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.
Here’s a clip of 60s and 70s go-to keyboard dude Billy Preston with his 1973 smash single “Will It Go Around in Circles”, the studio version of which as taken from his 1972 Music is My Life album. You can find this more easily on the recent compilation Ultimate Collection.
This is a song from my childhood, all over the radio just as my memories were beginning to form in earnest. My family had taken a trip somewhere, and I remember reading a Tom & Jerry annual (kind of like a hardcover graphic novel, but for kiddies), sitting by an enclosed pool and hearing this tune coming out of an AM radio. I’ve always loved it; a super funky groove, piles of bluesy keyboards, and an exuberant vocal from Preston. Who knew the guy could be that talented an organist/pianist, and be able to sing too?
Preston started playing in public from the age of ten in church, often for visiting gospel acts. He recorded on Veejay records by the 1960s as a sessioner, was a regular on the TV showShindig, and of course was a touring musician with a number of notable R&B, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll figures of the time.
His role as a sideman brought him to Britain on package tours, which is where he met with the British rock musicians, some with whom he would continue a career as a highly sought-after sideman by the next decade. Billy Preston’s contributions to the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions alone made the guy a legend, effortlessly incorporating his keyboard lines into songs like “Get Back”, which is arguably the defining element to that song.
Besides his contributions to the work of others, his solo career in the early 70s promoted his talents to an even further degree. With hits like “Outa-Space”, “Nothing From Nothing”, and his songwriting efforts in penning “You Are So Beautiful” with Bruce Fisher (made famous by Joe Cocker’s version) Preston’s name is now firmly established on the rock and R&B landscape for good. He was the first musical guest on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, his solo artist chops beginning to make waves and set him apart from other prominent session players.
In 1980, he had another hit with the song “With You I’m Born Again”, which showed his talents as a smooth soul singer, dueting with Syreeta Wright – it’s kind of a guilty pleasure of mine. It was his last big hit, even though he continued to perform and record into the 80s, 90s, and more recently in 2006 with producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette) onI Believe to My Soul, which also featured Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, and Irma Thomas. It would be his last project. Billy Preston died that same year, age 59.
It’s hard not to name drop when writing about Billy Preston, as I’ve showed pretty well here. But, one of Preston’s traits, and his legacy, is that he managed to touch the careers of so many musicians from so many corners of the pop music universe.
Here’s a clip of legendary soul and R&B sessioner Bernard Purdie demonstrating why King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others sought his skills as a drummer from the 60s onward.
Purdie is one of my favourite drummers, and I think he gives away his secret in this clip; he is a drummer who is interested in melody as much as he is in the groove. This is certainly identified on Aretha’s Live at Filmore West, and on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, my two favourite examples of his work.
For more information about Bernard Purdie, check out Bernard Purdie’s official website, which outlines just how prolific he has been as a session drummer, as well as a bandleader.