The Critical Curmudgeon
Lesser-knowns are the real drivers of the music world
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
A best friend of mine and I have an ongoing conversation regarding artists who fall into that tier of “musician’s musicians.” As redundant as it sounds, it’s quite the term of endearment. Musician’s musicians are behind-the-scenes characters, yet are still consistently the hardest workers in show biz. They’re the performers who you’ll see listed in 20 categories on LP cover dedications: vocalist, lead/rhythm guitar, composer, arranger, producer, knob twiddler, rutabaga-twaddler … the works. They’re the folks you see show up at everyone else’s concerts just for kicks, or “because I was in town.” Musician’s musicians are often more important to the industry than they are to the general public, but that doesn’t really faze them. The most basic tenet of being one is that the genre should benefit from you, rather than the other way around. Similar to being a “man’s man,” being a musician’s musician essentially means you’re a real class act.
First off, one clarification needs to be made. Being a featured artist on
pop remixes does NOT make you a musician’s musician. Pitbull can shove it, for all I care. Marketing yourself specifically as a co-performer just means you lack the capacity to invent your own material. A musician’s musician doesn’t just make appearances, he makes plays. If you bring him in for your album, he won’t just record his own bit over your work and peace out: he adopts the project as his own, raising it to heights it otherwise never would’ve reached.
Some of the more prevalent musician’s musicians are easily spotted, like David Bowie or Bruce Springsteen. These are guys who use their massive platforms to launch careers, shooting off talents like the demented popcorn poppers of the music world. When Lou Reed from The Velvet Underground was down on his luck, it was Bowie who lent him a hand in producing Transformer, which spawned the seediest doo-wop hit to ever get major radio play: “Walk on the Wild Side.” Springsteen has pawned off songs for some of rock’s biggest names, including Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” Manfredd Mann can thank The Boss for his No. 1 “Blinded by The Light,” and in turn everyone can thank Mann for making the refrain sound like “wrapped up like a douche.” It’s “revved up like a deuce,” gosh dangit! Enunciate!
Entire bands can be musician’s musicians. In fact, the band The Band (a remarkably Bandy Band, as far as a band’s band goes) cut its own records, but is best known for being arguably the greatest backing group of all time. The Animals, possibly the earliest self-acknowledging “rock ‘n’ roll-ers” apart from The Yardbirds or The Creation, went into music production after their success with “House of the Rising Sun.” Shortly thereafter, Chas Chandler discovered the one and only Jimi Hendrix. Eric Burdon, former Animals vocalist, also went on to found War, I’m pretty sure while he was wasted.
Then you have your session guys, your musician’s musicians to the extreme. People like organist Billie “Fifth Beatle” Preston have revolutionized the industry from within. Being a studio musician often gets you none of the glory, but the people who do it well enough are prize commodities. Having Hal Blaine or Carol Kaye play on your album meant you’d truly hit the big time. Either that or you were about to.
One of my personal favorite musician’s musicians, Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), just released a best-hits album this month called Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, along with his cover album Long Wave. Lynne, an English songwriter most prolific in the 1970s, was a close friend of George Harrison, playing an integral role in one of Harrison’s most powerful solo albums, Cloud Nine. He’s co-written and produced for Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and countless other icons. ELO pumped out big band swing-style psychedelia like nobody’s business, but Lynne’s impact on the music industry means much more than that. His career reminds us what making great music is all about: imaginative, gifted people willing to work together as a team.
So remember your musician’s musicians, dear readers. They’re the backbone of the industry, the inspiration to your favorite bands, and the legwork behind your favorite songs. Music just wouldn’t be the same without them.