“A star that is determined to shine cannot be hidden, not even by darkness” goes a quote by author Matshona Dhliwayo. But, in music, time and again, we are so blinded by the light of a star that we overlook, and often never even mention, the fantastic musicians who have made a decisive contribution to the success of these icons. This is true for both live performers and session musicians in the studio. For example, there are recordings of The Beatles where fans immediately recognize that Ringo Starr was not on drums. Who were these session musicians or friends that filled in and actually did a lot more than just fill in? Below are some musicians that most people don’t know about but, who we think, should. ?
Hal Blaine, unknown megastar on drums
Drummer Hal Blaine can claim to have recorded an almost endless number of top #1 hits. Songs that everybody knows to this day, like “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel or “Mr. Tambourine Man“. The list is incredibly long. Even if Michael Jackson and the Beatles piled up their hits the hit collection of Hal Blaine would still tower over it. After all, he was an important part of the Wrecking Crew, who put almost everything on the assembly line back then.
Bobby Keys – super famous non-famous musician
When you’re a saxophonist on the biggest stages in the world and you’re touring with one of the most legendary bands par excellence, that’s without a doubt something! It gets even better when most super fans know your name. This is what happened to the Texan Bobby Keys. For many years he was part of the Rolling Stones‘ permanent line up. Then he played with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, and then went back on the road with the Stones.
Spike Edney – Queen’s background man
There is hardly a well-known band that Spike Edney has not played with. He registered his credits early with Ben E. King and Edwin Starr. Shortly afterwards his career in the studio and live business really took off. First he played for the Rolling Stones, also the Boomtown Rats and Duran Duran. In 1984 he was able to further top his popularity: He became Queen’s pianist and keyboardist and went on tour with Freddie Mercury & co. We can hear his piano prowess below on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love“:
David Rosenthal – musical director, organiser, sideman-keyboardist
If you start to count the acts David Rosenthal has worked for, you quickly get dizzy. It starts with tours for Rainbow, Little Steven and Robert Palmer and does not end with Cyndi Lauper, Elton John or Enrique Iglesias. Meanwhile David is keyboardist and musical director for Billy Joel. David Rosenthal pulls the strings in the background AND delivers music for Piano Man Billy Joel, that’s what makes him special.
Carol Kaye – prolific bass player extraordinaire
For a long time the bass was the domain of men, we don’t know why it was perceived as such in public. After all, there were and are numerous female musicians who prove the opposite. One of them – and probably the most employed – is Carol Kaye. She was a member of the Wrecking Crew and has easily recorded more than 10,000 studio recordings. This is hardly imaginable for a commercial musician in terms of time. She made it and left her low frequency takes on hits like “La Bamba“, or “I’m a Believer“. Hats off!
The Funk Brothers – the Motown house band
The Funk Brothers were a motley bunch of 13 musicians in total, all independent session musicians who got their jobs directly from and at Motown. Occasionally the line-up was changed. Between 1959 and 1972 they recorded several million-dollar-hits and were mainly responsible for the complex Motown sound. Nobody could groove as confidently as the Funk Brothers, for example on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone“. Many of them were also part of the Wrecking Crew. In 1972 Motown moved, and just as smoothly the Funk Brothers were gone.
Dennis Coffey – “Mr. Wah Effect”
One of the Funk Brothers was the American guitarist Dennis James Coffey. Probably he was not the inventor of the wah-effect, but he was certainly famous among insiders for this special sound. Dennis used it to decorate recordings for the Temptations, the Jackson Five or David Ruffin. And unlike many others in his musical guild, he also landed his own hits. “Scorpio” came from his project Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band. In 1977 Devil’s Gun followed as another chart hit.
Bob Babbitt – bass leader for the stars
His real name was Robert Kreiner. It is not really known when and why he took his stage name. However, it is a fact that he exchanged his double bass for a Fender Precision at the age of 15 and can be heard on many top-class recordings. Bob made hundreds of recordings for renowned acts like Rare Earth, Marvin Gay, The Platters or Stevie Wonder, later also for Phil Collins, Diana Ross and Elton John. This list of credits is by no means complete. Hear Bob’s legendary bass line here in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours“:
One of those who was active as a session musician for Motown from a very early age is William “Benny” Benjamin. Born in 1925, he was initially the most sought-after studio drummer and also the core of the Funk Brothers. Benny can be heard on recordings by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and numerous others. His standing was so great that he could even afford to be late. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too late for his own death due to heroin and alcohol addiction. He died of a stroke at the young age of 43 in 1969. Check out that unmistakable drumming style:
Earl Van Dyke
And when we list all the session legends of that time, Earl Van Dyke can’t be missing! After all, he was the leader of the Funk Brothers. Van Dyke actually played everything that had keys in any form. From Wurlitzer to Fender Rhodes and Harpsichord, he played everything. Earl had experienced just about everything from working in the Ford factories to his time in the army with tuberculosis. Then it was off to Motown, where he was involved in almost every hit for nearly 10 years.
Good to remind the public about these musicians. The list cannot be complete due to space, though. The lines bases of Jamie Jameson, Carol Kaye (God only knows, Wichita Lineman)…
Sven Doves-Kry says:
Percussionist Ray Cooper needs a mention too – it’s almost easier to list bands he hasn’t played with. Amazing guy.