Many stories have been written about sidemen who became stars once they got their chance in the spotlight: Glen Campbell (the Wrecking Crew and the Beach Boys), Sheryl Crow (Michael Jackson), Luther Vandross (David Bowie), Steve Vai (Frank Zappa) and perhaps one of the most famous, Jimi Hendrix (the Isley Brothers) are just a few.
More unusual is the star who willingly takes a back seat to serve as a sideman for another band or artist. It’s one thing when stars join forces to become a supergroup, but the willingness to sublimate one’s ego to let someone else take the spotlight is an infrequent occurrence, especially for an entire tour. It involves learning someone else’s repertoire while you become just another member of the band, so a healthy team mentality is crucial for it to work. The motivations to step out of the limelight can vary widely, and here are a few examples of when it has worked successfully.
Johnny Winter With Muddy Waters
As the 1970s closed out the Woodstock Generation, music label consolidation left many legendary blues artists without record deals, including the iconic Muddy Waters, who found himself without a label when Chess Records was sold in 1969. Fresh from rehab with his hit album Still Alive and Well, albino guitar-slinger Johnny Winter proved to still be a major rock star on Columbia, who gave Winter his own record label, Blue Sky. Muddy Waters was the first artist signed to Blue Sky, and Winter was determined to produce a Muddy Waters record that did justice to his musical legacy, after failed experiments with psychedelic blues and other fads.
Hard Again (1977) was a sterling success, and Winter, who had often spoken of returning more to his blues roots, couldn’t have been happier. He insisted on joining Waters’ band on tour to promote Hard Again, which won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album. Playing with his blues idol prompted Winter’s own Nothin’ But the Blues album, backed by Waters’ band, and Winter went on to produce the follow up Waters albums, I’m Ready and King Bee before Waters’ declining health and passing in 1983.
Eric Clapton and Roger Waters, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, George Harrison, and the Plastic Ono Band
Eric Clapton’s role as a sideman guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers cemented his position as the first British blues/rock guitar virtuoso, which he parlayed into becoming a megastar with Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominos, and then as a solo artist. However, Eric Clapton has repeatedly let his love for the music guide his path, and has stepped back into the sideman role on a number of occasions, both in the studio, with his iconic guest appearance on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on many other recordings. He’s guested on stage with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, George Harrison, and Roger Waters, among others. He has also been generous in using his fame to help fellow artists like Steve Winwood, J.J. Cale, B.B. King, Robert Cray, and more recently, Van Morrison.
Nils Lofgren with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
When he was still in his teens, Washington DC-bred Nils Lofgren befriended Neil Young and wound up contributing guitar and piano to Young’s landmark album, After the Gold Rush (1970). Although he had minor success with Grin and went on to develop a cult following as a solo artist, Lofgren subsequently joined Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse, and would play again with Young throughout his career, appearing on Tonight’s The Night (1975), Trans (1982), Colorado (2019), and their accompanying tours.
However, apart from his ongoing solo career, Lofgren’s highest public profile has been as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1984. Originally joining to fill in for Steve Van Zandt, who had started his own group Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Lofgren’s superb musicianship and amiability has led him to still remain an active member, even with Van Zandt’s return to the band, and he will be seen on Springsteen’s 2023 tour.
Keith Richards With Chuck Berry
Although the Rolling Stones have long been called “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” Keith Richards has always given credit to Chuck Berry as his musical inspiration. In celebration of Berry’s 60th birthday, Richards took the lead in organizing a tribute concert for him in St. Louis, with Berry to be backed by a top-notch band featuring Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, and others. Additionally, he enlisted director Taylor Hackford to document the event, which became the feature film, Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll (1987). Humbled to be in the presence of his childhood music hero, Richards endured weeks of verbal abuse and was even decked by one of Berry’s spontaneous punches – yet, he charged on to make sure Berry would be presented at his absolute best for the event, which was truly a labor of love.
Peter Frampton With David Bowie
Frampton Comes Alive! (1976) was a monster record that is still one of the top-five best-selling live albums of all time. The following decade featured a number of personal and career challenges for Peter Frampton: divorce, a debilitating auto accident that led to pain killer dependency and a bout of addiction, the Sgt. Pepper ‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie debacle, several underwhelming records, a loss of artistic credibility, and what was probably the biggest blow – a plane crash that killed four people and resulted in the loss of all of his equipment, including his prized 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, which had been his mainstay from his days with Humble Pie through his success with Frampton Comes Alive!
