Greatest moment: The eccentric but perfectly fitting percussion work on CSN’s ‘Shadow Captain’ (from ‘CSN’ 1977) – as mysterious, ethereal and shadowy as befits Crosby’s gorgeous song about the subconscious.
Billy Preston (keyboardist; 16 AAA albums)
Billy was of course a star in his own right, releasing several under-rated solo albums (two for the Beatles’ Apple label) and being ‘discovered’ by Little Richard at the tender age of 16. He remains the only musician ever to get a co-credit with The Beatles on a release (‘Get Back’ – Billy knew the band from their Hamburg days and was brought into the sessions by close friend George Harrison as a ‘friendly face’) and the only man – alongside Nicky Hopkins – to appear with the Beatles and The Stones. In fact Billy appears on six Stones albums, nearly all their best received (from ‘Let It Bleed’ through to ‘Black and Blue’ plus ‘Bridges To Babylon’) and even gets to share vocals with Mick Jagger on the song ‘Melody’ (which many think he deserved a co-writing credit on). Billy stayed friends with the Beatles, too, playing on Lennon’s first solo album, plus three of George’s and three of Ringo’s solo albums as well as his show-stealing performance at George’s ‘Concert For Bangladesh’ concert (1971) where Billy is so moved by the occasion he starts dancing! Little known fact: Jazz legend Miles Davis was so heavily influenced by Billy’s playing he titled oine of his own compositions ‘Billy Preston’ in his honour (you can find it on the 1974 album ‘Get Up With It’). Billy died of kidney failure in 2006 at the age of 59 after a troubled couple of decades that involved prison terms (for house insurance fraud, drugs and sexual assault charges), but never lost his beaming smile that could always be relied upon to light up a room. Greatest moment: ‘100 Years Ago’, the overlooked Stones song from the overlooked ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, that changes tone and texture throughout from playful to frightening. Billy’s chirpy organ and clavinet dominate the sound throughout and makes for a great foil for Mick Jagger’s dreamy and guilt-ridden narrator.
Jim Gordon (drummer; 14 AAA albums)
George Harrison loved working with Jim Gordon so much that he even included a joke advert for the Jim Gordon Fanclub on the back of his ‘Living In The Material World’ album (1971) in return for three ‘stamped undressed elephants’ in honour of the session musician’s lack of recognition. As well as playing on three of George’s solo albums (including the ‘apple jam’ disc of ‘All Things Must Pass’ where Gordon gets co-credits alongside Harrison and Eric Clapton) Jim can be heard playing on all sorts of Beach Boys LPs (from ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ through to ‘Pet Sounds’), the Byrds’ ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (finishing off the album when Michael Clarke got the push), the first two Monkees albums and two of John Lennon’s albums, Art Garfunkel’s ‘Angel Clare’, plus the short-lived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (featuring Byrd Chris Hillman and Buffalo Springfielder Richie Furay). Unfortunately Gordon’s life got more and more out of control after his success in the early 70s and he gradually succumbed to schizophrenia. Ending up back living with his mother, he began hearing voices in his head and, convinced that his mother was trying to kill him, in 1983 hit her over the head with a hammer. Despite his clear mental incapability he was still sentenced to 16 years to life in prison and is still currently serving his time inside. Greatest moment: The tremendous percussion power of ‘Wah Wah’, George Harrison’s song from ‘All Things Must Pass’, a song directly inspired by a row with Paul McCartney during the recording of ‘Let It Be’. Thunderous, echoey and insanely huge, the drumming (alongside Ringo – see if you can spot which drummer slows up before the end!) is the perfect backing for George’s angst and confusion.
