Session Musicians: Rock's Invisible Elite

Behind every great album, theme song, and commercial jingle is a group of unsung heroes

A microphone in a music recording studio Credit: Darryn van der Walt/Getty

There is a phone outlet right next to every table at Possible 20, a snazzy Manhattan restaurant-bar owned by a group of studio musicians. Plug in the house phone and you're put directly through to Radio & TV Registry, which is a combination answering service and information center for nearly 650 New York-based sessionmen, from bassists and drummers to jew's-harpists and bagpipe players.

So, if the Rolling Stones suddenly develop a need for your talents while you are polishing off that plate of fettuccine at midnight, you're connected. If Steely Dan realizes it can't do without you while you're slurping your fifth lunchtime Bloody Mary, you're connected. Being connected is security for studio musicians; indeed, it is about the only source of stability in their lives. Work twenty hours a day and you may lose track of what time it is, what day it is and even where you are. But you won't have to worry about missing any phone calls.

It's easy to get in touch with studio musicians. You simply call Registry, as it's known in the business, and leave a message. Within twenty-four hours, the phone will begin to ring at all hours of the day and night. There will be calls at three a.m. from musicians who sound like they're buzzing from their morning cup of coffee, and calls at noon from musicians who sound like they almost died the night before, but decided to stick around and live for another day or two just to make sure they didn't miss any interesting dates. There will be calls from a pay phone in the hallway of a recording studio on West Forty-eight Street, and calls from poolside at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The content of these calls will be pretty much the same:

"It's getting real intense this week."

"Things are nuts. I got home at six a.m. and got up at nine for jingles. Everybody's going crazy this month. I guess there's just too much work."

"This is crazy. I just got back from six weeks in L.A. Somebody from a record company just called to ask me which week I was working on their album so they could pay their share of my hotel bill. Which week! Listen. I couldn't tell you what I was doing last Thursday!"

The truth is, everything is crazy and there is too much work — for a select group of players. Studio musicians are the "invisible men" of the recording industry; you don't see their names on the credits for the countless commercial jingles, movie soundtracks and TV theme songs they perform on, and their contributions to top rock, jazz and pop albums go unheralded or are footnotes on the backs of record jackets.

But if you buy albums, listen to the radio or watch television, chances are you are more familiar with the work of studio drummer Steve Gadd than with any other rock "superstar" that might come to mind. Jimi Hendrix may be your favorite guitarist, but you've probably spent more hours listening to John Tropea, whose eight years of accumulated credits include everything from Paul Simon to disco hits to jazz to Datsun commercials.

Studio musicians have been around as long as there's been a record industry, but as recording technology developed, the demand for their services increased. There is no room for imperfection in today's twenty-four-track, state-of-the-art recording, and the studio musician can provide perfection — or near-perfection — on demand. Without such services, many singer/songwriters would be stranded without a backup band; disco "hit factories" would be shut down.

Even established groups that play their own instruments rely on studio musicians to sweeten their album tracks or dub in the instrumental touches that would take the band members too long to get right themselves. More than any group or artist, it is the sessionmen who, for better or worse shape the sound and style of recorded music in 1979.

The number of musicians working dates regularly is smaller than Registry's almost 650-person roster would indicate. The steady jobs get distributed to a group of about 200 musicians. These are the guys with the glassy eyes and jammed datebooks; they take every date and answer every call, because who knows whether the phone will stop ringing if they say no, even once? At the top of the pack are between thirty and fifty studio "stars" — musicians like drummers Gadd and Rick Marotta, bassists Anthony Jackson and Will Lee, guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza. They are the hottest "hired guns" in the trade, shuttling back and forth between the choicest sessions in the major recording centers — New York. L.A., Tokyo and London — as casually as commuters hopping the 6:02 to Greenwich.

"Life in the fast lane" hardly suffices to describe the day-to-day pace of these musicians; it's more like "life in the jet stream," fueled by a combination of drugs, paranoia and workaholism. "Most of these guys never learn how to say no," says a music-business insider who prefers to remain anonymous. "The phone keeps ringing, and they either take every gig or step back and decide to slow down. Those musicians are the ones who survive. But the others — do you know [he names a prominent New York musician]? In five years," he says, shaking his head sadly, "that guy's not gonna be alive."

