Louie Shelton: In Session

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Hundreds of millions of people have heard him play without having heard of him. A veteran session guitarist, Louie Shelton played on a slew of million-selling records during his three decades in Los Angeles. His credits include female vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
1920 - 2002
vocalist
, Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand
b.1942
vocalist
, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Whitney Houston; soul stars James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson Five; blues legends Otis Spann, Solomon Burke, and T-Bone Walker; male vocalists Joe Cocker, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, and Michael McDonald.

He's responsible for the instantly recognizable guitar riff on the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" and the virtuoso runs on "Valleri." He played on Boz Scaggs' career-defining album Silk Degrees (Columbia, 1976) with the Grammy-winning song "Lowdown." He knew Elvis Presley and was in the studio with Phil Spector and John Lennon. He also produced a string of gold and platinum albums for Seals & Crofts, including Summer Breeze (Warner Bros., 1972), an exquisitely produced classic that remained on the charts for 100 weeks.

After decades spent making others sound good, in 1995 he finally put his production expertise to use on a solo instrumental album. Thanks to his funky groove, his mastery of an extraordinarily wide range of styles and techniques, and his producer's ear, this jazz guitar album has a great groove, lots of energy and considerable commercial appeal. His crisp and highly rhythmic adaptation of Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
's octave style is noteworthy, and makes all his solo releases easy to enjoy.

His induction into the Musicians Hall of Fame provided the perfect backdrop for this conversation with All About Jazz about his remarkable musical career.

All About Jazz: Most musicians have always known about the The Funk Brothers
The Funk Brothers

band/orchestra
, the Swampers and the Wrecking Crew, but now fans too are learning about the people behind the music. This past year you were inducted into The Musicians Hall of Fame—that must have been quite a night.

Louie Shelton: It was a great night and I got to catch up with a lot of guys I hadn't seen for a long time, like Don Randy, who owns the famous Baked Potato in L.A. He's a jazz pianist, and we did a lot of work together in the studios back in the day. And drummer Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine
b.1929
drums
and the Wrecking Crew, so it was a very festive time. And yes, it's amazing how people are starting to place more importance on it now than I remember back when we were actually making those records. It's good for someone like myself who's still going in the music industry, to have that recognition and the reassurance that what I've done in the past still holds up.

Formative Years

AAJ: You got your first guitar at age nine, and within a couple of years you were learning Chet Atkins and Jimmy Bryant solos just by listening to the radio. This kind of innate musical ability always intrigues me. You were drawn to the guitar, but I'm curious whether any other instruments came naturally to you.

LS: Well, bass and drums, but I still have a problem with keyboards. With the aid of a computer I'm able to program on a keyboard, but as soon as I look away I have to go back and try and find the chord I was trying to hit. It's such a foreign language to me, whereas when I hear something on a guitar from a record, I know exactly what that is and where it is. It's always been that way for me. I'll even take stuff like Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine
b.1929
drums
's "Blue Rondo à la Turk" and play all the parts on a guitar. I think I'll put that on YouTube one of these days. I don't know if any other guitarist has done that with all the parts going on at one time. I took Bach off records, and of course Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
1922 - 2013
guitar
, who was one of the toughest guys to figure out, and also one of the greatest guitar players I've ever heard. But my ability to hear what he was doing, hear the chords and figure out the single-note lines—that's something that's always come naturally to me. As you said, I've always had this keen interest in the guitar, and in the early days I just thought singers got in the way of the guitar. I couldn't wait for a guitar solo. And back in the day, being a Southern boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, I heard Chet Atkins first. Back then it was mostly country music. There was a lot of [clarinetist] Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
and that stuff on the radio, but not featuring much guitar. So I just fell in love with Chet Atkins' playing, and then someone told me about Jimmy Bryant. He had a totally different style and that led me to want to learn that very fast single-note playing that he was so good at.

All these styles that I picked up from other guitar players. I used those as practice to develop my technique. Of course, I was also learning the tunes, but I was more interested in getting the technique going. And one guy's technique would flow into the other. Chet Atkins was helpful getting the finger-style thing, and then I was able to figure out classical pieces based on that. So later in the studio with Simon & Garfunkel kinds of stuff, they always wanted finger-picking, so because I had worked on that technique it came naturally. When you get into a recording situation, the more naturally it comes to you, the more fluid and natural the record sounds, unlike when someone is struggling to play something. It's better when the notes just kind of fall off the guitar. So all that practicing really paid off.

