Working With Heroes


I count myself fortunate to have worked with some of the cats I looked up to in my early career, those I considered to be role models who paved the way during the rock ‘n’ roll revolution as touring musicians and pioneers in the studio world, which was so intrinsic to the development of the music. I loved the world of the recording studio from the first time I ever set foot in one, so I followed the career paths of the guys who were already working in that milieu.

Back in the day, you had to be a bit obsessive, as there was scant information (if any) on record sleeves and studio players tended to labor in well-paid obscurity.  Of course I knew who most of the London guys were, but it was the Americans I really looked up to.  Let’s face it, before the British Invasion very few records made in the UK could compare to the real thing being created in New York, L.A., Memphis, Detroit, and New Orleans.  Yet we knew next to nothing about the backroom world of the American music industry and they probably knew even less about the British studio scene.  I remember when the word started going around London about a girl bass player in L.A. who was playing on many of the hits of the day, but it was no more than a rumor for a couple of years. Of course we later found out that this was the great Carol Kaye, part of the loose assemblage that became known in later years as the fabled Wrecking Crew.

Like most of the aspiring musical youth in Liverpool in the late fifties, I would go to see the American acts that came to town.  Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Duane Eddy & The Rebels, and Little Richard made the biggest impressions on me, even though Richard was using a British backing band (albeit a great one: Sounds Incorporated). However, he had teenaged Billy Preston in tow, and Billy was already a mind blower. These shows would usually have a souvenir program you could buy that would list the band personnel, so I knew that Joe B. Mauldin and Jerry Allison were the rhythm section of The Crickets.  I kept the Duane Eddy program for years, and had The Rebels line-up memorized: Jim Horn on tenor sax and flute, Larry Knechtel on piano, Corkey Casey on rhythm guitar, Ike Clanton on bass, and Jimmy Troxel on drums.  This was a band that nailed me to the wall, especially Larry Knechtel, and with his distinctive surname his career became easier to follow by the mid-sixties, when album credits became more informative.  It seemed like every cool record that came out of L.A. had Larry in the line-up and often Jim Horn, too. These were the cats, as far as I was concerned, along with the still anonymous sessioneers of Motown, New York, and New Orleans.  The Stax crew was far from anonymous, as both Booker T. & The M.G.s and The Markeys had scored big hits under their own names and the ensemble had toured Europe as part of the memorable Stax/Volt Revue.

By the late sixties I’d got my foot in the door on the London studio scene, but was still touring with the likes of Doris Troy, Chuck Berry, and Colin Blunstone in much the same way as Mr. Knechtel always kept his “live” options open.  If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me!  I’d also had the chance to hobnob with Billy Preston once he signed with Apple and I got a chance to work up close with him on Doris Troy’s Apple album. He was as good as it gets, and like most of the great ones, he was a very pleasant and musically generous fellow.

After I moved to Nashville in 1973, the instrumental talent pool was so deep that I gravitated more to the production and arranging side of things. I’d been leaning that way the last few years in London anyway, so when the Nashville recording boom of the early 80s got under way, and many of  the top session guys started relocating here, I was more often to be found behind the console rather than on the studio floor.  It was a thrill to be rubbing shoulders with musicians I’d long admired from afar.  Wayne Jackson (of The Markeys and Memphis Horns fame) arrived, although Andrew Love chose to stay in Memphis, and Jim Horn came in from L.A.  I was no longer the only Brit in town with the arrival of Tony Newman, former drummer with Sounds Incorporated, Ray Flacke, the Tele-bending lead guitarist who quickly made a name for himself with a wildly innovative style, drummer/percussionist Pat McInerney, who anchored the Don Williams band for years before fulfilling the same role with Nanci Griffith while building an extensive studio resume, and bassist Dee Murray of Elton John fame.

Occasionally I’d experience a surreal moment, such as the time I was producing an instrumental album on Ray Flacke, and the horn section on the title track was … wait for it … Jim Horn and Wayne Jackson.  The horn parts I’d written had a big-band calypso feel and while the guys had nailed the notes in no time, at first they weren’t getting the appropriate feel.  I mentioned this to Ray and he said, “Well, get in there and sort ‘em out.”  For a long moment I thought, “you can’t do that! It’s Jim Horn and Wayne Jackson, for chrissake.” But I got a grip and sauntered out, trying to look more comfortable than I felt.  I needn’t have worried.  They responded to my suggestions without problem, as I should have known they would, and five minutes later the part was in the bag. Lesson learned.

I developed a close relationship with Joe B. Mauldin when he moved to Nashville from L.A. to operate the studio for Pix-Russ Music, owned by songwriting legend Bobby Russell, a Nashville native who’d also been living in L.A. for years.  When Bobby returned to town, I was hired to run the publishing division and be in-house producer.