Every studio musician seems to have a favorite phone-call story---the prestigious date that almost didn't reach him (or almost did), or the call that launched a whole new phase of his career. John Tropea's goes like this: he is in his apartment at six in the morning, collapsed from two days of sessions and no sleep. At seven, he's awakened by a phone call. It's Registry. He picks up the receiver and screams without waiting for the message: "I don't belong to you!

Drummer Yogi Horton likes to tell this one. He gets an urgent call at three in the morning from someone asking him to show up at Media Sound studios — right away. So he hops in his car, drives from his house in New Jersey, heads into the studio and sets up his kit. The guitarist looks a little familiar, but Yogi can't quite place the face. Then the guy turns around and introduces himself: it's Keith Richards, and Yogi is playing a date with the Rolling Stones.

That happened two years ago. Since then, things have been looking up for Horton, but he is still very much the new kid in town, a spunky twenty-five-year-old who says he likes to blow off steam between takes of a session by standing on his head. Just now, he is sitting in a swivel chair in my office, punctuating his stories by rapping on an invisible drum kit.

"I'm breaking into the scene. How? Well, you have to be good, and steady, like a Bic pen, you know? 'First time, every time.' If it gets around that you are always hot on the first take, you'll get more work. Of course, a lot of jobs get handed out by word-of-mouth. It's a cliquish thing. And it's competitive, Like, somebody will come over and offer you a road gig, just to try to get you out of town. I always figure, if the gig is so good, why didn't he take it himself?

"But mostly it's the attitude that counts. A lot of guys can play good, but you also have to be fun to be with. The next thing a guy will say about another musician after 'he plays his ass off' is 'he's a nice guy.' If you get everybody up or crack a joke to ease the tension just at the right time — well, that makes all the difference."

You don't break in overnight, Horton concedes. Last year was the first time he made a good living, but his take was nowhere near the $100,000-plus figures earned by the studio elite. And, Yogi says, he wants to get up there, have a few good years, then semiretire. "Like Eric Gale. He lives up in Wood-stock and drops into town for the dates he wants to play. That would be perfect." Until then, Horton's life is an endless string of twenty-hour days, some spent playing dates for free, hoping he'll get called back when the artists he's helping get record contracts.

"My time is not my own right now. I'm second or third on people's lists, and I'm living off Steve Gadd's missed dates. But I'm not gonna stop till people hear the word drums and think: Yogi Horton." His knees move up and down, striking an imaginary bass-drum pedal. "I want to be the one missing the dates."

Everybody loves to do jingles: they're the most lucrative dates in the business. "It's fun, it's a social thing," bass player Neil Jason is telling me at nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning in the waiting room of Generation Sound Studios, a basement complex in an off-Broadway office building. This morning, Jason and five others are booked to play the backing track for a rent-a-car commercial — working title, "We Tried for You." You can tell the musicians from the ad executives; the ad executives are not wearing dark shades and are not sprawled across the couch, groaning about how they only got home for two hours last night.

For his one hour of labor, Jason will earn a union scale of $56 plus mechanical royalty for each time the commercial is broadcast after the first thirteen weeks, which could total upwards of $1000 or better. Jason has three jingle dates booked for this morning; some of the musicians here have four or five on tap. "We all try to pace things so we have the energy to play the album sessions at night, the important music, you know?" he says as he packs up his bass and trots down Broadway for his ten o'clock jingle session. Jason's complexion is pale, and though he's only twenty-five, there are gray streaks in his hair. The slogan on his T-shirt reads: Used People.

Jingle studio number two is barely distinguishable from studio number one: the same dark wood paneling, the same double windows, the same brown couch in front of the same twenty-four-track console. Only the music has changed. This time, the commercial is for a telephone company, an upbeat, ever-so-slightly-funky number entitled "Reach Out." Drummer Steve Jordon is stuffing half of a tuna-fish sandwich into his mouth. A tomato drops on the floor in front of his kit.

"Hey, did you hear my Sixties fill?" he asks after the final sixty-second take. He hums a section of "Day Tripper," indicating where he added the Beatles lick to the rather empty jingle arrangement. "See, that's what we're paid to do," he jokes, "Rip everybody off."

This afternoon, guitarist Jeff Layton is doubling, a process that became popular with the advent of twenty-four-track recording. It works like this; the guitar (or vocal or keyboard) part is recorded on one track, then the musician duplicates his performance on a second track. When both are played back together, the sound is fuller, thicker. If the musician's timing, tone or pitch is even slightly off, the doubled track has to be recorded again.