I use the example of another guitarist I listened to and loved, Wes Montgomery. I was on tour back East, maybe around 1966, with Joe & Eddy. I think we were in Philadelphia one night, and I went for a walk to see what was going on in town. It was freezing, the dead of winter, and I passed this bar with the windows all fogged up, and it said "Wes Montgomery." I'd been listening to his music for a few years, maybe since 1958. I became an instant fan and sat down and learned all I could. So I got to go in and meet him, there weren't more than twenty people in the place, so I got to talk to him and all. But the point is, for example, I got into a studio situation where they were looking for a solo on the Lionel Richie song "Hello." They had tried several guitar players and several different solos, and none of it worked for them. So that solo was kind of a hodge-podge of blues, jazz, and Wes Montgomery done in a pop record style. I was able to pull out the Wes Montgomery stuff I had learned in earlier years and put it on a pop record.

AAJ: I know you're so good at picking things out, but did seeing him up close teach you something new?

LS: Well, truthfully, I think I already had a good understanding of what he was doing. He'd developed quite a callus on the side of his thumb, and that gave him a unique sound when he played. And of course he did it better than anyone else. It wasn't just his technique, it was his beautiful melodic phrasing, even on his single-note stuff, just his overall playing that I loved. But I didn't glean anything new from seeing him, and of course I'd heard the stories of him having to play quietly in his apartment using his thumb and no volume, and I knew that was how he developed his style.

AAJ: Wes Montgomery got a lot of grief from critics who were jazz purists, but Wes flat out said, "There is a jazz concept to what I'm doing, but I'm also playing popular

music, and it should be regarded as such." Do you identify with that statement?

LS: Well, yes, and he proved that to be true. The first album of his I got was The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (JVC VIctor, 1960). It was so tasteful and I always considered him a jazz player, but then when he started coming out with actual hit pop records, like "Going Out of My Head," it wasn't like he had to make a transition, he just started playing tunes that people knew with a Wes Montgomery style. He had a style that worked so well in pop music, like, as I mentioned, when I used it to play that solo on "Hello" all those years later.

I loved what he did when he went more mainstream pop, but not as much as I loved what he was playing when we were more in the jazz world. When he started playing things like the Beatles tunes, he stopped doing the stretched-out solos he did on his earlier stuff. That's fine, and it proved very successful for him. I wish he had lived longer so he could have taken advantage and enjoyed that success. I think he died at 41.

AAJ: It's not uncommon for self-taught guitarists to play primarily with three fingers. That's clearly not the case with you. How did you develop your technique?

LS: I don't think I ever was that kind of player, especially once I discovered Johnny Smith and started figuring out his stuff. A lot of the scales he was playing in his solos, you couldn't do that unless you spread from your pinkie to your pointer. There's a lot of five-fret stretches and stuff. I did so much of that, that it became a natural shape for me, but I never really thought about it, it just kind of fell into place.

Are you familiar with Johnny Smith?

AJJ: Sure, I remember stuff he did with Stan Getz, like "Moonlight in Vermont."

LS: Right. He quit playing at an early age, and there's not a lot of stuff on YouTube, but he's one of the greatest players I ever heard. That's why I put that version of "The Boy Next Door" on YouTube, because a lot of the young players never got a chance to see him play that kind of stuff. It's an attempt to show the kind of dexterity and the long, flowing lines he incorporated into his playing, and the chords and chord melody. He was just the best at that.

Now I get all kinds of notes from people wanting to know the notation to that, so I explain that there never was any, I just learned it off the record. I don't do it as well as Johnny, but I get fairly close to it. It's simply to demonstrate the kind of great pieces he put together.

AAJ: I wanted to return to when you were 12 and already had a steady radio and local TV gig with "Shelby Cooper & the Dixie Mountaineers" as a soloist. How did you manage to hook up with that band as a kid?

LS: There was a live-to-air show down in Little Rock at the auditorium that was a local version of the Grand Ole Opry. Guests would come out and everyone would do two or three tunes. We'd usually have one celebrity each week. We had Chet Atkins there one night, and we had people like Johnny Cash, and the real country guys like Webb Pierce, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Thompson, Hank Snow, and all those people.