Michael and Bobby Russell
Michael and Bobby Russell

Joe B. had retired from playing after Buddy Holly’s untimely death and after a stint in the military became a sound engineer at the prestigious Gold Star Studios in L.A., where Phil Spector masterminded the Wall of Sound.  Now he was in Nashville, soon to be followed by Jerry ( J.I.) Allison and Sonny Curtis, so in no time it became Crickets Central down there on Music Row.  In the set-up phase of the operation, Joe B. and I spent a lot of time together, and what a cool unit he was (and still is!).  I must have talked his ear off, getting all the inside scoop on the legendary times he’d experienced at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.  Of course, for a Liverpool lad like me, it was seventh heaven – we even got some work done!

Michael and Joe B Mauldin
Michael and Joe B Mauldin

When Paul McCartney bought The Crickets song catalog, there was a renewal of interest in their body of work.  Spurred by Paul’s urging, they re-formed The Crickets and although Joe B. hadn’t played for some years, he soon got back into the swing of things.  A spate of recording activity followed and to my delight I was drafted in as auxiliary keyboard man for most of it, which I enjoyed tremendously.  J.I. was probably the key white drummer in the history of the music’s early days, and to be part of those righteous grooves the guys laid down in the new incarnation . . . well, that’s another one ticked off on the bucket list!

Joe B. may be the most laid-back dude ever when it comes to studio cool.  In one instance, Dale Hawkins (the Suzie Q man) came in to do vocals on a song, the title of which eludes me, but he was uncomfortable with the chosen key of F Major.  He wondered aloud if F Sharp would work better.  In his molasses West Texas drawl Joe B. spoke up, “I don’t think so, hoss.  Rock ‘n’ Roll don’t do F Sharp and neither do I.”  The room broke up, Dale included, and so of course we cut it in F!

All through that period, they just kept coming, and it wasn’t just the country guys.  Oh no!  It was rock ‘n’ roll guys, r’n’b guys, soul guys . . . my kinda folk.  Willie Weeks and Bob Babbitt, two of the best bass players in any genre, rolled in.  Rod Smarr, a cool guitar man, steeped in r’n’b but with a fine ear for commercial licks, came up the road from Atlanta and the whole Dr. Hook outfit arrived from San Francisco.  Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Jerry Carrigan left Muscle Shoals for Music City, Michael Rhodes, now the doyen of Nashville bass players, arrived from Monroe, Louisiana, and on and on.  I was soon crossing paths with all of these guys.  It was a very stimulating period, both musically and socially.  The main hang was Close Quarters a.k.a. the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel . . . kinda the Nashville equivalent of the Riot House in L.A.  The bar was the focus, but it really was a hotel, where Lou Rawls, Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook, The Crusaders and Joe Cocker, to mention just a few, laid down their weary tune, so to speak.

Likely Lads
Michael, Tony Newman, and Joe Brown

As fate would have it, I was working on an album project with Tony Newman on the dreadful night of John Lennon’s murder.  When I got the call and then made it known to the assembled talent, the air went out of the room.  I called a halt at once.  Tony and I, being the only Brits on hand, found ourselves a quiet corner and drank to John’s memory long into the night.

Rod Smarr became a first-call guitarist at Pix-Russ, among his many other clients, including Dr. Hook.  Rod eventually joined that band, providing the signature licks on the string of pop hits Dr. Hook put together after their move to town.  I admired Dennis Locorriere’s voice tremendously.  One evening, I was hoisting one at Close Quarters with Nineyear Wooldritch, Dr. Hook’s tour manager, and Nine, knowing I did my share of jingle work, said that Dennis was interested in doing some commercials.  I responded with enthusiasm. As it happened, I had a McDonald’s job coming up on the horizon and had not yet written the spot.  I immediately started to craft a “Hook” style jingle, and when Dennis came in to do it he was predictably spot-on.

He had also signed with Bug Music, where I had some administration interests.  One thing led to another and we began writing together and continued to do so for many years until, ironically, he fulfilled a life-long ambition to settle in the UK. We all find our true home in the end.  In addition, we did a lot of recording together after the demise of Dr. Hook, frequently with Rod on board, which paved the way for Dennis’s solo career.  In that period of time, with their  touring commitments complete, Dennis and Rod cooked up a delicious side project with the Motown bass player Bob Babbitt and Chuckie Burke, a fonkay drummer I’d worked with when I first arrived in town.  They called it Lost in Detroit, and if it was a cover band (and that tag would do them a great disservice), it was the best cover band I ever saw.  Between them they had an encyclopedic knowledge of the r’n’b genre.  The imaginative song selection and the superb performances, made Lost in Detroit a big favorite with musos round town, myself included.