Layton, like most studio guitarists, is a master of the doubling technique. He not only replicates his own performance, but also doubles certain tracks performed by other guitarists. Each time, the parts come out perfectly on the first or second take. The producer is pleased. Layton's performances are indistinguishable from the ones played by the first musician — interchangeable parts in the twenty-four-track puzzle.

"What's expected from a guitarist in the studio makes us all sound alike," he observes later, over lunch at Possible 20 (Layton is one of the owners). Like many studio musicians, he is a multiinstrumentalist who began as a student of classical music. He has been working in New York studios since the early Seventies, when he was Janis Ian's tour guitarist.

"It gets boring doing studio work. It got so boring that for several years I was smoking marijuana all the time. Just to give myself a challenge. It's harder to play properly when you're stoned.

"I can count the things I've played that I'm proud of on one hand," he continues. "The positive side of session work is that you have no real responsibility: the record isn't yours. But the negative side is the frustration. You can play the best thing you've ever played in your life for someone else, and they can mess it up in the mix. The end product is out of your control."

Layton says he's spending a lot of time these days working in his own home studio, playing all the instruments on his own compositions. "It was hard at first, coming home and suddenly being free to play what I wanted. I had to watch TV to loosen up. 'Cause, you see, I'd sit there, hooked up to the tape deck, with the guitar in my hand — and I'd draw a blank! After playing in the studio all day, when I finally got some time for my own work, I didn't know what to play."

Eric Gale is Something of a legend among studio musicians. In 1971, at the peak of his studio career, he moved to Jamaica, where he lived at the beach and practiced guitar. "He just up and left," one guitarist told me with awe in his voice. "Didn't even tell anybody, didn't even leave a phone number."

Four years later, Gale came back. Now he commutes from his house in Woodstock to select studio sessions in New York. We meet in his lawyer's office, an expansive suite on Madison Avenue. Gale sits back on a couch and grins regally, his arms folded across his chest.

"Yes, I used to work twenty, twenty-one hours a day. I used to take every date."

Why did you overextend yourself like that?

"Greed."

Were you satisfied musically, or did.…

"Greed."

Why did you come back?

"My money ran out. Look, I knew a lot of twenty-hour-a-day guys ten years ago. Most of them didn't make it to 1979. I took off so I could. I was tired back then, I was nasty, I was always drunk."

And greed was the only thing that kept you working?

"Well," Gale reflects, softening a little, "it was an obsession. That's what it was. An obsession."

You want to see a bad session?" asks one studio player. "I'll show you a bad session." He hands me a piece of paper with the name of a studio and a time on it. "Show up tonight and you'll see what makes this job such a drag."

Two hours past the scheduled time, I arrive; the session is just getting under way. Inside the glass isolation booth is a temperamental pop singer/songwriter making a first album. The singer is whining to the bass player in the studio.

"No! Can't you play that part with the same notes you play on the chorus? I'm looking for a warmer chord there, a different feeling — blue…"

The bass player shakes his head wearily. "You want me to go to the Bb, but when the string track gets added, there'll be dissonance. I can't do that in this arrangement."

"Well, can you play a rounder note, then, or.…"

Off to the bass player's left, the first guitarist stares into space. The second guitarist begins doodling a sad Latin melody. The keyboard player lights a joint. Take two: from the top, the singer begins again.

"Splendid, splendid. This is a voice for the Eighties," says a tall, shadowy figure in a red silk jacket who has just slipped into the seat next to me on the couch. "My name is Simon. I'm a friend of the singer. I'm a singer too. Sometimes I sound like Johnny Mathis. Other times I sound like Mick Jagger." Simon turns away, sighs, and lights an English Oval with a wooden match.

"No, no! That's not it." The singer stops in the middle of the take. Guitarist number two is grinding his left foot into the carpet. They begin again, finish and start over. "It still sounds terrible," says the singer. The keyboard player appears ready to commit an act of violence.

"Such a perfectionist! Lovely, lovely," Simon is breathing into my right ear. "Of course, you realize that the song is about Jesus." The singer, explains Simon, is a fundamentalist Christian. "So am I," he adds. Three dismal takes later, I notice Simon quietly spooning cocaine into his thin, born-again nostrils.

"It's the shitty sessions that'll kill you," says the bass player during a break. "Sometimes it's okay, you're playing with real good people, they're your friends. But after a while, all you can think is, 'Why am I putting up with this shit?'"