But one of the groups there every Saturday night was "Shelby Cooper & the Dixie Mountaineers," which was Shelby, his wife, Sarah Jane, who played fiddle, and her brother, who dressed up as a comedian and played the bass fiddle,which was what we called it in those days. I think they recognized some talent in me and they might have been aware that I came from a poor family, and knew that we lived way out in the country. So they had the radio show five days a week and offered to let me come and stay with them and go to school. I went to the sixth and seventh grade while staying with them. During the school year we would tape the radio show after school, and he had a bedroom fixed up with blankets on the walls and a tape recorder, and we'd all get around one microphone and tape a radio show for the next day. During the first year I was staying with them we got our first TV station and they got the Wednesday-night live TV show. So that put us on the radio five days a week, the Wednesday-night TV show, and the Saturday-night jamboree down at the auditorium. It was a pretty full schedule for a 12-year-old.

But I was also being made aware of a lot of different artists. I met Elvis Presley when he came to the little town in Pine Bluff where I was staying with these people. He was friends with a friend of ours and he came and played at my junior high school auditorium when he was just starting out. Just Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, the bassist. Shelby Cooper opened up a lot of things for me, experience, exposure, and meeting new people and hearing new artists—a wonderful thing for me at that point in my life.

I spent two years doing that, which takes us up to about 1955. On my summer vacation I came back to Little Rock, which is about 30 miles from Pine Bluff. By this time my folks had moved into the city proper. We were starting to get a lot of rock & roll: Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison—all those guys were coming through Little Rock and I was getting to see them. By this time I was 14, I got a gig in a club three nights a week doing all the new rock & roll that came out. This was a totally different band and I never went back to the Shelby Cooper thing. I stayed with this younger music for the next few years. I was like a sponge for all these different kinds of music.

I liked it all, and I liked rock & roll, but when I would go home and practice, I wouldn't pull out rock & roll, I'd pull out everything from Segovia to Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
, and I was still listening to Jimmy Bryant. I was into this real guitar culture thing. At this point, after what I'd been woodshedding, rock & roll was like going back to first grade after finishing high school. Of course, if you're playing it you have to play it well, you couldn't be disrespectful with it, and it was natural for me because I had the country background that spread into blues. As soon as Chuck Berry came out, I learned every lick he played. That's just the way I was, whatever came out, I'd learn it, and I never stopped being that way, whether they were jazz players or whatever.

Back in the mid-60s, when I got out to L.A., we had the British invasion, and all of a sudden I was hearing about Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. And being the guitar nut that I was, I'd go out and get all their records and sit at home and figure out what they were doing. That too was easy for me because it was American blues-driven, but with a different twist that I really dug. I loved the early Cream stuff and I loved the Jimmy Page stuff. So I've always considered myself one of the more versatile guitarists and that's what helped me in the studio—I could go from a Peggy Lee to a Monkees' session, and both of them would sound like that's all I ever played.

A lot of the session players specialized in one kind of music. There'd be a guy who did all the country sessions, someone else who did nothing but rock & roll, and a guy who did nothing but jazz. But if you got them on any other kind of record date, it was like a fish out of water. So once I got my foot in the door as a session player, that's why most of the producers were calling me. I was getting calls from everyone from Phil Spector to Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
b.1933
producer
, and everyone in between. I never knew what I was going to be getting into next.

Leaving Home—Glen Campbell—Session Work

AAJ: At 17 you were already on the road, and you met fellow Arkansan Glen Campbell when both of you were playing clubs in New Mexico. He's a bit older than you—were you two aware of each other back in Arkansas?

LS: No, that was a strange set of circumstances, because I left Little Rock with a steel guitarist who had been offered a job in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they also needed a guitarist. So that was the first time I really left home. We went to Santa Fe to a six-nights-a-week job, and on our off night we went into Albuquerque to a club that Glen Campbell's uncle, Dick Bills, owned. He had his own band and Glen was playing with his uncle in that club. That was when I met Glen. The band I was in moved around—we went to Denver and Flagstaff, and we ended up in Albuquerque. By this time Glen had left his uncle's band and had his own band at a club called the Hitchin' Post, and we were just down the road at the Chesterfield Club. Then we got to hang out more with each other, and when the touring bands came through town, there would always be a jam session at someone's house after hours. That's where I would meet up with Glen and players from other bands. So I got to know Glen really well in Albuquerque.

AAJ: By the early 60's Glen Campbell was a premier session guitarist in L.A. Did he help you get into session work?

