Sunday, February 7, 2010

Saturday Single No. 147

Originally posted August 29, 2009:

Boy, it’s been a tough couple of weeks: On August 15, James Luther Dickinson, southern musician, producer and patriarch, died in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ll write about him on Monday, I think, but a quick list of his credits includes his membership in the Dixie Flyers, session work for – among many others – the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, production work for many, and his own music.

Then, this Wednesday came the death in New York of one of the great songwriters in any genre, Ellie Greenwich. During the early 1960s, in partnership with her then-husband Jeff Barry and other writers (Phil Spector often among them), Greenwich wrote such classics as “Be My Baby,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Chapel of Love,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Baby I Love You,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and many, many more. As much as I admired Greenwich and love her music, I’m going to let others tell her story – and many will. A couple of places you might stop: Any Major Dude put together a brief retrospective and offered several of her songs, most pulled from Greenwich’s 1973 album, Let it be written, let it be sung. And Leonard at Redtelephone66 posted a piece pulled from several sources and offered the entire 1973 album.

Finally, on Thursday of this week, Larry Knechtel died Thursday in Yakima, Washington. He might have been best known to most of the world as a member of the pop-rock group Bread in the early 1970s. But he also released two jazz-fusion albums of his own in the late 1970s. (All-Music Guide says he was a member of the group Smith, but I think that’s overstating it; in the group’s AMG entry, he’s credited with playing keyboards on the album A Group Called Smith, but he’s not listed on the back of the record jacket as a member.)

More than that, however, Knechtel was a prolific session musician and arranger. Before joining Bread, he played keyboards and bass with the legendary Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians that included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and drummer Hal Blaine, covering sessions for Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas and many more.

The New York Times quoted Knechtel’s comments from an earlier interview:

“ ‘It just snowballed. I was in the right place at the right time,’ Knechtel told the Yakima paper in 2004. ‘It was a lot of fun. We were all young. I was making big money and hearing myself on the radio.’ ”

A brief walk through Knechtel’s credits at AMG is eye-opening. From playing piano for Duane Eddy on The Twang’s The Thang in 1959 through his keyboard work with the Dixie Chicks for their 2006 album Taking the Long Way and his piano work on the 2007 debut album by country singer Kathy Baille and more, Knechtel left a heavy mark on American popular music of the last fifty years.

Folks know his work even when they might not think so. The arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and its gorgeous piano introduction? That’s Larry Knechtel (and he won a Grammy for the arrangement). The list of groups and performers goes on: the 5th Dimension, Mike Nesmith, Jackie Lomax, the Partridge Family, Johnny Rivers, Barbra Streisand, Tim Weisberg, Kenny Rankin, Paul Simon, Seals & Crofts, Art Garfunkel, Chi Coltrane, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Patti Dahlstrom . . . And that only gets us to 1976.

For many years, Larry Knechtel’s name in a list of album credits has been a selling point for me. I haven’t bought all of them I’ve found. There are just too many. But if I were choosing between an album with Knechtel on it and one without, I’d likely bring home the one he played on.

And there’s a slight personal connection as well: In early 1970, I was dabbling with playing piano again, having quit taking lessons and playing about four years earlier. I was struggling and was discouraged. That was about the time that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was released as a single. I bought the sheet music and went to work. I didn’t know that it was Larry Knechtel playing that extraordinary piano part, of course, and I never came close to his expertise. But I did okay, and I realized that if I could do okay on such a challenging piece, I was going to be all right.

So, as predictable as it might be, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – arranged by Larry Knechtel and with Knechtel on the piano – is this week’s Saturday Single.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel from Bridge Over Troubled Water [1970]

I posted about Larry Knechtel this morning. And early this afternoon, I got a note from Patti Dahlstrom:

Dearest Family and Friends,
I have just received the sad news today from Art Munson and Artie Wayne that a dear friend of mine, Larry Knechtel, has passed on. Larry was a legend in pop music, still more than that he was one of the most down-to-earth people and true hearts I have ever known. I was blessed to have Larry play piano on my 3rd album. He came into my life when I was deeply heart-broken, as I had lost a great love and my piano player. He stepped in with compassion and patience and we quickly became good friends. He played piano, bass, harmonica and sang background vocals, as well as producing and arranging my 4th album on which we had a song we wrote together, Changing Minds, which will be included on my CD release here in the UK.
The last time we exchanged emails was on his birthday August 4th. Leo rules the heart and he had a big one that gave and gave until it finally gave out. The obits say he played a concert the week before. It is only fitting that Larry should play until the end. The earth is a sadder venue without him. He was a great friend whom I treasured.

I’m attaching a song I wrote with Artie Wayne when Jim Croce died. Larry is playing piano on it. It is appropriate that I send it out in his memory now. Thank you for everything, Larry.

“Sending My Good Thoughts” by Patti Dahlstrom from Your Place Or Mine [1975]

Patti gave me her permission to post as well a song on which Larry Knechtel contributed an amazing harmonica solo:

“Lookin’ For Love” by Patti Dahlstrom from Livin’ It Thru [1976]

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