December 24 – From Accordion To Bass, T-bone Wolk-ed The Walk

Remembering one of the best musicians you’ve never heard of…unless you really pay attention to the liner notes of albums or were a part of the New York City studio recording scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Tom Wolk, better known as “T-bone” was born on this day in 1951, in Yonkers, New York.

Wolk apparently was a musical talent from a young age. By the time he was 12, he was the New York state champion accordion player! But that was also the year the Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan, and like with so many other kids, his trajectory was changed. He was especially taken by Paul McCartney, and decided to take up the bass right then. He did just that, and got good quickly. During his high school years, he was playing in bar bands, becoming friends with G.E. Smith at the time. The pair would work together extensively years later.

By 1980 he’d gotten to be a well-liked session player, and his lucky break occurred. He came to the attention of Daryl Hall & John Oates, who brought him onboard to play bass for their 1982 H2O album, with its hits like “One on One” and “Maneater”. Apparently they liked him and his skills, so they brought him back for the single “Adult Education” that they were tacking onto a compilation album. He played guitar as well as bass on that. From there on in, he was a regular with them, playing more and more instruments as they worked on, at times playing his accordion, as well as keyboards from piano to synthesizers and even co-producing their Ooh Yeah album. He was their touring bassist as well, playing the famous Apollo Theater show when they were joined by David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations. By the late-’80s G.E. Smith was working with Hall & Oates frequently as well; when Saturday Night Live were looking for a new house band, both of them got the call and stayed on that show for six years. Remarkably, despite all those jobs, he also toured with Billy Joel and Carly Simon when not busy with Hall & Oates, and worked on albums by artists ranging from Squeeze to Elvis Costello to Bernie Williams. Baseball fans might recognize that name more than music fans – Williams was a star player for the New York Yankees!

When not playing music, which likely was not often, he lived in rural Vermont with his wife. Sadly though he died at age 58 from a heart attack. He was working on a record with Daryl Hall at the time. Many musicians expressed their sadness at his passing but none more so than John Oates. Oates wrote “his musical sensibility was peerless; any instrument that he touched resonated with a sensitivity and skill level that I have never experienced while playing with any other musician…he made everyone he played with better.”

Which makes us wish T-bone had been a more widely recognized part of the musical menu.

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November 24 – Donald ‘Duck’s Career Hardly Mickey Mouse!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers – may your day be full of good food and good people to share it with. And hopefully, a bit of good music to boot!

If you like soul music, you might be thankful for a man who was born this day in 1941Donald “Duck” Dunn. As careers as a session player go, Donald Duck’s was anything but Mickey Mouse! So much so in fact that Peter Frampton suggested “Duck” “wrote the book on R&B bass playing.”

Dunn was nicknamed “Donald Duck” by his dad when they’d watch cartoons together early on in his life. He was born and raised in Memphis, being friends with Steve Cropper since he was a child. Both would later go on to be part of the “house band” and that city’s Stax Records and part of Booker T & the MGgs. He taught himself bass as a young teen, which is why Cropper says “that’s why Duck Dunn’s basslines are very unique. They’re not locked into somebody’s schoolbook somewhere.”

His parents were OK with music…”as a hobby, not a profession,” Dunn would remember. But to their chagrin, he was soon playing in bands around West Tennessee and had a hit as early as 1961 with “Last Night” as a member of the Bar-Kays, along with his friend. Soon they both got hired on as session musicians for Stax, with him joining the MGs a little after Cropper had, in 1965. They were a talented lot made all the more remarkable by their bi-racial nature. Dunn and Cropper were both White, Booker T and the rest of the MGs, Black. That sort of thing didn’t happen as a rule in bands from the South in the ’60s.

Stax kept him busy through the second-half of the ’60s. “Man, we were recording almost a hit a day while there,” he’s said. Among the greats he worked on were “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” , and Stax’s shining star, Otis Redding’s records including “Repect” and “Dock of the Bay.” For awhile it seemed almost any time an artist was recording in Memphis, Duck was there. He did the bass on Bill Withers’ remarkable debut (including “Ain’t No Sunshine”) and Elvis Presley’s ’73 record Raised on Rock.

