Stories Behind the Songs: Joe Osborn
Where many bassists strive to have that one hit song, Joe Osborn has more chart-topping records than he can even keep track of. His signature tone – achieved with flatwound strings and a pick – underpins an overwhelming number of pop, rock, and country hits from the ’60s through the ’80s, and his resume reads like a who’s who of music history. Simon and Garfunkel, Cher, Neil Young, Ricky Nelson, The Carpenters, Billy Joel, The Mamas and the Papas, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Jr. are only a few of the artists he’s worked with, and the chances are good that his bass is pouring out of a radio somewhere as you read this.
Born in Louisiana, Osborn made his way out west as a guitarist but soon made the switch to four-string. After some years of work with the Ricky Nelson Band he made the transition to being a full time studio musician in Los Angeles, California, which was then the mecca for pop recording. Ten years later, the bassist took his career to Nashville before settling back down in Louisiana and into semi-retirement. His more recent ventures include continuing work with Richard Carpenter, producing up and coming guitarist Matthew Davidson, and writing a memoir.
We had the chance to catch up with Joe over the phone to get the scoop on his ten favorite tracks from his career and how he recorded them.
“I never had but one bass, really,” Osborn explained in his gentlemanly southern drawl. “Roy Buchanan and I were both playing guitar in Las Vegas with this Country singer Bob Luman. At some point, we needed a bass player in the band so I was elected. I went down to the music store, and all there was at the time was a Fender Precision. This was about 1958, so electric bass was fairly new. That’s the bass I had a year later when I was working with Ricky Nelson, and that’s the one I used on ‘Travelin’ Man’.
“The record was so big that they wanted to do a world tour. Fender wanted all their new stuff to go on that tour, and that’s how I wound up with a Jazz Bass in ’61. They weren’t in the stores. I believe it had to be a prototype because they call that a ’62 Jazz bass. Mine was actually made in September of 1960, a few months before I went to work with Ricky. That’s the bass I used to record everything else.” [Ed. note: Fender has recently built him a new replica of his original Jazz bass.]
“Young players ask me, “How do you think of all those things to play?’ And this is one of my lessons that I repeat over and over again: The song will tell you what to play if you listen. You get your ideas from either the melody or the vocal phrasing gives you rhythmic ideas.”
1. “Travelin’ Man” – Ricky Nelson (1961)
I had been in Ricky’s band for a couple of weeks. Out on the lot where they did the Ozzie and Harriet Show they had these bungalows for the people working on the show, so the Nelsons had one where we would rehearse or just hang out. There was this room full of demos, all reel-to-reel tapes. He appointed me to mail all of those back to the writers before we got sued. I don’t think I ever sent one back… I started listening to all the demos and ran across “Travelin’ Man.” I took it to Ricky and said “Your pop wanted all this stuff sent back, but I think you oughta take a listen to this one.”
2. “Memphis” – Johnny Rivers (1964)
That was his first big record. I had started to get mildly busy with sessions in 1964. He called and said he was gonna come down and open this new club called the Whisky a Go Go, and could I come down and sit in for a couple of weeks. So I did, and we were there for two years. “Memphis” was one of the songs we were doing in the sets, and we did a live recording at some point which Lou Adler produced. Later we went back and redid it in the studio then put the crowd noise on it later.
3. “California Dreamin’” – The Mamas and The Papas (1965)
I had already been working with Lou Adler for a while, and at this one session he said, “I’ve got this new group. I’m gonna bring them in and have them do a song to see what they’ve got.” It was like their audition, actually. They came in looking like they’d been sleeping in the van. So we went in and did “California Dreamin’”, which turned out to be the record. He expected to just put down some things and if he liked it come back and redo them, but that actual demo turned out to be the record. I heard a conversation between Lou and [fellow producer] Bones Howe after that, that Lou wasn’t sure [about the band] even after hearing the tapes. Bones looked at him and said, “If you don’t want them, I do,” which made up Lou’s mind.
