As Ralph explains, studio work requires very creative and versatile musicians, and if you're late, you'd better have a good excuse (like Ralph's puppy story). Since their work was anonymous by design, you don't read much about the life of these studio pros, but Ralph was kind enough to share his story, explaining what it was like playing on a Frank Sinatra date, how he helped turn "Happy Together" into a hit, and what happened during a typical session.
Ralph Casale: We never had a moniker like "The Nashville A Team." There was a group of musicians made up of a few drummers, bassists, keyboardists and guitarists that were on first call for Top 40 records. They built a reputation in the business as individual musicians - not as part of a group. Their reputation was built primarily because of their expertise and their association with the current hit records.
Sometimes it seemed as though we were part of the same few bands because when recording an album you might find a drummer from this group and the next day another drummer from the same group. For example, The Archies album was a studio band comprised of musicians from this group. The Monkees were players from this group. The Four Seasons, The Happenings, The Toys, Lou Christie, Jay and the Americans, Dion's Abraham, Martin and John album all were musicians from this group.
Songfacts: How did you become a studio musician?
Ralph: I was raised in Newark, New Jersey and started playing guitar when I was 11 years old. My older brother played the guitar and sang with a country band. When he noticed my interest in music he started teaching me some chords. I then started a band with my friends and began rehearsing and recording on my brother's recording machine. After a year or two I joined a country band and started working at different functions. Eventually I began working in nightclubs.
There were many aspiring singers, entertainers and musicians in Newark. Many of us would congregate at a diner after we finished working in the local clubs and talk about music for hours. I studied guitar privately with a few professional guitarists in New York City and began meeting more aspiring musicians. At about the age of 17 I joined a band along with a sax player named Bill Ramal. Bill was breaking into the rock n' roll recording scene. He played sax on those classic Dion and the Belmonts hits and eventually became a very busy arranger and producer. He would call me occasionally to do demos for different groups. That was my introduction to the recording studio.
At 19 I began touring with the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Ray McKinley. The band did so many one-night engagements that most of the time I didn't know which state I was in. Between engagements I would go back to Newark where my family worked in their family-owned bakery business. I would usually get a gig in a small club until something else came along. I toured with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and his small jazz group. We performed at Disneyland in California for a month or so and did several concerts with the small group in Washington D.C., Newark and the new Lincoln Center in New York City. I toured Europe with Paul Anka and a few other musicians and a German orchestra. Touring with Paul gave me insight as to what it was like being a rock star. I never saw so many screaming kids in one place.
When I returned home I happened to meet another aspiring singer from Newark who I knew from the Newark clubs. At the time he was working with a group called the Four Lovers. His name was Frankie Valli. Frankie told me that he was recording with a producer in New York and asked me if I would like to do some record dates. I said "sure, let me know."
Not long after, I heard a recording of "Sherry" on the radio. It hit the charts faster than anyone could imagine. Then "Big Girls Don't Cry" hit the charts. I met Frankie again in one of the clubs and he again asked me if I wanted to do some studio work and I again said I would be interested. He also mentioned that he was using Charlie Calello as his arranger. Charlie was another aspiring musician from Newark. Soon after, Charlie called me to do a Four Seasons recording date.One of the songs on that date was "Dawn." That date made me realize how different the current recording scene was compared to playing live. I had no idea what the other three guitarists were playing. This recording process was foreign to me. I was used to playing one guitar for years and these guitarists had many different guitars. The different guitars made it possible to create the sounds needed for the type of music they were playing. I noticed the engineer struggling trying to equalize the sound coming out of my guitar. Good thing everyone else knew what they were doing because I certainly didn't. I realized then that I had a lot to learn about the recording process.
I began listening to the Top 40 hits and learned current guitar styles. At first I began with a few dates each week and eventually started getting called by other producers, arrangers and songwriters. I then got to the point where I had to turn down many recordings dates each week because of my busy schedule. This continued for several years.
Songfacts: What was one of your most memorable recording sessions?
Regent Sound was an excellent studio so the demo sounded like a finished product. I later told everybody, "I just heard a hit record." No one really knows for sure if a song is going to be a hit but if you hear recordings on a daily basis you sometimes can sense a hit record. I thought the writers were going to be the artists. Apparently they had The Turtles in mind. The Turtles added their sound to the arrangement and the rest is history.
