Hello, and thanks for tuning in. I’m so happy you could join me today and I know you’re probably as big a fan of 60s and 70s music as I am. I’m sure you’ve heard our guest today his signature guitar riffs and solos on many of those songs. In fact, he appears on more heat records than any other session guitarist in history. Think boss gags low down Lionel Richie his Hello, the Jackson fives I want you back. The Monkees last train to Clarksville and Valerie amongst a whole host of others. Louis Shelton has recorded with John Lennon, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the carpenters Joe Cocker, Kenny Rogers, and a whole lot more. He played guitar on this classic from Seals and Crofts.
Louis Shelton lives on Australia’s Gold Coast. And despite his hugely successful career, he remains incredibly humble.
I was very busy during the 60s 70s and 80s when a lot of good music was being made, and I happened to be in Los Angeles and got a break to be able to get into the recording studio and become a session musician with that famous Wrecking Crew bunch of guys.
The Wrecking Crew was a group of La based session musicians who were used for a huge number of studio recordings in the 60s and 70s, including hundreds of top 40 hits. They were highly sought after, and back many popular artists like Jan and Dean Sonny and Cher The Mamas and Papas, the fifth dimension, as well as Frank and Nancy Sinatra.
By the time I was 12, I’d won some amateur contests playing the guitar. I learned the guitar very quickly, and I was a big fan of lead guitar, Chet Atkins and those kinds of players.
Around 1955 when rock and roll came in, I got to meet Elvis in my hometown, and a lot of the new rock artists the Roy Orbison ‘s and Jerry Lee Lewis, and all of those would come to my town. Wow.
Tell us about meeting Elvis. Well, I was 13 years old, and we had some mutual friends that were playing with him on the Louisiana hayride. And they invited him to come and play at my junior high school. And then every time he would come to a little rock, which was once a year, I would get to go backstage and hang out with him. And he was such a nice guy. Elvis eventually went out and became the big movie star and all of that. And there was a point in time when he decided to start performing again in Las Vegas. And by that time, I was a successful musician and in the sessions and they invited me to come play with Elvis in Las Vegas. Me and the Wrecking Crew group. On in less conversation, more action.
Walk me through how you got from that junior high school time meeting Elvis in Arkansas all the way across to La what happened in between
A lot A lot of playing six nights a week in clubs all over the country. So in 58, I left little rock and took a gig in Santa Fe, which ended up with me connecting with Glen Campbell and Albuquerque because he was also from Arkansas, but we’d never met.
You formed a friendship with him as a result of that meeting, didn’t you? Oh, yeah. Well, Glen was playing in clubs six nights a week himself, we’d go see some of the shows that would come to town together. And then we’d get together with those musicians and we’d have a jam session all night and just a fun time. This was late 50s, early 60s.
You were busy six nights a week playing around the South. Why go to LA?
Well, you know, a lot of bands would come through where we were playing and say, Man, you guys should go to LA, you know, because you really have a good band and all that kind of stuff. So at that time, Glen Campbell’s drummer had joined my band after Glen left town. And we decided that okay, well, let’s go to LA. But I already had a plan to become a session musician, like Chet Atkins, and like the guys in New York and Nashville, and all of that. That was my goal to become a session musician.
Why did you want to be a session musician.
That’s like winning the lottery. It’s the best gig there in the world for a musician. Why a traveling, you’re staying at home, you’re going to the studio every day getting to work with all of these great artists. And it pays better than anything other than if you’re a big superstar artist. But as far as a musician, you make much more money doing that than safe going on the road with someone but your ego doesn’t get quite as big a boost?
I don’t think that was ever a thing with me. My interest was always playing the guitar and doing the best job I could do an offering something on someone’s record that would make it a better record. A pattern my road to that from people like George Harrison and other guitar players don’t even like Scotty more on Elvis his record their their guitar parts became part of the record. So that was my goal to add those kinds of little guitar things to records that would help make the record a hit and began record because you were well known already at that time as being a bit of a guitar virtuoso, weren’t you and you completely self taught?