When Stax failed, closing down in 1975, Dunn kept on, being one busy bassist through the rest of the decade and the ’80s. Among the artists whose records he appeared on were Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (their duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” being one of the songs), Leon Russell, Rod Stewart and Neil Young. As well as John Fogerty, who apparently had almost asked him to join CCR when Tom Fogerty quit. He backed Eric Clapton at Live Aid. And was a part of the Blues Brothers, records and films alike.

Things seemed to slow down a bit for him in the ’90s, but he still recorded some sessions and would tour periodically; in fact he passed away in his sleep in Tokyo after a 2012 concert. By then he was already enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the MGs.

Among the accolades for him is Rolling Stone, which has ranked him as the 15th greatest bassist ever. They suggest “he anchored a dextrous, versatile rhythm section alongside drummer Al Jackson, mastering urban pop balladry, country-sould shuffles and gospel-infused soul” equally. Clearly, the Duck’s memory still flies high!

November 12 – Mr. Memphis Sound

Happy birthday to a man who has come to define a whole city’s sound. Think “Memphis music” and you probably soon think Booker T. Booker Taliaferro Jones turns 78 today.

Amazingly, Booker had pretty much made a lasting name for himself before he’d finished high school, as leader (and namesake) of Booker T and the Mgs, who’d scored one of the biggest instrumental hit songs of the ’60s with their first release, “Green Onions.” His schoolmates – including Maurice White, who’d go on to form Earth, Wind & Fire – probably weren’t surprised. Booker was described as a “musical prodigy”, playing piano very well plus almost any horn you could pass to him as well as competent guitar and bass, by the time he arrived in Grade 9. One bio of his says he was quickly recognized as “the most talented musician in the school. He was appointed director of the school band for four years (and) organized the school dance orchestra which played for proms throughout the mid-South.” That with Jones being very Black and it being the beginning of the tumultous Civil Rights issues of the ’60s notwithstanding.

During his high school years, he met Steve Cropper at the Stax Records record shop, and they quickly formed a band and got hired on as house musicians for the now-legendary label. Jones primarily played Hammond organ and helped write for Stax, most noteworthily on Otis Redding’s classic album and song Dock of the Bay. He got to the level of Vice President of Stax, but quit them in 1970, moving to L.A. He said despite his title there, he could make no decisions and was treated as an ordinary hourly employee rather than a creative talent.

Which L.A. soon recognized him as; soon after arriving there he worked on Stephen Stills debut album. He married Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla (being married to her for approximately the whole 1970s but not before or after) and helped her with her singing career as well as producing several of Rita’s albums. He produced Bill Withers fine debut record, and did session work for artists like Rod Stewart. Since then, he’s kept busy producing, playing sessions and putting out his own solo records. Among his collaborators have been Willie Nelson (producing his mammoth commercial breakthrough album, Stardust) , Neil Young (who’s also celebrating a birthday today!), playing on a Neil album and having Young return the favor on his 2009 Potato Hole album which was nominated for a Grammy, Sheryl Crow, Elton John and Steve Perry. Pretty good company to keep!

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted Booker T & the MGs in 1992, calling them the “groovy forefathers of Southern soul.” You can find what his thoughts on that are yourself; he recently published a memoir entitled Time Is Tight – My Life, Note by Note.

September 21 – Davis Had All The Right Friends…And A Few Wrong Ones

Remembering one of the greatest guitarists you’ve never heard of on what would have been his 78th birthday. If you have heard of Jesse Ed Davis, you’re in the minority. But you’d also be in the minority if you’re a fan of ’70s music and hadn’t heard his work. After all, he was one of the most in-demand session players, worked with three of the four Beatles and rubbed shoulders with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones.

Davis was an Oklahoma-born Native, the son of a respected painter. He became a great guitarist at a young age, and by his teens was playing in clubs in Oklahoma City. He was talented in other ways too; he got a degree in literature there. But in the ’60s he turned to music full-time, first taking a job being Conway Twitty’s touring guitarist. Eventually he moved to L.A. and became friends with fellow-Oklahoman Leon Russell as well as Levon Helm. Russell sold Davis on the idea of session work, and soon the calls came rolling in for Jesse…when he wasn’t working with Taj Mahal, whom he joined for four albums.

