Music to My Ears

Leland Sklar: The Bearded One

Issue 114

In the 1970s I was in a record shop in Hartford, Connecticut. I was a gigging (read, broke) musician. The great thing about record shops was you could go in, request they play something, and listen for free. They had to have an open copy on hand or they wouldn’t do it, but quite often they would have a copy they could play. Hanging out in record shops was second only to haunting guitar stores.

On this day a song started playing on the store system that blew my mind. Records were (and are) expensive so I never bought a record I knew nothing about or hadn’t heard. This track was so amazing I had to ask the store guy who he was playing. I bought the record right there without hearing another song on it.

The album was Billy Cobham’s 1973 debut solo release Spectrum and the song playing was “Quadrant 4.”

 

Playing bass on that cut was James Taylor’s bass player, Leland Sklar.

Let me tell you how Sklar got there and how quickly.

In 1969 Sklar was playing electric bass with a band called Wolfgang while attending California State University, Northridge studying something like industrial drawing. Wolfgang’s management was called Shady Management which Sklar himself affirmed was appropriate. They got a new manager and his name was Bill Graham. Yeah. That Bill Graham. It turns out Graham’s real first name was Wolfgang and Sklar attested there is no better way to suck up to your manager than naming your band after him.

A guy like Bill Graham in those days could open a lot of doors for you. Wolfgang’s first live gig was to open for a band called Led Zeppelin in 1969. Yeah. Happens all the time.

Also, in 1969 a friend of the band named John Fischbach came to a Wolfgang rehearsal. Fischbach already had an established reputation as the co-founder of recording studio Crystal Sound in Hollywood. Crystal would go on to record albums by many top performers like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. At this rehearsal Fischbach brought along a friend who had just recorded an album at Abbey Road. That guy was James Taylor. Taylor’s first album had not gotten any traction yet but things were about to change.

By Sklar’s own account the band chatted with Taylor and James played some of his songs. The band and particularly Lee were blown away by Taylor’s songs and guitar playing. In 1969 this singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar style was not common. James Taylor’s music and success would help start a movement of folks like Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, Warren Zevon and the Eagles.

By late 1969 Sklar and Wolfgang had parted ways and Lee was in his fifth year at Cal State. JT got a gig at Hollywood’s Troubadour and remembered Sklar so Taylor called him to play bass. Sklar would relate that this first Troubadour gig was sparsely attended, and in fact commented, “ A car could have driven through the club and not hit anybody.”

In February 1970 James Taylor released Sweet Baby James and he exploded on the world. Taylor was hired for a Troubadour gig and again Taylor tapped Sklar for bass. This time Sklar said “the place was packed to the rafters.”

Taylor set up a tour and asked Lee to join him. Sklar left Cal State and never returned. James Taylor’s backup band was Sklar, Russ Kunkel on drums, Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar on guitar and Carole King on piano.

In 1971 Carole King, with JT’s help, released Tapestry. Suddenly a member of Taylor’s backing band had the biggest record on the planet. Obviously, King would have to leave and pursue her own career. She was replaced by Craig Doerge and The Section was born. This line-up of Sklar, Kortchmar, Kunkel and Doerge, joined later by guitarist Waddy Wachtel, would tour behind Taylor for decades and become the house band for Asylum Records, where they appeared on enough albums to rival studio legends the Wrecking Crew and Motown’s Funk Brothers. As a band and as individuals these guys played with everybody in that era including Phil Collins, Jackson Browne, Zevon, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Randy Newman and Toto.

Give me a break.

Getting back to the timeline, in 1970 and 1971 Sklar recorded with and toured for James Taylor. In 1972 they opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra (there’s a weird line-up), where Sklar met Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer. In 1973 Sklar appeared as principal bassist on Cobham’s Spectrum with Jan Hammer on keys and a then-unknown Tommy Bolin (!!!) on guitar.

Three years from being in college Sklar was playing with some of the most significant artists of the decade.

Lee Sklar relates in interviews that he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, there was some luck involved. In that period during the late 1960s and early 1970s the music business saw an incredible explosion of opportunity. But being there at the time and becoming an iconic member takes more than luck. Gotta have the talent. So, let’s go back further and see where that may have come from.

Lee grew up in a household which had a baby grand piano. When he was five years old he remembers watching Liberace on the television with his parents. Lee dug the schtick but especially loved the piano playing. I couldn’t find much background on his family but the fact they had a baby grand and a TV in 1952 says something about their station. He started playing on that baby grand and mom and dad started him on lessons.

When he was seven years old little Lee played the Hollywood Bowl as the winner of a statewide competition in his age group. Uh huh.

