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When Sessions Reigned Supreme: The Players, Studios from L.A.’s Golden Age

The Record Plant in Los Angeles was the place to be on Sunday nights in 1973, when owner Gary Kellgren convinced drummer Jim Keltner to host a weekly jam session called the Jim Keltner Fan Club Hour—despite Keltner’s distaste for “jamming,” and for the moniker.

“I said, ‘The only thing I know and love is going in and learning a song and playing a song,’” Keltner recalls. “And Gary said, ‘Well, let’s just do that and call it whatever we want to call it.’”

So many huge artists played and recordings were made, though they never saw the light of day, except for one monumental evening Keltner recalls that was bootlegged for many years and finally released by Mick Jagger on the Very Best of Mick Jagger in 2007.

“One night John [Lennon] and May [Pang] were out for dinner with Richard Perry on a Sunday night,” Keltner recalls. “I didn’t think about inviting John because I didn’t think he would want to come down and do that, but Richard told him there were these jam sessions and John said, ‘What? He’s my buddy, let’s go down there.’”

That night Lennon showed up and produced “Too Many Cooks,” which Danny Kortchmar had brought in to the session. Jagger was on vocals, Harry Nilsson on backing vocals, and among the musicians were Kortchmar, Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Al Kooper and Jack Bruce. According to Keltner, Ringo was just hanging out that night.

Modest as Keltner is, artists came because of his reputation, even that early on, as the Los Angeles music scene was bursting at the seams in such recording studios as the Record Plant, Village Recorders, A&M, Conway, Dawnbreaker, Westlake, United Western, Sound City, Evergreen, Ocean Way, Capitol, Sound Factory, Sunset Sound, Paramount, Larrabee and many, many others. He was one of those musicians who remained at the core as a new wave of faces began to appear on the session scene.

David Foster says Keltner was responsible for adding him to a roster of musicians that included the likes of Bob Glaub, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Dean Parks, Leland Sklar, Greg Phillinganes, the Porcaro brothers—Jeff, Steve and Mike—Steve Lukather, David Paich and John Robinson. These guys were taking over studios and honoring the work of their predecessors, namely The Wrecking Crew of Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Joe Osborne, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco and Glen Campbell, a force that didn’t get much credit until much later for the magnificent work they did.

Foster describes the session scene back then as a “club.”

“We all kept a book, we all had that phone service, Your Girl, and we would wait for those calls,” he remembers. “My book for those three or four years that I was a session player was just filled with ink every day. I would do Don Piestrup’s jingles at 8:00 in the morning with glorious musicians like Hal Blaine—I was at the tail end of that—and we worked 10 to 1, then 2 to 5 on sessions like the Fifth Dimension. And then at night we would do all-nighters with the rock ’n’ rollers like Rod Stewart and George Harrison. They were 16- and 18-hour days. And the next day you’d do it all over again. You never knew who you were going to be hooked up with on those sessions. You’d get there and be surprised and thrilled that David Paich would be the other keyboard player or Michael Omartian or Jay Graydon or Ray Parker or Larry Carlton was playing guitar, and you were always anxious to see who the drummer was because that was obviously the foundation.”

The work was plentiful and the budgets bountiful. Record companies were spending money, and time, nurturing artists.

Those were the glory days of the late 1970s, or as Foster called it, “the heyday”; the Los Angeles recording scene was alive with creativity and innovation. But the innovation led to invention, which ultimately led to the technology that would dramatically change the playing field for musicians, studios and all those involved in the industry. Those first-call session players are still working, most of them a lot, but it will never be the same again. They know that.

A Different Time

Dean Parks on guitar.

Guitarist Dean Parks says back then there was an abundance of artists signed and a lot of gambles taken. He says record companies were making money so they were willing to take chances. He recalls working with Joan Baez on Diamonds and Rust at A&M after she had cut several albums that had not yielded any hits.

“They were big sessions at A&M Studios with a room full of musicians and it felt great,” Parks says. “You could tell it was going to do something. There was a glow around it while we were doing it.”

In the late ’70s, after Parks took a short detour to produce albums for such artists as Dolly Parton and Tom Snow, he missed the playing scene so much that “I put out my shingle again.”

