While it may be world-famous bands and singers that clamour for the spotlight, the annals of music history is positively bursting with unsung heroes.
In that vein, there are perhaps few more underrated yet as essential as the humble session musician. Relying on their professionalism and technical proficiency, they are the musicians’ musician, whose bulging CV has seen some of the most influential and important artists clamouring over each other to employ them to ensure their music is delivered by the best of the best.
The sad reality however, is that some of these highly respected musicians don’t always achieve the same fame and glory as their rock star employers – even if they’re just as accountable for producing #1 hits and timeless music.
Following is a list commemorating six of the best of them.
The kind of dedication and skill these six landmark session musos display can take years, but you can speed up the process by taking part in the courses offered at the Australian Institute of Music in Melbourne. With a range of instrumental tuition and production courses, enrolled students at AIM will gain experience in every part of the studio – from engineering to production and mixing. More than enough to take you into the history books alongside these all-star session legends.
The Funk Brothers
If you’ve seen 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, you’ll understand why this posse of legendary Detroit musicians are at the top of our list of music’s most unsung heroes.
If you haven’t seen the film, all you need to know is in the opening credits, which proclaims that they “played on more #1 hit than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.”
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Essentially, The Funk Brothers were the house band for the prolific Tamla Motown record label, providing the backing to some of the biggest stars and singles of the 60s, embodying the infamous Detroit label’s slogan: “The Sound Of Young America.” Their ream of credits includes backing influential clients like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Jackson 5, and timelessly recognisable songs like ‘My Girl’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – the list goes on and on.
A whole army’s worth of noteworthy instrumentalists passed through The Funk Brothers ranks through the years and while many names would ring bells for students of their craft (nearly every bassist has heard of the virtuosic James Jamerson) the group’s legacy wasn’t widely known until Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.
Though they’ve since earned back some much-deserved recognition as result of the 2002 feature, including three Grammy awards and a Hollywood Walk Of Fame, their many decades in the underrated and unknown wilderness under the auspices of Motown titan Berry Gordy more than earns them the title of ‘ music’s biggest unsung heroes’.
Bassists are typically one of the most underrated and under-appreciated members of a band and it ain’t uncommon for these deep-toned finger-pluckers to fade into the background. This is just the case for Washington-State born session musician, Carol Kaye. Within her 55-year career, this bass guitarist has played on approximately 10,000 recording sessions. Insane right? But which ones would you have heard of?
Having a strong affiliation with the likes of maniac producer Phil Spector (who is almost a rockstar himself), Kaye’s bass playing contributed to what would become the “wall of sound” phenomenon. In addition to this, her ferocious low-end can be heard on the Spector-penned Ike & Tina Turner explosion ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, a track that eventually went on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Not bad, eh? A few others to add to the booming repertoire include The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which had Brian Wilson so impressed that he had the bass-supremo set to play on Smile, the classic album’s abandoned follow-up.
No stranger to timeless pop hooks, Kaye also stars on ‘I’m A Believer’ by the Monkees and The Righteous Brother’s gorgeous ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin Feelin’. With no limit to the type of style required, legendary soul king Ray Charles featured Kaye on ‘In the Heat of the Night’, ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’, ‘America The Beautiful’, ‘Understanding’. Jumping genres, Kaye worked with folk superstars Simon & Garfunkel whom enlisted the virtuoso for ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’. It seems there was no limit to Kaye’s bass prowess.
Another industry veteran yet publicly neglected musician is Lisa Fischer, who along with the roster of singers brought wider infamy thanks to the Oscar-winning film 20 Feet From Stardom, is a prolific backing vocalist who didn’t quite attain the legendary status as the big names she worked with.
Though she did begin to draw attention in the early 90s with her solo career, even winning a Grammy in 1992 for ‘Best Female R&B Vocal Performance’ (for ‘How Can I Ease The Pain’), the now 55-year-old performer is better known for working for famous artists like Sting, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, and Nine Inch Nails both on the road and in the studio.
She’s also toured with The Rolling Stones since 1989, where she routinely struts her impressive vocals by duetting with Mick Jagger on ‘Gimme Shelter’. Much like fellow backing singing legends Merry Clatyon and Darlene Love, sustainable stardom has always eluded Fischer, but it’s not for a lack of sheer talent.
Soul, rock, funk, gospel, RnB – you name it and William ‘Billy’ Everett Preston has done it – and with great aplomb.
His prolific session work with his funky organ, electric piano, and production nous has seen him employed by big name stars like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Miles Davis (who even wrote a song for Preston).
As well as finding some success as a solo artist, he’s also one of a number of musical elite who has been referred to as ‘The Fifth Beatle’, as well as one of two musicians (alongside Tony Sheridan) credited on a Fab Four song (on a version of ‘Get Back’) as well as being involved in each of the Beatles’ respective solo careers.
Though his more recent output included appearing on albums by Jet (2003’s Get Born), Red Hot Chili Peppers (2005’s Stadium Arcadium) his legacy was already more than cemented by the time of his death in 2006.
This here gentleman, a drumming king, is a Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer who has played on (wait for it) over 50 #1 hits, over 150 Top 10 songs, as well as over 35,000 production pieces.
This percussion professional is also a Grammy record holder, having played on six consecutive ‘Record Of The Year’ winners: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass A Taste of Honey (1966),
Frank Sinatra Strangers in the Night (1967), The 5th Dimension “Up, Up and Away” (1968), Simon & Garfunkel Mrs. Robinson (1969), The 5th Dimension Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
and Simon & Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water (1971) – odds are you’ve definitely tapped your feet to this man’s beat at some point.
If that’s not enough to impress, Blaine has bashed the skins for some of the greatest artists at their finest moments, including: Elvis Presley – ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, The Byrds ‘Mr Tambourine Man”, Sonny & Cher ‘I Got You Babe’, Nancy Sinatra ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin”, The Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations, The Carpenters ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ and John Denver ‘I’m Sorry/Calypso’
Pretty damn huge considering your jaw had dropped at the sheer mention of The Funk Brothers’ accolades as a collective, however this man performed alone and as a part of The Wrecking Crew. Speaking of…
The Wrecking Crew
Headed by the aforementioned Blaine, this group of prolific musicians was to Los Angeles what The Funk Brothers were to Detroit, and even shared many members of the Motown associated band once they relocated to LA in the early 70s.
Quite an expansive cast of instrumentalists, this collective predominately backed for pop, jazz and classical but were well versed in most styles, to which they found themselves working on almost every possible genre within American music at the time, even television advertisements and film scores.
The Wrecking Crew featured on Phil Spector-produced LPs like Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies Man, as well as loaning their services to surf-rock kings The Beach Boys on their unforgettable smash hits ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘California Girls’ as well as Pet Sounds.
Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Vee, The Partridge Family, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters, The 5th Dimension, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel and Nat King Cole are just the beginning of the never-ending list The Wrecking Crew have worked behind.
Spiking further interest, many of this group have stepped into the limelight, Glen Campbell and Leon Russell achieving success as solo recording artists, while the likes of Mac Rebannack went on to become Dr. John. If you’ve got a working set of ears and have ever turned on even a radio for an hour, you’re guaranteed to have heard at least one of these unsung backing band heroes.
Want to learn how to be a legendary session musician? The Australian Institute of Music offer courses in Composition & Music Production and Audio Engineering, as well a range of instrumental tuition, giving you all the skills you need. Apply now.