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.”