Yes, completely self taught I strictly play by ear, which most of us guitar players growing up during that era. None of us had any formal training later on guys did especially if you’re in a major city like LA, there were good teachers and all of that and some of the other guys learned to read along the way.
So what happened when you took yourself off to LA?
Well, when I first got there, I had to do other jobs still working in clubs or working with other show groups working in Las Vegas traveling because you weren’t able to just go straight into the studio until you proved yourself somehow some way. So the best I could do at the time was to play on these publishing demos with voice and heart who eventually got the gig to write for the Monkees.
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. They were obviously in partnership with one another at that time. But before the Monkees were they well known yet?
Well, they had had some success with writing some hit records with other with other artists. So they had this great publishing deal with screen jams, who ended up being a big company behind the monkeys as well. So eventually, they got this gig to write for the monkeys. And I was like their favourite guitar player. So I was grateful that they asked me to come play on that. And once they did, all of the other producers in LA started calling me because they heard last train to Clarksville, and they call Boyce and Hart and said, you played guitar on that. And so I was instantly in after that. That was that last train to Clarksville really changed life? That was it. Oh, yes.
It took something like that to get you in the door? Because they don’t they don’t just welcome everybody, this group of musicians, you know, they’re a tight group they play together, they get along well, you really got to climb that fence to get in there. You know, it’s not that easy.
How could you become Boyce and Hart’s favourite guitarist at the time.
They were assigned to Screen Gems as writers for Screen Gems, they had to go in and do demos, when they would write a song. So they would have guys like myself come into play on those demos, it gave me the opportunity to work with them and let them see my work. And then when they did get successful, they brought me along with what would I like to work with two of them really nice. They didn’t have any formal training either. So the reason we got along so well is our musical vocabulary was kind of the same. You know, they’d give me an example of can you do like a George Harrison or something like that, you know, they couldn’t write anything out. And, and it was lucky for me because I couldn’t read it if they did.
What were their backgrounds, where had they come from?
They had spent a lot of time in New York. That’s where they ended up together at a professional level. And this little writing group with a lot of very interesting people was Ferrell eventually became the writer and producer of the Partridge Family and, and a lot of other successful things. Bobby Hart wrote a great book that really details their trip, and it’s very interesting, and very enlightening. Yeah, they got an album deal themselves as artists on a&m records, and had some pretty good success with that. And I played on those albums with them as well.
Louis Shelton, what was your brief from them in terms of writing for the monkeys? I mean, we all have heard the stories that the monkeys were put together as these four actors that couldn’t play their own instruments and couldn’t sing their own songs, although I’m not sure exactly how true that turned out to be. But what was your brief initially?
Well, they had rented a little rehearsal room for us to go in and work on some tunes specifically for that, because they didn’t really have the deal yet. I actually I can only isolate last train to Clarksville because that was the thing that got everything going. They asked me to come come up with some kind of a lick like on a ticket to ride for The Beatles that you know the way that guitarist starts that off. And that the lick on truck, Clarksville came into my head. And I said how about this and played it and they loved it. And that was the whole thing. Without that I don’t even know if they would have gotten the deal, because that was the thing that got them over to be the producers of the first Monkees records. I was added to Barbie Hart’s band, he had a band that they were playing in clubs. He had a drummer, bass player, guitar player. And then they brought in a keyboard player and then they brought me in and we were all in this room. So we rehearsed up that tune. And he brought in some of the executives for the Monkees show to come in. And we played that tune for him and it blew him away.
And then it all blew up for you?
Like that, what were you thinking? How are you feeling?
Well, I went out and got myself a brand new Mercedes and I was feeling pretty good. Didn’t take long till my phone was ringing off the wall for me to do sessions every day with everybody else. Neil Diamond, Motown moved out to LA and they asked me to come do their stuff. And it was the same way with the Jackson Five. I had never even seen the Jackson Five and we went in and cut their tracks you know I want you back and all of those things. And they were never in the studio either with us they always came in later to do the vocals.
