During the history of modern pop music and jazz, there have been those with the ability to take music that is potentially great and make it great by sheer force of talent. A lot of these people are names that we recognize today, because along with sterling musicianship and songwriting, fame often follows. But, they don’t get there on their own. The stars of the show have the advantage of side musicians, who are in the role of support, adding texture and personality to any material put in front of them.
Yet, often the people in these supporting roles don’t often have a proportionate share in the fame that often comes out of the fruits of their labours. Sure, liner notes-reading music obsessives might know them. And maybe in certain professional circles their names are known. But, for the most part it’s their playing, their signature sound, or their use of specialized instruments that make the material more well-known than they themselves are. And maybe that’s just indicative of how well they’ve done their job.
But, who are these people? Well, there are a lot of them over fifty years in the modern pop era to account for; the unsung heroes that have raised songwriters and performers with whom they’ve worked up from the level of mere mortals, and into the upper echelons of cultural avatars. Here’s 10 (well, technically 12!) such names, with some of the songs for which they are (not always) known, submitted here for your pleasure.
1. Johnnie Johnson
Key Instrument: piano
Worked with (among others): Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Bob Weir
Johnson was a musician in St. Louis with a band bearing his name by the early 1950s. Soon after, a guitarist called Chuck Berry joined the group and the two men began to knock together a sound based on boogie-woogie piano mixed with country & western guitar playing. The band soon became Berry’s. And the boogie beat normally coming from Johnson’s piano was overlaid with that of Berry’s guitar. And then BANG! Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Chuck Berry is now known as one of the architects of rock music as we know it. Johnson had to quit music to become a bus driver, until he was reinstated as a rock ‘n’ roll pianist to back Berry once again for Berry’s 60th birthday shows. Johnson’s return was captured for posterity in Taylor Hackford’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll film in 1986. Johnson has since got his own star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, four years before his death.
More information: Johnnie Johnson Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame bio
2. Nicky Hopkins
Key Instrument: piano
Worked with (among others): The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin , Joe Cocker, The Jayhawks.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, Hopkins took his high-level of musicianship and applied it to some of the highest profile rock albums in history from the mid-60s, into the ’70s, and beyond. The Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”, John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, and Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” – that’s Nicky Hopkins’ piano you’re hearing.
Hopkins’ range on the piano was wide, going from heavy blues licks to light, airy, and supremely melodic lines that put the finishing touches on every song he played on. One of this reasons for remaining to be a session player instead of joining a band full time was his chronic ill-health. He suffered from Crohn’s Disease. But, his work helped to define an era, adding touches that would give dimension to rock music forever after.
He would continue to be highly sought-after for his piano playing until his death in 1994.
More information: Nickyhopkins.com
Listen: “We Love You”, The Rolling Stones.
3. Carol Kaye
Key Instrument: electric bass, guitar
Worked with (among others): Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers, Lalo Schifrin, Simon & Garfunkel
A key member of what became known as The Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians that boasted members who could all appear on this list, Carol Kaye was perhaps an unlikely rock ‘n’roller. And yet her bass playing and her guitar can be heard on a huge list of era-defining songs and albums. This includes everything from Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”, to Beach Boys magnum opus Pet Sounds, to many of the hits of Simon & Garfunkel.
In addition to appearing on rock, pop, and even jazz records, Kaye would also make her name as a m ausician who’s bass playing would appear on many film and television soundtracks of the late ’60s and into the ’70s. That funky bass riff on Lalo Schifrin’s theme from Bullitt? Yes, that’s right – Carol Kaye.
More information: Interview with Carol Kaye
Listen: “The Beat Goes On”, Sonny & Cher
4. Paul Chambers
Key instrument: acoustic bass
Worked with (among others): Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan
Paul Chambers held the bottom on so many classic jazz recordings, it’s almost a disservice not to list them all here. But, the point is that he took an instrument that was known mostly to hold down the beat and keep a pulse, and made it into a supple texture, and valuable voice as vital as any horn, or piano. He also experimented with bowing, as well as the standard plucked string approach to jazz bass playing. He took chances, making everyone in jazz pay attention to what the possibilities of the acoustic bass actually meant to ensemble playing.
