Neil Sharpe is a Sax on the Web Contributing Editor with an extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance, health, and well being.
He is the author and co-author of three professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.
About Sax on the Web Sax on the Web (SOTW) is a
comprehensive saxophone site founded by Harri Rautiainen.
It covers many aspects of saxophone and saxophone playing in
articles written by several experts. An integral part is the SOTW Forum with 30,000 registered members from beginners to prominent
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Part Two: Albert Collins, Peter Maffay, Toto, and The Business of Music
By Neil Sharpe
Sessions and Recording
During the 1970’s and 80’s, I occasionally did session work in LA. For some players, this can be quite lucrative. I know a few who made in excess of $250,000.00 a year. Generally, you’d average about $300-400.00 per session, although with overtime sometimes you could get 3 to 4 times scale.
Sessions can be at any time of day, and sometimes will run 24 hours straight. On a good day, you can do 3 or 4 sessions, moving from studio to studio, doing mostly section work. You have to be ready to go at any time, because you never know when that telephone call will come. And being a good reader definitely makes a difference.
That’s why you really need a musical education, especially the ability to read music. If you can’t do that, or do it quickly, you won’t get any session work. They’re not going to call you because you’re a great solo player. They want you to produce what they need, when they need it, without any delays.
However, being a great session player doesn’t mean you’ll be a great performer and vice versa. Group dynamics make the critical difference. When playing with musicians, there’s the opportunity to feed off the various personalities, what they went through that day, and what they’re feeling inside. That’s where you get the vibe. If they’ve had a good day, they can play one way; if they’ve had a rough day that can be quite another thing. This may be the single biggest difference between music today compared to back in the ‘50’s-70’s.
Today, more and more, you’re in the studio with headphones on, without any other musicians present, being fed by samplers and machines. Music recorded by a group of musicians playing together definitely has a different feel and sound. Especially when compared to today’s productions, where a whole track can be put together without any musicians present, a much more mechanical process. I did a session a few months ago where all the tracks were done through a keyboard including the drums. I was probably the only live musician on the recording, other than the keyboardist and maybe a guitar that was added later.
Back in the ‘40’s-60’s, everything was recorded live on 2 and 4 track machines, with no overdubs, including the singer. So, the musicians really had to work together to get the track tight.
When I first worked at Cosimo’s J & M Recording Studio in New Orleans, the set up was pretty primitive with eggshell cartons on the wall, etc., etc. But, Cosimo Matassa was constantly learning and improving.
As I mentioned earlier, horn players often did all the arrangements while in studio. Rarely, did we go in with written material. That’s probably why the recordings from Cosimo’s Studio had such a vibrant, driving sound." [John Broven quotes Cosimo Matassa in the book, 'Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans'",
"You made a master and a safety, and you played back the safety to see what you got. So that meant that all those performances, there was no intercutting, no tape editing, in fact those were the good performances, probably some of the best. Because they were really performances as opposed to the synthesized records you make today, when you lay down the rhythm and starting putting things on it, three months and 12 sessions later nobody knows what the original was really going to be like".]
The other big difference I’ve noticed is ‘technique and tone’. Too many players today seem to want to play on the top end of the sax with really high notes. I can do that but why? The beauty in a tenor sax is the low end of the horn- that can be just as tough to play well as the high end. I know one guy who’s a monster sax player, but who’s always on the top end of the horn. He listened to me and tried to take the same approach, but kept running out of breath because he couldn’t get the low D of the horn without blowing his guts out. Whether the notes are high or low, it’s all about breath control. That’s why I’ve constantly done isometric exercises to keep my abdominal muscles like iron, to have the volume of air and control you need to really make a horn sing.
Talent is fine, but discipline is what makes a professional musician - together with passion, hard work, keeping your commitments, being prompt and on time. Set standards and live up to them. Do that and you’ll get the calls...
When I was living in Modesto California, in the ‘76, I went into a liquor store to pick up some beer. The store was playing this song ‘Lowdown’ done by Boz Scaggs. I got to thinking how much I liked the song and the band playing it. Three days later, I get a phone call. ‘Would I be interested in a tour with Boz Scaggs?’ I immediately drove down to the rehearsal and met the guys (who eventually evolved into the Grammy-winning band ‘Toto’). Things instantly clicked. A few days later, I was on a plane.
