The “sideman” is not a member of the band. He is the faceless hired gun who willingly accepts the lesser piece of the action despite often making a vital contribution the sound. Some great musicians ultimately emerged from these behind-the-scene roles to become stars in their own right but many more did not. This is a labor day salute to some of my favorite obscure records that were fronted by great sidemen who did not quite make stardom.
James Burton: The Guitar Sounds of James Burton 
Burton is the ultimate session guitar player. He is probably best known for his excellent guitar work with Elvis Presley in the 70s Vegas era but he also worked with Elvis Costello, Buffalo Springfield, Gram Parsons, Ricky Nelson and Joni Mitchell among others. His signature axe is a blonde Telecaster. This record was not a big commercial success has got some really nice playing on it. There is a great Burton video where he talks about his various picking styles and influences:
Melvin “Wah Wah Watson”: Elementary 
I first became aware of Wah Wah Watson from his ultra funky guitar work on the 70s Herbie Hancock records but then his name started to pop up everywhere. The funky bluesy stuff on Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On? Wah Wah. The groovy licks on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall? Wah Wah. He has also done work for Blondie, Stevie Wonder, you name it. This record is really fun to listen to when you are looking to hear something in that late 70s funky fusion pocket without heavy foreground.
Dennis Coffey : Hair and Thangs 
Coffey is a true Detroit Soul session guitar superstar. He laid down countless gritty Motown tracks including Diana Ross, The Temptations and Edwin Starr. His agility in many styles from Rock to Jazz to Funk and his innovative use of the wah-wah pedal enabled him to introduce many subtle genre cross pollinations in his session work. Coffey was the first white artist to be invited to perform on Soul Train. His first solo record is a classic.
Nicky Hopkins : The Tin Man Was a Dreamer 
Nicky Hopkins performed session work for the Beatles, Kinks, Who, Jeff Beck Group, Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane and all of the Rolling Stones records from 1967-76. It is almost impossible to listen to a “Classic Rock” playlist for even a few minutes without encountering his nimble playing. His first solo effort of three is an underrated gem.
I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz while making lunch in the kitchen this afternoon as I often do on a Sunday and he suggested that in order to insure that the cannon of 20th century song is passed into the 20th century and beyond, it is best for children to be exposed to this great music at an early age so that means something to them. It got me thinking about what I might consider to be a short list of records for such a mission. Here it is:
I have been listening to Solomon Burke today. Sadly, the eccentric showman credited for helping to keep the lights on at Atlantic Records in the early 60s has died. Burke had a subtle vocal style and wide eclectic influences that earned him respect from a range of artists. This has made his music wound tightly into the DNA of American Soul and Rock.
The creative process is often a solitary, tortured and somewhat mysterious act. I am always interested in learning how great artists (and great software developers for that matter) find a way to stimulate their creative mind, focus and produce their work. Aside from David Bowie’s new book ‘Bowie: Object’, there are a few other books by musicians on my list that interest me because of their promise to reveal parts of this puzzle.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am often talking about how important it was for me that I had the opportunity to participate in a great high school music program. You can understand then how excited I am to see Thunder Soul – Mark Landsman’s documentary about the great Kashmere Stage Band from Texas and it’s innovative leader Conrad Johnson. This is the tightest, funkiest highschool band I have ever heard. I can’t imagine anyone not coming out of this film and demanding better support for the arts in ALL of our public schools.
One of the funk bass greats has left us today. Marvin Isley was responsible for laying down the law for the crossover hits that kept the Isley Brothers on the radio for much of the 70s. Here are some great live Soul Train performances from 73-4.
I can almost always pick Ellis even when he is doing ‘strictly rythym’ percussive accompaniment as he does in the lead off here. We will miss his clean, hard driving swing and unpretentious playfulness but we have lots of great records to listen to and I am sure OP is glad to see him up there in Jazz Heaven.
I stumbled across this post on boing boing about the Mary Kaye Trio. I have heard this excellent singing group in various compilations but did not realize that she was the founder of the Vegas lounge show itself. These late night shows were credited with greatly expanding the success of the nascent casino industry by creating the party atmosphere that kept people awake and gambling the night away. I had no idea. I am once again humbled by the interweb. Mary Kaye was one impressive lounge singer:
She was a Spanish guitar virtuoso and played the first fender Stratocaster. The 1954 Mary Kaye model is one of the most valuable models in existence.
She is descended from Hawaiian royalty in the line of Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.
In 1961, the trio were paid the $250,000 for a 22-week gig at the Sahara – that is $1,7M in modern dollars.
Still feeling like we have evolved to a higher plain of consciousness now that Celine rules the City of Lights? Then there is no hope for you.
Rudy Van Gelder is considered to be the vital ‘fifth Beetle’ on a zillion of the best jazz records ever made. Though he considers himself strictly a recording engineer, the Van Gelder sound is as signature as any great musician’s. Have you ever mucked about trying to get his sound or even kinda sorta his sound on a direct to 2 track session at home? I have and it has not been pretty. I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 main reasons for my failure:
I don’t have his mikes and it is almost impossible to find out what his mikes are. He uses decoys in photos.
I don’t have his room nor do I have his understanding of room acoustics.
I am not Rudy Van Gelder.
If anyone can help me overcome any of the above please get in touch and I will try again.
Here is a 2008 NEA jazz interview of the man himself.
I am saddened that Tavern on the Green will be closing. I was a founding member of a Tavern house band that performed jazz there regularly in 1998 – 2001. They were sometimes brutal gigs but they paid the rent and kept my fingers warm while I was in grad school. I was fortunate to work with excellent musicians who couldn’t help but make serious music even when nobody else seemed to be listening. Tavern was no longer exactly cool nor was it a haven for foodie hipsters but that is what made ultra special – one of those vanishing old New York places that had so much history that it did not give a damn. Like a proud old silent movie actor, Tavern loudly (and sometimes drunkenly) reminded you of it’s heyday and ignored its obvious decline and increasing irrelevance. There was soul underneath all of those layers of kitsch that made it not at all embarrassing to be overtaken by the in-your-face romance of all of those ridiculous lights and mirrors. No matter how mediocre the food and unglamorous the clientele, somehow Tavern was still a place Grace Kelly might pull up to in a horse drawn carriage at any minute. We played some mean Cole Porter for her on those nights I can assure you.