“Say you’re on a week of tracking sessions, you’re going to do the definitive performance of 10 songs no one has ever heard with some of the greatest players in the world through the best sound system you can imagine,” Parks says. “That’s fun.”

Session bassist Bob Glaub remembers the fun in recording Nicolette Larson’s debut album, Nicolette, at Amigo Studios in the late ’70s with a rhythm section that included drummer Rick Shlosser and Bill Payne on keys with Ted Templeman at the helm. They cut “Lotta Love,” which brought the former background singer to public attention.

And down the hall, Glaub recalls, Rickie Lee Jones was cutting with Jeff Porcaro. Glaub says those were the days you’d run into your pals all the time at the studio. “There were so many musicians and we’d see each other all the time.”

They’d run from one studio to the next, booked on doubles and triples in three-hour blocks, based on union rules, and cartage was becoming a boom business.

Parks describes a typical scenario of the times:

“The 9 a.m. session ended at 1 sharp in the Valley, and I arrived at Western 3 in Hollywood at 1:49. The cartage guys had my gear set up already [a Princeton Reverb amp, a fuzz pedal, wah pedal, and a trunk with a dozen guitars].

“I cleared away the cigarette butt someone left on the music stand, saw that the stack of music called for 12-string acoustic and electric, which I got from the trunk in the hall, and brought one to the piano to tune a string, then went to my seat to tune the rest.

“The headphones were a single [one ear], so I asked the engineer for a double set, although I knew his phone mix would be mono. I heard the multitrack’s alignment tone…don’t put on the phones yet!

“2 p.m., time to begin. The leader was getting pushy; they’d need to get tracks on four songs before 5, or we’d have to go into an hour’s overtime [an extra 50-percent pay per hour]. We hoped that wouldn’t happen, so we would have more time for dinner before the 7 p.m. double-session at Sunset Sound.

“Soon, in the first take, the drummer stopped. There was something not right about the feel, and there would be no repairing a drum track, so he counted it again, looking to the engineer: Should he wait for rewind, or keep it rolling? They do the take, and go in to hear playback, discuss the tempo, etc. As expected, my electric guitar sound was completely different from my morning session. What could have changed? Different mic? Mic pre? EQ? Console? Multitrack? Compression? Engineer? Control room monitors? I was on a riser here, and this morning I was on the floor? Mic placement? Whatever, adjust accordingly and move ahead.”

Lukather says the doubles, triples and that period were “some of the best times of my life.”

“We were all studying music back then,” he remembers. “It was music, music, music all day long. You would go to school and practice, take harmony, theory, study privately, take orchestration; we lived, breathed, ate and went to bed with it. We were obsessed. There’s nothing we had to wish for anymore.”

The New Kids in Town

Jeff Porcaro told me in 1982: “[David] Paich, [David] Hungate, myself and a few other guys like David Foster and Jay Winding, all started getting into the studio at the same time. I’m talking about ’72, ’73 and ’74… We were real radical. I mean, I know myself, we hated contractors. I just remember a time observing studio sessions when nobody said anything. You didn’t speak your mind: It was, ‘Yes sir,’ and, ‘No, sir,’ and you just did your stuff. We weren’t brought up to be studio musicians. We were guys who played in power trios, rock ’n’ rollers who happened to read and play Barbra Streisand dates, too. People didn’t know how to take 19-year-old cats speaking musical sense…”

John Robinson, back in the day.

It was no coincidence that drummer John Robinson, a relative newcomer to the scene at the time, and a member of Rufus, was asked to test the waters on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album by cutting two “B” sides, “Girlfriend” and “It’s the Falling in Love” at Allen Zentz Recording Studios. He says the record had been cut previously by other musicians, but now there was a new influx of players.

“After we cut those two, I heard them milling around in there and then they pushed the talk button and said, ‘What’re you doing Monday?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ They said, ‘You wanna come record the rest of the album?’ I said, ‘Yes!’”

Robinson says the first group of tracks were cut at Allen Zentz because Bruce Swedien liked the Harrison console. The second batch, which included “Rock With You,” was cut at Westlake B.

Lukather says there was a period of time that it seemed to him that money was being burned. “Drum sounds would take a day,” he remembers.

“Three hours on a kick drum,” Glaub recalls. “It was crazy. We’d be making phone calls. This was back 30 years before cell phones, before even answering machines. We all had answering services, and some of the studios had a direct line like a house phone at a hotel.”