That was a great, great band, the best I’ve ever played with, and one of the most enjoyable. The arrangements were letter perfect, and played with incredible dynamics. Those were musicians who really knew how to play and listen, to compliment each other without any self-centered problems. The result were performances that were fascinating and pure dynamite.
We covered most of the U.S. over a five month period, with first class flights and separate rooms all the way. Sometimes we hooked up with Elton John or The Eagles and had stage sets that included full string sections.
Everyone had such a fantastic time, that in the late 70’s when the band Toto came together, we couldn’t wait to get together once again, this time on a year-and-a-half world tour. That took us across the United States, to England, Germany, Australia, Japan…I could go on and on, naming all the places and countries. The music dynamics couldn’t have been better. Accommodations and tour management were first class all the way.
To this day, whenever I go on tour, I take my King Super 20 tenor and that’s it- no backup horn. If repairs are needed along the way, I have the tools to make it right. Having said that, travel today is far different from what it was in the 70’s and 80’s. I never used to ship my horn but always brought it as a carry-on. Now, with all the security changes, it’s getting more difficult to do that, even though they can see it’s only a saxophone. Plus, the delays and cancellations with flights are getting ridiculous. To keep their records looking good, some airlines taxi out at the scheduled departure times and then leave you sitting on the tarmac, without any explanation or prior notice and without any way of getting off the plane.
Being forced to show up late for gigs, or not being able to make it at all, is far too common today due to the unreliability of some airlines. A few years ago, an airline would acknowledge that the delay or cancellation was their fault and put you up until the problem was cleared up. Now, they just don’t care. You’re stuck paying for your own hotel room etc. until another flight is arranged.
I’m now at the point where if someone wants me to do a road gig, I’ll drive there rather than risk the airlines. They have become a threat to a musician’s way of making a living. Atlanta is one of the worst airports for cancellations and delays. That’s why, I now have to ask for a performing deposit with the understanding that if an airline screws up, then sorry but…
I moved to Austin Texas, in 1990. Antone’s Blues Club was my first stop- a great place to play and to listen.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The terrific blues guitarist Albert Collins was in for a gig and looking for a sax player.
Derek O’Brien, a really fine guitar player in his own right, recommended me. The gig went very well; Albert immediately hired me for the rest of the tour. When asked about a trumpet player, I recommended Steve Howard,
who’d worked with Paul McCartney and The Wings. After that, everything quickly fell into place.
Albert Collins and The Icebreakers- what a great band, and what a great, great time. When you have the opportunity to play with someone like Albert you want it to last a lifetime. Albert was the nicest guy I’ve ever worked with. Just a sweetheart, there’s no other way to describe him. Courteous to all musicians, he always acknowledged everyone on stage, unlike some musicians who want the spotlight on them and only on them, all the time. Albert had no ego. When a girl told him, ‘You’re a star!’, he just shook his head and said ‘Stars are only in heaven.’
A typical tour with Albert would last two-three months at a time, using a bus, and go four to five days a week. The length of the sets would vary depending whether we were playing a club or a musical festival. Clubs usually want you do a 45 minute set with 45 minutes off, so they can sell more drinks, or if they’ve sold tickets to give them time to clear out one audience and bring in the next. In contrast, a set for a festival typically might last for 75 to 90 minutes.
Sometimes, people would take advantage of Albert. If a guitar player wanted to get up and play with him, he’d always let them. Problem was, some of them never got off stage! Same with horn players, who would jump up and start playing, sometimes without asking permission. That could ruin a show. So, Steve and I told Albert we’d take care of it. We started squeezing guys out and wouldn’t let them come up on stage. Some got belligerent about it, but we took care of that too.
We had countless great gigs with Albert including the Montreux Blues Festival in ’92 and the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan.
Albert Collins at Montreaux 1992
(Jon Smith comes in at the 2:10 mark)
Unfortunately, in ’93, Albert suddenly took ill, and passed away, far too soon, at the age of 61- a tremendous human being and an irreplaceable loss for the world of music.
In the late 90’s Peter Maffay, a superstar in Europe and especially in Germany,
flew into Louisiana to work on some recordings… Steve Howard and I were working with one of New Orleans’ long outstanding musical traditions- Ned Theall and The Fabulous Boogie Kings.
