May 31 – Album Wasn’t A Scam But Neither Was It Their Crowning Achievement

For fans it wasn’t really being “scammed”, but it wasn’t necessarily Steely Dan‘s finest moment either. They released their fifth album, The Royal Scam, this day in 1976.

By then, they were down to the core pair of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, although they as always wanted to surround themselves with talent in the studio. They enlisted their favorite producer, Gary Katz, once more and brought in 21 studio musicians to complete the record, including Elliott Randall (who’d played the memorable solo on “Reeling in the Years” awhile earlier) on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and backing vocalists including Michael McDonald (who’d go on to help them on their later hit “Peg”) and Timothy B. Schmit, soon to join the Eagles.

They took their time recording this, as was their trademark, but unlike their previous records (not to mention the follow-up, Aja) this one lacked a standout hit. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying. The compositions were well-written, the studio help top-notch, and as usual, the lyrics poetic and reflective of their varied tastes and obscure interests. There was a “Haitian Divorce”, and “The Fez” as well as a song inspired by some caves with hieroglyphics, and the not-quite-a-best-seller novel written about them, “Caves of Altamira.,  And there was the closest thing the album had to a hit single, “Kid Charlemagne”, loosely inspired by Owlsley Stanley, a San Francisco hippie musician/producer of LSD. Which perhaps fit the album, as they would later say they made The Royal Scam “under the influence of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ‘whatever’”. Of course, not all the references in their songs were obscure; “Everything You Did” was about a couple having their problems and name-dropped The Eagles being played loud by neighbors. Glenn Frey (of the Eagles) would later say “apparently Walter Becker’s girlfriend loved the Eagles and she played them all the time. I think it drove him nuts!”

Whether too few lyrical references the public could relate to or just not a terribly great set of songs, the album stagnated commercially. It didn’t flop by any means – it became their fourth platinum one in the U.S. – and hit #15, #24 in Canada, those were less impressive numbers than their previous two records, or the one to follow-up, Aja. That might well be because they failed to lob even one song into the top 40 in North America. However, Brit ears pricked up for The Royal Scam (it was “royal” after all) and it got to #11 there and scored them their first top 30 song there, “Haitian Divorce.”

Reviews at the time were lukewarm, which rather continues to this day. Rolling Stone for example, later graded it 5-stars, but mostly praised “the rarefied capabilities of the hired studio help” who could “rock and swing all at the same time,” without particularly appreciating any of the nine songs. Allmusic give it 3.5-stars but point out it was “the first Steely Dan record that doesn’t exhibit significant progress from its predecessor” and calling it “their weakest set of songs” to that point although there was still “nothing particularly bad” on it.

Some might suggest it was their weakest cover art as well – the band themselves for instance. Becker & Fagen called it “the most hideous album cover of the ’70s”…but it nearly wasn’t their hideous cover! The work based on a Charles Ganse photo was commissioned for a Van Morrison album. But when the Irish bard shelved that particular project, Steely Dan swooped it up. No word if they were under the influence of “whatever” at the time!


May 24 – Lefty Made All The Right Friends

We’ve frequently talked about the “Wrecking Crew” here before, an elite informal group of L.A.-based session musicians like Glen Campbell, Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine who were incredibly talented and incredibly in demand in the ’60s. A list of their credits might make one think they played on half of all the American hits of that decade. They weren’t as much utilized in the ’70s, but there still were some great, popular studio musicians in the City of Angels that formed a sort of second generation Wrecking Crew who made many of the hits of the ’70s and ’80s happen. Guys like guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel and today’s birthday boy – Waddy Wachtel. We wish the talented guitarist/producer a happy 76th today.

