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The Invisible New York Session Players

King Curtis (Public Domain)

Editor’s Note: This post, originally published on 6/17/16, is one of our “Greatest Hits” — so enjoy it again!

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In recent years, there has been a spate of documentaries about session musician groups who played on hits from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. LA’s Wrecking Crew. The Funk Brothers of Motown. Booker T & The MG’s for Stax Records in Memphis. The Nashville A-Team. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama. MFSB in Philadelphia. They provided the soundtrack to post-war American pop music: doo-wop, rock ‘n roll, classic R&B, folky troubadours, disco. Each of these musical enclaves spawned its own distinctive groove.

But what about New York City? The studio scene was certainly thriving throughout these years. In and around Times Square, session musicians provided the musical engines for hit artists like The Coasters, The Four Seasons, Dion and Aretha to name a few. These peripatetic players were on 24/7-call, as often as five times a day to play on record dates, movie soundtracks and, most profitably, advertising jingles. They were in great demand, making music and living well. The question is, as identifiable as the music was that came from LA, Motown, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and Philly, was there a distinctive “New York” sound?

Turns out, there is no simple answer.

“In New York, there were many ‘Wrecking Crews,’” says Roy Markowitz, session drummer who has played with Janis Joplin, Petula Clark, Peter Allen and many more. “The first group who comes to mind when I think of a ‘New York sound’ is King Curtis’ group.” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Curtis, a transplanted Texan with credits from Lionel Hampton to Aretha Franklin, put together a session group that included session greats Bernard Purdie (drums), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Cornell Dupree (guitar) and Richard Tee (keyboard). Sometimes he switched up some of the players. Listen to this recording of “Memphis Soul Stew” from Live At Fillmore West for a taste. Curtis introduces all the musicians. That’s Billy Preston playing the organ. He flew The Memphis Horns in for this gig. Monster players. Required listening.

In the late ’60s in NYC, a new group of players came in from bands to play with Richie Havens, Don McClean and Jim Croce. Some of them may be familiar to music buffs: Harvey Brooks (bass player from The Electric Flag), Paul Harris (piano man on BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Bob Seeger’s “Against The Wind”), Al Kooper (Blood, Sweat & Tears). The NY scene was rich with a wide diversity of music, from classic R&B to folk rock and later, disco.

“Jingles were the main thing,” says Bob Rose, session guitarist. “They paid better than records because of residuals.” Markowitz adds, “NY and LA were different from the other music centers because we were very busy recording jingles, films and TV music. There was lots of work and plenty of studios.” Both Markowitz and Rose played on the mega hit “Turn The Beat Around,” for Vicki Sue Robinson.

How about the skill set for session players? “You had to be able to sound good recorded – that is relaxed, in tune, in time – with a microscope on you,” says Rose, who has recorded for James Brown, Neil Sedaka (in a session produced by The Beatles’ George Martin), Frankie Valli, and The Starland Vocal Band. “Playing in the studio does not mean you are a virtuoso. It means you play clean, simple and make everybody else sound good. You need to be diplomatic. Songwriters and producers running a session may not know much about music,” Rose continues. “Good arrangers learned to write less.”

Remember, this was an analog world. You could record different takes and overdubs, but there was no cutting and pasting as there is today in the digital recording world. “You’d play simply and listen. As a drummer on a jingle, it had to be some incarnation of Purdy or Steve Gadd. Fortunately, I knew what that sounded like. I did my own version,” Markowitz added.

Session players often contributed ideas to songs. “Pianist Frank Owens was on a session for Tony Orlando and Dawn. Frank sat down and started playing a riff to ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’,'” Markowitz mentions. This riff became the musical signature of the song. He invented an iconic riff that has remained in musical memory for 43 years – since 1973. Question: should Owens get a songwriting credit? It’s up to the songwriter. If the songwriter gives the contributing musician a piece of the song, it can have a significant impact on the musician’s income. (LA session bass player Carole Kaye came up with that famous riff that sets off “The Beat Goes On,” for Sonny & Cher. See the Wrecking Crew documentary for her take on this.) John Denver gave bass player Dick Kniss five percent of “Annie’s Song” for his musical input. Kniss told this author he bought his house with the income from that five percent.

Put some of these NY session players in a studio and give them a chance to swap stories and you’d best use your voice memo. You’ll be laughing too hard to write anything down. A couple of overheard gems:

A jingle producer said to session bassist John Miller (music contractor for 75 Broadway shows), “I’d like to get you to play some more of that loose-tight feel.” Those people don’t know shit. If you can “play” a loose-tight feel and sell it. Fine. So, you say, ‘loose-tight feel – sure – you got it!

Another producer told session drummer Allan Schwartzberg that his bass drum sounded too “floppy.” So Alan bent down and tied his shoes. Then he sat up and played the bass drum without adjusting anything. “Much better,” said the producer.

There’s a gold mine of musical stories ready to be unearthed in upcoming conversations with the session players who were at the heart of the New York scene during the glory days of recording. Was there a New York sound? Yes. How can you describe it? It is as energetic, soulful, brilliant, clean, frisky and diverse as the city itself.

