Phil Spector, the musical legacy: Part three

The Kessels

Barney Kessel had produced albums on both Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. He would later play the Danelectro six string bass on Elvis Presley’s “Return To Sender.” Kessel added guitar for Brian Wilson to the “Pet Sounds” LP. Kessel, who previously gigged with Charlie Parker, appeared in the Oscar winning “Jammin’ The Blues” short film, and jammed earlier with Charlie Christian, discovered Ricky Nelson and cut him on “I’m Walkin'” Barney Kessel also recorded with Elvis Presley, including the “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack, and jammed with Buffalo Springfield, once at a San Francisco area music store opening, all of them in the key of E. And, Kessel was a “Down Beat” and “Playboy” magazine jazz guitar poll winner who actually took the time to appear on teenage Phil’s demos. Only in L.A.

In 1955, when Phil turned 15, and just after he had taken up the guitar, his mother and sister took him to see Ella Fitzgerald at an area nightclub, with Barney Kessel in the backing group. Later, in 1965, Spector was a guest with Fitzgerald on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” But in 1956, an angry young Phil had a letter published in “Down Beat” complaining that Kessel was not included in an article. Shortly afterwards, Spector’s sister Shirley tracked down Barney in a studio, who had seen the letter in “Down Beat,” and eventually the Spector family put the full court press on “BK” for career advice inside a booth at Dupars restaurant on Hollywood and Vine. Kessel once gave Phil guitar lessons in the ’50s and encouraged young Phillip to stop playing guitar, move away from jazz as an occupation, and go towards pop record production.

I don’t think “The Spector Three” knew the man they were pumping for information got an F in music in his high school class in Oklahoma.

Barney also invited Brian Wilson to a jazz club in Hollywood once night where he was gigging as a trio with a theramin player. Brian liked what he saw and the instrument was introduced on “Pet Sounds” on “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” and featured on “Good Vibrations” from “Smiley Smile.” Barney played on both of these albums.

Kessel, Spector’s guru, was responsible for one more choice contribution to the advancement of pop music: Listen to Kessel’s Danelectro bass opening, played with a pick, moving like a seeing eye dog on “The Beat Goes On,” a Sonny and Cher duet. The Danelectro was tuned an octave lower than the guitar. Mr. And Mrs. Bono used to refer to Barney as “The Professor,” because he wore a coat and tie to their sessions.

Decades before vocalist Susan Boyle received worldwide attention in 2009 by singing “Cry Me A River” on a U.K. -based talent show, Barney Kessel played multiple roles in creating the first recording of this now classic recording by Julie London, subsequently covered by Joe Cocker and singer Lulu with Jeff Beck.

“Cry Me A River”, sung by Julie London, was initially recorded in 1955 and is attributed to launching the Torch Singer genre. It was cut during the session for the “Julie Is Her Name” album produced and arranged by Barney Kessel, who also played the guitar. Ray Leatherwood supplied bass. The tune was penned by a high school friend of Julie, and the song was the last one recorded for the album. The session cats thought they had finished the LP, but there was fifteen minutes of studio time left.

“So Barney says to Julie ‘We’ve got some time left so let’s do that new song (‘Cry Me A River’) we’ve been working on.’ The rest is musical history. It became her biggest hit,” offered son David Kessel. “We also used to go to his recording sessions at Contemporary Records where he’d cut ‘Downbeat Poll Winners’ albums in 3 hours with drummer Shelly Manne and Bassist Ray Brown. We grew up with Shelly, Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson. It was not uncommon for them come to our house and jam. We’d go to Shelly’s Mannhole, Shelly’s Jazz club, even when Barney wasn’t gigging there. We grew up around a lot of different Jazz & Rock musicians and Producers.”

Other son Dan Kessel, who now helms Dan Kessel Productions, also has many memories and anecdotes about his multiple decades as a Spector confidant and family member since childhood.

In early, 2004, and then in 2011, Dan communicated at length about his life with Phil in and out of the recording studio.

 “My step mother, B.J. (Betty Jane) Baker, was not only ‘mom’ to my step brothers, Mickey Rooney, Jr, Tim Rooney and my brother, David and me but she was also the queen of the Hollywood session singers for several decades. There were other top girl singers, such as Vangie Carmichael, Jackie Ward and Sally Stevens. But, B.J. was the one who contracted for Elvis and Sinatra and the one Hal Blaine called, Diamond Lil.” As such, she sang in movies and on countless hit records with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Lloyd Price, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, Ray Charles, and so many others. Phil Spector always wanted her too for his recordings where she many times sang with the other background singers such as Cher, the Blossoms (Darlene Love, Fanita James, Jean King), Clydie King and Jack Nitzsche’s wife, Gracia.

“They had a blast joking around together and catching up on the latest about who was doing what, and with whom, and all that sort of thing. One time they were kidding around about the bathroom at Gold Star because some people were getting crabs and other weird things in there. Sometimes, they’d have a contest to see who could wait the longest before breaking down and actually using the rest room there which could be pretty tough during a double or triple session with many visits to the coffee machine.”

