In 1965, when a plane carrying the stars of the Motortown Revue touched down in London, the passengers looked out the window and saw a frenzied mass of young Brits on the tarmac. The mob had come to welcome the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations and other Motown stars, who were about to embark on a concert tour of England. Having witnessed the limb-rending hysteria of Beatlemania the year before, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the others braced for the onslaught. As the cabin doors opened and the architects of The Sound of Young America descended the stairs, the crowd surged forward and dashed straight to . . . James Jamerson.
At least that’s the story that Smokey Robinson told in a recent interview with the writer Bill Flanagan on Sirius XM.
Jamerson, bass player in Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers, was an essential cog in the engine that drove dozens of classic singles, and he had achieved his own stardom in England for his rhythmically intricate and melodically sophisticated bass lines. And while the late Jamerson remains more famous in America than most studio musicians of the era, his name is likely to ring a bell with only the most astute listeners.
Such is the fate of the side men and women of popular music. While several relatively recent documentaries (“Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Muscle Shoals,” “The Wrecking Crew,” “20 Feet from Stardom”) have celebrated the musicians behind the hits, few of these studio pros ever achieve the kind of acclaim they deserve.
But every once in awhile, an under-heralded genius steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight. That’s the case with Jerry Douglas, who visits Knuckleheads on Thursday, Aug. 24 with his Jerry Douglas Band in support of their brand new album “What If,” a wildly imaginative melding of jazz, bluegrass and blues.
Douglas is the modern-day king of the Dobro, the high-whining resonator guitar that has long been a staple of the country and folk music of the American south, and he’s equally adept on pedal steel. When he’s not leading his own band or playing as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Douglas plays with, well, everybody. At least one estimate says that Douglas has played on more than 2000 albums, adding his distinctive touch to work by artists as diverse and towering as Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks and Elvis Costello. Along the way, he has earned 14 Grammy awards and has been named Musician of the Year three times by the Country Music Association. He has earned the lifetime achievement award from the American Music Association, plus more than two dozen awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
In other words, “side man” is both a perfect and wholly inadequate description of Douglas. It’s also a concept that is fading into obscurity as the economics of the music business change and modern recording techniques evolve. In honor of the musicians who have all but anonymously made much of the music you love, here’s an all-star band of studio pros.
Bass: Carol Kaye. We previously mentioned the great James Jamerson (you can go to YouTube and fall down a rabbit hole of isolated bass tracks). What he was to Detroit, Carol Kaye was to Los Angeles. A member of the famed Wrecking Crew of L.A. studio aces, Kaye played on more than 10,000 recordings, anchoring productions for Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, among others, and playing on hits for Ike & Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, The Monkees, Randy Newman and many, many others. Some of her most famous work can be found on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” When Brian Wilson was searching for perfection, he called Carol Kaye.
This clip shows that the best musicians were also de facto songwriters. When charts for “The Beat Goes On” arrived in the studio with no discernable hook, Kaye invented one herself and created a smash hit for Sonny and Cher.
Drums: Jim Keltner. Earl Palmer was the original, playing on tracks for everyone from Little Richard to Frank Sinatra and Tom Waits, and Hal Blaine worked alongside Carol Kaye in The Wrecking Crew on thousands of classic sides. But for sheer longevity and variety, it’s hard to beat Jim Keltner. When the most famous drummer who ever lived wanted a drummer of his own, he called Keltner, whose work can be heard all over Ringo Starr’s best album, 1973’s “Ringo.” Keltner also played on albums by John Lennon and George Harrison, which put him in the rare company of drummers who supported three different Beatles. He has played with Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, the Bee Gees and hundreds of others. At age 75, Keltner has been in the business for more than 50 years, and he remains active to this day. In 2016, he played on Neil Young’s album “Peace Trail.”
Keyboards: Spooner Oldham. In the 1960s and ‘70s, musicians from around the world traveled to a small town in northwest Alabama in search of a sound that couldn’t be found elsewhere. There, in Muscle Shoals, was FAME Studios, and inside FAME’s walls was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a band that brought funk and finesse to hundreds of classic recordings. A linchpin of the band was Spooner Oldham, whose organ sound carried the weight on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He has played with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett and the Everly Brothers. But his most important work might have come when a young Aretha Franklin visited Muscle Shoals after a mostly unsuccessful run with her original label, Columbia Records. After she signed with Atlantic Records, her producer Jerry Wexler took her to Alabama to record the album that would make her a superstar. But it might never had happened but for a stroke of genius by Spooner Oldham.
Guitar: Steve Lukather. Most famous as a member of Toto, Steve Lukather has played on more than 1,500 albums for artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, The Tubes and Alice Cooper. Still, his most notable session work is certainly Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, which features his guitar and bass on many tracks. Lukather has spent the past five years as the lead guitarist in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.