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.”