Studio musicians. Sidemen. Hired guns. Session guys. Whatever you want to call them, the pros who spend most of their careers backing up more famous artists are the lifeblood of the music industry. Here in L.A., that's been the case since the 1940s, when the film industry needed quality players to record its soundtracks; and it became especially true in the 1960s, when American popular music's center of gravity shifted from the Brill Building in New York to Capitol Studios in Hollywood. And it's still true today, ProTools and synthesizers notwithstanding.
In choosing the 20 players who make up this list, we looked not just at the total number of sessions played (though that certainly factored in) but the impact those sessions have had on popular music. We considered which players have earned the greatest respect from their peers and have had the longest runs as “first-call” guys — the ones who so dominate their instrument that, if someone else booked the gig, it's only because the first-caller turned it down. We focused on instrumentalists only, not background singers — because that could be an entire separate list unto itself.
A few of these players have retired or passed away but many are still active. They're not all based in L.A., but all recorded some of their most seminal work here, so we're claiming them as L.A. players. Some have become household names, but many still do their work in virtual anonymity, even after 50 years (or more) in the business. Let's give them some long-overdue acknowledgement now.
20. Greg Leisz
It's fair to say that nowadays, when an L.A. session needs the sound of a pedal steel or lap steel guitar, Greg Leisz will get the first call far more often than not. Leisz's ability to contribute often subtle details to nearly any project is highly regarded, and he has recorded with a diverse array of musicians including Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, John Mayer, Daft Punk and Alison Krauss. Leisz also recently toured with Jackson Browne and saxophonist Charles Lloyd's band The Marvels. —Tom Meek
19. Matt Chamberlain
Drummer Matt Chamberlain was the engine behind two quintessential mid-’90s albums, The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse and Fiona Apple’s Tidal. Before that he was one of Edie Brickell's New Bohemians and toured with Pearl Jam, before the release of the grunge kings’ 1991 debut album, Ten. Since then he has appeared on recordings by a staggeringly diverse list of artists including Tori Amos (who dubbed him “the human loop”), David Bowie, Kanye West, Morrissey, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, Brandi Carlile, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Chris Cornell and Randy Newman. One of Chamberlain's trademark techniques is his ability to sample and loop his own drum patterns, building complex, multilayered grooves from the ground up, both live and in the studio. —Matt Wake
18. Wilton Felder
Like a lot of great studio musicians, Houston native Wilton Felder's first love was jazz — hence the name of his first group, The Jazz Crusaders, later shortened to The Crusaders. In that group, his primary instrument was tenor saxophone, but after picking up the bass, he found a second career as a studio player, appearing on hundreds of recordings in the late ’60 and 1970s including Billy Joel's Piano Man and Randy Newman's Sail Away. His most iconic recordings came during his tenure in Motown's West Coast house band; that's him providing the bubbly low end on The Jackson 5's “I Want You Back” and much of Marvin Gaye's classic Trouble Man and Let's Get It On albums. He died in 2015, having left his soulful mark on hundreds of recordings by artists as varied as B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Seals and Crofts, Steely Dan and Barry White. —Andy Hermann
17. Al Perkins
A triple threat on the Americana triumvirate of pedal steel, dobro and lap steel, Al Perkins can be heard on albums by artists such as The Eagles, Manassas, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Cher, Dwight Yoakam, Donna Summer, Leonard Cohen, Flying Burrito Brothers and Garth Brooks. His eloquent, evocative steel playing gave The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. chestnut “Torn and Frayed” legit honky-tonk charms. And Perkins’ electric-ghost steel also graces country-rocker Gram Parsons’ two highly influential studio albums, GP and Grievous Angel. Now residing in Nashville, Perkins can still recall listening to a promotional copy he was sent of Parsons’ “Love Hurts” duet with Emmylou Harris, which Perkins had played on, released after Parsons’ 1973 death. “It moved me to tears,” Perkins says. —M.W.
16. Waddy Wachtel
Wavy-haired guitarist Waddy Wachtel co-wrote and played that greasy slide solo on one of the biggest earworms ever, Warren Zevon’s pub rocker “Werewolves of London,” which also featured Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. Wachtel’s story intertwines significantly with the Mac. He played on Buckingham Nicks, the 1973 Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks duo LP, and when Nicks embarked on a solo career in the early ’80s, Wachtel was back, bringing just the right amount of rock edge to Nicks’ gypsy pop. That’s his dramatic guitar riff chugging through “Edge of Seventeen.” Wachtel also has recorded with Iggy Pop, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Steve Perry, Dolly Parton, Hall & Oates and Diana Ross, among many others. His long-running Monday night residency at the Joint on Pico, which sadly closed a few years ago, famously gave fans a chance to catch Wachtel’s many rock-star colleagues sitting in for a song or two. —M.W.