Chambers would cut a handful of records as a leader, even if he’s more famously known as a supporting player. Even though he played on many, many landmark jazz records, his own profile is not as necessarily high as that of the musicians he supported. Either way, his playing would distinguish him from the time he began as a teen, to his death at the young age of 33 in 1969 of tuberculosis.
More information: Paul Chambers page
Listen: “So What”, Miles Davis
5. “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow
Key instrument: pedal steel guitar
Worked with (among others): The Byrds, Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, The Lemonheads, Leonard Cohen
Toward the end of the 1960s, rock music embraced country music in a more overt way. And as such, it also embraced a key texture that hadn’t been a part of rock ‘n’ roll bands up until then – the pedal steel guitar. One of the key players of that instrument was “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, who after serving as a steel player around the time the Byrds put out their seminal country-rock LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo, he later joined former Byrds Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons in the formation of The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Kleinow would be a high-profile player from that point onward, with a bluesy approach to the pedal steel that fit right into the country-rock and roots rock sounds of the 1970s. Being outside of the country establishment, he was perfectly positioned to be the go-to pedal steel guy for a variety of artists who were not country musicians, from Frank Zappa, to John Lennon, to Leonard Cohen. So, he was able to expand the identity of the instrument by injecting it into musical genres that had never incorporated the it before. This opened up all kinds of opportunities as far as what rock music could mean, and how it could sound.
More information: Article about Sneaky Pete Kleinow by revered pedal steel player Greg Leisz
6 a-b. Venetta Fields/Clydie King
Key instrument: voices
Worked with (among others): Humble Pie, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, Linda Ronstadt
This is where I cheat and add two names to fit into one spot. But, the voices of Venetta Fields and Clydie King were so often matched, and so often added texture and nuance to so many famous recordings, it’s like they were a single instrument. Both singers came out of a gospel tradition, being a part of the original wave of soul music happening in the ’50s and into the early ’60s.
Fields served time with Ike & Tina Turner as an Ikette, while King was no less than one of Ray Charles’ Raylettes. Later, they’d form The Blackberries (with third vocalists Sherlie Matthews, and Billy Barnum). Together they took that bona fide, gospel-steeped R&B sound and applied it to the work of many rock bands. Their voices would help to define the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, a record that in part relies on the vital interplay of push-pull musical dynamics between them and Mick Jagger’s lead vocal. But, that’s just one example. There are so many others.
More information: Venetta Fields and Clydie King
Listen: “Look At The Fool”, Tim Buckley
7. Robbie McIntosh
Key instrument: guitar
Worked with (among others): The Pretenders, Paul McCartney, Talk Talk, Tori Amos, Norah Jones
Growing up in Britain loving rock music of the ’60s and the jazz records he heard as a kid, Robbie McIntosh took his musicial education and developed it to become one of the most sought-after sessioners from the ’70s, into the ’80s, and up until the present day. Like “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, McIntosh joined a major band in addition to being a valued sideman. That band was The Pretenders, for whom he lent his guitar in place of his departed friend James Honeyman-Scott. Later, he’d become a stalwart player in the live band for Paul McCartney in the ’80s and into the ’90s.
