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Louie Shelton: In Session

By Published: January 27, 2010

Leon Russell and Dr. John

AAJ: How about Leon Russell

Leon Russell
Leon Russell

LS: When I first got to L.A. and Glen was the hot guitarist in town, Leon was the go-to guy for keyboards. At some point he put a studio in his house up in the Hollywood hills and I got to go up and record with him there. Later he got into the Joe Cocker thing and kind of left the session scene, but we had a relationship and would occasionally get together to record.

And then 20 years went by, I had moved to Australia and stayed for 12 years in Sydney, and then moved to Nashville. I found out that Leon Russell lived on the block behind me. So we struck up our recording relationship again. He did this album of standards, really great songs, and I got to play some jazz guitar with him on that.

I have this desire to do a record with a lot of different singers, where I'd play lead guitar. Just to name a couple, Leon and Dr. John

Dr. John
Dr. John
come to mind.

AAJ: Did you know Dr. John, too?

LS: Yeah, he was on the Phil Spector session I did with John Lennon. He was a session player in L.A. and I'd run across him occasionally. His name was Mac Rebennack then.

AAJ: Did you know he started out as a guitarist?

LS: No, I didn't know that, I only knew him as a keyboard player.

AAJ: Yeah, a friend of his was in an altercation and he got in the middle of it and got shot in the finger. After that he ended up switching to piano.

LS: Oh, my gosh, I didn't know that.

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Producing Seals & Crofts' Summer Breeze

AAJ: Let's move on to your work as a producer. Your production of the album Summer Breeze (Warner Bros., 1972) with Seals & Crofts was a huge hit that stayed on the album charts for 100 weeks. Because it launched them as a duo and you as a producer I'd like to dig a little deeper on this album. I'll tell you a few things that always impressed me and get your reaction: Marty Paich's string arrangements, Red Rhodes' steel guitar that added such dramatic texture, the subdued background vocals, and the flute and reed arrangements.

LS: Marty was the conductor on the "Glen Campbell Show," so I knew of his work as an arranger. That whole recording process was the culmination of a lot of elements. Initially Seals & Crofts had been considered kind of folky, but when I heard Summer Breeze I thought we could pump it up a bit. A&M was known for a softer sound, so I went to the Sound Factory studio where we had recorded the Jackson Five and a lot of Motown artists, and I used Dave Hassinger as the engineer because he got more of a punchy sound. That factor alone brought a lot to the record, plus I brought along session players that I knew well and had worked with, including Marty as an arranger.

So I was drawing upon my experience and what I had learned as a session player. I had taken mental notes on the various musicians and knew where they would fit best. So it was basically the coming together of that information.

On "Summer Breeze" I went down to Toys-R-Us and bought a little toy piano, which is one of the sounds on that record playing that lick. Along with the traditional good sounds of the rhythm section, we were always trying to come up with a different texture, whether it was a combination of horns or a great string arrangement and all that. We were always looking for something that would set it apart.

I'd always been a big fan of the steel guitar anyway, and I love to use it whenever I get the opportunity. Red Rhodes was one of the first guys I met when I went to Los Angeles. Glen took me out to the Palomino country music club and Red was playing in a band there. So I loved to call him in whenever I got the chance.

The background vocals were maybe so subdued because I was singing on them and didn't want to be heard very much (laughing). We never got real background singers in, we'd get my wife, Jimmy, Dash, myself, and the bassist. That's probably why it sounded different and you didn't quite know where it was coming from, but it kind of worked.

Jimmy Seals came up with a lot of the horn and flute arrangements. He and Dash both.

AAJ: Milt Holland

Milt Holland
Milt Holland
1917 - 2005
's tabla on the exotic "East of Ginger Trees" was another great idea. I especially love the production on that song.

LS: I knew Milt as a percussionist and he was the tabla guy. There were some great percussionists working in town but Milt really had that tabla thing down. That's still one of my favorite recordings.

AAJ: I think a lot of jazz fans would be surprised that Wilton Felder from the Jazz Crusaders played bass, along with [bassists] Harvey Brooks

Harvey Brooks
Harvey Brooks
bass, electric
and Joe Osborn.

LS: Wilton played on Diamond Girl, but I'd have to look at the album credits. You know, Motown was really hard on bass players. They didn't write out stuff for us guitar players, they wanted us to come up with stuff, but they wrote out the bass parts. He is a great saxophonist, but somehow he got ahold of a Fender bass and learned how to play it. Wilton is such a good reader and it didn't matter what you put in front of him.

From talking to some of the arrangers, like Gene Page, who was a big arranger on all the Motown stuff, he could tell if a player was a bit hesitant about something coming up a few bars down the page. He could almost sense that they were getting ready for it and were afraid of it. But he said with Wilton it was so comfortable and that came through on the record, it was so flowing and so in the pocket. He became the favorite player on that stuff. And Joe Sample

Joe Sample
Joe Sample
was a favorite keyboard player, and he was from the Jazz Crusaders as well.

