Louie Shelton: In Session
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 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 changedit 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.