15. Leon Russell
Colorful Oklahoman Leon Russell was better known as a solo artist, songwriter (“A Song for You,” “Tight Rope”) and Elton John's favorite pianist by the time of his death last year at the age of 74. But he made his bones in 1960s Los Angeles as a studio ace, part of the legendary “Wrecking Crew” that played on hundreds of hit songs with the likes of The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, The Monkees and Phil Spector among countless others. His breakthrough gig came with English singer Joe Cocker, who hired Russell to be his pianist and musical director around the time he recorded the 1970 live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and his profile was raised even higher by his star turn at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Though he was equally accomplished as a singer, songwriter and arranger, and a deft hand with numerous instruments, it is Russell's rollicking piano style — taking its cues from boogie-woogie, barrelhouse and New Orleans stride — that made him beloved as both a session player and solo artist. —A.H.
14. Wayne Bergeron
In a sea of terrific session trumpeters in Los Angeles, Wayne Bergeron is the most likely to get the first call when it comes to difficult parts and the highest possible notes. While he didn't appear on screen, Bergeron was the actual trumpet voice for the house band in La La Land, as he has been on more than 400 films and recordings for the likes of Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand and Michael Buble. Bergeron is also a fixture in Gordon Goodwin's Grammy-winning Big Phat Band, and occasionally leads his own groups at local venues including fellow trumpeter Herb Alpert's Vibrato. —T.M.
13. Steve Gadd
It's hard to upstage tenor sax great Wayne Shorter, but Steve Gadd managed to do it on Steely Dan’s “Aja,” underpinning Shorter's solo with a series of jaw-dropping fills that are to rock drummers what Van Halen's “Eruption” is to metal guitarists. He was also Paul Simon's gateway drug into world music, providing the Latin-tinged grooves to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Late in the Evening” long before Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. A giant of ’70s session work with hundreds of credits in both New York and Los Angeles, Gadd first made a name for himself with jazz brothers Chuck and Gap Mangione before going on record with such luminaries as Paul McCartney, James Brown, George Benson, James Taylor, Kate Bush, Chet Baker, Weather Report and Eric Clapton, with whom he just completed a brief run of U.S. shows. Though he can flash with the best of them, Gadd never lets his technical prowess get in the way of a good beat, as anyone knows who's ever boogied to Van McCoy's 1975 disco hit, “The Hustle.” Yep, that's the insanely versatile Gadd on that track, too. —A.H.
12. Larry Knechtel
Larry Knechtel is the answer to a great rock trivia question: Who played bass on the debut album by bass-less rock legends The Doors? Producer Paul Rothchild had drafted Knechtel, known more for his articulate keyboard playing, to give the band’s low end more bluesy oomph on five tracks on The Doors, including paisley masterpiece “Light My Fire.” Another member of The Wrecking Crew session-crushing collective, Knechtel could just as easily imbue a tune with emotive piano, as on Simon & Garfunkel’s stark gospel-folk “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” or Day-Glo harpsichord, as with The Mamas & the Papas’ dreamy folk-pop smash “Monday, Monday.” Knechtel also enjoyed success as a member of ’70s mellow-gold band Bread. He died in 2009 at age 69 and was productive even in his later years, contributing seasoned, soulful keys to records by The Dixie Chicks and Neil Diamond. —M.W.
11. Emil Richards
Vibraphonist and percussionist Emil Richards’ session career in Los Angeles stretches back well over 50 years, and he has amassed one of the largest collections of percussion instruments (more than 650, by one count) anywhere in the process. Credited on thousands of recordings, Richards has played with the likes of George Harrison, Frank Sinatra, The Doors, Don Ellis, Marvin Gaye and Frank Zappa. Now 85, Richards continues to appear locally with his 17-piece big band and work on film and television soundtracks, where he's done some of his most memorable work, including the instantly recognizable bongos from the theme to TV’s Mission: Impossible. —T.M.
