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A session life for me: Studio musicians and London’s popular music industry in the 1960s

The popular music industries of the 1960s produced thousands of recordings with each studio relying on an infrastructure of producers, engineers, music directors, songwriters, and, of course, musicians. In recent years, documentaries have introduced us to instrumentalists and singers who formed the artistic backbones of America’s major studios. In Detroit, The Funk Brothers kept Motown’s assembly line of hits purring for The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, and many others. In Los Angeles, the so-called Wrecking Crew gave us the instrumental backing for The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and The Mamas and the Papas, to name only a few. Indeed, every major studio relied on such professionals, whether in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Chicago, or New Orleans. And the same was true on the other side of the Atlantic in London.

Like Los Angeles, London boasted a network of recording studios associated not only with popular music, but also with film. An orchestral musician might participate in a film scoring session in the afternoon and be reading through an arrangement by George Martin for Cilla Black at night, if they were not already engaged in a theater pit. But the core of London’s profitable popular music industry depended on various combinations of guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, often with backing singers on hand.

Session guitarists “Big Jim” Sullivan, Vic Flick, Jimmy Page (sometimes called “Little Jim”), Joe Moretti, Bryan Daly, and Joe Brown all began playing in bands until their technique, knowledge, and sound brought them to the attention of producers and of contractors. Similarly, bassists Allan Weighell, Herbie Flowers, John Paul Jones, Eric Ford, or Ron Prentice established their reputations as live performers before becoming denizens of the sunless world of recording studios. Producers turned to drummers like Bobby Graham, Clem Cattini, Ronnie Verrell, and Andy White because they had learned how to read music, how to hold a band together on stage, and when to play (and when not).

The major studios collectively agreed to three standard session times a day: 10:00 a.m-1:00 p.m, 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Contractors like Charlie and Nita Katz (who will turn 100 in October) might book a musician to play a morning session at the EMI Recording Studios in St. John’s Wood, an afternoon session at Decca’s West Hampstead studios, and an evening session at Pye’s studios near Marble Arch. Musicians might also be engaged to record a commercial before the morning session or after the evening session. Other studios such as Olympic, Regent Sound, Trident, or IBC had more flexible hours, but all had to work around the system established by the majors.

In the first half of the sixties, production crews and musicians generally presumed that in a three-hour session (which did not include arriving in time to set up your equipment and to allow the studio staff to position microphones) a singer and musicians would be able to produce at least four completed recordings. Allowing a few hours for musicians to find the right groove for a song did not figure as part of the schedule, unless stars like The Beatles were involved, and even they might end up recording late at night to avoid scheduled day use of EMI.

Many of the best-known recordings of the era by The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, and Them, as well as Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield, and Cilla Black, feature these musicians, whether acknowledged or not. Indeed, producers (commonly known as artist-and-repertoire managers in the early 1960s) and music directors relied on session musicians to realize their often-unspecific ideas about a performance in the studio.

In 1964, pianist and music director Reg Guest came up with at least two different arrangements for the landmark recording of “The Crying Game” (the orchestral version was never released), but it was Jim Sullivan’s musically and technically inventive guitar playing delicately embroidering Dave Berry’s vocal that distinguish this disc. Using a DeArmond foot pedal (originally intended for a pedal-steel guitar) to play with tone and volume, Sullivan painted tears onto Geoff Stephens’ song.

The power of this performance was not lost on Beatle George Harrison, who would experiment with this sound on recordings like “Yes It Is” and “I Need You.” As importantly, Sullivan invented those iconic guitar licks in the studio. Indeed, the abilities, not only to play flawlessly, but also to be endlessly creative and spontaneous on cue, represented the fundamental characteristics of a successful session musician. The daily grind could be grueling and psychologically draining, but the gallows humor between musicians and the mutual professional respect helped to sustain them. They accepted their session fee and heard themselves on the car radio as they drove from one gig to the next.

This version of the studio world faded after 1968 when first eight-track and then sixteen-track recording equipment arrived along with the establishment of more private studios, which meant that the need for four perfect sides in three hours was no longer quite so pressing. But their impact on the music of that golden age is undeniable and there is much to learn from that process.

Featured image: Old radio. (c) via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Tamsyn Green


    Anyone know of a Peter Rodrigues who was a musician in London mid sixties. Lived in West Hampstead and played several instruments.
    Any information will be much appreciated. Thanks

  2. Chris Burton

    It would be interesting to know how limiting, or not, the MU’s “only 20 minutes of recording from any three hour session” could be used for release commercially, actually was.

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