One of the first jobs he got as a session player was probably his best-known as well – the guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s lead-off single, “Doctor My Eyes.” Browne spoke glowingly about Davis in the movie Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked, saying he basically walked into the studio, heard the song demo and improvised the solo we hear on the spot, in one take.

Around the same time, he came to George Harrison’s attention and was invited to be a part of his Concert for Bangladesh. Harrison called him back about three years later to work on his Extra Texture album, Davis co-writing “This Guitar” with George. He got to play on Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna and two John Lennon albums (Rock & Roll, Walls and Bridges) as well in the first half of the ’70s. The work kept coming in for him, doing session work with Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, Cher, even Willie Nelson. Rod Stewart as well, being on his Atlantic Crossing , co-writing “Alright for an Hour” with Rod the Mod.

Unfortunately, Rod was still the hard-partying Rod The Mod at the time, and Davis’ work with him, as well as Faces (whom he toured with in 1975) and the Rolling Stones (being a part of Taj Mahal when they opened for Mick and the lads in England) exposed him to the excesses of rock, and Davis dove in with excessive gusto. Heroin addiction limited the amount of work he could do in the late-’70s and ’80s despite several attempts to quit and stints in rehab.

Sadly, it seemed to most who knew him he was getting his act together and he was actually working as an Addictions Counselor at the American Indian Free Clinic in California in 1988 when he overdosed and died. Among his final works was the album AKA Grafitti Man, with Native poet John Trudell in 1987, an album Bob Dylan picked as the best of the year.

July 14 – The Great Records And Troubled Times Of Jim

Hey, it’s your 77th birthday Jim Gordon, so in rememberence of all the great music you’ve given us, I suppose it’s appropriate enough to say “happy birthday”.

It’s a safe bet to suggest Gordon is an unknown name to a good percentage of readers, but a safer bet to suggest you know a number of the great records he’s played on…until 1983. Jim could just kill it with the drums, and with…well, we won’t go there. Suffice to say for a long time he was probably the second most in-demand session drummer in the U.S., behind only his friend and mentor Hal Blaine.

Jim was born and raised in the L.A. area, and learned drums and piano at a young age. He was actually offered a scholarship to UCLA for music, but declined so he could drop out of school and concentrate on being a professional musician. Which might have been an iffy idea, but in his case, worked out very well. Soon after that happened, he signed on to be the drummer for the Everly Brothers on a tour of theirs. He learned more from Hal Blaine in the studio and became a member of the unofficial, but prestigious “Wrecking Crew.” He got a few choice gigs in the ’60s, including working with Blaine drumming on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds.

His big break however, was likely touring with Delaney And Bonnie in 1969. With them he met Eric Clapton, who of course knew everybody in rock, it seemed, and was putting together a new band – Derek & The Dominos. He invited Jim to be their drummer, and Gordon did indeed play on their famous Layla, and Other Assorted Love Songs album…and is credited with co-writing, with Clapton, the timeless hit from the album, “Layla.” While “Slowhand” came up with the lyrics and striking guitar bits that open the song, Gordon’s said to have created the counter-melody that runs through the song and comes to the forefront with the piano work (played by Jim) towards the end of the song. He certainly played it on the piano, but there is dispute over who really wrote it. Though officially credited to Gordon, many people swear they’d heard his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge play that on piano long before Derek & the Dominos came around. Perhaps she gave him that hit. As we find out later, he also could give her a hefty “hit.”

The work with Clapton and Derek & the Dominos led to all kinds of calls for him to work with other artists. One review suggests it’s easier to list stars he didn’t play with in the ’70s than those he did. They may not be far off, especially when it comes to records made in California. He was, at the time, reliable and had a distinctive style. As Daily K-os puts it, “what distinguished Jim’s sound was not so much the notes he played but the spaces between those notes. There is always this distinct silence between one stroke and the next.” He got called in for Bread’s debut album, and Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” , and Seals & Crofts for their classic “Summer Breeze”.

Add in Nilsson (playing the drums and other odd percussion instruments on the quirky “Coconut” among other songs), Albert Hammond’s hit “It Never Rains in Southern California”, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot…not to mention George Harrison’s fantastic All Things Must Pass. And another ex-Beatle, John Lennon on his “Power to the People.” Oh, and he played on a Yoko Ono record for good measure too. From Tom Waits to Tom Petty he was the “go-to” guy when L.A. Studios needed a drummer for top acts on short notice.