Most of the players in the Wrecking Crew had formal backgrounds in jazz or classical music. Louie says he can’t recall where the name actually came from. But they were often also referred to as the first call gang.
Thanks for being here. Guitarist Louis Shelton, is giving us some insight into how the creme de la creme of studio musicians worked back in their 60s and 70s heyday.
A lot of times, the artist wasn’t there with the Carpenters, they were always there. And Karen always gave us a really good guide vocal. Neil Diamond was always the writer of his songs. So he was always their boss gags was there. But a lot of times we’d be recording. And all we would have is a chord chart there and someone would count it off and we’d start playing. We didn’t even know how the song went.
So I guess it didn’t really matter to you whether the song ended up being a hit or not. You were getting paid for your work regardless?
That’s right. It made them millions of dollars, but we only got our union scale for it. And it had its benefits in other ways. And now we do get residuals from all of that stuff that we played on. And we have a great musicians’ trust fund that is sort of our retirement.
Did you get your name on the records?
I did on a lot of them. Unfortunately on some very important ones like the Monkees. And Jackson Five I didn’t part of the Partridge Family because they wanted people to think it was them playing on the records, obviously on stuff like Boz Scaggs and Neil Diamond.
First gig was Silk Degrees, right? Yeah, that was his big album. His first big one
Guy was the only album I got credit on from the Motown stuff I did for some reason. That was the only record I got credit on. Did that bother you? I don’t know if it bothered me so much at the time. I was so busy. I didn’t ask kept on thinking about that kind of stuff. Later on. I thought, well, wow, that was a great credit to have not gotten on the album. You know, there was some of the biggest records that ever and didn’t get my name on it. But I got some gold records from them hanging on my wall.
What an amazing experience. When you first got to LA if I can just take you back again. You actually looked up Glen Campbell, didn’t you? And he kind of got you into traction a little bit.
Yeah, he was the only person we knew. And it ended up being only the two of us went out there the rest of the band back down and they really regretted it later. But yeah, Glen took us around. He took me to a Ricky Nelson session, which is where I met James Burton, and also Joe Osbourne who was the bass player and we ended up doing many many gigs – we did the Carpenters – a lot of stuff together.
You said Karen used to always be there. What was she like?
She was a real sweetheart and a great singer. Her little guide vocals could have just as well been the master vocals because she was so good.
She was also a great drummer, wasn’t she? Yes,
she was. She didn’t play drums on any of the stuff that I played on Hal Blaine was the drummer on all their stuff. But she was a great drummer and played a lot of live stuff.
You’ve seen a lot of them come and go like
Oh my gosh, yeah. And a lot of I knew even before they were big stars like, during that time when I was before my session career and traveling around I had toured with David Crosby. Mama Cass before she was in the Mamas and Papas got the list of people that have gone on, that I worked with as it’s like 90% almost, you know, the only one still around there Lionel Richie Neil Diamond and boss gags three of the monkeys. David Cassidy Karen Carpenter, Michael Jackson, the list is long of all the people Glen Campbell he’s no longer with us just unbelievable that people that we’ve lost that we’re just such a big part of my life – makes me feel so good.
Do you put that down to the resultant excessive lifestyles that they all lived?
You went through it all with them.
