Hidden Hit-Makers: History’s Most Iconic Session Musicians

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A handful of documentaries released since the turn of the new century, from 2002’s Standing In the Shadows of Motown to 2013’s Muscle Shoals, have helped us put names and faces to the backing musicians that brought some of our favorite recordings to life.

It can be surprising to learn just how many classic recordings were churned out by the same small teams of musicians. For discerning listeners, these seasoned session players may be just as responsible for the impact of the music as the artists whose names grace the covers. Let’s meet some of the most prolific in history.

The Funk Brothers

Before the release of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, different explanations for the genesis of the ‘Motown Sound’ abounded: It was the effervescence of singers like young Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross; the Midas touch of label head Berry Gordy; even the feel and warmth of Studio A, the humble basement where the music was recorded.

None of those things hurt, but the easiest answer was often the most overlooked: the session musicians—collectively known as “The Funk Brothers”—were a constant force behind all of the Motown’s greatest hits.

When Berry Gordy needed musicians for his new Motown label in 1959, he poached them from the jazz and blues clubs of Detroit, hand-picking musicians like bassist James Jamerson to become the core of his in-house band.

To balance tones from multiple percussionists (Jack Ashford, Benny Benjamin, “Pistol” Allen, Uriel Jones, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown), keyboard players (Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke, and later Johnny Griffith), and guitar players (Robert White, Eddie Willis, and Joe Messina), the Funk Brothers had to operate as a unit, listening to and making space for their fellow players—dialing back performances and egos in service of grooves.

By day, the Funk Brothers provided the backbone and backbeats for a slew of hits by artists like The Contours, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and The Four Tops. By night, they let off steam from their pressure-filled day jobs by playing jazz and blues back in the clubs of Detroit.

Ideas from a previous night’s jam session might make it into the next day’s recording session. As tambourine/vibes player Jack Ashford says at one point during Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Funk Brothers had played together for so long that “the only thing that ever changed was the changes”.

Everyone knows “My Girl” as a classic by The Temptations, but could you imagine the song without Robert White’s iconic guitar hook throughout?

Earl Palmer

When Motown relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, essentially dissolving The Funk Brothers, drummer Earl Palmer landed on the label’s short list of local studio musicians.

An entertainer since the age of 5, Palmer tap-danced alongside his mother in black vaudeville shows in their native New Orleans, performing as “Baby Earl Palmer”. After serving in World War II, Palmer learned piano, percussion, and sight-reading at The Gruenwald School of Music in New Orleans. Soon after, he began a drumming career that spanned four decades and thousands of recordings.

In New Orleans, Palmer played on classics likes Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” and Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking”. In 1957, Palmer moved to Los Angeles and found work with Ricky Nelson (“I’m Walkin’”), Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) and Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”, “Donna”).

In the 60s, Palmer played on songs by The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Mamas and the Papas, and Frank Sinatra. He also branched out into film and television, providing drums for TV themes like “The Flintstones” and “Mission: Impossible”, and full-fledged movie scores like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Cool Hand Luke”. The musician’s union counted Palmer as playing on 450 dates in 1967 alone.

Though his work slowed down in the 70s and 80s, Palmer could still be heard on records by Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis Costello. “The drums [are] an accompanying instrument, really,” Palmer has said. “If you don’t know how to accompany, then you’re not a good drummer, you’re just a soloist.”

Listen to The Fats Domino song, “The Fat Man”, below and you can hear—despite the mix—Palmer’s trademark backbeat driving the song. That groove, still novel in 1949, would soon become a staple of rock and roll. “That song required a strong afterbeat throughout the whole piece,” said Palmer. “With Dixieland, you had a strong afterbeat only after you got to the last chorus. It was sort of a new approach to rhythm music.”

The Wrecking Crew

In LA, Earl Palmer fell in with a collection of musicians sometimes referred to as “The First Call Gang” due to their status as the go-to session players for producers of the day. The group would evolve over time, eventually earning a new name, coined by one of its young drummers, a friend of Earl Palmer’s named Hal Blaine. Blaine dubbed the collective “The Wrecking Crew”.

Pick a record to come out of Los Angeles in the 60s and chances are that The Wrecking Crew’s fingerprints are all over it, even if their names aren’t. They helped Phil Spector create his “wall of sound” and The Beach Boys get their “Pet Sounds”. They laid down the groove for Nancy Sinatra’s walking boots and they built Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

As guitarist Bill Pittman put it: “You leave the house at seven o’clock in the morning, and you’re at Universal at nine till noon; now you’re at Capitol Records at one, you just got time to get there, then you got a jingle at four, then we’re on a date with somebody at eight, then the Beach Boys at midnight, and you do that five days a week…jeez, man, you get burned out.”

Not that anyone was complaining. Guitarist Tommy Tedesco– who wrote a regular column called Studio Log for Guitar Player Magazine in the 70s and 80s, documenting his studio exploits–said “When that red light goes on, whether it’s running a race or playing guitar, whatever it is, all the adrenaline goes through the body. Some guys are at their best then, some say they’re at their worst. I’m at my best with the pressure.”

Bassist and guitarist Carol Kaye‑one of the few women to achieve such success in the boys’ club that was the studio musician scene‑has commented non-chalantly that at one point she was making more money than the President of the United States.

A few members of The Wrecking Crew, notably Dr. John, Leon Russell and Glen Campbell, went on to enjoy solo careers later on, while Hal Blaine is considered by many to be ‘the most recorded drummer in history’.

In the rare studio footage below, you can hear the group in all their good vibrating glory, buoying the classic Beach Boys track with direction from Brian Wilson. (That’s a young Hal Blaine behind the drumkit).

A film about The Wrecking Crew—produced and directed by Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny Tedesco­—was completed in 2008 after 12 years of filming, but has yet to receive distribution. The problem? Tedesco needed to raise funds to license the massive amount of music The Wrecking Crew performed on. Tedesco has since raised the money via Kickstarter, and says a commercial release of the film is coming soon.

Joey Waronker

Drummer Joey Waronker may not fit the mold of a typical studio musician. He doesn’t hail from a collective and isn’t known for his contributions to chart-topping pop hits. In fact, Waronker’s initial reaction to the idea of becoming a session musician was that “It sounded awful. [Like I’d be] like the kind of guy who would beplaying on radio commercials.”

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  • MusicManKevin

    Excellent…but let us not forget the great MFSB in Philadelphia, the band that backed several recordings produced by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

  • Michael D

    Great read!

  • josh

    Great article!

  • Dabraat

    I’m curious about the next Generation of LA session musicians. Guys like Steve Lukather, the Porcaro Brothers, David Paich, etc. The Porcaros and Paich are sons of famous LA Session players (Wrecking Crew), and these guys all ended up forming the band Toto, while still continuing to work on hundreds of other albums. I also wonder about the London scene. I remember hearing that The Fixx guitarist Jamie West-Oram was a London session player with many of the big name acts in the UK (Bowie, Tina Turner, Depeche Mode, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Rupert Hine, etc.). There probably was a go-to crew there, as well.

  • jeff_MON

    I agree…The musicians of Toto played on the iconic Thriller album. This needs to be updated.

  • lynnec

    In the UK, musicians Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Long John Baldry and Alan White worked on a ton of pop hits before they hit it big themselves. Page played on Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual,” his break out hit, for instance. He says he can’t remember how many he played on. After getting rheumatic fever early in his career, he opted for session work. So when he and JPJ formed Led Zeppelin, they knew the producers and how to get the sound they wanted.