By the time he reached 12 years of age Sklar relates he was burned out. He had a piano teacher who was living vicariously through him and Leland was doing recitals and competitions at a level and pace that could warp ambition into dread.

I love this story: when Sklar went to junior high he walked into the first band tryout, confident that “here is your new piano player.” The band teacher, a man named Ted Lynn who should get at least an honorable mention somewhere, said he had lots of piano players, but he needed someone on bass. So, Ted brought out an old beat up blonde Kay stand-up.

Sklar put that box against his body and plucked one note. He felt that deep vibration go through his torso and said “sold.” Thank you, Mr. Lynn.

Lee played the stand-up bass for a number of years, then the times dictated he pick up the electric.  Now dig. In the late sixties here was a cat who read bass and treble clef fluently. He adored the bass, played both electric and stand-up, loved a wide repertoire of music and was a renowned workaholic.  That’s a potent combination.

Sklar immediately became a coveted session man. During his career he has not only performed for a widely diverse group of the greatest artists in the business, but did television series themes, commercial jingles and movies.

Here’s another great story. This talented wildman has had the good fortune, I think I can safely say, to play with everybody. In an interview Sklar talked about being in studio with the great Tommy Tedesco, famously, guitarist for the Wrecking Crew. I love these stories Sklar tells because he is amazed at the fact he’s in the studio playing with incredible cats like Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine without realizing he’s a cat himself.

These guys are in studio doing something for somebody. Out on the floor the musicians were in those cubicle-type enclosures for sound separation that go up to about their necks. The producer is up in the booth but all he can see are the players’ heads. Sklar is right next to Tedesco’s cube.

The producer comes on the horn and says, “Tommy. We need something different here. Can you do some mandolin?”

Lee relates that Tedesco reaches down as if to pick up a mandolin, then plays the same part on his guitar.

Producer: “No no that’s not it. How about a lute?” Really. Like guys come to a studio gig with a freakin’ lute.

Tedesco reaches down as if to pick up a lute and plays the same part on the guitar.

Producer: “That’s it!”

Sklar was impressed and schooled. He installed a switch on his bass, not wired to anything, that he called the “producer switch.” When asked for a change he made sure the producer sees him use the switch and it works every time. Producers have become more sophisticated but are still…well, producers. Sklar’s bass that he uses in studio now has a 6-position producer switch. Yep, not wired. Gotta keep a step ahead.

Here’s a little comment on his playing. Sklar is a master at chord framing. Sklar’s background in theory made him especially versed at using the bass as another part of the chord being played on the lead instrument, not just sticking with the root. Certainly, his ability to interpret chording and enhance chords comes from his piano background. What I learned from Sklar early on was listening to the song then working the bottom end – the lower register that drives the song – while also framing the chords. The bass is a deceptively simple instrument. One can pick it up and play along quickly, but to play the bass well you need to love the instrument and understand its complexities. Without the bass, the drums are naked. Also, the way he plays whole notes can be an insight into the myriad ways to approach whole notes and how to hold that bottom.

Lee Sklar, by his account, has played on 2,600 albums over 50 years. Do the math. That, combined with a relentless touring schedule points to a man who never sleeps.

I want to stress how much of this material came from his interviews and especially his YouTube videos.  During the current pandemic this maniac has been doing daily videos on YouTube telling his stories.  Sklar’s wife says he is a blabbermouth and thank you Jesus. The sweet revelation from these videos was the discovery that Sklar is a humble nice guy with a very self-effacing sense of humor. I became addicted to watching whenever I could. His stage persona was one of such impending doom I was thrilled to discover the true personality of the guy.

Here’s an example:

 

He was asked in an interview if he had any regrets. He said his one regret was that he didn’t carry a camera more often and take pictures of all the great artists he worked with. Lee! It’s not too late! Get that camera and start!

He has become infamous by taking pictures of people flipping him the finger and this quirk has developed into a backhand trademark. He has thousands of pictures of ordinary and famous people giving him the fickle finger of fate. At a stadium concert he asked the audience to flip him the bird and he took a picture of 35,000 fans doing just that.

I will break from tradition and give a last video clip from the same album I referred to at the start. This is “Stratus” from that Cobham album and I include it for the bass whackos.  Play this repeating bass line and reach for the pain killers. Crazy.

This is how you hold the bottom kids. Dig on Tommy Bolin.

 

Shiver me timbers.

Lastly a plug. Recently Danny Kortchmar was signed to do a project for a Japanese production company, so he reformed The Section. They’re now calling themselves The Immediate Family and just released their first single. Friday, June 26 at 6:30 PST The Immediate Family is doing a free live free stream from the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. By the time this column goes live it will have happened, but you should be able to find it. Here is a taste of what you’ll hear.

 

 

 

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