“They would hire us to sit around in the hallway,” Lukather says. “We were going, ‘Why don’t you hire the drummer for the day and hire us to come the next day?’ That was just included in the budget.”

Technology Emerging

David Foster, right, with Neil Diamond.

For many varied and often unrelated but interconnected reasons, the vibrant, exciting scene took a turn in the early 1980s. Lukather attributes the changes to two main factors.

The first was a prophecy made by Jeff Porcaro, sitting in product designer Roger Linn’s apartment, circa 1978. Lukather, Jeff and Steve Porcaro, and David Paich had been invited over to check out his new gadget.

“There were alligator cables coming out of his Roland rhythm box,” Lukather recalls, “and when this f–ing little diabolical homemade box started going, ‘boom smack, boom-boom smack,’ with a kick, hi-hat and snare and it sounded pretty real, the look on Jeff’s face… Well, he looked around the room and he said, ‘We have to destroy this now, it’s going to ruin everything.’

“All of a sudden we started the era of, ‘We don’t need humans to make music anymore; we have machines to do the job.’ And when they figured out how to hook up a clock to a synthesizer to the drum machine, then the bass players were out of work.”

Case in point: Foster says he loves playing synth bass, which he learned from Gary Wright when he worked on the Dream Weaver album in 1978.

“He was an amazing synth bass player,” Foster says. “Then when I was producing Chicago XXVI in 1981, on the very first session, Peter Cetera, who is a great bass player, was playing and I was young and cocky and something went down and he was uncomfortable with what I said, and he took me aside and said, ‘Hey you know I’ve heard your synth bass playing and I don’t really want to play bass on these records. Why don’t you play.’ And I played synth bass on the next three Chicago records, and that kind of contributed to their ’80s sound.”

“For me things changed when the [Yamaha] DX7, the first digital keyboard [1983], and the LinnDrum came out,” Glaub says. “They changed everything for a lot of brass players, bass players, some drummers. Work did change for a while. I’ll credit my good friend Jim Keltner for this. A lot of guys couldn’t hang in for the long haul. He’s probably an anomaly.” Keltner was one of the first to embrace technology.

“When the home studio thing came along and the keyboard guys could do everything, if you were a drummer who had a good feel and a good sound, you probably wouldn’t be replaced by Roger Linn,” Keltner says. “The record may have been made with a Linn machine, but you would be called to replace the machine. And that’s something that hasn’t changed, except it’s no longer a Linn machine. But it really wiped out bass players because there are tremendous bass samples, and if you are a keyboard player, you can play a great bass. But, then again, as a musician, hopefully you have something unique about your playing that can’t be replaced by a machine.”

“I had slow years,” Glaub remembers. “You have to be willing to wait it out and be in for the long haul. I had a couple of slow years right then in ’83 and ’84 when I had just bought a house and we had just had a second child. But then things changed again and I started working a ton. The budgets are different, and if you want to work with some of the younger indie artists, you have to be willing to negotiate fees that make sense.”

Parks, who still remembers how great it was when the first Korg tuner hit the marketplace in the mid-’70s, says the advent of the drum machine changed recording, and it was better for some drummers than others. “Some drummers had not made friends with the click, and unless you could do that, you couldn’t replace fake drums on a track, and as a drummer you had to learn how to do that because things started to be based on a click track.”

Foster, who gave up a six-figure income in 1978 as a studio player to make $5,000 as a producer in his first year, remembers witnessing some key historical musical moments. “The first time I saw a Minimoog, I just about freaked; the first time I saw a string ARP [synthesizer], I freaked.

The first time I saw a MIDI controller, I couldn’t believe it. It was on my Olivia Newton-John record [Two of a Kind, 1983]. Steve Kipner had written a song [“Catch 22 (2 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Back)”] and brought in this machine and pressed a button and this damn track played. I couldn’t believe it. Everything was tight, the piano part was tight, the bass part was tight, the drums were tight. It was phenomenal.” Foster also remembers the birth of automation at the Complex, circa 1981.

