Whether referred to as sidemen, session musicians, or studio cats, even the best freelance instrumentalists in the music industry seldom receive the recognition they deserve.  Some are content to avoid the spotlight and parlay these opportunities into successful long-term careers.  Although countless many have toiled in relative anonymity at clubs and recording dates over the years, a select few achieve “musician’s musician” status.  Their names may remain unfamiliar to the general public, but artists of this variety have provided invaluable contributions to America’s musical heritage, ranging from signature solos on hit records to serving as cross-pollinators between other more famous performers.

One of the finest examples is guitarist Wally Richardson, whose impeccable chops made him one of New York’s most prominent sidemen during the 1950s and 1960s.  From a historical perspective, an overview of his career provides many fascinating details about a bygone era when the city was the undisputed entertainment capital of the world.  Moreover, Richardson’s narrative illustrates the artificiality of terms typically assigned to musicians assumed to operate exclusively within a particular stylistic bag, since his versatility allowed him to play alongside artists of various genres, including jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and blues.  Most importantly, his work demonstrates the significance of stressing compatibility over virtuosity, an essential skill for any successful studio musician.  In the guitarist’s own words, “That was my forte:  to know how to play the right beats, accompany the artists, and let the stars do what they have to do.”  Indeed, it was his ability to blend in with ensembles that made him so sought-after among arrangers and A&R men in the first place.

— Scott D. Wilkinson

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