Louie Shelton: In Session

Alan Bryson By

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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. Louie Shelton
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, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, 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'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 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 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'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, 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 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?

AAJ: 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, 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, 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.



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