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Louie Shelton: In Session

Alan Bryson By

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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!

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, 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.

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.

AAJ: You did so many sessions—I don't know if you are aware of this bit of trivia. Before Steely Dan formed, the songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker wrote a song for Barbra Streisand, and she did it on an album you played on. It's called "I Mean to Shine."

LS: Wow. No, I didn't know that!

AAJ: If I'm not mistaken, you and Dean Parks are good buddies and worked together often. He and several of your other buddies, like Jim Keltner and Larry Carlton, did a lot of work for Steely Dan. Did you have any interaction with them back in the 70s?

LS: Unfortunately, I didn't, but I loved their stuff. I had gotten out of the session scene and we [with Seals & Crofts] had our own studio, Dawnbreakers, out in the valley by that time. So our paths never really crossed. And being from New York, they also did a lot of work there. I know they flew guys to New York to do overdubs.

I know they flew Larry [Carlton] out. Once when he got there they said, "Where's your amp?" And he said, "I thought we could rent one." And they said something like, "No, we've got to have that brown one." So they waited for him to fly his amp in before they would even consider recording!

Working with Larry Carlton

AAJ: How about Larry Carlton?

LS: What can I say about Larry that hasn't been said, other than I knew him in the very early days and I had the good fortune to go down and see Larry play at an after-hours club with Donnie Brooks. He was playing a 175 and a lot of B.B. King licks and was already a great player.

That was a time when people were starting to ask me if I knew other players who were my age and had a similar style. So I started recommending Larry for sessions. Of course once anyone heard him play, he didn't need my recommendation. He was living down in Torrance, [California], when I first met him. So when I got him some sessions he would come up to L.A. and stay at my place, and we'd head off to the session the next day.

Over the years we've remained really good friends. I remember when Larry first started doing his solo albums. I had done a solo album for Warner Bros. my first year as a session player. Boyce and Hart had gotten me a deal, but somehow I didn't see the value in it for myself, but Larry was dedicated to it. He was kind enough to mention me on the back of his first record as one of his influences, along with some great company I don't deserve to be with—B.B. King, John Coltrane, and maybe one other person. I was grateful to him for that.

He continued with that, and he was doing these gigs over at Dante's along with his session work. He really paid his dues as a dedicated musician who wanted to be known as something more than a session player. He's had his ups and downs and it hasn't been easy, that's a long, tough road being a solo artist. But I think he's in a comfortable place now where he's being rewarded for all that hard work, and just plays better and better all the time.

Lowdown on Boz Scaggs

AAJ: How about Boz Scaggs?

LS: It was a really fun session with Boz because he was there and gave us a good guide vocal to play to, and he was into what was going on in the studio with the musicians. He was involved with the arrangements and the sound. That Silk Degrees album was his breakout record. He was from up in the Bay area, but he came down to L.A. to do that.

This wasn't an overnight success for him. He'd made some records and done a lot of playing. So he was a seasoned trouper at that point, and somehow it all came together with David Paich, Jeff Pocaro, and David Hungate, who eventually became Toto. It was a perfect thing where the pieces fell together, and it still holds up today.

Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Tedesco

AAJ: How about Ella Fitzgerald?

LS: She's a legend, and of course most of her career took place before I was on the session scene. This was a record that Richard Perry produced, who also produced the Barbra Streisand album I played on. He was the new young hot producer in town—he did Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, and believe it or not, the first Tiny Tim album is what made him a success.

The way we made this record with Richard wasn't like working with Barbra. There was no one-on-one with Ella, we were working from charts. It wasn't like I got to do an Ella Fitzgerald gig, I was just part of the band. But I was a huge fan of hers and I am still, she's one of the greatest singers of all time, and I'm proud to have been associated with her for that little moment in history.

AAJ: What comes to mind when you hear Tommy Tedesco?

LS: I smile when I hear Tommy Tedesco's name. He was so much fun (laughing) if it wasn't directed at you! He was really a fun guy. I loved Tommy. I didn't get to work much with him, because again, there was this transition of new players, but occasionally I did get to play with him in the early days. He was great at what he did, everybody loved him, kind of like Glen Campbell, they just loved to have him on the session because it was such a good vibe.