Frampton’s father was an art teacher at Bromley Technical High School in England. One of his students was the talented David Jones, who would make his mark in the music world a few years later as superstar David Bowie. Teenaged Peter Frampton befriended Bowie over their mutual love of music at the time, and the two remained friends over the next few decades. When Bowie was planning his Never Let Me Down album, he called his old friend to contribute guitar to the recording, which led to Frampton taking the lead guitar chair for the subsequent 1987 Glass Spider Tour, a move that Frampton has credited on numerous occasions with reviving his career. By focusing solely on guitar and not being in the spotlight, he impressed critics and regained his artistic credibility as a guitarist, giving him the confidence to resume his career, including several instrumental releases throughout the next 30 years.
Nuno Bettencourt With Rihanna
A versatile guitarist with additional songwriting and vocal skills, Nuno Bettencourt’s fleet-fingered shred solos and soulful acoustic guitar picking propelled Extreme to MTV stardom, especially with the best-selling ballad, “More Than Words.” Nevertheless, Bettencourt has always been open to collaboration and has enjoyed a diverse history of session work, with appearances on records by Janet Jackson (“Black Cat”), Dweezil Zappa (Confessions), Robert Palmer (Honey), and songs by Toni Braxton, Chad Kroeger, Julian Lennon and Steve Perry. However, his highest-profile sideman role has been as guitar foil to R&B megastar Rihanna. Beginning in 2009 on The Last Girl On Earth tour, Bettencourt has been the lead guitarist on every Rihanna tour since.
Vince Gill With Eagles
With an impeccable tenor, hit songwriting skills and guitar chops that rival Nashville’s top session players, Vince Gill is a triple-threat country music talent with few peers. Starting his career with Pure Prairie League, he was later a member of Rodney Crowell’s Cherry Bombs and an honorary member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, putting Gill on a par with such guitar heroes as James Burton and Albert Lee. Gill’s guitar prowess was held in such high regard that he was once invited by Mark Knopfler to join Dire Straits.
With scores of Grammy and Country Music Award wins and a catalog festooned with platinum and gold records, his solo career has been firmly established for decades.
When Glenn Frey died, Eagles were at risk of breaking up, since Don Henley was the sole original member left. However, Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit decided to pay tribute to Frey by enlisting his son, Deacon, on their 2017 tour. Along with session ace Steuart Smith filling in for the fired Don Felder, Henley called upon his old friend Vince Gill to supply his stellar vocals and formidable guitar skills to another massive Eagles tour, and Gill agreed, both for the challenge of playing such classic rock music with old friends, as well as to honor Frey.
Gill apparently enjoyed the experience, and the tour was such a success that he has joined them in 2018 and 2019 as well, although he has not contributed to any Eagles recordings to date.
John Mayer With Dead & Company
With his boyish good looks and a mellow voice that crooned hit ballads like “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Daughters,” John Mayer’s string of famous romances, which have included Taylor Swift and Jennifer Aniston, overshadowed the fact that underneath the sensitive singer-songwriter Lothario lurked a guitar hero with Stevie Ray Vaughan fever trying to break out. Adding more electric numbers to his concerts that highlighted his virtuoso abilities, and playing with stellar musicians like Pino Palladino, raised eyebrows and found Mayer newfound musical respect.
In 2015, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir befriended Mayer, who had become a Deadhead in 2011, and the two began playing music together. This led to an invitation from Weir to join Dead & Company on tour, essentially to fill the lead guitar role of the late Jerry Garcia (see Jay Jay French’s concert review in this issue). Seven years later, Mayer still holds the lead guitar chair with the group and relishes the musical camaraderie and critical credibility that his Dead & Company affiliation has afforded him, while blazing new artistic ground on his solo albums.
Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
When it comes to the Beatles, boomer-aged musicians stand in awe, and there’s a deep respect among a sizable percentage of Gen-X and Millennials as well. Being invited to join Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band is akin to a badge of honor, and there is a very long list of musical stars who have vied for coveted inclusion in this exclusive club, which has included the likes of Todd Rundgren, Edgar Winter, Steve Lukather, Nils Lofgren, Jim Keltner, Joe Walsh, Sheila E., John Entwistle, Dr. John, Rick Derringer, Dave Edmunds, Peter Frampton, Greg Lake, Jack Bruce, and many others. When it comes to playing with Ringo, the honor of sharing the stage with the former Beatles drummer makes any solo star willing to step away from the limelight.
While there are certainly dozens of more examples that can be found in a wide range of other music genres as well as in rock, this list comprises a few of the more popular instances where ego took a step back to honor a larger musical vision and to create a special musical experience that was bigger than what could be achieved solo. Props to those who are willing to make the effort!
Header image: Vince Gill. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Derek Russell.