The Session Players

Digital killed the analog star. So what's next for Philly's musical workhorses?

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Aug. 11, 2009

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You know The Sound of Philadelphia when you hear it. Bright melodies ride riptide rhythms while fat, juicy horns punch through swirling satin strings and rumbling piano. Somebody already wrote, “It sounds like a long, sleek Cadillac with all the trimmings rolling down South Street in slow motion, everyone’s head bobbing in rhythm as it drives by.” Amen.

Of course, you can’t talk TSOP without talking Gamble & Huff and Bell, and rightfully so. Philadelphia International Records (PIR) was a national hit-making machine, and produced over 150 gold and platinum records by artists like the Jackson 5, the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass. 

But this isn’t a story about producers or the frontmen (or women) who normally get the gloss. This is a story about the unsung heroes of the record business, the workhorses who tighten, rave up and otherwise trick out countless records with no expectations of fame or glory. Instead of the glare of the stage spotlight, these virtuosos work anonymously in studios and basements. Sometimes, though never admitted above a whisper, they do it just for the credit line and once in a while just for the musical satisfaction. 

Session players. They’re the recording industry’s minutemen, waiting on the sidelines, ready to rock. They have to be supremely adaptable by trade and able to deliver on demand, whether it’s a homogenized, commercial riff fit for a beer commercial or an inspired, balls-out solo. Their expertise lies in listening to the bare bones of a song, slashing out the perfect guitar riff, bass-line or what-have-you that’ll bring those bones alive, maybe even make ’em dance—then laying it down perfectly.

“It’s one thing to be a great musician when you play live on stage but it’s different when you become a recording musician,” says famed PIR producer Kenny Gamble. 

Performing in concert, a musician needs to play a 20-year-old song like it’s the first time. Recording, the artist needs to play a brand-new part, maybe minutes old, and make it sound like they’ve been playing for 20 years.

TSOP is a product of the golden age of independent recording studios. Back then, there was enough session work at the indies—independent studios operating out of second-tier cities like Philly, Detroit and Memphis built in rebellion against the stiff corporate studios in N.Y.C. and L.A.—that local A-game session players became de facto studio house bands.

Studio house bands seared their indelible grooves into every record churned out of their respective studios. The Funk Brothers funkified Motown 
Records, Booker T. & the M.G.’s drove deep nasty grooves into the Memphis soul stew coming out of Stax, and in Philly, Mother Father Sister Brother (MFSB), a nebulous collective of session players that functioned as the house band at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios, stirred in that special sauce that gave TSOP its sleek-black-Caddy tang. 

“We couldn’t have done it without the musicians,” says Gamble. “It was the sound of Philadelphia. The musicians, the songs, the artists—everybody played a part, but the musicians, they worked .”

The physical shape of the recording rooms played a big part in the sound too. The 40-foot echo chamber in Sigma 
Sound is part of what gave TSOP recordings an aural atmosphere of being recorded inside a giant velvet hot air balloon.

“Studios had personalities,” recalls Joe Tarsia, owner of Sigma and principle engineer on countless TSOP records. “There was a time when I could tell you if it was a West Coast record or an East Coast record. In New York, I could tell you the studio.” 

Then digital killed the analog star. The old-guard music industry crumbled and the Internet brought major labels to their well-padded knees. Though most press coverage focuses on how going digital has robbed the suits of their pots of gold, the platform switch has also revolutionized the other end of the rainbow. With labels too broke to spend money on record production and the proliferation of affordable digital home recording equipment like Pro Tools, professional recording studios have shuttered one after the other in the last decade, even legendary emporiums like Sony Music Studios and the Hit Factory in Manhattan. Tarsia sold Sigma Sound in 2003. Meanwhile, almost any artist who so desires can build a passable home studio and record alone at home, assembling songs brick by digital brick. 

Where do these changes leave our humble servant, the session player? 

“In Philadelphia, more often than not what [session work] means is that you still get to go and play, but maybe at someone’s house. There’s not much of a difference between someone’s house and a studio anymore,” says Devin Greenwood, local producer and sometime session guy who’s played keys on Norah Jones and Amos Lee records. “But it still means that you play for a bit and leave with some money.” 

Some money. The general consensus on scratching out a living exclusively as a session player is that it was never easy, and it ain’t getting any easier. Older heads say, like the cost of studio time, overall the average pay has gone way down. In Philly, even barter is common—a few licks on your buddy’s record here for a studio hour there. House sessions generally don’t pay as much as old-school studio hours, if they pay at all. Most session players report gluing together a living with a creative combination of session work, gigging as sidemen, teaching and other musical odd jobs.

Now, with the studio system fragmented, the very concept of session work is being redefined. Remote session work—exchanging tracks online—brings new opportunity for the seasoned session player, especially for artists not living in Los Angeles or New York. Musicians like local horns arranger Jay Davidson now regularly play on tracks without meeting the other artists on the record. Producers email him an MP3, Davidson writes an arrangement, invites other horns session players over to his home studio to learn the part and lay it down, then he zips the file back.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Anonymous said... on Aug 12, 2009 at 10:49AM

“Ross is almost too good. Someone stop him”

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2. Tester 3 said... on Aug 12, 2009 at 04:21PM

“Test comment three.”

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3. athan said... on Aug 13, 2009 at 07:17AM

“Ross is Boss!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 13, 2009 at 11:19AM

“Interesting article - one could argue since the digital world and bandwidth has improved there should be more opportunities for session musicians as they can "record all over the world" from their basement. No more hopping on trains to go to a session in NYC, DC, Philly!”

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5. Carolyn said... on Aug 13, 2009 at 12:51PM

“when hearing Ross play you can feel his Spirit, he takes you on a Wonderful......... jouney............”

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6. Schmidty P said... on Aug 13, 2009 at 02:36PM

“Chuck Treece is a legend and an icon.
He has so much passion and respect for creating music and how it influences us everyday. Your one of a kind Treece!! Rock On!!

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7. John James said... on Aug 13, 2009 at 09:37PM

“I'm designing software to provide a new income stream for online music and other digital creations. Instead of charging end users, let sponsors buy in bulk, and get recognition as they wish. So anyone in the world with a bank card could sponsor any amount of a particular song or video (for example), easily at any time -- and email their sponsorship with their message to whatever social networks they choose, letting people freely share that prepaid access through ordinary email. Google "RepliCounts" for details on this open-source design project.

I live in West Philly and could organize a monthly meeting if there is interest.”

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8. nik everett said... on Aug 14, 2009 at 09:54AM

“Nice article Tara”

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9. Tiranga said... on Aug 18, 2009 at 04:52AM

“It's Rocking!!!!!!!!!! Nice piece of information. Thanks for sharing.”

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10. dirtydirtbaby said... on Aug 30, 2009 at 05:08PM

“Chuck Treece is a bonafied legend...”


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