He wasn't known for great solos, but he played his parts well, and he could read anything. He was a special guy.

Leon Russell and Dr. John

AAJ: How about 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 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.

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'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 Brooksand 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 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 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 on piano, Stanley Clarkeon 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.

Dan Seals

AAJ: Unfortunately, in 2009 we lost Dan Seals, who was the first person you ever produced. He went on to quite a career in country music. Had you two stayed in touch over the years?

LS: Oh yes, we were very close. As a matter of fact, I produced a great album called Make It Home (Nuance Records, 2002) with Danny when I was in Nashville. Commercially it didn't do what it should have, but it is an absolutely fantastic record. Of course we only had limited promotion, but we had distribution, so it was distributed well. We had four record promoters on it, but because it wasn't on a major label it couldn't get any radio play. The stations would come right out and tell you that.

He'd had ten number one country songs, but then all of a sudden the record company had signed some new artists, so they dropped Dan Seals. He hadn't had a record deal for five years, but I knew he was still a great singer and a great artist, and he was touring and people were still going out to see him. So I got this batch of songs together and we did this album in my studio when we were in Nashville. It came out absolutely great.

We're kind of related—his daughter married my wife's sister's son. We all lived close together there in Nashville. Dan lived half a block down the street from me at one point, his kids and my kids, and all our nephews and nieces are very close. He and his wife and kids are all very committed Baha'is, and the same is true for me and my family.

Solo Work

AAJ: I remember walking through a big mega music store in the 90s and seeing your first solo CD, Guitar (Lightyear, 1996). I bought it without knowing quite what to expect, and it became, and remains, one of my favorite CDs. My first thought was, why did you hold out on us so long?

LS: I guess it's still this way, I tend to put myself last on the list. Actually, I had started that album in the early 80s, I had Carlos Vega and a few guys coming over to the house, and we worked up some tunes. Then all of a sudden this move to Australia comes into the picture, I move here and set up a studio and another couple of years roll by, I'd whittle away at a tune here and there, but meanwhile I was working on other bands. So it wasn't a priority.

But you know, it's funny about that record, when we moved back to America from Sydney, I got it released on a label in New York called Lightyear. So one night I started up the car and one of my songs was playing, and it kind of freaked me out. I was thinking, do I have my CD in this car? But I had the radio on a jazz station. It turned out one of the network jazz companies had picked it up, and it was playing on 30 jazz stations around the country. And others picked it up, and the response ended up being pretty good.

I've got some new stuff I think will do really well. I'm in the process of deciding how to go with it, if I should hook up with a record company or do it myself as an Internet record company. Unless you get with someone who is actually going to do some promotion it isn't worth it, because I can get orders over the Internet and the money goes in my pocket. Whereas, if I sign with a record company the first thing I'll get is a notice that I owe them such-and-such because they Fedexed it to 100 megastores. That's what happened on that first one. I don't know how it sold, I've never seen a statement.

AAJ: I thought it was one of those albums where everything came together. You had half a dozen strong compositions, and really funky versions of "Georgy Porgy" and Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle," and you even nailed it on the cover design and the notes.

LS: I loved the artwork on that CD. A photographer had been over at my studio and he was just taking all these shots of guitars, parts of guitars, and stuff like that. So later I was at his office and he had a proof sheet on the desk, and I said, "You know what, you've almost got something there." So basically we took that proof sheet and rearranged a few things and that became the album cover, and I thought it was a great cover. We got Glenn Baker, a genuine music historian, to do the liner notes—he's one of these guys who knew more about what I'd done than I did. I just saw him on TV here [in Australia] this morning, because today was Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, so they had him on a morning show.

AAJ: You followed Guitar with Hot & Spicy (Sin-Drome, 1998), an album with a somewhat mellower but rather sensual vibe. You had Victor Wooten in the studio with you. How did you guys meet?

LS: His brothers played at a club every Wednesday night in Nashville, and sometimes Victor would go down there. We worked together first on someone else's project, but I was of course aware of his great bass playing from watching him with Bela Fleck. He's the nicest guy, and when I asked if he would play on my record he was more than willing.

