Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The rise and fall of the studio musician

This post of was inspired by thoughts I had upon hearing of the passing of drumming great Hal Blaine. Mr. Blaine was part of a unique group of musicians that played on many of the hits of the '60s and '70s. They were almost always uncredited for their work. Hal Blaine's group ( dubbed the Wrecking Crew ) was located in California, but there have many examples of similar situations in various locales and eras, wherever commercial recordings are made. It is interesting to note, this sort of exclusive society of people who played on the vast majority of recordings hasn't ever really existed beyond the movies/television and the Pop?rock area. For instance, there was no "ghost' piano player on the Goldberg Variations  and then Glenn Gould was hired to be it's good looking, eccentric face. As well, there doesn't seem to be any incidence of say, Johnny Griffin going in to record at Blue Note and his work being substituted for a tenor player with more "studio chops".

Let me be clear, I think it's great that, eventually, the great Mr. Blaine and his cohorts, along with the people who played for Motown, etc. got their due. The other side of this, however, is the recognition of the studio musician also led to its fetishization. AS well, music magazines and bands like Steely Dan's tendency to use a different band for every tune furthered this attitude among musos. I think the feeling in the recording industry ( at least the commercial side of it ) was that if you didn't have one of the "cats", you weren't going to have a good recording at all. This led to a lot of musicians               ( especially the drummers ) in bands being replaced on recordings. Check out the documentary on Chicago ( Now More Than Ever ) and hear the frankly heartbreaking story about how Danny Seraphine was replaced on some tracks without being informed! What makes this particularly bizarre is that, at the time, Chicago was signed to Warner Bros., a label with considerably big pockets. So, if producer David Foster wasn't satisfied with Seraphine's playing, he could have told the rest of the band to chill for a couple of days and worked with Chicago's actual drummer on the intricacies of the click track etc. It's interesting to note that when Bob Ezrin worked with Kiss, he did pretty much what I've just described. He has more patience, I guess.

I believe this whole worshipping of one way to play, sound, etc. or that there's one absolute way to play a tune led to recordings eventually sounding more generic. If a limited amount of people play on all the hits, aren't the hits all going to sound the same after awhile?                                                

Another issue is that bands have alchemy, and as soon as one person is removed, that alchemy is destroyed. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Beatles' recordings didn't truly capture the imagination of the listening public until Ringo Starr was established as their recording drummer. Ringo was of a similar age and had the same influences as the rest of the band, but Andy White, although a very capable drummer, did not. This is borne out on the out takes that White plays on. Lightning will probably strike me for this, but I've always felt that Steely's Dan's best drummer was Jim Hodder, the one who played all their original gigs. Which leads me to......

Another aspect of this is loyalty. A recording is a reward for doing all the crummy gigs at county fairs where the drums get covered in dirt and horse manure. It's a payback for all the low pay, tough load-ins, and lack of sleep. There's no better way for a young player to get experience recording than actually doing it. Imagine how the world would have been different if Miles Davis hadn't used Tony Williams in the studio because he thought he should have someone more experienced!

Let me make this abundantly clear. I have nothing but love and admiration for all the studio greats that have made such great music, I'm just suggesting that at times, there may be other options.


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