Waddell Wachtel was born in New York City and learned guitar by age nine. Impressive, especially considering he’s left-handed but learned to play the conventional, right-handed way. By his high school years he was beginning to write songs and started his first band, which eventually became popular as a bar band in the city and Connecticut in the mid-’60s. But his big break came when he moved to the West Coast in 1968, soon finding some work doing a bit of session playing for The Cowsills. From there he met the incredibly talented and successful burgeoning crowd of L.A. soft rock stars in the making. “I have been very lucky,” he told the L.A. Times recently. “It’s been an incredible ride. Los Angeles was such an open, creative place then. It was an amazing time to be here. I was playing with Linda Ronstadt, then James Taylor. I met Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham…”

And playing on their records. Indeed, his idea of playing guitar as “a counter-point – providing something to catch your ear within the song when the singing leaves off,” won him big fans among his friends. He played on the Buckingham Nicks album that led to them getting recruited by Fleetwood Mac, then added a few licks to that band’s 1975 breakthrough. No doubt through them he met their one-time roommate, Warren Zevon, and helped him write his smash hit “Werewolves of London” and playing on his Excitable Boy album. Around the same time he began working with Jackson Browne periodically and Linda Ronstadt regularly, being her guitarist of choice on albums like Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams and Living in the USA. His heavy workload continued into the ’80s, playing on Stevie Nicks first couple of solo records, including songs like “Leather and Lace” and “Stand Back”, playing on Steve Perry’s solo hit “Oh Sherrie” and joining a side-project band of Keith Richards, The X-pensive Winos. And when Australian new wavers The Church came to town, Waddy got the call to co-produce Starfish, the album that made them a hit on this side of the Pacific. In the past decade when Taylor Swift played the Grammys and Stevie Nicks got inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was Waddy behind them with that old Gibson. Add in credits on guitar and writing with artists as varied as Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Feargal Sharkey and Colin James and you begin to get the idea – Waddy’s one of rock’s most important “invisible men.” Or as his hometown newspaper dubs him, “a sideman without peer.”

These days Wachtel still does some session work (for instance he was the main guitarist on Susanna Hoffs’ new album, The Deep End which we reviewed recently) and from time to time appears in a rather impromptu club band called The Immediate Family, usually with fellow session stars Kunkel and Kortchmar. Likely playing an old guitar. He once said a 1964 Fender Stratocaster was the newest instrument he owned! But if you want to try to duplicate

his sound, Gibson would be happy to help you. They offer a Waddy Wachtel model based on an old one Steven Stills once gave him.

April 27 – Drum God? Who Are We To Argue With Modern Drummer?

We’ve previously talked of perhaps the greatest session drummer of all-time, Hal Blaine of the informal “Wrecking Crew” in L.A. He played on thousands of hits in the ’60s and ’70s and was one of the most respected men in the biz. If anyone could have been said to take over the “studio king” crown from Blaine, it would be today’s birthday boy, Jim Keltner. Keltner turns 81 today…but don’t bet against him doing a little jam behind the kit nonetheless! How else would a drummer who was friends with three out of four Beatles and has worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Diana Kraal celebrate?

Jim was born in Tulsa but like so many other mid-century musicians, moved to California as soon as he had a chance. Unlike some, his passion as a youth was jazz music, but by the time he started being paid to play, jazz wasn’t that big anymore. Rock and pop were the way to go, so there went Keltner. His first session was in 1965 for Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Soon after that he joined a psychedelic rock band, the MC Squared. Although they got to play on the short-lived Playboy After Dark TV show, their career didn’t amount to very much. So, wisely it would seem, he turned his attention to being a session drummer for better-established artists.

Luckily for him, he was friends with fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell. Russell opened a few doors for Jim… but a friend like that will only get you in for a coffee. It was clearly Jim’s talent that kept him there and opening more.

He got on Joe Cocker’s 1970 tour, and that along with his friendship with Russell drew George Harrison’s attention. Harrison brought him in for the Concert for Bangladesh, in which he split drum duties with another pretty good one – Ringo Starr! He did well enough that Harrison would call on him again and again, including on the Living in the Material World album and even playing the judge in a video he made for “This Song” and later when Harrison became a Traveling Wilbury. Keltner played on a number of their songs under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury.