Klaus Voormann (bassist; 13 AAA albums)
Klaus will forever be a hero to Beatles fans for ‘discovering’ them playing at the star club in Hamburg (he was also the girlfriend of Astrid Kirchherr, before she met Stuart Sutcliffe, then still with the group) and for his evocative collage-style artwork (which graces the sleeves of ‘revolver’ and the three ‘Anthology’ outtakes sets). But he was a well known bassist too thanks to his stints with Manfred Mann and the band Paddy=Klaus and Gibson (bet you can’t work out which one he was!...Alright then, yes he was ‘Klaus’) and came within a gnat’s crotchet of becoming a Beatle himself when Paul McCartney left the band. As consolation, he got to play on solo albums by all Beatles except Paul, including becoming part of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band during their early days, managing an impressive 13 appearances on albums by John, George and Ringo up until 1976 (when ‘Ringo’s Rogotravure’ was his last). He also played on Art Garfunkel’s second record ‘Breakaway’ – along with half this list it seems! Klaus still performs and actually released his first ever solo LP in 2009 – at the age of 71! – with guest appearances by Ringo and, at long last, Paul. Greatest moment: Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is bare and tortuous throughout and only a friend who had known John well could have second guessed the improvised twists and turns around it. Klaus’ playing on ‘I Found Out’, especially, is terribly moving and by the sound of it the whole of the coda is down to Klaus’ good ear, encouraging Lennon to go round the houses again with a simple push of the bass note that the whole band falls onto playing. It’s exciting, gripping stuff.
Jack Nitszche (Keyboardist and arranger; 9 AAA albums)
We Neil Young fans have Jack to thank for encouraging the wayward guitarist to go solo at all – even if we Buffalo Springfield fans have always been a bit non-plussed as to why Neil had to leave and break the band up (not just once but several times between 1967 and 1968). There’s no getting away from it though, this pair were a match made in heaven, from their first collaboration on the exotic and fragile ‘expecting To Fly’ to Neil’s troubled sixth LP ‘Time Fades Away’ (where the pair fell out because Jack asked for more money and, so legend has it, slept with Neil’s first wife Carrie).Jack even joined Crazy Horse briefly, adding some great performances to their first LP even though he claimed to have ‘hated’ the band’s primitivism (calling them ‘quasi-criminal’). Even before that, though, Nitszche would have been a well known name to music fans, playing on various Dylan recordings and the early Rolling Stones records (from ‘No 2’ through to ‘Between The Buttons’) as well as dozens of film scores. Jack died in 2000, after cardiac arrest although he’d been very ill for two years before that after suffering a stroke at the age of 63. Greatest Moment: what else but the glorious Buffalo Springfield song ‘Expecting To Fly’ (from their second album ‘Again’), which remains one of the loveliest songs ever recorded, the lush orchestra and choir making Neil’s song of doubt and self-discovery sound like a multi-budget film score. It also helped kick-start CSNY, inspiring Graham Nash to write his song ‘Wings’ while he was still a member of The Hollies and encouraging him to work with Neil.
Steve Gadd (drummer; 8 AAA albums)
Remember that hypnotic drum effect that kick-starts Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’? That wasn’t just played by veteran session musician Gadd, it was written by him too when Paul asked if he could ‘think of a part to play’. Gadd has become best known for his work on Paul’s solo albums starting with ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ in 1975 right up until 2006’s ‘Surprise’, but for my money will always be the fast-talking drummer in Jonah Levin’s band in Paul Simon’s glorious movie ‘One Trick Pony’. He’s also worked for Art Garfunkel on his ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ LP (after working with Art on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Concert In Central Park’) and Paul McCartney (on the 1982 sessions that became both ‘Tug Of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’). Steve Gadd continues to play and has been on Paul Simon’s most recent tour, although his most recent session work was on Kate Bush’s most recent LP ’50 Words For Snow’ (on which the singer admits she’d always wanted to work with Gadd but was so impressed with his work she’d been ‘too nervous’ to approach him before, admitting the pair had a ‘chemistry’ she’d never felt with her other drummers). Greatest moment: ‘Late In The Evening’, the rousing horn-based percussion-heavy hymn to music from Paul Simon’s film-and-soundtrack ‘One Trick Pony’ – the one moment where Paul’s character ‘Jonah’ reveals why he still keeps playing to a disappearing audience with a forgotten band; the rest of the album is a majestic discussion of failure but this one track of release is a glorious exception, all confidence and swagger.