LS: He sure tried. What happened is, he headed out to California a couple of years before I did. During that time I put my own band together in Santa Fe, and Glen's former drummer joined my band. At some point we decided to take our band out to California, and the night before we were to leave, everybody backed out except me and the drummer. So we went to California straight to Glen's place. By this time he was in the scene there, the top session guy. He took me around and introduced me to producers, and there were a couple of times when he'd had a late night and didn't want to go in the next morning, so he sent me in as a sub. But none of that really took hold for me, so the best I could do were the B-grade publishing demos.

But as the story goes, these publishing demos had been with Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and they got picked to do the Monkees' TV show. They liked working with me, so they offered me the gig to do that. That's when I came up with the lick for the "Last Train to Clarksville," which became a number one hit, and the first thing you hear is my guitar. Then after that, all the producers asked who played guitar on that, and that's when they all started calling me. Who knows, had it not been for that, maybe I wouldn't have gotten a start. It's weird that way in these circles, it's a handful of musicians who get all the work. I was lucky that Glen had made that transition to artist by this point and was no longer doing session work. So that slot was vacant anyway —no one had taken over the spot. The older guys were more from a jazz background. They hadn't acknowledged the new rock & roll and the different sounds. They weren't coming up with any of that.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about "Valleri." I remember hearing it on the radio and it actually made me stop and listen. There's a basic fuzz tone backing that you could imagine the Monkees playing, but there are also these amazing runs that sound like Johnny Smith on steroids. Looking back now, I wondered how the producers allowed that, because they were trying to create this illusion that the Monkees were playing this stuff. And anyone who played guitar knew that there were only a handful of people in the rock world who could come close to playing that. Was that an inside joke with you studio guys?

LS: I actually did that as a joke. I was feeling cheeky, we had a hit record out, and that approach came from a Carlos Montoya flamenco style, but I was doing it on an electric guitar. I never think about what I'm gonna play—if something comes into my head, it's just there. But I did start it as a joke and kind of laughed, and then the producer says, "No, no, no, that sounds great, do that!" And I said, "You're kidding, I was just joking around." But they recognized it as something that would work on that record.

I got an email yesterday from a guy in Florida. He said he was driving his 11-year-old daughter to school and had the radio on, and "Valleri" came on. She was half asleep and then she perked up and said, "That's an awesome guitar solo!" So he wrote that he didn't know who it was at the time, but he went online and looked it up. I emailed him back and said, "Give your daughter a hug for having such great musical taste!"

I've had more comments on that than probably any other thing. I think probably note for note it's one of the most notes per bar solo on any pop record I know.

AAJ: I love those iconic things on records. Another one for me is drummer Hal Blaine's triple backbeat on the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." That had to be a thrill the first time you played with Hal and the Wrecking Crew.

LS: It was, and it was a new territory for me, because I definitely was aware of those A-string players. To come in and actually set up my guitar, sit down and have an arranger or producer count a tune off, and here I am playin' with these guys. It was almost distracting for me to be in the company of these players whom I had admired for so long. Luckily, straight away they were the nicest guys, very complimentary, and after a couple of sessions I felt like one of the guys.

Meeting Seals & Crofts

AAJ: It's interesting, you grew up so close to Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville, but looking back it was such a stroke of luck that you and Glen Campbell ended up in Los Angeles.

LS: Glen was one of the most fun people to be around, he always had a good joke, and that's why he was so popular on the sessions. Even if he wasn't there to play, they loved having him there because he was so much fun. There were a few years of him trying to make a record as an artist. He recorded several things that never did work. And I was playing in Las Vegas in a band with Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, before the duo Seals & Crofts. And they had been in the Champs with Glen. They had the hit "Tequila" when Glen first went out to L.A. and joined them on a tour. Seals played sax and Crofts was the drummer.

So when the Champs broke up, they ended up in L.A. They put a little four-piece together and at some point I joined them.

AAJ: Did you meet Jim Seals through Glen Campbell?

LS: Glen came through Santa Fe with that band before I left Santa Fe to go to L.A. So I met them then, we had breakfast together. That was the only time. The way I got together with them was when someone recommended me to them, because their guitarist had quit.

So we rotated through a half dozen clubs in L.A. six nights a week.

AAJ: Is this when you were called the Mushrooms?