10. Tommy Tedesco
Even if you’re more into old-school TV and film than music, you’ve likely heard Tommy Tedesco. He's the man behind the Bonanza theme’s Western giddyup, Batman's campy jangle, Starsky & Hutch's far-out fusion-funk and many others. His expressive guitar stretches across films such as The Deer Hunter and Field of Dreams. Another member of the Wrecking Crew, Tedesco brought flamenco- and jazz-informed virtuosity, even playing deceptively simple rhythm parts, to tons of ’60s hits, such as The Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.” That’s Tedesco melding with the orchestra as Frank Sinatra croons “Strangers in the Night,” too. In addition to his adroit musicianship, Tedesco, who died in 1997 at age 67, was known for his sense of humor, reportedly arriving for a session for Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy album wearing a Boy Scout uniform. —M.W.
9. Jim Keltner
The go-to drummer for three-quarters of The Beatles’ solo careers (including Ringo, which should tell you something), Pasadena-raised Jim Keltner plays with a relaxed, easygoing style that belies his deep well of skill and technique. Like most players on this list, he got his start in the jazz world, backing up celebrated Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo in the late ’60s. By the ’70s, his Charlie Watts–like snare and nimble hi-hats could be heard on records by the aforementioned former Beatles (all except McCartney), as well as Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, The Bee Gees and Bob Dylan. In the ’80s, he kept the beat for supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and John Hiatt. Today, at 75, he continues to do session work for the likes of Neil Young and The Rolling Stones — and he still has arguably the best snare sound in the business. —A.H.
8. Hal Blaine
As one of the leading members of the Wrecking Crew, Hal Blaine is almost certainly the most recorded studio drummer in history, with contributions to 40 No. 1 hit singles and, by his reckoning, 35,000-plus recorded tracks. His swinging but propulsive sound — and frequent use of additional percussion instruments like sleigh bells and castanets — was particularly well-suited to the “Wall of Sound” production style developed by producer Phil Spector and advanced by acolytes like The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who frequently called on Blaine to replace Dennis Wilson's parts. At the height of his career in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Blaine was so ubiquitous that he played on six consecutive Grammy winners for Record of the Year: Herb Alpert's “A Taste of Honey,” Frank Sinatra's “Strangers in the Night,” The 5th Dimension's “Up, Up and Away” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” and Simon and Garfunkel's “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” That's a run no studio player is ever likely to top. —A.H.
7. Bob Bain
Guitarist Bob Bain is one of the few living musicians who began his session career all the way back in the 1940s. A graduate of Hamilton High, his thousands of credits include work with Henry Mancini (including the iconic Peter Gunn theme), Nelson Riddle, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley. But Bain likely is best known for holding down the guitar chair in Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra for 22 years. Now 93, Bain still plays out locally several times a year, most often at John Pisano's long-running Guitar Night at Viva Cantina in Burbank. —T.M.
6. Abraham Laboriel, Sr.
One of the true legends of the L.A. session scene is Mexican-American bassist Abraham Laboriel Sr. Laboriel has contributed to more than 4,000 recordings with artists including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Henry Mancini, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Bill Withers and Madonna among many, many others over the past four decades. Son Abe Jr. carries on his name as the drummer and backing vocalist for Paul McCartney. Laboriel brings an infectious enthusiasm to almost every performance, and is featured locally most often as part of the group Open Hands. —T.M.
5. Carol Kaye
Although women have a vast history as backing singers in the studio, Los Angeles instrumentalist session players have traditionally skewed dude. However, Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye is a major exception. Those are Kaye’s sauntering bass lines on Joe Cocker’s soul-rocker “Feelin’ Alright,” The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Kaye was tasteful enough to find a propulsive toehold in Phil Spector’s dense Wall of Sound productions — no easy feat — as on Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High.” She got her start as a professional musician playing jazz in Los Angeles nightclubs and scored her first studio gig in 1957 when another bassist didn’t show up for a Capitol Records session. Kaye also played some historic sessions as a rhythm guitarist, including Ritchie Valens’ seminal track “La Bamba.” But as Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson once put it, “Carol, you're the greatest damn bass player in the world.” —M.W.
4. Steve Lukather
Even if Los Angeles–born Steve Lukather hadn’t played on another session besides what he did for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, he could hang his hat on that credit alone forever. But Lukather played on hundreds of other notable records, from A (Aretha Franklin) to Z (Zevon, Warren). He particularly owned the ’80s. That sexy guitar solo in Lionel Richie’s synth-y hit “Running With the Night”? That’s Lukather. With lava tone and effervescent phrasing, he’s one of the few musicians who could fit naturally on albums by both shock-rocker Alice Cooper (Trash) and folkie David Crosby (Oh Yes I Can) — released in the same year, 1989. This is in addition to anchoring his own Grammy-winning band Toto, authors of ’80s pop-rock hits like “Africa,” “Rosanna” and “Hold the Line,” which have aged far better than the day’s music snobs ever imagined. —M.W.