So, it might seem he was a great guy with a huge future. Sadly though, such wasn’t the case. His relationship with the lovely Miss Coolidge early in the ’70s? It ended very quickly one night in a hotel hallway. Rita thought he was preparing himself to propose. Instead he hammered her with a punch that “hit me so hard I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway”. She was knocked unconscious. But no one said or did much about it, other than tour staff (they were touring together at the time) who worked as makeshift bodyguards to physically keep him apart from her.

Turns out he was schizophrenic. By 1978 (but probably earlier) he said he was hearing voices in his head which urged him to do things like avoid sleep, not eat, and quit playing drums. He listened. In 1983, they told him to kill his 72 year-old mother, so he obliged them, bludgeoning her with a hammer and stabbing her to death. He was found guilty of murder. The court refused his insanity plea, because while they agreed he probably was mentally ill, evidence suggests he was aware of what he was doing. He got sentenced to 16 year to life, and has been refused parole ten times so far because doctors deem him to be still schizophrenic and a danger to society. He remains in a prison hospital in California to this day.

May 28 – Leland, 60 Years Of Beards And Bass

Too busy playing bass to shave? Happy birthday to that old guy who you see everywhere on live concert videos, Leland Sklar. “The Beard” turns 75 today. With credits on over 2000 albums and about five decades of touring with stars, his phone might be busy today!

Sklar was born in Milwaukee, but luckily for him it would seem, his family moved to southern California just in time for him to start school. He liked Liberace as a child, and learned piano young, but got bored with it quickly. In a school orchestra, there was a need for a bassist, so the leader taught him a few basics on a standup bass, and he was off and away.

He got some session work in the ’60s in L.A., largely playing his 1962 Fender Jazz bass (which was his mainstay for decades though now he often uses a namesake Warwick Star one which he endorses), but things really took off when he met James Taylor. They became friends and when Taylor got an offer to play the famous Troubadour club, he called Leland to play bass behind him. “Biggest moment in my career,” Sklar told For Bass Players Only in 2010, “we thought it would be a show, then ‘see ya,’ but it turned into 20 years” (now longer than that). That in turn got him a gig playing bass on Taylor’s first album…and 13 more in total for Sweet Baby James. And it got him so much attention he soon became part of the unofficial house band with Asylum Records, along with drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist Danny Kortchmar and early on, Carole King on piano…until her own career took off, often with Leland on the bass.

Through the ’70s, he was one of the busiest session players anywhere. A look at the discography he’s contributed to is a long read and includes artists like America, Hoyt Axton, Jackson Browne (including his great Running on Empty), David Cassidy, Thomas Dolby, the Doors (their final Full Circle album), Andrew Gold, Don Henley (his first solo album, I Can’t Stand Still), Lisa Loeb, Reba McEntyre, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton (including her pop breakthrough “9 to 5”), TV-theme guy Mike Post, Bonnie Raitt, Leo Sayer, Neil Sedaka, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Webb, Andy Williams, Deniece Williams, Robbie Williams… you get the idea. He fit into recordings of almost any genre. His association with Mike Post helped him work on TV themes for shows like Hill Street Blues, the Rockford Files and Golden Girls.

And let’s not forget Phil Collins and Toto. He worked on Collins’ ’85 No Jacket Required and subsequently toured with Phil for it, and on four more world tours since. Which perhaps gave him the travel bug, with him spending more time on the road and less in studio in the late-’80s through 2000s, for two years being a part of Toto. He says of them, “I was proud to do it. They are one of the best bands one could ever want to play with and hang out with.” But nowhere does he seem as at home as on stage with James Taylor and Carole King, with whom he toured again in 2010.

Why’s he keep so busy? “I get a buzz every time the phone rings and I get a work call,” he says. “a new adventure awaits!”

On the rare occasions he’s not playing bass, he likes working on hot rods and gardening, and if online photos are accurate, spending time with his wife and their hound dogs. But not shaving. “I’m an old hippie, sort of. Never got high, drank, smoked, or anything but just looked freaky,” he says when asked about his famous beard, adding that while he has trimmed it infrequently, he hasn’t shaved really since high school. Over fifty years working on a beard…that’s dedication. Over 2000 record albums worked on, that too is dedication.