LS: Yes, that's right! As a matter of fact, a friend of mine came in and recorded us, and we were playing some really cool jazz stuff along with our rock & roll. I should send you a copy. You know, Jimmy Seals had one of the greatest tones on sax you've ever heard. He really sounded like Coltrane and those guys. A lot of times in those clubs when it was slow, we'd kick off into some jazz. Anyway, a friend recorded us back then and the tape held up pretty well, so he transferred it to CD and just sent me a copy. It's really fun to listen to. I'll burn you a copy.

AAJ: And who was playing what? Was Dash still on drums?

LS: Right, Dash was on drums and Jim was on sax, and he doubled on guitar, and he was already a bit of a songwriter at that point. And of course later when Seals & Crofts came about, Jimmy started writing on guitar.

Imagine, Dash's brother had a mandolin hanging on the wall at his place, so Dash pulled it down and learned how to play it, and that became the Seals & Crofts sound! At first it was totally acoustic, just the two guys and later they added a bass. So it was initially very sparse, but also very complex.

AAJ: That's an indication of their talent, that they appeared in rock venues in that stripped-down unplugged formation with only a bassist. Rock audiences can be merciless, so that was a gutsy thing to do. They were even on the same Fillmore East bill with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends with Clapton, yet they consistently pulled it off and had the crowd totally behind them. I suspect their musical versatility would surprise a lot of people.

LS: Well, on every album that they did there was a gem on there, something that was just so extraordinarily musical and different. I just think Jimmy is one of the greatest writers I've ever heard, and he's unique. He's written such beautiful things.

AAJ: And like you said, as a saxophonist. I've seen a YouTube clip of him on stage with Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
and Dizzy is diggin' it.

LS: I'm tellin' you, he can play sax. Wait till you hear this stuff that I'll send you. You won't believe it, he really sounds like Coltrane.

AAJ: Let's jump forward five years to 1971. You had moved on and were now a very successful studio musician. Herb Alpert had gotten you into producing, and Glen Campbell had a successful television show on which you also performed. The show had a kind of hootenanny at the end with each week's guests. So one night, there you are with Glen Campbell, Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, and the saxophonist and drummer with whom he toured playing songs like "Tequila." But now they're playing intricate duets on mandolin and classical guitar, and singing harmony on national television. And you'd been hired to produce them for Warner Bros. How things had changed—it must have seemed almost surreal to the four of you.

LS: Things were happening so quickly. Taping the show took a lot of time, so often I would go to dinner with Glen and whoever the guest was for that week. It might be Jerry Reed, or it might be Johnny Cash, or Seals & Crofts. So it was a casual friendly time to visit and hang out. It was all happening so fast, I didn't even stop to think that just two years before we were playing six nights a week in a club. And Glen was busy looking for a hit song. I remember when we were in Vegas, and Glen was there for some reason. He came over when we were on break, and he said, "Yeah, I just recorded this song, it goes, 'By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising.'" So I thought, that's probably another dud. (Laughs) And lo and behold, it's a number one record!

He was such a great singer, and his "Wichita Lineman" is still one of my all-time favorites. It's so simple, but it's just a perfect record. He sang it so brilliantly.

AAJ: And it was lucky for you too in terms of session work.

LS: Yeah, when I think about it, I can't think of anyone who was asked to be featured as soloist as often as I was. You know, the first note you hear on the Jackson Five's first hit is my guitar, the same with the Monkees, and I've had solos on things like Boz Scaggs and Lionel Richie stuff. Later on, guys like Steve Lukather had some great featured solos, but before that, I can't think of many records that featured great guitar solos, unless it was Led Zeppelin or something like that, but not stuff coming out of L.A. There it tended to be more of a textured background thing.

T-Bone Walker Sessions

AAJ: You've stressed the importance of a solid foundation in the blues for jazz and rock players. I know you recorded with Otis Spann and Solomon Burke, but what really blows me away is that you recorded with T-Bone Walker twice, and he recorded a song you wrote, "For B.B. King." You probably know this, but B.B. King once said that T-Bone's "Stormy Monday" is what caused him to take up electric guitar. Do you remember the sessions and pitching that song to T-Bone and his reaction?