What was it, some of them were just natural causes, you know like Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith and Peter. Well, Peter, unfortunately had cancer. Someone like Elvis and Michael Jackson. I think it was their celebrity. With Elvis, for example, all the years I lived in Los Angeles and Hollywood. At one time or another, you’d see almost every famous person but you would never see Elvis. He could not go out in public, like a normal person couldn’t go the movies couldn’t go to a restaurant. I mean, he would literally be mobbed. So he had no sign of a normal life. But I did a rehearsal with him before he went to Vegas and he was in perfect health at that time, he was like the picture of health. And when he went to Vegas, that schedule or something got him on such a pill, pop and schedule of uppers to get up and downers to go to bed or whatever, eating terribly and all of that he just looked terrible by the time he passed away. Whereas like I’ve said before, if he would go out and have around a golf with the fellas get out of the sunshine smell the grass and had some kind of normalcy in his life there’s no way he would have passed away at such an early age was it was an awfully big price to pay for wasn’t it? It was yeah and Michaels case that was just really a terrible accident thing. Having to be put under by those kinds of drugs and then have it take his life
I’m intrigued to know about Tiny Tim because you worked with him too. He was always a bit of an iconic person, wasn’t he? You know, the first time I saw Tiny Tim I had gone into a little I was in New York and I went into this little comedy club, very dark little club. And Tiny Tim walks in the door up to this little one foot highest stage. And he’s got this gunny sack over his shoulder, he looks like something out of, I don’t know, a novel or something. Because he had already had that look and takes out this ukulele and gets up there and start singing that crazy stuff. And no one had ever heard of him before. So that was the first time I saw Tiny Tim. And then Richard Perry, who was a young New York producer produced that album on him. And then Richard moved out to LA. And Richard was a good friend of Boyce and Hart and he was one of the first one that said he played guitar in Clarksville. He started calling me for all his stuff including Tiny Tim.
So you continued on as a highly sought after session player playing with the best of the best socializing with all of them in that scene too. How did you avoid the pitfalls?
I sort of took care of that earlier on because I had all of those opportunities, touring and, and hanging out and doing all that stuff earlier. And I just realized that wasn’t for me. I tried it and it didn’t help my playing and I was all about playing. I was all about music and guitar. It didn’t work for me. And I’m fortunate that it didn’t bother me A good friend musicians have come through it unscathed. And they’ve gotten healthy and gotten rid of that stuff. There’s only a few of them back. And it was more back during the late 60s, early 70s. That some some of my friends and ended up with it having a negative effect on their work and their life.
You were single mindedly focused on that guitar, and you weren’t going to be distracted with anything from playing the best you could.
But you know, most of my fellow session musicians, Hal Blaine, and those guys, they weren’t on, they didn’t do drugs. And none of those guys did.
Yeah, we’re all about the music, too. Yeah. I guess you all would have known that if you’d done drugs, you couldn’t turn up the next day in a session and give it your best. The guys that were on the road could kind of bluff and bluster their way through performances, and it wouldn’t matter so much.
And out on the road. It’s more of a party life to after the gig. It’s all there for the having, you know, so it’s easy to succumb to the temptation. But when you’re doing sessions all day long, you need everything that you’ve got to be able to do your best work more of a normal life more of a nine to five type of job really? Yeah, yeah, I hear. How was it then that you eventually ended up joining a group that Ken was composed of for Joe Vogon and Jim seals and dash crafts, who later became known as seals and Crofts. How’d you get to that point?
Well, I joined them before my session career sales and crops had originally been in a group called a chance since they were very young teenagers and toured the country as that band, the Champs that had tequila.
That group broke up, and they ended up in Los Angeles. And I had been touring with a group called Joe and Eddie. And I had quit that group to stay in LA. Somehow I met up with sales and crops, and we had this little four piece band and we were playing in clubs in LA of six nights a week gigs. And then we we added three girls to the to that little four piece and started playing in Las Vegas. It turned out to be a pretty successful group. And then it was during that time, I was going back and forth doing these demos with voice and heart, and all of a sudden the Monkees thing developed. So I quit that band and came back. We did the Clarksville thing. I got into the session thing, the Seals and Crofts band had broken up. So Seals and Crofts eventually became this great duo of all of these Seals and Crofts kind of tunes
You ended up producing for them, didn’t you?
