7 Unsung Session Musicians Who Made History's Greatest Records

Ever wondered who played the iconic bass riff on Walk On The Wild Side or the epic sax solo on Baker Street? Here are the unsung stars of some great moments in music history.
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Ever wondered who played the iconic bass riff on Walk On The Wild Side or the epic sax solo on Baker Street? Here are the unsung stars of some great moments in music history.

Everyone knows the one about how Bob Holness played saxophone on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, only it wasn’t Bob Holness it was a little known session musician called Raphael Ravenscroft who pocketed a mere £27 for the pleasure.  The life of a session player can often seem a thankless task so in celebration of their work here’s a short list of iconic contributions from pop music’s lesser known giants…

Herbie Flowers – Bass on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side

Finding Lou Reed’s Transformer in my mum’s CD collection heralded two pivotal moments in my life before I’d even put it on. One being the realization that mum was a lot cooler than I gave her credit for and the other being the first time I couldn’t take my eyes off a man dressed as a woman.  60 minutes later and I hadn’t made it past track 5, thanks in no small part to Herbie Flowers’ iconic bass line.

Considered by many to be the greatest session bassist ever, Flowers was kicking it way before Q-Tip and co cottoned on to his subtle genius. It’s impossible to imagine Reed’s timeless account of decadent life and times of Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory Superstars’ without the beautiful simplicity of Flowers’ lolling bass line.  The perfect contribution from a session musician, he manages to steal the show whilst also remain entirely anonymous.  Also, in a vital lesson to session musicians everywhere, the wily Flowers reportedly played his parts twice on two different instruments knowing he would get paid double for his efforts.

From the first key, Hopkins creates a technicoloured musical dream coat for Jagger to strut around in without ever quite matching Hopkins’ saccharine beauty.

Nicky Hopkins – Piano on The Rolling Stones’ She’s A Rainbow.

The Stones have been blessed with many phenomenal contributions from session musicians over the years, from Ry Cooder’s coke and dagger fueled turn on Memo From Turner to Bobby Keys’ ubiquitous saxophone. Keys, a bullish Texan with an appetite and constitution matched only by the lickmaster himself, will always be Keith’s favourite, just a cursory glance at his autobiography Life will tell you that.  But for me, and as much out of sympathy for the fun he missed out on with Bobby and Keith as for his musical contributions, I’d say Nicky Hopkins left the most indelible mark.

One of the greatest unknowns in rock and roll, his CV reads like a bumper edition of Q magazine: The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles, Jeff beck… Without a doubt his greatest moment can be found drenched and sunburst all over the Stones’ hit She’s A Rainbow, the stand out track on the their otherwise questionable foray into psychedelia, ‘His Satanic Majesties Request’.  From the first key, Hopkins creates a technicoloured musical dream coat for Jagger to strut around in without ever quite matching Hopkins’ saccharine beauty.  There can’t be many people who have played on record alongside Old Big Lips and managed to outshine him so for that alone, as Andy Gray use to say on Sky Sports, take a bow son.

Spooner Oldham – Organ on Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Women.

Somewhere out there is the woman that Percy Sledge wrote When A Man Loves A Women for and it’s safe to say she didn’t forget him for it.  A mammoth of a love song sung in only the way Percy knew how, with pure sweat drenching, gut wrenching soul.  Yet we can thank a Mr. Spooner Oldham for laying the musical bed on which Percy could most freely express himself. An integral member of the FAME studios band, Spooner worked with a litany of artists from Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan and more recently Pixies front man Frank Black.  But it’s for creating one of the greatest and most understated intros to a song of all time that he’ll be most fondly remembered for.

Raymond Jackson – Bass on Mtume’s Juicy Fruit (sampled on Notorious B.I.G’s Juicy)

It feels a little unfair singling out Jackson for his contribution considering the nature of this ensemble piece but for me, his bass line is the key.  Ratcheted up to full power on Biggie’s masterpiece, producer Puff Daddy puts it centre stage with one deft touch of the recording desk, showcasing Raymond “Rayjac” Jackson’s silky smooth funkmaster credentials whilst simultaneously cementing Biggie’s place as one of the all time greats.

Robert “Waddy” Wachtel – Guitar on Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen

You’ve mastered your instrument with an equal mix of flair and robotic reliability, you’ve played with the greats, you’ve got ridiculous hair and a completely superfluous middle nickname, you’re ready to join the session musician Hall of Fame.  Robert “Waddy” Wachtel has it all in abundance.  With full flowing Anita Dobson perm, Wachtel lent his licks to many musical titans such as James Taylor and Keith Richards.

Drafted in to work on Stevie Nicks’ debut album Bella Donna, amidst rumours of an affair with Nicks the lucky boy, Wachtel found time to lay down the menacing pulsating riff on Nick’s most memorable track, Edge of Seventeen.  Originally written as an ode to the passing of Nicks’ uncle and John Lennon, Wachtel’s guitar gives it an uncompromising urgency helping to elevate it into one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

The ultimate session musician cliché, not only was Ravenscroft paid a pitiful sum for his epic solo, he also has to face the ignominy of having his most recognisable piece of work being credited to the late great Blockbuster host.

Scott Storch – Piano on Dr Dre’s Still Dre

Technically Storch isn’t a complete unknown, nor a mere session musician for that matter. An outrageously talented musician and producer in his own right, Storch could be considered responsible for one of the last great eras of hip hop and R & B.  Helping to usher in the slick, polished sound of the noughties, Storch is most notable for launching the careers of both 50 Cent and pop’s one true queen, Beyonce Knowles.

Alternatively he could be blamed for Hip Hop’s spiritual demise, spearheading the moment when it finally ate itself.  Leaving that debate aside, back in 1999 Storch was a relative unknown helping out on Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001. He makes the list for dropping the keys on Dre’s colossal comeback hit, Still Dre. I like to imagine the moment when Dre asked him if he’d come up with anything good yet, to which Scott replies, “um…yeah, how about this….”.

Raphael Ravenscroft – Saxophone on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street

So as we established, it wasn’t Bob Holness who played the saxophone on Baker Street.  That honour falls to Raphael Ravenscroft, a little known saxophonist from Dumfries. The ultimate session musician cliché, not only was Ravenscroft paid a pitiful sum for his epic solo, he also has to face the ignominy of having his most recognisable piece of work being credited to the late great Blockbuster host.

Famously Gerry Rafferty shunned the limelight and begrudged the stress inducing wealth and fame that Baker Street brought him, yet for many it was Ravenscroft’s solo that really made the song.  Not wanting to take anything away from the great songwriter, I can only assume that Raphael would gladly have offered to relieve him of some of that strain…

Ravenscroft went on to work with many other artists from ABBA to Marvin Gaye to Pink Flloyd and is still playing frequently today, most recently with the Welsh popstress, “would you or wouldn’t you”, Duffy.