Being behind the scenes is what most musicians who don't write songs or sing expect of their lives once they start seriously playing. A career backing someone up can be extremely rewarding, particularly if you are part of a transcendent group of musicians that goes from simply backing up an artist into its own entity.
Over the years, a number of formidable stand-alone groups of musicians have emerged from the shadows of their superstar front men and women. Some of them are identified almost entirely with a single artist; some came together for a brief but magical period of time. Whatever the case, they went beyond simply a bunch of hired guns to a presence that gained a life of its own.
Here are 10 examples.
The Most Dangerous Band in the World
In the early (pre-CBS) years of Late Night With David Letterman, a core group of talented musicians including Will Lee (bass), Anton Fig (drums) and Sid McGinnis (guitar) -- the first year featured Hiram Bullock on guitar and Steve Jordan on drums -- were hired to work with music director Paul Shaffer in what would become one of the most coveted gigs in music.
Every night, not only did this group of killer session musicians play great music on a popular late-night television show, but they got to back up some of the world's finest artists. They are still a bunch of great musicians, but the magic seemed to fade a bit after they left NBC and added a horn section. The video above is a guest appearance by original guitarist Bullock and frequent sit-in saxophone player David Sanborn.
Sting's Bring On the Night Band
Whatever you think of Sting and his music, when he decided to go solo, he assembled one of the most talented groups of musicians ever to take on pop. A veritable who's who list of young jazz musicians, it was the antithesis of the Police and maybe that was the point.
Featuring Darryl Jones (bass - Miles Davis), Omar Hakim (drums - Weather Report), Brandford Marsalis (saxophone - Art Blakey) and the late Kenny Kirkland (keyboards - Dizzy Gillespie), the band recorded Sting's first solo release Dream of the Blue Turtles and the live album Bring On the Night.
The entire formation of the band was chronicled in the documentary named after the live record. Sting would move on to play with a number of other brilliant musicians, but there was never a better assemblage of talent behind him than this band. Skip to 3:30 on the video above and see what I mean.
The John Mayer Trio
When someone told me that John Mayer had done a blues rock record, I scoffed. I didn't hate his early records, but they were ineffectual at best and I didn't even know he had real chops as a guitarist. When I saw the rhythm section credits, I gave it a listen and was shocked to hear something with that level of groove coming from Mayer.
This may be more of a back up rhythm section than a band since Mayer is the guitarist, but when that includes legendary pop and r&b drummer Steve Jordan as well as one of the great underrated bass players of the last 20 years, Pino Palladino (he now fills John Entwistle's considerable shoes in the Who), it demands respect.
My first introduction to The Band was when I stayed with virtual strangers in Virginia over a wild spring break in 1991. They played "The Weight" about 1,000 times one night while partying. Unfortunately, that was the night before I had to catch an early plane back to Houston and the repetition of that song did nothing for my futile attempts to sleep. Years later, I got over the trauma of hearing that song too many times in one drunken night and realized just how incredible "The Band" truly was.
Formed out by the members of Ronnie Hawkins' band in the '50s and eventually the touring band for Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were all gifted musicians who made some of the best roots-rock of all time both as a group and as individuals. Helm even won a Grammy this year for Best Americana Album. Their music is also the subject of perhaps the greatest live performance documentary of all time, The Last Waltz.
It must have been part of Elvis Costello's sly sense of humor that caused him to name a recent group of backing musicians "the Imposters," because, as good as they were, nothing comes close to the Attractions. Together with Costello, they recorded some of the best filthy post-punk music of the 1980s. From "Watching the Detectives" to "Veronica" and beyond, Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas (no relation) formed one of the most killer lineups of the era.
In the 2007 documentary Runnin' Down a Dream Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks discussed, separately, on camera the fact that Nicks desperately wanted in the band. She was rebuffed at every turn because, as Petty said, "There's no girls in the Heartbreakers."
There are also no slouches. Simply put, the Heartbreakers are one of the seminal American bands of the 20h century. I used to joke that being in that band must be the ideal life. You make great money, play huge gigs, perform amazing music and when you walk down the street, nobody knows who the fuck you are. But you are totally respected.
They've lost a couple members over the years -- Stan Lynch to "musical differences" and the late Howie Epstein to drugs -- Petty has done a few records without them and members like guitarist Mike Campbell have pursued side projects on occasion, but the band has remained remarkably stable and insulated throughout their now 30-plus-year career. And they keep making great records.
The E Street Band
It would be impossible to make a list like this one without mentioning the E Street Band. After millions of albums sold, performances in front of tens of millions of people and being part of some of the most beloved American rock music ever recorded, it would be a glaring omission not to mention them.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the E Street Band is the loyalty the pay their "Boss," Bruce Springsteen, and the same he shows in return. Like Petty, Springsteen has meandered into solo territory and even taken this glorified bar band through some varied stylistic alterations over the years, but the core has remained intact.
For Springsteen, there is clearly an emotional if not spiritual connection to this group of musicians. He even married Patti Scialfa, who joined the band just prior to Born in the U.S.A.. They still put on some of the most energetic stage performances in music despite the fact that many of them have eclipsed 60 and lost "Big Man" Clarence Clemons in 2011.
Paul Simon's Graceland Band
When it was announced that Paul Simon would be releasing an album backed up entirely by South African musicians, many were skeptical. There had been a few inroads made into African music by pop musicians with artists like Peter Gabriel, but no pop artist had made music so thoroughly immersed in it.
Simon's Graceland was a masterpiece and changed what casual music fans knew about what is essentially the origin of pop-music rhythms. It also elevated African music in the Western world, exposing music co-written by Simon and musicians from South Africa to massive popular and critical success in America.
Musicians previously unaware of these gifted musicians (myself included) felt their jaws drop when they heard the complex polyrhythmic music and the ridiculous musicianship of the players, particularly bassist Bakithi Kumalo. Set aside the goofy interplay between Simon and Chevy Chase in the video for "You Can Call Me Al," and you'll hear one of the most unreal bass breaks ever recorded in pop music.
Booker T. and the MG's/The Funk Brothers
While these were two different bands, I felt the need to combine them so as to not diminish one of the other. Booker T. and MG's, despite being a fairly successful solo act (see "Green Onions") was the house band at Stax Records in Memphis, the home of some of the greatest soul music ever recorded. The Funk Brothers was the name given to the group of musicians who formed the backing band for Motown's legendary recording sessions of the 60s and 70s and the focus of the terrific documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Both were responsible for dozens of huge hit records backing up Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Blues Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations and on and on. Booker T. the MG's were one of the funkiest and grittiest soul bands going at the time laying grooves for "Try a Little Tenderness," "Mustang Sally" and "Soul Finger,"
The Funk Brothers created instantly recognizable beds of music for "Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "What's Goin' On." Combined, they were like the Beatles of soul and R&B music, yet, unfortunately, few actually know who they are and they went terribly unrewarded.
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