Question: what do the following artists have in common, apart from their predilection for prog:
Tom Brislin (Renaissance, Sea Within, Kansas), John Mitchell (Arena, Lonely Robot, It Bites, Frost*), Lee Pomeroy (Electric Light Orchestra, It Bites, Yes/ARW, Rick Wakeman), Marco Minnemann (McStine & Minnemann , Aristocrats), Craig Blundell (Hackett, Wilson, Lonely Robot, Frost*), Dave Bainbridge (DBA, Iona, Celestial Fire, Strawbs, Lifesigns), Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Camel, Red Bazar, Magenta, Cyan, The bardic depth).
Answer: they are all professional, experienced (studio) musicians. They are masters of their instrument and know exactly what is expected of them, no more and no less. They don’t necessarily have to be permanent members of a band, that just creates obligations. Loose-fitting bandages suit them best. They bring a wealth of experience, are solid performers at live shows, these rock music freelancers.
Even in the past (early) there were already experienced session musicians who played on countless albums by others, often across the existing genres.
The first really well-known group of ‘session cats’ had to be The Wrecking Crew, a bunch of extremely skilled studio musicians who played on just about everything they were offered, from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys and everything in between. It was a loose-fixed collective of several musicians that dominated the studios in the sixties and seventies. Among them illustrious names such as Hal Blaine (drums), Carole Kaye (bass guitar), Glenn Campbell, Barney Kessell (guitar), Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell (keys). The former is said to be involved in 35,000 music titles, yes you read that right: thirty-five thousand!
The same was true of their colleagues, The Funk Brothers. This was a group of Detroit-based session musicians who backed most Motown recordings from 1959 until the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972. Well-known musicians who were part of this collective included Marvin Gaye (keys, drums), Ray Parker Jr. (guitar), Earl Van Dyke (piano) and James Jamerson (bass guitar).
In contrast, Booker T. & the MGs were a real band, an American R&B/funk instrumental band that was influential in shaping the sound of Southern Soul and Memphis Soul. The group’s original members included Booker T. Jones (organ, piano) and Steve Cropper (guitar). Formed in the 1960s, the band grew out of the Mar-Keys, a rotating group of musicians who served as the house band for Stax Records. They played on hundreds of recordings by artists such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor and Albert King.
Jimmy Page is perhaps the most famous white studio musician. Long before his time with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, he was already an ‘ace’ at a young age (Little Jim). He owes much of his fame to his contributions to records by The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, as well as Petula Clarke and Shirley Bassey. But he’s not the only one: Steve Lukather and a number of colleagues from Toto, saxophonist David Sanborn, percussionist Alex Acuna and bassist Abraham Laboriel and I could go on and on. Rick Wakeman (David Bowie, T. Rex, Elton John, Cat Stevens) also belongs to that group and what about drummer Kenny Jones (The Who, Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones). Pianist Nicky Hopkins (The Stones, The Who, Kinks, Beatles) and bassist Pino Palladino (The Who, John Mayer, Gary Numan, Jeff Beck) should also be included in this list.
Back to our prog mercenaries. What would Steven Wilson be without Craig Blundell’s mighty punches? Dave Bainbridge is one of the most in-demand musicians in the UK right now, everything he touches instantly turns to gold. The latter certainly also applies to the incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist Pete Jones. The left-handed bassist Lee Pomeroy has now played in the biggest stadiums as a sideman. And John Mitchell is the musical mercenary incarnate.
They are also called ‘soldier of fortune’ (mercenary), ‘hired hand’ (temporary strength) or ‘session cat’ (session musician), but we are actually selling them short. They have contributed to the quality of music since time immemorial, despite the fact that their role has often/sometimes been underexposed. This article is a tribute to them.