Studio musicians played major roles in history of great rock
You may have heard a lot about the Funk Brothers, the legendary group of Motown studio musicians who played on classic songs “My Girl,” “I Heard it through the Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Baby Love,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Heat Wave” among others.
The story of the Funk Brothers was told in a 2002 documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” which said the Funk Brothers played on more hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones combined. In fact very few records are ever made without the help of session musicians.
A good session musician can make income in the six figure category by being just a studio musician. When Mark Knopfler was asked in 2005 why he chose to take studio musicians Glen Worf and Matt Rollins on tour with him, his response was “Have you heard them play?” A studio musician’s importance should never be underestimated.
Another prominent group of studio musicians were getting together in Southern California in the late 1960s and their story is told in the DVD documentary “Troubadours, the Rise of the Singer Songwriter” where I found all of the quotes that follow.
The group consisted of Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on piano and drummer Russ Kunkel. They would later come to be known as the Section based on their work as the house band for Asylum Records.
Under the name the Section, they released “Fork it Over” in 1978 with very little sales success even though the critics liked it. Most of the Section played on Carole King’s “Tapestry” of which she said on the DVD “These were musicians who knew that they were there to serve the song, serve the performance.”
“We were fortunate enough to come along at a time when they were putting names on albums,” Sklar said, “so people looked at the records, saw our names and said let’s call these guys and have them play on our record. Then we all had careers. Who would of thought?”
“Maybe for 10 years, half the music in L.A. was made by the same 20 cats,” Deorge said. “They called us the L.A. studio mafia. Writers would say, ‘Oh they got these L.A. guys again.’ Truthfully those L.A. guys were pretty good.”
I have been familiar with these four session musicians for 30-plus years by owning and studying albums they all played on. Albums by King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Graham Nash as well as numerous other recordings on Asylum and other labels.
Barney Hoskyns author of “Hotel California” said on the DVD, “It’s important to talk about the sound on those records, just the nice woody organic sound of those records was exemplified by the Section. They played beautifully but not ‘show-offy’. It wasn’t flashy it was simple, it served the song.”
“We were just a bunch of kids amazed that we were getting a chance to do all this,” Kunkel said on the DVD. “Everyone was 21 or 20 years old. It was pretty much like somebody pinch me.”
“One thing that was really important for us is we had each other,” Kortchmar said. “Any time things would get nasty Leland would crack a joke or Russ would pat me on the back and I would realize we were all there for each other. We still are.”
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