Yes. After a few years of doing session work, I was working with Herb Alpert, who owned A&M records, and I brought a band to him. And he signed him and pointed me as producer. So at that point, I transitioned into a producer, and quit doing as much session work. Meantime, seals and Crofts had gone out salesman crops and gotten a record deal and they’d cut a couple of records that hadn’t really done anything yet, but their manager came and asked if I would be interested in producing them and I said, Well, sure what a great thing to happen after all, we’ve been through the end up producing my buddies, you know, so I put together this band that I had played with on the Motown stuff, took them into the studio where we did the Jackson Five and all that and we cut Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl and so for the next several years, that was my job was producing.
Summer Breeze was Seals and Crofts first hit single. The duo were members of the Bahai face and believed that by writing about life itself, many meanings would emerge for the listener. That song was covered by lots of artists including the Isley Brothers, Johnny Mathis, the main ingredient, and Jason Moran says hanging as Louis Shelton continues his story.
Welcome back. Louis Shelton is played on that many hits that he’s totally lost count when Motown relocated from Detroit to La you started recording with people like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson the great Marvin Gaye Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight.
When I did Diana Ross and Gladys Knight and some of those other artists, they weren’t there. And a lot of times I’d asked who is this for? And they would say, Oh, this we’re hoping this Smokey Robinson will do this.
So you’d cut the tracks first. And then they’d go in? And oh, yeah, we’d cut we’d cut the tracks. And during the session, we might cut tracks for two different artists. See Motown had a couple of arrangers gene Paige, and I forget the other gentleman’s name, he ended up producing a Lionel Richie. That’s how I got on the Lionel Richie records. These arrangers would come in with these great charts, they would write out the bass lines and the keyboard parts and the drum parts. But they would let us guitar players figure out what we wanted to play. So we always had this great foundation to play from this great rhythm section. And as I would do sessions all around town and say, go from a Neil Diamond to Partridge Family are carpenters, when I got into the Motown session, it always had the Motown sound, which I loved it because I was a big fan of all those early Motown Records anyway. But there was something that these arrangers had, that just added this Motown feel to everything. And it may would put me into this r&b frame to play those kinds of guitar licks, which I was, you know, I come from the south. So I knew all that stuff.
What was that special ingredient that made it Motown?
Well, it was a very specific tight groove between the bass and the drums and the keyboards. And it was like, only those two arrangers arranged like that. They didn’t have like five different arrangers. These guys just knew what to go for. And it was very specific and very Motown. If you listen to I want you back which has been voted by Rolling Stone is one of the greatest pop records ever. When you listen to that track, it’s very complex, but very tight and very arranged. And even the guitar parts even though they weren’t written out, everything fits like a glove. It’s a Motown sound. It was a bit fresher of a Motown sound because it was a new group of artists. It was the Jackson Five and it didn’t have that Detroit, Four Tops kind of sound. Yeah, there was more guitar action and it I mean, you could hear it in I’ll be there the ballad, Michael Jackson ballad, and so many of their songs. You could hear the togetherness of the track and the choice of notes and the groove and and the way it was played and all of that.
So no surprise to you that those songs all went straight to number one?
Oh, yes. They were good songs to start with.
Michael Jackson, I was there when he did the vocal too. I want you back. That was the first time I saw him. And he was 11 years old. And he was standing out there man on that mic. And it was just he was just roaring on that mic with that. I mean, you listen to that vocal track on I want you back. That’s 11 year old kid, man. I mean, that is something in there.
So you knew from the beginning that he had something pretty special? Oh, yes.
Yeah. I never seen anything like it till the day he died. I thought he was one of the I mean, he just got better and better to be able to perform like he did on stage and the dance moves. Very, very talented guy.
I’m chatting with Louis Shelton. Just a few weeks ago, I had a chat with a friend of yours by the name of John Ford Kohli. And there’s certainly a big story around how you two got together, isn’t it?