When Chuckie departed for Scandinavia, where he was in great studio demand, he was replaced by another monster drummer, Steve Turner.  I took my son Stirling, an aspiring drummer at the time, to see the new line-up.  Years later, after Stirling had become an accomplished pro himself, he told me that seeing Lost In Detroit was what made him want to devote himself to playing.

Bob Babbitt, who was six years my senior, had a huge resume, not only because of his Motown work and his later stint with Gamble and Huff, but through earlier Del Shannon hits and three of my all-time favorite singles: “S.O.S.” and “Headline News” (both by Edwin Starr in his pre-Motown days on Gold World), and the sublime “Cool Jerk” by The Capitols.  I had learned and played those songs in my early touring days back in England, but it wasn’t until I got to know Edwin Starr through Doris Troy that I found out who was responsible for those great bass lines.

Bob was a bear of a man, yet played with a delightful lightness and dexterity.  When I was working on a project with a fine Hawaiian singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist named Shane August, one of the songs just cried out for the Babbitt touch.  Normally, I would have put the bass part on myself, but I knew Bob was the man for this one.  When he came to my studio, the rest of the track was complete, so I played him what we had.  He listened intently, then asked if I had any manuscript paper and asked me to leave him alone with what was a pretty complex piece.  I gave him about half an hour with the tape.  When I returned he had written a beautiful part in formal notation – he was actually conservatory trained – and he just read that sucker down in one take.  It had all the hallmarks of the Babbitt style . . . in other words, it was gorgeous.

After the Ray Flacke solo album was released, some bright spark at his publishers, Songs Of Polygram, suggested it would be a good idea to have the original instrumentals available in piano-only versions to facilitate soundtrack pitches. As I had co-written most of the material with Ray, I huddled with him to see who might be the pianist for this formidable task.  I knew it wasn’t me, and so we started throwing names around.  There’s never been a shortage of A-1 ivory ticklers in Nashville, so there were several potential candidates.  At one point Ray said, “I did a session the other day with a new guy in town . . . I liked the way he played.”  I inquired as to his name . . . “Larry Knechtel.”  “What? Knechtel’s in town?”  Ray wasn’t aware of Larry’s illustrious history, which oversight I soon corrected.  Through his years as a mainstay of The Wrecking Crew, Larry had reached the apex of the profession.  He had shared the arranging Grammy with Jimmy Haskell for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and also played the signature piano accompaniment on the Simon and Garfunkel classic.  Following that, he took a studio break to become a member of the mega-successful soft-rock group Bread.  I knew he’d recently signed with MCA Nashville for their Master Series, which spotlighted great instrumentalists, but had no idea that he’d moved to Nashville.

Ray got his phone number from the Union and called him to explain what we were looking for and then arranged to drop off a copy of the album so Larry could craft piano arrangements at his leisure.  A couple of weeks later he said he was ready, and a day was booked at Champagne Studios, which had a beautiful grand piano.

I arrived, excited but a bit antsy, as I’d be supervising the day’s work behind the console.  I hadn’t laid eyes on Larry since 1958, and that was at a distance, so the grizzled, silver-haired, chain-smoking individual who showed up right on time wasn’t what I expected, until he sat at the piano.  Sublime, from the first note, soulful, yet supremely efficient, as he ran ‘em down.  We achieved the necessary in about four exhilarating hours, and then the three of us adjourned to a Music Row hostelry for a drink or five.  A large time was had by all, especially me, and when we called it a night, I asked Larry if he wanted to do some co-writing, which had been one of his reasons for moving to town.  He replied in the affirmative and for the subsequent five years we did just that, and also played together on many a project.  I couldn’t have been happier. I learned so much just being around him, and watching him play, for he was not only a supreme keyboard artist, but a world-class bass player (most famously on The Byrds’ “Mister Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High”, but also on “Light My Fire” by The Doors).  Our once-weekly writing sessions were most productive, but more importantly he was a wonderful guy to be around.


Eventually, he and his wife Vicki became homesick for their beloved Pacific Northwest, where he owned a logging company, but Ray and I participated in a farewell concert for him at the Exit/In, sharing the stage with Duane Eddy, Jim Horn, and a host of other luminaries, with Larry presiding at the keyboard as only he could.

In later years he recorded and toured with Elvis Costello and The Dixie Chicks, and we’d always link up when he came through town.  Stirling joined me at the Schemerhorn Symphony Center for The Wrecking Crew’s induction into the Musicians Hall Of Fame, where we not only watched Larry strap on the bass to join Roger McGuinn for “Tambourine Man,” but also saw and heard his final live performance of “Bridge” with a clearly emotionally overwhelmed Vince Gill singing lead.

In the last few years we’ve lost Rod, Bob and Larry, but their enormous contributions should never be forgotten . . . and I will always be a fan!