3. Leland Sklar
Sporting his instantly recognizable Santa-esque beard, Leland “Lee” Sklar has been one of the most sought-after bassists in Los Angeles since the ’70s. After first achieving prominence with James Taylor's Mud Slide Slim band in 1971, Sklar helped form the highly regarded group The Section with his fellow Taylor bandmates Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Craig Doerge. Since then, Sklar has recorded thousands of sessions for myriad artists, including Crosby Stills & Nash, Lisa Loeb, Billy Cobham, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates, Warren Zevon and Bette Midler. He remains as active and in-demand as ever, most recently touring with singer Judith Owen, Toto and Phil Collins. Sklar isn't a guy whose style is oft-commented on, like a Jaco Pastorius or Victor Wooten — he's simply a master of playing to the needs of the song and the session, with no interest in showboating for the sake of it. —T.M.
2. Gene Cipriano
Gene Cipriano is known throughout the L.A. session community as “Cip.” A master of nearly every woodwind instrument, Cipriano has played in the orchestra of 56 of 59 Academy Awards telecasts since their inception in 1959, and has recorded on thousands of sessions with musicians as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa (on the same Lumpy Gravy sessions as Emil Richards and Tommy Tedesco), Henry Mancini, Daft Punk and Prince, as well as such iconic film soundtracks as Some Like It Hot, Days of Wine and Roses and West Side Story. Now 88, “Cip” has a seemingly endless supply of L.A. music stories, which he occasionally offers in local shows with vocalist Cat Conner, and is the subject of a documentary movie currently in production simply titled Yo Cip. —T.M.
1. Earl Palmer
As a member of the Wrecking Crew, Earl Palmer often played alongside Hal Blaine, doubling the drum tracks to anchor Phil Spector's massive Wall of Sound. Between the two drummers, Blaine booked more sessions — possibly because he's white and Palmer was black. So why is Palmer ranked not only ahead of Blaine but at the top of our list? Because no other studio musician did more to shape the sound of popular music for the last 60 years.
Before moving to Los Angeles, Palmer worked studio gigs in his hometown of New Orleans, where rhythm and blues artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard were laying the foundations for what would become rock & roll. Palmer's stomping backbeat on “The Fat Man,” recorded way back in 1949, is often cited as the first recorded use of a standard rock & roll drum pattern. Over the next eight years, it was a sound Palmer would refine on such songs as Lloyd Price's “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Little Richard's “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and another Fats Domino classic, “I'm Walkin’.”
In 1957, Palmer moved to Los Angeles, where labels like Aladdin, Keen and Specialty had begun recording and releasing rhythm and blues records. Among the first artists he worked with in his new home was Sam Cooke; that's Palmer’s gently swinging backbeat on “You Send Me,” the first hit for the gospel singer turned soul crooner. He quickly became the first-call player for anyone who wanted that new rock & roll beat on their record, and his résumé during this time is packed with an astonishing run of hugely influential hit singles: Eddie Cochran's “Summertime Blues,” Bobby Day's “Rockin’ Robin,” Little Richard's “Good Golly Miss Molly,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” Chan Romero's “Hippy Hippy Shake” and Cooke's “Twisting the Night Away,” to name only a few.
Palmer continued his run throughout the ’60s, logging studio time with The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees and Dick Dale, among many others. He was also the principal drummer on producer-composer David Axelrod's Song of Innocence, which crate-digging hip-hop producers rediscovered in the ’90s and mined heavily for samples, in large part because of Palmer's funky, pristinely recorded drum tracks.
Did we mention film and television? Palmer's soundtrack work includes Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night, The Flintstones, Green Acres, The Brady Bunch and Mission: Impossible. Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin and Jerry Goldsmith were among the many L.A. composers who had Palmer's name at the top of their call lists.
By the mid-’70s, Palmer's studio work became less frequent but no less impactful; among the later albums graced with his unmistakable backbeat were Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine (1978) and Elvis Costello’s King of America (1986). Palmer died in 2008, leaving behind a body of work unmatched by any drummer in the history of popular music. When Little Richard calls you “probably the greatest session drummer of all time,” you've made your mark. —A.H.
Want to hear more of these studio musicians' work? Here's a playlist of some of their best and most famous tracks: