|Aretha Franklin at Hamilton College, in 2008|
June 18, 2015
My wife and I recently saw an engaging movie called “The Wrecking Crew.” It chronicled the history of a select group of studio musicians in Los Angeles who seemingly played on every record that came out of L.A. studios in the 60s and 70s. Their list of credits is astounding; both albums and one-hit-wonders succeeded because of their musical input.
When preparing for an interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I try to do as much research as possible, and have read numerous resumes and bios in this process. A common phrase is: John Q. Musician has played or recorded with … This all-inclusive resume bullet covers a lot of ground and can include the following sub-categories:
• Has been hired by a contractor to play with …
• Has paid these musicians to play with him
• Has been hired for a recording session with …
• Has jammed with …
My own musical resume includes entries in almost all of these categories.
The most common occurrence for shared the stage with is being a member of a warm-up band for a big name act. I recall the excitement of warming up for Herbie Hancock in the mid-1970s. Herbie’s group was enjoying a surge of popularity on the heels of his groundbreaking record “Chameleon.” I was a member of an Oswego, NY-based band called Coalition and we fit the genre of jazz-fusion. The band members and I fantasized about the possibilities. All warm-up bands do. Maybe he’ll hear us, like us, and invite us on his tour to be his regular warm-up act. Maybe he knows somebody in the record business and will provide a recommendation. Of course none of that happened. My strongest memory is being required to be on stage five hours before the concert for a perfunctory sound check. Herbie’s saxophonist, Benny Maupin, stood where I did after our set. So I guess I can say that I shared the stage with Herbie Hancock and his Head Hunters.
Years later I was a member of a group called Mr. Edd. We warmed up for the guitar phenom Rick Derringer. Different band, same excitement, same result.
Much of my experience with pop and rock personalities has been under the hired by a contractor category. Utica, Syracuse and Rochester provide performing sites on the convenient New York State Thruway circuit, and many artists who require back-up bands have passed through over the years. I will never forget my experience with rock & roll singer Bobby Lewis, who was best known for his hit “Tossin’ & Turnin.’” Bobby augmented his 30 minute set with other hits from the era, and in our brief and harried rehearsal we ran through the doo wop song “Who Put the Bomp.” Bobby, who was legally blind, became agitated during the intro, when my attempts to accompany him on piano didn’t jive with his singing. His gesticulations became more and more animated as he exclaimed, “No! No! Not like that!” I became extremely frustrated as I stared at the music and struggled to connect with Bobby’s words, “I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song...” Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable amount of time, I took a close look at both pages of the music and discovered that some unnamed pianist before me had taped the two pages backwards. I was actually trying to start the song at the beginning of page two. I beat myself up pretty good after this particular gig, but it makes for a good story.
My memories with Sam the Sham, of “Wooly Bully” fame are more upbeat. Sam came with his own guitar accompanist and a contracted bassist and drummer was all he needed to add, except for the song “Wooly Bully,” which required a prominent tenor sax solo. I got the assignment and before we walked out on stage Sam came to me with a serious demeanor, and said, “are you my sax player tonight?” I replied, “yes, I am.” He said, “are you good?” Now this is a question that you get asked on occasion and there’s always an internal debate. The knee-jerk response is, “well yes, I’m a decent player.” Boring. In this case I decided to play his game, hoping it was indeed a game. I said, “yes, I’m good.” He says, “are you really good?” I said, “yes, I’m really good.” “Are you great?” “I’m a great player.” His last move: “well then you can’t play with me.” But I did. A memorable moment.
By far the most intense gig via contractor was the Hamilton College concert with Aretha Franklin. In this case I was the contractor for the horn section. So I hired myself. The run-through in the afternoon couldn’t even be called a rehearsal. One chart after the other, play the beginning, play the end, move on.
Afterwards people asked me, “how was Aretha?” And I can’t even tell them. She was not at the rehearsal, and during the concert the horn players had to do their best to tune her out, knowing that as soon as we started paying attention to what she was doing we would lose our place as the music flew by. But I can tell you that the moniker “Queen of Soul” is apropos.
I was contracted to play three dates with rock & roller Del Shannon and initially thought I would be playing the iconic keyboard solo on “Runaway.” It is technically challenging, and is a hook in and of itself. I put considerable practice time into it, only to have Del say, “don’t play that, play something raunchy.”
Other artists that I could include in this “contracted for” category include Bob Newhart, Connie Francis and Joan Rivers. You can read about my experience with Ms. Rivers in my blog entry Joan Saves the Day.
On to the has paid these musicians to play with category. I can cite a lengthy list of jazz artists that I have been in the enviable position to hire. In 1975 I engaged in my first booking of a well-known jazz personality. I brought Marian McPartland to the high school where I taught and staged a concert with her and my jazz band. In a quartet segment I was able to perform with this artist who was so full of class and talent. We were acquaintances for the rest of her life, and one of my songs on my 1999 release of “Jazz Life” was dedicated to her. It’s entitled “Queen’s Waltz.”
Every fall I book a group of veteran jazz players for Hamilton’s Fallcoming concert. It was on stage during one of the 2002 events that I received a nice compliment, in the form of a question. The band partially consisted of woodwind artists Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. I was invited on stage to play “Apex Blues.” During my soprano sax solo I engaged in what I call “tongue wagging,” an effect rather like double tonguing on the trumpet. Bob Wilber, who was standing to my left, asked me while I was playing, “hey, how do you do that?”
My engagements with these musicians over the years, also included Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, and Claude “Fiddler” Williams. These comprise some of my most memorable musical moments. There are advantages to playing with people you have hired. You are very likely to receive glowing praise, especially while you still have their pay in your possession.
Another category would be hired to play on a record. In the early 1980s a band came to town to record at UCA Studios where I worked. Like all bands, they were doing demos in hopes of obtaining a record deal. Unlike most bands, they landed one, and a healthy one at that. A couple of months later I found myself in a Memphis, Tennessee recording studio, engaged as an arranger and keyboardist. At one point I was overdubbing a keyboard part, basically beating up on a Wurlitzer electric piano that had been passed through a fuzz box and Marshall amp. The harder I played, the more they liked it. I’m not sure that I would include this particular song on a compilation of musical moments to tout. Actually the best recollection I have of the trip was being able to run my fingers over the B3 organ that Booker T used on “Green Onions.”
As for the last category, has jammed with, I never have been much of a “jammer,” but I do my best to prepare my students for moments when they will jam with others. One of my former students, Sam Kininger, jammed regularly with The Dave Mathews Band, proving once again that all cream eventually does rise.