LS: I knew I was doing a session with a legend, and it's one of my great memories. And I was fortunate, because he passed away shortly after that. I think he was in his early seventies when I recorded with him. I did know of his background, but I didn't know how much of an influence he had been on B.B. King. Later on I did read that. You know, in the South we had black radio stations and my family listened to them a lot, so I'd heard him and had a blues record collection. Of course I was a huge B.B. King fan. I always loved hearing those great blues players, so I really enjoyed when I was finally able to get the records and learn what they were doing.

As to writing that song, that was a fluky thing. We ran out of songs, but we still had some studio time. So the producer said, "Does anyone have a tune?" (Laughs) I didn't really have a tune, but I raised my hand and said, "I've got one, it's in B flat, and it goes like this." So we counted it off and played the blues in B flat. So they asked me what I called it, and I said, "Blues for B.B. King." T-Bone loved the idea and it got on the album. It's funny, if you had approached them three months prior, and said, "I've got a tune I'd like you to consider for the album," chances are it would have never made it on there.

Actually, I learned that trick from Quincy Jones. I used to do the early "Bill Cosby Show" with him, and it was usually just me, a keyboard, bass, and drums. It's not like he'd be up writing all night for this show, he'd just say, "I need 30 seconds of blues and let's take it up to C." So that's how that happened on the T-Bone session. I have that album cover sitting in my studio, it's one of my favorite memories and I feel proud to have been associated with, and fortunate to have been called to, that session. And you know, [guitarist] Larry Carlton
Larry Carlton
Larry Carlton
b.1948
guitar
was on that session too, I think he was just starting.

Jim Gordon

AAJ: Jim Gordon
Jim Gordon
Jim Gordon
b.1945
drums
, a session drummer you worked with often in L.A., joined Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes—he even wrote the coda of "Layla." Did that album register on your radar screen back then?

LS: Yes, it did, and Jim Gordon was my favorite drummer. As a matter of fact, I did a Louie Shelton album in 1969 entitled Touch Me (Warner Brothers, 1969) that's out of print today. And Jim Gordon played on that.

Jim had gotten into the studio scene shortly before I did. He and I were part of the new brigade, there was a generational transition going on, certain bands were disappearing, bands like Jan & Dean and the Phil Spector thing, and then we got Motown out there, the Jackson Five, the Monkees, and a lot of new younger things, and along with that came a new set of musicians. So when Jim left to do the Eric Clapton thing, we sure missed him.

Unfortunately, when he came back, it wasn't with the same disposition he had left with, which was a very pliable, whatever-you-want attitude. They were hitting the drugs pretty heavy and that can change a person. But I'll tell you something interesting.

I was on a session once with Jim Gordon, and I was playing this Ovation 12-string guitar. And Jim said, "Man, I love that guitar, I've got a Martin D-45 guitar or something," and he said, "Eric gave it to me, and we wrote "Layla" on it. I'll trade you even." So of course I said, "Sure." So here I end up with a guitar that Eric Clapton supposedly wrote "Layla" on. Somewhere along the way it got away from me. I've been sick about it, because when I heard about Eric getting 200 grand for one of his guitars, I thought, this guitar has to be worth something, too. I'd love to get my hands back on that one, as I would a few other guitars that have gone by the wayside.

Phil Spector

AAJ: On the Internet I've seen lists that show you on a lot of Phil Spector productions, but I wasn't sure about it because the timeline didn't seem to fit—most were pre-1966. Had you worked with him much prior to getting called to that John Lennon session?

LS: No, not really. I have trouble putting some of that together, too, because I didn't keep track of stuff. So I'll even refer to the Internet to see when I recorded with someone, and I've found out my name shows up with a lot of people because there was a compilation put out later on, even after I'd quit doing sessions. But then again, yeah, I did work on Sonny & Cher, and I did do some sessions before I broke into it big time.

AAJ: What did you think of Phil Spector as a producer?

LS: I had already had some experiences with Phil on the A&M Records lot. He was disrupting people's sessions by causing a lot of noise and commotion out in the hall, coming down there drunk or crazed out on drugs. Literally, I was in studio B with [the American pop rock duo] England Dan and John Ford Coley, and Billy Preston was over in studio A. He had a bunch of friends there and Phil showed up. He was ranting and raving, and the noise was literally coming through the door. The engineer had to go out and quiet him down.

