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Session musicians, studio musicians, or backing musicians are musicians hired to perform in recording sessions or live performances. Session musicians are usually not permanent members of a musical ensemble or band. They work behind the scenes and rarely achieve individual fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders. However, top session musicians are well known within the music industry, and some have become publicly recognized, such as the Wrecking Crew, and The Funk Brothers who worked with Motown Records.
Many session musicians specialize in playing common instruments such as guitar, piano, bass, or drums. Others are specialists, and play brass, woodwinds, and strings. Many session musicians play multiple instruments, which lets them play in a wider range of musical situations, genres and styles. Examples of "doubling" include double bass and electric bass, acoustic guitar and mandolin, piano and accordion, and saxophone and other woodwind instruments.
Session musicians are used when musical skills are needed on a short-term basis. Typically session musicians are used by recording studios to provide backing tracks for other musicians for recording sessions and live performances; recording music for advertising, film, television, and theatre. In the 2000s, the terms "session musician" and "studio musician" are synonymous, though in past decades, "studio musician" meant a musician associated with a single record company, recording studio or entertainment agency.
During the 1950s and 1960s, session players were usually active in local recording scenes concentrated in places such as Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, Memphis, Detroit, and Muscle Shoals. Each local scene had its circle of "A-list" session musicians, such as The Nashville A-Team that played on numerous country and rock hits of the era, the two groups of musicians in Memphis, both the Memphis Boys and the musicians who backed Stax/Volt recordings, and the Funk Brothers in Detroit, who played on many Motown recordings.
At the time, multi-tracking equipment, though common, was less elaborate, and instrumental backing tracks were often recorded "hot" with an ensemble playing live in the studio. Musicians had to be available "on call" when producers needed a part to fill a last-minute time slot. In the 1960s, Los Angeles was considered the top recording destination in the United States — consequently studios were constantly booked around the clock, and session time was highly sought after and expensive. Songs had to be recorded quickly in the fewest possible takes. In this environment, Los Angeles producers and record executives had little patience for needless expense or wasted time and depended on the service of reliable standby musicians who could be counted on to record in a variety of styles with minimal practice or takes, and deliver hits on short order.
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- The Nashville A-Team (Nashville, 1950s–1960s)
- Studio musicians who recorded during the Nashville sound era. Their contributions began in the 1950s with artists such as Elvis Presley. The original A-Team includes bassist Bob Moore; guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton, and Harold Bradley; drummer Buddy Harman; pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus "Pig" Robbins; fiddler Tommy Jackson; steel guitarist Pete Drake; harmonicist Charlie McCoy; saxophonist Boots Randolph; and vocal groups The Jordanaires and The Anita Kerr Singers. Cramer, McCoy and Randolph, along with later A-Teamer and producer Chet Atkins, would later emerge as part of Hee Haw's Million Dollar Band in the 1980s.
- Booker T. & the M.G.'s (Memphis, 1960s–1970s)
- The house band at Stax records in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, playing behind Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and others. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote many of Redding's hits and the MGs produced albums and hit singles such as "Green Onions" in their own right while being the house band at Stax.
- The Wrecking Crew (Los Angeles, 1960s–1970s)
- Prolific, established studio musicians based in Los Angeles. They have recorded many songs and albums since the 1960s. The Ron Hicklin Singers (also billed as the Charles Fox Singers) was a vocal session group closely associated with the Wrecking Crew and appeared as backing vocalists on many of the Crew's recordings.
- The Funk Brothers (Detroit, 1960s–1970s)
- Session musicians who backed many Motown Records recordings from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, as well as a few non-Motown recordings, notably on Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."
- The Andantes (Detroit, 1960s)
- The Memphis Boys (Memphis, 1960s)
- The Section (Los Angeles, 1960s–1970s)
- A Los Angeles singer/songwriter scene associated with the Troubadour nightclub and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s to mid-1970s was supported by musicians Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar and Craig Doerge. This session combo, nicknamed "the Section" or "the Mafia", backed many musicians, among others: Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson and David Crosby.
- The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Memphis, 1960s)
- A group comprising Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson, also known as the Swampers, became known for the "Muscle Shoals Sound." Many of the recordings done in the Memphis area, which included Muscle Shoals, Alabama, used The Memphis Horns in their arrangements.
- MFSB (Philadelphia, 1970s)
- MFSB was a group of soul music studio musicians based in Philadelphia at the Sigma Sound Studios; they later went on to become a name-brand instrumental group, and their best known hit was "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," better known as the theme from Soul Train.
- The Hillside Singers (1970s)
- A vocal group commissioned to provide vocals for Mayoham Music, formed by husband and wife Al Ham and Mary Mayo (the latter of whom was also a member of the group). The group is best known for their jingles and television news themes. "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)," originally composed as a jingle for Coca-Cola, became a surprise hit and the source of the group's recording name, as the Coca-Cola commercial featured singers on a hillside. The New Seekers would have an even larger hit with the same song. Their best-known news theme was "Move Closer to Your World," associated with Capital Cities Communications' Action News local news format.
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- Savona, Anthony (2005). Console Confessions: The Great Music Producers in Their Own Words (First ed.). San Francisico, CA 94107: Backbeat Books. pp. 36–38. ISBN 978-0-87930-860-5.
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