There was another memorable session but memorable for a different reason. There are times when a contractor books a musician for a specific reason. Other times they book you because you are just one of the top guys on the list. I didn't realize that on this one particular date they wanted me for a certain style. I called the contractor two hours before the date to explain that I had a problem and could he get someone else for the date. He said, "no" emphatically. "You have to do it." He asked me what the problem was. I said that my dog was having puppies and I'm not sure when she was going to be done.
At the time she was having her sixth pup. He said, "Your dog is having puppies?," shocked that I seemed to think this was a good reason to miss a session. I said, "alright, I'm coming." I really felt terrible about the predicament I found myself in. I waited a while, and on her ninth pup she finally stopped. At this point it was an hour before the date. The studio was way downtown and I was a little less than an hour from the George Washington Bridge.
By the time I got to the date I must have been one hour late. Much to my surprise, there were about 40 musicians on the date, waiting on me. Jack Jones was the artist. Apparently they used the time to work on the drum sound and probably some other sound checks. As soon as I sat down they gave me an idea of what they wanted and started recording. They wanted an improvised acoustic 12-string guitar solo. I thought, "If I come up with something great they just might forget what I put them through."
Usually if everything ends well no one gets uptight except the contractor, especially when he has to call you again for another recording date and is now wondering if you will show up on time. I did come up with something great. At least I thought so. I'm going to look for that album.
Songfacts: You came up with a key part of the "Happy Together" track, but didn't receive a composer credit. Can you explain how that works?
Ralph: Musicians don't get writing credits for helping a writer get a hit record even if he or she contributes a key part to the recording. Session musicians became members of Local 802 Musicians' Union. The union had a scale for record dates, commercials and movies. Unless you negotiated something other than that with the producer you just received the scale amount. There are royalties given for records, residuals for commercials and a payment fund for movies. I don't know how they calculate the amounts we receive.
Songfacts: During a session, were you usually asked to play the same thing over and over, or to mix it up?
Ralph: Sometimes you were asked to play the same thing over and over, sometimes you had options and other times you had a very large measure of freedom. It isn't easy to play the same thing over and over without becoming bored.
One time we did a demo for Neil Sedaka. He was obviously looking for something because we played this one song many times. A few takes later I expressed that I didn't think the song could get any better. Telling him that was a mistake on my part because he got annoyed and told me that I shouldn't be so negative. I proceeded to do what he suggested and played it several times more. I do believe he was satisfied with the results.
Songfacts: Please describe the sessions for "Lightnin' Strikes."
After recording it and listening to the entire song I realized why he included my solo. It actually sounded like thunder and fit in nicely with the entire recording. That's how the solo in "Lightnin' Strikes" was born!
Songfacts: Janis Ian told us that the breakthrough in the "Society's Child" sessions came when the bass player stopped it down and had everyone think about the song's meaning. Please tell us about some times when you or another player were able to change the course of a session.
Ralph: I'm glad the bass player did that. I love that recording. Musicians don't usually direct other musicians. The conductor/leader usually gives the directions. I don't remember changing the course of many sessions, but the "Happy Together" session is an example of one I did change the direction of.
Songfacts: We've also heard about musicians being fired in the middle of sessions. What have you seen of this?
Ralph: I have never experienced that happening. A lot of money is invested in recordings. Producers and arrangers are usually familiar with the players they hire. They usually know the type of player they need for a particular date.
There was a time when a producer decided to overdub another drummer and a bass player. I don't know what his reasoning was but the song didn't sound better, just different. I also remember another time when an arranger-producer used a certain musician on many dates but he wasn't getting what he wanted from the musician this time. He re-recorded the song with another musician. In both cases the producer or arranger probably changed his mind as to the direction he wanted for the song.
Session musicians during this time were good sight readers. They were able to fit into many musical situations, they were extremely creative and extremely cooperative. I've heard some of these musicians play some magical things. When you have a musician of that caliber you don't fire them. Musicians play a big part in making hit records.
Songfacts: Please tell us about recording the Simon & Garfunkel songs "I Am A Rock" and "Homeward Bound."
Ralph: The band was booked from 7:00 p.m. into the wee hours of the morning. "The Sound of Silence" was a hit. I was not a part of that song but I was familiar with it. I was given a lead sheet for "I Am A Rock" with just chords and asked to play the electric 12-string guitar. The producer wanted a sound similar to the Byrds. It was important that session players became familiar with the current hits because many times producers describe the style they want by referring to well-known groups. Paul Simon sang the figure he wanted me to play between verses and asked me to play it in thirds. The rest was left to me. I don't remember how many songs were recorded that night. "Homeward Bound" was on that same date.
