I was born in 1955 and my first memory of music was when I was 4 years old and my mom got a record player for her birthday. It was a small portable with a fake alligator skin cover and it played 33’s, 45’s and 78’s. My little sister Denise and I loved to play records at 78 rpm to get that Alvin and the Chipmunks thing going. Not too much has changed.
My mom, Dolores Zavala, also got the latest Bobby Darin record, which included “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” I still love Bobby’s versions of those classics. Up to that point I don’t think I’d ever seen her so excited. She loved Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett and we used to play the shit out it. I loved looking at the album covers and begging my dad to read the liner notes to me. I remember Darin’s album cover having a telegram from Sammy Davis, Jr. printed on the back and I thought that was so cool. Sammy was wishing him luck with some gig or the record and something about it all seemed magical. I’d even devour the inner sleeve that advertised other artist’s releases and I wanted to know all about them.
My dad, Roberto Zavala, was a blue-eyed Mexican devil, and he loved his Mariachi Records. He spoke fluent Spanish and new the words to every song. All us kids could sing “Guadalajara” by the time we were 6. We still have those records and I think I came up with this triplet riff on the harp that has become a signature of mine off those Mariachi records.
My older sister and brother, Karen and Gary were born in “48 and ’49 which is significant in the fact that in the sixties when they came of age I really benefited because they were buying all the hip music that was coming out which I couldn’t have afforded or probably would not even have thought about it. I was only 9 when the Beatles started the British Invasion and of course my older sister Karen loved them and I loved them too but the Stones were my boys. They were just so dirty looking and playing the blues with a rawness that struck a chord in me. I couldn’t get enough of that shit. I used to carry the Stones’ album “Beggars Banquet” to school and hook up at a buddy’s house before to have a couple of smokes and listen to “Parachute Woman” and “Sympathy For the Devil.” It kind of got us into the groove for the day, not to mention a joint or two.
My brother had all the latest and coolest stuff out from 1963 to 1973. We started with the Beach Boys, then Beatles and Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, The Band, Spencer Davis Group, Sly and the Family Stone, Traffic, Blind Faith, Cream, Steve Miller Band and Jimi Hendrix and the list goes on. But during all that time my brother Gary also had the baddest blues collection of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac Blues Band with Peter Green, Otis Spann, James Cotton and John Lee Hooker. We shared a room and had one of those old stereo record players which you can stack up to six records on it and we’d drift off to sleep listening to some very interesting mixes of music of that era for the night.
I started playing harmonica in the late sixties and it was at this time when I really got into reading the liner notes of albums and wanting to know who was playing which instrument in every band and on every session. I could tell you whether it was Brian Jones or Mick Jagger playing harp on a track or not. I could tell if it was Eric Clapton or George Harrison playing the different guitar tracks on the White Album or that Paul Butterfield’s drummer, Sam Lay used to be Muddy Waters’ drummer and was on at least another half dozen blues albums in our collection. Or that Boz Skaggs was in the band for Steve Miller’s first couple of albums. I became obsessed with having to know who was who on a record and starting buying records depending on who was in the rhythm section or anyone else on the recording date. If the great drummer Harvey Mason was playing on a record I’d buy it. The session players were stars to me. I remember staring at a black and white photo of sax great King Curtis sitting on a stool in the studio, holding his sax with the microphone in front of him, having a cigarette and staring off into space probably waiting to do the next take or listening back to one and I would dream of being that guy in the photo. Sometimes during a session that’s going well and I find myself in the exact position as King Curtis was in that photo, I smile to myself. I may not be rich financially but I’ve had my share of magic moments in the studio… and still do, thank God.
Then a cool thing started happening in the early seventies, just around the time I borrowed a tenor sax from a friend towards the end of my senior year in high school. Sidemen like saxophonist Tom Scott started to step out into the limelight having success selling records as leaders. Creed Taylor’s CTI Record label was one of my favorites, putting out classic albums from Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Grover Washington just to mention a few. These guys had been on countless classic recordings as sidemen and had released many records as leaders but now they were getting national recognition and sales. I ate it up and lived and breathed it.
So you ask “WTF is a sideman?” let alone a “glorified sideman?” A sideman could be the guitar player or piano player in a band with a legendary star such as Rod Stewart or Annie Lennox as the leader. They might even co-write songs with him or her and help put the live show together and make it work with arrangements and other input. Or be the drummer and the bass player that laid the groove down so solid no one even notices that they are so good. Or a sax and harmonica player that can take a good song, whether it be in concert or in the studio, and make it a great song and make a good concert an unforgettable experience. They travel and hang out with the leaders and seem like equal members of the band… but they are not. They live what seems like a glamorous existence from a far but in reality not a lot of people ever know who they are or how pivotal they can be to the artist in the studio or on a concert stage. They may make a decent salary and living but it is far from what the star is making and far from what the public might assume. Sometimes critics refer to them as studio hacks. I’ve never really understood this term.
Throughout the seventies I learned how to run a band and be a leader. I would front the band and sing lead on a few songs but more often then not I would hire a lead vocalist and work my magic in the shadows and then stepping out to solo when needed… which I thought should be every song to the consternation of some of my band mates, but what the hell… if it’s my band, I’m going to blow for a few choruses.
Just try and stop me.
© 2010 Zavala Songs, Inc.
WTF is a glorified sideman? Easy. The difference between a good song and a great song. That’s what.