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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.



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