KING OF SESSION PLAYERS JUST KEEPS ON STRUMMING
Guitarist Tommy Tedesco shakes his head and smiles at the irony of being king of the Hollywood session players.
Over the course of a career that spans more than 30 years, Tedesco, 55, claims he’s the world’s most frequently recorded guitarist--but one of the least known.
His licks, riffs and strums can be heard on hundreds of records by everyone from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson.
He’s also played for more than 50 movie sound tracks, from “Funny Girl” to “Rocky III,” and for many television theme songs, from the classic instrumental “Bonanza” to the prime-time soaps “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”
Tedesco said he can count on one hand the number of times his contributions have been publicly acknowledged, either on album jackets or on movie or television credits. And he does not share in the profits if a song he helps record happens to become a major hit.
But Tedesco said all this doesn’t bother him a bit.
“I really don’t mind it,” Tedesco said from his Los Angeles home. “This is what I want to do, and I can honestly say I have no regrets, even though people might find that hard to believe.
“For example, back in the 1960s I played lead guitar on a song called ‘Up, Up and Away’ by the Fifth Dimension. And when that song hit the top of the charts, people asked me, ‘Doesn’t it bother you that the band is making all the money and all you’re getting is the $65 you were paid to play the session?”
“And I, in turn, asked them, ‘Yes, but what about all the songs that don’t become hits?’ In those cases, the band doesn’t make a cent, yet I still make my $65 or whatever I happened to have charged for that particular session.”
But there are other payoffs, Tedesco said.
“If there’s a hit and you’re the guitarist, you all of a sudden get more calls than you can handle,” he said. “And then there’s the respect you get from your fellow players.
“The younger ones, especially, treat you with an amazing amount of respect. It’s sort of like sports. Even after they’ve retired, people like Willie Mays and O.J. Simpson are still held in high regard for what they’ve done.
“And so are session players who’ve been around for as long as I have.”
Tedesco says he long ago resigned himself to a career as an unsung guitar hero whose acclaim comes not from the public, but from his peers in the music industry.
And from that perspective, Tedesco has been aptly rewarded.
He continues to be one of the most in-demand session players in the business, recording as many as a dozen different projects every week. In 1982, he was profiled in the book “Ten,” alongside nine other, more famous guitar virtuosos, including Eddie Van Halen, Larry Carlton and Joe Pass.
A series of six jazz albums, issued in the last few years on the prestigious Discovery Records label, has exposed a more serious side of his talents to fans throughout the world.
And for the last decade, he’s hosted about 50 guitar clinics a year at music stores across the United States and Europe--such as the one scheduled for tonight at the Guitar Trader in Clairemont--in which he shares his skills and experiences with thousands of eager students.
“At my clinics, there’s a little bit of talking and a little bit of playing,” Tedesco said. “I’m sort of the nemesis of colleges and other, more traditional forms of music instruction.
“You go to the schools to find out what people think the music industry is like, but you come to my clinics to find out what it’s really like.
“And aside from sharing various techniques on the guitar which I’ve learned over the years, I also give a lot of advice on how to break into the music industry and make a good living by playing the guitar without the one-in-a-million chance of becoming a major recording and performing star.”
Born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tedesco began playing guitar as a child and continued to hone his skills in a series of bands through high school.
His first professional break came in the early 1950s when he toured the country with one of the last of the Big Bands, the Ralph Marterie Orchestra, which was responsible for such pop hits as “Pretend” and “Caravan.”
After the group played Hollywood, Tedesco said, he decided to remain behind and pursue other avenues of work; his first session was with the “Ozzie and Harriet” TV show, and for the remainder of the decade he alternated between further session work and occasional stage performances with Johnny Mathis, the Mills Brothers, and comedians Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.
By 1962, however, Tedesco had all but given up playing live in favor of the considerably more lucrative world of recording. At first, he said, he tried becoming a solo artist.
“But after my first, and only, album on Dot Records, ‘The Twanging Twelve Great Hits of Tom Tedesco,’ sold all of six copies,” Tedesco said, “I decided that I wasn’t meant to be out in the spotlight.
“So I began doing session work--and for the next decade, I was doing about three sessions a day, five or six days a week, for virtually every record, movie and TV show produced in that time.”
And though he’s slowed down a bit in recent years, Tedesco said, nothing much has changed since then.
“Back then, I thought I would retire at 40,” Tedesco said. “But here I am, at age 55, and I still haven’t retired. Once you do this for so long, you just can’t quit.”