AAJ: There is so much attention to detail throughout this production that it seems like you had unlimited time in the studio, but how much time did you really have?

LS: (Laughing) We probably abused the time we were supposed to have. I never was a clockwatcher. If we went over budget, then we'd deal with it, but we had plenty of time. We never went in there with arrangements and people reading notes, we worked it out in the studio and that takes time. So in a sense we were lucky that way.

I remember producing my first string session when I started at A&M. Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert
and Jerry Moss owned the company, so I bumped into Herb and he asked, "How did the strings turn out, are you happy with them?" And I said, "Yeah, they sound great." And he said, "Well, if you're not happy with them, you can do it again." He probably was setting me up for failure by going over budget (laughing), but I never had that worry in those days.

AAJ: Another thing I find interesting, with the exception of Year of Sunday (Warner Bros., 1971), you could make the case that Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl were the least commercial albums Seals & Crofts did on Warner Bros., yet they were by far the most successful commercially, and that might be true for the singles, too. Somehow, that seems like a good thing to me, or do you have a different take on it?

LS: We were always aware that in order for an album to be successful, you had to have singles on the radio. That's what was missing on their first album, not that they didn't have them, but for some reason the singles didn't make it. It's funny, they had "Summer Breeze" and had played it for the guy who produced their first album. He didn't like the song.

So when we were getting ready to start what became the Summer Breeze album, Jimmy said, "Well, I don't really have any songs, I've got this one, but nobody likes it." So he starts playing "Summer Breeze," and I about flipped. I said, "Are you crazy? That's a hit song." It was the same with "Diamond Girl."

Back before computers, Jimmy would make notes about songs and put them in the bottom of his guitar case. He might have a verse, or a chorus or whatever. Anyway, when were starting the Diamond Girl album Jimmy said he didn't have anything except this, and starts playing the beginning of "Diamond Girl." I only heard two lines of it, but I told him to finish it, it was a great song. That's the way a lot of that stuff happened.

AAJ: Many younger people only know Seals & Crofts from soft rock radio, but songs like "Big Mac," "Blue Bonnet Nation," "Fire and Vengeance," "Sunrise," "Wisdom," "Takin' It Easy," and "Thunderfoot" would make a soft rock station manager's head explode. Those songs along with "Freak's Fret" are a side of Seals & Crofts I wish more people knew about.

Maybe the biggest surprise came on the last album, with Chick Corea

Chick Corea
Chick Corea
on piano, Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
on bass, and Jim Seals back on sax. How did you pull that off?

LS: You know, it was just a phone call, it wasn't hard to get them there. The amazing thing with that whole session was that we went through three reels of tape doing takes, and every take was unbelievable. And every take was different. We were having such a good time just watching and listening, we didn't want it to end. It was mind-boggling how good those guys were. It was just [drummer] Carlos Vega, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke in there together. We weren't even playing the tune. That was a great experience. I thought that was a great record.

There were some political things going on with their record company at the time, they had signed some new artists and Seals & Crofts were no longer a priority, and a lot of disappointing things were happening. I wish it could have gone on, because I had such faith in Jimmy's writing. He kept coming up with such great songs.

AAJ: It was quite a run, and it was fitting that you ended the final album with "One Planet, One People, Please," a song that harkened back to the mood and message you began with. Did you do that consciously?

LS: No, it just happened that way. That's incredible, I never really thought of that.

AAJ: Do you still see Dash Crofts and Jimmy Seals?

LS: I was just in Nashville for four weeks when I went to the Hall of Fame thing there. I saw Jimmy. We hung out and played golf. Dash has moved to Texas, so I hear from him on email and MySpace, but I haven't seen him in a while.

It was so interesting when I was living in Nashville, some of the universities across America would contact me and say, "We're getting our spring entertainment together, and the students voted to have Seals & Crofts perform, and we have a budget of $30,000, $60,000 or whatever, are they available?" Unfortunately, I'd have to write them back and explain that, yes they're available, but they aren't performing together anymore.

AAJ: What were some of the most important lessons you learned about the music business and producing from those years?

LS: You have to keep up with the times, you can't get stuck in one place. My experience has been that the music business and the genres seem to change about every five years. Whatever you learned ten years ago might not even apply now. Different formats were coming in. We began playing together as a group in the studio, and then all of a sudden everything was being sequenced. You had to learn digital technology because analog was being phased out.

It's the same with guitar. There is still value in the old sound and technology, but I try to identify with the latest stuff, work with it, and think as someone who's part of what's going on.

I don't know if I've learned anything philosophical from producing, I have confidence in the tools I use and my musical instincts and that's what I bring to the table every time I go into the studio. It's my judgment, my taste, my ability to make music, and I know that you had better love what you're doing, because it's always going to be there for people to hear and they will judge you by it.

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