April 20 – Steve The Southern Sessions Superstar

Happy birthday to an A-list musician who’s name somehow isn’t even B-list famous. Steve Nathan turns 71 today. The Buffalo keyboardist may be close to anonymous but the music he’s helped make is far from it, especially to country fans.

He left snowy Buffalo for the South in the mid-’70s, briefly working with LeBlanc & Carr (the one hit wonder known for their song “Falling.”) The duo both had ties to the famous Muscle Shoals “swampers”, so he followed them to Alabama. In 1977, he signed on to be a session musician at the Fame Studios there, run by Rick Hall. Hall was apparently so impressed the first time he heard Nathan he made him the top on-call keyboardist for their studios for the next 14 years. His ability and proficiency on instruments ranging from traditional piano through synthesizers made him very popular, as I would guess his seemingly low-key personality did. Nathan never made the records about him…but he sure did add to them, working on records by the likes of Dobie Gray, Bertie Higgins (including the hit “Key Largo”), Hank Williams Jr., Percy Sledge, Glenn Frey and Steve Earle (Guitar Town) there. In 1991, he moved a dash north, to Nashville and joined their famous “A Team” … the country music equivalent to L.A.’s Wrecking Crew. There over the next 20-odd years, he worked on albums by pretty much the who’s-who of country music artists – Vince Gill, George Strait, Lee Ann Rimes, the Dixie Chicks (playing on their diamond-selling Fly record), Reba McEntire as well as other stars like Olivia Newton John, Bon Jovi, Hootie and the Blowfish, Mark Knopfler and even the Atlanta Rhythm Section…a group who started out as a collection of studio musicians themselves. In 1995 alone, he had credits on 20 different albums recorded there. So respected was he that he’s been inducted into the Nashville Music Hall of Fame and was named Music Row magazine’s “Keyboardist of the Year” an unprecedented 13 times running.

Despite all that, there’s little to tell about Nathan from this end, because there’s surprisingly little info about him or his outside life posted anywhere, it would seem. He hasn’t been doing much session work in the past four years but his website does say he’s available to work as a producer. It’s one of the amazing quirks of music that millions remember the names of one-hit wonders like Tommy Tutone (Nathan worked on their hit album too) , yet there are people like Steve, Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye around who’ve played on literally dozens of hit records that are mere anonymous faces in the crowd to most fans.

February 24 – Nicky The Piano Player To The Stars

Making the best of a bad situation. That’s what the artist we look at today did… and Nicky Hopkin‘s best was pretty darn good! If it wasn’t he probably wouldn’t have played on 11 Rolling Stones albums. And records by each one of the Beatles. And seemingly more big British acts of the ’60s and ’70s than he didn’t. Hopkins was never a household name…unless you’re household was one of a rock star. Then, as Ultimate Classic Rock point out, it would be since “bands and producers wouldn’t ask for Hopkins. They’d demand him!” Hopkins was born on this day in 1944.

Hopkins learned to play piano by the age of three. He grew up in Middlesex, England and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. A good situation for a young musician in swingin’ London early in the ’60s. The bad situation was Nicky’s health. He suffered from severe Crohn’s Disease all his life – a painful stomach problem – and that limited his ability to tour or plan ahead much. He did join one band as a teen, the fairly well-reviewed Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages, but the premature death of the band leader Cyril Davies while Hopkins was bed-ridden after intestinal surgery pulled the plug on that quickly. So, Hopkins made the sensible decision to become strictly a session player. Studios had washrooms, and presumably it wouldn’t be too much an inconvenience if his illness kept him in bed and he had to miss a day or two.

His timing couldn’t have been better. The so-called British Invasion was about to kick in, and most British bands seemed to have talented guitarists, bassists, drummers…but not keyboard wizzes. Hopkins quickly got called to work with bands like the Kinks. He played on songs like “Sunny Afternoon” of theirs, but said that Ray Davies tried to take the credit. Davies, years later would admit “Nick and I were hardly bosom buddies,” but did compliment at length, saying “with his style, he should have been from New Orleans” (something the Who’s Pete Townshend would echo, saying “he didn’t look the part, but he played the blues!”) and “unlike lesser musicians, (Nicky) didn’t show off. He would play only when needed.” He played on several Who albums, and with the Jeff Beck Band, which also had Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood as members, and on the Beatles “Revolution.” And as viewers of Get Back found out, his name came up when they were throwing around ideas for a guest keyboardist for the rooftop concert; Billy Preston was picked instead, which was also a very good choice. But his biggest claim to fame was working with the Rolling Stones.