AAJ: He's also on your album Something Live (New World Records, 2000). This was especially nice because contrary to the norm, you hadn't released these songs on your previous CDs, and it's also a treat for Miles Davis fans, with three of his compositions.

LS: The radio formats in America are so strict, the smooth jazz stations won't play traditional jazz, and vice versa. So I thought, maybe I could come up with something that the traditional jazz stations would play.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you something else about Hot & Spicy. If I'm not mistaken, you played an amplified acoustic with some interesting effects on several tracks, or was it a 12-string?

LS: That was a six-string through an effects box. When I did my first album, Guitar, my point of reference was Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. When I left L.A. they were playing that stuff on the radio. But after I got back to the States and began Hot & Spicy and went with Sin-Drome Records in L.A., they explained that the smooth jazz stations had gone so smooooth. Guys like Peter White and Craig Chaquico were getting a lot of play, so they wanted me to do some acoustic, and that's why I came up with that kind of album. There were a few vocals too, with Seals & Crofts, and Lua Crofts, she's really a great singer.

AAJ: How about Urban Culture (Nuance Records, 1999)?

LS: Well, I was in Atlanta at a radio station and we were talking and they explained that over 40 percent of their audience was African American and they really liked more hip hop and R&B tracks. So I did Urban Culture.

AAJ: That was a very radio-friendly album, and another one with Victor on it.

LS: Yes, he was on some tracks, and we did have some great reviews from radio stations across America. Like one station in Kansas City said, it's not often that every track on a CD is great, but that's the case on this one.

AAJ: I particularly liked "Street Walkin.'" Victor really came through for you on that.

LS: Oh, yeah, that's a really funky track.

AAJ: What's next for you?

LS: I think this new record that I'm working on now is going to be a good one, especially from a commercial standpoint. I've done some good versions of tunes that people are familiar with, like "Rio de Janeiro Blue," "Walk On By," a few originals, but I've also done versions of some of the stuff I've played on like "Lowdown," "I Want You Back," and "Hello"—I'm still figuring out what I'll put on the record. It's part of a record I'm doing here for Live Performances called Souvenir.

Selected Discography

Louie Shelton, Something Live (New World Records, 2000)
Louie Shelton, Urban Culture (Nuance Records, 1999)
Louie Shelton, Hot & Spicy (Sin-Drome Records, 1998)
Louie Shelton, Guitar (Slam Records, 1995)
Lionel Richie, Dancing on the Ceiling (Motown, 1986)
Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston (Arista, 1985)
Lionel Richie, Can't Slow Down (Motown, 1983)
Seals & Crofts, The Longest Road (Warner Bros., 1980)
Seals & Crofts, Takin' It Easy (Warner Bros., 1978)
Seals & Crofts, One on One (Warner Bros., 1977)
Boz Scaggs, Silk Degrees (Columbia, 1976)
Melanie, Photograph (Atlantic, 1976)
Seals & Crofts, Get Closer (Warner Bros., 1976)
Seals & Crofts, I'll Play for You (Warner Bros., 1975)
Art Garfunkel, Breakaway (Columbia, 1975)
T-Bone Walker, Very Rare (Reprise, 1974)
Seals & Crofts, Unborn Child (Warner Bros., 1974)
Marvin Gaye, Let's Get It On (Motown, 1973)
Seals & Crofts, Diamond Girl (Warner Bros., 1973)
Solomon Burke, Electronic Magnetism (MGM, 1972)
Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze (Warner Bros., 1972)
Lalo Schifrin, Rock Requiem (Verve, 1971)
Barbra Streisand, Barbra Joan Streisand (Columbia, 1971)
Otis Spann, Sweet Giant of the Blues (Blue Time, 1970)
James Brown, Soul on Top (Polydor, 1970)
Al Kooper, Easy Does It (Yellow Label, 1970)
T-Bone Walker, Bosses of the Blues (RCA, 1969)
The Monkees, The Monkees (Colgem, 1966)

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