The Fabulous Boogie Kings (Jon comes in at the 2:20 mark)
The great guitarist Sonny Landreth phoned from Dockside Studios [Maurice Louisiana] and asked if we could come down. Peter Maffay’s producers Bertram Ingram and Carl Carlton had been big fans of White Trash, but for some reason thought that I had passed away!
We flew down in Steve’s plane and the recording session went very well. After the producers had flown back to Germany, one of Peter’s tunes took off in the charts. A few weeks after they’d left, I got a call asking if I could do another solo for them. They sent over the files. I went into a local studio, did the solo and sent it back. That single - 'Something Will Happen'
- went on to win the Golden Europa award. When they sent me the finished copy of the single, they had my picture on the front of CD cover along with Peter’s. It’s usually hard to get credit on an album, so this was very generous of them.
Later, they asked if I’d be interested in doing a tour. Almost eight years of playing together followed. This included four albums (horn arrangements by Bertram Engel, Steve Howard, and myself), and a recent three month tour in the early part of 2009 throughout Germany with sold out shows every stop along the way!
Legendary White Trash Horns
A continuing legacy of my time with Albert Collins, are the Legendary White Trash Horns, featuring Steve Howard and myself. A club owner in St. Louis Missouri, who’d been a fan of White Trash, had put up posters advertising ‘Albert Collins and The Legendary White Trash Horns’, even though Steve had never played with the original White Trash. When Albert saw the posters, he liked them and told us about it. I telephoned Edgar Winter and got his permission to use the name. However, a group from New York, who’d registered the name, tried to stop us from using it! That didn’t last long as we clearly established that even though we hadn’t registered the name, we had ‘first use’. Eventually, a final agreement was reached to everyone’s satisfaction.
A musical career can be incredibly inspiring, rewarding, and satisfying.
I have been very fortunate in my career to have the opportunity to tour and to perform with a wide variety of musicians, including Keb Mo, Percy Sledge, Ike and Tina Turner, Delbert McClinton, Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Hiatt, Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett, Rick Derringer, and the Isley Brothers, to name just a few.
A musical career also can be a tough, ruthless, business.
The first thing you need to understand, there’s a big difference between the music and the music industry. In an industry where burnouts and shooting stars are the norm, God-given talent helps, but no matter how gifted you may be, thinking that you can handle negotiations when dealing with high powered booking agents, record company executives, and the industry’s lawyers and accountants, is a recipe for disaster. Some people get blindsided by stardom. All they think about is their fame, their fans, their entourage, their limo, their hotel suite, the next flight, how they’re being treated and so on, while forgetting about who is really paying all the bills.
You’re lucky if you get 10 cents on the dollar from a live recording. And major labels won’t put you on the road until you have a hit record; even then, management usually takes 25-45 percent off the top. Then come the costs for recordings and tours, your agent’s fees, and so on. If you’re taking a percentage, you’d better know the difference between ‘gross’ and ‘net’, and how each of those terms are defined by the contract(s) and the accountants. [Check out this insightful interview with Steve Albini - and also his article “The Problem With Music” which, although written in the 90’s, has relevance today.]
Not knowing the contractual and legal end of the business can leave you penniless. Sharks are always lurking. That’s why you must have a good music lawyer acting for you, especially in the early stages of the negotiations with a major label or agency. Unless you want to get run over, never let the lawyer for the company or the agency act for you. Hire a lawyer and an agent who will be truly independent and act in your best interests. How do you find that out? By knowing how to ask the right questions. By educating yourself about the business, about recording contracts, about where and how to tour, and so on. You do this so that when you’re talking to a lawyer or an agent, you’ll know what he/she is talking about, whether he/she is just blowing smoke, what you’re entitled to, and when you’re getting screwed. You need enough savvy to know what’s good advice and what’s isn’t.
Buy the latest edition of ‘This Business of Music’ by M. William Krasilovsky, Sidney Shemel, John M Gross, and Jonathan Feinstein. The music business changes on a yearly business and you need to be up to date.
That’s especially true these days, with the continuing evolution of the digital music world. Musicians now have the capacity to record and to distribute their own CD’s and singles via the Internet. For me, that means, at long last, control over my music. Control over every aspect of production and recording. Control over what I play and who I play it with.