Songfacts: Why didn't Paul Simon play guitar on those songs?
Ralph: Paul Simon did play guitar on those songs. He played the acoustic guitar on "I Am A Rock" and "Homeward Bound." He has a great acoustic guitar sound and plays some interesting figures.
Songfacts: What was it like doing a Frank Sinatra session?
Ralph: Sinatra is a pioneer when it comes to singing and phrasing classic standards. Sometimes big stars like to control recording dates by having their hands in every part of the production. Sinatra used the best people and allowed them to do what they do best. His humility impressed me.
The songs on this date were "Cycles" and "My Way Of Life," arranged by Don Costa. I remember being careful not to stare at Sinatra since I was directly in front of him. I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable and affect the date in a negative way. I'm glad I had that insight because a few years later Glen Campbell did an interview on television and talked about playing guitar on a Sinatra date. Before Glen got hit recordings as a singer he played guitar on sessions. He said that he was in awe and kept staring at Sinatra while they were doing the recording. Glen said that Sinatra approached him and asked him to stop staring.
Songfacts: What was a typical session like in the '60s? We're wondering how long you were there, how many people were in the room, who was in charge and how the tracks were recorded?
Ralph: The typical session for singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Steve Lawrence, Shirley Bassey, Jack Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., Perry Como, Barbra Streisand usually had 30 or 40 musicians on it including an arranger, producer and sound engineer. They would do a sound check, run down the song once or twice, make the necessary changes and then start recording. Sometimes one take was all they needed. Sometimes two or three takes.
They tried to get four songs recorded within a three-hour date. The rock bands would focus on the rhythm section first and then overdub horns or strings or other instruments. Sometimes they would spend a lot of time on the drum sound. There were times when a few of us would play cards while they were overdubbing instruments. At this time studios were using 8-track recording machines. Many times while bouncing from one track to another they would lose some instruments. I remember when Bob Crewe was recording the Bob Crewe Generation's "Music To Watch Girls By." They lost the three guitar parts and realized it after the other two guitarists left the studio. The problem with that which no one seemed to care about was that each guitar had a different sound. I had only one guitar with me so I overdubbed the three different parts with the same guitar.
The arrangement was really good, and the song was great. A different arrangement of the song had been played many times as a Diet Pepsi commercial. I also played on the commercial for the writer Sid Ramin.
Commercials were sometimes recorded in one hour or less. There was a producer that didn't seem to want to spend much time on the music tracks. One time I was 10 minutes late on a commercial. When I entered the room I noticed the other guitarist smiling. I thought nothing of it. It was a few moments before I realized that instead of taking his guitar out of the case, he was putting it back in. His reply to my surprised "What's going on?" was, "We just finished."
Songfacts: As technology evolved, how did that affect your job?
Ralph: Drum machines must have affected drummers. Synthesizers affected the string sections. During a period of time synthesizers were being used for playing bass parts. There are always changes in the music business. Guitarists were probably affected the least.
Songfacts: Did you ever want to be in a band and perform live?
Ralph: I performed live many times and enjoyed the excitement very much. Like I mentioned earlier, I toured with the Glenn Miller Band directed by Ray McKinley. We worked at the Flamingo in Las Vegas and did a 13-week variety show for CBS. I toured with the Benny Goodman Band and small jazz group. We performed at Disneyland in California and did concerts with the small group in Washington D.C., Newark and Lincoln Center in New York City. I toured Europe with Paul Anka and several musicians. I toured with the Village Stompers - they had a hit "Washington Square" during the folk era. We did the Hootenanny television show and performed at Basin Street East in New York City.
I realized a long time ago that I didn't want to spend my life on the road playing the same hit songs every night. It was much more fulfilling for me to be part of the creative process in the studio.
Songfacts: What did you get paid for your work, and did you get any kind of bonus if a song became a hit?
Ralph: The Musicians Union had a scale for recordings, commercials and movies, TV series, etc. You're not paid extra for a hit record. In the '60s the scale for a 3-hour recording session was about $60. Overtime was more. When you decide to collect a pension they figure out the amount of dates you did and from that they calculate the amount you receive as a pension.
