Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Gives Five Unsung Sidemen Their Due
Odds are the names James Jamerson, Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Scotty Moore and Curtis Ousley would be identified correctly on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” by only the most studious rock aficionado.
But it’s a lock that anyone who has listened to pop music in the last 45 years has heard them play. Repeatedly.
These five musicians performed on hundreds of the biggest hits of the rock era behind Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Fats Domino and dozens more.
Their contributions to rock are staggering, but they’ve received only a fraction of the recognition heaped on the star performers they backed.
That’s why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year added a new inductee category called Sidemen. Blaine, Palmer and Moore, who was not only Presley’s original guitarist but also his first manager, plan to be on hand tonight at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for their inductions into the new wing, while honors will be given posthumously to Ousley--better known as saxophonist King Curtis--and Jamerson.
“We finally have a vehicle where we can recognize the musicians who have probably played on more of the songs people are familiar with than the stars themselves,” said Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Cleveland-based Hall of Fame. “The parts you remember--the hooks, the riffs, the starts, the finishes--were created in their heads.”
“It’s about time,” said Palmer, often cited as the most-recorded drummer in rock history for his thousands of sessions with such seminal rockers as Little Richard and Fats Domino as well as such pop and jazz luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and hundreds of others.
“Myself and guys like Scotty Moore and Hal Blaine--you don’t know how much these guys contributed to recording sessions,” said Palmer, 75. “I’m not saying this from ego, because if I had that much ego I’d be rich.”
Laughing All the Way to the Bank
Some of Palmer’s peers are rich, thanks to lucrative careers in a field of music that was once considered a fad with a life span of a few years at most.
“I’ve had 263 gold and platinum record awards, made literally a couple of million bucks--it goes on and on--so at the time I was laughing all the way to the bank,” said drummer Blaine, 71, a Santa Clarita resident.
Some, however, had neither Blaine’s good fortune nor Palmer’s longevity. Innovative Motown bassist Jamerson was only 47 when he died of cirrhosis of the liver 17 years ago in relative obscurity; Ousley was stabbed to death in 1971.
More than simply providing the musical backdrop for star performers, these players frequently helped turned routine songs into rock and pop classics.
There’s Blaine’s signature thump . . . thump-thump . . . thump . . . thump-thump bass drum break that defined the Ronettes/Phil Spector hit “Be My Baby,” Curtis’ unforgettable four-bar tenor sax interlude that jumps out of Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Respect” and Moore’s unmistakable guitar licks in “That’s All Right” that set the tone for rock ‘n’ roll.
“All we would start with was a bunch of chords--we didn’t have written arrangements,” said veteran record producer Jerry Wexler, 83. “The musicians routinely came up with things that made those records.
“If you just play the chords, it’s [nothing],” Wexler said. “It’s how you fill it in--the in-between notes, the up beats, the downbeats, the walk-ups, the walk-downs, the rhythm pattern--that puts the icing on the cake.”
Palmer, who dominated the L.A. studio scene as he had in New Orleans before moving west in 1957, is credited with helping create a more driving yet still pulsing beat for rock music that was distinct from the jazz, blues, country and R&B; rhythms that preceded it.
“I played the bass drum like they played the bass drum in those [New Orleans] funeral parade bands,” he said. “I had to do something to make it funky.”
And Jamerson has been called the first virtuoso of the electric bass. Jamerson treated the bass more like a solo instrument, playing complex melodic lines that leap off records by the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and virtually every other Motown artist of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“James was the first guy to give the electric bass a voice of its own, and it changed the way music sounds,” said his biographer, Allan Slutsky. “Every producer since then, especially in the ‘60s, would ask any bassist, ‘Can you play like that guy from Motown?’ Nobody matched him. Over the years, what he did became the vocabulary of the instrument.”
Mostly, the inductees are glad to see the spotlight on their often unsung end of the music business.
“Have you ever heard a singer have a hit record singing by themselves?” asked Palmer, who lives in Arleta. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an artist go into the studio and have to be guided along by the musicians, because the artists and even the producers didn’t know what to do.”
Added Blaine, who was part of a group of L.A. studio pros known as the Wrecking Crew for the way they knocked out hit after hit, day after day, “It’s kind of a shock to the general public when they find out that a lot of [musicians in famous bands] didn’t play on their records. But not everybody can be a plumber and go fix a broken pipe. Sometimes you need an expert, and that’s all there is to it.
“Most of it was economics. We could go in and do an album in six hours,” added Blaine. “Kids today, sometimes it takes them months to get one song down.”
That efficiency is what allowed Blaine to play on an estimated 8,000 recordings. Palmer’s tally, by most accounts, runs even higher.
Blaine credits Palmer with helping launch his long and profitable studio career by recommending him for jobs that Palmer was too busy to take.
Unlike the other sidemen inductees, who played for numerous stars, Moore played exclusively for Presley throughout the singer’s career. That doesn’t mean his impact on rock music was any less profound: Eric Clapton told The Times recently that “he and Buddy Holly were the only white guitarists of that time who really affected me.”
Because they functioned as a band, Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana should have been inducted alongside Presley at the first Hall of Fame ceremony in 1986, Moore contends. He also wishes that Black and Fontana were being honored with him now.
“We were a group,” Moore, 68, said. “We worked together. There wasn’t a leader or anybody who was more important. We’d talk among each other, and we’d let [Presley] worry about the vocals while we tried to do something that would complement his vocals.”
Still, Moore said, “since they’ve opened up this new category, I’m proud to be one of the first to go in.”