“When I was working with Earth, Wind & Fire, George Massenburg brought me into his workshop and he said, ‘Move this fader.’ It was one fader, and he said, ‘Go up to here and go up to this mark and then come back to this mark and then go back to zero,’ and I did it and he said, ‘Now watch,’ and he pressed a bunch of electronic shit and the fader did the exact same moves that I had just done. Those were huge moments.”

MTV was the other change that hurt the industry, in Lukather’s estimation. He doesn’t mince words, but because he is a still a session musician and a member of Toto, he has a unique perspective, which he is able to share with his equally unique sense of humor.

“We were told it was a promotional thing, no one was ever going to make money, but they found a loophole, turned it into a commercial channel, turned it into a money-soaking bunch of losers that ruined music and turned musicians into actors,” he says. “In the ’60s, if there was a good-looking guy in the band, that was a plus, but it wasn’t a deal breaker because you had to be great to make records. Now all of a sudden you had to be pretty, too. Pretty became more important than good. We were forced to make videos with our own money, against our own will, with people dressing us up like idiots and we had to recoup that money with the promise that MTV was going to play it, and then they wouldn’t because there was payola involved…”

Glaub says even though the days are no longer full of doubles and he is now doing his own cartage, he still loves making music.

“The work was so abundant and I probably took it for granted for a while,” Glaub admits. “It was just such a buzz. We were working all the time. We were trying to spend time with families and get sleep and not be too hung-over the next day. It was an amazing period of about 10 years.”

Keltner, arguably one of the only session players that has spanned from the Wrecking Crew days into this current generation of studio musicians, says one session a day was really only all he has ever cared to do, anyway.

“When the Internet started shaking the record companies up and everything and sessions went way down and all that, it changed as far as the volume goes, but nothing really changed in my life,” Keltner says. “I still was doing records and I’m still doing them today and that’s all, Lord willing, I’ll be doing until I drop.”


Of the dozens and dozens of amazing L.A. session players over the years, the following contributed to our story.

David Foster

Canadian-born David Foster has done everything in the music business from having a hit song with a pop group called Skylark to making music as a session player in the ’70s, first hired by contractor Frank DeCaro. “I was living in an apartment in Coldwater Canyon and had laid out in the sun and gotten second degree burns,” Foster remembers. “I showed up at my first session—a Helen Reddy date—on crutches. At the end of the date, I overheard DeCaro saying, ‘We should get the crippled guy to play piano again.’”

Ultimately Foster went on to become one of music’s top record producers, winning 16 Grammys and recording the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Chicago, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Barbra Streisand and Beyonce.

Jim Keltner

Jim Keltner, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been a leading session drummer since the early ’70s, getting his big start with Delaney & Bonnie and then Joe Cocker. He has the auspicious distinction of having worked often with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well an eclectic mix of artists such as Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Dolly Parton, Warren Zevon, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Harry Nilsson and Bill Wyman. He was also a member of two super groups, the Traveling Wilburys and Little Village.

Bob Glaub

Originally from California, major recording and touring bassist Bob Glaub got his session start on a Jesse Ed Davis record and from there he went on to work with such artists as Dave Mason, Rod Stewart, Warren Zevon, Gladys Knight, Nicolette Larson, Cher, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne, whose band he joined in 1978 for more than a decade. He is currently back with Browne on his new record and tour.

Dean Parks

Texas-born Dean Parks moved to Los Angeles to work with Sonny & Cher in 1970, and his career took off with such artists as Steely Dan, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, B.B. King, the Crusaders and an eclectic list. He has also composed and produced.

John Robinson

Drummer John “J.R.” Robinson arrived in Los Angeles in 1978 from Iowa with Rufus after they discovered him in a bar band in his home state. Not long after, he was nabbed to work on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and then his phone began to ring… artists such as George Duke, Quincy Jones, Herb Alpert, Herbie Hancock, the Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, Glenn Frey, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, with whom he’s worked since 1993.

Steve Lukather

Born in the San Fernando Valley, guitarist Steve Lukather says he owes everything to his second family, the Porcaros. From a rehearsal band with Willie Ornelas, Jai Winding and Steve Porcaro, Winding got him on a Terence Boylan record. From there, drummer Jeff Porcaro brought him into one of his earliest sessions with Boz Scaggs, “which really upped the stock,” Lukather says. Then dates with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Chicago, Donna Summer, an endless list, going on to become a prolific composer and then a member of Toto with his buddies.