From Timi Yuro’s “What’s A Matter Baby” (mixed by Spector) in 1962, through Spector’s later recordings, B.J. Baker would clear her always-full schedule to make herself available for Phil, who expressed his appreciation to her often, with gifts and personal notes of thanks.

“I began playing instruments when I was a little kid,” said Dan, “starting on piano, then drums, then bass and finally guitar. I used to accompany my dad , or my step mom, (vocalist B.J. Baker), when either of them had a recording session with Elvis, Duane Eddy, Sam Cooke, Ricky Nelson, or people like that. I mean, I was also very much into the stuff with Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, and enjoyed going to those sessions, too. So, I was still a young kid, but very hip to the studio, when my younger brother and I first joined up with “Phil Spector in the studio. That happened when we tagged along with our dad to Gold Star for a session where he played guitar on ‘He’s A Rebel’ with the Crystals. Phil had them put some microphones inside the bathroom. The natural reverb and echo in there was phenomenal. I told Phil I saw Mitch Miller do similar things at Columbia . He looked at me funny but then he had us go over there and perform handclaps. We continued to do percussion things like that on his other records.

“The sessions for ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ were monumental but the sessions for ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ were even beyond that. The lobby at Gold Star was jammed full of celebrities and other Hollywood types. I didn’t do handclaps or play percussion on that one, preferring instead to hover in the rarified atmosphere of being near Phil in the control booth. While my step mom, B.J. Baker, soared like a flaming Valkyrie in the heart of the vocal section; and my dad, Barney Kessel blasted away on his 1959 Danelectro within the massive depths of the three piece bass section of this incredible Spector Philharmonic and with Tina exploding like a cosmic super nova, Phil nudged me and asked, “Can Mitch Miller do this?”

“Later, by the time we’d grown up, Phil asked both my brother and me to play guitar on the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ album that he was doing with John Lennon. So, we worked on that with them. After playing on those recordings we were part of the Wrecking Crew so we joined the Musicians Union in Hollywood and continued recording on a lot of top sessions, while at the same time getting very involved with the beginnings of the early punk scene in L.A.

“My brother and I had already met John Lennon on a couple of occasions back in late ’66 and early ’67 in London with Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and people like that,” said Dan. “We ran into John again, as well as George Harrison and the Byrds at Music World, next to the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. Throughout the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ recording sessions, I’d talk to John whenever feasible, during breaks and between takes. He fell in love with my customized Gibson Everly Brothers guitar when we recorded ‘Angel Baby’ so, I let him use it during the session. In fact, I told him after the session that I’d be honored for him to keep my guitar. He accepted on the condition that I accept his, which I gladly did.

 John and I were easily able to agree that ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie and the Originals, was one of the greatest records of all time, for many different reasons, which we discussed at great length. And, after drinking quite a bit, we got all excited and emotional, even crying tears about it and the genius of the b-side, ‘Give Me Love too, and about how we wished we could have been in the Originals. John was eager to hear anything I had to say about Ritchie Valens and groups like Little Caesar and the Romans and listened with serious, rapt attention when I shared stories with him about the El Monte Legion Stadium.

“I can even remember John smiling,” continued Dan, “and talking with my friend, Blake Xolton, (a solid musician, who was helping as my equipment tech), as they discussed the L.A. T-Birds roller derby team, and some of the key players like Ralphie Valladares, Danny Reilly, Judy Sowinski, Toni Tagg and others that John said he remembered from watching TV in L.A. as a Beatle, in the mid ‘60s.

“But then, after an especially intense take…John, my brother and I and guys like Hal Blaine, Nino Tempo and Blake Xolton were summoned by Phil over the talk-back speaker to come into the control booth. With dimmed lights, Phil plays back a rough mix of ‘Angel Baby’ at full volume. It’s like being at a seance, with ghosts, aural, and otherwise, swirling out of the speakers, surrounding the booth and encircling throughout the studio. Dumbstruck, in awe, we shudder at this truly unearthly magnificence. Suddenly John, Phil and all of us are trembling, crying, hugging, laughing and screaming about how Rock and Roll will never die. As a kid, I had already witnessed a whole lot of important recording sessions with most of the top artists and producers. But, being there with Phil, I could see he was creating magic and creating history. This was to experience rock and roll recording in its highest form and was in its own way, probably like apprenticing with Michelangelo. To quote Johnny Cash, ”I kept my eyes wide open all the time’, and my ears too. And, my brain stayed on hyperactive overdrive. Everything I learned with Phil is true, classic and timeless, and of course forever applicable, even within the face of the continuing evolution of radically new technologies.

