Tales from MusicFest: ‘House bands’ from the golden age of rock and R&B

Robert Moyes

Special to The Record

Doug Cox, artistic director and executive producer of Island MusicFest, is booking a couple of remarkable bands that will offer a unique master-class in pop music history.

Everyone knows names like Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Jackson Brown – some of the many A-list artists who defined music in the 1960s through the ’80s. What’s gone unheralded are the incredibly talented session musicians who played behind them in the studio – and often were critically important in shaping all those hit songs that topped the charts.

“These aren’t the famous musicians, they are the guys who made those other people famous,” Cox quips. “And it’s time they got the credit they deserved.”

ALSO: Tom Cochrane and Red Rider headlining MusicFest

He’s referring to members of the house band for Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios, and also to a looser coalition of session musicians and backup singers based in and around Los Angeles who created the so-called West Coast sound.

Let’s start with the swampy, funky music that came out of two small studios in an out-of-the-way Alabama town. The Muscle Shoals Allstars are living music history, and include some of the in-house players whose matchless groove, warmth, and musicality helped launch artists like Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding into the pantheon of ’60s soul and R&B immortals. The appeal of these classic recordings eventually became a magnet for a long stream of white artists – the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, and the Allman Brothers included – who booked studio time here, hoping that the Shoals magic would rub off on their latest projects.

Aside from bassist David Hood, the crack members of the Allstars includes Clayton Ivey on keyboards, percussionist Mickey Buckins, lead guitarist Will McFarlane, and a trio of heavenly backup singers. Adding lots of brassy sizzle are the Muscle Shoals Horns, whose powerhouse punch has been heard on records by, amongst many others, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, and Elvis Presley. Fronting the band are vocalists Jimmy Hall (of Wet Willie fame) and the larger-than-life Carla Russell, who’s been influenced by everybody from Big Mama Thornton to Robert Plant.

Over on the West Coast, similar musical magic was being made by an equally extraordinary collection of session players. One of the most respected was guitarist-producer Danny Kortchmar, a key member of L.A.’s The Section, whose stellar work in the 1970s and ’80s helped such artists as James Taylor, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne become million-selling superstars.

Kortchmar will be fronting the stage with the equally accomplished Waddy Wachtel, another gifted session guitarist (and producer and composer) whose ubiquitous presence on the L.A. music scene included working with the Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, and, more recently, as lead guitarist for Stevie Nicks.

This band of virtuosos includes Leland Sklar, who has played bass on more than 2,000 albums, adding his tight rhythms and signature warmth to hits by Dolly Parton, Phil Collins, and Rod Stewart. The drumming chores will be in superb hands with Jimmy Paxson, whose eclectic CV includes anchoring the Dixie Chicks, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Rivers, Charlie Musselwhite … and a hundred more. Rounding out this amazing crew is the versatile Steve Postell, who is a singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer/producer. And if you want a reference for him, just ask David Crosby, John Oates, or Jennifer Warnes.

“From bass lines to hooks, these guys literally wrote the book of rock – they’re the ones who really made all those thousands of records,” says Cox. And it is worth noting that these two remarkable bands aren’t on tour but are exclusive to MusicFest. “These two groups were curated for me by people I know who are close to these artists,” says Cox proudly. “They’re a big part of why I think this will be the best Festival we’ve ever presented.”

For the full festival lineup, and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.islandmusicfest.com/

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

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