Apparently Ringo took note too, because he used Keltner on his self-titled album (the biggest of his career) and hired him for the All Starr Band at times. And not to be left out, John Lennon also used Keltner on records including Walls & Bridges and his #1 hit song “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

All that attention from Beatles couldn’t help but increase his profile and it seemed like he showed up on the Who’s Who of California musicians and Cali-made records in the ’70s. Carly Simon, Bob Dylan (including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, a song for which he remembers “the first time I actually cried while playing”), Barbra Streisand, Canadian folkies Valdy and Bruce Cockburn, the Buckingham Nicks album that got those two into Fleetwood Mac, Bill Withers, five Joe Cocker ones, Steely Dan (he added some percussion via garbage can lid to “Josie”) even Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers Damn the Torpedoes. That continued into the ’80s, with him working on albums by the likes of Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw, Roy Orbison, the aforementioned Wilburys, the Beach Boys big “comeback” and more. The ’90s meant working with Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, Neil Young and touring with him and later a re-formed CSNY. In 2016, he helped aging Charlie Watts along some on the Rolling Stones Blue & Lonesome. To this day he’s kept himself busy, in 2020 (at age 78) he did the percussion for a Japanese manga movie!

Despite his low-profile, he’s been noticed by people in the know. Even Forbes magazine mentioned him, calling him “one of the best studio drummers in the world.” Rolling Stone had him at #38 on their list of greatest drummers of all-time, noting he’d been on literally “thousands of records”, making it seem easy with his “easy-going feel and jazz schooled subtlety” to which he replied “there’s so many different ways to play the drums, just like guitar.” Modern Drummer also have him on their list of the best, calling him one of the “greats” – “inarguably a true studio drum god” working with “simple but magical performances” and occasionally using “kitchen utensils”. Their summary of him is a perfect way to finish here – “”a rare music legend who is as vital today as when he first made his mark.”

March 11 – After Winning A Six-pack Of Record Of The Years, More People Should Have Known Hal’s Name

Remembering fondly one of rock’s all-time greats, who passed away four years ago today. Few have been a part of so much of the soundtrack to the ’60s and ’70s; fewer still were less well known than Hal Blaine. The Massachusetts-born, California-residing drummer passed away at age 90 from natural causes this day in 2019.

We’ve heard of John Bonham, we’ve heard of Charlie Watts, and of course Ringo, yet all of them combined arguably had their sticks in fewer hit records than Blaine. The busy drummer was the erstwhile leader of the Wrecking Crew, the loosely-aligned group of super studio musicians who seemed to be on almost every record made in California… and then some… in the ’60s. Among the others in the Crew were bassist Carol Kaye who’s still around, as well as Glen Campbell and keyboardist Larry Knetchel, both of whom proceeded Blaine into the great beyond.

Blaine began his career playing in strip clubs in the post-war era and soon was backing Count Basie. By the early-’60s rock was taking over – but many of the artists exceled at singing and performing, not actually playing their instruments. A demand for quality studio musicians arose, and Blaine answered the call, and got together with the various talents who made up the Wrecking Crew. Of course, at first he met with resistance from both the bosses and the artists, in many cases. “A lot of people thought (rock & roll) was a dirty word. They didn’t want to hear that kind of music. They had no idea we were all well-learned and well-studied musicians,” he remembered. In fact, some executives saw them in their studios, in Levis and smoking and worried they were “wrecking” music – hence the nickname. But soon those execs would catch on!

His role as drummer/percussionist was especially important on some of the early rock records. “The beat was always essential,” he’d say years later. “A single had to feel solid, and pop and make people want to get up and move. That’s why people bought them.” And making a beat people wanted to move to was something that came naturally to Hal, as we hear on some of his old hits like Elvis’ “Return to Sender” and the iconic Ronettes “Be My Baby”. Of that Rolling Stone noted, “if (he) had played drums only on the Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ his name would still be uttered with reverence. But he was so much more.”