From 1967 through 1981, he played on 11 Stones studio albums, appearing on songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Waiting on A Friend” and perhaps most notably, “She’s A Rainbow”, on which Ultimate Classic Rock point out, “he’s all but the lead player.” He apparently fit in well with Jagger and Co., not only was he a regular call-up for the studio, he did manage to accompany them and play on three tours before ill health forced him out of a 1973 tour and he once again decided to stick close to home. There he worked with artists like the Jefferson Starship, Nilsson and Peter Frampton in the early-’70s. And later with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Hopkins is one of the very few artists to have appeared on albums by each of the Beatles, including Harrison’s great Living in the Material World, Ringo’s hit singles “You’re Sixteen” and “Photograph” and Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” “Nicky Hopkin’s playing on ‘Jealous Guy’ is so melodic, so beautiful, that it still makes people cry even now,” Yoko Ono commented not long ago.

Hopkins moved to the States at some point in the ’80s while doing film score work, which oddly enough, was taken to heart mainly by Japanese film-makers. But his Crohn’s Disease (worsened by years of drinking and other substance issues) caught up to him and he died from complications of surgery for it in Nashville when he was just 50. A show of the respect for him, a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in his name was set up shortly after his death…funded largely by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Yoko Ono and Roger Daltrey.

January 29 – James, Basically Best Bassist No One Knew

Remembering the best bassist you’ve never heard of today. Or, even if you have heard of James Jamerson, probably the best bassist – at least according to Bass Player magazine and Rolling Stone. Jamerson was born this day in 1936. Although he was a session player, he managed to play on at least 23 #1 singles and, according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bring the bass “out of the shadows and to the forefront of music.”

Jamerson was born in rural South Carolina, with a musical family. His grandmother was a talented pianist and one aunt a singer. So, not surprisingly, he learned to play piano quite young, and was good at it. He even played a little trombone, perhaps not so well. But when they moved to Detroit in the early-’50s, he found the standup bass and took to it quickly. Soon he was playing in R&B and jazz combos in the clubs there, then touring with Jackie Wilson. About that time, he’d switched to a Fender electric bass. That helped him get his foot in the door at Motown, where by 1960, he was getting regular work as the go-to session bassist. Through the ’60s, he played on the majority of Motown records, often with friends who dubbed themselves the “Funk Brothers.” “Bernadette” by the Four Tops? “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes? “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye? All Jamerson on bass, as were countless others. “When they gave me that chord sheet,” he explained, “I’d look at it but I’d just start doing what I felt and what I thought would work.” Jamerson treated it like a day job, working through the day in the Hitsville Studio and often playing in jazz outfits in bars at night. Which he must have enjoyed, since by the late-’60s he was being paid $1000 a week by Motown, or about $8000 today. What he wasn’t getting though was public attention, since Motown would not list session musicians back in that era.

That only changed in 1971, and it started with Marvin. Gaye so wanted Jamerson to play on his “What’s Going On?” single that when he wasn’t in the studio, he sent crew out to look for him. They located James, very drunk, in a bar, and brought him back to Gaye. Unable to stand up, he played the track lying down! Gaye on that album was the first Motown act to list his backing players, putting Jamerson as “the incomparable James Jamerson.”

Things began to change when Motown moved west. Although he followed Berry Gordy & Co. to L.A., their sound was changing and he was less in demand. He quit the label in 1973, but kept quite busy through the decade working on albums by the likes of Tavares, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, and even Robert Palmer. The workload lessened more in the ’80s as his drinking escalated and he refused to alter his playing style to suit the times. Sadly he died in 1983 from a combination of cirrhosis and pneumonia. His son James Jamerson Jr. followed in dad’s footsteps, also being a well-received professional bassist, playing on records by the likes of Janet Jackson, Phillip Bailey and Aretha Franklin) and also died quite young, in 2016.

