Session musicians are instrumental and vocal performers who are available to work with others at live performances or recording sessions. Usually such musicians are not permanent members of a musical ensemble with the singers that they are accompanying and they often do not achieve individual fame in their own right as soloists or bandleaders. However, some backing bands of session musicians have become well known (e.g., The Wrecking Crew).
The term is applied to those working in all musical styles. Versatility is one of the most important skills of session musicians as they may have to perform in a range of different settings. Session musicians are expected to learn parts rapidly and be skilled in both sight reading and improvising chords or a bassline from a lead sheet or chord chart (or, in country music, a song chart in the Nashville number system).
Session musicians are used in any situation where musical skills are needed on a short-term basis. Typically session musicians are used by recording studios to provide backing tracks for other musicians in recording studios and live performances; recording for advertising, film and television; or theatrical productions. Some session musicians formed a rhythm section that was repeatedly used for recordings.
The terms "session musician" and "studio musician" are now synonymous, though in past decades the latter term more typically described musicians who were associated with a particular record company, recording studio or entertainment agency.
History and associations
During the 1920s and 1930s most record companies had their own prolific "studio bands" turning out records of the latest pop hits. These were often made up by jazz and dance band musicians who were at the same time members of regular working bands and who divided their time between studio work (recordings as well as broadcasting) during the day and live performances in the evenings. Notable such "studio musicians" include Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Andy Sannella, and Mike Mosiello.
Perhaps the best-known session band are Booker T & The MGs who were the house band at Stax records in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s playing behind Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers amongst many others. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper co-wrote many of Redding's hits and The MGs produced albums and hit singles such as "Green Onions" in their own right while being the house band at Stax.
Although session musicians have long and successful careers and can achieve considerable fame within the music industry, they rarely achieve popular celebrity. Notable exceptions include the members of the band Toto who met in various recording sessions; John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who were well known as session musicians before their later success with Led Zeppelin; keyboardist Rick Wakeman; and renowned vocalists Valerie Simpson, Lisa Fischer and Luther Vandross.
Among the most prolific established studio musicians are The Wrecking Crew. Based in Los Angeles, the Wrecking Crew has recorded innumerable songs and albums since the 1960s.
The Funk Brothers were session musicians who performed the backing to many Motown Records recordings from the late 1950s to the early 1970s as well as a few non-Motown recordings, notably on Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher."
The Los Angeles singer/songwriter scene associated with The Troubadour nightclub and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s to mid-1970s was supported by musicians Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar and Craig Doerge. This session combo, nicknamed The Section or The Mafia, backed many musicians, among others: Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson and David Crosby.
A few session musicians have even built reputations of notoriety: English session singer Tony Burrows appeared so often as a frontman for various one-hit wonder studio groups (such as Edison Lighthouse, The Flower Pot Men, The Pipkins, The Brotherhood of Man, White Plains, and The First Class), in a short period of time during the early 1970s, that his attempts at a solo career under his own name were hampered, due in part to burnout.