Ry Cooder is a virtuoso on fretted instruments —slide guitar, mandolin, Mexican tiple, banjo, Middle Eastern saz —who crossbreeds his own sense of syncopation with vernacular musics. As a fan/musicologist, he has sought out local styles such as calypso, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Tex-Mex, gospel, country, vaudeville "coon songs," and most recently, with the Buena Vista Social Club, prerevolutionary Cuban music. He records with L.A. session players and various "ethnic" musicians in and out of their own contexts.
Cooder began playing the guitar when he was three years old. He has had a glass eye since he was four, when he accidentally stuck a knife in his left eye. In the early '60s Cooder became active in Southern California blues and folk circles, and in 1963 he played in an unsuccessful group with vocalist Jackie DeShannon. With Taj Mahal, another musical archivist, he started the Rising Sons in 1966. He also appears on Mahal's debut album. Cooder was a busy session player in the late '60s, working for Gordon Lightfoot and on numerous commercials. He was a member of Captain Beefheart's Safe As Milk (1967), although he quit just before Beefheart was scheduled to play the Monterey Pop Festival. He also sat in on Little Feat's 1971 debut LP.
Cooder appeared on the soundtracks of Candy (1968) and Performance (1970, with Mick Jagger) and claims to have recorded extensively on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. Although he is credited only for the mandolin on "Love in Vain," he claims to have provided the main riff for the Stones' "Honky Tonk Women."
Since 1969, when he got a solo contract, Cooder has cut down on session work to concentrate on his yearly albums. His general strategy is to rework obscure songs (mostly pre-'60s) in his own lunging, syncopated style laced with elements from outside rock. He has championed the music of Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence (a major influence), and he later produced an album by the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band. On 1974's Paradise and Lunch, he recorded a duet with jazz pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, and following Chicken Skin Music (1976), he toured with a band that included Mexican accordionist Flaco Jimenez and a Tex-Mex rhythm section alongside gospel-style singers Bobby King, Eldridge King, and Terry Evans (documented on the live Showtime).
Jazz actually contained early-jazz ragtime and vaudeville songs. Cooder played a onetime concert at Carnegie Hall with an orchestral group and tap dancers for its unveiling Bop Till You Drop, Borderline, and The Slide Area turned toward '50s and '60s R&B. Bop was the first major-label digitally recorded album; the next to albums (and attendant tours) featured songwriter John Hiatt. Cooder also provided soundtracks for Blue Collar (1979), The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), The Border (1982), Paris, Texas (1983), Streets of Fire (1984), Cocktail (1988), Steel Magnolias (1989), Geronimo (1993), The End of Violence (1997), and Primary Colors (1998). Selections from his film scores were collected on the double-disc anthology Music by Ry Cooder.
Cooder played only a few session dates in the '70s, behind Randy Newman (Good Old Boys and Sail Away), Arlo Guthrie, and Van Dyke Parks. He joined Nick Lowe, Jim Keltner, and John Hiatt in Little Village, a group whose self-titled debut appeared in early 1992. He recorded with V.M. Bhatt, an Indian musician whom he had not met before recording the critically acclaimed A Meeting by the River. Cooder's critically acclaimed and commercially successful Talking Timbuktu featured Ali Zarka Toure, a West African master, hit #1 on the World Music chart and remained there 25 weeks straight, setting a record for that chart. It won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1995.
In 1996 Cooder traveled to Havana, Cuba, to record an album with Cuban and African musicians for the English label World Circuit. When the African musicians couldn't make the trip, Cooder put together an all-star ensemble of Cuban musicians, most in their 70s or 80s, and recorded Buena Vista Social Club (#178, 1998), a celebration of traditional Cuban music forms such as the bolero and the son (a precursor to salsa). Licensed in America by Nonesuch, the album topped Billboard's Latin chart, won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Tropical Latin Performance, and inspired an Oscar-nominated documentary by filmmaker Wes Wenders. Cooder also produced solo albums by two of the BVSC's star players, pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer Ibrahim Ferrer.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Ry Cooder and Ricky Skaggs Plot Joint Tour
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Project will follow legendary Cuban band's five original members on tour, building to run of Havana concerts