He shrugs his shoulders, then pulls out a vial of cocaine and takes a toot. The guitar player and keyboardist come over to share, and the conversation picks up. They all have woman troubles. "None of us is ever home long enough to keep a relationship together," the guitarist says, almost proudly. "And there sure aren't any women here," he laughs, indicating the smoky, dimly lit studio interior.

"Once," he continues, "I took my wife — my ex-wife — to a session. For six hours she sat in the control room watching the producer pick my brains, and didn't move. After the date, she says, 'Now I understand why you are so nuts when you finally get home.'"

Welcome to sessionman heaven: a Steely Dan date at A&R Studios in Manhattan. This is one of the hippest, most coveted gigs in town. "I don't like to stay real late on a bullshit session," one musician confided. "But for a Steely Dan? I'd stay up all night." This particular musician has never played with Steely Dan. He had just missed the phone message asking him to substitute for their regular session man. So now, like all the other twenty-hour-a-day scufflers who haven't quite made it into the sessionman's elite, he waits for The Call, the one that will put him here next to drummer Rick Marotta, bassist Chuck Rainey and guitarist Steve Khan.

"If they like to work for us because of the way we run our sessions," laughs producer Gary Katz, "they wouldn't ever want to work for us, because we're so demanding." Katz' evaluation sounds grim; the session is anything but. After Walter Becker hands out today's lead sheets — a basic track for a work in progress — Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen, seated at the keyboards, leads the band through the arrangement. There are stops, false starts, bad puns and a stream of friendly insults. "You wanna hear what these guys did to me?" teases Marotta, a wild-eyed six-footer who has his shoulder-length hair wrapped up in a red gypsy bandanna. "They told Rolling Stone they were scouting the Manhattan School of Music for a new drummer."

After three run-throughs, the track sounds good. To ears that have been listening to a week's worth of jingles, doubling and Grade B album sessions, it sounds fantastic. But Becker, Fagen and Katz are not happy with it. After two hours, they call it quits and send everybody home.

Later, Katz talks about the problems he faces when trying to turn a collection of studio musicians into a quality rock band.

"You're dependent on other people," he says a little wearily. "You have to get them in the same place, on the same day, at a high energy level. And it's hard to do that in New York. For some reason, musicians take more dates here. I don't get them until seven at night, and they've been up since nine a.m. doing jingles. I don't know what it is — studio musicians in New York City think that every call is going to be their last.

"And the other problem is that it's hard to turn people around to your standards of quality. We're asking for good musicianship, creativity and energy. It's different from what these guys have been doing the rest of the day. There's no way to explain to a studio musician why the track he thinks he played really great is not good enough for us."

Then why is the Steely Dan date such a prized gig?

"I guess because the stuff is challenging. And there's peer recognition. We give a good musician latitude. We can use their talent.

"But the bottom line is this: a studio musician is basically working for somebody. We listen to them, welcome their suggestions, but we're responsible for that record. Nobody is going to come up to, say, Rick Marotta, and tell him that the Steely Dan album is lousy. They come into that studio, they're working for us."

You gotta get out of sessions sooner or later," Marotta is saying. "I don't even think of myself as a session player — I'm a musician. Those guys with the datebooks, have you met any of them? The ones who have every slot filled with a job? They're crazy. I hate that."

Marotta is leaning against a wall in a narrow hallway at Media Sound. He is not working tonight, just hanging out while waiting for his brother Jerry, who is also a drummer, to get out of a session in the next studio.

"Yeah," he says, "I used to be like that. Took every date, went crazy. I tried to slow down. Eric Gale gave me some advice: he said to raise my rates. That way the phone would ring half as much and I could make the same money. So I went double scale. The only problem was, I got just as many calls."

Then he reached his limit. "I wanted to give it all up and be a motorcycle racer."

So, says Marotta, he went out on the road. He's been dividing his time between studio and road work ever since, and he's put together a band, as yet unnamed, with four other studio musicians. "You've got to get out. The guys in New York, most of them are too scared to leave. But you have to I got out on the road with Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon, and it all came back. You've gotta learn to get out and turn things down."

He excuses himself and heads down the corridor to the pay phone. "There. I just did it," he says on returning.

Did what?

"I turned down a gig, Just like that. It's easy." There's a crazed look in his big brown eyes and he has that shit-eating grin that Jack Nicholson cracks when he's just pulled off some outrageous stunt.

"No. I just said no."