Well, yeah, if you want to hear it is I’ll make it short. He and his partner, Dan Seals who was Brother Jim Seals. They had come out from Texas, they were a duo. And they were going by England, Dan and John Ford Coley. And a manager had shot their tape their cassette tape around and nobody wanted to sign them. And so I told their manager, I said, Well, I’m working with Herb Alpert. Tomorrow. Let me take the tape and give it to him and let him have a listen. So I did that. He took the tape home. And the next day when I saw him, I said, Did you listen to the tape? He said, Yeah, he says, and I like it. I said, Oh, great. I said was that mean? He said, Well, I want to sign them and I want you to produce them. So that’s the story behind that. That opened up my production career and their artists career. I do do albums for them on a&m That sort of put me on the map as a producer, and that’s when salesman crops approached me.
You then went on to produce Art Garfunkel its most successful platinum album called fate for breakfast.
Yes, I had played on arts other solo albums that Richard Perry produced so we got along really well. And I was able to produce that record for him.
Do you consider yourself retired now?
No, I don’t because I still do stuff. You know, I’ve got someone coming in today for a session at one o’clock. And I still play I still write. But at the same time, I don’t consider it work. So it’s a weird thing is like, if I really had a job, I would retire and do this.
To keep up your chops, do you have to practice your guitar? Or you’re at a point where you still do
You have to and you keep up your calluses? Yeah, you have to keep up your technique. And of course, I’m always on YouTube, looking at these guys that are 10 times better than me and trying to figure out what they’re doing.
So who would you say is better than you? Well, Matteo Mancha. So a lot of these young guys now that are coming out, they’ve just gone so far over above what we’re doing all new, different techniques and stuff. I’d had to start all over to do that stuff. I still play what I play and you do what I do. There’s no way I could jump on and start trying to do what they’re doing. But I enjoy watching my area of music as commercial music. You know, those guys are their shredders, and they’re fun to watch as a genius at what they do. My thing is adding to commercial music, keeping things at a level where the average person can understand what I’m playing.
I love the work you’ve done, Louis Shelton, do you think that that was the heyday of music, the 60s and 70s were they the best days,
I think the ingredients were more organic. And I think the songs were better. I think the artists were more original. And it was real musicians playing them. So much of the music today is mechanical and computers and vocal tuning and a producer sitting in a room by himself. You know, coming up with all of these these sounds it’s just a totally different thing and you almost can’t even compare it. But there’s this stuff like Dewey Lipa and that I love that stuff. It’s fantastic. I think she’s great and way they produce her stuff and do her videos is unbelievable. A lot of the music I don’t like I just it just nothing in it for me. But every once in a while. Something comes along that grabs my ear.
Finally, does it surprise you that so many of the songs you worked on are still getting radio airplay still popular some 50 years later?
It doesn’t because people of my generation they that’s what they like. And there’s a lot of us and a lot of the younger generation like that stuff to perform on cruise ships I was before COVID I’m just starting to do some at the end of the month. And most of that audience is my age. A little younger and some older so I do medley sub the hits that I played on and they can’t even believe it that they’re seeing the guy that actually played Last Train to Clarksville or Hello or Low Down or the Carpenters and all that stuff.
It’s more important today than it was then. I know it is for me. Because back in the day, I play on a hit record. And then I just go to another session and nobody knew me. But now everybody looks on the internet and says, Oh my god, Lucia and played that guitar part on Valerie. I never heard of him. Let me go look at what else he did. And then they, they jump on my email, and I get these great emails of people are so complimentary. It means a lot.
Louis Shelton, fabulous chatting with you. Thank you so much for your time and sharing your stories. Congratulations on the most wonderful career, music just wouldn’t have been the same without you. We appreciate it.
Thank you. And my pleasure. If you’d like to know more about the Wrecking Crew, and you haven’t already seen it, check out the documentary simply called the Wrecking Crew back from 2008. I mentioned earlier that Louie now lives in Australia. And he’s worked here with some of our best bands, noise work, sudden sands and human nature to name a few. A big shout out to mark in the northern New South Wales town of Ballina. Who requested I get in touch with Louis Shelton for an interview. If you have someone special you’d like to hear from, you can do the same. Send me a message through the website and breath of fresh air.com.au Thanks for being with me today. I hope you’ve had a great time. I look forward to being back in your company again same time next week. Bye now.