Because he can pretty much play anything and in any style, he was able to lend his chops from acts as diverse as Talk Talk to Boyzone to John Mayer with many stops in between. I saw Robbie McIntosh play live when I went to see Norah Jones a couple of years ago when he was a part of her “Handsome Band”. His playing was lyrical, dextrous, and always respectful of the material. This is one of the many reasons why he remains to be a valued ingredient to rock and pop music of all kinds today
More information: Robbie McIntosh bio
8 a-b. Wendy (Melvoin) & Lisa (Coleman)
Key instrument: guitar and keyboards, respectively
Worked with (among others): Prince, Madonna, Neil Finn, Pearl Jam, Joni Mitchell
Both Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are the children of Wrecking Crew session musicians; Mike Melvoin and Gary L. Coleman respectively, both of whom play on Tim Buckley’s “Look At The Fool” listed above, among other songs. They took their musical inheritances as crack backing musicians and applied them initially to Prince’s backing group The Revolution. They even appeared in Purple Rain, the movie. As such, their influence on Prince’s R&B-based pop sound as players and as co-writers during this period alone is incalculable.
Melvoin and Coleman were a unit within a unit, soon to formalize their partnership as Wendy & Lisa (also known by the name Girl Bros) when they left Prince to apply their talents to a wider variety of musical projects, and across a wider range of styles. In addition to their work as sessioners, they have also released their own records under the Wendy & Lisa name. And the two are Emmy-winning TV and film soundtrack composers, providing support of another kind to soundtracks like Heroes, Crossing Jordan, Nurse Jackie, and Touch.
More information: Wendy & Lisa official site
Listen: “Fire and Regeneration” (from the ‘Heroes’ soundtrack)
9. Jane Scarpantoni
Key instrument: cello
Worked with (among others): Indigo Girls, The Beastie Boys, Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Ben Folds Five
Another classically-trained artist on this list, Scarpantoni became a fixture on recordings and in live appearances, working with a wide age of acts, particularly in the late 1980s and 1990s. In addition to her work as a cellist, she is also an arranger, active during a time when the warmth of acoustic and orchestral string arrangements were making their way back into pop music, after a period when synthesized strings were thought to have killed them in the 1980s.
Just in time for the MTV Unplugged trend, Scarpantoni appeared with 10,000 Maniacs for the band’s historic TV appearance on the program, and for their parallel live record. In whatever context, her cello lines add texture and gravitas, opening up the possibilities for the varied genres to which her playing is added. And where once the addition of the cello was about classical textures, Scarpantoni freed up the instrument to take on any genre.
More information: Scarpantoni Rocks The Cello
Listen: “Your Ghost”, Kristen Hersh
10. Joey Waronker
Key Instrument: drums
Worked with (among others): Beck, Elliott Smith, REM, Bat For Lashes, Thom Yorke
Another son of the music industry (record producer and former president of Warner music Lenny Waronker is his dad), Joey Waronker made his own way as a drummer, and later on as a producer. Some of his best-known work was with the peak period albums with Beck, including Odelay, Mutations, and Midnite Vultures. Waronker also sat in Bill Berry’s drum seat for REM’s Up and Reveal albums, also joining them on tour. Since, he’s been a stalwart sessioner.
Because of his background, he grew up around some of the greatest session drummers of the 1970s, most notably Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro. But, it was his own pursuit of a career as a sessioner which allowed him to be able to approach the role of a supporting musician as a way to be more objective about his contribution, and to serve the material as it needed to be served, letting the lead artist take care of the rest.
More information: Joey Waronker Onion AV Club interview
Listen: “Diamond Bollocks”, Beck
Supporting musicians are often unsung. But, they have provided a means to create the material that gets a lead artist to where they want to go. Maybe their playing raised the bar for the bands with whom they appeared. Or maybe they were able to take a non-traditional instrument and give it a new identity in a new stylistic context, or even an old one. Whatever the case, they made the music better just by applying their talents, not their egos.
There are a lot of people who could have made this list. I didn’t even mention the Funk Brothers! But, this just underscores how important side musicians and sessioners actually have been in the devlopment of modern pop and jazz.
Some of the people listed above are pretty famous in their own right anyway. There are various degrees of fame, of course. But in the case of these listed musicians, what’s more famous is their work, and the names of the artists who they supported. As mentioned above, perhaps this is a testament to their craft, making the work stand out in front, and letting the limelight shine on whoever it will.