Blog #3— What was it like to work with the musicians who may have played on my favorite hit song?
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Before beginning this post, let’s clarify who it actually was that played on the vast majority of the popular music that we have been listening to since the 1950s. It actually all depends on the genre of popular music that you are asking about. For example, in both pop and country music, session musicians play on almost every single track of every song that you have been listening to for more than sixty years. In rock music, it is a bit different. For example, if you are listening to a Bon Jovi song from the 1980s, or an Aerosmith song from the late 1980s or early 1990s, the members of those two bands were the musicians who played on almost all of the tracks on each of their songs— with a few occasional exceptions where a special guest musician would have been invited to play a specific instrument that was outside of the musical repertoire of the members of the band. For example, if you're a George Strait fan, it's not the famed Ace in the Hole Band that plays on his records, it's a cadre of legendary session musicians. It is the same with any country artist. In fact, it is session musicians who have made such a true imprint on the actual sound of popular music for generations of music lovers.
In blues or jazz music, it is quite similar to rock, in that most of the music is played by the band members that you will also hear in a live performance, but sometimes guest musicians will make appearances playing specific instruments that are— again, outside of the expertise of the band members. In pop and country music especially— but, in other genres as well, session musicians who were based in such cities as Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans played tremendous roles in crafting the popular music that we have come to love and to cherish. In fact, there are quite a few examples of fantastic session musicians or background vocalists becoming legendary artists themselves— such as Glen Campbell, Jimmy Page and Vince Gill, for example. In the studio, as an assistant recording studio engineer, it was my job to work with the amazing session musicians who were based in the Nashville, Tennessee, metro area.
As an assistant recording studio engineer, it was my job to set-up the studio for large-scale recording (or tracking) sessions and to work directly with the session musicians. However, once the recording session began, my job was basically done unless there was a problem with a microphone, a pair of headphones or a cue system box (which enables the musicians to be able to hear one another during a session)— which was extremely rare. I also took care of the needs of the musicians during the session— making copies of their charts and sometimes running errands for them, if necessary— which was also quite rare. In my role, as the assistant who almost always worked in the studio with the musicians, I had the opportunity to get to know many of them quite well. I thoroughly enjoyed working with each of the fabulous musicians on each of our sessions and almost all of them were legendary figures who were also some of the classiest professionals in the entire music industry. By the way, as the old saying goes, you can measure the character of someone by how well they treat the lowest person in a chain of command. There was never a single instance where a Nashville session musician did not treat me with the utmost respect— and, most of them were some of the kindest individuals in the entire music business.
Most of the amazing Nashville session musicians had earned reputations for themselves by touring with legendary artists of the past. For example, Dan Dugmore, who played the steel guitar on a lot of our recording sessions, had made a name for himself by playing in the backing bands for such legends as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. But, of all of the musicians that I had the opportunity to work with— that stood out to me, it was Jim Horn and Reggie Young who stood out to me the most and both of them have had legendary careers and have made tremendous contributions to the popular music that we have come to love and to cherish. Jim Horn is one of the greatest musicians to ever pick up a saxophone— although, he has famously played other wind instruments such as the flute and the clarinet on some legendary albums, as well. After touring with Duane Eddy, he became a member of the famed, Wrecking Crew of session musicians in Los Angeles who have played on so many classical hit songs. I worked on a saxophone overdub session with him for the Hank Williams Jr. album, Stormy. His incredible string of credits could include: The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Glen Frey, and Linda Ronstadt,— and this is just a small list of the many, many amazing credits that he has had in his career which began in 1959. He was a true joy to work with in the studio— kind, generous and helpful. My opportunity to work with Reggie Young came during an overdub session for an electric guitar solo for the John Berry song, “Over My Shoulder.” He arrived early that afternoon, which gave me the golden opportunity to be able to visit with him prior to the session. He was also kind and generous and a great storyteller, too. His career as a professional musician began in 1955, and he started playing as a session musician in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-1960s. He had been a member of the famed Bill Black Combo-- which in the summer of 1964 had been the opening act for The Beatles on their first American tour. His work at American Sound Studio led him to become one of the key members of the famed Memphis Boys cadre of session musicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His incredible string of credits could include: Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, Dobie Gray, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Reba McEntire— and this is also just a small sampling of his amazing discography. Both of these men have fashioned amazing careers in music and have given us some of the greatest hits in popular music. But, to me, both of them were also representative of the community of session musicians that I had the opportunity to work with— kind, professional and a true joy to work with in the recording studio, plus, they were always full of great stories of wonderful people making great music.
When the great session musicians sat down in their chairs during a recording (or tracking) session, it usually took them only a take or two after just hearing the demo of a song to have one in the can. We would often record two, sometimes three sessions in a day and during them, we might actually knock out anywhere from 6-8 songs in a day. I never witnessed an instance where it took more than four takes for them to have a master for a song. Yes, they were really that good. An overdub with one of these fabulous musicians might take anywhere from 30-45 minutes for one or two songs to have their takes perfected and recorded. It was amazing to experience. But, as I have noted many times in this blog post, it was not just their talent that made each of them amazing, it was also their professionalism and character that made them both legendary and wonderful to work with, too.
For example, both of the sessions that I worked on with Jim Horn and Reggie Young were overdub sessions that featured them playing on a single song and each lasted for about 30-minutes. While the session with Jim Horn featured our full engineering team, the one with Reggie Young was a unique experience for me. In fact, until the cartage guys (who delivered the equipment for the musicians and engineers for the sessions) dropped off his equipment and he knocked on the door and introduced himself to me, I did not even know that I would be working on the session, or that we were even having one for that matter. It was a pleasant surprise. There was also no engineer listed for the session. I set-up for it while visiting with Reggie and listening to him tell stories of his time working with Elvis Presley in Memphis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While it was cool on the one hand, I have to admit that I was extremely nervous. A few minutes later, my producer and boss, Chuck Howard, arrived and I found out at that moment, that it would be just me and him working the session together. At first, I was nervous, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. He told me, with a twinkle in his eye, "Don't worry, just punch me in and I will take care of everything else. You'll do just fine, I promise you." He did and thank goodness, he was right about me, too. I enjoyed working with him and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to be able to do so. I was so appreciative that he stayed after the session, so that I could hear him visiting with my boss and more of his amazing stories. I was so blessed and fortunate.
If you want to hear the amazing songs that have featured Jim Horn and or, Reggie Young, give this playlist a listen on either Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube.
To listen to the songs in the playlists-- click on the following links:
Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube
Also, I want to take a moment to thank each of the great Nashville session musicians that I had the opportunity to be able to work with for dazzling us with their amazing talents and gifts and for being the consummate professionals in the studio. I would also like for us to pause and to take a moment to remember Reggie Young, who sadly passed away on January 17, 2019, at the age of 82. Every time you listen to the songs, "Suspicious Minds," performed by Elvis Presley, or "Drift Away," performed by Dobie Gray, it is the magic of his electric guitar that you are listening to in those classic hit songs of the past.
A summary of the blog post, "What was it like to work with the musicians who may have played on my favorite hit song?" is available below. It is one minute in length.