With the right marketing model, the results can be quite profitable. For example, sales of self-produced CD’s in the range of 15,000 can net you more than a successful release by a major label. But again, you got to watch out for the sharks. For example, some radio stations will be happy to pay your music…if you first pay them an outrageous monthly fee. So, get the business education you need.
When I talk to young people, especially the ones from impoverished backgrounds, they ask about how much money they can make.
I went on the road in the ninth grade. That was a big mistake. I should have taken the time to get a good education, especially a degree in music, so that when the business doesn’t treat you the way it should, and after beating your brains out trying to make a living out of music, you can go into the education system and teach, make a regular income, and still play music on the weekends or every night if you wish.
I never would advise anyone to depend only on music for a living. Few people have cashed in on being a musician. Being a great, great musician doesn’t mean you’re going to be rich and famous. Very few jazz players make it big, and the ones who do have a tendency to be more commercial players.
This business is all about luck, about being in the right place at the right time, and that if doesn’t sound too encouraging, welcome to the cold, hard facts about the music business.
I’ve had a fair amount of success and luck in my career, but brother, I won’t wish my life on anyone, not even my worse enemy. I don’t try to discourage, but I don’t try to encourage either. I like people to be realistic right from the beginning.
I say this because of all of the things I’ve had to go through, and all the bad crap I’ve sometimes fallen into. I’ve seen so many great, great players never get the opportunity they deserved. There are a lot of terrific sax players no will ever know about, because those players weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Music is a really touchy business. You just never know how things will break, about who will get the recognition and rewards. That’s why every musician must come to terms with- what ‘success’ really means.
From my viewpoint, ‘success’ as a musician isn’t about recognition, money, material goods, and so on. Most musicians are going to get married and raise a family. I define ‘success’ as the fact that I’ve been blessed with my family and a marriage that have lasted 36 years. My wonderful wife and children have supported me and stood behind me all the way. Without her, my three beautiful daughters, and my five grandchildren, I won’t have made it through it all. So…
"You Are So Beautiful"
Right now, I'm working full time with a great group, Foret Tradition, playing the music Louisiana and New Orleans gave birth to, swamp pop and rock n' roll.
And when all is said and done, that is the bottom line- just go out and enjoy the music. When you have a chance to play with great musicians like Luther Kent and the Forever Fabulous Chicken Hawks…
(Horn Arrangement with Charlie Brent)
let the sax and the music be an extension of your body and your mind. Relax and just let the music flow...
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
Which explains how my most recent CD came together. All the tunes are favorites of my family’s- with a few changes in arrangements. For example, with ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, I didn’t like the original bridge, so I left it off and did a turn-around. We recorded that track at Larry's Sieberth’s house, my friend, producer and a genius at playing great changes. The rain was coming down cats and dogs, giving us the perfect setting and mood.
Jon Smith: "Rainy Night in Georgia" [Note: there is a 17 second lead-in]
Special guests on the CD include the great Tower of Power trumpet player Mic Gillette, Doug Belote on drums, Mark Braud on flugel horn, Bob Sundra bass, Shane Theriot guitar, Bill Solley, guitar, Michael Skinkus, percussion, and Phillip Manual and yours truly on background vocals. Engineered and Mixed by Misha Kachkachishvili, with Gary Beutler the Executive Producer.
My favorite track on the CD is ‘Slow Jam’, a song originally done by ‘Midnight Star’. The lyrics are terrific. My kids played and danced to this when they were young, and it was featured at one of my daughters’ wedding.
If there are times when I feel sorry for myself, I realize that I’m still alive, have a wonderful family, and can wake up every day with a positive attitude.
For every musician, times will come when there’s not much, if anything going on. But, you must have the attitude that although you never know when that phone call will come, it will. And then…you’re back on the road, doing what you love.
His hands are calloused
from the marriage
of skin and copper.
His hands are furiously
feeding his family
with every movement
up and down the horn.
His hands are the extension
of the passions
of his soul
and his breath creates
the song .
Quotes from Red Tyler, Cosimo Matassa and Mac Rebennack from "Walking to New Orleans" (c) 1974 (republished in the U.S. by Pelican Books as "Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans" - and still in print) used with permission of the author and publisher, John Broven. Since then, John has written "South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous" (Pelican Books, 1983) and "Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers" (University of Illinois Press, 2009). For further details go to www.johnbroven.com