He'd been banned from the A&M lot before for firing a gun off or something. So, he was a raving maniac sometimes. He was pretty toned down when I did the John Lennon session, but he was still weird. He came snaking through the halls with his version of incognito, with a top hat, the darkest sunglasses you've ever seen, a black cape, and a cane. I don't think I ever had a conversation with Phil Spector. I certainly loved some of the records he made, but I wish he hadn't gotten so weird.

In the Studio with Elvis

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about Elvis. In 1968, Elvis staged a major comeback effort. He remembered you and offered you a spot in his band. I have the impression of Elvis in that period as surrounded by an entourage, and that it would have been difficult to connect with him. Were you able to reconnect and talk about the old days back in Little Rock?

Louie and his 51 Tele at age 12 with the Dixie Mountaineers.

LS: I would have had that opportunity, he was sitting there and he didn't have an entourage with him. He literally was sitting in the studio with a stack of albums and a record player, and we ended up jamming "Jailhouse Rock" and a bunch of that stuff. We had been asked there under the guise that this was to be a record date. Then once we got there, they let us know that Elvis was going to start performing live again and doing Vegas, and that he wanted a top session band. So once I heard that, I wasn't interested because I had just gotten into that position as a real session player and there was no way I wanted to leave town for a month or two to go to Las Vegas.

As big a fan as I was of Elvis in the early days, after years of making those surfer movies and records that I didn't care about musically, it just didn't interest me. It would have been a great job, and as it turned out, it was a great job for James Burton, and he was really the best guy for that gig. And it was great for his career, the studio work had begun to slow down, and then the loss of Ricky Nelson, which was what James was initially famous for, so this Elvis gig was perfect for him and he did a great job. He's got a lot of fans and people love his playing, and I know Elvis was really happy with him too. But you know, I didn't think about bringing up the old days. I could have, because I know our mutual friends would have rung a bell with Elvis. Because these friends, Jim Ed and Maxine Brown—Jim Ed had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for years, and they'd had hit records out, and also they were produced by Chet Atkins himself, and Chet had a lot to do with Elvis in the early days when Elvis went over to RCA. So he would have been able to make that connection. He might not have been able to remember me specifically because I'd probably met him three times.< Within a year after he performed at my school, he played at the big auditorium in Little Rock. Because I was playing the Saturday night jamboree there, I knew the guard on the door and he'd let me backstage. So once I got there, Elvis would be there with his guitar around his neck, jammin' around and singing funny songs, happy as could be, and the friendliest guy you'd ever met. At that time he was just a down-to-earth, fun-loving guy. So I was fortunate to see that side of him.

Early Michael Jackson

AAJ: Of course he was the king of rock & roll, but you also got to meet Michael Jackson, the king of pop, back when he was a little kid. What kind of impression did he make on you?

LS: He blew me away. For the Motown sessions the artists generally weren't there, it was just the writers and the producers. So we'd put the tracks together without even hearing how the song went. But I was fortunate because they had called me down to do a guitar overdub and Michael was there doing the vocal on "I Want You Back." So, other than the producer, I was probably one of the only people who got to see him sing that live in the studio.

And I was absolutely blown away by what I was seeing. He was out there on the mic and I think he was 11 years old at the time, and he was singing so great, with such energy, conviction, feel, pitch—everything, and doing it with every ounce of his little body. I was already stoked to be able to play on the Motown sessions anyway, because I was such a big fan of all their other artists, we'd played their music in the clubs all those years. There was a certain groove and feel that always came out on the Motown stuff. It came from a deep place because I had such an appreciation for that Motown sound, and now I could come up with some licks and be part of the groove—it was a unique pleasure for me. Michael was an incredible talent right through all the records we made with the Jackson Five, and later on the stuff he did with Quincy, you put that stuff on now, man, and it will still get a crowd going in a second. Great stuff.

AAJ: Quincy did an amazing job on Thriller and Bad.

LS: Again, that was this new crop of musicians, like Greg Phillinganes. And then bringing Eddie Van Halen in to do a guitar solo on "Beat It," it was outrageous, one of the best I've ever heard on record.

AAJ: And on "Bad," I think Quincy had Jimmy Smith come in.

LS: Really? I didn't know about that!

Marvin Gaye in the Studio

AAJ: You've been on so many recordings and worked with so many people, could I give you some names and get you to share some quick impressions or memories? Let's start with Marvin Gaye.

LS: He was a musician's musician. I loved being in the studio with him. There were a few people like Marvin and Lionel Richie, who just validated your playing, they were so appreciative, and responded in an open and outward way. It made you feel good and you knew you'd done the right thing.

