Session great Leland Sklar on playing with 10 music legends
We like to speak with the greats here at MusicRadar, which is why we sat down with bass great Leland Sklar, the LA session king who sports a seriously impressive beard and an even more eye-popping resume. Over the course of 40 years, he's performed on over 2,000 albums (including hundreds of film and TV projects) and probably fit in three or four more gigs in the time it took you to read this sentence.
The names on Sklar's CV are a veritable who's who in music, so we decided to ask him about 10 of the more legendary artists he's played with, many of whom he's forged decades-long associations with.
"That's the great thing about doing what I do," Sklar says. "You play on sessions, but they're really not jobs. You're hanging with your friends. And these really are some special people."
“I didn’t know anything about this guy Jackson Browne. When I got called to do the session, my assumption was that he was going to be black. I was doing a lot of sessions for black artists, and just by his name, that’s what I figured. I walked in and it was like, ‘Wow, this is a surprise!’
“He pulled out his guitar and started playing Doctor My Eyes, and I just thought, Oh man, this guy’s great! This was his first album, but already his songs were so exquisite. I loved the way he played and sang.
“We did it at Crystal Studios, and it was kind of the Section guys – Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, Danny Kortchmar and myself. I remember when we cut Doctor My Eyes, Russ did that originally with congas on the basic track and overdubbed drums.
“Jessie Ed Davis then showed up and did the guitar solo. It was basically him taking his guitar out of the case, listening to the track and noodling around to get an idea. When he was done, Jackson said, ‘Yes! That’s great.’ Jessie was so insanely good that his noodling was better than most guy’s soloing.”
David Crosby and Graham Nash
“I first time I met David, we were standing on the side of the stage at Devonshire Downs, which used to be a place in the San Fernando Valley, and we were watching Jimi Hendrix play.
“Relationships really come into play here. Through James and Jackson and Joni Mitchell, there was another aspect of the community, and Russ Kunkel and I were all friends with those guys, especially with David and Graham. I did a little work with Crosby, Still & Nash, and then with Neil Young, too, but most of my playing was with David and Graham. We’re all very good friends.
“One of the nicest things I really enjoyed was when Phil Collins and David Crosby hooked up and did Another Day In Paradise together. We did the Arsenio Hall show, the three of us. I’m such of fan of David, Graham – all of these guys. I sit there and go, ‘What am I doing here?’” [laughs]
“I adore Phil. He’s probably one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever worked with. His pop sensibility is so developed – there’s probably nobody on his level in that regard.
“He’s a voraciously hard worker, and also one of those guys who’s involved in everything. When we would be getting ready to tour, he’d be in rehearsal 18 hours a day dealing with the lights, the sound guys, just every aspect of the show.
“We met doing a Lee Ritenour album. Phil called me to do his first tour, but I had already committed to going on the road with James Taylor. I told him I’d love to do something with him some other time, and in 1984 he called me to do the No Jacket Required album, and then we toured all of ’85 on that.
“We don’t really talk about the role of bass and drums. He kind of just lets me do what I think is right. We record in parts a lot, though. On Another Day In Paradise, I was the first guy on that track. Everybody else came in after me.”
“The rarest of entities in this business. By the time I met up with her, she’d already lived five lifetimes. When you look at her body of work, even when she was a teenager, it’s staggering. Most people could have stopped at that point and been legends.
“She’s a really fine musician. You know, you get some of these people who kind of plunk around on the piano; they have talent, but it’s only on one level. Carole knows music theory, she can write lead sheets – her talent is very, very developed.
“She’s also just a nice person. She’s like the quintessential Jewish mother: she’ll take care of everybody at sessions, she’s concerned about everybody’s well-being, and she wants to know how everybody’s families are, all that stuff. A wonderful human being.”
“It’s funny: Don and I used to do a lot of sessions together. One day, we were doing an album for a guy named Rick Roberts, and Don came up to me and asked, ‘Do you think the Eagles is a stupid name for a band?’ [laughs] I said, ‘I thought The Beatles was a stupid name for a band.' But if the band’s great, who cares about the name?
“Musically, Don is a good, solid drummer to play with, and he’s certainly a fine writer and a great singer. But most of the time I spent with him, it was usually when he was drumming. We got on great. The best thing about playing with a drummer is when you don’t have to work at it – it all fits together. With Don, it always fit.”
Daryl Hall and John Oates
“I loved working with them. I got called to do the record which had Sara Smile and Rich Girl on it. I wasn’t that familiar with them at the time; I think they’d done a couple of albums before. We did the sessions at Larrabee Studios, and it was another one of those times where I walked in, heard them sing and went, ‘Oh, yeah!’
“I mean, Daryl is still one of the most ridiculous singers, and John complements him so well. They complement each other. I think we did Beauty On The Backstreet and one more album together. Those were good times.”
“Rod’s great. What a trip he is. I’m amazed how many records we did together. I think the first album I did with him was Atlantic Crossing, which was a real fun time.
“A few years ago, we did an album of ‘80s rock covers. We cut it at A&M Studios, which is now Henson Studios, and we had a blast. Rod did all live vocals. It was like being in a band with him – the energy was astounding.
“As everybody knows, Rod’s an iconic character. When I think back to his history and the stuff he’s done, I’m pretty blown away. But the cool thing about him is, he’s a great hang. Most of guys are just like that - they're really good people to hang with.”
“I love Clint. I just finished his new album about three weeks ago. We go way back together. He’s another one of those guys who really ‘gets’ what he does. He’s almost a Medici-type character in that he’ll be finishing the song and he’ll already be planning the video that he’s going to direct, then he'll be thinking of the lighting on tour. He’s so engaged in everything he does.
“A really talented guy, and a fantastic guitar player. We'll be talking and all of a sudden, he’ll start playing a James Taylor song, and the cool thing is, he’ll play it just like James.”
“There’s a book on Warren Zevon, and on the back I have a quote: ‘With Warren, they didn’t have to break the mold, they made him free hand.’ And it’s so true. He was a real character, somebody a crime novelist could have invented or something.
“He marched to his own drummer. Stylistically, the way he wrote lyrics and how he took what everybody else was doing and made it so different, it was really a unique gift of his. I was so brokenhearted when he passed.
“Warren was around during a real golden period. You had David and Graham and Linda, Jackson – it was a real core of unbelievable talents. And the cool thing was, it all took on the guise of a band, like a modern-day Wrecking Crew. It wasn’t just a bunch of hired guys and an artist. We were making records that we loved.”
“It’s almost hard to describe James Taylor. He’s one of the most gifted writers we’ve ever had. You put him up to anybody, and he stands right alongside them. He’s also one of the most underrated guitar players – an absolute monster. And, of course, there’s his voice. I remember Miles Davis said that James was one of the best white singers he’d ever heard. He blew Miles’ mind.
“In terms of living a life with somebody, I’ve probably spent more time with James than with anybody else. I helped him build his house, we lived in buses and hotels for decades - we have a very rich history together.
“I was thrilled a couple of years ago when we put together the Troubadour Reunion Tour with James and Carole King. It was very special to play with the old gang again. The music was, of course, out of this world.”