TV commercials were approximately $40 for an hour but the residuals for that one hour could amount to $2,000 more or less for that year. Movies were about the same amount but you receive an amount every time it's played. At that time the average house in the suburbs cost $35,000. A new Toyota cost $2,100, about what you could make in a year from the residuals from one commercial recording.
Songfacts: What are some of the creative ways you've seen producers try to coax great performances out of musicians?
Ralph: One of the most effective ways of getting the best out anyone is to compliment them when they perform well. Sometimes the business is so high pressured for all involved that there's no time to coax a musician. Session players had to perform well because that's how they get called back again.
The dictionary definition of the word chick is "a small chicken or a slang expression for a girl." Musicians used that word because when you pronounce the word "chick," with a heavy accent, it describes the sound produced when a guitarist strikes the first three strings of an electric guitar with a plectrum (pick) and the left hand stops the strings from resonating. You can also produce both the "chicking" sound and a resonating sound at the same time. The rhythm pattern can be quarter notes, eighth notes or any pattern desired. The pattern used often was quarter notes on the second and forth beat of the measure.
On "A Lover's Concerto" one guitarist played quarter notes on the second and fourth beat with one sound and the other played on all four beats with another sound.
Ralph: Producer/Arranger Charlie Calello had his arrangement laid out. Both guitars played "chicks." Chicks were played on many records and were very effective in the '60s. On this record Charlie wanted one guitar playing on two and four and the other playing on all four beats. The strings are struck in such a way that a chord sound and a chicking sound is produced. You can hear that effect on "Lover's Concerto."
Charlie did a great job on that record. For me it was pretty much what we call "straight ahead." It was clever of the writers Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer combining their lyrics with a well-known classical piece.
Songfacts: Were you known for a specific style of playing?
Ralph: I think I was known for being able to play different styles. I felt that achieving success in the studios was being able to play many different styles. If a style was popular I would become familiar with it. I became familiar with different styles when I was very young by listening to all guitarists.
Songfacts: What gear did you have to bring to sessions?
Ralph: The contractor would specify the guitars necessary for the date. Sometimes the date required one guitar, other times perhaps two or three. I had a few different electric guitars. One electric guitar had a fuzz box, a wah-wah and a tremolo built in. I had an electric 12-string, two acoustic 12-string guitars, a bass guitar, a 6-string F hole guitar, one classical guitar, two 6-string round hole guitars, a 6-string bass guitar and an electric sitar.
We did not bring amplifiers to sessions, because they were already set up. All of the studio guitarists in New York were part of the Manhattan Guitar Club, which decided collectively what gear was needed, and we each contributed an equal amount to the purchase of two amplifiers for each major studio. This way, we didn't have to worry about lugging heavy amps along with our guitars. Ampegs were the popular studio guitar amps at the time, so after a vote, those are the ones the Manhattan Guitar Club decided to purchase.
Songfacts: Are there any songs you played on that surprised you when they became hits?
Songfacts: Please tell us about your sessions with the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli.
Ralph: Bob Crewe produced the Four Seasons. I think everyone learned quite a bit by watching his creative process. He had a lot of energy and never stopped coming up with new ideas. He inspired everyone.
It was fun being on the dates with the Four Seasons because we knew each other personally. I don't remember all the songs I did with them but some were "Dawn," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Let's Hang On," "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." They are also some of my favorite recordings.
Songfacts: On what songs can we hear your best work, and can you please tell us how you did it?
Ralph: I love to improvise guitar solos. Most of the time I'm restricted, having to conform to an arrangement.
I enjoyed doing the series NYPD. We were asked to create different moods by improvising solos. I don't know how I would ever hear those tracks again. I remember being asked to improvise a solo by watching a chase scene in the movie Midnight Cowboy. That was exciting. I don't know if they ever used it. It was something they were experimenting with.
I think my best work was done playing live in small clubs or albums that didn't get on the charts. I enjoyed doing King Richard's Fleugel Knights "Something Super." That was a challenge. "Kites Are Fun" by The Free Design was interesting. I played well on Len Novy's "No Explanation." Laura Nyro's Thirteenth Confessions was a great album. Many of the arrangements that were conceived on her dates were used by other groups and became Top 40 hits. For example, The 5th Dimension's "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues," Three Dog Night's "Eli's Comin'," and Blood Sweat & Tears' "And When I Die."
October 19, 2011.
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