The Marvin Gaye session was different from other Motown sessions, because he was the artist and also the producer. And as the producer, he had a different set of musicians. Herbie Hancock was on piano, and they had brought Jamie Jamerson out, who was the original bassist from Detroit. Jamie and those guys hadn't come out to L.A. when Motown moved there. They began using different players, as a matter of fact, Wilton Felder
Wilton Felder
Wilton Felder
b.1940
sax, tenor
, the saxophonist from the Jazz Crusaders, ended up being the favorite bassist on all the Motown sessions.

But getting back to Marvin Gaye, when we ran the tune down the first time the guys were playing all this great jazz stuff and I thought, wow, Motown ain't gonna like this. So as soon as we finished running the tune down, Marvin says, "Man, that sounds great, let's record it!" I almost fell out of my chair because I wasn't used to that. I was used to, "Don't play that, keep it simple!" And I was a big fan of Marvin, I loved his records.

Barbra Streisand in the Studio

AAJ: How about Barbra Streisand?

LS: I have such respect for her, she's one of the greatest artists, she's fantastic. Even now when I see her TV specials, there's just no one who performs with all the emotion and perfection—it's almost like she's living every note she sings. I'm a huge fan of hers, and when I got to record with her she was being a bit of a tyrant with the producers and arrangers. We had a full orchestra there with strings, horns, percussion, and everything, and she chased everyone out except me, the pianist, the bassist, and the drummer.

She sat there and worked tunes out with us. It probably didn't feel good for the producer and arrangers. She had a reputation for taking over, but in all honesty she just wanted to be a part of that process and sit there and work the tunes out. She didn't want to be an add-on to someone else's trip. So that was my experience with her, working the tunes out one on one. She respected us and was very nice with us, and she wanted to be a part of that group.

AAJ: You did so many sessions—I don't know if you are aware of this bit of trivia. Before Steely Dan formed, the songwriters Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen
b.1948
keyboard
and Walter Becker
Walter Becker
Walter Becker
b.1950
guitar
wrote a song for Barbra Streisand, and she did it on an album you played on. It's called "I Mean to Shine."

LS: Wow. No, I didn't know that!

AAJ: If I'm not mistaken, you and Dean Parks are good buddies and worked together often. He and several of your other buddies, like Jim Keltner and Larry Carlton, did a lot of work for Steely Dan. Did you have any interaction with them back in the 70s?

LS: Unfortunately, I didn't, but I loved their stuff. I had gotten out of the session scene and we [with Seals & Crofts] had our own studio, Dawnbreakers, out in the valley by that time. So our paths never really crossed. And being from New York, they also did a lot of work there. I know they flew guys to New York to do overdubs.

I know they flew Larry [Carlton] out. Once when he got there they said, "Where's your amp?" And he said, "I thought we could rent one." And they said something like, "No, we've got to have that brown one." So they waited for him to fly his amp in before they would even consider recording!

Working with Larry Carlton

AAJ: How about Larry Carlton?

LS: What can I say about Larry that hasn't been said, other than I knew him in the very early days and I had the good fortune to go down and see Larry play at an after-hours club with Donnie Brooks. He was playing a 175 and a lot of B.B. King licks and was already a great player.

That was a time when people were starting to ask me if I knew other players who were my age and had a similar style. So I started recommending Larry for sessions. Of course once anyone heard him play, he didn't need my recommendation. He was living down in Torrance, [California], when I first met him. So when I got him some sessions he would come up to L.A. and stay at my place, and we'd head off to the session the next day.

Over the years we've remained really good friends. I remember when Larry first started doing his solo albums. I had done a solo album for Warner Bros. my first year as a session player. Boyce and Hart had gotten me a deal, but somehow I didn't see the value in it for myself, but Larry was dedicated to it. He was kind enough to mention me on the back of his first record as one of his influences, along with some great company I don't deserve to be with—B.B. King, John Coltrane, and maybe one other person. I was grateful to him for that.

He continued with that, and he was doing these gigs over at Dante's along with his session work. He really paid his dues as a dedicated musician who wanted to be known as something more than a session player. He's had his ups and downs and it hasn't been easy, that's a long, tough road being a solo artist. But I think he's in a comfortable place now where he's being rewarded for all that hard work, and just plays better and better all the time.

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