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Louie Shelton: In Session

By Published: January 27, 2010
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.

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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!

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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
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.

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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.

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