“From day one, I appreciated Phil’s talent,” Dan said, “yes, but also his intelligence, hipness and personality including his edginess and unique capacity for fun and shall we say, mischief. I felt then, that he was a genius and I’ve never wavered on that. When I first met him as a young kid, at the He’s a Rebel session, it was obvious he was not only brilliant but had all the extreme personal charisma of an early Elvis or early Beatles. Some people were confused by him. Nothing about the way he approached music or the making records ever confused me. And, nothing at all about any of his behavior, in or out of the studio, was ever confusing to me. In fact, everything he ever said or did always made more sense to me than whatever other people were saying or doing. 

 Some producers approach things clinically, or with a pseudo-experimental yet ultimately antiseptic approach. But, it was entirely reasonable, to my way of thinking, that Phil would ask us to thrash away on our guitars for hours on end, till the sun came up, till our hands were raw. That was never an issue with me.”

“People can try, but people can’t make records like Phil Spector. When I went into the booth, with my left hand dripping blood, to listen with Phil after a take, the playbacks were so staggering, it was almost impossible to believe,” marveled Dan Kessel.

David Kessel owns a G&L vintage guitar signed inside the neck by Leo Fender, and has had the time to reflect on knowing, hanging and working with Phil Spector, and to realize Barney Kessel’s impact on the guitar world.

“My brother Dan and I were amazed at the reaction we got from the guitar gods we met at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in New York when we went as Phil’s guests,” David volunteered. “I mean, I introduce myself to Keith Richards and mention I’m Barney Kessel’s son, and the first thing out of his mouth is ‘Can I rub your palm?’ After I do the mojo with Keith, Dan asks to rub his palm, they do the mojo. We have a big laugh and then he gives us each a hug. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are sitting next to us. We introduce ourselves, and Jeff says, ‘wow, your dad is one of our idols.’ He whispers something in Jimmy’s ear and he turns around with a huge smile and gives a big thumbs up. John Fogerty later at a party comes up to Phil, Dan and I and he blows our mind talking about the B side of Ricky Nelson’s ‘I’m Walkin” that our dad produced.

“Phil also took us to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles. We watch the incredible Cream reunion with Phil and Ahmet Ertegun, and all posed for a picture.

In July 2009, David Kessel provided a lifetime of his thoughts and first-hand observations on Phil Spector. “Phil has been a family friend for over 50 years. He is an American pop musical genius of the highest order with almost extraterestial insight and vision. Phil Spector’s contributions to recorded music revolutionized the modern record making process.

“Let’s take it back to an aspect of Phil that a lot of people do not discuss,” said David Kessel. “Which is part of his overall brilliance that disturbs people so much. Because he knows what he is doing musically on all levels. His choices of date mates are however of dubious distinction. The thing is, consider this, his brain is thinking symphonically As a symphony orchestra. A lot of violins, cellos, basses. You don’t just have one of each. OK? Flute section, etc, the whole nine yards, so that becomes symphonic orchestration. So the musicians are divided into sections.

“For example, the acoustic guitar section and the electric guitar section have to put their trip together independently. Four electric guitar players working out electric parts. Four acoustic guitar players working out their parts. But when you hear all the various sections at the same time, the jigsaw puzzle comes together. It’s pretty over whelming thick and musical. And powerful.

“And Jack Nitzsche is an unsung hero. He was a total educated musician. Excellent orchestration, he knew where Phil was going. A real good backbone, man. What Jack did for Phil is what Charlie Watts does for the Rolling Stones,” he states. 

 Spector employed jazz people like Dan and David’s father Barney. And Phil issued some albums of Barney, including “Slow Burn.” Phil wrote the liner notes.

“Here’s the thing,” David reinforced. “The Jazz guys can do these parts in their sleep. It’s not a challenge so it makes it easier to make the record in one or two takes, or three takes. Phil might have taken six hours to get the sound right. The jazz guys read charts and can think on their toes. They don’t yell about how their hands hurt. You are getting the best of the best to play some of the simplest of the simple and it comes out great.
“Here’s a Barney quote about Gold Star and Phil. Before the classic Gold Star Wall Of Sound sessions, Phil had gone to New York earlier to work for Atlantic Records and to learn from Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Then he came back to town, called up my dad and said ‘Hey Barney, we’re doing some records. Come down.’

 “Barney shows up to the gig and they played the tune and it came out pretty well from his perspective. He put his instrument down, I think he had to check with his answering service about another session date. He came back into the booth and he said, that he was hearing sounds that he wasn’t quite sure of. And he said to Phil, ‘Is that us?’ ‘And Phil said, ‘Yeah.’ And Barney said, ‘I don’t get it because that’s certainly not what we did in the other room. I played on it and I heard it. It did not sound like that in there. It sounds completely different in here.’ ‘Yep,’ said Phil. And that was at Gold Star.

“Having rock and rolled with Phil for over 30 years, and still standing,” David Kessel explained, “I can only tell you that Phil can be a very caring and sharing friend. We have had some truly unique moments together.”

About Patrick Prince

Patrick Prince is the Editor of Goldmine

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