4. “Windy” – The Association (1967)
People ask me about this one a lot. The bass has the intro, but there’s this strange sound with it, which was Larry Knechtel doubling the line on the Wurlitzer.
5. “MacArthur Park” – Richard Harris (1968)
I played an 8-string bass on [this record], and it was so hard that I hated it and never played [8-string bass] again. I don’t even know why I took it to the session but [songwriter] Jimmy Webb saw it and wanted to hear what it sounded like. He made me play it on that of all songs, which is a very hard song to play anyways. The song actually has three distinct sections, which Jimmy intended to [record] separately because the segues weren’t real easy and all that. But in rehearsing it we got from the first section to the second section, so he said “Okay, let’s run it again and see how far we get.” After three or four hours of that we got through the whole song, and after 6 hours of rehearsal we did one take on the song and that was the record. All while I was fighting that 8-string bass.
6. “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight?” – Boyce & Hart (1968)
I had done a few things with Tommy [Boyce] and Bobby [Hart], and they were using people I’d never worked with. One day they had this session booked where they were gonna do “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight?”, and the drummer and the piano player didn’t show up. Tommy said, “I guess we’ll have to cancel.” I said, “Wait a minute, let me call [drummer] Hal Blaine and [keyboardist] Larry Knechtel.” I mean, the odds of them being available on short notice was nothing. Zero. But I called Hal and he said, “Yea, I can be there in 15 minutes.” Larry said the same thing. Tommy still wasn’t sure if he was gonna like them. Anyways, they came in and we cut that song. It went to number 2 or something. I think it was the first hit record they had under their own name. Talk about the magic that me and Larry and Hal had when we were playing together. I wonder how that session would have turned out if their guys had shown up.
7. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” – The 5th Dimension (1969)
Bob Alcivar arranged it, but he was actually a vocal coach. He would write a part that worked for the songs. “Aquarius” is pretty much what he wrote, except for a few obvious things that surfaced that were ours. “Let the Sunshine In” wasn’t a lot different from the feel of “Aquarius” as far as what he wrote. So Bones came out and looked at me and Hal and just said, “Can you play ‘more’ when it goes into that?” What’s on the record is what we played on the next take.
8. “Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon and Garfunkel (1970)
I did a lot of overdubbing – we’d go in and do basic tracks, and many times I’d come back and try different parts. A lot of those high fills were overdubs. I did a thing where I had to relearn this song for a show, and there were spots in there that I could feel were obviously spliced in and just very awkward to play. I had to make little changes to make it playable. That’s the first time I really noticed that when [producers] put things together, sometimes it doesn’t flow naturally.
Some kind of story got around that I played an 8-string bass on that record, but it’s not true. I played my old Fender Jazz bass.
9. “For All We Know” – The Carpenters (1971)
This is a perfect example of listening to the song telling you what to play. Richard [Carpenter] brought in the basic line written out. Karen [Carpenter] was running late, so we were just running down this track. When she started to sing, all those slides and things around the basic part started to come from the vocal. If she hadn’t come in, it would have wound up exactly as what Richard had wrote. It was a pretty line, but it didn’t have all those slurs and things. It becomes almost a bass and vocal duet all of a sudden in those spots, and it’s entirely of what she was singing that those licks came.
10. “Yesterday Once More” – The Carpenters (1973)
Karen played drums on this one. She had a jazz trio before she even knew she could sing. After we did this track, I had already moved to Nashville when Richard called me and said we had to do the first half of the song over, though he liked the second half. He wanted to play the first half and splice it together, because he didn’t want to redo the last half. I said, “Richard, I don’t know if you can.” Going from the front and cutting it in the middle… if the tempo varies any, it’s not going to match. Unless you did it to a click, which we didn’t. He said, “Let’s just try it again anyways.” It’s a real testament to Karen’s time, because it cut together perfectly.