Although not well-known to the listening public by name, other musicians took note, including Paul McCartney who cited James as a major influence on his bass-playing. In 2000, the Rock Hall inducted him, saying Jamerson “bestowed the funkiest, grooviest basslines in the Motown catalogue.” Since then, both Rolling Stone and Bass Player have listed him as the greatest bassist ever. The latter said he “wrote the bible on bassline construction and development.” Not bad for an anonymous player!

November 30 – Jeff, The Thriller Behind The Wall Of Drums

Two of the biggest albums of all-time came out on this day, three years apart – Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in 1979, then Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982. Both were huge. Thriller spent an incredible 37 weeks at #1 in the U.S. where it was the biggest album of both 1983 and ’84. It’s 34X platinum in the States and has moved an estimated 70 million copies worldwide. The Wall can’t match that, but was no slouch, being the top album of 1980 here, selling to 23X platinum and over 30 million copies worldwide. It topped the charts for 15-straight weeks. Mind you, it wasn’t even Pink Floyd’s biggest hit, commercially. Dark Side of the Moon takes that crown. Both November 30 records were released on Columbia Records in North America. Besides that though, they seem to have little in common.

Thriller after all was an incredibly well-played effort to make an album of dance and R&B tunes but make them mainstream enough to crossover into the regular pop and rock market. The Wall was a monolithic double-album, an art rock piece that rang full of one man (Roger Waters) dystopian view of the world. Thriller had pop hit after pop hit, The Wall has only one tune the everyday, casual listener would know by heart. However, if you look deeper, there is one more surprising common element in both. Jeff Porcaro. Known mainly as a member of Toto, Jeff in fact was one of the most impactful musicians of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s…and would have probably continued to be that much longer had he not died sadly at age 38, in 1992. His death has widely been linked to a reaction to toxic pesticides he was spraying around his yard. No wonder no less a rock luminary than Eddie Van Halen called him “one of the best drummers in the world. The Groove Master.”

Porcaro played on a number of tracks from Thriller, including “Human Nature” that his brother Steve (also of Toto) co-wrote for Michael Jackson. His presence on the record may not be surprising. Porcaro was an L.A. man, and much of the record was being done there. Besides, Jackson was the singer and creator of the record, but not known for playing instruments himself, nor did he have a regular band behind him. He and producer Quincy Jones simply set out to find the best musicians around to make his songs come to life. The Wall is a bit more of a puzzler.

Unlike Jackson, Pink Floyd are British…and had a regular, full-time drummer in Nick Mason. They were making The Wall mainly in Europe, largely France. But they did visit California, thinking perhaps they’d involve the Beach Boys in the making of it, something which didn’t happen. However, it was likely during that visit they met Porcaro. Mason is a highly-regarded drummer. However, the song “Mother” is a challenge for drummers, with several time changes and unusual time signatures, like 9/8. Mason simply couldn’t get the hang of the song, and the band didn’t have weeks to wait for him to learn, so reinforcements were brought in to tackle it. Namely, Jeff.

It was a good call. If Hal Blaine was the session drummer of the ’60s out there, the crown had been passed on to Porcaro by the mid-’70s. He’d started his career as a teenager, drumming for Sonny & Cher on tour. He worked on the Seals & Crofts hit “Diamond Girl” in ’73; he became a de facto member of Steely Dan in 1974, working on their Pretzel Logic album…which wen t platinum. He’d work on their next album the following year, another platinum hit. By the bicentennial year, he’d be pounding the skins for platinum-selling hits by Leo Sayer, Jackson Browne and Boz Scaggs. And so it went. He worked on one more big album by Steely Dan (Gaucho) after he’d joined Toto by 1978. And besides Toto, a major hit machine in their own right, he drummed on albums which sold platinum or better annually from ’78 to ’86, then again from ’89-92, including five different 1991 albums!

By the time he passed away he’d been the drummer on over 30 albums that hit platinum status, from artists ranging from Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne to Lionel Richie and Michael Bolton. And let’s not forget Bruce Springsteen (Human Touch) or Eric Clapton (Behind the Sun). Of course, that was only the tip of the iceberg. He also played on well-respected but slightly lower-selling works from artists like Al Stewart, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin. The beat on Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” or Elton John’s “Empty Garden”? By now, you can probably guess who it was.

So when you pull out your copy of The Wall or rock out with “Beat It”, give a moment of thought to the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame guy who helped them become the icons they are.