Besides working on some of Motown’s greats by the likes of The Supremes, he changed with the sound of the day. Famously he was recruited by the Beach Boys for their brilliant Pet Sounds album, even though Dennis Wilson was officially their drummer. He recalled Wilson loving it when he would sit in on the kit in the studio, so the Beach Boy could go out and surf or ride his motorcycle. His contribution was not unnoticed by Brian Wilson of the band who says “Hal taught me a lot and had so much to do with our success. He was the greatest drummer ever.” Something echoed by Toto’s Steve Lukather, who after hearing of Blaine’s death said “there will never be another. Go Google the hits he played on!” Hits that included at least 40 #1 singles, ranging from Neil Diamond to John Denver to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and an unprecedented streak of 6-straight Grammy Record of the Year winners, from Herb Albert’s “A Taste of Honey” for 1965 through Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” for 1970, with Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up & Away” and “”Aquarius” as well as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” in the years between. He was Sinatra’s preferred drummer, and so well-regarded casinos in Las Vegas put Blaine’s name on the marquee with Sinatra’s, albeit in a smaller text. On “Bridge over Troubled Water”, he  not only tackled the drums, but dragged some chains around on a concrete floor, part of the reason Rolling Stone ranked him as the fifth greatest drummer of all-time, saying his “true legacy is his chameleon-like adaptability to any session.” Add in numerous hits from artists ranging from the Righteous Brothers to Elvis Presley and no wonder when Jimmy Webb won a Song of the Year Grammy he would later say all he could remember about getting the award was being sure to thank Hal Blaine!

So, sadly now most of us to whom he was anonymous in life now know his name in death. Those wanting to know more about Hal and the Wrecking Crew should check out the documentary of that name, which interviews Hal as well as Carol Kaye and Tommy Tedesco in depth and add great clips from their heyday as well as with other Crew-members like Leon Russell. Undeservedly little-known as he was, I don’t think he’d want us feeling too sorry for him. He loved drumming, he loved music and as he mentioned to Modern Drummer, “I’ve had 263 gold and platinum records, made literally a couple of million bucks. So I was laughing all the way to the bank.” And I imagine. going to the bank walking in 4/4 time!

February 5 – L.A. Band Became Synonymous With The Dark Continent

On this day in 1983, Toto hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart for the first time with the catchy “Africa”. It helped their fourth album, appropriately entitled Toto IV go on to be their biggest hit, being a #1 hit in Canada and Australia and a top 10 in the U.S., UK and most of Europe.

The group had started out as a bunch of well-respected studio musicians in L.A. who worked with the likes of Steely Dan and Seals and Crofts and hit the charts with their first album (and the single “Hold the Line”) right around when punk was breaking big. Critics didn’t care for them but the public liked them well enough. As Steve Lukather of the band remembers, “we’d all come from this background of serious musicianship…we’d all studied music. They (critics) grabbed us to hold up as the antithesis of (what is cool.)” Critics be damned, the record won Toto seven Grammys including Record of the Year and went on to sell about six million copies. Although their debut album, four years earlier had launched a top 10 hit in “Hold the Line” and sold two million, it was clearly a huge leap upwards for the band.

Perhaps surprisingly, neither of the pair that wrote “Africa” – Jeff Porcaro and David Paich – had been to Africa when they made the record. Porcaro says he’d been influenced by visiting the African pavilion at the World’s Fair when he was a boy, finding the authentic African drumming he heard there “like a religious experience.” Paich was inspired by a TV show he’d seen on the problems of the continent, and says the suffering there “both appalled and moved me” and he just tried to imagine what it would be like to be there in person. Most of Toto, fresh with the knowledge of mixing together 69 separate tracks on three different recorders, went to the studio to help Michael Jackson record Thriller next.

Surprisingly, there’s now a postscript to the story of “Africa.” The song had a major resurgence in popularity in 2018 after ’90s slacker-rock stars Weezer recorded a cover version. They did that in response to a teenage fan’s Tweeted suggestion that they do so. The song became a surprise hit, getting to #51 on Billboard (their best showing in 13 years) and leading them to put out an album of all covers (including A-ha’s “Take on Me” and Iron Maiden’s “Paranoid”) . The attention garnered the Toto original a renewed popularity on radio and helped bump it past to the incredible 8X platinum level at home.

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.

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.