Carol Kaye (bassist; 7 AAA albums)
We now come to two members of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ who played for just about everybody in the mid-60s. It’s Beach Boys fans, however, that have taken bassist Carol to their hearts after her many appearances on band documentaries discussing her joy at working with Brian Wilson, who gave her much more direction and enjoyment than working for anyone else. Most fans ask her about ‘Pet Sounds’, naturally, though for me her playing peaks on their earlier records ‘Today’ and ‘Summer Days and Summer Nights’. In addition, Carol played on two Simon and Garfunkel records (‘Sounds Of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’) and a handful of Monkees tracks (including ‘I’m A Believer’). Carol retired from playing after suffering from arthritis in the 1970s, but continues to teach guitar playing, with her books and study guides becoming some of the best-selling of the genre. Greatest moment: The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ – surely one of the greatest bass lines ever written, rocking the track gently from side to side in gentle embrace, a part superbly played by Carol.
Hal Blaine (drummer; 6 AAA albums)
The other member of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ on the list, Hal also played on a run of four Beach Boys albums (including ‘Pet Sounds’), the title track of The Byrds’ debut album ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (when the Byrds weren’t yet considered experienced enough to play in a recording studio) and the final two Simon and Grafunkel albums ‘Bookends’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ as well as some Monkees sessions. A barrel of laughs, Hal’s often referred to by people who’ve heard any of these band’s session tapes because he’s usually the one chatting and laughing between takes, teasing the producer or the other musicians about one thing or another. Infamously he carries a rubber stamp claiming ‘Hal Blaine Strikes Again’ with him everywhere he plays – given the hundreds of sessions he’s done over the years that’s hundreds of session charts – and a good few recording studio walls too! Hal, too, has spoken on lots of Beach Boys documentaries where Brian Wilson used him as his ‘right hand man’ running the sessions while he was in the control booth and still occasionally plays today, at the age of 83. Little known fact: between 1966 and 1971 Blaine played on every single song voted ‘recording of the year, including ‘Mrs Robinson’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ as well as no less than 50 number one hits (to put that in context, that’s every single by the Beatles, twice). Greatest Moment: Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ is a perfect recording, Paul’s moody song about standing your ground and fighting back even when you don’t have a future accompanied by one of the best band performances on tape. Hal’s drums, recorded in the recording session lifts to get the right echoey sound, are a triumphant stab of hope in a song that couldn’t be better in any way shape or form.
Jesse Ed Davis (guitarist; 6 AAA albums)
We close with John Lennon’s favourite sideman, his drinking buddy who played remarkable guitar throughout Lennon’s lost weekend’ period of ‘Walls and Bridges’ and ‘Rock and Roll’ (and whose name keeps cropping up on Lennon outtakes). Jesse can also be seen in the flesh as part of the Rolling Stones’ Circus, albeit he’s playing with Taj Mahal so that performance doesn’t count for our purposes. What does count is his work for Keith Moon (on his one and only solo album ‘Two Sides Of The Moon’), Byrd Gene Clark (where he adds some gorgeously fluid parts to the album ‘No Other’) and the two George Harrison LPs ‘Living In The Material World’ and ‘Extra Texture’. Sadly, Jesse fell into the bad ways of his mid-70s drinking buddies and died of unknown causes (though a drug overdose seems most likely) in a Californian Laundromat in 1988 at the age of just 43. Greatest moment: ‘Bless You’, Lennon’s heartfelt song for the absent Yoko from ‘Walls and Bridges’, wouldn’t sound half as lovely without Jesse’s luxurious guitar and its mixture of on-the-edge feedback aggression and mystical clarity.
And that’s that for another issue. Join us next week for more news, views and especially music!