Elizabeth Rose

Photo Credit: Public domain image of King Curtis.


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8 comments on “The Invisible New York Session Players

  1. Lovely to hear those names once again. I, too, was a musician, a vocalist and a songwriter in those great days. Unlike those who are mentioned above, I was not a fluent reader of music. I practiced my part PRIOR to the session and was able to ‘adjust’ if changes were made during that serious time of the session itself. I also remember Stan Free, Irving Spice and his “Spice Strings” … as well as the original, “Panama Francis” on the drums! Names like
    Vinnie Bell, Ernie Royal, Romeo Penque, Bernie Purdie, Buddy Salzman and (me) Gary Knight

  2. Sam Williams

    I really wish this article went more in depth on these guys. It turns out the players in NY on the east coast were just as historically important as the Wrecking Crew on the West Coast. They probably played on the same amount of hits as the Wrecking Crew just on a different coast. These were the same musicians that helped shape the sound of countless classic songs written by Brill Building songwriters. And you’ll hear these guys on records by Neil Sedaka, the Shirelles, Jay and the Americans, Van Morrison, The Four Seasons, Neil Diamond, Lesley Gore, the Drifters, and the list goes on and on and on. But unfortunately not much is known about these guys unlike Other groups of session players In other cities and states at that time and the original session documents for the amazing hit recording sessions they participated in are kept under a lock and key by the New York musician’s union. And to this day not even the original surviving contractors or producers of that era can get a hold of them. The only documentary that has shed a light on these guys was the recent documentary about Bert Berns that came out last year. Otherwise not much has been said about these guys and a lot of their hit song credits are difficult to find online and even on recent and past CD compliations on the music they played on. I hope that someday they will be as well known as other players from cities like Detroit and Memphis and LA and Muscle Shoals and Nashville.

    • Hmmmm…so then give the name of the “group”? Not like an entire city filled with session musicians as equivalent….like actual groups with name that can literally claim hits as funk brothers, muscle shoals, wrecking crew, the nashville A listers, the memphis boys, or MFSB in philly? Because you cant. Period.

  3. I won’t mention publishing company names here, but one of the largest music publishers in the world is purposely holding back foreign royalties from
    songwriters who are slowly dying off. This publisher is simply waiting until they die in order to keep the present and future royalties forever! I can only hope that a class action attorney or firm takes it upon themselves to conduct a forensic audit which I firmly believe will reveal hidden monies which, if not detected will continue to be stolen until the end of time! We older songwriters and under-capitalized publishers have no recourse. We are the little guys and they are the MONSTERS! This is especially ASIAN royalties. For the past 60 years, I have earned upwards of $6 to $9k per year but over the past years since this monster company bought my four or more catalogs of 600 songs, I have been shorted BIG TIME! Someone who might read this please save us .. the older songwriters and sub publishers!.

  4. Because these important musicians in New York City had no specific name, doesn’t lessen their importance in the history of hit records in the Big Apple. Millions of people contributed to America’s culture, innovation and other achievements, yet we don’t even think about them.
    I hope this newsletter will give credit to those whose contributions changed the entire world in
    the field of that Arts. The importance of these valuable contributions must be told to the future generations to come. You can see today that everything we knew and experienced in the Rock and Roll and Jazz era is returning to our younger generation. 45’s, record players, old “Hit Parade” magazines are becoming collector’s items along with the music itself. I just hope that in the decades and centuries to come, those musicians, vocalists, groups, engineers, recording studios and record labels are never forgotten for they are the real “fabric” of a generation which led the way to a new form of art in the USA and the world! Thank you for your kind attention!

  5. Midnite Url

    My husband and I are actually trying to put together a documentary of the NY based studio players from the 50s, 60s, 70s –I have a list of players but no names of specific recordings done in NYC studios. Plenty of material on the Wrecking Crew, and great that Denny Tedesco did his documentary, but would be nice to give the same historical and musical perspective on the unsung performers for the East Coast hits. If anybody wants to talk, please get in touch with us at the Rock n Roll Cookbook on WRUU.org

  6. I got my start in September of 1960 when I was discovered by Connie Francis. I was 17 years old and, as a favor to the man who brought me to her, he convinced me that I had the talent to become a songwriter. Our first song we wrote together was called, “Too Many Rules”. I rememeber the session which took place in Nashville, Tennessee and my song became the flip side of “Together”. The A Side became a top ten song in the USA but my song was the A side throughout the rest of the world. Musicians I remember in NYC on my first recording session were as I remember : Panama Francis on drums, Vinnie Bell on guitar, etc etc. Check out my blog.. it covers the period from 1960 to 1981 : https://musicblog4all.com/music-blog/

  7. Thank you Gary! We’d like to periodically feature the “invisible” studio musicians on our radio show so anyone you know that you can refer to us would be much appreciated! Is there a discography that lists specific songs that you played on? Preferably in a rock n roll or rock n soul genre? Any other insight would be greatly appreciated!

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