The ‘Wrecking Crew’ Exclusive

Nov 3, 2008 7:36 PM, By Jon Leonoudakis



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What was the strangest or weirdest date?
Felix Slatkin… hottest violin player in LA. He had albums out featuring a string section. I’ll never forget, he died suddenly, the before the first date. (February 8, 1963, at age 47, of a heart attack). We were booked to record; we assumed the dates were canceled, they called and told us to show up anyway, said he would’ve wanted it. So here’s this beautiful string section playing with tears flying out of everybody’s eyes. Thinking that this was done with him gone. It was kind of a tough date not to remember.

What was the most memorable, or rewarding?
Recently I did a picture called The River (1984) with John Williams, and I had a lot of solo work, and it was rewarding because John loved it and the director (Mark Rydell), he came up, he loved my work and loved my work for years, and his son, who was also a guitar player, was on the date, and knew all about me. The whole date was filled with rewards both financially and ego-wise. Many times you do things you think were pretty good, and it doesn’t go over as well. I got applause from all the musicians after I did my solo, and there’s nothing like when your own peers acknowledge your work.

Which date was one you wish you’d never had to do?
I’ve never thought of it that way…even if I hated the date, it never meant anything to me.

What about one where things went wrong and there was a lot of tension?
Years ago, I did a date at for a picture at MGM …Dmitri Tiomkin was the leader and I had just got started in the business, and naturally it’s a world famous composer. And they had some (guitar) parts written. The only trouble was I had to rest for 2-3 minutes, and finally come in, and he was waving his hand conducting, and I didn’t know anything about that; I wasn’t used to a conductor. I did know that when he had his hand down and there was no music that I should’ve been playing. And he just started screaming at me, “Where are you, guitar! Why you no play?” I just started shaking. While I’m shaking, here’s 50-60 musicians turning around staring at you. Like this is the judge and jury. Fortunately, they didn’t know me at the time, I’d only been around a year or two. It was scary; my hands shook and they threw me out, it was over; saying, “Get out of here.” I’ve seen it happen to many musicians, where they can’t do the part, and they’re in trouble.

How do you come back from something like that?
When I have a bad experience, I turn it into a plus experience. I put the guitar in my hand and I start practicing. For instance, in 1953, I went to a jam session. I was playing jazz and I could tell the other musicians sure didn’t like what I did. I got the cold shoulder. So I went home and I practiced 10 hours a day. About 6-7 months later, I went back there and they didn’t remember me as the same man. When those guys heard me, they welcomed me with open arms, saying, “Gee, can you come every Monday?”

Which composer gives you the most trouble in terms of difficult parts to play—every time they call you, you know you’ve got a challenge ahead of you?
I’d have to say John Williams…he’s going to ask more of me. I just know when I walk into a John Williams date I’m not just gonna relax and have a cup of coffee. I know I have to check the music because it’s really going to be something, because John doesn’t play down any chair. And that works not just for me, but for everyone in the band. When you work for him, you’re gonna be working. Same for Jerry Goldsmith. When they call you, there’s a reason for you being there. And they’re gonna bring you right up to their high standards. A guy like Mancini, whenever I work for Henry Mancini, it’s on a certain situation. …he might want a mandolin or want a guitar from Puerto Rico…when you go there, you know he’s not going to be playing any “Yankee Doodle” stuff.

And the first time you see the music is when you walk through the door?
Yeah. Maybe about 2-3 times in my life have I seen it before. They’ve asked [to give it to me ahead of time]; generally, I hate that. I don’t like it because I don’t get a good enough feeling, the it’s just too tough that way. I’d rather just do it on the part. It’s like running a race—anybody that’s run in the Olympics, they’ve never run as fast as he did in the Olympics. When that red light goes on, whether its running a race or playing guitar whatever it is, all the adrenaline goes through the body. Some guys are at their best then, some say they’re at their worst. I’m at my best with the pressure.

How do you deal with the various personalities at a session, from your fellow musicians to the composer?
It’s a little different for me, dealing with people. Because if you’ve seen a picture of me somewhere, I’ve been described as a bearded wrestler, a bartender, a bouncer. People already figure I’m mean. No matter if it’s a leader or a producer up there, they aren’t sure how I’m gonna react. I just have a mean look, so I don’t have the problems other people have.

What I mean is, what is your own personal approach to dealing with people when it can get tense in a studio and time is money?
I don’t bat an eye. I just do the best I can. If I’m the wrong guy for the job, we’re all stuck. If I’m the right guy, we all benefit by it. I’ve had problems with a few different leaders that I didn’t like because they were not nice. I won’t take any abuse. I’ve walked out on a couple of dates.

Was that in the past, or recently?
Recently, a guy gave me a hard time, he was obnoxious. And you can be obnoxious to the world, that’s OK, but he singled me out, and he was obnoxious, and I went to him, “you’ve got your chance, I’ll stay and do whatever you want me to do, or you can get someone else. But don’t do that again.” As it turned out he was fine the rest of the day. I’ve never worked for him since, but that’s OK.

I have one code of ethics I use in the studio. When I’m up there, I’m considered one of the top guitar players in the country, and I want the same respect as he, if he’s considered one of the top leaders. I don’t have this feeling because I’m a guitar player and he’s a leader, that he’s a sergeant and I’m a private. We’re both sergeants, we’re both generals, we’re both privates.

What part does creativity play in conjunction with the written music?
It plays a big part. I don’t think of it as written music—it’s written notes --you make music out of notes that are written. That’s the creativity. They put these notes on a piece of paper, and I’ve heard guys play that, exactly like that, as notes. When I see a bunch of notes, I try and make music happen. That’s my creativity. No matter what I do, I try and make music happen.

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